3. Loving Oneself Through Others: Progress and Its Contradictions

We resent everyone … who run at our side, who hamper our stride or leave us behind. In clearer terms: all contemporaries are odious.

Emil Cioran

The Affluent Universal Society

In 1736, Voltaire published ‘Le Mondain’, an eloquent ode to the good life, as he boldly and originally conceived it. This philosophical poem heralded nothing less than a moral revolution, one that would change the character of Western culture and eventually the shape of the modern world.

This was a time, after all, when life ideals dating back to the Middle Ages – the classical belief in a golden age, poverty and the pastoral life – were dominant. The pursuit of wealth, let alone its enjoyment, invited odium from civic and religious moralists. Voltaire, however, audaciously dismissed the Christian past as one long night of ignorance, prejudice and deprivation.

He exhorted human beings to look forward to the present and the future. The golden age, he asserted, was where he was, a sensuous utopia where ‘needful superfluous things appear’. He praised the civilizing effects worldwide of trade, material prosperity and consumerism. In fact, Voltaire made a life of luxury and comfort seem a legitimate, even necessary, political and economic goal, one reached best by global commerce and consumption:

See how that fleet, with canvas wings,

From Texel, Bordeaux, London brings,

By happy commerce to our shores,

All Indus, and all Ganges stores;

Whilst France, that pierced the Turkish lines,

Sultans make drunk with rich French wines.

Boldly confessing his love of conspicuous consumption, Voltaire flouted Rousseau’s dictum that the rich have a duty ‘never to make people conscious of inequalities of wealth’. But then this rising commoner felt himself to be on the right side of universal progress. And he was not alone, nor wholly wrong.

By the mid-eighteenth century, history had been periodized in the way that is now conventional: antiquity, the Middle Ages and the modern era, in which society seemed to be moving on from war and xenophobia to a cosmopolis defined by trade, mutual tolerance and refined culture. Wealth, traditionally concentrated in and signified by immovable property, had previously appeared an end in itself only among merchant communities. Montaigne, for instance, had been under the impression that in a trade one man can only benefit at the expense of another. In the eighteenth century, however, moneymaking through trade and commerce began to appear more desirable than the old kind of wealth.

Montesquieu was already writing approvingly in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), two decades before the Wealth of Nations (1776), that politicians ‘speak to us only of manufactures, commerce, finance, wealth, and even luxury’. Rousseau echoed him complainingly in Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) when he wrote that ‘ancient politicians spoke incessantly about morals and virtue, ours speak only of business and money’. Much to Rousseau’s disapproval, the intellectual, too, seemed to become a promoter of the new commercial society (and zealous protector of his elevated status). When Voltaire was born in 1694, the philosophe had denoted a secluded figure, remote from the frivolity of the court. By the time he died in 1778, the philosophe referred to someone who actively shaped society. ‘The spirit of the century,’ as Voltaire himself noted, ‘has made the men of letters as fit for society as for the study; and it is in this that they are superior to those of past centuries.’

The German philosopher and theologian Herder attacked the conceit of French philosophes, which was later manifested by intellectuals in many powerful countries, that they lived in the best of all worlds, and were a source of sweetness and light:

As a rule, the philosopher is never more of an ass than when he most confidently wishes to play God; when with remarkable assurance, he pronounces on the perfection of the world, wholly convinced that everything moves just so, in a nice, straight line, that every succeeding generation reaches perfection in a completely linear progression, according to his ideals of virtue and happiness. It so happens that he is always the ratio ultima, the last, the highest, link in the chain of being, the very culmination of it all. ‘Just see to what enlightenment, virtue, and happiness the world has swung! And here, behold, am I at the top of the pendulum, the gilded tongue of the world’s scales!’

But Herder, when he wrote this, was the little-known inhabitant of a politically incoherent country. So was the teenaged Fichte, the son of a rural weaver, as he fantasized in 1788 about writing a devastating satirical critique of the new ideal of luxury. As the century ended, intellectuals of the Atlantic West exalted the commercial ethos and argued against those stern Christians and civic republicans who had stressed the moral perils of economic egoism and sensual indulgence.

A whole new domain of human activity, now known to us by the words ‘economics’ and ‘economy’, opened up, and rapidly assumed a supreme value. Its publicists insisted, contra Montaigne, that individual interests, far from being opposed, could be harmonized by trade, and, more remarkably, such private gains were also congruent with the public good. Adam Smith envisaged an open global system of trade powered by envy and admiration of the rich. He argued that the human instinct for emulation of others could be turned, through a mechanism he called the ‘invisible hand’, into a constructive moral and social force. Montesquieu thought that commerce, which renders ‘superfluous things useful and useful things necessary’, would ‘cure destructive prejudices’ and promote ‘communication between peoples’. In Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville (1772), Diderot fantasized about the new boldly sensuous man, a connoisseur of:

the delights of society. He loves women, the theatre and fine food. He takes to the social whirl with the same good grace he displays when confronting the uncertain elements which toss him about. He’s affable and light-hearted. He’s a true Frenchman, balancing a treatise of integral and differential calculus on one side, with a voyage round the world on the other.

If Diderot hailed the cosmopolitan intellectual as a suave man of the world, even a proto-James Bond with his taste for philandering and lavish expense budgets, Voltaire exalted the globetrotting merchant in Philosophical Letters (1773), claiming that he ‘enriches his country, dispatches orders from his counting-house to Surat and Grand Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world’.

Voltaire himself became a paid-up member of the globally networked elite by joining a company that imported grain from North Africa to Marseilles and re-exported it to Italy and Spain. In the last years of his life he exported watches from his factory in Switzerland to Russia and Turkey, and also explored sales opportunities in Algeria and Tunisia. He died a very wealthy man, his fortune amassed through publishing royalties, royal patronage, real estate, financial speculation, playing the lottery, moneylending to princes, watchmaking. (He also practised some dishonourable methods: the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who worked for him in Berlin, thought his financial dealings were those of a scoundrel.)

The class of commoners in France to which Voltaire belonged had felt most acutely the mismatch between their sense of personal worth and the limited scope allowed to their abilities by the existing order. By the time of his death, he had put far behind the humiliation of being thrashed by the minions of a French nob. He parleyed on equal terms with princes and ministers. He had shown by personal example that the hero of the newborn secular society was the entrepreneur – intellectual as well as commercial.

The Interesting Madman

Against this moral revolution – the de-Christianization of European society and the self-consciously heretical programme of constructing Heaven on Earth through increased wealth and intellectual sophistication – Rousseau launched a counter-revolution. Indeed, it can be claimed without melodrama that one afternoon in October 1749, walking on a provincial road outside Paris, this ‘guttersnipe of genius’ inaugurated the characteristically modern revolt against modernity, with reverberations that grow stronger as the Crystal Palace extends around the world.

In his radical perspective, the new commercial society, which was acquiring its main features of class divisions, inequality and callous elites during the eighteenth century, made its members corrupt, hypocritical and cruel with its prescribed values of wealth, vanity and ostentation. Human beings were good by nature until they entered such a society, exposing themselves to ceaseless and psychologically debilitating transformation and bewildering complexity. Propelled into an endless process of change, and deprived of their peace and stability, human beings failed to be either privately happy or active citizens.

This is plainly the world view of a solitary and rootless exile; its interpretation cannot be divorced from the life and personality of Rousseau, and actually of the many uprooted men who raised their failure to adapt themselves to a stable life in society to the rank of injustice against the human race. Born in 1712 to a watchmaker in Geneva, Rousseau had a largely unsupervised childhood and adolescence. He lost his mother and was only ten years old when his father deposited him with indifferent relatives and left the city. At the age of fifteen he ran away from his guardians and found his way to Savoy, where he soon became the toy boy of a French noblewoman. She turned out to be the great love of his life, introducing him to books and music. Rousseau, always seeking in women substitutes for his mother, called her maman.

By the time Rousseau arrived in Paris in the mid-1740s, he had, in an itinerant early career across Europe, already toiled in various subordinate positions: as an apprentice engraver in Geneva; a footman in Turin, tutor in Lyons and secretary in Venice. In Paris in 1745 he started living with a near-illiterate seamstress, who bore him five children, while making his first tentative forays into the city’s salons, the focal point of the French Enlightenment, where the commercial society was theorized and promoted by freethinking men (and a few women), and in which Rousseau turned out to have no real place.

One of his earliest acquaintances in Paris was Denis Diderot, a fellow provincial who was committed to making the most of that decade’s relatively free intellectual climate. As a frequent contributor to the Encyclopédie, publishing nearly four hundred articles, many of them on politics and music, Rousseau appeared to have joined in the collective endeavour of France’s ambitious rising class. But Rousseau, who had felt material deprivation, class divisions and social injustice more keenly than the other upstarts, was developing his own views on the good life proposed by them.

On the afternoon of October 1749, Rousseau was travelling to see Diderot, who had been imprisoned in a fortress at Vincennes outside Paris for authoring a tract that challenged the existence of God. Reading a newspaper on the way, Rousseau noticed an advertisement for a prize essay competition. The topic was: ‘Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?’ In his autobiography, Confessions, Rousseau recalled: ‘The moment I read this I beheld another universe and became another man.’ He had to, he claims, sit down by the roadside, and he spent the next hour in a trance, drenching his coat in tears.

This epiphany may not have been quite so histrionically received; Rousseau may have already started to formulate his heresies. Nevertheless, he boldly declared in his prize-winning contribution to the essay contest that contrary to what the Enlightenment philosophes claimed about the civilizing and liberating effects of progress, it was leading to new forms of enslavement. The arts and sciences, he wrote, were merely ‘garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh us down’. In fact, ‘our minds have been corrupted in proportion’ as human knowledge has improved. ‘Civilized man,’ he argued, ‘is born and dies a slave. The infant is bound up in swaddling clothes, the corpse is nailed down in his coffin. All his life man is imprisoned by our institutions.’

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence.

In Rousseau’s bleak vision, ‘sincere friendship, real esteem and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate and fraud lie constantly concealed under that uniform.’ This pathological inner life was a devastating ‘hidden contradiction’ at the heart of commercial society, which turned the serene flow of progress into a maelstrom.

Human beings, he predicted, would eventually recoil from their alienation in the modern world into desperate pleadings to God to regain their ‘ignorance, innocence, and poverty, the only goods that can make for our happiness and that are precious in your sight’. For the next two decades Rousseau would elaborate this blinding flash of inspiration on the road to Vincennes, with anger and bitter contempt, a profound critique of the way we – ‘victims of the blind inconsistency of our hearts’ – still live. Or, ‘die without having lived’.

*   *   *

What makes Rousseau, and his self-described ‘history of the human heart’, so astonishingly germane and eerily resonant is that, unlike his fellow eighteenth-century writers, he described the quintessential inner experience of modernity for most people: the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection.

He never ceased to speak out of his own intensely personal experience of fear, confusion, loneliness and loss – spiritual ordeals today experienced millions of times over around the world. Hölderlin, one of Rousseau’s many distinguished German devotees, wrote in his ode to the Genevan, ‘You’ve heard and understood the strangers’ voice / Interpreted their soul.’ Rousseau connects easily with the strangers to modernity, who feel scorned and despised by its brilliant but apparently exclusive realm. His books were the biggest best-sellers of the eighteenth century, and we still return to them today because they explore dark emotions stirring in the hearts of strangers rather than the workings of abstract reason. They reveal human beings as subject to conflicting impulses rather than as rational individuals pursuing their self-interest.

Take for instance his epistolary novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), whose socially outcast protagonist Saint-Preux is exactly the author’s own age. He arrives in glittering Paris to find in it ‘many masks but no human faces’. Everyone is tyrannized by the fear of other people’s opinion. The airs of politeness conceal a lack of fidelity and trust. Survival in the crowd seems guaranteed by conformity to the views and opinions of whichever sectarian group one belongs to. The elites engage meanwhile in their own factional battles and presume to think on behalf of everyone else. The general moral law is one of obedience and conformity to the rules of the rich and powerful. Such a society where social bonds are defined by a dependence on other people’s opinion and competitive private ambition is a place devoid of any possibility of individual freedom. It is a city of valets, ‘the most degraded of men’ whose sense of impotence breeds wickedness – in children, in servants, in writers and the nobility.

Saint-Preux’s lover, Julie, reminds him that Paris also contains poor and voiceless people, remote from the exalted realms where opinions are made and spread, and that it is his responsibility to speak for them. In many ways Rousseau embraced this obligation, setting himself against the conventionally enlightened wisdom of his age, and inventing the category of disadvantaged and trampled-upon ‘people’, who have a claim on our compassionate understanding.

The political philosophers who spoke of social contracts defined by the right to property or the fear of premature death had tended to neglect the underprivileged. Contra Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau refused to believe that the obligations to civil society could be derived from self-interest, the preservation of life or the enjoyment of private property. For socialized human beings were prone to deceive and to exploit others while pretending to be public-spirited.

Rousseau was also the first to air the suspicion, amplified for two centuries since, that commercial society with its appurtenance of government and law was designed to keep the majority in servitude to a tiny minority with illegitimate authority: ‘All these grand words,’ he charged, ‘of society, of justice, of law, of mutual defence, of help for the weak, of philosophy and of the progress of reason are only lures invented by clever politicians or by base flatterers to impose themselves on the simple.’

As for individual merit and competition, both advocated by the Enlightenment philosophes, their rewards were few, and their psychic costs very high. They led to unceasing and exhausting mimetic rivalry and, eventually, enmity:

I would show how much this universal desire for reputation, honours, and preferment which consumes us all exercises and compares talents and strengths, how much it excites and multiplies the passions and, in making all men competitors, rivals, or rather enemies, how many reverses, how many successes, how many catastrophes of every kind it daily causes by leading so many Contenders to enter the same lists: I would show that it is to this ardour to be talked about, to this frenzy to achieve distinction which almost always keeps us outside ourselves, that we owe what is best and what is worst among men, our virtues and our vices, our Sciences and our errors, our Conquerors and our Philosophers; that is to say a multitude of bad things for a small number of good things.

Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta, small, harsh, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic and defiantly un-cosmopolitan and uncommercial. In this society at least, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country.

*   *   *

By a fateful accident, Rousseau was a rare figure, a déclassé in the glamorously snobbish circles of eighteenth-century France. For someone like Voltaire, Parisian high society of this time was the apogee of social and cultural refinement. Its gracious sociability had erected a standard for civilization for other societies to follow and imitate (and many such as Frederick of Prussia and Catherine of Russia eagerly did, with the help of obliging French thinkers).

In the aristocratic salon, the central institution of the emerging public sphere, a shared civility complemented high-minded intellectual speculation and debate. As opinion and argument cordially circulated, no one spoke of revolution or victimhood; any claims on behalf of class or nation, or confession of economic grievance, would have been regarded as signs of ill-breeding.

Rousseau, however, ranged himself against these sophisticated salons, where he lingered long enough to cultivate a suspicion of intellectuals, specialists, experts, and their rich aristocratic and despotic patrons. Here were the beginnings of the public sphere and civil society, two of the great spurs of modernity; but Rousseau saw them as centres of soul-destroying hypocrisy. ‘In the midst of so much philosophy, humanity, and civilization, and of such sublime codes of morality,’ he wrote, ‘we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.’

Choosing to represent the powerless, and to express the soul of the stranger, he became an outsider in the world that brought him fame and would have given him, had he wanted it, a comfortable and even luxurious existence. He rejected all opportunities to enhance his wealth and influence, turning down audiences with kings as well as academic sinecures. The only woman who ever loved him, his maman, wrote, ‘He was ugly enough to frighten me and life did not make him more attractive. But he was a pathetic figure and I treated him with gentleness and kindness. He was an interesting madman.’

Two Views on Progress

Rousseau alienated his aristocratic patrons; he quarrelled with most of his friends and well-wishers, including Hume and Diderot, many of whom also ended up deriding him as a madman. But he disagreed most violently – and productively – with Voltaire.

The two men rarely disguised their feelings for each other. Voltaire denounced Rousseau as a ‘tramp who would like to see the rich robbed by the poor, the better to establish the fraternal unity of man’. He marked the margins of his copies of the political writing of Rousseau with such remarks as ‘ridiculous’, ‘depraved’, ‘pitiful’, ‘abominable’ and ‘false’. He secretly authored a pamphlet against Rousseau that revealed the exponent of children’s education as having given his own five children to a foundling home. Voltaire also accused Rousseau of wanting to turn human beings back into ‘brutes’: ‘To read your book,’ he said, ‘makes one long to go on all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it.’ ‘I hate you,’ Rousseau wrote to Voltaire in 1760, and went on to assault nearly everything the elder writer wrote.

The Catholic monarchist Joseph de Maistre disliked both Voltaire, who ‘undermined the political structure by corrupting morals’, and Rousseau, who is driven by ‘a certain plebeian anger that excites him against every kind of superiority’. Nietzsche appeared to be building on this contrast when he claimed to identify in the battle between Voltaire and Rousseau the ‘unfinished problem of civilization’. On one side stood the ‘representative of the victorious, ruling classes and their valuations’; on the other, a vulgar plebeian, overcome by his primordial resentment of a superior civilization.

One doesn’t have to subscribe to Nietzsche’s dichotomies to see that the disagreements between Voltaire and Rousseau illuminate some of our perennial questions: how human beings define themselves, what holds societies together, and divides them, why the underprivileged majority erupts in revolt against the privileged few, and what roles intellectuals play in these conflicts. They argued particularly fiercely over the moral character of the human type we call the bourgeois: a figure still emerging in eighteenth-century Europe, empowered by a scientific temper and meritocratic spirit, and emboldened by thinkers who claimed that his instincts for self-preservation and self-interest could serve as the foundation of a new secular society.

Voltaire had an uncomplicated view of self-love and self-interest: ‘Amour propre is the instrument of our preservation … we need it … it is as impossible for a society to be formed and be durable without self-interest as it would be to produce children without carnal desire.’ In contrast, Rousseau saw amour propre as a dangerous craving to secure recognition for one’s person from others, which tipped over easily into hatred and self-hatred.

‘Insatiable ambition,’ he charged, ‘the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another.’ Brought together by ‘mutual needs’ and ‘common interests’ while at the same time divided by their competing amour propre and pursuit of power, human beings were condemned to disunity and injustice. Violence, deceit and betrayal were rendered inevitable by a state of affairs in which ‘everyone pretends to be working for the other’s profit or reputation, while only seeking to raise his own above them and at their expense’.

Voltaire’s self-enrichment began in early eighteenth-century England; he accordingly hailed the London Stock Exchange, which had just become fully operational, as a secular embodiment of social harmony: the place where ‘Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.’

For Rousseau, ‘the word finance is a slave’s word’ and freedom turns into a commodity, degrading buyer and seller alike, wherever commerce reigns. ‘Financial systems make venal souls.’ Their secret workings are a ‘means of making pilferers and traitors, and of putting freedom and the public good upon the auction block’. Countering Voltaire and Montesquieu’s anglophilia, he claimed that the political and economic life of globalizing England offered a bogus liberty: ‘The English people think they are free. They greatly deceive themselves; they are free only during the election of members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, the people are their slave, as if nothing.’

Presciently critiquing the neo-liberal conflation of free enterprise with freedom, Rousseau claimed that individual liberty was deeply menaced in a society driven by commerce, individual competitiveness and amour propre. Anticipating anti-globalization critics, he argued that finance money is ‘at once the weakest and most useless for the purpose of driving the political mechanism toward its goal, and the strongest and most reliable for the purpose of deflecting it from its course’. Liberty was best protected not by prosperity but the general equality of all subjects, both urban and rural, and balanced economic growth. Emphasizing national self-sufficiency, he also distrusted the great and opaque forces of international trade, especially the trade in luxuries.

Voltaire’s ‘Le Mondain’ presents its author as a refined connoisseur of the glorious present: a would-be aristocrat, surrounded with Gobelin tapestries, works of art, fine silverware and an ornate carriage. Rousseau hailed the wisdom of François Fénelon, who in the most widely read book of the Enlightenment, The Adventures of Telemachus (1699), claimed that the Sun King’s project of grandeur through promotion of luxury had created deep economic, social and moral imbalances in France. He asserted that the moral order was imperilled by the rich, who, drowning in luxury, had cut themselves off from any possibility of sympathy for the poor.

Voltaire’s biggest foe was the Catholic Church, and religious faith generally. Rousseau, though an agnostic and deeply critical of religious authority, saw religion as having a crucial bearing on the morality of ordinary people; it also made the life of the poor tolerable. In his view, the Enlightenment philosophes, aligned with the rich, were contemptuous of the simple feelings of ordinary people. In his critique of Voltaire’s portrait of the Prophet Mohammed, Rousseau claimed that those attacking religious fanaticism were infected by its secular variant. ‘The most cruel intolerance,’ he wrote, ‘was, at bottom, the same on both sides.’ Voltaire riposted that Rousseau ‘speaks as many insults of the philosophers as of Jesus Christ’.

Voltaire saw monarchs as likely agents and allies of enlightened people like himself, who could expedite the making of history and the advance of reason. In his vision the rational man of action inevitably triumphs over the dumb hordes of ‘canaille’, such as the Poles, about whom he quipped: ‘One Pole – a charmer; two Poles – a brawl; three Poles – ah, that is the Polish Question.’ According to Voltaire, Russia under the modernizing autocrat Peter the Great ‘represented perhaps the greatest époque in European life since the discovery of the New World’. He exhorted Catherine to teach European enlightenment at gunpoint to the Poles and Turks.

Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that ‘liberty is not inherent in any form of government, it is in the heart of the free man’. He looked forward to a world without despots and monarchies. He thought of Catherine, whose partition of Poland had been applauded by Voltaire and other philosophes, as ‘a powerful and cunning aggressor’. Rousseau advised the Poles to enter into a pact with the Ottoman Empire; he told them that the Turks lacked in ‘enlightenment and finesse’ but had ‘more honesty and common sense’ than the Christian powers of Europe.

Getting to Like the Despots

The gulf between Voltaire and Rousseau was intellectual, moral, temperamental and fundamentally political. From the vantage point of the present, however, their disagreements over the meaning of modernity for backward peoples in the East have the profoundest implications.

Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down modernizer, like most of the Enlightenment philosophes, and an enraptured chronicler in particular of Peter the Great. Russian peasants had paid a steep price for Russia’s Westernization, exposed as they were to more oppression and exploitation as Peter tried in the seventeenth century to build a strong military and bureaucratic state. Serfdom, near extinct in most of Western Europe by the thirteenth century, was actually strengthened by Peter in Russia. Coercing his nobles into lifetime service to the state, postponing the emergence of a civil society, Peter the Great waged war endlessly. But among educated Europeans, who until 1789 saw civilization as something passed down from the enlightened few to the ignorant many, Russia was an admirably progressive model.

In the eyes of the Enlightenment philosophers, Russia seemed to have taken a big step towards Europe with its improved military technology and a rationalized organization of administration and finance. Thus, Montesquieu set aside his critique of despotism to hail Peter for giving ‘the manners of Europe to a European nation’. It was Diderot who in 1766 recommended to Catherine his protégé, the sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet; the latter’s monument to Peter on the embankment of the Neva river, the Bronze Horseman, became the symbol of Westernizing Russia. Diderot himself came away from Russia marvelling at how quickly the Russians were becoming French.

Voltaire asserted in his very first encomium to Peter in 1731 that the latter civilized his benighted subjects, and carved a European-style city out of the wilderness. Russian noblemen spoke French, pulled on silk stockings, donned a wig, and wore a sword. ‘At present,’ Voltaire gushed, ‘there are in St Petersburg French actors and Italian operas. Magnificence and even taste have in everything succeeded barbarism.’

In his later hagiography of Peter, which Jean d’Alembert, Diderot’s colleague in the Encyclopédie, privately described as ‘vomit’, Voltaire perfected his style as a later apologist for Catherine’s imperialism. Peter may have been a warmonger, he argued, but war was always a means for him, not an end. He fought in order to remove impediments to commerce and manufacturing. He showed an admirable spirit of learning, curiosity and experimentation, whether in warfare or administration.

Rousseau, on the other hand, treated Russia’s Westernization with coruscating scorn. In The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau accused Peter of having condemned Russians to painful self-division:

He wished to produce at once Germans or Englishmen, when he should have begun by making Russians; he prevented his subjects from ever becoming what they might have been, by persuading them that they were what they were not. It is in this way that a French tutor trains his pupils to shine for a moment in childhood, and then to be forever a nonentity.

This was a devastating verdict on Peter’s pioneering venture; it went straight to the heart of the Russian dilemma, as experienced and articulated by Russia’s greatest writers and thinkers over the next two centuries. In the eighteenth century, however, Rousseau was alone in his vision of how the Enlightenment programme of willed, abstract social reform could cause deracination, self-hatred and vindictive rage. His colleagues, like later European and American supporters of authoritarian regimes, had invested their hopes in modernization from above; they made Rousseau suspect that intellectuals constituted another self-seeking priesthood.

The Intellectual as Networker

The mutually beneficial relationship between the philosophes and Russia’s despotic ruler, Catherine, verified Rousseau’s misgivings about the literati. In 1762, Catherine acceded to the Russian throne, and immediately started looking for respectability and legitimacy. It was common knowledge in Europe that she had attained power by deposing her husband Peter III and sidelining her son Paul from the succession; it was also rumoured that she had murdered her husband. But none of this mattered as she started to pose as Peter the Great’s intellectual heir, opening her court to the thinkers of enlightened Europe.

Catherine outpaced even Frederick of Prussia in her overtures to the philosophes. When the publication of the Encyclopédie was forbidden in Paris, she offered to move the entire operation to St Petersburg. She gave Diderot a lifetime sinecure by purchasing his library for a handsome sum. In the very first year of her reign, at the age of thirty-four, she asked D’Alembert to become the tutor of her heir, and opened a mutually flattering correspondence with Voltaire, who at nearly seventy was the patriarch of the European republic of letters.

Voltaire was soon turned, with Catherine’s encouragement, into a patron saint for the secular Russian aristocracy. Voltairianism, vaguely signifying rationalism, scepticism and reformism, became her official ideology. Almost all of Voltaire was translated into Russian; no library was deemed complete if it did not contain a collection of Voltaire’s works in the original French. The high-backed easy chair on which Voltaire was often depicted sitting was much imitated among Russian aristocrats. (It is known even today as a ‘Vol’terovskoe kreslo’ or ‘Voltaire chair’.)

Another of Catherine’s regular correspondents was Frédéric-Melchior Grimm, who rephrased the Lord’s Prayer to read ‘Our mother, who art in Russia…’ and changed the Creed into ‘I believe in one Catherine.’ Catherine eventually repaid his attentions by appointing him as her minister in Hamburg. Grimm, faithful to the last, zealously endorsed Catherine’s plan to vivisect Poland, comparing the country to a ‘little slut’ who needed someone to ‘shorten her petticoats’.

Helvétius dedicated his work On Man, His Intellectual Faculties and His Education to Catherine, the ‘bulwark against Asiatic despotism’. Jeremy Bentham, whose brother had entered Russian service, was one of her fervid enthusiasts. Diderot actually travelled to St Petersburg in 1773, and was so carried away with enthusiasm by his role as counsellor to the Empress that he kept pinching Catherine’s thigh, prompting the latter to put a table between them.

But it was Voltaire who brought a truly religious ardour to the cult of Catherine. As the Empress entered into war with Poland and Turkey in 1768, Voltaire became her cheerleader. Catherine claimed to be protecting the rights of religious minorities residing in the territories of her opponents. The tactic, repeatedly deployed by later European imperialists in Asia and Africa, had the expected effect on Voltaire, who promptly declared Catherine’s imperialistic venture to be a crusade for the Enlightenment.

He had initially hoped for Frederick to give him the pleasure of seeing ‘the Muslims driven out of Europe’. Now he thought that ‘these barbarians deserve to be punished by a heroine … It is clear that people who neglect all the fine arts, and who shut up women, deserve to be exterminated.’ The Poles, like the Muslims in Voltaire’s view, were hopelessly backward. ‘I still give five hundred years to the Poles to make the fabrics of Lyon,’ he wrote. He reminded them of the benefits of modernization, such as Catherine’s acquisition of Diderot’s library: ‘My friends, begin by learning how to read and then someone will buy libraries for you.’

From his retirement home on Lake Geneva, Voltaire sent Catherine a design for a two-man chariot (he also managed to cajole her into buying some very expensive watches produced by his company in Switzerland). He convinced himself that ‘if ever the Turks should be chased from Europe, it will be by the Russians’. Envisaging conquered Constantinople as the new capital of the Russian Empire, Voltaire asked ‘your majesty for permission to come and place myself at her feet’ as she sat on ‘Mustapha’s throne’ in her new court on the Bosporus.

He followed her military advance closely, wondering in his letters whether ‘you are also the mistress of Taganrog’. In 1769 he wrote to Catherine, ‘Madame, your imperial majesty gives me new life in killing the Turks.’ The Turks, and Muslims generally, were then settling into the French and British imagination as an effeminate and decadent people. In 1772 he imagined a mock crusade in which Catherine would ‘pull the ears of Mustapha and send him back to Asia’. Voltaire regretted his immobility: ‘I wish I had at least been able to help you kill a few Turks.’ In his last letter in 1777 his quasi-erotic obsession with Catherine’s power to repulse the feminized Turks reached its zenith: ‘I prostrate myself,’ he declared, ‘at your feet, and I cry in my agony: Allah, Allah, Catherine rezoul, Allah.’

*   *   *

Rousseau naturally developed a dislike of Catherine – a kind of deflected hostility towards Voltaire, which then attracted him to ‘modernizing’ Russia’s victim, the Poles. But it was Catherine herself who finally repudiated her expedient alliance with the philosophes. Like most European potentates, she recoiled from the French Revolution, that ‘monstrous child’, as she said, ‘of perverse and subversive teachings’. Encouraging the kings of Prussia and Austria to wipe out the ‘Jacobin pest’ in Paris, she herself annexed large bits of Poland on the pretext of fighting Jacobinism in Warsaw. Poland effectively ceased to exist for more than a century – a geographical erasure facilitated by Enlightenment philosophers.

The philosophes’ fervent support of despotic and imperialistic modernizers in ‘uncivilized’ societies revealed, very early on, a near-fatal contradiction in their project of human emancipation. They saw the exercise of reason as the best way to secure individual autonomy, a way of life not determined solely by the contingencies of nature and fate or constrained by religious authority. But, as Tocqueville shrewdly pointed out, determined to ‘rebuild society according to an entirely new plan, which each of them elaborated by the light of reason alone’, these men of letters developed:

a taste for abstract, general theories of government, theories in which they trusted blindly. Living as they did almost totally removed from practical life, they had no experience that might have tempered their natural passions. Nothing warned them of the obstacles that existing realities might pose to even the most desirable reforms. They had no idea of the perils that invariably accompany even the most necessary revolutions. Indeed, they had no premonition of them because the complete absence of political liberty ensured that they not only failed to grasp the world of affairs but actually failed to see it. They had nothing to do with that world and were incapable of recognizing what others did within it.

Such cosseted writers and artists would in the twentieth century transfer their fantasies of an ideal society to Soviet leaders, who seemed to be bringing a superhuman energy and progressive rhetoric to Peter the Great’s rational schemes of social engineering. Stalin’s Russia, as it ruthlessly eradicated its religious and evidently backward enemies in the 1930s, came to ‘constitute’, the historian Stephen Kotkin writes, ‘a quintessential Enlightenment utopia’. But the Enlightenment philosophes had already shown, in their blind adherence to Catherine, how reason could degenerate into dogma and new, more extensive forms of domination: authoritarian state structures, violent top-down manipulation of human affairs (often couched in terms of humanitarian concern) and indifference to suffering.

The trahison des clercs of the Enlightenment philosophes seems to have helped Rousseau identify a whole schema of modernity in which power flows unequally to a networked elite, especially a smug Republic of Letters that actively accentuates social differences at home while pursuing fantasies of universal transformation abroad. Rousseau of course never had much time for enlightened absolutism. He also had the advantage of knowing that the age of the masses was at hand. ‘We are approaching a state of crisis and the age of revolutions,’ he wrote in 1762 in Émile. ‘I hold it impossible that the great monarchies of Europe still have long to survive.’ He rejected all forms of despotism, enlightened or otherwise, in the name of popular self-government.

Rousseau had inaugurated his career with a declaration of war on his own cosmopolitan realm of privilege and wealth. He continued to insist that the artists and poets, weaving ‘garlands of flowers to cover the iron chains’, abetted the corruptions and oppressions of an unequal society. As he grew older, he vigorously sought to expose intellectuals as intolerant secular priests, whose apparently universalist philosophy was sectarian ideology in disguise. Writers and intellectuals, he alleged, were the biggest victims of amour propre, who flatter to deceive, and provide literary and moral cover to the unjust and the powerful. They help entrench inequality, and the suffering and violence it breeds.

The Good (and Very Stern) Society

Accusing Enlightenment philosophers of failing to challenge unjust social and economic institutions even as they ranged themselves ostentatiously against religious tyranny, Rousseau tried to outline a social order where morals, virtue and human character rather than commerce and money were central to politics. Catherine’s war on the Poles offered Rousseau an opportunity to draw up a blueprint for Sparta in the modern era. Since Voltaire and many other philosophes had become ardent champions of the partitioning overlords, Catherine and Frederick, Rousseau chose to become an advisor to their enemies, the Polish nationalists, known as the Confederate Poles.

Rousseau also knew Poland only from afar and through second-hand accounts. But Voltaire was in his sights; and he countered his rival’s fantasy of cosmopolitan Russia with an idea of a defiantly nationalist Poland that would not surrender itself to the universal reign of amour propre and the pursuit of wealth and power. In Considerations on the Government of Poland, written in the early 1770s, Rousseau urged the Poles to maintain their national costume. No Pole, he urged, should appear at court dressed as a Frenchman; he criticized Peter the Great again for abandoning Russian national customs and dress. He deplored the fact that ‘civil and domestic usages’ are ‘daily being bastardized by the general European tendency to adopt the tastes and manners of the French’. For, he wrote, ‘it is national institutions which shape the genius, the character, the tastes and the manners of a people; which give it an individuality of its own; which inspire it with that ardent love of country, based on ineradicable habits.’

Europeans were increasingly interchangeable. But a Pole must remain a Pole for the sake of his dignity and freedom. His moeurs, the inheritance of all Poles, could be invigorated by patriotic passions. To this end, a citizens’ militia, public festivals and national holidays were the right means; Rousseau himself designed competitions, uniforms and decorative badges of merit.

*   *   *

In Rousseau’s conception, patriotism required the segregation of the sexes as well as public ceremonial and military exercises. Woman ‘must make herself agreeable to man rather than provoke him’ and her place is in the home, making virtuous citizens out of men. Any equality between the sexes, according to him, should be based on different roles in distinct domains of activity; and the demand for women to be educated like men, and increased similarity between the two sexes, would lessen the influence women have over men. (The rapid overturning of these entrenched prejudices in our time is one major source of male rage and hysteria today.)

Underneath Rousseau’s strictures lay a primal fear of female sexuality, which in his view must be restrained if women are to help in the creation of sturdy male citizens. Mary Wollstonecraft rightly accused Rousseau of reducing women to ‘gentle, domestic brutes’. Rousseau, however, was no more misogynistic than most thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who feared that the ideals of modern society morally and physically enervated men.

But Rousseau went further than most of them in advocating a military and patriotic spirit. ‘Every citizen,’ he wrote, ‘must be a soldier as a duty and none may be so by profession.’ Also: ‘The patriotic spirit is exclusive and makes us look upon all those who are not our fellow citizens as strangers and almost enemies. Such was the Spirit of Sparta and of Rome.’

This soldier-citizen, according to Rousseau, is superior to the inhabitant of cosmopolitan society because he can explain his every action in terms of shared values rather than selfish interests. His moral self-assurance derives from the fact that he is not motivated by private amour propre. His egoism is reoriented towards collective public ends; and though he may become a xenophobe, he at least lives at peace with himself and with his immediate neighbours, as distinct from the abstraction-addled liberal internationalist, who ‘loves the Tartars so as to be spared having to love his neighbours’. Patriotism was the right antidote to the unhealthy morals and policies of a bourgeois society devoted to luxury and self-indulgence.

*   *   *

Rousseau’s notion of Sparta was as historically grounded – and idealized – as the Caliphate of radical Islamists. He used it to attack cosmopolitan elites who presented themselves as the worldwide nemesis of religious prejudice and superstition and designers of rational society. With his image of civic virtue in Sparta, he wanted to show that the men and women of Paris, and, more generally, societies founded on self-interest and envious comparison, were dissolute. Unbeknown to him, Rousseau was also elaborating something new: the sentiment of militant cultural nationalism.

For him, civic virtue included a belligerent attitude of citizens to all outsiders. As he wrote in Émile (1762):

Every restricted society, when it is small and closely unified, alienates itself from the greater whole. Every patriot is severe with strangers: they are merely men, they are nothing in his eyes. Abroad, the Spartan was ambitious, avaricious, unjust; but disinterestedness, equity and peace reigned within his own walls. Beware of those cosmopolitans who go on distant bookish quests for the duties which they disdain to fulfil in their own surroundings.

Rousseau never saw the good of the collective in any other terms than the spiritual and moral well-being of its members. The extraordinary paradox of his thought is that he hopes for the individual to subordinate himself to the community for the sake of his freedom, and not for the sake of any collectively shared goals. In fact, he argued against any optimism about collective progress precisely because it did not protect the human individual from oppressive external compulsions. As he wrote in his last, unfinished book, Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782), ‘I had never thought the liberty of man consists in doing what he wishes, but rather in not doing that which he does not wish.’

But his feelings of insecurity, and nostalgia for a home he had never known, didn’t cease to feed a longing for an ideal society in which the tension between man’s inner life and his social nature could be resolved. His abraded sensibility registered keenly the appeal of a political ideal of equally empowered and virtuous citizens; and there is much in his writings to confirm the commonplace perceptions of Rousseau in the following two centuries as the dangerous prophet of revolution, the destroyer of established values, and the proponent of totalitarianism. One of his most interesting critics, Joseph de Maistre, who accused him of irresponsible radicalism, put it best:

he often discovers remarkable truths and expresses them better than anyone else, but these truths are sterile in his hands … No one shapes their materials better than he, and no one builds more poorly. Everything is good except his systems.

Nevertheless, Rousseau is rewardingly seen in our own context as the man who understood the moral and spiritual implications of the rise of an international commercial society, and who saw the deep contradictions in a predominantly materialist ethic and a society founded on individuals enviously emulating the rich and craving their privileges. It was Rousseau who pointed out that the new dispensation, while promising freedom and equality, did much to hinder them. He sensed, earlier than anyone else, that the individual assertion mandated by modern egalitarian society could amount in practice to domination of other individuals; he foresaw its pathologies, flaws and blind spots, which made certain negative historical outcomes likely in practice.

In his attempt to heal the acute self-division of modern men and women, their perpetually agitated and unhappy selves, Rousseau founded the main political and cultural movements of the modern world. Many ‘isms’ of the right and the left – Romanticism, socialism, authoritarianism, nationalism, anarchism – can be traced to Rousseau’s writings. Whether in his denunciation of moral corruption, his claim that the metropolis was a den of vice and that virtue resided in ordinary people (whom the elites routinely conspired against and deceived), his praise of militant patriotism, his distrust of intellectual technocracy, his advocacy of a return to the collective, the ‘people’, or his concern for the ‘stranger’, Rousseau anticipated the modern underdog with his aggravated sense of victimhood and demand for redemption.

The Thrill of Moral Superiority

What’s crucial about Rousseau, and many of his ideological successors, is that politics was always personal for him, unlike those whom Tocqueville faulted for indulging abstract theories. He felt that all valets had the same vices – dishonesty, pride, anger and envy – because he himself had been one. He scathingly connected atheism to the interests of the powerful and disdain for the poor because, unlike the Parisian philosophers, he had known a simple Christianity in the Geneva of his childhood. His humiliating stint as a minor diplomat in Venice exposed to him both his unfitness for the smart set and also the injustice, inequality and corruption of government run by and for the rich.

Politics for Rousseau was also entangled in neuroses of the over-socialized self. He was the prototype of the man who feels himself, despite his obvious success, to be at the bottom of the social pyramid, and knows that he can never fit into the existing order. His confidence and self-righteousness derived from his belief that he had at least escaped the vices of modern life: deceit and flattery. In his solitude, he was convinced, like many converts to ideological causes and religious beliefs, that he was immune to corruption. A conviction of his incorruptibility was what gave his liberation from social pieties a heroic aura and moved him from a feeling of powerlessness to omnipotence. In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy, Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time.

Championing the purity of inner life against the contamination of the social, the poor against the rich, ordinary folk against privileged classes, religious sentiment against atheism and libertinism, he spoke on behalf of the injured and the insulted against powerful elites. It is no accident that ‘tearing the mask of hypocrisy off’ was, as Arendt pointed out, the French Revolution’s ‘favoured simile’; and that Rousseau’s first great disciple, Robespierre, was obsessed with ‘tearing the façade of corruption down and of exposing behind it the unspoiled, honest face of the peuple ’.

Rousseau actually went beyond the conventional political categories and intellectual vocabularies of left and right to outline the basic psychological outlook of those who perceive themselves as abandoned or pushed behind. He provided the basic vocabulary for their characteristic new expressions of discontent, and then articulated their longing for a world cleansed of the social sources of dissatisfaction. Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power.

The recent explosions, from India to the United States, of ressentiment against writers and journalists as well as politicians, technocrats, businessmen and bankers reveal how Rousseau’s history of the human heart is still playing itself out among the disaffected. Those who perceive themselves as left or pushed behind by a selfish conspiratorial minority can be susceptible to political seducers from any point on the ideological spectrum, for they are not driven by material inequality alone. The Jacobins and the German Romantics may have been Rousseau’s most famous disciples, determined to create through retributive terror or economic and cultural nationalism the moral community neglected by Enlightenment philosophes.

But Rousseau’s prescient criticism of a political and economic system based on envious comparison, individual self-seeking and the multiplication of artificial needs also helps us understand a range of historical and sociological phenomena: how and why a cleric like Ayatollah Khomeini rose out of obscurity to lead a popular revolution in Iran; why many young people seduced by modernity come to pour scorn on Enlightenment ideals of progress, liberty and human perfectibility; why they preach salvation by faith and tradition and uphold the need for authority, hierarchy, obedience and subjection; or why, suffering from self-disgust, these divided men and women embrace conflict and suffering, bloodshed and war.

Rousseau’s obsessive concern with the freedom and moral integrity of individuals, combined with an extreme loathing for inequality and change, makes for a perpetually renewable challenge to contemporary political and economic arrangements – and certainly it chimes perfectly with the present clamour against globalization and its beneficiaries. Uprooted iconoclastic men with their great dissatisfactions and longings for radical equality and stability have made and unmade our world with their projects of extreme modernity (often paradoxically pursued by imitating ancient and medieval society), and their fantasies of restoring the moral and spiritual unity of divided human beings. There will be many more of them, it is safe to say, as billions of young people in Asia and Africa negotiate the maelstrom of progress.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!