Their next four years were their unhappiest. The Calvinist clergy of Neuchâtel publicly denounced Rousseau as a heretic, and the magistrates forbade the sale of Émile. Perhaps to appease them, or in sincere desire to follow the precepts of his “Vicar,” Rousseau asked the pastor at Môtiers might he join the congregation. (Thérèse remained Catholic.) He was accepted, attended worship, and received Communion “with an emotion of heart, and my eyes suffused with tears of tenderness.”20 He gave a handle to ridicule by adopting Armenian costume—fur bonnet, caftan, and girdle; the long robe allowed him to conceal the effects of his urinary obstruction. He attended church in this garb, and wore it in visiting Lord Keith, who made no comment upon it except to wish himsalaam aleikum. He continued to add to his income by copying music; now he added needlework, and learned to make lace. “Like the women, I carried my cushion with me when I made visits, or sat down to work at my door. … This enabled me to pass my time with my female neighbors without weariness.”21
Probably about this time (late 1762) his publishers prevailed upon him to begin writing his Confessions. He had forsworn authorship, but this would not be authorship so much as a defense of his character and conduct against a world of enemies, and especially against charges of the philosophes and the gossip of the salons. Furthermore, he had to answer a great variety of correspondence. Women especially offered him the consoling incense of their adoration, and not only because of their sympathy with the hunted author of a famous romance, but because they longed to revert to religion, and saw in the Savoyard Vicar and his creator no real foe of faith but its brave champion against a desolating atheism. For such women, and several men, he became a father confessor, a director of souls and consciences. He advised them to remain in, or return to, the religion of their youth, regardless of all the difficulties that science and philosophy had suggested; those incredibilities were not of the essence, and might be silently put aside; what mattered was trust in God and immortality; with that faith and hope one could rise above all the unintelligible disasters of nature, all the pains and griefs of life. A young Catholic in rebellion against his religion asked for sympathy; Rousseau, forgetting his own rebellions, told him not to make so much ado about incidentals: “if I had been born Catholic I would have remained Catholic, knowing well that your Church puts a very salutary restraint upon the wanderings of human reason, which finds neither bottom nor bank when it would sound the abysses of things.”22 To nearly all these suitors for wisdom he advised a flight from the city to the country, from artifice and complexity to a natural simplicity of life, and a modest contentment with marriage and parenthood.
Women who had been shocked by worldly priests and agnostic abbés fell in love, if only through correspondence, with this unworldly heretic whom all the churches denounced. Mme. de Blot, titled and respected, exclaimed to a company of lords and ladies, “Only the loftiest virtue could keep a woman of true sensibility from devoting her life to Rousseau, if she were certain he would love her passionately.”23 Mme. de La Tour mistook some compliments in his letters for an avowal of love; she responded tenderly, warmly, effusively; she sent him her portrait, protesting that it did not do her justice; she grew despondent when he replied with the calmness of a man who had never seen her.24 Yet other worshipers wished to kiss the ground he walked on; some raised altars to him in their hearts; some called him the reborn Christ. At times he took them seriously, and thought of himself as the crucified founder of a new faith.25
Amid these exaltations, and as if to confirm the analogy, a high priest of the Temple aroused the people to condemn him as a dangerous revolutionary. On August 20, 1762, Christophe de Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, issued a mandate to all priests in his diocese to read to their congregations, and to publish to the world, his twenty-nine-page denunciation of Émile. He was a man of rigorous orthodoxy and saintly repute; he had fought against the Jansenists, the Encyclopédie, and the philosophes; now it seemed to him that Rousseau, after apparently breaking away from the infidels, had joined them in attacking the faith upon which, in the Archbishop’s view, rested the whole social order and moral life of France.
He began by quoting St. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy: “There will come perilous days of men enamored of themselves, bold and proud blasphemers, impious calumniators swollen with arrogance, lovers of pleasure rather than God, men corrupt in spirit and perverse in faith.”26 Surely those times had come!
Unbelief, emboldened by all the passions, presents itself under every form to adapt itself in some way to all ages, characters, and degrees. Sometimes … it borrows a style light, agreeable, and frivolous; hence so many tales, as obscene as they are impious [Voltaire’s romans], amusing the imagination as a means of seducing the mind and corrupting the heart. Sometimes, affecting profundity and sublimity in its views, it pretends to go back to the first principles of knowledge, and to assume divine authority, in order to throw off a yoke which, they say, dishonors mankind. Sometimes it declaims like a raging woman against religious zeal, and yet with enthusiasm preaches universal toleration. And sometimes, uniting all these diverse manners of speech, it mixes the serious with the playful, pure maxims with obscenities, great truths with great errors, the Faith with blasphemy; in a word, it undertakes to reconcile light with darkness, Jesus Christ with Belial.27
This, said the Archbishop, was especially the method of Émile, a book full of the language of philosophy without being truly philosophy; replete with bits of knowledge which have not enlightened the author and must only confuse his readers; a man given to paradoxes of opinions and conduct, allying simplicity of manners with pomp of thought, ancient maxims with a madness of innovation, the obscurity of his retreat with the desire to be known by all the world. He denounces the sciences, and cultivates them; he praises the excellence of the Gospel, and destroys its teachings. He has made himself the Preceptor of the Human Race to deceive it, the Monitor of the Public to mislead the world, the Oracle of the Century to destroy it. What an enterprise!28
The Archbishop was appalled by Rousseau’s proposal to make no mention of God or religion to Émile before the age of twelve, or even eighteen. So, then, “all nature would in vain have declared the glory of their Creator,” and all moral instruction would forfeit the support of religious faith. But man is not by nature good, as the author supposed; he is born with the taint of original sin; he shares in the general corruption of humanity. The wise educator—best of all, a priest guided by divine grace—will use every just means to nourish the good impulses in men, and to weed out the evil; therefore he will feed the child with “the spiritual milk of religion, that it may grow toward salvation”; only by such education can the child develop into a “sincere worshiper of the true God, and a faithful subject of the sovereign.”29 So much sin and crime survive even this assiduous instruction; imagine what they would be without it. A torrent of wickedness would engulf us.30
For these reasons, concluded the Archbishop,
after having consulted several persons distinguished for their piety and wisdom, and having invoked the holy name of God, we condemn the said book as containing an abominable doctrine subversive of natural law and the foundations of the Christian religion; as establishing principles contrary to the moral teaching of the Gospels; as tending to disturb the peace of states and lead the revolt against the authority of the sovereign; as containing a very great number of propositions false, scandalous, full of hatred against the Church and her ministers. … Therefore we expressly forbid each and every person in our diocese to read or keep the said book, under the penalties of the law.31
This mandate was printed “with the privilege of the King,” and soon reached Môtiers-Travers. Rousseau, always resolving to write no more, decided to reply. Before he put down his pen (November 18, 1762) he had let his answer run to 128 pages. It was printed at Amsterdam in March, 1763, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citoyen de Genève, à Christophe de Beaumont, Archevêque de Paris. It was soon condemned by the Parlement of Paris and the Council of Geneva. Attacked by both the leading religions of Europe, Rousseau retaliated by assailing them both; now the shy romantic who had disowned the philosophes repeated their arguments with reckless audacity.
He opened with a question that all opponents in the unending debate still ask of each other: “Why must I say anything to you, monseigneur? What common language can we speak, how can we understand each other?”32 He regretted that he had ever written books; he had not done this till he was thirty-eight, and he had fallen into this error by the accident of noticing that “miserable question” of the Dijon Academy. The critics of his Discourse had led him to reply; “dispute led to dispute, … and I found myself, so to speak, becoming an author at an age when one usually abandons authorship”; from that time to this, “repose and friends have disappeared.”33 In all his career, he claimed, he had been
more ardent than enlightened, … but sincere in everything; … simple and good, but sensitive and weak, often doing evil and always loving the good; … adhering rather to my sentiments than to my interests; … fearing God without fearing hell; reasoning on religion, but without libertinage; loving neither impiety nor fanaticism, but hating the intolerant more than the freethinkers; … confessing my faults to my friends and my opinions to all the world.34
He mourned less the Catholic than the Calvinist condemnation of Émile. He who had proudly called himself Citoyen de Genève had fled from France hoping to breathe in his native city the air of freedom, and to find there a welcome that would console him for his humiliations. But now “what am I to say? My heart closes up, my hand trembles, the pen falls from it. I must be silent; … I must consume in secret the bitterest of my griefs.”35 Behold the man who, “in the century so celebrated for philosophy, reason, and humanity,” dared to “defend the cause of God”—behold him “branded, proscribed, hunted from country to country, from refuge to refuge, without regard for his poverty, without pity for his infirmities”; finding asylum at last under “an illustrious and enlightened prince,” and secluding himself in a little village hidden among the mountains of Switzerland; thinking at last to find obscurity and peace, but pursued even there by the anathemas of priests. This Archbishop, “a virtuous man, as noble in soul as in birth,” should have reproved the persecutors; instead, he authorized them shamelessly, “he who should have pleaded the cause of the oppressed.”36
Rousseau perceived that the Archbishop was particularly offended by the doctrine that men are born good, or at least not evil; Beaumont realized that if this were true, if man is not tainted at birth by inheriting the guilt of Adam and Eve, then the doctrine of atonement by Christ would fall; and this doctrine was the very heart of the Christian creed. Rousseau answered that the doctrine of original sin is nowhere clearly stated in the Bible. He realized that the Archbishop was shocked by the proposal to defer religious instruction; he replied that the education of children by nuns and priests had not lessened sin or crime; those pupils, grown up, had lost their fear of hell, and preferred a small pleasure at hand to all Paradise in promise; and those priests themselves—were they models of virtue in contemporary France?37 Nevertheless, “I am a Christian, sincerely Christian, according to the doctrine of the Gospel; not a Christian as a disciple of the priests, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Then, with an eye on Geneva, Rousseau added: “Happy to have been born in the holiest and most reasonable religion on the earth, I remain inviolably attached to the faith of my fathers. Like them, I take Scripture and reason as the sole rules of my belief.”38 He felt the reproach of those who told him that “though all men of intelligence think as you do, it is not good that the commonalty [le vulgaire] should think so.”
This is what they cry out to me on every side; this perhaps is what you yourself would tell me if we two were alone in your study. Such are men; they change their language with their clothes; they speak the truth only in their dressing gowns; in their public dress they know only how to lie. And not only are they deceivers and impostors in the face of mankind, but they are not ashamed to punish, against their own conscience, whoever refuses to be public cheats and liars like themselves.39
This difference between what we believe and what we preach is at the heart of the corruption in modern civilization. There are prejudices which we should respect, but not if they turn education into a massive deception and undermine the moral basis of society.40And if those prejudices become murderous shall we still be silent about their crimes?
I do not say, nor do I think, that there is no good religion, … but I do say … that there is none, among those which have been dominant, that has not inflicted cruel wounds upon humanity. All sects have tormented others, all have offered to God the sacrifice of human blood. Whatever may be the source of these contradictions, they exist; is it a crime to wish to remove them?41
Toward the end of his reply Rousseau defended his Émile lovingly, and wondered why no statue had been raised to its author.
Assuming that I have made some mistakes, even that I have always been wrong, is no indulgence due to a book in which one feels everywhere—even in its errors, even in the harm that may be in it—a sincere love of the good and a zeal for the truth? … A book which breathes only peace, gentleness, patience, love of Order, and obedience to the laws in everything, even in the matter of religion? A book in which the cause of religion is so well established, where morals are so respected, … where wickedness is painted as folly, and virtue as so lovable? … Yes, I do not fear to say it: if there were in Europe a single government truly enlightened, … it would render public honors to the author ofÉmile, it would raise statues to him. I know men too well to expect such recognition; I did not know them well enough to expect that which they have done.42
They have raised statues to him.