II. ROUSSEAU EPILOGUE: 1767-78

1 . The Haunted Spirit

Arriving in France May 22, 1767, after his unhappy sojourn in England, Rousseau, almost at the end of his sanity, found some comfort in the welcome given him by the cities through which he and Thérèse passed. Though he traveled under the pseudonym of Jean-Joseph Renou, and was still legally under the ban decreed against him in 1762, he was nevertheless recognized and honored; Amiens gave him a triumphal reception, and other towns sent him the vin de ville.

Many Frenchmen—all nobles—offered him a home. First, Mirabeau père, who gave him a choice of twenty estates; Rousseau chose Fleury-sous-Meu-don, near Paris. But the Marquis pestered him to read the Marquis’ books; Rousseau fled, and took refuge with Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince de Conti, at Trye-le-Château, near Gisors (June 21, 1767). The Prince put the entire castle at Jean-Jacques’ disposal, and even sent musicians to play soft music for him; Rousseau interpreted this as an imputation on his sanity. He thought that Choiseul and the Comtesse de Boufflers (mistress of the Prince) had joined Voltaire, Diderot, and Grimm in conspiring against him; and indeed Voltaire had accused him of setting fire to the theater at Geneva, which burned to the ground on January 29, 1768.45 Rousseau believed that everyone in Gisors looked upon him as a criminal. He longed to be restored to Geneva, and wrote to Choiseul asking him to persuade the Genevan Council to make reparation to Rousseau for past injuries.46 Choiseul sent him an official permit to travel anywhere in France, to leave it and to return to it at will.47 Rousseau now thought of going back to England; he wrote to Davenport inquiring would he be allowed to occupy the house at Wooton again; Davenport answered, By all means.

Fearing for his life at Trye, Rousseau fled from it in June, 1768, leaving Thérèse at the château for her own safety. He went by public coach to Lyons, and lived there for a while with relatives of the Daniel Roguin who had given him a refuge in Switzerland in 1762. Soon, however, he isolated himself in the Golden Fountain Inn at Bourgoin-en-Dauphiné. On the door of his room there he wrote a list of the people whom he believed to be conspiring against him. He sent for Thérèse, received her with joy and tears, and decided at last to marry her. It was done by a civil ceremony at the inn on August 30, 1768.

In January, 1769, they moved to a farmhouse at Mouquin, near Grenoble. There he composed the final, half-insane pages of the Confessions, and cooled his nerves with botany. Thérèse found his temper more and more difficult; she herself was suffering from rheumatism and the vague ills sometimes accompanying “change of life.” The newlyweds had a quarrel so serious that Rousseau departed on a long botanizing trip, leaving her a letter that advised her to enter a convent (August 12, 1769).48 When he returned and found her waiting for him their love was renewed. Now he regretted that he had disposed of her offspring. “Happy the man,” he felt, “who can rear his children under his own eyes!”49 To a young mother he wrote: “The sweetest way of life that can possibly exist is that of the home. … Nothing is more strongly, more constantly, identified with us than our family and our children. … But I who speak of family, children—. . . madame, pity those whose iron fate deprives them of such happiness; pity them if they are merely unfortunate; pity them more if they are guilty!”50

The winter at Mouquin was hard to bear in a farmhouse subject to all the winds. Thérèse begged for Paris. On April 10, 1770, the couple resumed their odyssey. They spent a pleasant month at Lyons, where Rousseau’s operetta, Le Devin du village, was performed as part of a celebration in his honor. They moved by slow stages through Dijon, Montbard, Auxerre. At last, on June 24, 1770, they reached Paris. They took rooms on the fourth floor of his former lodgings at the Hôtel Saint-Esprit, Rue Platrière—now called the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau—in one of the noisiest quarters of the city.

He lived modestly and quietly, copying music for income, and studying botany; now (September 21, 1771) he wrote his letter of homage to Linnaeus.51 When it became known that he was in Paris, old friends and new devotees came to visit him: the Prince de Ligne (who offered him a home on his estate near Brussels), Grétry and Gluck (who came to discuss music with him), Goldoni the dramatist, Sophie Arnould the singer, Gustavus the Crown Prince of Sweden, and young authors like Jean-Joseph Dusaulx and Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. In 1777 he received what Voltaire had coveted and missed—a visit from the Emperor Joseph II.52 His free entry to the Opéra (as a composer) was restored, and he went there occasionally, especially to hear Gluck. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre described him (now sixty years old) as slender, well-proportioned, with “lofty brow, and eyes full of fire; … profound sadness in the wrinkles of the brow, and a keen and even caustic gaiety.”53

Despite the promise he had made in 1762 to write no more books, Rousseau had been stung into renewed composition by the continued attacks of his enemies. To answer these, and all the hostile gossip of Paris and Geneva, he had undertaken theConfessions(1765). Now (November, 1770) this was complete, and Rousseau, though as yet unwilling to publish it in its entirety, was resolved that certain parts, relevant to the attacks, should be made known in Paris. So in December he read to Dusaulx and others, in his room, long passages from his greatest book; the reading lasted seventeen hours, interrupted by two hasty collations.54 In May, 1771, he held another reading, before the Comte and Comtesse d’Egmont, Prince Pignatelli d’Egmont, the Marquise de Mesme, and the Marquis de Juigné. He concluded with a fiery challenge:

I have written the truth. If any person has heard of things contrary to those I have just stated, were they a thousand times proved, he has heard calumny and falsehood; and if he refuses thoroughly to examine and compare them with me while I am alive, he is not a friend to justice or truth. For my part I openly and without the least fear declare that whoever, even without having read my works, shall have examined with his own eyes my disposition, character, manners, inclinations, pleasures, and habits, and pronounces me a dishonorable man, is himself one who deserves a gibbet.55

Those who heard him concluded from his intense emotion that he was nearing mental disorder. Dusaulx pronounced Rousseau’s suspicions and recriminations unworthy of “the generous, the virtuous Jean Jacques”; this criticism ended their friendship.56 Other hearers carried echoes of these readings into the salons of Paris, and some sensitive souls felt that Rousseau had maligned them. Mme. d’Épinay wrote to the lieutenant general of police:

I must inform you again that the person of whom I spoke to you yesterday morning read his work to Messrs. Dorat, de Pezay, and Dusaulx. Since he is using these men as confidants of a libel, you have the right to let him know what you think of it. I feel that you’ought to speak to him with enough kindness so that he should not complain, but with firmness enough so that he won’t repeat his fault. If you secure his word of honor I believe he will keep it. Pardon me a thousand times, but my peace of mind was at stake.57

The police asked Rousseau to give no more readings; he agreed. He concluded that he could never get a fair hearing in his lifetime, and this feeling of frustration helped to unhinge his mind. After 1772 he closed his door to nearly all visitors but Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. On his solitary walks he suspected an enemy in almost everyone whom he passed. Aside from such specters of hostility his essential good nature remained. He subscribed, over Voltaire’s resistance, to the fund for a statue to Voltaire. When an abbé sent him a brochure denouncing Voltaire he rebuked the writer: “Voltaire,” he told him, “is without doubt a bad man, whom I do not intend to praise; but he has said and done so many good things that we should draw the curtain over his irregularities.”58

When he could take his mind off the “conspiracy” that he saw around him, he could write with as much clarity as before, and with surprising conservatism and practicality. We have seen how the Polish convention of 1769 asked his suggestions for a new constitution. He began his Considérations sur le gouvernement de la Pologne in October, 1771, and finished it in April, 1772. Our first impression of it is that it violates all the principles for which he had fought so passionately. On rereading it in old age we are comforted to see that Rousseau (then sixty) could also age and, as the old would like to put it, mature. The same man who had cried out, “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains,” now warned the Poles, whose “free veto” had condemned them to anarchy, that freedom is a trial as well as a dispensation, and requires a self-discipline far more arduous than obedience to external commands.

Liberty is a strong food, but it needs a stout digestion.... I laugh at those degraded peoples who rise in revolt at a word from an intriguer; who dare to speak of liberty while in total ignorance of what it means; and who … imagine that, to be free, it is enough to be a rebel. High-souled and holy liberty! If these poor men could only know thee; if they could only learn what is the price at which thou art won and guarded; if they could only be taught how far sterner are thy laws than the hard yoke of the tyrant!59

Life and Montesquieu had taught Rousseau that such discussions as his Social Contract are flights in vacuo, abstract theories without a hinge on reality. All states, he now admitted, are rooted in history and circumstance, and will die if their roots are indiscriminately cut. So he advised the Poles to make no sudden changes in their constitution. They should keep their elective monarch but should limit their liberum veto; they should keep Catholicism as the state religion but develop an educational system independent of the Church.60 Poland, in the existing condition of its communications and transport, seemed to him too large to be ruled from one center; better divide it into three states federated only in mutual contacts and foreign affairs. He who had once denounced private property as the source of all evils now sanctioned Polish feudalism; he proposed to tax all land, but to leave present property rights intact. He hoped that serfdom would one day be abolished, but he did not advocate its early end; that, he thought, should wait until the serf had had more education. Everything, he insisted, depended upon the extension of education; to promote freedom faster than intelligence and moral character would be an open sesame to chaos and partition.

The partition was effected before Rousseau could finish his essay; in Poland, as in Corsica, Realpolitik ignored his philosophical legislation. This double frustration shared in embittering his final years, and it intensified his scorn of those philosophes who had praised as enlightened despots and philosopher kings those rulers—Frederick II, Catherine II, and Joseph II—who were dismembering Poland.

In 1772 he began another attempt to answer his enemies. He called it Dialogues: Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques. He worked on this 540-page book, on and off, for four years, and his mind darkened more and more as he proceeded. The foreword begged the reader to read all three dialogues thoroughly; “consider that this grace, which is asked of you by a heart burdened with sorrow, is a debt of justice which Heaven imposes upon you.”61 He admitted the “long-windedness, the repetitions, the verbiage, and the disorder of this composition,”62 but for fifteen years past (he said) there had been a conspiracy to defame him, and he must clear himself before dying. He denied any contradiction between the individualism of the Discourses and the collectivism of the Social Contract; he reminded his readers that he had never wished to destroy the sciences and the arts and return to barbarism. He described his works—especially Julie and Émile—as rich in virtue and tenderness, and asked how such books could have been written by so diseased a roué as his detractors had pictured him to be.63 He charged his enemies with burning him in effigy, and with serenading him in mockery.64 Even now, he complained, they kept watch on all his visitors, and stirred up his neighbors to insult him.65 He repeated the story of his birth, family, and youth, and described the gentleness and integrity of his character, but he confessed to laziness, “a taste for reverie,”66 and a tendency to create, on his solitary walks, an imaginary world in which for the moment he could be happy. He comforted himself with the prediction, “A day will come, I am confident, when good and honorable people will bless my memory and will weep over my fate.”67

To the final dialogue he added a chapter entitled “The History of This Work.” He told how, to bring his book to the attention of Paris and Versailles, he resolved to deposit a copy of the manuscript, with an address to Providence, on the high altar in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. This he tried to do on February 24, 1776. Finding the sanctuary barred by a railing, he sought side entrances to it; finding these locked, he grew dizzy, ran out of the church, and wandered in the streets in semi-delirium for hours before reaching his rooms.68 He composed a plea to the French people, entitled it “To All Frenchmen Who Still Love Justice and Truth,” copied it on handbills, and distributed these to passers-by in the streets. Several of these refused it, saying that it was not addressed to them.69He gave up his efforts, and resigned himself to defeat.

His excitement abated now that he was reconciled. He wrote at this time (1777-78) his most beautiful book, Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire. He told how the people of Môtiers had rejected him and had stoned his house, and how he had retired to the Île de St.-Pierre in the Lake of Bienne. There he had found happiness; and now, looking back upon that retreat, he pictured the quiet water, the inflowing streams, the verdure-covered island, and the polymorphous sky. He struck a new romantic note by suggesting that the meditative spirit may always find in nature something responsive to its mood. As we read those pages we ask ourselves, Could a man half insane write so well, so lucidly, at times so serenely? But then the old plaints recur, and Rousseau mourns again that he had cast off his children, that he had not had the simple courage to bring up a family. He saw a child playing; he returned to his room and “wept and expiated.”70

In those last years at Paris he envied the religious faith that lifted the life of the common people about him into a drama of death and resurrection. Sometimes he attended Catholic services. He visited a hermitage with Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and heard the monks reciting a litany. “Ah, how happy the man who can believe!”71 He could not believe,72 but he tried to behave like a Christian, giving alms, visiting and comforting the sick.73 He read and annotated Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.

Bitterness diminished in him as he approached death. When Voltaire arrived in Paris and received so many honors, Rousseau was jealous, but spoke well of his old enemy. He rebuked an acquaintance who had ridiculed the coronation of Voltaire at the Théâtre-Français: “How dare you mock the honors rendered to Voltaire in the temple of which he is the god, and by the priests who for fifty years have been living off his masterpieces?”74 When he heard that Voltaire was dying he predicted, “Our lives were linked to each other; I shall not survive him long.”75

When the spring of 1778 began to flower he asked that someone offer him a home in the country. Marquis René de Girardin invited him to occupy a cottage near his château at Ermenonville, some thirty miles from Paris. Jean-Jacques and Thérèse went on May 20. There he gathered botanical specimens, and taught botany to the Marquis’ ten-year-old son. On July 1 he dined heartily with the family of his host. The next morning he suffered an apoplectic stroke, and fell to the floor. Thérèse lifted him onto his bed, but he fell from it, and struck the tiled floor so sharply that his head was cut and blood poured out. Thérése cried out for help; the Marquis came, and found Rousseau dead.

Falsehoods pursued him to the end. Grimm and others spread the tale that Rousseau had committed suicide; Mme. de Staël later added that he had killed himself in grief over discovering Thérèse’s infidelity. This was an especially cruel story, for Thérèse’s comment, soon after his death, revealed her love for him: “If my husband was not a saint, who could be one?” Other gossip described Rousseau as dying insane; all who were with him in those final days described him as serene.

On July 4, 1778, he was buried on the Isle of Poplars in a small lake on the Girardin estate. For a long time this Île des Peupliers was a goal of pious pilgrimage; all the world of fashion—even the Queen—went out to worship at Rousseau’s tomb. On October 11, 1794, his remains were removed to the Panthéon, and were laid near those of Voltaire. From that haven of neighborly peace their spirits rose to renew their war for the soul of the Revolution, of France, and of Western man.

2. The Influence of Rousseau

So we end as we began, by contemplating, now in substantiation, the incredible effect of Rousseau upon the literature, pedagogy, philosophy, religion, morals, manners, art, and politics of the century that began with his death. Today much that he wrote seems exaggerated, sentimental, or absurd; only the Confessions and the Rêveries move us; but till yesterday his every word was being heard in one or another field of European or American thought. Rousseau, said Mme. de Staël, “invented nothing, but he set everything on fire.”76

First of all, of course, he was the mother of the Romantic movement. We have seen many others sowing its seed: Thomson, Collins, Gray, Richardson, Prévost, and Christianity itself, whose theology and art are the most marvelous romance of all. Rousseau matured the seeds in the hothouse of his emotions, and delivered the offspring, full-grown and fertile from birth, in the Discourses, La Nouvelle Héloïse, the Contrat social, Émile, and the Confessions.

But what shall we mean by the Romantic movement? The rebellion of feeling against reason, of instinct against intellect, of sentiment against judgment, of the subject against the object, of subjectivism against objectivity, of solitude against society, of imagination against reality, of myth and legend against history, of religion against science, of mysticism against ritual, of poetry and poetic prose against prose and prosaic poetry, of neo-Gothic against neoclassical art, of the feminine against the masculine, of romantic love against the marriage of convenience, of “Nature” and the “natural” against civilization and artifice, of emotional expression against conventional restraints, of individual freedom against social order, of youth against authority, of democracy against aristocracy, of man versus the state—in short, the revolt of the nineteenth century against the eighteenth, or, more precisely, of 1760-1859 against 1648-1760: all these are waves of the great Romantic tide that swept Europe between Rousseau and Darwin.

Now nearly every One of these elements found voice and sanction in Rousseau, and some support in the needs and spirit of the time. France had wearied of classic reason and aristocratic restraint. Rousseau’s exaltation of feeling offered liberation to suppressed instincts, to repressed sentiment, to oppressed individuals and classes. The Confessions became the bible of the Age of Feeling as the Encyclopédie had been the New Testament of the Age of Reason. Not that Rousseau rejected reason; on the contrary, he called it a divine gift, and accepted it as final judge;77 but (he felt) its cold light needed the warmth of the heart to inspire action, greatness, and virtue. “Sensibility” became the watchword of women and men. Women learned to faint, men to weep, more readily than before. They oscillated between joy and grief, and mingled both in their tears.

The Rousseauian revolution began at the mother’s breasts, which were now to be freed from stays; this part of the revolution, however, proved the hardest of all, and was won only after more than a century of alternating imprisonment and release. AfterÉmileFrench mothers nursed their infants, even at the opera, between arias.78 The child was freed from swaddling clothes, and was brought up directly by the parents. When it went to school it enjoyed—more in Switzerland than in France—education à la Rousseau. Since man was now considered good by nature, the pupil was to be viewed not as an imp of the perverse but as an angel whose wishes were the voice of God. His senses were no longer condemned as the instruments of Satan, but as doors to illuminating experiences and a thousand harmless delights. Classrooms were no longer to be prisons. Education was to be made natural and pleasant, through the unfolding and encouragement of inherent curiosities and powers. The stuffing of the memory with facts, the stifling of the mind with dogmas, were to be replaced by training in the arts of perceiving, calculating, and reasoning. As far as possible children were to learn not from books but from things—from plants in the field, rocks in the soil, clouds and stars in the skies. Enthusiasm for Rousseau’s educational ideas stimulated Pestalozzi and Lavater in Switzerland, Basedow in Germany, Maria Montessori in Italy, John Dewey in America; “progressive education” is part of the legacy of Rousseau. Inspired by Rousseau, Friedrich Froebel established the kindergarten system in Germany, whence it spread throughout the Western world.

Some breath of the Rousseauian afflatus reached art. The exaltation of children influenced Greuze and Mme. Vigée-Lebrun; the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites in England reflected the cult of pathos and mystery. Deeper was the effect on morals and manners. There was some growth in the warmth and fidelity of friendship, in mutual sacrifices and solicitude. Romantic love captured literature and made its way into life. Husbands could now love their wives without flouting convention; parents could love their children; the family was restored. “People had been smiling at adultery; Rousseau dared to make it a crime”79; it continued, but was no longer de rigueur. The idolatry of courtesans was replaced by pity for prostitutes. Contempt for convention resisted the tyranny of etiquette. Bourgeois virtues came into repute: industry, thrift, simplicity of manners and dress. Soon France would lengthen its culottes into trousers and be sans-culottes in pants as well as in politics. Rousseau shared with English horticulture in changing French gardens from Renaissance regularity to romantic curves and surprising turns, and sometimes to wild and “natural” disarray. Men and women went out from the city to the country, and married the moods of Nature to their own. Men climbed mountains. They sought solitude and fondled their egos.

Literature surrendered almost en masse to Rousseau and the Romantic wave. Goethe bathed Werther in love, nature, and tears (1774), and made Faust compress half of Rousseau in three words: “Gefühl ist Alles”— feeling is all. “Émile and its sentiments,” he recalled in 1787, “had a universal influence on the cultivated mind.”80 Schiller stressed the revolt against law in The Robbers (1781); he hailed Rousseau as a liberator and martyr, and compared him with Socrates.81 Herder, at a similar stage in development, cried, “Come, Rousseau, and be my guide.”82 The eloquence of Rousseau helped to free French poetry and drama from the rules of Boileau, the tradition of Corneille and Racine, and the rigors of classic style. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, fervent disciple of Rousseau, achieved a romantic classic in Paul et Virginie (1784). After the Napoleonic interlude the literary influence of Jean-Jacques triumphed in Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Musset, Vigny, Hugo, Gautier, Michelet, and George Sand. It mothered a brood of confessions, reveries, and novels of sentiment or passion. It favored the conception of genius as innate and lawless, the victor over tradition and discipline. In Italy it moved Leopardi; in Russia, Pushkin and Tolstoi; in England, Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats; in America, Hawthorne and Thoreau.

Half the philosophy of the century between La Nouvelle H éloïse (1761) and Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) is colored with the revolt of Rousseau against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Indeed, in a letter of 1751 to Bordes, Rousseau had already expressed his scorn of philosophy.83 He based this contempt on what he felt to be the impotence of reason to teach men virtue. Reason seems to have no moral sense; it will labor to defend any desire, however corrupt. Something else is needed—an inborn consciousness of right and wrong; and even this conscience has to be warmed with feeling if it is to engender virtue and make not a clever calculator but a good man.

This, of course, had been said by Pascal, but Pascal had been rejected by Voltaire, and in Germany the “rationalism” of Wolff was rising in the universities. When Immanuel Kant became professor at Königsberg he had already been convinced by Hume and thephilosophes that reason alone could give no adequate defense of even the fundamentals of the Christian theology. In Rousseau he found a way to save those fundamentals: deny the validity of reason in the suprasensible world; affirm the independence of mind, the primacy of will, and the absoluteness of innate conscience; and deduce the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God from man’s feeling of unconditional obligation to the moral law. Kant acknowledged his debt to Rousseau, hung a picture of him on his study wall, and declared him the Newton of the moral world.84 Other Germans felt the spirit of Rousseau upon them: Jacobi in his Gefühlphilosophie, Schleiermacher in his web-weaving mysticism, Schopenhauer in his enthronement of the will. The history of philosophy since Kant has been a contest between Rousseau and Voltaire.

Religion began by banning Rousseau, and went on to use him as its savior. Protestant leaders joined Catholic in declaring him an infidel; he was classed with Voltaire and Bayle as “spreading the poison of error and impiety.”85 Yet even in his lifetime there were laymen and clergymen who took comfort in hearing that the Savoyard Vicar had accepted with ardor the cardinal doctrines of Christianity, and had counseled doubters to return to their native faiths. On his flight from Switzerland in 1765 Rousseau was welcomed by the bishop of Strasbourg. After his return from England he found some French Catholics gratefully quoting him against unbelievers, and holding hopes for his triumphant conversion.

The theorists of the French Revolution tried to establish a morality independent of religious creeds; Robespierre, following Rousseau, gave up this attempt as a failure, and sought the support of religious beliefs in maintaining moral order and social content. He condemned the philosophes as rejecting God but keeping kings; Rousseau (said Robespierre) had risen above these cowards, had bravely attacked all kings, and had spoken in defense of God and immortality.86

In 1793 the rival legacies of Voltaire and Rousseau came to decision in the struggle between Jacques-René Hébert and Maximilien Robespierre. Hébert, a leader of the Paris Commune, followed Voltairean rationalism, encouraged the desecration of churches, and set up the public worship of the Goddess of Reason (1793). Robespierre had seen Rousseau in the philosopher’s final stay in Paris. He apostrophized Jean-Jacques: “Divine man! … I looked upon your august features; … I understood all the griefs of a noble life devoted to the worship of truth.”87 When Robespierre rose to power he persuaded the National Convention to adopt the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar as the official religion of the French nation; and in May, 1794, he inaugurated, in memory of Rousseau, the Festival of the Supreme Being. When he sent Hébert and others to the guillotine on a charge of atheism, he felt that he was following to the letter the counsels of Rousseau.

The agnostic Napoleon agreed with Robespierre on the need of religion, and realigned the French government with God (1802). The Catholic Church was fully restored with the French Bourbon Restoration (1814); it won the powerful pens of Chateaubriand, de Maistre, Lamartine, and Lamennais; but now the old faith leaned more and more on the rights of feeling rather than the arguments of theology; it fought Voltaire and Diderot with Pascal and Rousseau. Christianity, which had seemed moribund in 1760, flourished again in Victorian England and Restoration France.

Politically we are only now emerging from the age of Rousseau. The first sign of his political influence was in the wave of public sympathy that supported active French aid to the American Revolution. Jefferson derived the Declaration of Independence from Rousseau as well as from Locke and Montesquieu. As ambassador to France (1785-89) he absorbed much from both Voltaire and Rousseau; he echoed Jean-Jacques in supposing that the North American Indians “enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.”88 The success of the American Revolution raised the prestige of Rousseau’s political philosophy.

According to Mme. de Staël, Napoleon ascribed the French Revolution more to Rousseau than to any other writer.89 Edmund Burke thought that in the French Revolutionary Constituent Assembly (1789-91)

there is a great dispute, among their leaders, which of them is the best resemblance of Rousseau. In truth, they all resemble him. … Him they study, him they meditate; him they turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the day or the debauches of the night. Rousseau is their canon of Holy Writ; … to him they erect their first statue.90

Mallet Dupan in 1799 recalled that

Rousseau had a hundred times more readers among the middle and lower classes than Voltaire. He alone inoculated the French with the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people.... It would be difficult to cite a single revolutionist who was not transported over these anarchical theories, and who did not burn with ardor to realize them.... I heard Marat in 1788 read and comment on the Contrat social in the public streets to the applause of an enthusiastic auditory.91

Throughout France orators quoted Rousseau in preaching the sovereignty of the people; it was partly the ecstatic welcome given to this doctrine that enabled the Revolution to survive for a decade despite its enemies and its excesses.

Through all the alternations of revolutions and reaction, Rousseau’s influence on politics continued. Because of his contradictions, and because of the force and passion with which he proclaimed them, he served as prophet and saint to anarchists and socialists alike; for both these opposed gospels found nourishment in his condemnation of the rich and his sympathy for the poor. The individualism of the first Discourse, and its rejection of “civilization,” inspired rebels from Paine, Godwin, and Shelley to Tolstoi, Kropotkin, and Edward Carpenter. “At fifteen,” said Tolstoi, “I carried around my neck, instead of the usual cross, a medallion with Rousseau’s portrait.”92 The egalitarianism of the second Discourse provided a basic theme for the variations of socialist theory from “Gracchus” Babeuf through Charles Fourier and Karl Marx to Nikolai Lenin. “For a century now,” said Gustave Lanson, “all the progress of democracy, equality, universal suffrage, … all the claims of extreme parties that may be the wave of the future, the war against wealth and property, all the agitations of the working and suffering masses, have been in a sense the work of Rousseau.”93 He had not appealed to the learned and lofty with logic and argument; he had spoken to the people at large with feeling and passion in language that they could understand; and the ardor of his eloquence proved, in politics as in literature, mightier than the scepter of Voltaire’s pen.

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