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?

This Jacobin Rousseau is not the author of Emile, with its painstaking psychology, its concern for personal education, its reverence for childhood and innocence, and, above all, its remark that the Social Contract was only a yardstick for measuring governments. He is not the author of La Nouvelle Héloise, with its pervasive sexuality and patriarchal idyll. Saint-Just, who was a young bachelor, had strong opinions on the virtues of breast-feeding, to be sure, but the Rousseau who mattered to him and to Robespierre was ‘the citizen’, whose message was the civic virtues, simplicity, and the general will of the people. There is, however, far more to Rousseau, even in the Social Contract, than was filtered down by Jacobin rhetoric. Rousseau was certainly not a liberal, but neither was he the designer of the Terror or of the politics of credal uniformity. Even his great legislator, his new Lycurgus figure, who was to form a people fit for self-rule, has no coercive, but only didactic powers. The object of the Social Contract is to ensure the freedom of the joining citizens. That freedom is not, to be sure, Montesquieu’s freedom from governmental power, although Rousseau was just as determined to eliminate arbitrary rule as his revered master had been. His freedom, however, was something else: it was freedom from personal dependence, of which he had had enormous experience since his early days as an apprentice. Equality is necessary because without it there will be dependence. The poor will sell themselves, and the rich will buy them and bend the law to suit their own interests. That is why there can be no freedom under conditions of real inequality, for the people is made up of individuals who are almost all weak and stupid. To save them from personal dependence they must be re-educated, indeed morally transformed, so that they will acquire a social will, a will to fairness and equality. Our natural inclination is to seek self-aggrandisement and inequality, which must, as all history reveals, favour the strong and clever. It is a recipe for dependence. To ‘force’ someone ‘to be free’, therefore, makes sense. Anyone who refuses to accept the supremacy of the general will – whatever he may think at the moment – is abjuring the condition of civic freedom which he recognised when he became a citizen. This does mean that every illegal act is a form of treason and also that the sovereign people created by the contract, though it can only concern itself with public matters, is the sole judge of what is private and what is public. Rousseau admitted that half-regretfully. He was, obviously, not the least bit interested in the rights of minorities: all partial associations were factious, and disturbers of public unity, harmony and integrity. They only upset the inner peace of simple men and create social conflict. What matters is that the majority of citizens actually support the general will and that they recognise their own interests in their public duties. When that goes, the republic is dead, as even Sparta and Rome perished.

This Catonic nostalgia has an irresistible appeal for radicals, most of whom have deep-seated longings for a pre-modern past, which also assures them that a new dawn is at least possible and that the disorders and indulgences of the known world can be abolished. Rousseau is there to tell them that if kings and philosophers were to disappear no one would be worse off – indeed, the co-operative feelings of the people might assert themselves again. Among his contemporaries there were aristocrats, conscious of their declining status, who were also infected by Rousseau’s nostalgia, but they really were a very self-destructive lot. In any event, one ought not to underestimate the various ideological possibilities of Catonism. In Rousseau’s own mind nostalgia was not a prescription for political action. What ‘the historian of the human heart’, as he called himself, set out to do was to measure the awful distance between what we are and what we can imagine ourselves to be. In this he was, as he said, Plato’s disciple. While Plato had an aristocratic vision of a rational city, Rousseau had an egalitarian one: but both are psychological explorations which reveal that we are utterly incapable of bearing the moral cost of rational justice. We are, moreover, so badly constituted that we cannot cure ourselves. The task of philosophy is therefore to expose the distress of human reason. The Social Contract sets out to see whether taking men as they are, and laws as they might be, there can be ‘legitimate and sure principles of government’. The answer is no, because sooner or later governments cheat the people and the people are corrupted, because they cannot be ‘denatured’ for long.

Who was the man who so captivated such a vast number of diverse readers? The best way to find out is to read his Confessions. He may, he tells us there, have been wrong about some events, but never about his inner life. Who is to judge? No one knows himself better than the writer of an autobiography, however much he may be tempted to prevaricate. Nevertheless, if his life has been sensationally interesting, as Rousseau’s was, he will attract biographers. With the publication of the first volume of Maurice Cranston’s Jean-Jacques, there are now two and a half biographies available in English. Each one follows the Confessions step by step, adding some information here, correcting an error there and commenting on Rousseau’s ideas as these develop. The first volume of each ends in 1754, with his reform and return to Geneva and Protestantism. Of the three, Jean Guéhnno’s is the oldest – it appeared some twenty years ago – and the most intelligent. He at least understood that ‘one cannot correct a work of genius.’ Where Cranston reproves Rousseau for being a snob, Guéhnno sees something of Julien Sorel in him, and the analogy brings out all the seething resentment and ambition of a young man who knew that the place that society had assigned him was far too low. Guéhnno is also less inclined to scold Rousseau for his dissolute and eccentric habits, since these may, after all, have had some bearing on his creative energy. Unhappily, Guéhnno had to work with the hopeless Dufour edition of Rousseau’s correspondence. Cranston has taken full advantage of Leigh’s excellent new edition[*] and has industriously dug up a mass of facts about everyone whom Rousseau mentions, especially in Geneva. This is clearly the most informative of the three biographies. Both Guéhnno’s and Cranston’s books are far superior to Lester Crocker’s two volumes of quasi-psychoanalytical abuse. Rousseau, we are told, was an ‘obsessional personality’ (and so are his admirers). That accounts for his inability to adjust to his society, for his radicalism and for his disastrous personal life and ultimate paranoia. Not one of these writers is nearly as successful in linking the man to his books as Jean Starobinski was in his brief and brilliant J.-J. Rousseau, la Transparance et l’Obstacle. But then he did not try to improve upon the Confessions.

Adding new material to Rousseau’s great cri de coeur may not really be a very good idea. The Confessions is not meant to be an accurate recital of a sequence of events. It is, first of all, the creation of a self by a free and roving memory. Rousseau uses the most intimate as well as the most minute experiences of his past to present us with a ‘Jean-Jacques’ whose life had a universal meaning. He is entirely the author of the being whom he calls ‘I’ – he is his own parent. As such, he chose ‘to be’ a man who as both agent and patient proved that everything depended upon politics. His innermost self alone remained pure and his own, but his conduct was a response to political circumstances. This is ‘everyman’s’ doom, and we see the best and the worst of our kind in Rousseau. He also wanted to persuade the reader of his great truth: ‘Let no one say,’ he later wrote of the Confessions, ‘that my life is of no interest because I am a man of the people.’ He had lived in every class of society and belonged to none. Lastly, by confessing so much that was disgraceful about himself, he meant to convince his readers of his candour and of the consolation that perfect sincerity may offer. It all seems so simple, so straightforward, even though it is all pure artifice.

The Rousseau whom Cranston draws out of this refined and wholly self-sufficient work is essentially a romantic. A taste of civil war in Geneva cured him for ever of any inclination to political violence, though he did keep very radical company both in Geneva, when he returned to resume his citizenship, and among Swiss exiles in Paris. Cranston does not simplify Rousseau’s moods. His romanticism was not that of Sturm und Drang, nor that of post-Fichtean Germany. There is no creative imagination, no cult of the Promethean artist-genius or of irony here. This is the romanticism of the heart, of sincerity and unaffected feeling, of spontaneity, and, above all, of an intense response to, indeed of self-loss in, nature. If anything is to be worshipped, it is scenery.

There is, as always, more to be said about young Rousseau. There is the man who really meant it when he said that ‘the first source of evil is inequality.’ This is the youth who did not merely want to impress his master’s pretty daughter when, as a footman serving at table, he showed that he was far better educated than the assembled aristocrats. He also took time out to note bitterly that ‘for one moment things were put in their natural order.’ Here is the germ of that enduring loathing for personal dependence which from first to last moved him to write about politics, rather than just on music. His first sensational work was the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he excoriated his fellow artists. They were not responsible for Europe’s decline since the age of Classical republicanism, but they had woven the garlands that hid oppression. Moreover, as they lived for public applause and reputation, they tended to be the most degraded members of their corrupt societies. Had not the gifted Arouet sold his talents? No wonder Voltaire was stung by that taunt and called Rousseau a new Timon, a miserable and hypocritical misanthrope. Rousseau’s younger contemporaries and associates were not as critical, however: indeed, they were inclined to think that he was right.

D’Alembert’s account of the history and structure of the relations of the man of letters to ‘the great’ is no less devastating. He advised the scribblers to get back to their attics. Scientists, he thought, were intellectually less disgraced, for they pursued the subject for its own sake, not for gain. With this Rousseau tended to agree. The great scientists were men of integrity, but for most men science was just a waste of time. What was so wounding about Rousseau’s attack was that it hit an area of already tender self-doubt among the younger philosophies. This was, after all, a pre-technological intellectual élite. Their only claim to social usefulness was as moral teachers. If they were not able to serve their fellow men pedagogically they were completely useless. At best, Rousseau would concede later, they entertained the city rabble that would otherwise get into worse trouble. That was also his excuse for his own plays and operas.

Worse was to follow. The article ‘Economie Politique’, written for the Encyclopédie, was Rousseau at his Spartan worst, and most vivid. None of his friends shared his loathing for luxury and this is the object of attack here. The only genuine republic is a military-civil order, with no families and no wealth. There is private property and competition for public distinction, but both are fully controlled by the magistrates. All the erotic energy of the citizens is diverted to public ends, so that each one in this – by no means egalitarian – ‘body politic’ fulfils himself in his patriotic duty. There are no neurotics and no enemies in this republic. This is the aim of the education that was also to underwrite the society of the Social Contract. At no time did Rousseau claim that this was a blueprint for his or any future society. It was an unconditional condemnation of his own age, especially of Paris. The aim was to shame, not to alter, for there is no reversing the course we have taken, away from the peace of nature and isolation, to our present desolation. As ‘the painter of nature’ he set out to trace this disastrous progress in the Discourse on Inequality. In nature we are alone and content, but as we are free we may change, and imagination and memory are only waiting to be awakened. Reason means calculation, and as soon as it is aroused we begin to compare ourselves to animals and to each other. Given such faculties men cannot be together without mutual damage. And so mankind goes downhill as we learn to see ourselves as others see and value us, and to replace normal self-love with artificial, restless competitive vanity. Self-destructively chained to each other, we devise the most fatal of all dependencies, the division of labour, beginning with that of the sexes and going on through the whole economy. Dependence is now both psychological and physical. From this there is no escape, and exploitation and political oppression are its natural consequences. Once we abandon self-sufficiency we cannot expect, being what we are, to have laws that will make us free.

The trouble is that we can have a very good idea of what freedom and contentment would be like, thanks to Rousseau. The picture of what might have been stirs the political imagination of all his readers, even those who disdain his person and his work. He did not transform the social world, but he can still change his readers, which is, after all, what he set out to do. His evocation of a primitive peace reverberates in us as a lament, not so much for our lost innocence, as for all our missed opportunities.

[*] 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).