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, he became the hostage of his admirers, his supporters, and followers. People concerned to right wrongs tended to find in him an ally. I think a most telling example of this is given in the hommage paid to Rousseau in 1788 by one of his young readers, Madame de Staël. She identifies with Rousseau, with his religious sentiments, and with the characters in his novels; she takes his side against his unfaithful wife, Thérèse Levasseur. On the eve of the meeting of the Estates General, just before the great Revolution, Madame de Staël imagines Rousseau rising from his grave and addressing the nation. But the ghost, and his address, she implies, will affect real history only if we heed someone else who is guided by that same ghost. Madame de Staël in fact requests her reader to transfer to her father, Prime Minister Necker, the semireligious faith in one man that was inspired by the charismatic figure of Rousseau.

Rousseau-worship has in no way protected Rousseau from being misunderstood and misappropriated. Necker and Madame de Staël are representatives of a kind of moderate liberalism that was soon to be overtaken by events. But there were to be many more misappropriations of Rousseau in the course of the French Revolution.

The political upheavals in the Republic of Geneva during the century of the Enlightenment made that city “a laboratory of revolutions,” as some recent historians have called it. The citoyens of Geneva, to which class Rousseau’s family belonged, enjoyed in theory full political rights. They were the higher class, above the classes of “natives” and “residents” who had neither the vote nor the right to be appointed to public office. But the well-to-do families made up a patrician class within the citizenry, and held all effective power through a complex system by which potential rivals could be pressured or persuaded not to compete. Less wealthy citizens, for the most part artisans—craftsmen and tradespeople—were unwilling to submit to the patricians and to forfeit their participation in political life. Rousseau was a watchmaker’s son, and so he belonged to a class that thought of itself as the people,” holding the formal rights attached to citizenship, but that was in practice denied the use of those rights.


Rousseau’s early political education came from the writings of Plutarch, read at his father’s workbench, from seeing his father forced to flee the city after a quarrel with a patrician who was armed, and by seeing the violent popular uprisings of 1734 in Geneva that led to a more democratic constitution. Nor will he forget (since he recalls them later with feeling) the celebrations on civic occasions and festivals improvised by the people that he saw as a child. The year 1743–1744, which Rousseau spent in Venice when he was thirty-one as secretary to the French ambassador, marks a turning point. In the Confessions, when Rousseau describes how he wrote his “Political Institutions” (which became The Social Contract), he places the roots of the work in his observations of the Venetian government.

It was thirteen or fourteen years since I had conceived the original idea for it, at the time when I was in Venice and had some opportunity of observing the defects in that Republic’s highly vaunted constitution. Since then my ideas had been greatly broadened by my study of the history of morals. I had seen that everything is rooted in politics and that, whatever might be attempted, no people would ever be other than the nature of their government made them. So the great question of the best possible government seemed to me to reduce itself to this: “What is the nature of the government best fitted to create the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the wisest and, in fact, the best people, taking the word ‘best’ in its highest sense?” I believed that I saw a close relationship between that question, and another, very nearly though not quite the same: “What is the government which by its nature always adheres closest to the law?” From which one comes to: “What is the law?” and to a chain of questions of that magnitude. I saw that all this was leading me to some great truths which would make for the happiness of the human race, but above all for that of my native land….

In Venice Rousseau’s relations with the French ambassador ended in a violent quarrel. Rousseau felt he had been insulted and underpaid. It is this personal resentment that plays a considerable part (and Rousseau did not deny it) in his reflections on the “apparent order” of “our stupid civil institutions.” “In truth,” he wrote, the order serves “only to add public authority to the oppression of the weak and the iniquity of the strong.” This is the insight that lies at the very heart of the Discourse on Inequality (1755).

“The Revolution explains The Social Contract,” declared Joseph Lakanal, president of the Convention’s Committee on Public Instruction, in 1794. The nineteenth-century historian Edgar Quinet, who was particularly concerned with the moral and religious aspects of the French Revolution, wrote in the 1860s that The Social Contract was the Revolution’s “Book of Laws.” Others went so far as to describe the debates of the revolutionary assemblies as no more than extended commentaries on the Discourse on Inequality. But with a few exceptions, revolutionaries referred to Rousseau’s works in a more sentimental and less precise way, less firmly based on a general understanding of his work. The image of Rousseau as a persecuted innocent or as a suffering healer was in many circumstances more appealing than the arguments of the political theorist. But there were plenty of similarities between the holy images of the cult of Rousseau and the actual content of the doctrinal works of the “citizen” who turned, by his own account, into a “solitary walker,” removed from the social system.

During the early 1770s, after both Emile and The Social Contract were condemned and he had fled from Switzerland to England and then to France, Rousseau believed he was the victim of a universal conspiracy. It was during this period that he was asked to give advice to a group of Polish nationalists. He took an interest in their cause not because they were trying to set up new laws for a new people (as had been the case with the Corsicans, who were fighting for independence from the Genoese and had tried experiments in self-government), but because they were trying to preserve the independence of a historic nation torn by internal dissension and beset by outside enemies, chief among them Catherine of Russia, who had been profusely flattered and advised by Rousseau’s enemies, Diderot and Voltaire. On a psychological and symbolic level, a country besieged and threatened on all fronts could not fail to arouse passionate interest in a man suffering from fantasies of being under siege: Rousseau could only too easily identify Poland’s fate with his own.


However, The Consideration on the Government of Poland, written in 1770 and 1771, is lucid and informed, taking account of the social realities and problems of national self-determination facing the Poles. The work demonstrates Rousseau’s ability to apply and adjust the principles of The Social Contract to a concrete historical situation. It subordinates everything to one main consideration: the defense and survival of the Polish nation. Rousseau does not propose to overturn existing social relations in the name of an egalitarian ideal. Serfs must be educated before they can be freed. Love of the fatherland should be the central concern of national celebrations, games, and pageants; the entire population should take part, but the different ranks should be “carefully distinguished.”

The Social Contract, which proposed a system for small city-states, declared that the people’s sovereignty “could not be exercised by representatives,” and that lawmaking could only be done by an assembly of all the people. In The Government of Poland, however, which deals with a large country, Rousseau does not advocate abolishing the traditional assemblies. Representatives can be elected, provided their mandate is specific and of short duration. It is clear why this work was reprinted several times during the Revolution as an appendix to The Social Contract. And it is also clear why so many orators and political writers of all persuasions borrowed arguments from it. It was proof that Rousseau’s thought could be applied to France.

Rousseau’s influence during the Revolution is generally considered to have been at its strongest from 1792 to the fall of Robespierre in 1794. Madame Roland, the muse of the Girondins, worshipped him; Robespierre found in Rousseau not just a source of ideas, but a moral ideal, a figure with whom he identified without reservation. Identifying himself with Rousseau (or rather with what he imagined Rousseau to be) just as he had done with “the people” (about whom he knew very little) gave Robespierre a great sense of his own virtue and legitimacy. It allowed him to take on the mantle of a Rousseauist lawgiver presiding over the birth of a new society and at the same time to speak on behalf of a sovereign people whose will determines civil laws. In Rousseau’s theory, the lawgiver is the “mechanic who invents the machine”: his task is to set up the structure, to establish and obtain approval for a constitution, but not to rule. Under the lawgiver’s influence, the people adopt the laws that secure their sovereignty, but it is for the sovereign thus defined to make new laws or to amend old ones as circumstances arise.

Robespierre certainly believed himself to have the lawgiver’s mission. He inspired the constitution of 1793 (which was to take effect when peace was declared, and therefore never took effect); in addition, convinced that his own goodness and that of the people were one and the same, he felt entitled to speak in the name of the “sovereign.” Rousseau had attacked party-based and factional politics, and Robespierre, when attacking his opponents, constantly denounced them for factionalism. But he thought that the Jacobin Club, which he dominated, and the Committee of Public Safety, which obeyed his orders, were expressing “the will of the nation.”

Thus he held legislative, executive, and judicial power. His de facto dictatorship was dressed up as a regime supported by the real citizens. Did this really respect Rousseau’s teaching? Though he had not called for the separation of powers in the manner of Montesquieu, Rousseau had stated clearly that lawmaking and governing were not compatible:

It is not good that he who makes laws should execute them, nor that the body of the people should turn its attention away from general views to devote it to particular objects.

Robespierre’s name, like Saint-Just’s, is closely associated with that phase of the Revolution when terror became the corollary of virtue. Historians (not to mention novelists and playwrights) have for a very long time devoted special attention to that phase. In a recent book, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue, Carol Blum brings together the most significant historical facts about the uses made of Rousseau during the period she discusses, and sets them out with commendable clarity. Some readers may wish to criticize her reduction of Rousseau’s doctrine to the exaltation of virtue, which makes him appear as the foremost exponent of moral sentimentality; but that is precisely how Rousseau was read and loved by most of his proclaimed disciples in the revolutionary period. Indeed, heightened images of moral virtue in the private and public spheres were popular in the eighteenth century, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the attitudes of the upper classes, who were drawn to the pleasures of the senses and moral laxity.

Télémaque, for instance, an edifying novel by Archbishop Fénelon published in the last year of the previous century and intended for his pupil, the Duc de Bourgogne, had an important influence that should not be underestimated, not least in its account of an ideal republic. The disgrace of its author at the hands of the political and religious authorities of the day recommended the book even more strongly in the eyes of generations of bourgeois readers; it was still obligatory reading for young people on the eve of the Revolution.

Rousseau took much from Télémaque, just as he took much from Voltaire’s Roman plays—for example, from Brutus (1730), a tragedy in which a consul who dares to sentence his own son to death for conspiring against the Republic is honored. Jacques-Louis David caused a sensation at the 1789 Salon with a painting inspired by Voltaire’s play, which, when it was revived on stage in 1790, had a tumultuous reception. So, when in his first Discourse Rousseau has the virtuous consul Fabritius declaim eloquently against the evils of Imperial Rome, his readers—whether hereditary aristocrats or members of the trading bourgeoisie—knew they were on familiar ground. They were all educated on Cicero and Tacitus, brought up in schools where Rollin’s history of Rome and Lhomond’s Latin exercises gave repeated and insistent examples of Republican virtue. Rousseau was by no means the first to use such classical lessons of civic virtue on his own account. But he made the illustrations persuasive by creating a rhetorical language that combined a personal tone with nostalgia for a lost age and a hope for a future renewal open to all men and women of good will.

The quality and scope of Rousseau’s impact as a writer can be better judged if we consider the peculiar Dedication to Rousseau that Robespierre wrote, probably in 1791. Carol Blum translates and quotes it in full in her book, and I have abridged it slightly here:

Divine man, you taught me to know myself: while I was still young you made me appreciate the dignity of my nature and reflect upon the great principles of the social order. The old edifice is crumbling: the portico of a new edifice is rising up upon its ruins, and, thanks to you, I have brought my stone to it. Receive my homage; as weak as it is, it must please you: I have never flattered the living. I saw you in your last days… I contemplated your august features; I saw in them the imprint of a dark grief to which the injustices of men have condemned you. From that moment on I understood all the pains of a noble life devoted to the cult of truth…. The consciousness of having wanted the good of his fellow beings is the recompense of the virtuous man; then comes the gratitude of the peoples who surround his memory with the honors due to him,…even when he purchases them at the price of a premature death.

I wish to follow your venerable footsteps,…happy if, in the perilous career that an unprecedented revolution just opened before us, I remain constantly faithful to the inspirations I found in your texts.

Robespierre imitates Rousseau’s style assiduously, mechanically. His dependence on his model is shown in many different ways, even in the pathos of the references to Rousseau’s own death. After Robespierre got rid of Hébert and the “de-Christianisers” on his left in March 1794, and then of Danton, Desmoulins, and the “indulgents,” members of the Jacobin club who opposed the excesses of the terror, on his right, he was without restraint. There is no doubt that his highly elaborated speech of 18 Floréal II (May 7, 1794) “On the Relation of Religious and Moral Ideas to Republican Principles and on National Celebrations” reveals what Robespierre considered the most urgent step to take, namely to ensure the unity of the nation by calling on it to take part in the worship of a new “cult of reconciliation.” Christians were to abandon their “superstitions” and “fanaticism” and to address hymns and prayers only to the “Supreme Being.” Non-Christians were to acknowledge that “the idea of a Supreme Being and of immortality is a constant reminder of justice: it is thus a sociable and republican idea.” Those who refused to give up their atheism could, obviously, cut themselves off from society and from the Republic. The reconciliation of the body politic thus rests on the threat of exclusion of recalcitrant citizens, which, in Robespierre’s logic, would be the fault of those who would be expelled—if they were not charged with a crime and liquidated. In this speech, Rousseau is hailed as the purveyor of truth and as the precursor of the Revolution. The materialist philosophes who had persecuted him—Diderot and d’Alembert—are cast as enemies of the Revolution or, as a Marxist might have put it, as the “objective supporters” of monarchy:

One man showed himself, by the elevation of his soul and the strength of his character, to be worthy of being the tutor of humanity. He attacked tyranny boldly; he spoke with enthusiasm of the divinity; his manly and honest eloquence painted an image of virtue in words of flame. His unconquerable scorn for the conspiring solipsists who had usurped the name of philosophes earned him hatred and persecution at the hands of his rivals and false friends. Ah! if they had but seen…this Revolution, whose precursor he was! Who can doubt that his generous soul would have espoused the cause of justice and equality with passion! But what did his cringing enemies do for the Revolution? They opposed it…. They prostituted themselves to factions…. Men of letters as a whole have dishonored themselves in this Revolution, and, to the eternal shame of the intellect, it is the people’s mind that has borne its entire burden.

In his first Discourse (1750) Rousseau had been critical of “vain and futile speechifiers” and of the taste for luxury “inspired by philosophy” whose consequence was the loss of “true courage” and “military virtue.” Rousseau, himself a playwright, goes on to make a case both against the theater and against d’Alembert and Voltaire for their support of the theater. The audience shut themselves into a darkened room to enjoy “exclusive pleasures” within the room, they remain separated from each other as they are separated from the stage. How different this is from real, popular festivals, held in the open air, where all take part as spectators and as performers at the same time, in joyous communion!

Robespierre takes up the same themes. In Greek celebrations, he says, despite the excessive role played by the victorious athletes or poets, “the spectacle to be seen that was greater than the games was that of the spectators themselves.” And yet another major text of Rousseau is echoed in the decree appended to Robespierre’s speech establishing the cult of the Supreme Being. What the Jacobin leader announces, in effect, is that the rather surprising conclusion to The Social Contract, the chapter on civil religion, is to be put in practice forthwith.

Rousseau was condemned for that chapter by both the Catholic and the Protestant authorities, for once in agreement, because in it he attacks Christian dogma and demands freedom of conscience for the private beliefs of individuals. The “public good” gives the sovereign power a right to oversee social behavior, but also limits it. However, the “public good” is of such overriding importance that the relationship of the individual to society itself requires a kind of sanctification:

There is a purely civil declaration of faith, whose articles it is for the sovereign to establish, not precisely like the dogmas of a religion but as feelings of sociability without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a faithful subject.

The “few and simple” dogmas of Rousseau’s civil religion are close to what Robespierre wished to impose. Their vital role in maintaining social unity meant for Rousseau that offenders against the civil religion would have to be punished severely—expulsion for the recalcitrant and death for apostates. So what was put forward was a religious orthodoxy subservient to political power, which it sanctified, although the orthodoxy itself remained the final arbiter.

Robespierre took the last chapter of The Social Contract literally. The Festival of the Supreme Being, directed by Jacques-Louis David, inaugurated the new patriotic-religious regime on 20 Prairial (June 8, 1794). Patrice Gueniffey describes it most appositely in the recently published A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution:

The barely disguised aim of the festival was to purge the individual of everything that distinguished him from the civic body, to impose a State dogma defining both public and private conscience, and thereby to make citizens turn themselves into parts of the whole. Rousseau’s principles are formulated with restrictions. In Robespierre’s application of them, the restrictions, though they may have been accepted formally, have become a dead letter.

Two days after the Festival of the Supreme Being, on June 10, 1794, Robespierre and his friend Couthon promulgated the famous Prairial Law which sparked an acceleration of the Terror. A coincidence? The stricter definitions of compulsory patriotism in the new law had the effect of revealing with greater clarity the people who were deemed to be lukewarm or dubious about the Revolution, as well as its real or alleged enemies. The new law abolished the right of people brought before the revolutionary tribunal to cross-examine witnesses “if material or moral proofs exist independently of witnesses’ evidence.” Article VIII stipulated that “the rule of judgment is the conscience of jurors enlightened by love of fatherland.” The feelings of permanently appointed officials—feelings presumed to be upright and virtuous—were now trusted to decide on the lives and deaths of the accused.

Was this not, once again, an application of one of Rousseau’s cherished ideas, to make feeling the final arbiter of innocence and guilt? (Under the Prairial Law, guilt for crimes against the people was punished automatically by death.) Rousseau, wishing to make a case in court against his persecutors, had complained of legal procedures that would prevent him winning against them. In a letter to David Hume, quoted by Carol Blum, Rousseau wrote:

The first concern of those who plot iniquities is to protect themselves from juridical proofs; it does not do any good to bring them to court. Interior conviction recognizes another type of proof which is governed by the feelings of an honest man.

It is not wrong of Carol Blum to read this as an appeal to a law of the heart similar to the one formulated in the Prairial Law. But that law brings into the realm of public life what was for Rousseau a private concern—how to deal with the friends who had betrayed him and blackened his name. Yes, it is also true that in his essay on Political Economy Rousseau had urged “make virtue reign”; and he said it was right to make men “such as one needs them to be.” But on the following pages he also wrote,

The security of the individual is so bound up with public affairs that, as for respect for human weakness, the [social] contract would be dissolved de jure if a single citizen were to perish when he could have been saved; if a single person were held in prison unjustly, or if a single case were lost with evident injustice…. The security of one man is no less a collective cause than the security of the whole state.

Madame de Staël, who continued to admire Rousseau after the Revolution as much as she had in 1788, answered those who associated Rousseau too closely with the memory of Robespierre by quoting a passage from a letter written by Rousseau in 1766 to the Comtesse de Wartenheim (Correspondance complète, 30:485):

In my view the suffering of a single man has greater weight than the freedom of humanity. Those who love freedom sincerely do not need so many machines in order to find it, and, without causing revolutions or disturbances, whoever wishes to be free is so in fact.

Constitutional monarchists could also add another sentence from The Social Contract, book III, chapter iv: “Taken in its strictest meaning, there never has been a real democracy and never will be.”

Did Robespierre get his unshakeable belief in his own goodness from Rousseau? It was a belief they shared, with similar consequences in each case: since evil exists, they both held that it only exists elsewhere. It is fomented by others, by conspirators, by evil souls. Both men were haunted by the fear of conspiracies. Because that fear was not groundless in every case, it led them to generalize their mistrust to the point of losing touch with reality. Limitless suspicion brought unlimited punishment. Patrice Gueniffey, in the Critical Dictionary, reminds us that when the population clamored for bread, Robespierre thought he had to deal with hidden conspirators, and he denounced the agents of “aristocracy” for “running about the streets presenting a picture of poverty and famine”; they were “rascals disguised in the respectable garb of poverty.”1

Rousseau, deprived of all power, escaped from what he considered to be the all-pervasive plot against him by taking refuge in his inner freedom. Robespierre, for a short time the holder of all power, brought about his own downfall in two ways. Since he imagined plots everywhere, he was blind to the real plot against him; and by hunting down conspirators, he strengthened the resolve and the “reaction” of those who believed their turn would soon come.

In October 1794, that is to say after the fall of Robespierre, Rousseau’s mortal remains were solemnly transferred to the Pantheon, the temple of great men. The coffin was inscribed: “He Demanded the Rights of Man.” The Table of Rights was carried as one of the regalia during the ceremony, as was The Social Contract itself, carried in front of the entire National Convention. The group of deputies was surrounded by a tricolor ribbon symbolizing national unity. These were the men who had got rid of the “tyrant” Robespierre and his henchmen: Saint-Just, Couthon, Lebas….

Among the many books published in France to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution are three editions of the thirty or so drafts that led to the Declaration of the Rights of Man as proclaimed on August 26, 1789. They include, as one might expect, texts modeled on the American Declaration and Constitution. But the record of the debates over the drafts shows also that the members of the National Assembly wanted to “outdo America” and to produce a Declaration valid for all men and all times.2 Their ambition was of a philosophical order, they sought a “higher invocation of reason,” while avoiding “metaphysical” excesses. Reading these drafts and debates, which eventually led to the proclamation of the sovereignty of the people represented by the Assemblée délibérante, one constantly comes across concepts and arguments whose author is not always named but whose source is obvious since it is frequently quoted verbatim: the source is The Social Contract Rousseau was used in the first days of the revolution as he was used later under the Jacobin dictatorship—unfaithfully, but with pious respect.

translated by David Bellos

This Issue

April 12, 1990