Missed Opportunities

Judith Shklar

  • Will and Circumstance: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the French Revolution by Norman Hampson
    Duckworth, 282 pp, £19.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 7156 1697 8
  • Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 by Maurice Cranston
    Allen Lane, 382 pp, £14.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 7139 0608 1

Rousseau has been loved and hated, but has never been ignored. His name rings in our ears because he expressed every form of human resentment with such intensity and intelligence that his endless nay-saying is still illuminating and seems edifying. His versatility was such that there is a different Rousseau for every reader. Dislike, however, produced his most enduring personae – first the man who spawned Robespierre and then the godfather of Romanticism. He is to be blamed for 1789 and all that: he was a bad thing. And it is as a bad thing that he most often appears, especially in historical scripts in which ‘ideas’ act as palpable forces that push and pull large numbers of people to behave in quite specific ways. One might well speak of a sort of psychological materialism. The first part of Norman Hampson’s Will and Circumstance reads like just such a production. It begins with Rousseau singing a revolutionary song in counterpoint to Montesquieu’s reforming liberalism. They were the two writers most often quoted by the revolutionaries, but they moved their admirers in wholly opposite directions. From this account it would seem that Montesquieu was soon discarded, so his presence here is merely a warning to those tempted to forget him. He was indeed the prophet of constitutional liberty – always aware of the limits imposed by national character and historical circumstances on political possibilities. But as neither his theory of climate, and the enormous debate it aroused, nor his views on religion are discussed, Hampson is not weighing either Montesquieu’s caution or his daring. Only those passages that set him apart from Rousseau are mentioned, which makes the latter’s enormous admiration for him entirely incomprehensible. As for Rousseau, we get bits of the Social Contract, as well as of some lesser pieces that were unknown to his early readers. This is a pastiche of Rousseau as a crude monomaniac who claimed that a transforming political will could re-create Sparta here and now. That his notion of a general will implies, not the actual, but the higher public will of the people is true, but that he thought that it could be mobilised at present to set up a republic of virtuous citizens is not. Hampson mentions that Rousseau harboured no revolutionary designs. He is, however, said to have taught a violent civil ideology to Mercier, Brissot, Marat, Robespierre and Saint-Just, and that is all that matters, apparently.

Mercier did write an undeniably Rousseauish utopia, though his intellectual élitism was remote from his putative master. He later tried to give Montesquieu his due, but failed to overcome his addiction to Rousseau. Brissot certainly knew his Rousseau, but his long residence in Grub Street and his opportunism, no less than the exigencies of revolutionary politics, explain his conduct better than anything he read. Marat was mad most of the time, and his enduring and genuine sympathy for the poor went far beyond anything he could have picked up from Rousseau. That leaves Robespierre and Saint-Just, both before and after the Revolution, and Hampson rather oddly is not particularly ill-disposed toward them. Now Robespierre from his earliest days did worship Rousseau, even addressing an epistle to his ‘shade’. Yet he was not without a sense of his own time and place, and did not expect to make new Spartans out of the slum-dwellers of Paris. In this he may have benefited from reading Montesquieu. Hampson himself is well aware of the force of circumstances here, especially as they affected Robespierre. Nevertheless, the Incorruptible got from Rousseau a belief in the people as naturally virtuous, and as victims of a corrupting and predatory conspiracy of wealth and power. If the people were released from the grip of their oppressors they might – with the right guidance – regain a co-operative and republican spirit. Patriotism and piety were at least possible for the people, while cosmopolitanism and atheism were the luxuries of a heartless aristocracy. Hence the ‘despotism of liberty against tyranny’ – which was what justified the Terror, in Robespierre’s eyes. Was not everyone who challenged him, the only representative of the general will and of public virtue, an enemy of the people?

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[*] Correspondence Complète de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, edited by R. A. Leigh, is published by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford. Forty volumes out of a projected 50 have so far appeared. Vol. XL, Janvier 1775-Juillet 1778, came out last year (412 pp., £36, 0 7294 0276 2).