Rousseau and Revolution

La Politique de la Terreur: Essai sur la violence révolutionnaire, 1789–1794

by Patrice Gueniffey
Paris: Fayard, 376 pp., F25.00
Maximilien Robespierre
Maximilien Robespierre; drawing by David Levine


After taking power by his coup d’état of 19 Brumaire (November 9, 1799), General Napoleon Bonaparte made no attempt to soften his sarcasm about the “principles of liberty” that had been promulgated by the Revolution. According to the memoirs of Madame de Staël:

One bizarre thing was his way of expressing himself on the subject of the Revolution to which he owed his existence…. Invariably…he blamed its first authors…. One day he went to Ermenonville to visit Rousseau’s grave. “And yet it was this man,” he told the owner of the place, “who brought us to the state we are in!”

Another witness to the visit said Bonaparte also invoked the judgment of history: “Time will tell if this earth would not have been a more peaceful place if Rousseau and I had never existed.” Mme. de Staël adds that “he liked…to seize every opportunity to register his antipathy toward those who despised despotism through the ages.” On Saint Helena, Bonaparte acknowledged that during his youth, La Nouvelle Héloïse had “turned his head.” The captive emperor tried twice to reread Rousseau’s famous novel. His biographer Las Cases writes that he admired it the first time, then “skewered” it six months later. Napoleon even wondered whether he had not given orders in 1800 (that is, in the year of his visit to Ermenonville) to blow up the Rocher de Meillerie on the shores of Lake Leman—a place central to the novel—in order to make way for the army of Italy. In fact, the engineers had spared the rock, but Napoleon’s memory lapse suggests rivalry and a need for profanation.

Madame de Staël, in her De la littérature (1800), said of Rousseau that he had “discovered nothing” but “inflamed everything.” In 1788, when she was twenty-two, she published a quite remarkable series of Lettres sur les écrits et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau, in which she expressed enthusiasm for the man while disagreeing with him over the role of women. In this first published work, she alluded to the impending meeting of the orders of the Estates General (the nobility, the clergy, and the third estate), the first such meeting since 1614. The groundwork for that great event had been laid by her father, the Genevan banker Jacques Necker, who had become prime minister to King Louis XVI. Madame de Staël invoked the ghost of Rousseau, who had died ten years earlier, calling on him to be a witness to the upcoming ceremony and urging him to speak as its first orator. It was still possible to see this inaugural moment as a family affair among Genevans working for the good of France. In the view of Necker’s loving daughter, two men—her father the statesman and Jean-Jacques—would preside over the event that was to lift France “out of the depth of its ills.” They were cast as the two authors of a…

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