Absolved From Being Good-Mannered: The Romantic Totalitarianism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In her 1910 publication, Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment, Ellen H Richards wrote that,

The control of man’s environment for his own good as a function of government is a comparatively new idea in republican democracy. . . . It is part of the urban trend that the will of the man, of the head of the family, should be superseded by that of the community, city, state, nation. . . . In the social republic, the child as a future citizen is an asset of the state, not the property of its parents. Hence its welfare is a direct concern of the state.

Richards’ idea was a simple one: children do not belong to their parents, but are the property of that Great Parent known as the State.

The idea that parents should stop thinking of their children as belonging to them was echoed more recently in 1996, when Hillary Clinton addressed the United Methodist General Conference. “As adults,” she said, “we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child. My child, your child, all children everywhere, must live and make their ways in society, and now, in the increasingly shrinking world we live in, in the larger globe as well.”

Such ideas are not limited to the United States. In 2007, the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research put forward a proposal for increasing “identity, citizenship and community cohesion” in Britain. The report urged christening services to be replaced by “birth ceremonies” in which the parents agree to “work in partnership” with the state to raise their children.

The idea that we should think of the state as a parent is actually nothing new and is as old as sin itself. When the emperor Diocletian published his Edict of 301, mandating the persecution of Christians, he justified the move by referring to himself and his associates as “the watchful parents of the whole human race.” Similar examples of rulers ascribing to themselves parental privileges abound throughout the history of the ancient world.

But while the idea of the parental state may be nothing new, its modern manifestation can be traced back to one notorious French villain: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau and the Enlightenment

Jean-Jacques (1712 –1778) was the product of the European Enlightenment – a movement which sought to release Western society from its Christian foundations and replace it with secular humanism. Philosophers like Voltaire (1694–1778), Denis Diderot (1713–1784), and David Hume (1711–1776) championed the virtues of autonomous reason while denouncing the legacy of institutional Christianity.

The Enlightenment movement was also Utopian. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, many Enlightenment writers eagerly anticipated the bright future that invention, efficiency and utilitarianism would make possible in a society unhampered by spiritual superstition.

Although Rousseau was a key figure in this movement, he was also one of the Enlightenment’s harshest critics. At the beginning of the 1700s, to be “enlightened” meant that you were a rationalist in the broader sense of the term: that is, you ordered your life according to the dictates of reason, and you looked back to the order, poise and elegance of the classical world for inspiration. The perfectly balanced couplets of Alexander Pope’s poetry or the idealized portraiture of Joshua Reynolds’ paintings embodied this early Enlightenment emphasis. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century, being “enlightened” came to be associated not so much with classical Greece and Rome, but with the new savage societies that were being discovered by explorers like Captain Cook. The “good life” gradually began to be associated less with reason than with feeling, less with the mind and more with the heart, less with order and more with disorder, asymmetry and flux. The full impact of this metamorphosis would not be seen until the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, though the rumblings of this change were felt in the late 1700’s in the changes in landscape architecture, the paintings of William Turner, or the neo-pagan spirituality of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (1791).

Rousseau was a key link in the chain of this fascinating shift. He bridges the gap between the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the Romantic movement of the nineteenth, even as Beethoven’s music bridged the gap between the classical order of Mozart and the romantic expressiveness of Chopin.

One of the ways Rousseau did this was through a heightened emphasis on feeling. Instead of appealing to first principles of reason as philosophers like Hume were doing, he appealed to the “internal sentiment,” constantly telling his readers to “consult your own hearts while I speak: that is all I ask.”

This shift from reason to feelings can be traced to the exact center of the eighteenth century. In 1750 when Rousseau was thirty-nine, he entered an essay competition on “Whether the rebirth of the sciences and the arts has contributed to the improvement of morals.” He argued that they did not. He contended that the progress of the civilized world, as epitomized in the rise of arts and sciences, had been moving mankind farther away from his natural condition. The uncivilized, primitive condition is actually morally superior, since to be “civilized” is to be a slave. By creating “more refined taste” and the uniformity demanded by “politeness” and “propriety,” civilization results in “people follow[ing] customary usage, never their own inclinations. One does not dare to appear as what one is.” The solution, Rousseau argued, was a return to habits “rustic but natural.” His prayer is “Almighty God . . . deliver us from the fatal arts and sciences of our forefathers, give us back ignorance, innocence and poverty which alone can make us happy.”

Rousseau won the prize and was immediately catapulted into his career as one of the most distinguished intellectuals in France. Through his writings he began to shift the focus of the entire Enlightenment movement away from civilization onto “nature,” away from urban sophistication onto rustic simplicity. A new cult of being natural was about to emerge, with the artist rather than the logician as the principle guru.

No Ordinary Man

How could Rousseau know that his feelings were a reliable guide to truth? The answer seems to be that his feelings were self-evidently correct because they were his. If this seems like an arbitrary, even arrogant, valuation on his part, the answer is that Rousseau believed that he was no ordinary person. “I am not made like anyone I have been acquainted with,” he remarked in the beginning of his tedious autobiography, “perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature has acted rightly or wrongly in destroying the mold in which she cast me, can only be decided after I have been read.” Elsewhere in the book he mused: “My situation is unique, unheard of since the beginning of time and, I am sure, never to be paralleled.”

But just how was Rousseau so unique? One of the areas he believed he differed from everyone else was in the uprightness of his character. He once wrote, “Never have I known the hateful passions, never did jealousy, wickedness, vengeance enter my heart . . . anger occasionally but I am never crafty and never bear a grudge.” Rousseau apparently achieved this virtuous condition through his great love for himself and for mankind. “I love myself too much to hate anybody,” he once noted.

Those who had the misfortune of living in close proximity to him may well have doubted the veracity of Rousseau’s self-assessment. The hateful passions did seem to come quite naturally to this embittered Frenchmen who believed that life owed him something. Those who tried to help him, including those who gave him money, learned the lesson only too quickly. The verdict of his former friend and philosopher, David Hume, was a typical reaction of those who spent extended time with him. Hume contended that Rousseau was “a monster who saw himself as the only important being in the universe.”

Rousseau knew there were people out there who thought of him in this way, but he assures his readers that only lack of enlightenment could cause people to think ill of such a worthy and noble character as he. “If there were a single enlightened government in Europe,” he once remarked, “it would have erected statues to me.” Rousseau looked to posterity for the adulation to which he felt himself entitled, and proclaimed the day would come when “It will then be no empty honor to have been a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”

Since Rousseau represented all that was best in the human race, anyone who took offence at him inadvertently made himself an enemy of mankind in the process. And there were many who did take offence at him; not surprising, considering that he was stingy with money, autocratic, and a hypochondriac, to say nothing of being excessively quarrelsome, calcula­ting, self-pitying beyond the bounds of sanity, and egotistical almost to the point of madness.

Rousseau was also a grumbler, but not in the ordinary sense. He attached dramatic significance to his physical discomforts, and this gave him the notion that life owed him special treatment. “As a sick man I have a right to the indulgence humanity owes to those who are in pain,” he once remarked. And again: “I am poor and it seems to me that on this account too I merit special consideration.”

Rousseau was also tremendously lazy. It is true that in the first half of his life he tried his hand at a number of honest professions, but he failed at almost every one. According to the French Ambassador in Venice, the Comte de Montaigu, this was due to his “vile disposition,” his “unspeakable insolence,” and his “high opinion of himself.” However, like Socrates before him and Ralph Waldo Emerson after him, Rousseau believed he was above doing ordinary labor. He once said, “my idea of happiness is . . . never to have to do anything I don’t wish to do.” After winning the essay contest, Rousseau was finally able to attain his ideal. Because of his writings, he was in popular demand among the wealthy intellectual elite, many of whom gave him generous support. He had a particular attraction to forming relationships with women who were independently wealthy.

Although constantly in debt to his many aristocratic benefactors, Rousseau never reciprocated their generosity. Possessing what he termed, “a certain resentment against the rich and successful as if their wealth and happiness had been gained at my expense,” he was deliberately rude to those who patronized him, possessing an incredible knack for so manipulating circumstances that his benefactors felt indebted to him. He remarked that “friendship does not reckon services and the one who has loved the most is the real benefactor.” Since it was axiomatic to Rousseau that he always exercised the most love, it followed that he was always the real benefactor. It is doubtful, however, if Rousseau ever felt any love that was disinterested, as he seems to have valued all his friendships only by what he could get out of them for himself. He admitted as much, saying, “I want to love my friends for the pleasure I get out of doing so . . . the moment they demand gratitude for services rendered . . . pleasure vanished.” Rousseau believed he was doing his benefactors a favor by displaying ingratitude, thus signifying that they were the recipients of his friendship, and “gratitude and friendship cannot coexist in my heart.”

Being himself untrustworthy, Rousseau trusted no one, ever convinced that conspiracies against him were in the works. On one occasion when he was in England, visiting Hume, he came to believe that the Scottish philosopher was plotting his downfall, in league with dozens of assistants. Hume’s guilt had been established beyond any reasonable doubt one evening after Rousseau had jumped on Hume’s knee and bathed his host’s face in kisses and tears. (Rousseau conceived friendship as a reciprocal “unburdening” of “loving hearts,” accompanied by “delight of weeping together.”) When the stoical Hume responded with less than adequate gush, Rousseau took this as proof of his treachery. At the height of these delusions Rousseau wrote to Lord Camden, the Lord Chancellor of England, asking for his help against this imagined conspiracy.

“Rude on Principle”

Not only was Rousseau unapologetic for his abominable behavior, but he had a knack for being able to convert his vices into virtues. His rudeness was sanctified by an appeal to the cult of Nature and the revolt against convention that was becoming a feature of high French society. “I have things in my heart which absolve me from being good-mannered,” he once said.

Putting into practice what he had written for the essay contest, Rousseau dared to appear as he really was. “My sentiments are such that they must not be disguised. They dispense me from being polite.” He thus took great pride in being “uncouth, unpleasant and rude on principle” and once remarked with satisfaction, “I am a barbarian.”

Rousseau said that “Even the most trifling social duties are unbearable to me” and decided instead “to adopt manners of my own.” We may well question if Rousseau had any manners at all when he began to display before polite French society the details of his toilet problems. Indeed, his biographical Confessions do not hide the disastrous results of not being able to find somewhere to urinate while in the company of high-society ladies. “In short,” he confessed, “I can urinate only in full view of everybody and on some noble white-stockinged leg.”

One might think that such candor would have damaged Rousseau’s reputation. In fact, it did the opposite. It helped to solidify the impression that he was a what-you-see-is-what­-you-get type of guy. Rousseau seemed never to practice subterfuge nor to possess multiple layers to his personality. He was prepared to reveal everything about himself – including painfully embarrassing truths – even though it might cause others to think ill of him. Everything about the man seemed to be on the surface. This forthrightness engendered Rousseau to his audience, especially women. His contemporaries testified that there was something endearing about him when he told his “story.” All his words seemed to be bathed in an air of candor, and he exuded a childlike simplicity and innocence – a genuineness that drew people to him on the first meeting.

Those who got to know Rousseau a little better learned that this transparent guilelessness was a façade. Behind the air of childlike spontaneity lay an exceptionally calculating and deceptive mind. Behind the exterior of false humility was one of the greatest egotists that ever existed. Behind the smokescreen of truthfulness lurked a man willing to manipulate, twist, and distort the truth as part of the publicity stunt that was his life. It is even possible that many of the apparently damaging admissions in his Confessions were fabricated in order to create the impression of a man who had nothing to hide.[1] When he began to stage seventeen-hour long readings of his Confessions in the fashionable houses, there were many who could contradict the veracity of his accounts. His response: “[whoever] examines with his own eyes my nature, my character, morals, inclinations, pleasures, habits, and can believe me to be a dishonest man, is himself a man who deserves to be strangled.”

Many of his contemporaries, and an astonishing number of his subsequent devotees, have taken Rousseau’s self-assessment at face value. He had and continues to have an uncanny ability to persuade people that he was honest merely because he was frank; to convince them he was inwardly sincere only because he acted outwardly naïve; to deceive others about his character because he first managed to deceive himself.

Mankind’s Best Friend

Rousseau did not believe in original sin, but held that man is inherently good. But although we are born in a condition of innocence, we quickly fall when exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization. As Rousseau put it in the famous opening line of The Social Contract, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”

If the corrupting influences of society constitute the fall of man, redemption lay in escaping the corrupting influences of society through being “natural.” Yet when Rousseau wrote his parenting manual, Emile, to show what a return to nature looked like, it is hardly anything resembling an uncivilized primitivism. It is true that Rousseau advocated vegetarianism, cold baths, loose clothing, and breast feeding, but in many respects the Utopian upbringing he gives to the fictional Emile is not unlike that given to the children of rich Frenchmen in the eighteenth century. Rousseau simply picks and chooses which aspects of society he likes and calls these “natural,” while those aspects of society he doesn’t fancy are dismissed as “unnatural.”

But how was Rousseau himself able to escape the widespread corrupting influences of society in order to become a reliable guide to others? What gave him the right to pontificate what was natural and what was not? The answer could have something to do with the fact that Rousseau considered himself a reliable guide because of the special relationship he harbored with mankind. He was a kind of steward of humanity, carefully nurturing mankind to maturity even when the human race, like a spoiled child, was prone to turn on its guardian. Yet to the end he remained mankind’s best friend, a prophet of the brotherly love that spontaneously overflowed from his bosom towards the human race. As Rousseau himself put it, “I was born to be the best friend that has ever existed . . . I have a very loving heart. . . . The person who could love me as I can love is still to be born. . . . Show me a better man than me, a heart more loving, more tender, more sensitive, more captivated by the delights of friendship, more susceptible to the good and the beautiful.” Elsewhere he writes, “If my soul were not immortal God would be unjust.” “I would leave this life with apprehension if I knew a better man than me.” “Posterity will honor me . . . because it is my due.” “I rejoice in myself.” “[M]y consolation lies in my self-esteem.” “[I]f there were a single enlightened government in Europe, it would have erected statues to me.”

Had Rousseau spared even a fraction of his love for mankind for those real people nearest him, then the course of his life might have been very different. Although he presents himself as one who reveled in the company of children, eyewitness accounts show that he was mean-spirited toward them. His greatest malice, cruelty and heartlessness was reserved for his own offspring. His mistress Thérèse bore five children. In each case Rousseau insisted that they be sent, unnamed, to almost certain death at Paris’s dreaded Foundling Hospital. (With over 5,000 abandoned infants to care for every year, it is not surprising that two thirds of the babies in the hospital died within the first year. Only 14 out of 100 even made it to the age of seven. Those who did survive had to eke out a miserable existence on the street.)

What could have possessed Rousseau to abandon his children to such a fate? He later reflected that the children would have been “an inconvenience,” and that to support them he would have had to stoop to a labor beneath his dignity, including “all those infamous acts which fill me with such justified horror.” In short, the great Rousseau was not a man to change dirty diapers.

Rousseau expected his readers to instinctively understand the predicament that children would have created for him. “How could I achieve the tranquility of mind necessary for my work,” he asks, “my garret filled with domestic cares and the noise of children?” The irony, of course, is that among the “work” he refers to was the writing of his parenting manual, Emile. The needs of real children would have interfered with Rousseau’s ability to set himself up as the greatest parenting guru of all time. Even so, he shows no hesitation in assuring his readers that he would have made a splendid father, given his great love for mankind:

[M]y ardent love of the great, the true, the beautiful and the just; my horror of evil of every kind, my utter inability to hate or injure or even to think of it; the sweet and lively emotion which I feel at the sight of all that is virtuous, generous and amiable; is it possible, I ask, that all these can ever agree in the same heart with the depravity which, without the least scruple, tramples underfoot the sweetest of obligations? No! I feel, and loudly assert – it is impossible! Never, for a single moment in his life, could Jean-Jacques have been a man without feeling, without compassion, or an unnatural father.

“Forced to be Free”

In Emile, Rousseau shows how to produce the perfect person by tinkering with the child’s external environment. Where he becomes really dangerous is when he attempts to apply this Utopian principle on a larger scale. Just as the problems faced by the individual find their solution in the perfect upbringing, so the solutions faced by mankind as a whole find their solution in the perfect State. This was the basis of his political tract, The Social Contract.

Rousseau was as gifted a polemicist as he was a self-publicist, but clarity was not among his virtues. Given the fact that he contradicted himself many times, an entire Rousseau industry has developed around the question of what he actually meant in The Social Contract. Despite its incoherence, however, certain tenets of his political thought remain clear. The first of these is that private property is among the first curses of “civilization,” contributing to our alienation from “nature.” As Rousseau put it in his A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying “This is mine” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders; how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes and filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Beware of listening to this impostor. You are lost if you forget the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and that the earth itself belongs to no one.”

Rousseau’s antipathy to private property would reach such a pitch of fanaticism that three years before his death he denied the legitimacy of commerce, writing, “I am so fully convinced that any system of commerce is destructive to agriculture that I do not even make an exception for trade in agricultural products.” Just as no one could ultimately claim ownership over something, so no man has a natural authority over his fellows. The only legitimate authority comes when people consent voluntarily to be governed. This is the basic view of government outlined in The Social Contract: all legitimate authority exists by the will of the people.

Delving deeper, however, it becomes evident that Rousseau is saying a lot more than merely the fact that rulers govern with the consent of the people. The General Will of the people not only gives to rulers the mandate to govern: the General Will is also the ultimate source of freedom and moral values. It is also the ultimate proprietor of all property. Rousseau could thus remark that “the right of any individual over his own estate is always subordinate to the right of the community over everything . . . .”

If this seems like an inordinate amount of power being invested in the civil community, Rousseau assures his readers that we need have no fear, for the General Will that controls the State can never err: “the general will is always rightful and always tends to the public good. . . .” The speculative Rousseau, who had the luxury of being able to define his terms independent of concrete reality, simply made the General Will infallible by definition.

How is the General Will mediated to society? It is when we ask this question that the totalitarian implications of Rousseau’s theory start to really become apparent. In short, the General Will is forced upon the people through the political machinery of the State. Since the State is a mirror of what the people really want, “the laws are but registers of what we ourselves desire.” While Rousseau provides no signs by which the General Will can be correctly identified, nor the specific mechanisms for government by which it can be preserved, he does assume that rulers at the helm of the State will always know what the people really want – that is, what is really in the public’s best interest. The result is not democracy, but its opposite, since the multitudes cannot be trusted to understand what they really want. “Left to themselves,” he wrote, “the People always desire the good, but, left to themselves, they do not always know where that good lies. The general will is always right, but the judgment guiding it is not always well informed. It must be made to see things as they are, sometimes as they ought to appear to them.”

What from a distance looks like a democratic government run by the people appears, upon closer inspection, to be a form of oligarchy or dictatorship run ostensibly in the name of the people. Yet it is in name only, for when my opinion conflicts with what the rulers determine is in the best interest for me then, “if my particular opinion had carried the day I should have achieved the opposite of what was in my will and I should not therefore have been free.”

It is here that Rousseau’s Utopia becomes quite rather spooky. The State can force us to be free even if we think freedom looks very different, and even if “freedom” must be forced on us at the point of the sword. As Rousseau puts it, “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free. . . .”

Forced to be free? What might this mean in practice? In principle it could mean anything the ruler chooses to do is automatically just: “For the rulers well know that the general will is always on the side which is most favorable to the public interest, that is to say, the most equitable; so that it is needful only to act justly to be certain of following the general will.”

The problem, of course, is that an infallible State is one that can aspire to omnipotence. Such a State might demand that its citizens surrender to it their individuality, property and lives, which is exactly what Rousseau urges: “Each one of us puts into the community his person and all his powers under the supreme direction of the general will; and as a body, we incorporate every member as an indivisible part of the whole.” Moreover, since individual liberties are always defined in terms of what benefits the whole, the State has the right to dispose of individual members when it deems that it is necessary:

If the state, or the nation, is nothing other than an artificial person the life of which consists in the union of its members and if the most important of its cares is its preservation, it needs to have a universal and compelling power to move and dispose of each part in whatever manner is beneficial to the whole.

The State as Parent

One legitimate interpretation of his political theory is that Rousseau, who never had a good relationship with his own parents, had an inner need to ascribe parental characteristics to the State. In a document he wrote for a proposed reformation of Poland, he spoke about the Fatherland in explicitly parental terms: “When first he opens his eyes, an infant ought to see the fatherland, and up to the day of his death he ought never to see anything else. Every true republican has drunk in love of country . . . along with his mother’s milk. This love is his whole existence . . . when he has ceased to have a fatherland, he no longer exists; and if he is not dead, he is worse than dead.”

As this quote seems to suggest, Rousseau looks to the State as the supreme Parent – one who has a right to the earth and the fullness thereof. Rousseau’s State gives us life and nurtures us to maturity in her bosom. We owe our very existence to her, and for this very reason we must be willing to surrender to her our property and our lives at a moment’s notice:

Now, as citizen, no man is judge any longer of the danger to which the law requires him to expose himself, and when the prince says to him: “it is expedient for the state that you should die,” then he should die . . . his life is no longer the bounty of nature but a gift he has received conditionally from the state.

As these words suggest, private property does not exist in Rousseau’s ideal State. All properly belongs to Father State: “Every member of the community gives himself to it at the moment it is brought into being just as he is – he himself, with all his recourses, including all his goods.” And again, “For being nothing except by it, they will be nothing except for it. It will have all they have and will be all they are.”

Rousseau came close to applying this dangerous idea in the real world in 1765, when he had the opportunity to write a proposed constitution for the island of Corsica. Had Corsica adopted Rousseau’s proposals, the people would have been subjected to an early form of communism. “Far from wanting the state to be poor,” wrote Rousseau in the draft constitution, “I should like, on the contrary, for it to own everything, and for each individual to share in the common property only in proportion to his services.” The document has the Corsicans saying, “I join myself, body, goods, will and all my powers, to the Corsican nation, granting her ownership of me, of myself and all who depend on me. . . .”

Of course, Rousseau had a strong personal incentive to dislike private property, since he spent his life sponging off the property of others. Like Karl Marx, whose tirade against capital grew out of his own envy of those who could support themselves when he could not (or would not), Rousseau’s antipathy for private ownership may be the result of his own inability (and unwillingness) to support himself through honest labor. He developed a vitriolic hatred of those who had more than he, having once confessed to “a certain resentment against the rich and successful, as if their wealth and happiness had been gained at my expense.” By giving all wealth over to his imagined State, Rousseau may have been satiating this resentment and the deep-seated hatred he felt against the wealthy.

See Also

By making the State the all-powerful Parent, Rousseau’s theory set the trajectory for the modern totalitarian movement. When Benito Mussolini famously quipped, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” he was working within the template given by Rousseau, who once wrote, “Everything is at root dependent on politics.” This seems to have included moral values. As the Enlightenment scholar Norman Hampson has observed in discussing Rousseau,

Since obligation did not exist in the state of nature, but was created with society, the community was therefore the source, not merely of law, but of moral values also. There could be no appeal, in the name of the individual conscience, to any standard beyond the collective interests of the society of which he was a member.

The notion that the State as a good parent exerts ultimate ownership over the goods of its children, forms the foundation of the contemporary assumption that the vocation of the State is to create liberty, property and human rights, rather than to preserve the liberty, property and rights which exist independently of it. This distinction is crucial, as it forms the chief difference between the older, classical liberalism and modern liberalism or progressivism.

Ultimately, Rousseau’s State is more than merely a parody of human parents: it is a parody of our Heavenly Father, being fundamentally messianic in nature. Salvation comes as the totalitarian State brings to man the wholeness that he lost through “civilization.” As Rousseau puts it, “Make man one, and you will make him as happy as he can be. Give him all to the State, or leave him all to himself. But if you divide his heart, you tear him in two.”

By giving “all to the State” we receive back from it true happiness and goodness: “they will be one, they will be good, they will be happy, and their happiness will be that of the Republic. . . .”

Rousseau’s Legacy: From the French Revolution to Fascism

Though history is scattered with egotistical people like Rousseau (though admittedly few have sunk to such extremes of narcissism, self-deception and arrogance), what is truly extraordinary is the way Rousseau has been honored by posterity as a paragon of virtue.

Though he abdicated the fathering of his own bastard offspring, Rousseau remains the father of innumerable gurus, ideologues and isms. He is the father of modern introspective biography, of romanticism, of utopian education, of revolution, of socialism, and of modern totalitarianism.

Even in his own day, Rousseau was regarded as something of a secular patriarch. He developed a cult following that continued to grow in the years following his death. His claims about his own moral excellence and wisdom were accepted with such seriousness that by the 1790s the French had practically deified him. In his book, Rousseau: The Self-Made Saint, J.F. Huizinga tells how European intellectuals began flocking to Rousseau’s tomb to do reverence to his memory. One incident Huizinga recounts involved a French curate and a Prussian baron, who began their journey by paying their respects to Rousseau’s tobacco-pouch. One of them records that “my fingers touched this box, my heart trembled, and my soul became purer.” As the pair approached the island where their idol was buried, they were “agitated as Apollo’s highpriestess at the approach of the god’. When they actually arrived on the spot they were ecstatic, and performed a liturgical ritual involving prayers, vows and a burnt sacrifice offered up to Rousseau. The sacrifice consisted in incinerating an essay written by one of Rousseau’s critics, while proclaiming in a loud voice: “we offer this expiatory sacrifice on the tomb of the great man, hanging over to he flames a libel which the lie claims its own and truth disavows…”

What is so astonishing is that the list of those who paid Rousseau super-human reverence reads like a Who’s Who of nineteenth-century literature. In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson presents a smattering of the praise that has been heaped upon him by literary no­tables:

To Kant he had ‛a sensibility of soul of unequalled perfection’. To Shelley he was ‘a sublime genius’. For Schiller he was ‘a Christlike soul for whom only Heaven’s angels are fit company’. John Stuart Mill and Goerge Eliot, Hugo and Flaubert, paid deep homage. Tolstoy said that Rousseau and the Gospel had been ‘the two great and healthy influences of my life’. One of the most influential intellectuals of our own times, Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his principal work, Tristes Tropiques, hails him as ‘our master and our brother . . . every page of this book could have been dedicated to him, had it not been unworthy of his great memory’.

In revolutionary France Rousseau’s ashes became a sacred relic and Edmund Burke noted with disgust that the revolutionaries engaged in great disputes over which one of them best resembled Rousseau. And Robespierre, the architect of the French Revolution’s reign of terror, reflected the public mood when he declared that Rousseau was “one man who, through the loftiness of his soul and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the role of teaching of mankind.”

When Robespierre launched his reign of terror against the people of France, he was able to appeal to the type of collectivism that Rousseau had championed: the good of the whole always trumps the freedom of the individual. As Robespierre put it, “The people is always worth more than individuals. . . . The people is sublime, but individuals are weak . . . .”

It is true that The Social Contract had little direct influence on the initial outbreak of the French revolution, which was launched largely by the illiterate classes. It is also true that Rousseau would likely have disapproved of the way Robespierre and the Jacobins used his ideas to justify terror. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s philosophy did provide the philosophical scaffolding, not only for the reign of terror, but for the nationalistic and centralized states that emerged out of the chaos of revolutionary Europe. He did so by making the story of the modern state the story of man’s redemption. In his book Theopolitical Imagination, William Cavanaugh articulates the main tenants of this story. “The modern state,” he writes, “is founded on certain stories of nature and human nature, the origins of human conflict, and the remedies for such conflict in the enactment of the state itself.”

But it is Rousseau’s indirect relationship to fascism that is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of his legacy. Jonah Goldberg hardly exaggerated when he called Rousseau “the father of modern fascism.” Fascism sprung from the bosom of the neo-primitivism of the late Enlightenment and Romantic movement, even as Marxism was organically connected to the rationalistic ideology of the early Enlightenment.

Following the path charted by Rousseau, the Romantics of the nineteenth century believed that the modern world, epitomized by the industrialism, modernism and scientism of the Enlightenment, had left mankind out of touch with nature and its true feelings. The salvation story they told was one of man finding redemption in a fresh assertion of the self, releasing the basic instincts, emotions and impulses to find true expression. It was this story that the German fascists adopted. During the interwar era, many Germans experienced great angst that they were in danger of losing their folk traditions and of being squeezed into a homogeneous mold. The story the Romantics told about the Self, German fascists began telling about their volk. Echoing Rousseau, fascism sought to restore a sense of transcendence to the post-Enlightenment world, but within a neo-primitive framework. Hitler’s fascination with the occult, Norse mythology, and relics of ancient paganism would never have been tolerated by Enlightenment rationalists or by twentieth-century Marxists, but was welcomed by the spiritually starved and disillusioned society of inter-war Germany.

To stave off this spiritual starvation, Fascism also drew on the idea of the “noble savage” that had been given legitimacy by Rousseau’s attack on civilization. (The term “noble savage” actually originated with Dryden, not Rousseau.) The description that Gene Edward Veith gives for fascists might be equally applied to Rousseau:

“Fascists made a point of distinguishing between culture and civilization. Culture, was organic and ethnic, calling to mind the rural, agrarian life that was close to nature. Civilization, on the other hand, was mechanical and rational, calling to mind the city with its machines and its alienation. Culture was good; civilization was bad. Culture created a sense of ethnic identity. . . . Fascists sought to undermine the sophisticated rationalism of Western civilization with its Enlightenment politics and its Judeo-Christian values. In its place, they sought to resurrect the more primitive and communal ideals of the pre-Christian Greeks, Romans, and Germanic tribes.” (From Modern Fascism: Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview.)

Fascism also echoed Rousseau’s communitarianism with its emphasis that the individuals are expendable in order to serve the goals of the whole. The following statement from the 1920 Nazi Party Platform sounds as though it could have been lifted directly out of The Social Contract: “The first obligation of every citizen must be to work both spiritually and physically. The activity of individuals is not to counteract the interests of the universality, but must have its result within the framework of the whole for the benefit of all.”

The French Revolution and Fascism are long gone, but unfortunately Rousseau’s legacy is not. His writings provide the ideological gloss for romanticizing the primitive, and demonizing the civilized – both of which have become salient features of our age. The cult of being “natural” that found expression in the “free love” movement, the antagonism to Western civilization that came to fruition in the Frankfurt movement, and the quest for “the noble savage” that has energized everything from nudist colonies to neo-paganism, can all look back to Rousseau as their spiritual progenitor.

The fact that Rousseau has been eulogized by our own society tells us as much about ourselves and the approach to civil government that we have implicitly assumed.

Lessons From the Life of Rousseau

Some scholars have suggested that one of the reasons Rousseau may have been motivated to describe the State in parental terms is because it helped palliate the guilt he felt for handing his five children over to the state-sponsored workhouse. Though he sometimes refers to the decision as wrong, he also notes that he was actually doing his babies a service. He goes so far as to say, “If only I could have had the same good fortune.” Elsewhere he defended his actions by musing, “I thought I was performing the act of a citizen and a father and I looked on myself as a member of Plato’s Republic.” As he reflected deeper on this, his thoughts seemed to have taken shape in Emile and Social Contract, which grants to the State the authority of ultimate parent. Thus, we might say with some truth that Rousseau’s abdication of his own fatherhood was the egg out of which the ideology of the modern state was hatched. Paul Johnson has made this important connection, observing that “By a curious chain of infamous moral logic, Rousseau’s iniquity as a parent was linked to his ideological offspring, the future totalitarian state.”

The lesson this teaches us is that those men who have failed to properly manage their own families are often the ones most tempted to fix other people’s problems. As the Apostle Paul told Timothy, those who could not rule their own household should not be trusted with ruling the household of God (1 Timothy 3:5), we should also beware of those who neglect (or in Rousseau’s case, completely abandon) members of their own families in order to solve the world’s problems.

Another lesson we learn from Rousseau is that those who have never learned to be responsible and self-regulate have difficulty conceiving solution to life’s problems apart from the extremes of complete antinomianism, on the one hand, or complete totalitarianism on the other. In Rousseau’s thought we find both these extremes competing for mastery. The arbitrary despotism towards which his theory of government must inevitably lead was born out of his inability to imagine a society in which individuals were self-regulating. (“If government, based on the rule of law, is not possible – and I candidly avow I do not think it is – we must go to the other extreme . . . and establish the most arbitrary despotism conceivable.”)

If this teaches us anything, it is that freedom apart from Christ always leads to bondage. Rousseau and the fascists shared the same schizophrenia of both wanting to free the individual from all external restraints at the same time as attempting to squeeze him into a communal mold; viewing civilization as the problem and seeing it (invested with the appropriate political mechanisms) as the solution; desiring both to liberate human nature and to control it; and striving to escape the slavery of society, while imposing uniformity on it. The contradictory relationship of these extremes is alluded to in 2 Peter 2: 19: “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage”


[1] In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson writes that “The ‘facts’ he so frankly admits often emerge, in the light of modern scholarship, to be inaccurate, distorted or non-existent. This is sometimes clear even from internal evidence. . . . It gradually emerges that no statement in the Confessions can be trusted if unsupported by external evidence. . . . What makes Rousseau’s dishonesty so dangerous – what made his inventions so rightly feared by his ex-friends – was the diabolical skill and brilliance with which they were presented.”

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