The Crime of Monsieur Renou

Alan Ryan

  • The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity by Maurice Cranston
    Allen Lane, 247 pp, £25.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 7139 9166 6

As political theorist, Maurice Cranston had little to add to the conventional wisdom, but he possessed an astonishing, if strangely low-key, talent as a biographer. His biography of Locke, published in 1956, showed that the fustian, commonsensical, cautious and pragmatic Locke that every undergraduate knew from philosophy and political theory tutorials had in fact been a stranger, wilder and more dangerous figure than they suspected. Nor did Cranston stretch the evidence, or reinterpret Locke’s life to reach such a conclusion. His method was – as in all three volumes of the biography of Rousseau – to immerse himself in the evidence, both personal and contextual, to read (and then largely to ignore) the secondary literature, and to allow his subject to emerge as naturally as possible from the background.

The method works best with thinkers who have vivid personalities and much to say about themselves. Locke, one might have thought before Cranston’s biography, would be an unlikely candidate for such treatment. In the case of Rousseau, however, nobody needed to be persuaded that Cranston’s subject had an engrossing vie intérieure. The author of the Confessions, the Dialogues and the Rêveries had a great deal to say about himself, and much of it was pretty astonishing. The anxiety of the more romantically-minded might rather be that Rousseau would emerge from Cranston’s treatment somewhat flattened. Indeed, in the Preface to The Noble Savage, the second volume of this Life, Cranston reported the reaction of one disappointed reviewer of the first volume, who had ‘protested that with this method of impartial pursuit of the facts I had made Rousseau seem “almost normal”.’

It is all too easy to think that the distraught and mistrustful figure of Rousseau’s final years of exile, illness and madness was always somehow lurking in the wings, or that he must be somewhere visible in the pages of The Social Contract or Emile or La Nouvelle Héloïse. But a mad or distracted Rousseau could not have written those three books, each one of them a turning-point in European thinking – about politics, education and sexuality, and about the connection between all three of these – during a period of some nine years. What happened thereafter is another matter.

Cranston’s Preface announced in passing that ‘those readers who cannot imagine Rousseau as anything other than thoroughly paranoid must wait for the third volume of this biography, which will trace the last tormented years of his life.’ Now, we have The Solitary Self, in which these last tormented years are portrayed. However, Cranston died in November 1993, with only seven of the eight chapters completed. Although Sanford Lakoff has done a neat job of finishing off the last chapter and adding an Epilogue on Rousseau’s ideas and influence that elegantly and skilfully draws on several of Cranston’s essays, the effect is to make this still more a biography of a ‘normal’ Rousseau. For this volume is little more than half the length of its predecessors; the last eight years of his life are only very lightly sketched in, and the emphasis remains very firmly on Rousseau the political thinker – as opposed to Rousseau the invalid, the paranoid, the bearer in his own person of the romantic urge for self-destruction, and all those other incarnations of Jean-Jacques with whom we are familiar.

To say this is not to belittle the extraordinary efforts that Cranston devoted to the task of tracing Rousseau’s wanderings during the last 15 years of his life. To understand why it was a task worth engaging with, it is necessary to return to the end of Cranston’s second volume, and to the astonishing few years when Rousseau published La Nouvelle Héloïse, Emile and The Social Contract. Both Emile and The Social Contract were incendiary tracts. The latter might be thought to remain such even now, since anyone who took its view of the conditions of political legitimacy seriously would have difficulty finding a single legitimate state anywhere in the modern world. But it was Emile that initially got Rousseau into trouble.

It did so by explicitly denying most of the central tenets of the Christian faith in the course of a long exposition of natural religion, interpolated as La Profession de foi d’un vicaire savoyard. The creed professed by the humble priest is not a simple assault on Christianity. He confesses himself torn over the divinity of Christ, but appears to have no doubt that many of the doctrines preached by the Catholic Church in France were either incredible or wicked or both. Rousseau was, in Emile as elsewhere, hard on the doctrine of Original Sin. It was his lifelong conviction that man came from the hands of God innocent and happy, and that society made him depraved and miserable. Before Emile, however, he had been cautious about how he expressed his views. It takes no great cleverness to see that the wonderful ‘Discourse on the Origins of Inequality’ says the same thing; but Rousseau carefully began that essay by claiming that what he was offering was not an account of the way humanity had developed from its natural harmless condition, in which it was all but indistinguishable from the orang-utan, into the over-civilised and self-destructive creatures one could see in the streets of Paris; all he was offering was an account of the way humanity might have developed, if the process had been a wholly natural one.

To the 20th-century eye the importance of Rousseau’s denial of Original Sin is both sociological and rhetorical. Sociologically speaking, it roots human unhappiness in social disorganisation, and therefore shuts out of consideration explanations founded in some deep human incapacity for rational behaviour or mutual concern. To that extent, Rousseau made the opposition between our human nature and the culture by which we shape that nature rather less acute than Freud did later in Civilisation and Its Discontents, although in other respects, the ‘Discourse on the Origins of Inequality’ contrives to anticipate both the economics of Engels’s Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State and the psychology of Civilisation and Its Discontents. The essay’s rhetorical power is almost more impressive than its methodological innovations. Once human nature was declared innocent, it followed that a dramatic reconstruction of social and economic relations could, in principle, restore our lost happiness. Rousseau himself was deeply anti-revolutionary. Upheaval of all sorts distressed him, and his political advice was always cautious, reformist and shaped by the particular circumstances he thought he saw before him. But, as de Maistre later complained, once Rousseau allowed people to think that a new, happier society might be created, there was no way in which he could prevent them contemplating the revolutionary changes from which he drew back.

That, however, is very much the view with hindsight. In Rousseau’s own day, it was the affront to orthodox Christian teaching that gave offence. The second volume of Cranston’s biography describes in great detail the long period of negotiation and misunderstanding that led up to the publication of Emile, not from a safe haven in Holland, but in Paris. As if that were not enough, the discussion of civil religion in The Social Contract followed the line taken much earlier by Machiavelli in declaring that Christianity was a terrible foundation for republican politics. Indeed, the chapter on civil religion was calculated to alienate just about everyone. His former allies among the philosophes were outraged that Rousseau should make agnosticism a capital offence and should found his otherwise secular republic on a state-enforced religion. Official opinion was outraged by his declaration that Christianity was suited to prop up tyrannical governments, but not free ones. Rousseau was almost certainly genuinely astonished at the outrage he had provoked, and he had some grounds for that reaction. The infinitely more sceptical Machiavelli had praised the Roman Army because it had summarily executed soldiers who belittled the auguries. They were executed not for a lack of belief but for undermining discipline, and Rousseau no doubt thought his readers could see the point More interestingly, he also felt that the moral principles which gave Christianity its claims on the hearts and intellects of believers in themselves provided a reason for not making Christianity the basis of civil religion. One could not find anything of that motive in Machiavelli, but it was entirely consistent with Rousseau’s uncertainty about whether he wanted to insist on the political uselessness of Christianity or on the value to the suffering heart of the sentiments that Christianity could inspire. But on any reading at all, it suggested that the idea of an established church was intolerable. This was not a thought that would be popular in official circles, either in France or in Geneva – it being for the latter that The Social Contract was intended.

At the time of its publication, Rousseau was living in Montmorency, a little north of Paris; friends warned him that he was about to be arrested, and he fled for what he hoped might be the safety of Switzerland. In his Confessions he records one aspect of his flight with some amusement: ‘Between La Barre and Montmorency I met, in a hired coach, four men dressed in black, who saluted me with a smile. From what Thérèse told me concerning the appearance of the officers, the hour of their arrival, and the manner in which they had behaved, I have always been convinced that they it was whom I had met.’ He had good reason to be relaxed about the encounter; although a warrant for his arrest had indeed been issued, his friends had been assured that no attempt would be made to pursue him if he fled.

Where he was to flee to, however, presented real difficulties. If he tried to return to Geneva, he would not only be almost as vulnerable to the activities of the French authorities as he would have been in Paris, he would be a certain target of the Genevan authorities. In 1762, Switzerland did not exist as a political unit. The different cantons conducted their affairs under a variety of institutional arrangements, and owed allegiance to a variety of other authorities. Initially, Rousseau stayed in Yverdon on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel, at the house of an old friend, Daniel Roguin. Unfortunately, Yverdon was in the Pays du Vaud, and governed from Berne. The Berne senate did not at all like the thought of a troublesome character like Rousseau taking refuge in their territory, and in July 1762, they forbade the publication of Emile and expelled its author. Rousseau wished to settle somewhere not too far away, and eventually determined on the village of Môtiers, which was in the principality of Neuchâtel, and therefore under the authority of Frederick II of Prussia. Whether Frederick knew or cared that Rousseau regarded him as a warmonger and a menace to the well-being of his subjects, is not known. He certainly imposed on Rousseau the conditions one might expect – he was not to publish anything controversial. Rousseau’s case was promoted by the governor of the principality: Lord Keith, a Jacobite exile and friend of David Hume and James Boswell. Rousseau could hardly have been more fortunate in his protector. For Keith was no longer a fiery Catholic enthusiast for lost causes but a good-natured sceptic, who enjoyed Rousseau’s company, and was not unduly put out by his suspicious and petulant outbursts.

Even so, Keith’s task was not easy. Once Rousseau published The Social Contract and Emile, it was impossible that the former would not be seized on by all parties to the acrimonious politics of Geneva, and the latter by anyone and everyone who wanted to make Rousseau’s life difficult, or who wished to discredit his political followers by impugning his religious opinions. Rousseau was more than a little ambivalent about the resulting fuss. He had been genuinely hurt when the parlement of Paris had declared Emile to be blasphemous, and an assault on good morals; and he was quite right to be distressed, since the accusation was absurd. When the Petit Conseil of Geneva – the oligarchic ruling body whose legitimacy The Social Contract had impugned – ordered his books to be burned, Rousseau can have had less ground for surprise, though plenty of reason to feel indignant.

As to what to do, there was no clear answer. Geneva, as Rousseau well knew, existed only by sufferance of the French; not only was its independence as a self-governing community preserved only because the French authorities would have resisted any takeover by another power, but its independence was limited by the French government’s understanding of when the affairs of Geneva might threaten disorder within France. In the event, Rousseau found himself conducting rather awkward negotiations with the leaders of the opponents of the oligarchy, because he neither wanted to be implicated in revolutionary upheaval, nor to threaten his own peace at Môtiers. As it was, he had his work cut out. In order to secure his position, he attended the local church and took communion, made friends with the pastor, and published the sort of exaggerated declaration of his loyalty to the church that threw his liberal friends into despair, while doing little or nothing to conciliate his enemies.

Cranston’s account of the detailed to-ings and fro-ings of this phase of Rousseau’s life is as clear, judicious and informed as could be wished. Nonetheless, it gives one a strong sense of just why Rousseau himself should have felt constantly on the verge of death – not because he was particularly ill, in spite of the constant pain and embarrassment of the urinary infection that had plagued him for twenty years, but because he was in exile, far from the heart of things, too far from his friends, and too old to start on a new life. The paranoia that had cost him many of his former friends made relations as difficult as ever in Môtiers. And those of them who had turned against him did not slacken in their unkindness. Voltaire in particular never missed an opportunity to blacken Rousseau’s name, and in 1765 struck a mortal blow when he revealed that Rousseau and his gouvernante, Thérèse Levasseur, had had five children whom Rousseau had ‘exposed at the gates of an orphanage’. Strangely enough, Rousseau never suspected that ‘Le Sentiment des citoyens’ had been written by Voltaire. It purported to come from the pen of a Genevan pastor, and so effectively did Voltaire imitate the crabbed style of the local Calvinist clerics that Rousseau was entirely taken in. But, as Cranston says, ‘From the day on which he received and read this pamphlet, 31 December 1765, Rousseau’s capacity for clear judgment faltered.’ Even the most paranoid may sometimes be right to believe they are suffering unjust persecution; but the effect of being right is almost sure to be to make them entertain even wilder suspicions.

By this time, Rousseau had worn out his welcome at Môtiers, and had accepted Hume’s offer to help him find a refuge in England. The tragi-comedy that ensued marked the beginning of the end for Rousseau’s failing grasp of what other people were thinking or doing. Initially all went well; Hume’s usual caution was dissolved by the warmth of Rousseau’s gratitude, and Rousseau was briefly exquisitely happy with Wootton Hall in Staffordshire, rented to him by Richard Davenport for a pittance. Then he took it into his head that Hume was mocking him behind his back; he also decided that Hume had been subsidising his stay in England, and of all the things calculated to render Rousseau entirely irrational, trying to help him financially was the worst. Hume concluded that the best thing for his erstwhile friend was to be put away in a quiet place under ‘a discreet keeper’.

Three more years of disorganised movement from one place to another followed. These wandering years were both sad and preposterous. Rousseau travelled under an assumed name – M. Renou – and did so without molestation, because he was under the protection of the Prince de Conti. Since this arrangement was at any rate semi-official, the Prince was in a way Rousseau’s ‘discreet keeper’, as well as his friend. In 1770, the French authorities agreed that Rousseau could live quietly in Paris, and that if he caused no uproar, they would leave him in peace. He kept his side of the bargain; they kept theirs, and in 1778 he died quite suddenly of a stroke in the village of Erm-enonville some thirty miles from Paris. He was buried on the Ile des Peupliers nearby; during the Revolution, he was reinterred in the Panthéon alongside his old enemy Voltaire, where he remains.

Just before those last years, Rousseau wrote another bombshell of a book. His Confessions invented the modern form of autobiography. Once Rousseau had written a work in which self-revelation, self-justification and the edification of the reader were so thoroughly intermingled, the temptation to do it again was irresistible – and where resisted, it was resisted for a purpose, as in John Stuart Mill’s wilfully bleak and un-revealing Autobiography. It had an obvious ancestor in Augustine’s Confessions, but it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the modern personality is almost defined by Rousseau’s work, and that the difference between us and our forbears can be read in the contrast between it and its precursors. Like everything else that Rousseau wrote, the Confessions struck different readers very differently, and still does; those who dislike the sensation of being accosted by perfect strangers who want to assure you that they have betrayed all their friends, abandoned their children and yet remained pure at heart, usually dislike the book a good deal. Those who can overcome such feelings are usually intrigued and more often engrossed.

Rousseau’s personality remains somewhat mysterious even at the end of this plain, austere Life. The familiar contrasts remain visible enough, but what one should say about them is rather obscure. Cranston speculates that Rousseau may have been one of those people who have an oddly weak sense of the consequences of their actions. On that view, even his taking up with the illiterate Thérèse Levasseur and producing five children whom he then placed in an orphanage is not the behaviour of a monster but in its own way innocent. Such an interpretation has to be handled rather delicately, for Rousseau himself first tried to hide the facts and eventually tried to justify his behaviour as having been for the benefit of the infants themselves. And, fascinating though Rousseau’s inner life undoubtedly is, a great deal of what he wrote was not in the least coloured by the peculiarities of his psyche. Kant, after all, described Rousseau as the Newton of the moral world, and Kant was not lightly moved to such praise.

The central thought of The Social Contract is one to which the modern world is deeply attached: governments are legitimate only when they achieve the rule of law, when citizens are treated as free and equal members of a common enterprise, when governments pursue a common good that all citizens can identify with. His insistence that some forms of government cannot work in large countries, that it is hard and perhaps impossible to combine the austere and self-sacrificing virtues of the city-states of antiquity with the taste for private happiness of the modern world was right, and was better understood after the French Revolution than it had been before. And once he had written his ‘Discourse on the Origins of Inequality’, it became impossible to write seriously about politics in other than a historical and evolutionary framework, and impossible to write about either private or public life without an acute sense of their interaction. We may today be much more cautious about laying the French Revolution at Rousseau’s door than critics such as Burke and de Maistre were; but it is hard to think what our political, literary, sexual and religious imaginations would have been like without him.