The Letter to Christophe Beaumont pleased only a few freethinkers in France and a few political rebels in Switzerland. Of twenty-three “refutations” addressed to the author, nearly all were from Protestants. The Calvinist clergy of Geneva saw in the Letter an attack upon miracles and Biblical inspiration; to condone such heresies would be to invite again the danger to which they had been exposed by d’Alembert. Angry at the failure of Genevan liberals to speak out in his defense, Rousseau (May 12, 1763) sent to the Grand Council of Geneva a renunciation of his citizenship.
This action won some audible support. On June 18 a delegation submitted to the First Syndic of the republic a “Very Humble and Respectful Representation of Citizens and Burghers of Geneva,” which, among other grievances, complained that the judgment against Rousseau had been illegal, and that the confiscation of copies of Émile from Genevan bookstores had invaded property rights. The Council of Twenty-five rejected the protest, and in September the public prosecutor, Jean-Robert Tronchin (cousin of Voltaire’s doctor) issued Lettres écrites de la campagne, defending the disputed actions of the Council. The “Représentants” appealed to Rousseau to answer Tronchin. Never willing to let bad enough alone, Rousseau published (December, 1764) nine Lettres écrites de la montagne —a retort from his mountain home to the oligarchy of the Genevan plain. Furious against clergy as well as Council, he attacked Calvinism as well as Catholicism, and burned nearly all his bridges behind him.
Formally he addressed the letters to the leader of the Représentants. He began by dealing with the harm done to himself through the hasty condemnation of his books and his person, without any opportunity for defense. He admitted the imperfections of his books: “I myself have found a great number of errors in them; I doubt not that others may see many more, and that there are still others that neither I nor others have perceived. … After having heard both parties the public will judge; … the book will triumph or fall, and the case is closecf.”43 But was the book “pernicious”? Could anyone read La Nouvelle Héloïse and the “Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard” and really believe that their author intended to destroy religion? True, these writings sought to destroy superstition as “the most terrible plague of mankind, the sorrow of sages and the tool of tyranny”;44 but did they not affirm the necessity of religion? The author is accused of not believing in Christ; he believes in Christ, but in a different way from his accusers:
We recognize the authority of Jesus Christ because our intelligence agrees with his precepts and we find them sublime. … We admit revelation as emanating from the Spirit of God, without our knowing how. … Recognizing a divine authority in the Gospel, we believe that Jesus Christ was clothed with this authority; we recognize a more than human virtue in his conduct, and a more than human wisdom in his teaching.
The second letter (forgetting The Social Contract) denied the right of a civic council to judge in matters of religion. A basic principle of the Protestant Reformation, the right of the individual to interpret Scripture for himself, had been violated in condemningÉmile.45 “If you prove to me today that in matters of faith I am obliged to submit to the decisions of someone else, tomorrow I shall become a Catholic.”46 Rousseau admitted that the Reformers in their turn had become persecutors of individual interpretation,47 but this did not invalidate the principle without which the Protestant revolt against the papal authority would have been unjust. He accused the Calvinist clergy (“except my pastor”) of taking over the intolerant spirit of Catholicism; if they had been true to the spirit of the Reformation they would have defended his right to publish his own interpretation of the Bible. He now had a good word to say for d’Alembert’s view of the Genevan clergy:
A philosopher casts a quick glance upon them; he penetrates them, sees that they are Arians, Socinians; he says so, and thinks to do them honor; but he does not see that he is endangering their temporal interests—the only matter that generally determines, here below, the faith of men.48
In his third letter he took up the charge that he had rejected miracles. If we define a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature we can never know if anything is a miracle, for we do not know all the laws of nature.49 Even then every day saw a new “miracle” achieved by science, not in contravention, but through greater knowledge, of nature’s laws. “Anciently the Prophets made fire descend from the sky at their word; today children do as much with a little piece of [burning] glass.” Joshua made the sun stop; any almanac maker can promise the same result by calculating a solar eclipse.50 And as Europeans who perform such wonders among barbarians are thought by these to be gods, so the “miracles” of the past—even those of Jesus—may have been natural results misinterpreted by the populace as divine interruptions of natural law.51 Perhaps Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead, had not really been dead.—Besides, how can the “miracles” of a teacher prove the truth of his doctrine when teachers of doctrines generally considered false have performed “miracles” reported as equally real, as when the magicians of Egypt rivaled Aaron in turning wands into serpents?52 Christ warned against “false Christs” who “shall show great signs as wonders.”53
Rousseau had begun his letters with a view to helping the middle-class Représentants; he made no plea for the further extension of the franchise in a democratic direction. Indeed, in Letter vi he again committed himself to an elected “aristocracy” as the best form of government, and he assured the rulers of Geneva that the ideal which he had sketched in The Social Contract was essentially one with the Genevan constitution.54 But in Letter VII he told his friends of the protesting bourgeoisie that that constitution acknowledged the sovereignty of the enfranchised citizens only during the elections to the General Council and its annual assembly; for the remainder of the year the citizens were powerless.55 In all that long interval the small Council of Twenty-five was the “supreme arbiter of the laws, and thereby of the fate of all individuals.” In effect the citoyens et bourgeois, who appeared sovereign in the Conseil Général, became, after its adjournment, “the slaves of a despotic power, delivered defenseless to the mercy of twenty-five despots.”56 This was almost a call to revolution. However, Rousseau deprecated such a last resort. In his final letter he praised the bourgeoisie as the sanest and most peace-loving class in the state, caught between an opulent and oppressive patriciate and a “brutish and stupid populace”;57 but he advised the Représentants to keep their patience and trust to justice and time to right their wrongs.
The Lettres de la montagne offended Rousseau’s enemies and displeased his friends. The Genevan clergy were alarmed by his heresies, and still more by his claim that they shared them. Now he turned violently against the Calvinist ministers, called them “canaille, swindlers, stupid courtiers, mad wolves,” and expressed preference for the simple Catholic priests of the French villages and towns.58 The Représentants made no use of the Letters in their successful campaign for more political power; they considered Rousseau a dangerous and incalculable ally. He resolved to take no further part in Genevan politics.