Two centuries after his birth, JeanJacques Rousseau continues to exert a potent and disturbing influence; we still have among us his ardent advocates, his bitter enemies.1 For the most part, during the century that follows the death of any mere writer of books, he falls back into the historic background; the battles that may once have raged round him have subsided; and those persons who are still sufficiently interested to like or dislike his work combine to adjust him in the niche, large or small, which ho is henceforth destined to occupy. It is so even with the greatest. Less than a century has passed since Goethe died; for some he is in the modern world ‘the master of those who know’; for others he is ‘a colossal sentimentalist’; but each party recognizes that it has something big to deal with, and there is no longer any inclination to fall into violent dispute.
Not so with Rousseau. This man — who filled the second half of the eighteenth century, who inspired most of the literary and even social movements of the nineteenth century — remains a living and even distracting force in the twentieth century. At the present time there is probably more written about Rousseau than about any contemporary man of letters, with the possible exception of Tolstoy; and Tolstoy, we may remember, was an avowed disciple of Rousseau. We have made up our minds about Voltaire, even about Diderot; but we have not made up our minds about Rousseau. According to the point of view, and the special group of alleged acts on which attention is concentrated, Rousseau figures as the meanest of mankind, as a degenerate pervert, as an unfortunate lunatic, as a suffering and struggling man of genius, as the noble pioneer of all the great humanitarian and progressive movements in the modern world, and as the seductive and empty rhetorician who is leading society astray from the orderly paths of civilization into the abyss of anarchism.
It is not the least remarkable feature of this polemical literature, that often it most magnifies the influence of Rousseau when it is most hostile to that influence. Mrs. Frederika Macdonald, who brings twenty years of scholarship and patient research in archives to the service of the thesis that Rousseau was the victim of a deliberate conspiracy on the part of so-called friends, is content to fix her attention on the human fate of a much-suffering and greatly abused hero. Thomas Davidson, the erratic philosopher and ‘wandering scholar,’ who wrote a book to prove that Rousseau was the incarnation of all the evil and disorderly elements in modern thought and modern life, yet leaves on the reader the impression of a mighty force which it would be idle to combat, ‘ the father of democracy,’ ‘ the father of Modern Political Science,’ ‘the father of modern pedagogy,’ ‘the parent of Socialism,’ and the completest exemplification of the ‘ tendencies and aspirations comprehended under the one term individualism’;—it seems that there can be nothing left for any one else to father. Pierre Lasserre, again, who, in Le Romantisme Français, has with fine literary skill and relentless logic comprehensively attacked the Romantic Movement, regards Rousseau and the Romantic Movement as identical, as alike ‘the genius of evil,’ ‘the modern disease,’ ‘the most subversive torrent that has ever been unchained among men’; until, as Remy de Gourmont’s alter ego, M. Delarue, puts it, we begin to wonder how such a flood of horrors as the nineteenth century, can ever have had any existence except in the imagination of a morbid brain.
The prestige of Rousseau has thus been maintained, not only by those who reverence his name, but equally by those who look upon him as the incarnation of evil, whether they are representatives of the ancient objective hierarchical ‘classical’ mode of thinking, of which Davidson was a belated survivor, or whether they represent a new objective systematization, as was the case with Comte, who, it may be recalled, had devised, for the purpose of denoting everything he most objected to, the adjective ‘Roussien.’
The antagonists of Rousseau have been inspired in their attack by the conviction that they were defending the sacred cause of civilization. And yet, such is the irony of things, they have laid themselves open to the charge that they are themselves attacking the movements and the personages who are in modern times the banner-bearers, the very incarnation, of civilization.
Since those who revile the name of Rousseau are at one with those who adore it, in magnifying the extent of his influence, it becomes easier than it would otherwise be to estimate what our modern world presumably owes to Rousseau. It may be interesting to touch on two of these things: the Revolution and Romanticism.
The whole Revolution, say its friends and its enemies alike, was Rousseau. Berthelot, the great man of science, declared it in solemn admiration a quarter of a century ago. Lasserre, the acute critic, declares it in bitter indignation to-day. Rousseau was not, indeed, consciously working toward the Revolution, and he would have loathed its protagonists who acted in his name, just as Jesus would have loathed the scribes and Pharisees who have masqueraded in his church. But, as we look back, it is easy to see how Rousseau’s work, and Rousseau’s alone, among the men of his generation, pointed to revolution. Theirs appealed to intelligence, to good sense, to fine feeling, to elevated humanitarianism; but it is not these things of which revolutions are made. Rousseau appealed to fundamental instincts, to soaring aspirations, to blind passions, to the volcanic eruptive elements in human nature, and we are at once amid the force of revolution. No wonder that all the men of the Revolution fed themselves on Rousseau’s words. Not a single revolutionary, Mallet du Pan noted in 1789, but was carried away by Rousseau’s doctrines, and burning to realize them. Marat was seen in public enthusiastically reading aloud the Contrat Social; and Charlotte Corday, who slew Marat, was equally the fervent disciple of Rousseau.
There was one other man besides Rousseau who had a supreme part in moulding the Revolution, at all events in its final outcome. It is interesting to hear that this man, Napoleon, once declared to Lord Holland that without ‘that bad man,’ Rousseau, there would have been no Revolution. Since the Christianization of the Roman Empire there have been four great movements of the human spirit in Christendom,— the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Revolution. Three of these movements have been so diffused in time and space that we are scarcely justified in closely associating even one of them with the influence of a single man. But the Revolution, incalculably vast as its results have been, was narrowly circumscribed. It is comparatively easy to measure it, and when so measured its friends and its foes ascribe it —so far as any complex social-economic movement can be associated with one man—to Rousseau.
Mainly by virtue of his relation to the Revolution, Rousseau is claimed as the pioneer of modern democracy, alike in its direction toward socialism and its direction toward anarchism. For both these democratic movements — the collectivistic as well as the individualistic— rest on those natural instincts which it was Rousseau’s mission to proclaim. The democracy which insists that the whole shall embody every unit, and the democracy which insists that each unit shall have its own rights against the whole, alike appeal to deep emotional reasons to which the humblest respond. ‘There would have been no republic without Rousseau,’ says Lemaître. Republicanism, socialism, anarchism — these are the three democratic movements which have been slowly permeating and transforming the political societies of men since the great Revolution of 1789, and we are asked to believe that the germs of all were scattered abroad by this one man, Rousseau.
The chorus of voices which acclaims or accuses Rousseau as the creator of Romanticism is even greater than that which finds in him the inventor of Revolutionary democracy. The revolutionary movement and the romantic movement are one, we are told, and Rousseau was responsible for both. What, it may be asked, is Romanticism? There is not much agreement on this point. Lasserre, one of its ablest and most absolute opponents, tells us that it is ‘a general revolution of the human soul,’ which may be described as ‘a system of feeling and acting conformably to the supposed primitive nature of mankind’; and since we do not know what the primitive nature of mankind is, Romanticism becomes, in opposit ion to the classical spirit in general, and the Gallic spirit in particular, ‘absolute individualism in thought and feeling’; or, in other words, ‘a disorder of the feelings and ideas which overturns the whole economy of civilized human nature.’ This definition is itself individualistic, — and therefore on the theory, romantic, — but it may for the moment serve. Fortunately, though there is no agreement as to what Romanticism is, there is less dispute as to the writers who may be termed Romantic.
It is a remarkable fact that though Rousseau so largely filled the second half of the eighteenth century, he had little influence on its literature in France. He was the adored prophet, preacher, teacher, but not the inspired and inspiring artist with a new revelation of nature peculiarly apt for literary uses. Beaumarchais, who here dominated that period, belongs to altogether another tradition. Only Bernardin de Saint-Pierre was the follower, as he was also the friend, of Rousseau, and Paul et Virginie opens the great literary tradition of Rousseau. The first notable names in French literature which we can at all associate with Rousseau are dubious names, more dubious perhaps than they deserve to be, but still distinctly dubious. It is highly probable that the Confessions moved Casanova to write his own immortal Mémoires. It is certain that they inspired that interesting picture of an unwholesome mind, the Monsieur Nicolas of Rétif de la Bretonne, — the ‘Rousseau du ruisseau,’ as he has been wittily and accurately termed. We must even recognize that Rousseau was the adored exemplar of the Marquis de Sade, who, in Aline et Valcour, makes Valcour, here speaking probably for his author, assert that Rousseau encouraged him to devote himself to literature and philosophy. ‘It was in the conversation of this deep philosopher, of this true friend of Nature and of Man, that I acquired my dominant passion for literature and the arts.’
In Germany, earlier than elsewhere, the influence of Rousseau was profoundly felt by men of an altogether different type of character. In France Rousseau could only be potent by stimulating a revolutionary reaction against everything which had long been regarded as the classic norm from which no deviation was possible; that was why the morbid and unsound personalities in literature, rightly finding a real point of contact with Rousseau, felt his influence first. But an altogether different tradition, if we look beyond cosmopolitan aristocratic circles, prevailed in Germany. There the subjective emotionalism of Rousseau, his constant appeal to the ultimate standard of nature, were so congenial to the Teutonic spirit that they acted as an immediate liberating force. Rousseau was Kant’s supreme master; only one portrait, Rousseau’s, hung on the walls of the philosopher’s simple study; all his doctrines in the three ‘Critiques’ may be regarded (Thomas Davidson has ingeniously argued) as a formal crystallization of Rousseau’s fluid eloquence. Fichte also was largely moulded by Rousseau, as were Herder and Lessing. Goethe, in the final stages of his long development, aimed at serenely objective Neo-classic ideals, which were far indeed from Rousseau, but at the outset he was as thorough a disciple as Kant. He went on pilgrimage to the beautiful island in the Lake of Bienne once hallowed by Rousseau’s presence; his Werther is manifestly the younger brother of Saint-Preux, and it may be, as some have claimed, that without Rousseau there could have been no Faust.
It was not until the nineteenth century that the Romantic movement finally burst into magnificent life in France. Chateaubriand appears as the quintessence of Romanticism, a more pure embodiment of its literary quality than even Rousseau himself. Sénancour, especially as he shows himself in his Obermann, was an equally typical and much more genuine representative of the movement. Madame de Staël, one of the first to write about Rousseau, was penetrated by his spirit, and became the revealer to France of Romantic Germany. Alfred de Musset was a Romantic through Byron, rather than directly from Rousseau. Victor Hugo, Lamartine, George Sand, even at times Balzac, all belonged to Romanticism. Michelet, writing history by the sole light of his own personal emotions, was peculiarly a Romantic. Flaubert, in a later generation, was Romantic on one side, altogether alien from Romanticism as were his fundamental ideals. But, during the first half of the nineteenth century in France, with the possible exception of Stendhal, — and even he was really affected by the movement, — it is not easy to name any notable figure in literature who was outside Romanticism. Rousseau’s influence had become so all-pervading that, like the universal pressure of the air, it was sometimes unperceived by those who were experiencing it. Louis Dumur has pointed out that Alfred de Musset in his Confessions d’un Enfant du Siècle, when trying to discover the sources of Romanticism, never so much as mentions Rousseau.
The attitude of England toward Romanticism, and toward Rousseau, was different from that either of Germany or of France. The Germans were made conscious by Rousseau of their own unconscious impulses. The French were forced to undergo a violent conversion. But the English were Romanticists already from the outset, and here the Romantic movement could effect no revolution. All Rousseau’s literary inspiration and æsthetic ideals had come, directly or indirectly, from England: Richardson’s Clarissa, Kent’s English gardens, Locke’s philosophy, English independence, and English freedom, — these were the things which had aroused the emulation or stirred the enthusiasm of Rousseau. English influences equally stimulated also the great apostle of Romanticism, and Chateaubriand composed Atala and René in Hyde Park. These splendid flowers were therefore easily acceptable in England, for they were clearly raised from English seeds. Rousseau’s influence, recognized and unrecognized, reached English Romanticism, but Rousseau was herein only giving back in a more developed form what he had himself received from England.
If we look beyond the Romantic movement in its narrower literary sense, we still find that the influence of Rousseau remains just as plainly visible. In Russia, for instance, which it reached later than elsewhere, it is at its height to-day. The speeches made in the Duma are filled with the ideas, even the very phrases, of Rousseau; every orator on the Left is sure of thunderous applause whenever, consciously or unconsciously, he utters the sentiments which Rousseau first made current. It is unnecessary to add that the greatest writer of modern times in Russia, the greatest writer in the world of his day, was from his earliest days a disciple of Rousseau. Tolstoy read and re-read the twenty volumes of Rousseau’s works, until some of the pages became so familiar that it seemed to him he had written them himself; he wore Rousseau’s portrait next his skin as the devout Russian wears the cross; it was, he himself said, worship rather than admiration which he experienced for Rousseau; even shortly before his death he wrote that the chief formative influences of his life had been Rousseau and the Gospels. The greatest worldforce in the sphere of emotion that our age has seen was a reincarnation of Rousseau.
If we turn away from the apostles and the propagandists of avowed emotional revolution, we have not yet escaped Rousseau. The austere Emerson equally has his roots in Rousseau, if he was not actually, as Davidson termed him, ‘the most loyal disciple Rousseau ever had.’ The Transcendentalist was here at one with the Positivist. George Eliot, equally alien in temperament, was an equally ardent admirer of the Confessions; Rousseau, she said, ‘ quickened’ her mind, not by imparting any new beliefs, but by ‘the mighty rushing wind of his inspiration’; he ‘made Man and Nature a fresh world of thought and feeling to me.’ It was an accurate characterization of the kind of power by which Rousseau has so often held the souls of men and women.
In the twentieth century, the same potent force is still quickening ardent and aspiring souls who strive to create new ideals. Francis Jammes, the most typical representative of the latest movement in French poetry, has been ‘quickened’ by Rousseau, and has himself been termed after Ins ‘génie ami,’ the ‘nouveau Rousseau’; Rousseau’s Rêveries is his favorite book; he has followed in the long procession of those who have gone on pilgrimage to Les Charmettes, and no one has more sensitively felt the penetrating and intimate charm which that shrine exerts even on those of us who are least disposed to enroll ourselves beneath the banner of Rousseau.
Moreover, Rousseau is still the precursor even of those who are unconscious of his influence. He had long ago anticipated our latest philosophies. William James is counted the founder of Pragmatism; but the conception of ‘truth’ as ‘practical truth’ or ‘cash value,’ rather than ‘science,’ was so clearly set forth in Emile and the second half of the Nouvelle Héloïse, that Schinz has been able to argue that ‘the greatest of the Pragmatists is — and will probably remain — Jean-Jacques Rousseau.’ So also with the fashionable Bergsonian philosophy of the day, with its depreciation of reason, and its insistence on the vital force of instinct: that also is laid down, with a less subtle elaboration, but not with less emphasis, by Rousseau.
Even those for whom Rousseau is nothing but a poison have not escaped the operation of that seductive venom. Nietzsche, the most conspicuous and influential thinker of these latter days, was absolutely opposed to Rousseau. Rousseau’s ‘nature,’ his ‘good man,’ his sentiment, his weaknesses, especially his lack of aristocratic culture and his plebeianism — against all these things Nietzsche’s hatred was implacable. Yet Rousseau was in his own blood. ‘Nietzsche,’ says Riehl, ‘is the antipodes of Rousseau, and yet his spiritual relation. He is the Rousseau of our time.’
In thus estimating the hold of Rousseau upon the things which have been counted precious since the days when he lived, we have the authority even of those who rebel against his influence. But there is always a fallacy involved in such attempts to fasten an unlimited responsibility upon any human figure, not excepting the greatest. Even the supreme man of genius, as Dumur truly says, is no aërolite from another sphere, no bolt from the blue. I he most absolute innovator has found the germs of his fruitful ideas in ancient tradition. The most potent revolutionary owes his power to the fact that in his day certain conditions, especially economic and social conditions, combine to produce a vacuum his spirit is peculiarly fitted to fill. The name of Darwin is immortally associated with the idea of evolution, but the idea had been slowly germinating through thousands of years, sometimes in brains of as great a calibre as his own, until the moment arrived when, at last, fruition was possible, and the cautious, deliberate Darwin calmly completed the work of the ages.
Even the great, movement of Christianity, which sometimes seems to us so mighty as to be beyond the reach of reason to fathom, is seen to be necessary and inevitable when we realize the conditions under which it arose, and see the figure of Jesus slowly hammered and annealed into the shape which best satisfied the deepest cravings of an epoch. Rousseau — again alike by friends and foes — has been counted, like Jesus, a Hebrew prophet issuing with a new law from the desert into a decadent civilization he was destined to dissolve and renew; he has been regarded as a great reformer of Christianity, such as Luther was; the incarnation of a new wave of Christianity, adding to the renovation of its essential qualities—its abandonment to emotion, its magnification of the poor and humble, its insistence on charity—a new set of notes: a trend toward political realization, a fresh ideal of natural beauty, a justification of passion, a refinement of voluptuous sentiment, which adjusted Christianity to the modern soul as it had never been adjusted before. Luther had deCatholicized Christianity; Rousseau, who in his own person united the two traditions, while yet retaining the plebeian and individualistic basis which Luther established, re-Catholicized Christianity on a new plane, even though in the end he stood aloof from Christianity, and created a church whose dogmas rested on the universal authority of instincts and emotions.
Yet, just as we can find the counterpart of every Christian rite and dogma outside Christianity, so also it is easy to duplicate outside Rousseau every tenet and tendency we find in him. Marivaux, within narrower limits and with a more restrained method, was a sympathetic and original moralist, a delicate artist, a subtle psychologist, to a degree to which Rousseau never attained; in his earliest work, Rousseau was frankly an imitator of Marivaux. The Abbé Prévost, again, more than any man, had let the flood of early English Romanticism into France, had translated Clarissa, and himself written novels of wild and sombre romantic passion; Rousseau knew Prévost, he was profoundly affected by his novels. Locke, in another sphere, had set forth epoch-making reflections on political government, and had written an enlightened treatise on education; the author of the Control Social and Emile clearly reveals how much he owed to ‘ the wise Locke.’
Before ever he began to write, Rousseau had soaked his mind in books and meditated on them in his perpetual long walks; he was brought up on romances, he had read everything he could find, English books of travel especially, about savages in ‘the state of Nature’; he had absorbed all that matters in the literature of the seventeenth century, though he knew comparatively little of the literature of his own century; without any guidance, by an unerring instinct, he had seized on the things that fed his own mood, from Plutarch to Petrarch. Even without going outside the pale of Catholic Christianity, he could, had he known it, have found the authority for every intimate and daring impulse of his own heart.
The ideas and the emotions, therefore, which Rousseau manifested were by no means unique. The temperament he had inherited furnished the most exquisitely fertile of all conceivable soils for these seeds to flourish in. But the seeds were not new seeds and, for the most part, we can trace with precision the exact source from which each of them reached Rousseau. Moreover, when we come, calmly and critically, to measure and to weigh the ideas and the emotions we find in Rousseau’s books, it happens, as often as not, that they fail to stand our tests. If we explore the Contrat Social we find that every page swarms with bold propositions for which no proof is, or can be, supplied. Rousseau had borrowed Hobbes’s conception of sovereignty and Locke’s conception of popular government, and amalgamated them into the image of a Sovereign People which can do no wrong, and governs by its own direct fiat, in such a way that the will of each finds its part in the will of all. No doubt it is a magnificent idea, and it is still alive in the world, moulding political institutions; it is responsible for the establishment, of the Referendum, which has had a certain vogue in new political constitutions, and we are constantly endeavoring, however much in vain, to approach its realization. But when we examine Rousseau’s exposition of this idea we find that verbal logic takes the place of inductive reasoning, that impassioned declamation is the agent of persuasion, and that the very lucidity of the statement only brings out more clearly the glaring inconsistencies and absurdities which the argument involves.
If we turn to a very different book, though not less famous and in its own way not less influential, we encounter the same experience. La Nouvelle Héloïse, in the effect it has exerted on the writing of novels, is second to none, except Don Quixote. Schopenhauer, himself a great literary artist, counted La Nouvelle Héloïse among the four great novels of the world. Shelley, who was a fine critic as well as a great poet, was enraptured by the ‘sublime genius and more than human sensibility ’ displayed in this book, as well as by ‘the divine beauty of Rousseau’s imagination,’ as he realized it on sailing across the famous lake which is the scene of the novel. A more modern critic finds that ‘Julie has the tongue of an apostle, she is our greatest orator after Bossuet.’ That is a eulogy which may well serve to condemn any novel, but it is probably the most favorable judgment which, from the modern standpoint, can be bestowed upon this one of Rousseau’s. This novel, so unlike a novel, yet recreated the novel; that is generally admitted. To-day, La Nouvelle Héloïse, for all the fine passages we may discover in it, is far less agreeable to read than the best of those novels by Marivaux, Prévost, and the younger Crébillon, which it replaced in popular esteem. Its sentimental rhetoric is now tedious; as a story it fails to enchain us; of subtle characterization or dramatic vigor we find nothing; as a work of art it is incomparably inferior to Clarissa Harlowe, on which it was modeled.
If we look more broadly at Rousseau’s work, the results of critical examination are similar. The world’s great teachers are, for the most part, impressive by the substantial unity of the message they have proclaimed; we feel a convincing harmony between that message and the personality behind it. So it is with Marcus Aurelius, and so with Thoreau. It is so also, on what may seem a lower ethical plane, with Rousseau’s chief contemporaries, with Voltaire and with Diderot. It is not clearly so with Rousseau. He often seems like an exquisite instrument, giving forth a music which responds to the varying emotions of the hand that strikes it. He is the supreme individualist, and yet his doctrines furnish the foundations for socialism, even in its oppressive forms. He is the champion of the rights of passion, and yet he was the leader in a movement of revolt against licentiousness, of return to domesticity and the felicities of family life and maternal devotion to children. He was opposed to the emancipation of women, even to the education of women side by side with men; he is denounced by the advocates of women’s rights, who see in the philosophes whom he opposed the pioneers of their own movement; and yet he was acclaimed as the liberator of womanhood,— noble women, from Madame Roland onwards, were his enthusiastic disciples; the literary promulgators of his genius are headed by two distinguished women, Madame de Staël and Madame de Charrière.
Still more discordant seems to many the clash of Rousseau’s doctrines with Rousseau’s life. The uncompromising champion of virtue was nearly forty years old before he learned how to earn his own living honestly. The regenerator of love was a solitary sensuous sentimentalist. The author of Emile, the gospel of childhood, put away his own children — if indeed he ever really had any — as foundlings.
When we thus critically survey Rousseau’s books and personality it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, to a large extent, Rousseau has represented a backward movement in civilization. His influence has tended to depreciate the value of the mighty instrument of reason by which civilization is mainly wrought; it has consecrated prejudice under the sacred names of nature and instinct; it has opened the way to the triumph of plebeianism and the sanctification of mobrule; it has tended, by casting off the restraints on emotion, to an unwholesome divorce between the extravagancies of feeling and the limitations of life.
It is on this note that so many discussions of Rousseau finally rest: Rousseau was a degenerate from birth, and his teaching is the disorganization of civilized society. Yet, even if we believe that there are elements of truth in such a view, we can scarcely choose this standpoint for our final survey of Rousseau. When we bear in mind that the most aspiring efforts of the noblest souls during more than a century have been directly or indirectly inspired by this man, it becomes clear that to attaint Rousseau is to stain our own human nature, to place ourselves in the ranks of the Yahoos. For, there can be no doubt, unreasonable as it may be to regard Rousseau or any other man as the primary cause of any great social movement, that it is he, more than any man, who has moulded the form of our spiritual activities, and shaped our ideals. His passions have become the atmosphere in which we move.
Since the days of feverish activity which Rousseau spent in his little hermitage at Montmorency, not merely our aims in politics, but our feeling for religion, our feeling for love, our feeling for nature, have been renovated. They would have been renovated even if Rousseau had never lived, though perhaps not so thoroughly; yet, as things are, the new forms they have assumed have been determined by this solitary dreamer. ‘Religion,’ said Butler in the orderly and reasonable eighteenth-century manner, ‘is a useful piece of information concerning a distant region of which otherwise we should have had no explanation.’ The mystic enthusiasm of the Vicaire Savoyard would alone have sufficed to sweep away forever so pedestrian a conception of religion.
Before Rousseau, love was a highly refined form of social intercourse, a species of gallantry conducted with self-restraint, and all the formalities of its special etiquette; any extravagancy, whether in feeling, in speech, or in action, was banished. But when SaintPreux, oppressed by his high-strung passions, came to the rock at Meillerie to pour forth in solitude the flood of his sentimental tears, all the witty refinements of eighteenth-century gallantry, for good or for evil, were finally swept away; extravagancy was free to lay down the law in love. It was Rousseau who enabled Mirabeau, in his first letter to Julie Danvers (whom he had never seen), to declare, ‘I, also, am a lover, have emptied the cup of sensibility to the dregs, and could give a thousand lives for what I love.’ It was Rousseau who laid down a new etiquette of love which every petty poet and novelist still adheres to.
Finally, Rousseau renovated our feeling for nature. The geometricallyminded eighteenth century could see nothing beautiful in nature until it was carefully trimmed into symmetry by the hands of man; even for Madame de Staël the Alps were merely ‘a magnificent horror.’ But Rousseau, who told Bernardin de Saint-Pierre that he ‘would rather be among the arrows of the Parthians than among the glances of men,’ only breathed freely and thought freely in the solitude of mountains and forests and torrents, and here also, he has inoculated mankind with the virus of his own passion. In all these ways (as, indeed, Höffding has pointed out in what is, so far as I know, the most profound statement of Rousseau’s philosophic position), Rousseau stood, in opposition to our artificial and inharmonious civilization, for the worth of life as a whole, the simple undivided rights of life, the rights of instinct, the rights of emotion. This was his assertion of nature. This was the way in which he renovated life, and effected a spiritual revolution which no mere man of letters has ever effected, a revolution only comparable to that effected by Christianity, of which, indeed, it was but a modern renascence.
Yet the man who wielded, and continues to wield, this enormous power over the world cannot be called one of its great men. In intellect, one sometimes thinks, he was not conspicuously above the average; in what we conventionally call moral character he was at the outset conspicuously below it. Illborn and ill-bred, morbidly shy and suspicious, defective in virility, he was inapt for all the social ends of life, mentally and physically a sell-torturing invalid. No man more absolutely than Rousseau has ever illustrated the truth of Hinton’s profound saying that the affinities of genius are not with strength but with weakness, that the supreme man of genius is the man who opposes no obstacle to the forces of nature of which he is the channel. Or, as St. Paul had declared long before in a passage which seems to bear the same sense, it is the despised and rejected things of the world, even the things which are not, that God has chosen to put to naught the things that are.
It may, indeed, be pointed out to those who insist on the ludicrous, mean, and contemptible incidents in Rousseau’s early life — only known to us through his own narration of them — that, as has been truly said by Lemaître, in a book that is for the most part superficial as well as unsympathetic, Rousseau’s life was a process of moral evolution, a continuous purification completed by ’insanity,’ or, as Rousseau himself put it, ‘a purification in the furnace of adversity.’
It is this process which largely gives the clue alike to his intellect and to his moral contradictions. Rousseau’s abandonment to emotion was always checked by his timidity, by the perpetual searching suspicion which he applied to himself as well as to others. That is how it comes to pass that we may find in his writings the warrant for the most contradictory doctrines. It was so in the political field. In 1754, in the Discours sur l’Inégalité, he proclaimed that revolt of the non-possessors against the possessors of property, which has since fermented so mightily in the world. But toward the end of his life, in the constitution for Poland which he prepared at the request of the Poles, he had become in these matters a timid opportunist: ‘I do not say that we must leave things as they are; but I do say that we must only touch them with extreme circumspection.’
The contrast between Rousseau’s apparent abandonment of his children and the fervor which in Emile he expended over the parental training of children, has often been set forth to his discredit. But, as he himself viewed the matter, that gospel of childhood was simply the atonement for his own neglect. He displayed throughout a very passion of expiation. Born defective, beset on every side, he was yet of those who, according to the ancient metaphor of St. Augustine, make of their dead selves the rungs of a ladder to rise to higher things. To some he seems to have been a kind of moral imbecile. But Thérèse, the mistresswife who had been at his side during the whole of the period of his literary life, and who knew his weaknesses as no other could know them, said after his death, ‘If he was not a saint, who ever was?’
To view Rousseau rightly, we must see him, on the one hand, as the essential instrument of genius, a reed stirred to magnificent music by all the mighty winds of the spirit; and, on the other hand, as a much-suffering man, scourged more than most men by human frailties, and yet forever struggling to aspire. In this double capacity, at once the type of genius and of humanity, we learn to understand something of the magic, of Rousseau’s influence; we learn to understand how it is that before this shrine the most unlike persons in the world — the Marquis de Sade as well as Emerson, Charlotte Corday as well as Immanuel Kant — have alike bowed in reverence.
Rousseau was a creature of clay. He was also a devouring flame. But of such blended fire and clay, in the end, the most exquisite products of the divine potter’s art are formed. Under that stress, Rousseau’s character was slowly purified to the highest issues. Under that same stress was finally woven the delicate and iridescent texture of the finest style which French speech has ever assumed. The great traditions of the literary art of France — through Montaigne, Pascal, La Bruyère — reached at last in the furnace of this man’s tortured soul their ultimate perfection of sensitive and intimate beauty. This style, which is the man himself, the style of the Confessions and the Rêveries, alone serves to make these books immortal. Here, in his art, the consuming fire and the soft clay of Rousseau’s temperament are burned to shapes of a beauty that is miraculous, and stirs the depths of the soul.
What, indeed, can we say, in the end, of all the operation of this man’s spirit on the world, save that it is a miracle, with effects that immeasurably transcend their causes? The water, if not the very mud, is turned into wine, and a few small loaves and fishes suffice for the feeding of the nations.
- Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712. His bicentennial anniversary thus occurs this month.↩