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Reflections on the tercentenary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

November 2012 | by Richard Pierard

In this article, Richard V. Pierard, Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana State University and Gordon College, explores the seminal thinking of Rousseau.

Three hundred years ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most complicated and enigmatic figures of the eighteenth century, arrived on the scene. Born on 28 June 1712 in Geneva to Isaac Rousseau and Suzanne Bernard, both citizens of the city, he was six days later baptised into the Calvinist faith.
    His mother died when he was ten days old and he was raised by his father. The latter’s financial position eventually deteriorated and he was forced to leave town in 1722. After remarrying four years later, the father placed the son in the care of an uncle in Geneva who apprenticed him to an engraver. The relationship was not good and they soon separated.
    Jean-Jacques then met a Roman Catholic priest who introduced him to an older woman as a possible Catholic convert. He turned to Catholicism and seriously considered studying for the priesthood, an idea that soon passed.
    Still, for a few years he lived with her and continued his self-taught studies. He published a few minor pieces and was employed as tutor for a well-connected family.

Paris

In 1742, Jean-Jacques went to Paris to seek his fortune and find friends among the rising intelligentsia. For a year he worked as a secretary for the French ambassador in Venice and then returned to Paris, where he dedicated his efforts to works on music.
    In 1745, he established a common-law relationship with Thérèse Levasseur, who bore him five children, all of whom were abandoned to foundling homes. Only in 1768 did they finally marry.
    Rousseau became personally connected with important figures of the French Enlightenment, especially Denis Diderot, compiler of the famous Encyclopaedia.
    In the next few years he penned his most important works, mainly on various ‘moral’ issues — The first discourse on the sciences and the arts (1750), A discourse on the origin of inequality (1755), A discourse on political economy (1755), the novel Julie, or the new Héloïse (1761), the educational classic Émile (1762), and The social contract (1762) — along with some minor pieces.
    In 1754 he returned to Geneva, reclaimed his citizenship there and was readmitted to the Protestant church, but this renewed relationship amounted to nothing.
    Rousseau’s works came under such attack that he left Switzerland to avoid arrest and imprisonment, angrily resigning his Genevan citizenship. David Hume then arranged refuge for him in England (1766). Within a year, the two had a falling-out and Rousseau returned to France.

Unbalanced

During his last years in Paris, Rousseau worked on the Confessions (completed 1770; published posthumously) and a variety of other literary and musical efforts. By then the French regime had lost interest in him.
    Although a popular writer, he was clearly mentally unbalanced, as illustrated by his attempt to place the recently completed manuscript of his Dialogues on the high altar of the Church of Notre Dame — but the gates to it were barred.
    Forgotten and ignored, he died on 2 July 1778 after a short illness. During the French Revolution, however, he was regarded as a hero and in 1794 his ashes were interred in the Pantheon.
    A popular political cliché of the time was that the second edition of The social contract was bound in the hides of the aristocrats who did not read the first edition.
    He left a large legacy of letters. The modern edition (1965-89) of his complete correspondence runs to 49 volumes. His collected works in French (1959-95) comes to five volumes and in English (Collected writings, 1990-97) six volumes.
    One may easily feel swamped by this output, which, Timothy O’Hagan estimates, fills over 60,000 pages. His contribution to so many fields of knowledge is breathtaking and a brief essay can only mention these — political theory, educational thought, human psychology, social pathology, musicology, linguistic theory, literary expression, the role of women in society and botanical observations.

Religion

Rousseau talks repeatedly about religion in his many and often conflicting autobiographical accounts, but his insights are few. It is the one element of his life that is universally criticised.
    He claims he grew up in a family where morality and piety reigned, and received from his early years principles and prejudices that stayed with him. Yet, he did not subscribe to the radical deism of the Enlightenment, and had a deep hatred of atheism, materialism and determinism.
    He advocated a simple theism, based on belief in a divine order, individual free will and a personal encounter with a beneficent, sustaining and consoling deity.
    He affirmed that he had a religion and proudly declared: ‘I am a Christian, according to the doctrine of the Gospels. I am a Christian, not as a disciple of priests, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ’ (Letter to de Beaumont, 1763).
    He maintained the following ideas. The Gospels provide revealed truth to the heart of the individual, who then uses conscience and reason to recognise it; no man per se stands between him and God. There is no such thing as original sin, but people are corrupted by men.
    Man is naturally good, but is brought down by the contradictions of the social system. The drive to self-preservation becomes ever more antisocial and exploitive, as it is channelled through non-egalitarian social relations.
    Providence operates at the level of the whole, the universal, not the individual. God rules impersonally through the ‘empire of the laws’; particular events have no significance in the eyes of the Master of the universe.
    God rules over a rationally ordered domain and he would not make piecemeal departures from the laws of nature to enable particular miracles to take place. He would not respond to particular requests from those who pray to him.
    It is incompatible with God’s dignity to interfere with his own law-governed universe. Prayer for Rousseau is engaging in conversation with an omnipotent sovereign who ordains rational laws; his subjects freely participate by identifying their individual selves with God’s sovereign, rational will.
    It goes without saying that such perverse views deviate widely from orthodox Christianity.

General will

The social contract (1762) is generally regarded as Rousseau’s greatest literary achievement and is a classic text of political theory.
    Book I opens with the jarring statement: ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’, and then identifies the proper basis for a civil society and its main characteristics.
    Book II treats the functions of and conditions necessary for establishing an effective sovereign body. Book III deals with government, its place in the state, and its powers and limits. Book IV discusses additional matters relating to the format and organisation of a just society.
    Rousseau wrestles with how and why humans will want to institute rightful authority. He argues that material need makes human association necessary and people must ‘aggregate’ so they can act together.
    The problem is to find a way of associating that will defend the person and goods of each associate, while allowing them to remain as free as before. The ‘social contract’ provides the solution.
    In this contract each member transfers all his force and rights to the whole community, and thereby puts his person and powers in common under the supreme direction of the ‘general will’.
    This creates a corporate body, like a city or republic. Each adult member (citizen) shares in the sovereign authority of this body (state) and is subject to its laws. This constitutes the ‘general will’ — it comes from all and applies to all.

Terror

When the people exercise this sovereignty, it expresses the general will. But if some individual adamantly refuses to accept an action of the sovereign, he may be coerced to conform. As Rousseau puts it: ‘Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body . . . [H]e will be forced to be free’.
    This statement formed the basis for the Terror in the French Revolution and it is the foundational principle of modern totalitarian dictatorship.
    Rousseau also clearly articulated the concept of ‘civil religion’. In Book IV chapter 8 of The social contract, he spelled out the place of religious beliefs and institutions in a civil society.
    He contended that an individual who does not believe in the articles of the ‘civil profession of faith’ is to be banished, and that he who publicly recognises these dogmas but then behaves ‘as if he did not believe them’ may be put to death.
    Yet the civil religion will have only one negative dogma — prohibiting intolerance. His concern is the need to consolidate and perpetuate the bonds of union between all members of the civil society, so that they will bear with each other in mutual respect, care and support.
    Violation of the civil faith is not impiety as such, but harmful anti-social behaviour. The upshot of this is making religious belief an aspect of the general will.
    Today we call this patriotism, the idolatry of the state.

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