Nothing, I think, is known with certainty about the relation between Robespierre and Rousseau, except that the great revolutionary always expressed love and admiration for the philosopher. And that in itself doesn’t tell us very much, because virtually everybody in France who could read, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, seems to have loved and admired Rousseau. Marie Antoinette, whom Robespierre guillotined, loved and admired Rousseau. The Thermidorians, who guillotined Robespierre, loved and admired Rousseau. A common love of Rousseau doesn’t seem to have been a very reliable bond, when the heat was on.

Part of the problem was, and is, that there are several Rousseaus; he is a writer of curiously copious contradictions, which overlap in disconcerting ways. One pair of contradictions is particularly important in the present context. There is a tender, hypersensitive Rousseau, much given to tears. And there is also a stern, Spartan Rousseau, with a thirst for justice and blood. In short, a “nice cop” Rousseau and a “tough cop” Rousseau.

The nice cop is the author of the epistolary novel, La Nouvelle Héloïse, of the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, of Emile—and especially the Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard. The tough cop wrote most, though not all, of Du contrat social. The nice cop was in high favor at court in the years before the Revolution, especially in the circle of Marie Antoinette, in the days of the Petit Trianon, the simple life, and playing at milkmaids. The tough cop comes in with the Revolution. Du contrat social seems to have been the least read of Rousseau’s works before the Revolution. But it was published thirteen times between 1792 and 1795—the years of Robespierre’s ascendancy and of the Terror. One edition was published in pocket Bible size for the use of the soldiers defending la patrie.

Robespierre’s own style was deliberately austere, stern, Spartan. But it would be a mistake to think of him as exclusively devoted to the tough cop. If Du contrat social was claimed as his political inspiration, his favorite reading—his “Bible” according to Alphonse Aulard—was La Nouvelle Héloïse, and his guide in matters of religion was the Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard. In time of war and revolution, the Spartan Rousseau was required; the triumph of the Revolution would (it was hoped) bring back the tender Rousseau. Robespierre felt that indulgence, the failure to crush the internal enemies of the Revolution, would be a cruel betrayal of future generations. The Terror—which Robespierre generally preferred to call simply “Justice”—was a way of keeping faith with those generations. The guillotine was kind, teleologically speaking.

The cult of Rousseau accompanied the Terror. But the cult of Rousseau also accompanied the formal repudiation of the Terror. Indeed it was the Thermidorian period that saw Rousseau’s apotheosis. In the days of Robespierre, at the height of the Terror, there had been grandiose plans for giving Rousseau special honors, and setting him, at least implicitly, above the other great Enlightenment figures, as the philosopher of the Revolution. On the fifth Floreal of the Revolutionary Calendar—that is, April 24, 1794—the great Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre’s committee, called on all the artists of the Republic to compete in designs for a large statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to be erected on the Champs Elysées.

That was Robespierre’s plan, but Robespierre did not live to have it carried out. Two and a half months later, on 9 Thermidor, 1794, Robespierre fell from power and then was killed. Robespierre’s overthrowers, the Thermidorians—most of them terrified ex-terrorists—had their own reasons for being eager to do honor to Jean-Jacques. Although the Thermidorians were not particularly nice people—and several of them had shown themselves to be more bloody-minded than Robespierre—it was the “nice cop” aspect of Rousseau that they wished to honor. Their idea was that Robespierre—whom they presented as entirely to blame for the Terror, which he was not—had been a sanguinary hypocrite, who had really been jealous of Rousseau, and had failed to do him proper honors. The Thermidorians would now prove their own virtue and sincerity, and loyalty to the basic principles of the Revolution, by solemnly doing honor to Jean-Jacques. So on September 14, 1794, the Thermidorian-dominated Convention ordered that Rousseau’s remains be brought from his original burial place at the Isle of Poplars, Ermenonville, and placed in the Pantheon in Paris with appropriate ceremony. Gordon McNeil tells that story:

The preparations for the ceremony, which included decorations, illuminations, sculptures, a replica of the Isle of Poplars, and hymns commissioned for the occasion, were elaborate and detailed. A cortège composed of officials, musicians and various delegations accompanied the remains from Ermenonville, and there were appropriate celebrations at each of the stops en route. On its arrival in Paris, the coffin was placed on the replica of the Isle of Poplars which had been erected in the Tuileries gardens.

The ceremony of pantheonization took place on October 11. There was a special service in the Convention, and then a procession to the Pantheon. In the line of march were mounted police, a band playing Rousseau’s compositions, and various groups, each with an appropriately inscribed standard: botanists, artists and artisans, mothers and children, was orphans, and Genevans. The Contrat social, the “beacon of legislators,” was carried on a velvet cushion, and a statue of its author in a cart pulled by twelve horses. At the Pantheon, a civic hymn was sung, the president of the Convention delivered a eulogy, and ended the ceremony by placing flowers on the coffin. That evening there was dancing on the Place du Pantheon, and the theatres presented the favorite Rousseau plays, and a new one, La fête de J.-J. Rousseau, written especially for the occasion.1

As you can see, it would be hard to identify a specific influence of Rousseau’s thought on the course of the French Revolution. The Contrat Social may have been the “beacon of legislators,” but it was quite a shifty beacon. Yet Rousseau was obviously important, to all concerned. Robespierre had made certain uses of Rousseau to legitimize his own rule, and his version of justice. The Thermidorians used their pantheonization ceremony to legitimize their own authority, and de-legitimize their predecessor.


Yet, even if it is primarily a matter of legitimization, presumably influence comes in, in some way. If a writer is to be seen as legitimizing the activity of a politician, presumably that activity must be seen to resemble, at least in some respects, what the writer seemed to be saying. And—again presumably—that need to resemble should inflect the actual conduct of the politician, at least in some degree. Yet the case of Rousseau and the Thermidorians, enthusiastic and mutually hostile disciples of Rousseau, suggests that the degree of inflection of conduct may be more limited than might be expected. And of course the history of religions is rich in examples of this kind.

While brooding a bit over this question of influence and legitimation, I came across a relevant sentence in Ralph Korngold’s Robespierre and the Fourth Estate (1941). The sentence runs:

Rousseau’s relation to the French Revolution is not unlike that of Marx to the Russian Revolution, and Marx’s influence upon Lenin may be compared with Rousseau’s upon Robespierre.

Well, “may be compared” is always safe, of course, since anything may be compared with anything else. The question is what happens when you do the comparing. In this case, the writer issues, as it were, a license for comparing, without actually doing the comparing. So let us have a slightly closer look.

Insofar as “Rousseau-Robespierre” resembles “Marx-Lenin” it is, I think, again primarily a matter of legitimation rather than of internal doctrine. The legitimacy on which Robespierre—and also his Thermidorian enemies—drew was double, intellectual as well as moral. Intellectually, the Contrat Social came to be seen as the culmination, in political wisdom, of the Enlightenment, the siècle des lumières. As became clear during the course of the Revolution, commitment to the book could be interpreted in widely different ways. But the capacious ambiguities of the Contrat Social did nothing to impair its legitimizing authority. Indeed the book’s ambiguities seem to have been the condition of the scope of its authority.

The moral authority of Rousseau, which I think was considerably more important than his intellectual authority, derives from the apparently almost universal perception of Rousseau himself as the archetype of the virtuous person, peculiarly in harmony with nature. I shall come back to that, in relation to Rousseau himself a little later. But there are some points to be made at this stage, about archetypal virtue as a revolutionary force, and as a source of political legitimation.

The mainstream of the French Enlightenment—centering around Voltaire and Diderot—had largely completed, by about 1770, the work begun by Spinoza a hundred years before, in discrediting the intellectual authority of revealed religion, and specifically, in France, of the Catholic Church. This left a huge emotional and moral vacuum. The secret of Rousseau’s appeal is that he, for many people, was able to fill that gap. In Emile and the Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard, Rousseau brought God back, as a blend of virtue and nature: a form of God to which many, in the post-Enlightenment world, were most grateful to be able to turn. More than that, Rousseau’s eloquence—and especially his pervasive, seductive, and contagious self-pity—made him personally into a kind of saint and protomartyr of his own vague but intoxicating religion.


Now the revolutionary potential of all this may not be immediately apparent, but it is strongly there. The mainstream Enlightenment had made its intellectual superiority to the ancien régime crushingly clear, first in relation to the Church, through Voltaire and Diderot, and then in relation to the nobility, as in Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro. But now, in Rousseau and Rousseauism, many could see the emergence of spiritual and moral forces markedly superior to the ancien régime, whether in its secular or ecclesiastical manifestations. Rousseau is holier than Saint Peter; and a song to that effect was sung during the Revolution. French society was divided into les purs—the followers of Rousseau—and the corrompus, affluent, arrogant, materialistic, and beneficiaries of the ancien régime (and later the traitors to the Revolution). Many of the nobility and clergy (as well as the bourgeoisie, especially the lower bourgeoisie) came to see things in the same way, and to bow before the moral superiority of Rousseau, as many of the same people had bowed before the intellectual superiority of Voltaire. Thus the abdication of the ruling classes was already quite far advanced, well before 1789.

The basic political achievement of Maximilien Robespierre was that he felt himself to be, and convinced others that he was, the moral and spiritual successor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was, and was repeatedly hailed as, “the Incorruptible,” the indicated leader of les purs in the decisive battle against les corrompus.

I shall come back to that. But first let us take a look at the Marx and Lenin comparison. When Lenin went back to Russia in 1917 to implement Marx’s teaching, what did that implementation have in common with Robespierre’s implementation of Rousseau? I think it had some basic things in common. There was, in each case, both an intellectual and a moral inheritance. And in each case, in my opinion, the moral inheritance was of more fundamental importance than the intellectual one.

The main intellectual inheritance was of course Das Kapital. And I think Das Kapital, in this context, is quite closely comparable to Du contrat social, as inherited by Robespierre. It was a “beacon of legislation,” an impressive intellectual property, that was supposed to clarify everything. Das Kapital was in one way, however, superior to Du contrat social. Das Kapital was predictive, as well as analytical. It was supposed to prove scientifically that the victory of the proletarian revolution was inevitable. And even if the book did not in fact prove anything of the kind, the belief that it did prove it was helpful to the morale of the revolutionaries. And the help to morale was more important than the alleged science. Lenin was Marx’s spiritual heir, as Robespierre was Rousseau’s. Lenin had Marx’s indomitable fighting spirit; his thirst for revolution; his polemical skills; his hard, malicious scorn and capacity to frighten. These qualities had much more to do with Lenin’s revolutionary success than whatever science may be contained in Das Kapital.

Edmund Wilson suggests in To the Finland Station that, when Lenin arrived at that Petrograd terminus, “for the first time a philosophical key fitted a historical lock.” But in fact it was Lenin’s Bolshevik colleagues who were fiddling around at the time with that philosophical key. And they were not getting anywhere because the key was intended for a different lock: the lock of the advanced countries, not a Russian lock. Lenin’s achievement was to throw away the useless key—or rather, to put it quietly in his pocket—and follow his own pragmatic hunch: that since Russia was going out of the war anyway, the faction that was most determined to get Russia out of the war would be the one that would win.

The connection between Rousseau and Robespierre is unlike that between Marx and Lenin in many ways, but the two connections are alike in this: that it is the spiritual inheritance, the likeness of mind, that is of fundamental importance, while the letter of the inherited doctrine does little more than legitimize the spiritual inheritance by proclaiming it.

The dominant, though by no means the sole, tradition of French historiography about the Revolution has been the Thermidorian one, or—as Ernest Hamel puts it, more comprehensively—the ThermidoGirondin one.2 According to that tradition, the cruel tyrant, Robespierre, was a hypocrite, who put on a bloodstained travesty of the life and teachings of the gentle Jean-Jacques. It wasn’t really much like that. Jean-Jacques wasn’t all that gentle, and Robespierre was less cruel than some of the revolutionary leaders who talked loudest about their own devotion to Rousseau, and how unworthy Robespierre was to use that name.

J.L. Talmon saw Rousseau as among the founding fathers of what Talmon calls “totalitarian democracy.” Certainly, the spirit of Rousseau’s main political writings is profoundly, though Delphically, authoritarian. True, the source of all authority, the sovereign, the General Will, consists of all the citizens, associated in one moral and collective group. This sovereign, according to Rousseau, is incapable of doing wrong: “The sovereign in virtue of the mere fact that it exists, is always what it ought to be.” The very style here is ominous: peremptory, swaggeringly paradoxical, absolute, and unassailable, because consisting entirely of gratuitous assertion. It is the style of the Supreme Court of a despotism—though in a good period, stylistically speaking. One is hardly surprised to read on the following page—at the end of Chapter 7 of the first book, the following:

So that the social pact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly implies the engagement, which alone can supply the force of the rest, that whoever will refuse to obey the general will be constrained to obey, by the whole social body: which means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free.

Again the style fits the matter to perfection. The high and insolent paradox—“forced to be free”—suggests the pleasures of authoritarian jurisprudence and law enforcement.

There are many contradictions in Du contrat social, as in the rest of Rousseau, and some commentators manage to see the work, balancing one thing against another, as on the whole basically liberal and democratic. Phasing out startling and meaningful statements through the soporific invocation of “the perspective of the whole work” is a technique greatly favored by certain schools of academic commentators. Apparently the idea is to defend the respectability of prominent writers within one’s field of specialization by putting liberal interpretations on work which is in fact not liberal. The process has been defined as gentling or “gentlification.”

For obvious reasons, the gentlifiers have been kept busiest in the field of German studies. There are gentle Fichteans, gentle Hegelians, gentle Wagnerites, and, most assiduous of all, gentle Nietzscheans. But there are also, for example, gentle Yeatsians and gentle Rousseauists. I cannot, within the limits of this essay, engage in the detailed and voluminous argument with these last which their well-chosen ground of controversy would require. I can only indicate my disagreement with them, as gently as possible. And there is a specific objection to the “gentle Rousseau” case which requires mention, because it is not a question of theoretical analysis, but of practice, in a concrete case.

Rousseau had become such an accepted sage in his own day that he was asked to draft constitutions for two countries—Corsica and Poland—then struggling to be free. In the case of Corsica (for which he produced only a fragment of a constitution), he sets out how the social pact is actually to be arrived at. The leader—it was to be the famous General Paoli—lands on the island and addresses his people in the following words, provided for him by Rousseau:

Corsicans be silent: I am going to speak in the name of all…. Let those who will not consent, depart, and let those who consent raise their hand.

There follow the words of the oath of the social pact.

According to the teaching of Du contrat social itself, those who departed, on that occasion, would not be citizens of the land they lived in, but strangers in it. And apparently that was to be the case whether those who departed were in a minority, or actually in a majority. The social contract as designed by Rousseau for the population of Corsica under Paoli consisted in:

(a) shutting up;

(b) being those in whose name the General spoke;

(c) raising your hand, on request.

La volonté générale, c’est la volonté du Général.” Or you could adapt Louis XIV and say: “La volonté générale, c’est moi.” That formula is pretty much how Robespierre understood the matter. And I can’t see that he was anything but a most faithful disciple, in that, of his master, the author of Du contrat social.

The spirit of Du contrat social is not compatible, in my belief, with the spirit or practice of a democratic and liberal state. But it is quite compatible with the spirit and practice of the fatherland in danger, la patrie en danger: the conditions of revolutionary France, under threat from external and internal enemies. Those were the conditions that prevailed in France in the years between 1792 and 1794, the years that saw the emergence of Robespierre as the leading revolutionary figure, and the emergence also of the Terror as an institution of the state.

This is not to say that Robespierre was dictator, or even head of state or of the government. He was not even a minister, though he was more than a minister. Only in his last year did he accept even a share in any form of collective executive authority, as one of the nine members of the great Committee of Public Safety.

Robespierre controlled no government department, no funds, no police, no troops. His was essentially a moral authority. But it was an extraordinary moral authority; perhaps a greater moral authority, extending over the political domain, than has been exercised by any other elected politician, without administrative functions or governmental office. And it was an authority in part derived from the Rousseau myth, in part conferred by Robespierre’s own character, and in part apparently suggested by certain formulations in Du contrat social.

That last aspect is not necessarily the most important of the three, but it is curious, and I don’t know that it has attracted as much attention as it deserves. In Du contrat social, the connection between the theoretical sovereign, “the General Will,” and any practicable scheme of governance here on earth is generally far from clear. But there are two categories of people who do provide a kind of link. There is the “guide” or “legislator” who makes his appearance in Chapters 6 and 7 of the second book. The guide is necessary because of the mysterious incapacities of the theoretically infallible sovereign, the General Will. As Rousseau puts it: “The General Will is always right [droite] but the judgment which guides it is not always enlightened.” So there is a need for this special personage, the guide or legislator, whose job it is to show the General Will, in Rousseau’s words, how “to see objects as they are, sometimes as they ought to appear to it.”

To help the General Will, which is always right, “to see objects as they are.” The General Will is infallible, but not particularly well informed. Rather like the pope.

And again, more startlingly, it is sometimes the duty of the guide to show the General Will not the objects as they actually are, but as they “ought to appear” to the “not always enlightened” General Will. (“Il faut lui faire voir les objets tels qu’ils sont, quelquefois tels qu’ils doivent lui paraître.”) So it seems that the guide or legislator has sometimes the duty, apparently at his own discretion, to make a monkey out of this metaphysically exalted creature, the General Will. Varying the zoological metaphor, the guide or legislator who has charge of the perceptions of the General Will is really the keeper of a sort of sacred crocodile: a formidable-looking beast, greatly to be venerated, but dumb, dimwitted, purblind, and not to be let out on its own.

Clearly this guide, legislator, monkey maker, and crocodile keeper is a redoubtable functionary. And no one can read Robespierre’s revolutionary speeches without feeling that he considers himself to be a guide in this sense. Especially in his most continuous role throughout his short political career—his role as resident pundit of the Société des amis de la constitution, alias the Jacobin Club—he appears in the capacity, and with the vocabulary, of “Grand Interpreter,” articulating the demand of the General Will, and correcting its defects of vision. In his “address to the French of the eighty-three Departments” in the summer of 1792 Robespierre came forward confidently as spokesman for the General Will:

Pour nous, nous ne sommes d’aucun parti, nous ne servons aucune faction; vous le savez, frères et amis, notre volonté, c’est la volonté générale.3

It is clear that many supporters of the French Revolution accepted this identification.

But there is another functionary, besides the guide or legislator, within the system of Du contrat social, whose role was filled by Robespierre, with no less impressive an authority, and to more directly terrifying effect. This functionary is Rousseau’s “Censor.” The censor’s functions are carefully set out in Chapter 7 of the fourth book, “De la censure,” concerning censorship. Rousseau’s censor, like the old Roman one, is a censor of morals, and an interpreter of public opinion. Rousseau takes an example, as he likes to do, from ancient Spartan practice. In Sparta, the ephors were the magistrates who acted as censors of morals (as well as in other capacities). As Rousseau tells the story: “A man of bad morals once offered a piece of good advice in the Council of Sparta. The ephors, without taking any overt notice of his remark, had the same advice proposed by a virtuous citizen.”

This role of censor was one for which Robespierre had a marked predilection, and an awesome credibility. And in the Paris of the Revolution, this became a more central role, with more tragic implications, than had ever been the case in ancient Rome or Sparta. Revolutionary Paris was a Manichaean world in which there were only the virtuous and the vicious, les purs and les corrompus. To be a prominent man, identified as corrompu, was, by late 1793, to be well on the way to the guillotine. And Robespierre, “the Incorruptible,” was generally accepted as the authority on who was pur and who was corrompu. So life or death could hang on a speech by Robespierre.

It is worth noting that Robespierre combined the roles of “guide” and “censor” which appear as separate in Rousseau. And Robespierre’s entire revolutionary activity is defined by that combination of roles. Virtue was the governing principle of the whole system, as Montesquieu (endorsed by Rousseau) had said it should be in a republic. Virtue, during the revolution, hinged on the defense of Revolutionary France, against its external and internal enemies. In an article published in the summer of 1792, Robespierre defined la vertu as consisting of “l’amour du bien, de la patrie et de la liberté.”4 And Robespierre spoke as confidently on behalf of virtue, in his role as censor, as he did on behalf of the General Will, in his role as guide. And virtue alone could legitimize Terror (alias Justice). In the autumn of 1793, the great Committee of Public Safety, under Robespierre’s inspiration, in a circular to local revolutionary authorities, gave the instruction: “méritez par la vertu le droit de punir le crime.”5 Robespierre was regarded as the archetype of those whose virtue had earned them that right.

The virtuous Maximilien was seen as the heir and interpreter of the virtuous Jean-Jacques, guide and censor, worthy of trust, and guarantor of the gains of the Revolution and the integrity of the nation. And he was worthy of trust, in his loyalty to the Revolution, and freedom from corruption, whereas many of his rivals were crooks and scoundrels of various other descriptions.6

Toward the end of his life, Robespierre was trying to bring the Terror—which was never entirely or even largely under his control—to an end. And that is why he had to be killed. The pacemakers of the Terror in the provinces—Fouché, Tallien, Carrier—saw that they were about to be cast as the last victims, unless they could cast Robespierre in that role, and emerge themselves in the role of modérés. They brought it off, I think, mainly because most of the French people, being a little bit corrompus themselves, like other people, got tired of hearing so much about les purs, once the Royalist danger was over and the national territory and the revolutionary gains by the bourgeois and peasants were no longer in danger. Like the English people, the French preferred cakes and ale (or wine) to the rule of the saints, though the saints had had their uses in their day.

As Maximilien himself put it: “Virtue is always in a minority on earth.” (“La vertu est toujours en minorité sur la terre.”) Amen, says the majority.

This Issue

September 26, 1985