Rousseau : Socialism and Education – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers

Rousseau : Socialism and Education
Sir Walter Scott : The Modern Novel
Lord Byron : Poetic Genius
Thomas Carlyle : Criticism and Biography
Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing
Shakspeare or The Poet
John Milton : Poet and Patriot
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe : Germany’s Greatest Writer
Alfred Lord Tennyson : The Spirit Of Modern Poetry

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers
John Lord

Topics Covered
Jean Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke
Rousseau representative of his century
Education and early career; engraver, footman
Secretary, music teacher, and writer
Meets Thérèse
His first public essay in literature
Operetta and second essay
Geneva; the Hermitage; Madame d’Épinay.
The “Nouvelle Héloïse;” Comtesse d’Houdetot
“Émile;” “The Social Contract”
Books publicly burned; author flees
England; Hume; the “Confessions”
Death, career reviewed
Character of Rousseau
Essay on the Arts and Sciences
“Origin of Human Inequalities”
“The Social Contract”
The “New Héloïse”
The “Confessions”
Influence of Rousseau

Rousseau : Socialism and Education


Two great political writers in the eighteenth century, of antagonistic views, but both original and earnest, have materially affected the whole science of government, and even of social life, from their day to ours, and in their influence really belong to the nineteenth century. One was the apostle of radicalism; the other of conservatism. The one, more than any other single man, stimulated, though unwittingly, the French Revolution; the other opposed that mad outburst with equal eloquence, and caused in Europe a reaction from revolutionary principles. While one is far better known to-day than the other, to the thoughtful both are exponents and representatives of conflicting political and social questions which agitate this age.

These men were Jean Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke,–one Swiss, and the other English. Burke I have already treated of in a former volume. His name is no longer a power, but his influence endures in all the grand reforms of which he was a part, and for which his generation in England is praised; while his writings remain a treasure-house of political and moral wisdom, sure to be drawn upon during every public discussion of governmental principles. Rousseau, although a writer of a hundred years ago, seems to me a fit representative of political, social, and educational ideas in the present day, because his theories are still potent, and even in this scientific age more widely diffused than ever before. Not without reason, it is true, for he embodied certain germinant ideas in a fascinating literary style; but it is hard to understand how so weak a man could have exercised such far-reaching influence.

Himself a genuine and passionate lover of Nature; recognizing in his principles of conduct no duties that could conflict with personal inclinations; born in democratic and freedom-loving Switzerland, and early imbued through his reading of German and English writers with ideas of liberty,–which in those conservative lands were wholesome,–he distilled these ideas into charming literary creations that were eagerly read by the restless minds of France and wrought in them political frenzy. The reforms he projected grew out of his theories of the “rights” of man, without reference to the duties that limit those rights; and his appeal for their support to men’s passions and selfish instincts and to a sentimental philosophy, in an age of irreligion and immorality, aroused a political tempest which he little contemplated.

In an age so infidel and brilliant as that which preceded the French Revolution, the writings of Rousseau had a peculiar charm, and produced a great effect even on men who despised his character and ignored his mission. He engendered the Robespierres and Condorcets of the Revolution,–those sentimental murderers, who under the guise of philosophy attacked the fundamental principles of justice and destroyed the very rights which they invoked.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born at Geneva in the year 1712, when Voltaire was first rising into notice. He belonged to the plebeian ranks, being the son of a watchmaker; was sickly, miserable, and morbid from a child; was poorly educated, but a great devourer of novels (which his father–sentimental as he–read with him), poetry, and gushing biographies; although a little later he became, with impartial facility, equally delighted with the sturdy Plutarch. His nature was passionate and inconstant, his sensibilities morbidly acute, and his imagination lively. He hated all rules, precedents, and authority. He was lazy, listless, deceitful, and had a great craving for novelties and excitement,–as he himself says, “feeling everything and knowing nothing.” At an early age, without money or friends, he ran away from the engraver to whom he had been apprenticed, and after various adventures was first kindly received by a Catholic priest in Savoy; then by a generous and erring woman of wealth lately converted to Catholicism; and again by the priests of a Catholic Seminary in Sardinia, under whose tuition, and in order to advance his personal fortunes, he abjured the religion in which he had been brought up, and professed Catholicism. This, however, cost him no conscientious scruples, for his religious training had been of the slimmest, and principles he had none.

We next see Rousseau as a footman in the service of an Italian Countess, where he was mean enough to accuse a servant girl of a theft he had himself committed, thereby causing her ruin. Again, employed as a footman in the service of another noble family, his extraordinary talents were detected, and he was made secretary. But all this kindness he returned with insolence, and again became a wanderer. In his isolation he sought the protection of the Swiss lady who had before befriended him, Madame de Warens. He began as her secretary, and ended in becoming her lover. In her house he saw society and learned music.

A fit of caprice induced Rousseau to throw up this situation, and he then taught music in Chambéry for a living, studied hard, read Voltaire, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Leibnitz, and Puffendorf, and evinced an uncommon vivacity and talent for conversation, which made him a favorite in social circles. His chief labor, however, for five years was in inventing a system of musical notation, which led him to Lyons, and then, in 1741, to Paris.

He was now twenty-nine years old,–a visionary man, full of schemes, with crude opinions and unbounded self-conceit, but poor and unknown,–a true adventurer, with many agreeable qualities, irregular habits, and not very scrupulous morals. Favored by letters of introduction to ladies of distinction,–for he was a favorite with ladies, who liked his enthusiasm, freshness, elegant talk, and grand sentiments,–he succeeded in getting his system of musical notation examined, although not accepted, by the French Academy, and secured an appointment as secretary in the suite of the Ambassador to Venice.

In this city Rousseau remained but a short time, being disgusted with what he called “official insolence,” which did not properly recognize native genius. He returned to Paris as poor as when he left it, and lived in a cheap restaurant. There he made the acquaintance of his Thérèse, a healthy, amiable woman, but low, illiterate, unappreciative, and coarse, the author of many of his subsequent miseries. She lived with him till he died,–at first as his mistress and housekeeper, although later in life he married her. She was the mother of his five children, every one of whom he sent to a foundling hospital, justifying his inhumanity by those sophistries and paradoxes with which his writings abound,–even in one of his letters appealing for pity because he “had never known the sweetness of a father’s embrace.” With extraordinary self-conceit, too, he looked upon himself, all the while, in his numerous illicit loves, as a paragon of virtue, being apparently without any moral sense or perception of moral distinctions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Painting by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Painting by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

It was not till Rousseau was thirty-nine years of age that he attracted public attention by his writings, although earlier known in literary circles,–especially in that infidel Parisian coterie, where Diderot, Grimm, D’Holbach, D’Alembert, David Hume, the Marquis de Mirabeau, Helvetius, and other wits shined, in which circle no genius was acknowledged and no profundity of thought was deemed possible unless allied with those pagan ideas which Saint Augustine had exploded and Pascal had ridiculed. Even while living among these people, Rousseau had all the while a kind of sentimental religiosity which revolted at their ribald scoffing, although he never protested.

He had written some fugitive pieces of music, and had attempted and failed in several slight operettas, composing both music and words; but the work which made Rousseau famous was his essay on a subject propounded in 1749 by the Academy of Dijon: “Has the Progress of Science and the Arts Contributed to Corrupt or to Purify Morals?” This was a strange subject for a literary institution to propound, but one which exactly fitted the genius of Rousseau. The boldness of his paradox–for he maintained the evil effects of science and art–and the brilliancy of his style secured readers, although the essay was crude in argument and false in logic. In his “Confessions” he himself condemns it as the weakest of all his works, although “full of force and fire;” and he adds: “With whatever talent a man may be born, the art of writing is not easily learned.” It has been said that Rousseau got the idea of taking the “off side” of this question from his literary friend Diderot, and that his unexpected success with it was the secret of his life-long career of opposition to all established institutions. This is interesting, but not very authentic.

The next year, his irregular activity having been again stimulated by learning that his essay had gained the premium at Dijon, and by the fact of its great vogue as a published pamphlet, another performance fairly raised Rousseau to the pinnacle of fashion; and this was an opera which he composed, “Le Devin du Village” (The Village Sorcerer), which was performed at Fontainebleau before the Court, and received with unexampled enthusiasm. His profession, so far as he had any, was that of a copyist of music, and his musical taste and facile talents had at last brought him an uncritical recognition.

But Rousseau soon abandoned music for literature. In 1753 he wrote another essay for the Academy of Dijon, on the “Origin of the Inequality of Man,” full of still more startling paradoxes than his first, in which he attempted to show, with great felicity of language, the superiority of savage life over civilization.

At the age of forty-two Rousseau revisited Protestant Geneva, abjured in its turn the Catholic faith, and was offered the post of librarian of the city. But he could not live out of the atmosphere of Paris; nor did he wish to remain under the shadow of Voltaire, living in his villa near the City Gate of Geneva, who had but little admiration for Rousseau, and whose superior social position excited the latter’s envy. Yet he professed to hate Paris with its conventionalities and fashions, and sought a quiet retreat where he could more leisurely pursue his studies and enjoy Nature, which he really loved. This was provided for him by an enthusiastic friend,–Madame d’Épinay,–in the beautiful valley of Montmorenci, and called “The Hermitage,” situated in the grounds of her Château de la Chevrette. Here he lived with his wife and mother-in-law, he himself enjoying the hospitalities of the Château besides,–society of a most cultivated kind, also woods, lawns, parks, gardens,–all for nothing; the luxuries of civilization, the glories of Nature, and the delights of friendship combined. It was an earthly paradise, given him by enthusiastic admirers of his genius and conversation.

In this retreat, one of the most favored which a poor author ever had, Rousseau, ever craving some outlet for his passionate sentiments, created an ideal object of love. He wrote imaginary letters, dwelling with equal rapture on those he wrote and those he fancied he received in return, and which he read to his lady friends, after his rambles in the forests and parks, during their reunions at the supper-table. Thus was born the “Nouvelle Héloïse,”–a novel of immense fame, in which the characters are invested with every earthly attraction, living in voluptuous peace, yet giving vent to those passions which consume the unsatisfied soul. It was the forerunner of “Corinne,” “The Sorrows of Werther,” “Thaddeus of Warsaw,” and all those sentimental romances which amused our grandfathers and grandmothers, but which increased the prejudice of religious people against novels. It was not until Sir Walter Scott arose with his wholesome manliness that the embargo against novels was removed.

The life which Rousseau lived at the Hermitage–reveries in the forest, luxurious dinners, and sentimental friendships–led to a passionate love-affair with the Comtesse d’Houdetot, a sister-in-law of his patroness Madame d’Épinay,–a woman not only married, but who had another lover besides. The result, of course, was miserable,–jealousies, piques, humiliations, misunderstandings, and the sundering of the ties of friendship, which led to the necessity of another retreat: a real home the wretched man never had. This was furnished, still in the vicinity of Montmorenci, by another aristocratic friend, the Maréchal de Luxembourg, the fiscal agent of the Prince de Condé. And nothing to me is stranger than that this wandering, morbid, irritable man, without birth or fortune, the father of the wildest revolutionary and democratic doctrines, and always hated both by the Court and the Church, should have found his friends and warmest admirers and patrons in the highest circles of social life. It can be explained only by the singular fascination of his eloquence, and by the extreme stolidity of his worshippers in appreciating his doctrines, and the state of society to which his principles logically led.

In this second retreat Rousseau had the entrée to the palace of the Duke of Luxembourg, where he read to the friends assembled at its banquets his new production, “Émile,”–a singular treatise on education, not so faulty as his previous works, but still false in many of its principles, especially in regard to religion. This book contained an admirable and powerful impulse away from artificiality and towards naturalness in education, which has exerted an immense influence for good; we shall revert to it later.

A few months before the publication of “Émile,” Rousseau had issued “The Social Contract,” the most revolutionary of all his works, subversive of all precedents in politics, government, and the organization of society, while also confounding Christianity with ecclesiasticism and attacking its influence in the social order. All his works obtained a wide fame before publication by reason of his habit of reading them to enthusiastic and influential friends who made them known.

“The Social Contract,” however, dangerous as it was, did not when published arouse so much opposition as “Émile.” The latter book, as we now see, contained much that was admirable; but its freedom and looseness in religious discussion called down the wrath of the clergy, excited the alarm of the government, and finally compelled the author to fly for his life to Switzerland.

Rousseau is now regarded as an enemy to Christian doctrine, even as he was a foe to the existing institutions of society. In Geneva his books are publicly burned. Henceforth his life is embittered by constant persecution. He flies from canton to canton in the freest country in Europe, obnoxious not only for his opinions but for his habits of life. He affectedly adopts the Armenian dress, with its big fur bonnet and long girdled caftan, among the Swiss peasantry. He is as full of personal eccentricities as he is of intellectual crotchets. He becomes a sort of literary vagabond, with every man’s hand against him. He now writes a series of essays, called “Letters from the Mountain,” full of bitterness and anti-Christian sentiments. So incensed by these writings are the country people among whom he dwells that he is again forced to fly.

David Hume, regarding him as a mild, affectionate, and persecuted man, gives Rousseau a shelter in England. The wretched man retires to Derbyshire, and there writes his “Confessions,”–the most interesting and most dangerous of his books, showing a diseased and irritable mind, and most sophistical views on the immutable principles of both morality and religion. A victim of mistrust and jealousy, he quarrels with Hume, who learns to despise his character, while pitying the sensitive sufferings of one whom he calls “a man born without a skin.”

Rousseau returns to France at the age of fifty-five. After various wanderings he is permitted to settle in Paris, where he lives with great frugality in a single room, poorly furnished,–supporting himself by again copying music, sought still in high society, yet shy, reserved, forlorn, bitter; occasionally making new friends, who are attracted by the infantine simplicity of his manners and apparent amiability, but losing them almost as soon as made by his petty jealousies and irritability, being “equally indignant at neglect and intolerant of attention.”

Rousseau’s declining health and the fear of his friends that he was on the borders of insanity led to his last retreat, offered by a munificent friend, at Ermenonville, near Paris, where he died at sixty-six years of age, in 1778, as some think from poison administered by his own hand. The revolutionary National Assembly of France in 1790 bestowed a pension of fifteen hundred francs on his worthless widow, who had married a stable-boy soon after the death of her husband.

Such was the checkered life of Rousseau. As to his character, Lord Brougham says that “never was so much genius before united with so much weakness.” The leading spring of his life was egotism. He never felt himself wrong, and the sophistries he used to justify his immoralities are both ludicrous and pitiable. His treatment of Madame de Warens, his first benefactor, was heartless, while the abandonment of his children was infamous. He twice changed his religion without convictions, for the advancement of his fortunes. He pretended to be poor when he was independent in his circumstances. He supposed himself to be without vanity, while he was notoriously the most conceited man in France. He quarrelled with all his friends. He made war on society itself. He declared himself a believer in Christianity, but denied all revelation, all miracles, all inspiration, all supernaturalism, and everything he could not reconcile with his reason. His bitterest enemies were the atheists themselves, who regarded him as a hypocrite, since he professed to believe in what he undermined. The hostility of the Church was excited against him, not because he directly assailed Christianity, but because he denied all its declarations and sapped its authority.

Rousseau was, however, a sentimentalist rather than a rationalist, an artist rather than a philosopher. He was not a learned man, but a bold thinker. He would root out all distinctions in society, because they could not be reconciled with his sense of justice. He preached a gospel of human rights, based not on Christianity but on instinct. He was full of impracticable theories. He would have no war, no suffering, no hardship, no bondage, no fear, and even no labor, since these were evils, and, according to his notions of moral government, unnecessary. But in all his grand theories he ignored the settled laws of Providence,–even those of that “Nature” he so fervently worshipped,–all that is decreed concerning man or woman, all that is stern and real in existence; and while he uttered such sophistries, he excited discontent with the inevitable condition of man, he loosened family ties, he relaxed wholesome restraints, he infused an intense hatred of all conditions subject to necessary toil.

The life of this embittered philanthropist was as great a contradiction as were his writings. This benevolent man sends his own children to a foundling hospital. This independent man lives for years on the bounty of an erring woman, whom at last he exposes and deserts. This high-minded idealizer of friendship quarrels with every man who seeks to extricate him from the consequences of his own imprudence. This affectionate lover refuses a seat at his table to the woman with whom he lives and who is the mother of his children. This proud republican accepts a pension from King George III., and lives in the houses of aristocratic admirers without payment. This religious teacher rarely goes to church, or respects the outward observances of the Christianity he affects. This moral theorizer, on his own confession, steals and lies and cheats. This modest innocent corrupts almost every woman who listens to his eloquence. This lofty thinker consumes his time in frivolity and senseless quarrels. This patriot makes war on the institutions of his country and even of civilized life. This humble man turns his back on every one who will not do him reverence.

Such was this precursor of revolutions, this agitator, this hypocrite, this egotist, this lying prophet,–a man admired and despised, brilliant but indefinite, original but not true, acute but not wise; logical, but reasoning on false premises; advancing some great truths, but spoiling their legitimate effect by sophistries and falsehoods.

Why, then, discuss the ideas and influence of so despicable a creature? Because, sophistical as they were, those ideas contained truths of tremendous germinant power; because in the rank soil of his times they produced a vast crop of bitter, poisonous fruit, while in the more open, better aërated soil of this century they have borne and have yet to bear a fruitage of universal benefit. God’s ways seem mysterious; it is for men patiently to study, understand, and utilize them.

Let us turn to the more definite consideration of the writings which have given this author so brilliant a fame. I omit any review of his operas and his system of musical notation, as not bearing on the opinions of society.

The first work, as I have said, which brought Rousseau into notice was the treatise for the Academy of Dijon, as to whether the arts and sciences have contributed to corrupt or to purify morals. Rousseau followed the bent of his genius, in maintaining that they have done more harm than good; and he was so fresh and original and brilliant that he gained the prize. This little work contains the germ of all his subsequent theories, especially that in which he magnifies the state of nature over civilization,–an amazing paradox, which, however, appealed to society when men were wearied with the very pleasures for which they lived.

Rousseau’s cant about the virtues engendered by ignorance, idleness, and barbarism is repulsive to every sound mind, Civilization may present greater temptations than a state of nature, but these are inseparable from any growth, and can be overcome by the valorous mind. Who but a madman would sweep away civilization with its factitious and remediable evils for barbarism with its untutored impulses and animal life? Here Rousseau makes war upon society, upon all that is glorious in the advance of intellect and the growth of morality,–upon the reason and aspirations of mankind. Can inexperience be a better guide than experience, when it encounters crime and folly? Yet, on the other hand, a plea for greater simplicity of life, a larger study of Nature, and a freer enjoyment of its refreshing contrasts to the hot-house life of cities, is one of the most reasonable and healthful impulses of our own day.

What can be more absurd, although bold and striking, than Rousseau’s essay on the “Origin of Human Inequalities”! In this he pushes out the doctrine of personal liberty to its utmost logical sequence, so as to do away with government itself, and with all regulation for the common good. We do not quarrel with his abstract propositions in respect to political equality; but his deductions strike a blow at civilization, since he maintains that inequalities of human condition are the source of all political and social evils, while Christianity, confirmed by common-sense, teaches that the source of social evils is in the selfish nature of man rather than in his outward condition. And further, if it were possible to destroy the inequalities of life, they would soon again return, even with the most boundless liberty. Here common-sense is sacrificed to a captivating theory, and all the experiences of the world are ignored.

This shows the folly of projecting any abstract theory, however true, to its remote and logical sequence. In the attempt we are almost certain to be landed in absurdity, so complicated are the relations of life, especially in governmental and political science. What doctrine of civil or political economy would be applicable in all ages and all countries and all conditions? Like the ascertained laws of science, or the great and accepted truths of the Bible, political axioms are to be considered in their relation with other truths equally accepted, or men are soon brought into a labyrinth of difficulties, and the strongest intellect is perplexed.

And especially will this be the case when a theory under consideration is not a truth but an assumption. That was the trouble with Rousseau. His theories, disdainful of experience, however logically treated, became in their remotest sequence and application insulting to the human understanding, because they were often not only assumptions, but assumptions of what was not true, although very specious and flattering to certain classes.

Rousseau confounded the great truth of the justice of moral and political equality with the absurd and unnatural demand for social and material equality. The great modern cry for equal opportunity for all is sound and Christian; but any attempt to guarantee individual success in using opportunity, to insure the lame and the lazy an equal rank in the race, must end in confusion and distraction.

The evil of Rousseau’s crude theories or false assumptions was practically seen in the acceptance of their logical conclusions, which led to anarchy, murder, pillage, and outrageous excess. The great danger attending his theories is that they are generally half-truths,–truth and falsehood blended. His writings are sophistical. It is difficult to separate the truth from the error, by reason of the marvellous felicity of his language. I do not underrate his genius or his style. He was doubtless an original thinker and a most brilliant and artistic writer; and by so much did he confuse people, even by the speciousness of his logic. There is nothing indefinite in what he advances. He is not a poet dealing in mysticisms, but a rhetorical philosopher, propounding startling theories, partly true and partly false, which he logically enforces with matchless eloquence.

Probably the most influential of Rousseau’s writings was “The Social Contract,”–the great textbook of the Revolution. In this famous treatise he advanced some important ideas which undoubtedly are based on ultimate truth, such as that the people are the source of power, that might does not make right, that slavery is an aggression on human rights; but with these ideal truths he combines the assertion that government is a contract between the governor and the governed. In a perfect state of society this may be the ideal; but society is not and never has been perfect, and certainly in all the early ages of the world governments were imposed upon people by the strong hand, irrespective of their will and wishes,–and these were the only governments which were fit and useful in that elder day. Governments, as a plain matter of fact, have generally arisen from circumstances and relations with which the people have had little to do. The Oriental monarchies were the gradual outgrowth of patriarchal tradition and successful military leadership, and in regard to them the people were never consulted at all. The Roman Empire was ruled without the consent of the governed. Feudal monarchies in Europe were based on the divine rights of kings. There was no state in Europe where a compact or social contract had been made or implied. Even later, when the French elected Napoleon, they chose a monarch because they feared anarchy, without making any stipulation. There were no contracting parties.

The error of Rousseau was in assuming a social contract as a fact, and then reasoning upon the assumption. His premises are wrong, or at least they are nothing more than statements of what abstractly might be made to follow from the assumption that the people actually are the source of power,–a condition most desirable and in the last analysis correct, since even military despots use the power of the people in order to oppress the people, but which is practically true only in certain states. Yet, after all, when brought under the domain of law by the sturdy sense and utilitarian sagacity of the Anglo-Saxon race, Rousseau’s doctrine of the sovereignty of the people is the great political motor of this century, in republics and monarchies alike.

Again, Rousseau maintains that, whatever acquisitions an individual or a society may make, the right to this property must be always subordinate to the right which the community at large has over the possessions of all. Here is the germ of much of our present-day socialism. Whatever element of truth there may be in the theory that would regard land and capital, the means of production, as the joint possession of all the members of the community,–the basic doctrine of socialism,–any forcible attempt to distribute present results of individual production and accumulation would be unjust and dangerous to the last degree. In the case of the furious carrying out of this doctrine by the crazed French revolutionists, it led to outrageous confiscation, on the ground that all property belonged to the state, and therefore the representatives of the nation could do what they pleased with it. This shallow sophistry was accepted by the French National Convention when it swept away estates of nobles and clergy, not on the tenable ground that the owners were public enemies, but on the baseless pretext that their property belonged to the nation.

From this sophistry about the rights of property, Rousseau advanced another of still worse tendency, which was that the general will is always in the right and constantly tends to the public good. The theory is inconsistent with itself. Light and truth do not come from the universal reason, but from the thoughts of great men stimulated into growth among the people. The teachers of the world belong to a small class. Society is in need of constant reforms, which are not suggested by the mass, but by a few philosophers or reformers,–the wise men who save cities.

Rousseau further says that a whole people can never become corrupted,–a most barefaced assertion. Have not all nations suffered periods of corruption? This notion, that the whole people cannot err, opens the door for any license. It logically leads to that other idea, of the native majesty of man and the perfectibility of society, which this sophist boldly accepted. Rousseau thought that if society were released from all law and all restraint, the good impulses and good sense of the majority would produce a higher state of virtue and wisdom than what he saw around him, since majorities could do no wrong and the universal reason could not err. In this absurdity lay the fundamental principle of the French Revolution, so far as it was produced by the writings of philosophers. This doctrine was eagerly seized upon by the French people, maddened by generations of oppression, poverty, and degradation, because it appealed to the pride and vanity of the masses, at that time congregated bodies of ignorance and wickedness.

Rousseau had an unbounded trust in human nature,–that it is good and wise, and will do the best thing if left to itself. But can anything be more antagonistic to all the history of the race? I doubt if Rousseau had any profound knowledge, or even really extensive reading. He was a dreamer, a theorist, a sentimentalist. He was the arch-priest of all sensationalism in the guise of logic. What more acceptable to the vile people of his age than the theory that in their collective capacity they could not err, that the universal reason was divine? What more logical than its culmination in that outrageous indecency, the worship of Reason in the person of a prostitute!

Again, Rousseau’s notion of the limitations of law and the prerogative of the people, carried out, would lead to the utter subversion of central authority, and reduce nations to an absolute democracy of small communities. They would divide and subdivide until society was resolved into its original elements. This idea existed among the early Greek states, when a state rarely comprised more than a single city or town or village, such as might be found among the tribes of North American Indians. The great political question in Ancient Greece was the autonomy of cities, which kept the whole land in constant wars and dissensions and quarrels and jealousies, and prevented that centralization of power which would have made Greece unconquerable and the mistress of the world. Our wholesome American system of autonomy in local affairs, with a common authority in matters affecting the general good, is organized liberty. But the ancient and outgrown idea of unregulated autonomy was revived by Rousseau; and though it could not be carried out by the French Revolutionists who accepted nearly all his theories, it led to the disintegration of France, and the multiplication of offices fatal to a healthy central power. Napoleon broke up all this in his centralized despotism, even if, to keep the Revolutionary sympathy, he retained the Departments which were substituted for the ancient Provinces.

The extreme spirit of democratic liberty which is the characteristic of Rousseau’s political philosophy led to the advocacy of the wildest doctrines of equality. He would prevent the accumulation of wealth, so that, to use his words, “no one citizen should be rich enough to buy another, and no one so poor as to be obliged to sell himself.” He would have neither rich people nor beggars. What could flow from such doctrines but discontent and unreasonable expectations among the poor, and a general fear and sense of insecurity among the rich? This “state of nature,” moreover, in his view, could be reached only by going backward and destroying all civilization,–and it was civilization which he ever decried,–a very pleasant doctrine to vagabonds, but likely to be treated with derisive mockery by all those who have something to conserve.

Another and most dangerous principle which was advocated in the “Social Contract” was that religion has nothing to do with the affairs of civil and political life; that religious obligations do not bind a citizen; that Christianity, in fact, ignores all the great relations of man in society. This is distinct from the Puritan doctrine of the separation of the Church from the State, by which is simply meant that priests ought not to interfere in matters purely political, nor the government meddle with religious affairs,–a prime doctrine in a free State. But no body of men were ever more ardent defenders of the doctrine that all religious ideas ought to bear on the social and political fabric than the Puritans, They would break up slavery, if it derogated from the doctrine of the common brotherhood of man as declared by Christ; they would use their influence as Christians to root out all evil institutions and laws, and bring the sublime truths of the Master to bear on all the relations of life,–on citizens at the ballot-box, at the helm of power, and in legislative bodies. Christianity was to them the supreme law, with which all human laws must harmonize. But Rousseau would throw out Christianity altogether, as foreign to the duties and relations of both citizens and rulers, pretending that it ignored all connection with mundane affairs and had reference only to the salvation of the soul,–as if all Christ’s teachings were not regulative of the springs of conduct between man and man, as indicative of the relations between man and God! Like Voltaire, Rousseau had the excuse of a corrupt ecclesiasticism to be broken into; but the Church and Christianity are two different things. This he did not see. No one was more impatient of all restraints than Rousseau; yet he maintained that men, if calling themselves Christians, must submit to every wrong and injustice, looking for a remedy in the future world,–thus pouring contempt on those who had no right, according to his view of their system, to complain of injustice or strive to rise above temporal evils. Christianity, he said, inculcates servitude and dependence; its spirit is favorable to tyrants; true Christians are formed to be slaves, and they know it, and never trouble themselves about conspiracies and insurrections, since this transitory world has no value in their eyes. He denied that Christians could be good soldiers,–a falsehood rebuked for us by the wars of the Reformation, by the troops of Cromwell and Gustavus Adolphus, by our American soldiers in the late Civil War. Thus he would throw away the greatest stimulus to heroism,–even the consciousness of duty, and devotion to great truths and interests.

I cannot follow out the political ideas of Rousseau in his various other treatises, in which he prepared the way for revolution and for the excesses of the Reign of Terror. The truth is, Rousseau’s feelings were vastly superior to his thinking. Whatever of good is to result from his influence will arise out of the impulse he gave toward the search for ideals that should embrace the many as well as the few in their benefits; when he himself attempted to apply this impulse to philosophic political thought, his unregulated mind went all astray.

Let us now turn to consider a moment his doctrines pertaining to education, as brought out in his greatest and most unexceptionable work, his “Émile.”

In this remarkable book everything pertaining to human life appears to be discussed. The duties of parents, child-management, punishments, perception and the beginning of thinking; toys, games, catechisms, all passions and sentiments, religion, friendship, love, jealousy, pity; the means of happiness, the pleasures and profits of travel, the principles of virtue, of justice and liberty; language, books; the nature of man and of woman, the arts of conventional life, politeness, riches, poverty, society, marriage,–on all these and other questions he discourses with great sagacity and good sense, and with unrivalled beauty of expression, often rising to great eloquence, never dull or uninstructive, aiming to present virtue and vice in their true colors, inspiring exalted sentiments, and presenting happiness in simple pleasures and natural life.

This treatise is both full and original. The author supposes an imaginary pupil, named Émile, and he himself, intrusted with the care of the boy’s education, attends him from his cradle to his manhood, assists him with the necessary directions for his general improvement, and finally introduces him to an amiable and unsophisticated girl, whose love he wins by his virtues and whom he honorably marries; so that, although a treatise, the work is invested with the fascination of a novel.

In reading this book, which made so great a noise in Europe, with so much that is admirable I find but little to criticise, except three things, which mar its beauty and make it both dangerous and false, in which the unsoundness of Rousseau’s mind and character–the strange paradoxes of his life in mixing up good with evil–are brought out, and that so forcibly that the author was hunted and persecuted from one part of Europe to another on account of it.

The first is that he makes all natural impulses generous and virtuous, and man, therefore, naturally good instead of perverse,–thus throwing not only Christianity but experience entirely aside, and laying down maxims which, logically carried out, would make society perfect if only Nature were always consulted. This doctrine indirectly makes all the treasures of human experience useless, and untutored impulse the guide of life. It would break the restraints which civilization and a knowledge of life impose, and reduce man to a primitive state. In the advocacy of this subtle falsehood, Rousseau pours contempt on all the teachings of mankind,–on all schools and colleges, on all conventionalities and social laws, yea, on learning itself. He always stigmatizes scholars as pedants.

Secondly, he would reduce woman to insignificance, having her rule by arts and small devices; making her the inferior of man, on whom she is dependent and to whose caprice she is bound to submit,–a sort of toy or slave, engrossed only with domestic duties, like the woman of antiquity. He would give new rights and liberties to man, but none to woman as man’s equal,–thus keeping her in a dependence utterly irreconcilable with the bold freedom which he otherwise advocates. The dangerous tendency of his writings is somewhat checked, however, by the everlasting hostility with which women of character and force of will–such as they call “strong-minded”–will ever pursue him. He will be no oracle to them.

But a still more marked defect weakens “Émile” as one of the guide-books of the world, great as are its varied excellencies. The author undermines all faith in Christianity as a revelation, or as a means of man’s communion with the Divine, for guidance, consolation, or inspiration. Nor does he support one of his moral or religious doctrines by an appeal to the Sacred Scriptures, which have been so deep a well of moral and spiritual wisdom for so many races of men. Practically, he is infidel and pagan, although he professes to admire some of the moral truths which he never applies to his system. He is a pure Theist or Deist, recognizing, like the old Greeks, no religion but that of Nature, and valuing no attainments but such as are suggested by Nature and Reason, which are the gods he worships from first to last in all his writings. The Confession of Faith by the Savoyard Vicar introduced into the fourth of the six “Books” of this work, which, having nothing to do with his main object, he unnecessarily drags in, is an artful and specious onslaught on all doctrines and facts revealed in the Bible,–on all miracles, all prophecies, and all supernatural revelation,–thus attacking Christianity in its most vital points, and making it of no more authority than Buddhism or Mohammedanism. Faith is utterly extinguished. A cold reason is all that he would leave to man,–no consolation but what the mind can arrive at unaided, no knowledge but what can be reached by original scientific investigation. He destroys not only all faith but all authority, by a low appeal to prejudices, and by vulgar wit such as the infidels of a former age used in their heartless and flippant controversies. I am not surprised at the hostility displayed even in France against him by both Catholics and Protestants. When he advocated his rights of man, from which Thomas Paine and Jefferson himself drew their maxims, he appealed to the self-love of the great mass of men ground down by feudal injustices and inequalities,–to the sense of justice, sophistically it is true, but in a way which commanded the respect of the intellect. When he assailed Christianity in its innermost fortresses, while professing to be a Christian, he incurred the indignation of all Christians and the contempt of all infidels,–for he added hypocrisy to scepticism, which they did not. Diderot, D’Alembert, and others were bold unbelievers, and did not veil their hostilities under a weak disguise. I have never read a writer who in spirit was more essentially pagan than Rousseau, or who wrote maxims more entirely antagonistic to Christianity.

Aside from these great falsities,–the perfection of natural impulse, the inferiority of woman, and the worthlessness of Christianity,–as inculcated in this book, “Émile” must certainly be ranked among the great classics of educational literature. With these expurgated it confirms the admirable methods inspired by its unmethodical suggestions. Noting the oppressiveness of the usual order of education through books and apparatus, he scorns all tradition, and cries, “Let the child learn direct from Nature!” Himself sensitive and humane, having suffered as a child from the tyranny of adults, he demands the tenderest care and sympathy for children, a patient study of their characteristics, a gentle, progressive leading of them to discover for themselves rather than a cramming of them with facts. The first moral education should be negative,–no preaching of virtue and truth, but shielding from vice and error. He says: “Take the very reverse of the current practice, and you will almost always do right.” This spirit, indeed, is the key to his entire plan. His ideas were those of the nineteenth, not the eighteenth century. Free play to childish vitality; punishment the natural inconvenience consequent on wrong-doing; the incitement of the desire to learn; the training of sense-activity rather than reflection, in early years; the acquirement of the power to learn rather than the acquisition of learning,–in short, the natural and scientifically progressive rather than the bookish and analytically literary method was the end and aim of “Émile.”

Actually, this book accomplished little in its own time, chiefly because of its attack on established religion. Influentially, it reappeared in Pestalozzi, the first practical reformer of methods; in Froebel, the inventor of the Kindergarten; in Spencer, the great systematizer of the philosophy of development; and through these its spirit pervades the whole world of education at the present time.

In Rousseau’s “New Héloïse” there are the same contradictions, the same paradoxes, the same unsoundness as in his other works, but it is more eloquent than any. It is a novel in which he paints all the aspirations of the soul, all its unrest, all its indefinite longings, its raptures, and its despair; in which he unfetters the imagination and sanctifies every impulse, not only of affection, but of passion. This novel was the pioneer of the sentimental romances which rapidly followed in France and England and Germany,–worse than our sensational literature, since the author veiled his immoralities by painting the transports of passion under the guise of love, which ever has its seat in the affections and is sustained only by respect. Here Rousseau was a disguised seducer, a poisoner of the moral sentiments, a foe to what is most sacred; and he was the more dangerous from his irresistible eloquence. His sophistries in regard to political and social rights may be met by reason, but not his attacks on the heart, with his imaginary sorrows and joys, his painting of raptures which can never be found. Here he undermines virtue as he had undermined truth and law. Here reprobation must become unqualified, and he appears one of the very worst men who ever exercised a commanding influence on a wicked and perverse generation.

And this view of the man is rather confirmed by his own “Confessions,”–a singularly attractive book, yet from which, after the perusal of the long catalogue of his sorrows, joys, humiliations, triumphs, ecstasies and miseries, glories and shame, one rises with great disappointment, since no great truths, useful lessons, or even ennobling sentiments are impressed upon the mind to make us wiser or better. The “Confessions” are only a revelation of that sensibility, excessive and morbid, which reminds us of Byron and his misanthropic poetry,–showing a man defiant, proud, vain, unreasonable, unsatisfied, supremely worldly and egotistic. The first six Books are mere annals of sentimental debauchery; the last six, a kind of thermometer of friendship, containing an accurate account of kisses given and received, with slights, huffs, visits, quarrels, suspicions, and jealousies, interspersed with grand sentiments and profound views of life and human nature, yet all illustrative of the utter vanity of earth, and the failure of all mortal pleasures to satisfy the cravings of an immortal mind. The “Confessions” remind us of “Manfred” and “Ecclesiastes” blended,–exceedingly readable, and often unexceptionable, where virtue is commended and vice portrayed in its true light, but on the whole a book which no unsophisticated or inexperienced person can read without the consciousness of receiving a moral taint; a book in no respect leading to repose or lofty contemplation, or to submission to the evils of life, which it catalogues with amazing detail; a book not even conducive to innocent entertainment. It is the revelation of the inner life of a sensualist, an egotist, and a hypocrite, with a maudlin although genuine admiration for Nature and virtue and friendship and love. And the book reveals one of the most miserable and dissatisfied men that ever walked the earth, seeking peace in solitude and virtue, while yielding to unrestrained impulses; a man of morbid sensibility, ever yearning for happiness and pursuing it by impossible and impracticable paths. No sadder autobiography has ever been written. It is a lame and impotent attempt at self-justification, revealing on every page the writer’s distrust of the virtues which he exalts, and of man whose reason and majesty he deifies,–even of the friendships in which he sought consolation, and of the retirements where he hoped for rest.

The book reveals the man. The writer has no hope or repose or faith. Nothing pleases him long, and he is driven by his wild and undisciplined nature from one retreat to another, by persecution more fancied than real, until he dies, not without suspicion of having taken his own life.

Such was Rousseau: the greatest literary genius of his age, the apostle of the reforms which were attempted in the French Revolution, and of ideas which still have a wondrous power,–some of which are grand and true, but more of which are sophistical, false, and dangerous. His theories are all plausible; and all are enforced with matchless eloquence of style, but not with eloquence of thought or true feeling, like the soaring flights of Pascal,–in every respect his superior in genius, because more profound and lofty. Rousseau’s writings, like his life, are one vast contradiction, the blending of truth with error,–the truth valuable even when commonplace, the error subtle and dangerous,–so that his general influence must be considered bad wherever man is weak or credulous or inexperienced or perverse. I wish I could speak better of a man whom so many honestly admire, and whose influence has been so marked during the last hundred years, and will be equally great for a hundred years to come; a man from whom Madame de Staël, Jefferson, and Lamartine drew so much of their inspiration, whose ideas about childhood have so helpfully transformed the educational methods of our own time. But I must speak my honest conviction, from the light I have, at the same time hoping that fuller light may justify more leniency to one of the great oracles whose doctrines are still cherished by many of the guides of modern thought.

Sir Walter Scott : The Modern Novel

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers