Rousseau & Modern Tyranny

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A New Interpretative Analysis of His Life and Works, Vol. I: The Quest, 1712-1758

by Lester G. Crocker
Macmillan, 372 pp., $9.95

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A New Interpretative Analysis of His Life and Works, Vol. II: The Prophetic Voice, 1758-1778

by Lester G. Crocker
Macmillan, 385 pp., $10.95

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau; drawing by David Levine

There is not much left in Rousseau to respect or admire when Professor Lester G. Crocker has finished with his life and works. Professor Crocker’s analysis, resting on solid documentary research, does not aim primarily to map out the story of a life; this has been done often enough and Crocker has no new unpublished documents to add to Rousseau’s file. He simply takes this file in its present state—including the valuable material contributed by the Pléiade complete works and Professor R. A. Leigh’s edition of the complete correspondence—and subjects it to a process of systematic interpretation. From beginning to end this interpretation follows the biography step by step; the reader cannot remain indifferent to it. After a series of statements for the defense (in the studies of Guéhenno, Guillemin) and sympathetic attempts to relive Rousseau’s experience (in those of Raymond, Burgelin, Grimsley), we have here an uncompromising speech for the prosecution which is more than a mere rehash of the old charges of anarchic individualism brought at the beginning of this century by the anti-Romantics (Maurras, Barrès, Babbitt).

Not that Crocker ever underestimates Rousseau’s importance in the history of thought—he even speaks of his greatness—but this greatness is in his eyes the expression of an abnormal personality, the sublimation of a sick psyche. He has no great love for Rousseau, at best a feeling of pity. Why then dwell on him at such obstinate length? Is it just in order to subject him to a clinical analysis, to give us the anatomy of a monster? No, Crocker has a more urgent motive. He is convinced that Rousseau’s doctrinal writings, if we take them seriously and particularly if we look to them for inspiration, are a formidable source of danger, that they offer us the utopian and imaginary expression of a tendency that takes on physical reality in some of the worst features of our time: totalitarianism, the manipulation of human consciences, and the techniques of behavioral engineering.

According to him Rousseau’s theories originate in the inner conflicts which he was never able to resolve. Thus, using Jean-Jacques as a stalking-horse, Crocker has written a book about the predicament of the world we live in; in his analysis of the psychological abnormalities that Rousseau so glaringly exhibits we can detect a hidden project of denouncing and exorcizing our present ills by tracing them to their infancy. It is then as a moralist and even a political theorist that he reads and interprets Rousseau’s thought.

One cannot fail to be impressed by the ethical seriousness of this approach—here is a man of our time asking whether Rousseau can serve as a master for our time. He is not therefore posing a literary question; no doubt this is why the study of Rousseau’s art occupies so little space in the book. Professor Crocker is raising vital issues, discussing a system of thought and…

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