Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution
A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution
La Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen
L'An I des droits de l'homme
Les Déclarations des droits de l'homme et du citoyen
The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, Volume II: The Political Culture of the Revolution
La Révolution des droits de l'homme
Rousseau was the great critic of his own society and he made his case against it brilliantly and provocatively. In place of the evil that he denounced he put forward his vision of a just society and a happier world with an eloquence admired even by his opponents. He conquered hearts that were waiting to be won; he ravished souls that were ready to worship new gods. He put his case in such powerful language as to make it seductive to a wider public, giving it a prestige unequaled in modern times. Of all other social critics, only two come to mind who can even be compared to Rousseau, and they too were persuasively eloquent: Tolstoy (himself a self-declared Rousseauist) and Nietzsche.
Rousseau and Nietzsche both acquired disciples who brought their names into disrepute. All rebellious thinkers run that risk, if they fail to take account of the full consequences of their anger and yield to the temptations of literary effect. The intoxicating effects of their thoughts, which Rousseau and Nietzsche were courageous—or imprudent—enough not to try to diminish, laid them open to partial and tendentious interpretation, to becoming simply names invoked by their muddled or sentimental followers. The result is well known: Rousseau and Nietzsche have been confused with their self-proclaimed disciples. Rousseau has been made out to be a terrorist, Nietzsche a Nazi. They have been tried many times over for the acts of those who claimed them as their heroes.
That way lies the labyrinth of unverifiable hypotheses. What would the thinker have thought, what might he have done, had he still been alive? Would he have agreed with those who thought he was on their side? If so, then he would be guilty of having supplied them with their weapons. But there is no way of knowing if he would have done so. On the other hand, if he had not been their precursor, at least in part, then how could they have appropriated him to such an extent? The argument goes on ad infinitum.
Rousseau himself is perhaps to blame for his posthumous fate. In his autobiographical writings he appeals to future generations, asking them to recognize his innocent intentions, and to recognize as well that his contemporaries had misunderstood and slandered him. Rousseau invited posterity to right the wrongs done to him. It is therefore hardly surprising that so many of Rousseau’s younger readers—such as Robespierre, who came to use terror as a system—felt duty-bound to fulfill the task they believed was entrusted to them by the author of The Confessions. Rousseau wanted to leave his mark in men’s minds so as to achieve the rehabilitation that his guilty conscience made him yearn for; and such was the power of his persuasive rhetoric that he succeeded in leaving such a mark. However, all his efforts to show himself as absolutely innocent not only failed to clear up the misunderstandings he believed he had suffered, but actually gave them greater substance.
In a sense,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.