IV. THE BREAK WITH THE PHILOSOPHES

His new home was in what he called the jardin de Mont-Louis; a “single chamber” fronted with a lawn, and, at the end of the garden, an old tower with an “alcove quite open to the air.” When visitors came he had to receive them “in the midst of my dirty plates and broken pots,” and he trembled lest “the floor, rotten and falling to ruin,” should collapse under his guests. He did not mind his poverty; he earned enough by copying music; he rejoiced in being a competent artisan,43 no longer a rich woman’s retainer. When kindly neighbors sent him gifts he resented them; he felt that to receive more than one gives is a humiliation. The Prince de Conti twice sent him pullets; he told the Comtesse de Boufflers that a third gift would be returned.

We should note, in passing, how many aristocrats helped the rebels of the Enlightenment, not so much through agreement with their views as through generous sympathy with genius in need. There were many elements of nobility in the nobles of the Old Regime. And Rousseau, who denounced the aristocracy, was especially befriended by it. Sometimes the proud artisan forgot himself, and boasted of his titled friends. Speaking of his lawn he wrote:

That terrace was my drawing room, wherein I received M. and Mme. de Luxembourg, the Duc de Villeroi, the Prince de Tingry, the Marquis d’Armentières, the Duchesse de Montmorency, the Duchesse de Boufflers,* the Comtesse de Valentinois, the Comtesse de Boufflers, and other persons of the same rank, who … deigned to make the pilgrimage to Mont-Louis.44

Not far from Rousseau’s cottage was the home of the Maréchal and Maréchale de Luxembourg. Soon after his arrival they invited him to dinner; he refused. They repeated the invitation in the summer of 1758; he again refused. Toward Easter of 1759 they came, with half a dozen titled friends, to beard him in his retreat. He was frightened; the Maréchale, as Duchesse de Boufflers, had earned a reputation for charming too many men. But she had outlived her sins, and had matured into a woman of maternal rather than merely sexual charm; soon she thawed his shy reserve, and aroused him into lively conversation. The visitors wondered why a man of such parts should be living in such poverty. The Maréchal invited Rousseau and Thérèse to come and live with him until the cottage could be repaired; Jean-Jacques still resisted; finally he and Thérèse were persuaded to occupy for a time the “Petit Château” on the Luxembourg estate. They moved into it in May, 1759. Sometimes Rousseau visited the Luxembourgs in their luxurious home; there he was easily induced to read to them and their guests some parts of the novel that he was completing. After a few weeks he and Thérèse returned to their own cottage, but he continued to visit the Luxembourgs, and they remained loyal to him through all the perturbations of his moods. Grimm complained that Rousseau “had left his old friends and replaced us with people of the highest rank,”45 but it was Grimm who had rejected Rousseau. In a letter of January 28, 1762, to Malesherbes Jean-Jacques answered those who accused him of both denouncing and courting the nobility:

Sir, I have a violent aversion to the social classes that dominate others. … I have no trouble admitting this to you, scion of illustrious blood.... I hate the great, I hate their position, their harshness, their prejudices, … their vices.... It was in such a frame of mind I went as one dragged along to the château [of the Luxembourgs] at Montmorency. Then I saw the masters; they loved me, and I, sir, loved them, and will love them as long as I live.... I would give them, I will not say my life, for that gift would be a feeble one; … but I will give them the only glory that has ever touched my heart—the honor I expect from posterity, and which it will certainly pay me, because this is due me, and posterity is always just.

One former friend he had hoped to keep—Mme. d’Houdetot; but Saint-Lambert reproached her for the gossip in which Paris linked her name with Rousseau’s, and she bade Rousseau refrain from addressing letters to her. He remembered that he had confessed his passion for her to Diderot; now he concluded that it was Diderot who had babbled about it in the salons, and “I resolved to break with him forever.”46

He chose the worst possible moment and means. On July 27, 1758, Hel-vétius had published, in De l’Esprit, a powerful attack upon the Catholic clergy. The resultant furor led to a rising demand for the suppression of the Encyclopédie (then seven volumes old) and all writings critical of Church or state. Volume VII contained d’Alembert’s rash article on Geneva, lauding the Calvinist clergy for their secret Unitarianism, and pleading with the Genevan authorities to allow the establishment of a theater. In October, 1758, Rousseau published his Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles. Moderate in tone, it was nevertheless a declaration of war against the Age of Reason, against the irreligion and immorality of mid-eighteenth-century France. In the preface Rousseau went out of his way to repudiate Diderot, without naming him: “I had an Aristarchus, severe and judicious. I have him no more; I want no more of him; but I shall regret him unceasingly, and my heart misses him even more than my writings.” And in a footnote he added, believing that Diderot had betrayed him to Saint-Lambert:

If you have drawn a sword against a friend, don’t despair, for there is a way to return it to him. If you have made him unhappy by your words, fear not, for it is possible to be reconciled with him. But for outrage, hurtful reproach, the revelation of a secret, and the wound done to his heart by betrayal, there is no grace in his eyes; he will go away from you and never return.47

The letter, 135 pages in translation* was in part a defense of religion as publicly preached in Geneva. As his Émile would soon indicate, Rousseau was himself a Unitarian—rejecting the divinity of Christ; but in applying for Genevan citizenship he had professed the full Calvinist creed; in this Lettre he defended the orthodox faith, and belief in a divine revelation, as indispensable aids to popular morality. “What can be proved by reason to the majority of men is only the interested calculation of personal benefit”; hence a merely “natural religion” would let morality degenerate into nothing more than avoidance of detection.

But theology was a minor issue in Rousseau’s argument; his frontal assault was upon d’Alembert’s proposal that a theater should be legalized in Geneva. Here the secret enemy was not d’Alembert but Voltaire: Voltaire whose fame as a resident of Geneva irritably outshone Rousseau’s glory as Citoyen de Genève; Voltaire who had dared to stage plays in or near Geneva, and who doubtless had prompted d’Alembert to insert a plea for a Genevan theater in an Encyclopédie article. What? Introduce into a city famous for its Puritan morals a form of entertainment that had almost everywhere glorified immorality? Tragic dramas nearly always pictured crime; they did not purge the passions, as Aristotle thought; they inflamed the passions, especially of sex and violence. Comedies seldom represented wholesome married love; often they laughed at virtue, as even Molière had done in Le Misanthrope. All the world knew that actors led lawless and immoral lives, and that most of the alluring actresses of the French stage were paragons of promiscuity, serving as centers and sources of corruption in a society that idolized them. Perhaps, in large cities like Paris and London, these evils of the stage affect only a small part of the population, but in a small city like Geneva (with only 24,000 population) the poison would spread through all ranks, and the representations would stir up newfangled notions and party strife.48

So far Rousseau had echoed the Puritan, or Calvinist, view of the theater; he was saying in France in 1758 what Stephen Gosson had said in England in 1579, William Prynne in 1632, Jeremy Collier in 1698. But Rousseau did not confine himself to denunciation. He was no Puritan; he advocated balls and dances under public sponsorship and supervision. There should be public amusements, but of a social and wholesome kind, like picnics, open-air games, festivals, parades. (Here Rousseau added an animated description of a regatta on Lake Geneva.49)

The Letter, he tells us, “had a great success.” Paris was beginning to tire of immorality; there was no further zest in unconventional deviations that had themselves become conventional. The city was surfeited with men who behaved like women, and women who itched to be like men. It had had enough of classic drama and its stilted forms. It saw how poor a showing Mme. de Pompadour’s generals and soldiers were making against Frederick’s Spartan troops. To hear a philosopher speak well of virtue was a refreshing experience. The moral influence of the Letter would grow until, with Rousseau’s other writings, it would share in producing an almost revolutionary return to decency under Louis XVI.

The philosophes could not foresee this. What they felt in Rousseau’s proclamation was an act of betrayal: he had attacked them in the moment of their greatest danger. In January, 1759, the government finally forbade the publication or sale of theEncyclopédie.When Rousseau denounced the morals of Paris his former intimates, recalling his pursuit of Mme. d’Houdetot, condemned him a hypocrite. When he denounced the stage they pointed out that he had written Le Devin du village and Narcisse for the stage, and had frequented the theater. Saint-Lambert rejected with a harsh message (October 10, 1758) the copy which Rousseau had sent him of the Letter:

I cannot accept the present you have offered me. … You may, for aught I know to the contrary, have reason to complain of Diderot, but this does not give you a right to insult him publicly. You are not unacquainted with the nature of the persecutions which he suffers.... I cannot refrain from telling you, sir, how much this heinous act of yours has shocked me. … You and I differ too much in our principles ever to be agreeable to each other. Forget that I exist.... I promise to forget your person, and to remember nothing about you but your talents.50

Mme. d’Épinay, however, on her return from Geneva, thanked Rousseau for the copy that he had directed to her, and invited him to dinner. He went, and met Saint-Lambert and Mme. d’Houdetot for the last time.

From Geneva came a dozen letters of praise. Encouraged by Rousseau’s stand, the Genevan magistrates forbade Voltaire to stage any further theatricals on Genevan soil. Voltaire removed his dramatic properties to Tourney, and transferred his residence to Ferney. He felt the sting of defeat. He branded Rousseau as a deserter and apostate, and mourned that the little flock of philosophes had fallen into a self-consuming strife. “The infamous Jean-Jacques,” he wrote, “is the Judas of the brotherhood.”51 Rousseau retorted in a letter (January 29, 1760) to the Genevan pastor Paul Moultou:

You speak to me of that man Voltaire? Why does the name of that buffoon sully your correspondence? That miserable fellow has ruined my country [Geneva]. I would hate him more if I despised him less. I only see in his great gifts something additionally shameful, which dishonors him by the use he makes of them. … Oh, citizens of Geneva, he makes you pay well for the refuge you have given him!52

It grieved Rousseau to learn that Voltaire was producing plays at Tourney, and that many citizens of Geneva were crossing the frontiers into France to witness these performances—some even to take part in them. His resentment found an added casus belli when his letter to Voltaire on the Lisbon earthquake was printed in a Berlin journal (1760), apparently through Voltaire’s careless lending of the manuscript to a friend. Now (June 17) Rousseau sent to Voltaire one of the most extraordinary letters in the correspondence of this turbulent age. After reproaching Voltaire for the unauthorized publication, he proceeded:

I don’t like you, monsieur. To me, your disciple and enthusiast, you have done the most painful injuries. You have ruined Geneva as a reward for the asylum that you received there. You have alienated my fellow citizens from me as a reward for the praises I gave you among them. It is you who make it unbearable for me to live in my own country; you who will compel me to die on foreign soil, deprived of all the consolations of the dying, and thrown dishonored upon some refuse heap, while all the honors that a man can expect will attend you in my native land. In short, I hate you, since you have willed it so; but I hate you with the feelings of one still capable of loving you, if you had desired it. Of all the feelings with which my heart was filled for you, there remains only admiration for your fine genius, and love for your writings. If I honor in you only your talents it is not my fault. I shall never be found wanting in the respect which is due them, nor in the behavior which that respect demands.53

Voltaire did not answer, but privately he called Rousseau “charlatan,” “madman,” “little monkey,” and “miserable fool.”54 In correspondence with d’Alembert he showed himself quite as sensitive and passionate as Jean-Jacques.

I have received a long letter from Rousseau. He has gone completely mad. … He writes against the stage after having written a bad comedy himself; he writes against France, which nourishes him; he finds four or five rotten staves from the barrel of Diogenes and climbs into them in order to bark at us; he abandons his friends. He writes to me—to me!—the most insulting letter that a fanatic ever scrawled.... If he were not an inconsequential poor pygmy of a man, swollen with vanity, there would be no great harm done; but he has added to the insolence of his letter the infamy of intriguing with Socinian pedants here in order to prevent me from having a theater of my own at Tourney, or at least preventing the citizens from playing there with me. If he meant by this base trick to prepare for himself a triumphant return to the low streets whence he sprang, it is the action of a scoundrel, and I shall never pardon him. I would have avenged myself on Plato if he had played a trick of that sort on me; even more on the lackey of Diogenes. The author of the Nouvelle Aloïsa is nothing but a vicious knave.55

In these two letters of the two most famous writers of the eighteenth century we see, behind the supposedly impersonal currents of the time, the nerves that felt keenly every blow in the conflict, and the common human vanity that throbs in the hearts of philosophers and saints.

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