domingo, 13 de noviembre de 2016

I think I know man, but as for men, I know them not. —Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau’s “virtue”

by Roger Kimball

A review of Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution by Carol Blum

It is said that the single ornament adorning the walls of Immanuel Kant’s sparsely furnished study was a portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Tradition also has it that the only occasion on which Kant neglected his daily walk—proverbially so punctual that his neighbors in Königsberg set their watches by it—was in 1762 when Rousseau’s novel Émile appeared and Kant sat reading it the whole day, utterly enthralled. What did the philosopher find so appealing about Rousseau? One would be hard pressed to think of two more divergent personalities. The chaste, dutiful, overwhelmingly intellectual Kant and the famously erratic Rousseau, with his personal excesses, his celebration of feeling and sentiment, and his strident pronouncements about the corrupting effects of modern civilization: they could not have been more at odds with each other. Yet Kant credited Rousseau with a great deal. “I am myself an inquirer by inclination,” he wrote when he was forty. “I feel a consuming thirst for knowledge and a restless passion to advance in it ... . There was a time when I thought this alone could constitute the honor of mankind, and I despised the common man who knows nothing. Rousseau set me right.”

In essence, what Kant gleaned from Rousseau was a new appreciation of the part that freedom and feeling play in man’s moral life. He learned that reason, even if it was the key to knowledge, was not the measure of man. As the German neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer observed in his classic 1932 monograph, The Problem of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau’s basic contribution to the age was to have freed it “from the domination of intellectualism. To the forces of rationalist understanding, on which rested the culture of the eighteenth century, he opposed the force of feeling .... It was, in fact,” Cassirer adds, “a completely new current of life that penetrated into French spirituality and threatened to dissolve all its established forms and flood its carefully erected dikes.”

One may credit Cassirer’s point while still pausing to remark on his choice of metaphors. What he had in mind, of course, was the hidebound, decaying aristocratic society through which Rousseau’s thought swept like a tidal wave. But it is worth noting that dikes are generally erected for a good reason, and that their dissolution brings not liberation but death and destruction. From this point of view, Cassirer’s words of praise may also be seen as implicitly expressing a serious criticism. Rousseau’s breathtaking megalomania and self-absorption, his recklessly Utopian vision of the inherent goodness of man and the state of nature, the woeful legacy of his political ideas—all this did indeed help undermine the established institutions of French life.

And though French society in the late eighteenth century was in many respects corrupt, the nature of Rousseau’s assault has brought him as many critics as champions. He has been attacked by thinkers ranging from his erstwhile friends Voltaire and Diderot to the great nineteenth-century French critic Hippolyte Taine and many contemporary writers. The historian J. L. Talmon, for example, has warned that the natural outcome of Rousseau’s doctrine of popular sovereignty is dictatorship, and that his much discussed notion of a general will “becomes the driving force of totalitarian democracy.” That Rousseau must number Maximilien Robespierre and Antoine-Louis Saint-Just among his most ardent admirers —that these architects of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror saw themselves as presiding over the birth of Rousseau’s ideal society—gives at least circumstantial support to Talmon’s contention.

No doubt the wildly conflicting assessments of Rousseau’s character, work, and influence token something about what one might generously call the ambiguity of his achievement. No doubt, too, such ambiguity helps to explain why he has lately received such loving scrutiny from Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and many of their epigones in contemporary literary criticism. The tensions {not to say downright contradictions) that litter Rousseau’s texts, his extravagant theories about the origins of language, and—what is by no means the least seductive element—the kinky, narcissistic eroticism that permeates The Confessions and La Nouvelle Héloïse have all helped to make his work a happy hunting ground for eager deconstructionists. In any event, just as there are few, even among Rousseau’s enemies, who would deny his extraordinary literary gifts or passion, so there are few who would accede to the cult of Rousseau, extolling his personal behavior or crediting him, as he did himself, with being a fount of benignity and virtue, a walking example of the intrinsic goodness of humanity. Opinion remains deeply divided about the cogency and ultimate value of Rousseau’s thought, especially the political dimension of his thought.

It is the great merit of Carol Blum’s new book, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution,[1]that it sheds light on the political and moral aspects of Rousseau’s legacy. Drawing on the work of the distinguished Rousseau scholar Jean Starobinski, Professor Blum, who teaches French at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, traces the career of Rousseau’s peculiar notion of virtue. She shows how it informed his own political thought—illuminating such central Rousseauvian concepts as the general will and the state of nature—and the political thought and action of Rousseau’s spiritual heirs, Robespierre and Saint-Just. Indeed, in showing how Rousseau’s notion of the virtuous self became “a model for political discourse during the Revolution,” Professor Blum does not merely provide insight into the well-worn subject of Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution; she also provides considerable insight into the psychology of tyranny and the essentially narcissistic foundations of Rousseau’s brand of moralizing politics.

But despite the political aspect of its subject, Professor Blum’s book is more an exercise in literary criticism and intellectual biography than in political science. Because it was Rousseau’s “moral” works that made the deepest impression on the architects of the Revolution, forming their initial understanding of Rousseau and their goal as revolutionary leaders, Professor Blum features Émile, La Nouvelle Héloïse, and The Confessions over more overtly political tracts like TheDiscourse on the Origin of Inequality and The Social Contract. Furthermore, the reader will find in these pages scant explicit discussion of the partisan struggles that erupted in the course of the Revolution, even less about its economic or political background. What he will find is a scrupulous examination—part psychological, part literary—of a mode of thought that can be said to have been inaugurated by Rousseau and that was translated onto the stage of world politics by Robespierre and Saint-Just.It must be pointed out, however, that Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue is very much an academic treatise. Professor Blum proceeds with an elaborate scholarly apparatus—including many long footnotes with references to arcane studies—that sometimes does more to obscure than illumine her subject. And though she is capable of writing with considerable verve and even brilliance at times, the book is also marred by occasional descents to the clotted argot that has become a disfiguring feature of so much contemporary academic prose. Near the beginning of the book, for example, Professor Blum complains that the idea of virtue has been shunted aside in most recent studies of the influence of Rousseau’s thought on the French Revolution. She goes on to tell us that “this rejection of the word has hindered the assimilation of denotations and connotations into adequate conceptual frameworks as well. The term as cipher inevitably befogs ancillary propositions.” Befogs indeed. Fortunately, Professor Blum’s obvious engagement with her subject and the inherent interest of the material she has assembled tend to minimize such defects...

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