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 great reform of French institutions. In fact, the meeting of the Estates General was to mark the beginning of the Revolution, and Madame de Staël’s fervor would be cruelly contradicted by the irony of events. She wrote:

And thou, Rousseau…wilt thou not witness the imposing spectacle that France will soon mount, a great event that has been carefully planned and in which, for the first time, chance will play no part? There, perhaps, men will seem more worthy of thy esteem. Unless I miss my guess, no personal passion will animate them now. They will invest only the divine parts of themselves in the common cause. Ah, Rousseau, what a blessing it would be if thy eloquence were to make itself heard again in that august assembly!…

Therefore be born again, O Rousseau! Be born again from thy ashes! Appear, and with thy good wishes spur on the career of a man who, from the depth of France’s ills, seeks only the perfection of her blessings.

Madame de Staël invokes Rousseau as Necker’s spectral coach, almost as his speechwriter. Earlier she wrote:

What a writer Rousseau was! Many have spoken of the danger of eloquence, but I think it quite indispensable when virtue must be pitted against passion. Eloquence gives direction to the soul, thereby allowing one to decide instantly on the proper course to take…. Only eloquence is thus equipped to supply reason with the force it needs to vie with the passions on equal terms.

It was a commonplace in Enlightenment France to deplore the absence of great eloquence in public life, which was ascribed to the absence of political liberty. Rousseau was among those who gave currency to this idea. Delegates to the Assembly of 1789, many of them lawyers like Robespierre, brought the eloquence of Rousseau’s writings into the public sphere, and tried to persuade themselves that eloquence had been reborn. And despite the various ways in which Rousseau’s doctrine of popular sovereignty could be applied, he was often celebrated (or attacked) as the man responsible for the change brought about by the Revolution. In 1791, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, in a rambling work entitled De J.-J. Rousseau considéré comme l’un des premiers auteurs de la Révolution, glorified Rousseau as one of the Revolution’s founding fathers.


Contemporaries of the Revolution thus witnessed a tumultuous outpouring of eloquence that was soon followed by a drought, as the energy of the early revolutionaries was dissipated. In calling a halt to the Revolution, General Bonaparte saw to it that announcements of political and military victory were the only form of rhetoric that counted. As Madame de Staël would write after the emperor’s defeat, in a book left unfinished at her death, “Bonaparte left these men, accustomed to the podium, to fritter away what was left of their character in speeches.” In the same work, she once again evoked ghosts, but now it was the woefully weak ministers of the Directory, driven from power by Bonaparte’s coup d’état, whom she exhorted to rise “from their dust.” In doing so she imagined that they would demand an accounting of the defeats and deaths that Napoleon had left in his wake.

Madame de Staël might have justified her invocation of Rousseau’s ghost by citing Rousseau himself as her literary model. Indeed, Rousseau deliberately cultivated the image of the man who speaks to the world after he is gone. At the beginning of the Confessions he speaks as advocate in his own cause: “Let the trumpets of the Last Judgment sound when they will, I shall appear before the Sovereign Judge with this book in hand.” Here, though, he was protesting his innocence and asserting his truthfulness, not making a political speech.

In another work, however, Rousseau invoked an illustrious ghost as his spokesman for a lesson in morality and politics. In a passage of his Discours sur les arts et les sciences (1750– 1751) that immediately became famous, he brought to life Fabricius, the most upright of the consuls of republican Rome. Comparing the corruption of the imperial present to the virtuous past, Fabricius becomes indignant when he discovers that the empire is governed by a “flute player” (Nero) and that the Romans (like the Parisians of 1750 under Louis XV, Rousseau implied) have become the slaves of their slaves.

This text marked the dramatic literary debut, at thirty-eight, of a writer whose only career until then had been that of an obscure and hapless musician. In his autobiographical works, Rousseau pointed to this passage as the first expression, in his view powerful and irresistible, of what was to become his “sad and great system.” It was, he said, written in a moment of illumination as he sat under a tree on the road to Vincennes. He had just read in the Mercure de France about the question chosen by the Academy of Dijon for its annual prize competition—“whether the restoration of the Sciences and Arts have contributed to the purification of morals.” The lines in which the imaginary Fabricius expresses his indignation were all he could write down on the spot. The rest of his vision of an entire system of morals had to be painfully reconstructed later on, starting with the essay that won the competition, and his answer to the Mercure’s question was a vehement “No!” For him as for his contemporaries, the renaissance in the sciences and the arts dated back to 1500, that is, a quarter of a millennium; and morals had not been purified by it.


Another quarter of a millennium has elapsed since the Academy of Dijon awarded its prize to Rousseau on July 10, 1750. To judge by the number of works devoted to him, Rousseau has not ceased to matter to us. But we still have to analyze the way in which Rousseau staged his life and ideas so as to present them in ways that are partly sacred, partly fetishistic.

Fabricius, his mouthpiece, is indignant at a scandal. He is a biblical prophet in Roman dress:

O, Fabricius! What would your great soul have thought if, to your dismay, you had been recalled to life and seen the pompous face of Rome, the city once saved by your strong arm and more renowned for your honorable name than for all her conquests? “Gods!” you would have said. “What has become of those thatched roofs and rustic hearths where moderation and virtue once resided? What fatal splendor has taken the place of Roman simplicity? What is this foreign tongue? What are these effeminate ways? What is the meaning of these statues, these paintings, these buildings? What madness is this? Have you, the conquerors of nations, made yourselves the slaves of the frivolous men you defeated? Are you governed by speechifiers? Was it to make wealthy men of architects, painters, sculptors, and actors that you spilled your blood in Greece and Asia? Have the spoils of Carthage fallen prey to a flute player?…

Make haste to pull down these amphitheaters; smash these marble statues; burn these paintings; drive out these slaves, who subjugate you and by whose fatal arts you are corrupted. The only talent worthy of Rome is one that conquers the world and establishes the reign of virtue.

This series of rapid-fire questions was hailed as high eloquence at its most “colorful.” We can still appreciate it today if we think of it as something akin to a great operatic recitative. What Fabricius’ voice expresses is the spirit of a lost historical era, retrospectively idealized as a better age in which civic virtue was a living part of the social order. And beyond decadent Rome, the accusatory voice is clearly aimed at the Paris of Rousseau’s time. Although the palaces of Rome have replaced the cottages of what was once a large village, the people who had those palaces built are no longer their own masters.1 They no longer possess either vigor in language or virile force of character: they live in a state of luxury matched only by their effeminization. In conducting their lives they obey the Greeks they have conquered, while allowing themselves to be captivated by their verbal artifices. They lavish their money on people who amuse them, artists and actors. Wealth has therefore resulted in a general condition of aberration.


What forgotten values does Fabricius lament? Ancestral virtue, especially military virtue, and the frugality of a subsistence economy that was based on agriculture and that reduced foreign trade and cash transactions to a minimum. Fabricius’ civic republicanism (which owes certain of its features to Machiavelli) is an archaic ideal. Rousseau thus disagreed with Voltaire, the only contemporary named in the Discours, whom he accuses of sacrificing “beautés mâles“—i.e., the beauty of masculine virtue—in order to please a frivolous audience.

Voltaire, for his part, when he heard about the Discours, declared that he had no intention of reading it because it was “one of those themes that schoolboys compose for the prizes of the Academy of Dijon.” Even the Jesuits, who had attacked Voltaire and his poem in praise of luxury, Le Mondain, did not approve of Rousseau’s simultaneous repudiation of luxury, the arts, and the sciences. For them, Rousseau had shifted the ground of the contemporary debate from the religious to the sociopolitical. Fabricius’ lament met with great success, however, and the Jesuits were quick to parody it as follows in one of their periodicals:

O, Medicis! O, Leo! O, Francis!2 Magnificent restorers of the Sciences and of Letters, what would you think if, recalled to the light, you learned that there are those who look upon your benefactions as misfortunes and upon your liberalities as fatal poisons; if you saw the wreaths it pleased you to place upon the heads of learned men torn to pieces; if ignorance, risen from the grave to which you consigned it, destroyed the monuments of taste and genius erected in your honor? Stop, you would say, curb your rage. What crimes have these statues committed, these paintings, these buildings?3

Rousseau never approved of violent rebellion. Having witnessed bloody disturbances in Geneva in 1737, he wrote, “That dreadful spectacle made such a vivid impression on me that I swore never to become involved in any civil war and, if ever I regained my rights of citizenship, never to lend my body or my consent to the pursuit of liberty through arms.”4 Nowhere does he allude to a right to insurrection. Some revolutionaries would reproach him for this.

In the polemic that followed publication of the first Discours in 1750, he mentioned “a revolution” as a remote hypothetical possibility, which he described in enigmatic terms that have been the subject of much commentary. Did Rousseau have in mind historical cycles such as those posited by Machiavelli? Writing to King Stanislaus of Poland, he observed,

In vain would one lead men back to this first equality, congenial to innocence and source of all virtue; their hearts, once spoiled, will be spoiled always. There is no remedy, except perhaps some great revolution almost as much to be feared as the ill it might cure, and which it is reprehensible to desire and impossible to predict.5

Elsewhere, Rousseau speaks of the “danger of rousing the enormous masses of the French monarchy.” In another text, he writes that the social contract would be dissolved “if a single [citizen] were to be wrongly held in prison.” And in a letter often cited during the Revolution, he asserted that “the blood of a single man is more precious than the liberty of the entire human race.”6 In the eighth of the Lettres écrites de la montagne, moreover, he wrote: “What prize can redeem the blood of our brothers? Even freedom is too dearly bought at such a price.” But he sensed that change was imminent. When his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in October 1794, people recalled a powerful passage from Émile: “We are approaching a state of crisis and a century of revolutions…. I hold it to be impossible for the great monarchies of Europe to endure much longer.”

In no text written during the years leading up to his death in 1778 did Rousseau show the slightest interest in what was happening in America. Preoccupied by his belief that he was a victim of persecution by his enemies in France and elsewhere, he did not ask himself whether his ideas had influenced the American insurgents. Obsessed as he was with a purported plot against him, he found no solace in hopes for a new political order. It was his readers who would take it upon themselves to see and evoke his ideas in the events that occurred ten years later.

In 1789, the first deliberations of the National Assembly were devoted to drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Rousseau’s eloquence now became singularly topical. Some of his ideas were incorporated verbatim into proposals made in the summer of 1789. For instance, Mirabeau and his collaborators (including the Genevan Étienne Dumont, who would later work with Jeremy Bentham) included the following passage in their draft of Article 2 of the Declaration:

Every body politic owes its existence to an express or tacit social contract, whereby each individual places in common his person and faculties under the supreme direction of the general will; at the same time the body accepts each individual as its portion.

This was based on the definition of social contract given in the Contrat social and repeated in Book V of Émile.7 In Article 3 Mirabeau added another principle asserted in the Contrat social, one that had been included in a number of American state constitutions and already adopted by the Abbé Sieyès, the very influential champion of the Third Estate:

Any political association has an inalienable right to establish, modify, or change the Constitution, which is to say, the form of its Government and the distribution and limitation of the various powers of which it is composed.

From these examples, one might think that Madame de Staël’s wish had been realized, that Rousseau had indeed become a “prompter” whispering lines to some of the delegates engaged in drafting a preamble to a new constitution. But these same delegates were familiar with the English revolutions; they had also read Locke and Montesquieu, to say nothing of Mably and the recently translated American state and federal constitutions. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen has survived, but the three constitutions proclaimed, respectively, in 1791 (which provided a role for an already discredited king), 1793 (which did not come into force), and 1795 all proved not workable. They failed to provide for a clear and balanced relationship between the legislative and executive powers, a problem to which Rousseau himself, too eager to emphasize the primacy of the general will, did not pay sufficient attention.8

Adversaries of the Revolution from Burke onward criticized Rousseau not only for having created an abstract man but also for having acquired countless disciples through the beauty and power of his style. He is alleged to have seduced the French, who failed to see the inconsistency of his ideas; and there is no denying that Rousseau had a pervasive influence on what might be called the “revolutionary mentality” or “revolutionary culture.” In his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme (1797–1799), Abbé Augustin Barruel was the first to propose the theory that the Revolution was the result of a conspiracy involving philosophes, Jews, and Masons. Rousseau, a Protestant, figured prominently in this book even though he was not a Mason and had been at odds with the philosophes. The journalist Jacques Mallet Du Pan, another opponent of the Revolution, wrote in the Mercure Britannique in 1799:

Rousseau had a hundred times as many readers as Voltaire. He alone is responsible for inoculating the French with the doctrine of popular sovereignty and its most extreme consequences…. In 1788 I heard Marat read and comment on the Contrat social in public places to the applause of enthusiastic audiences.9

Hippolyte Taine expressed the same idea: “Not only did his principles work their way into law and his spirit animate the entire Constitution, but it also seems that the nation took seriously his ideological game, his abstract fiction.”10 Moreover, for the French monarchist right, most notably in the early part of the twentieth century, Rousseau was the evil genius from abroad, the perverse Swiss seducer who introduced France to the spirit not only of revolution but also of Romanticism, that pathological expression of the Protestant, “Germanic” mind. In Les Misérables Gavroche makes a point of singing, ironically, “C’est la faute à Voltaire, c’est la faute à Rousseau!


James Swenson’s recent book borrows its title from the book I mentioned by Louis-Sébastien Mercier: On Jean-Jacques Rousseau Considered as One of the First Authors of the Revolution.11 Mercier, an advocate of the Revolution, saw it as the result of Rousseau’s beneficent influence (and, to a lesser extent, of the influence of Mercier’s own utopian text, L’An 2440). To Swenson, however, the causal connection seems a dubious one, and he uses Mercier’s title not to endorse the claim of Rousseau’s influence but to question the very notion of “author.”12 He relies instead on another text from the same period, the work of Jean-Joseph Mounier, a “moderate” supporter of parliamentary monarchy in 1789 who made up his mind to emigrate soon thereafter. In a remarkable document written in 1799, Mounier took issue with the idea that the Revolution was influenced by the Enlightenment and Rousseau. His purpose was to challenge Abbé Barruel’s conspiracy theory, but his argument also raised questions about Mercier’s claim.13

Swenson fastens on two sentences in Mounier’s text as a sort of leitmotif for his own: “It was not in the least the influence of these principles [of Rousseau’s] that produced the Revolution; on the contrary, it was the Revolution that produced their influence.” In other words, Rousseau’s influence was the “product” of an active contemporary reading of his work that made it relevant to the events of the Revolution. As Swenson rightly notes, this idea was apparent to those who took part in the Revolution. One finds it, he writes, in the report that Joseph Lakanal submitted to the Convention in support of a proposal to transfer Rousseau’s remains to the Panthéon.

Lakanal, who at the time was an active member of the Committee of Public Instruction, first emphasized the image of Rousseau as orator: “The Contrat social seems to have been conceived in order to be pronounced in the presence of the human race, gathered for the purpose of learning what it once was and what it has since lost.” But, Lakanal added, the book’s first readers had failed to grasp its message, which was understood only because the Revolution provided the necessary explanation:

The great maxims developed in the Contrat social, however evident and simple they seem to us today, produced little effect then; they were too far above the grasp of average minds, and even above the grasp of those who believed themselves to be superior to vulgar minds. In some sense it was the Revolution that explained the Contrat social to us.14

In a series of well-informed, stimulating, and thought-provoking chapters, Swenson traces the connections between Rousseau’s political thought and various passages in his autobiographical writings and his works of fiction. Rousseau’s work has all too often been studied in a fragmentary way dictated by the separate disciplines of the modern university. His political works, which of course deserve to be studied in their own right, have usually been treated in isolation. If one wants to take account of Rousseau’s seductive appeal, however, one has to ignore, as Swenson has, the boundaries that specialists generally respect. He has a keen eye for the unusual images and odd uses of language in Rousseau’s texts and he works hard to decipher their meaning and to explain some of their apparent contradictions. At times his ingenuity leads him to erect somewhat heavy constructions on rather frail textual underpinnings.15

Swenson’s final chapter sums up his argument and provides a good example of his methods. It is a highly competent examination of the ways in which the fundamental democratic principles formulated by Rousseau (and analyzed by Condorcet) were put to the test after 1789. How, he asks, was the general will actually revealed, represented, and expressed through voting? Swenson argues that the Revolution (or, as he puts it, “revolutionary discourse”) corresponds in striking ways with Rousseau’s texts. Both shared a common lexicon: “Rousseau provided the conceptual terms in which the struggle developed,” prominent among them the idea of the general will. But their closest resemblance (to oversimplify the argument somewhat) lay in their common lack of coherence. Swenson formulates his conclusion in a most ingenious way:

The relation between Rousseau and the Revolution is to be found not in a logic of linear causality but rather in a shared constitutive instability, in their practice of “deconstruction.” Rousseau is the first author of the Revolution precisely because the Revolution could not make its reading of him coincide with itself any more than it could make its political discourse coincide with itself—nor, in fact, than Rousseau himself could. Not any one discourse but what they share in their division, indeed, the combination of a passionate longing for unity and a rigorous experience of division, represent the Revolution’s greatest fidelity to Rousseau.

I confess that I am not quite happy with the idea of “shared division,” which is the ultimate reappearance of the story of the divided apple in the previous chapter (discussed in footnote 15 above). I also have doubts about the interpretative value of the notion of a “practice of deconstruction.” Can one ascribe such a practice to “the Revolution”? What one can say is that the political actors of the Revolution were incapable of controlling the series of events that they initiated. Historians have referred to this as “slippage” or “veering out of control,” and some of what Swenson writes brings such accounts to mind. But is it not anachronistic to speak of “deconstruction” in this connection? To do so seems to project onto the past, and onto an inappropriate subject, a word whose widespread use is recent and whose meaning is more than a little ambiguous.

Did the Revolution’s actors keep faith with Rousseau? They said that they did, but they were men in a great hurry. Rousseau’s interpreters, or at any rate those who lived in Paris and not in Königsberg, were especially impatient. They wanted to respond as Rousseau would have responded, but to circumstances that he never anticipated. There was a “moderate” reading of Rousseau, in which his writings were used as an argument to limit violence, and a Jacobin reading, which took advantage of all the warnings in the Contrat social against the dangers of letting the “particular will” of political factions prevail. The Jacobins were, finally, the victims of their own rhetoric. We must bear in mind, moreover, the well-known circularity of interpretation of such texts as Rousseau’s: every interpretation bears the mark of, and reflects back on, the interpreter.

The influence of any major writer on any historical period must therefore be understood according to the ways his work is made available, interpreted, and used. The Assembly deliberated beneath a bust of Rousseau and a copy of the Contrat social, both of which were installed in October 1790. His authority was invoked and his support was claimed for many measures the Assembly adopted. The popularity of a small number of his ideas cannot be understood in isolation from the popularity of images of Rousseau himself. When Paris was divided into electoral districts, one section was given the name Contrat social. Effigies and busts of Rousseau were common, and his image appeared in allegorical engravings celebrating the Revolution. There was even commerce in some objects which allegedly belonged to him. His walking stick was sold many times. All these images created a rather idyllic and benevolent impression of Rousseau. If Rousseau was in some ways the “prompter” who told others what to say and how to act, he was also the authority whose approval everyone for a while wished to claim.

People needed to reassure themselves, to quiet their fears. This was the hypothesis of Guglielmo Ferrero, the great Italian antifascist historian who taught in Geneva in the 1930s: “The Jacobins,” he wrote, “did not spill so much blood because they believed in the sovereignty of the people.” They did so because they believed in a “religious truth; they sought to believe in the sovereignty of the people as in a religious truth because fear caused them to spill so much blood…. It was fear and a craving for the absolute that led the Revolution to take the Contrat social as its Bible and Rousseau as its Moses.” Rousseau, who so obstinately proclaimed his own innocence, was a useful ally of revolutionaries who needed self-vindication.

In his excellent book La Politique de la Terreur, the historian Patrice Gueniffey mentions Ferrero’s interpretation but insists that Robespierre’s terrorist policy combined the threat of excluding and eliminating opponents by using affirmations of moral virtue. Gueniffey shows how Robespierre styled himself “the organ of truth” in order to defeat his political rivals: he launched an escalating series of accusations and executions against an ever-changing cast of “enemies of the people” and “conspirators.” And he por-trayed himself as a hero locked in combat with a hydra.

The period of the Great Terror began with the Festival of the Supreme Being (June 8, 1794) and the Law of 22 Prairial (June 10, 1794), which speeded up judicial proceedings by curtailing the rights of the accused. Rousseauian motifs can be seen in both the festival and the law. When Robespierre proclaimed the festival, he invoked Rousseau’s name. His speech, which Swenson also mentions, was full of praise for Rousseau, who, he said,

attacked tyranny forthrightly. He spoke enthusiastically of divinity. With virile and righteous eloquence he painted the charms of virtue in strokes of fire, and he defended the consoling dogmas with which reason bolsters the human heart.

Robespierre imagined Rousseau at his side:

Ah! Had he witnessed this revolution, of which he was the precursor, and which has brought him to the Panthéon, who can doubt that his generous soul would have passionately embraced the cause of justice and equality?

But Rousseau, he continued, had been persecuted by “literary men,” by the atheistic encyclopedists. Robespierre cast himself in the role of Rousseau’s avenger. His proposal for “national festivals” was closely modeled on Rousseau’s description in his Lettre à d’Alembert, where Rousseau had written: “Make a spectacle of the spectators.” Robespierre, alluding to the games of Greece, proclaimed that “what people saw there was a spectacle greater than the games themselves, namely, the spectators, the people who had conquered Asia.”

As for the appalling Law of 22 Prairial, questions of guilt and innocence were henceforth to be left, Robespierre said, to the “conscience of jurors enlightened by love of the fatherland [patrie].” This appeal to conscience, guaranteed by Providence, was a principle put forward by Rousseau, who had celebrated the “divine instinct” for justice. Robespierre’s application of this principle could hardly have been more perverse. In Gueniffey’s interpretation, the appeal to principle, the ideology of virtue and “transparency” in public life was secondary for Robespierre; he used it to justify bloody purges. What was paramount for him was his determination to eliminate his rivals and consolidate his power. Gueniffey finds himself at odds with historians who invoke “circumstances” to justify or explain the policy of terror. He writes,

Robespierre ascribed to the Revolution ever more absolute goals in order to multiply the obstacles to achieving them, to dramatize the situation, to create new tensions that would enable him to acquire the means to rid himself of the enemies to his power…. The scenario is by now familiar, for it has been played out repeatedly over the past two centuries. In this respect, all revolutionary regimes are alike…. Just as Mao would plunge China into the bloodbath of the so-called Cultural Revolution when his real purpose was to regain the supreme power that had been wrested from his hands in 1960, decapitate the state, and reassert his control over a purged Communist Party, Robespierre set out to liquidate the enemies of the people and rekindle the Revolution and the Terror, intentionally dramatizing the situation in order to eliminate his direct rivals in the race for power.

Rousseau was set up as the authority that Robespierre could make use of in his own cause: he became a marionette. Just as Rousseau, in formulating his indignant protest against the status quo, had enlisted the support of Fabricius, now Robespierre found in Rousseau a warrant for his systematic invocation of virtue.

Like Rousseau, he used eloquence in two ways: to accuse others and to promulgate his own views. He accused his enemies of creating factions and being self-interested, while the moral goals he proclaimed were always of the loftiest kind, culminating in the adoption by the Convention on May 7, 1794, of an extraordinary edict recognizing “the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.” Anyone who did not sincerely embrace these truths was subject to punishment on grounds of wickedness, as if metaphysical truths could be decided by the general will.

In a way, this can be seen as a rigorous application of the right to examine the convictions of citizens that Rousseau had ascribed to the state in the strange final chapter of the Contrat social. There he developed the theory of a “purely civil” religion based on a very small number of principles of interest to the community but leaving individuals free to subscribe to other dogmas provided that these were of no consequence for social life.

We can and should distinguish between what Rousseau said and what others tried to make him say. In one of the great works of eighteenth-century scholarship in recent years, Job, mon ami: Promesse de bonheur et fatalité du mal, the historian Bronislaw Baczko (of the University of Geneva) writes:

No one would want to hold Rousseau responsible either for the use made of his ideas by those who invoked them or for the machinations of those who used his name as a symbol. In fact, revolutionary politics in the broad sense was most strongly influenced by Jean-Jacques when its actors, and especially its ideologues, allowed themselves a fair amount of freedom to adapt his legacy to the problems that arose out of the unprecedented experiences to which the Revolution gave rise. When they relied on Jean-Jacques’s ideas to formulate their responses, they were actually adopting a more or less mythical ancestor.16

At the time when Bonaparte, standing beside Rousseau’s grave in Ermenonville, said that “it was this man who brought us to the state we are in,” his minister of police was Joseph Fouché, who had been a colleague of Robespierre’s on the Committee of Public Safety. As François Furet has pointed out, Bonaparte himself had initially been a “Robespierrist” general.17 The only question that interested him in 1800 was how to consolidate power and set up a stable government.

On this point, at that time, Rousseau had nothing more to teach. As the French philosopher Eric Weil noted in a celebrated essay, the actual function of government came in for little attention in Rousseau’s theory.18 That theory granted unlimited sovereignty, and an absolute right to oversee the actions of the government, to the general will, that is, to the community of citizens. The Convention had claimed the central role for itself and, unable to make a clear allotment of power, could not avoid failure. For Napoleon, the time had come to restore the power of the executive and to guarantee rights of property, including the “national properties” that had passed into the hands of new owners, who had hastily bought, with money quickly and easily made, properties of the clergy and of the émigrés.

Ironically, as Eric Weil remarked, “one could say that Napoleon, in liquidating the liberty and equality of the Revolution, was the only revolutionary to take Rousseau seriously.” Although Rousseau’s discourse would continue to be heard, it would henceforth be addressed to an entirely different audience, as though he were another writer, speaking with another voice, through other works—the Confessions and the Rêveries. Among those who listened to this Rousseau were Chateaubriand and, later, Baudelaire; they would rival him in placing themselves at the center of the stage and giving voice to what he called the “sentiment of existence.”19 But were there two Rousseaus, the political theorist and the autobiographer and novelist? Could we not arrive at a common denominator for both? What mattered to him in both instances, one can argue, was to insist on the solitary self, and almost simultaneously to open the perspective of its legitimate surrendering to a greater whole, either the State or a divinized motherly Nature. Rousseau taught both revolt and submission.

This Issue

April 25, 2002