[The following passage comes from the author's Robespierre (1849)in the Hathi Digital Library Trust web edition. — George P. Landow]
Men are prone to believe in their own lies when they find others credulous; and the idea which Rousseau took up as a paradox to display his ingenuity, produced so great a sensation that he began to believe he had discovered a truth.
ew were in earnest, because few had convictions. At length a man arose in whom pretence grew into seriousness, paradoxes ripened into convictions: that man was Rousseau. The Contrat Social was the Bible of the Revolution. From it orators drew their principles, their political aphorisms, their political language. As a metaphysician, and as a rhetorician, his influence was incalculable. He was the man of his epoch, and therefore was he powerful.
He united the elegance and eloquence of the philosophers and litterateurs to the sadness and seriousness of the people. In his strange career we see him uneasily moving amidst the salons of Paris, dressed in his Armenian robes, creating a sensation amongst the Wits and Poets, the Dilletanti and Beauties; "among them, but not of them;" and then, sick of his uneasy position, brusquely breaking away from all society; turning misanthrope; disdaining all the elegancies of life; and endeavouring in solitude to find that peace among plants, which man had denied him.* A similar course is observable in his writings: he commences with a frivolous paradox to end with an extravagant conviction. The mixture of pretence and reality in Rousseau; of wilful folly, and of glorious truth; of despicable baseness, and of noble qualities, makes up the mystery and piquant charm of his character. "He was," as Carlyle finely says, "a lonely man, his life a long soliloquy." In that soliloquy may be read the heights and depths of human nature. His ideas were often noble, grand, and tender; his acts degraded. He taught mothers by his eloquence to nurse their children, and threw his own children into the Foundling Hospital. His sensibility led him to sympathise with whatever was beautiful; his weakness and selfishness suggested acts which have left ineffaceable stains upon his memory.
He was one of that class of men whose practice springs not from their precepts; in whom the unclouded intellect discerns and honours truth, while the will is too miserably weak to act the truth. He has had his acrid antagonists, and his eloquent defenders. Are not both right — both wrong'? It is possible to draw, and truly draw, a fearful picture of one-half of this man, but such a one-sided view will never obtain general acceptance; for many will deeply sympathise with what was noble in him, and impartial men will always proclaim it. Few read his works. That marvellous book, "The Confessions," will never indeed cease to find readers; but while " Emile" and "La Nouvelle Heloise" from time to time tempt the adventurous, lured by celebrated titles, I do not believe that one student in fifty ever looks into the "Discourse ont he Inequality of Conditions," or the "Social Contract." But as these were his great revolutionary works, it is to them that I must here direct attention.
The period which elapses between 1745 and 1764, is at once the most disastrous, and in some respects the most remarkable, in the history of France. No period offers such striking contrasts. On the one hand, France, beaten in every quarter of the globe, loses her colonies, her marine, and even her honour; on the other hand, she collects together at Paris a brilliant band of writers, whose ideas are destined to become the guiding lights of Europe. Among these, Rousseau holds a foremost rank. In the year 1750, the academy of Dijon proposed, as the subject of its Prize Essay, this question: "Has the establishment of Science and Literature contributed to purify Society?"
It was an absurd question. Absurd, because as literature is itself the expression of society, which it in turn reacts upon, you cannot separate the two, and determine either the influence of literature upon society, or what society would have been had there been no literature: in other words, what society would have been, had it not . . . It was as a paradox which would startle, rather than as a truth which might be commonplace, that Rousseau first threw down the gauntlet against civilisation, proclaiming the superiority of ignorance, and the greatness of savage life. There was something piquant in the idea. He confesses as much in the first page, where he asked himself, "How shall I dare to blame the sciences, in the presence of one of the most learned bodies of Europe? or praise ignorance before a celebrated Academy?" But the result is more piquant still: this Academy absolutely awarded the prize to the audacious eulogist of ignorance! After this we cannot wonder if a paradox, which an Academy could crown, should produce an immense sensation in a frivolous society startled by the novelty, and allured by the eloquence of the Discourse. There was an air of serious conviction about Rousseau. A close and pressing logic, bold and sweeping dogmatism, and a masterly style, if they failed to convince, at least left readers in an embarrassment from whence there was no escape. No one was persuaded, yet no one could refute him. Replies abounded; even a king condescended to step into tbe arena; but Rousseau's antagonists did not see the absurdity of the question, and could not therefore see the narrow ijsevSos of his answer.
Rousseau's position is this: Science, Art, and Literature are the produce and producers of all the vices of civilisation. Man in a state of unlettered simplicity is healthy, brave, and virtuous. He loses these qualities in society. "The ebb and flow of the ocean have not been more regularly subjected to the course of the planet which illumes the night, than the fate of morals and probity to the progress of science and art." This aphorism is universally accepted; and Rousseau's tactic consists in boldly, and without qualification, applying it in the sense contrary to that accepted by mankind. He thus continues: "We have seen virtue disappear, according as the light of the sciences has risen upon our horizon, and the same phenomenon has been observed in all times, and in all countries." This position, so authoritatively assumed, domineers over the whole argument. He subsequently supports it by a magnificent audacity: he gives to every science a vice as its origin!" Astronomy is born from superstition; Eloquence from ambition, from hate, from flattery, from falsehood; Geometry from avarice (!) Physics from a vain curiosity; all — including Morality itself — from human pride."
Scepticism had infested every department of human inquiry; until at last men began to doubt whether all inquiry were not useless. Rousseau'a paradox, therefore, although suggested by Diderot, was the legitimate product of the epoch, and hence its success. Not merely as a protest against the science and literature of the age did this Discours startle France; there were tones in it of a higher strain. There were sentences of serious application. Philosophers were on thrones, were at court, were caressed in salons. Princes prided themselves on their patronage of literature. Rousseau, instead of swelling the list of eulogists who proclaimed such liberality as the great virtue of an enlightened monarch, boldly declared this patronage was adroit tyranny.
Extravagant as the leading idea of this Discourse unquestionably is, it was surpassed in his next work. Men are prone to believe in their own lies when they find others credulous; and the idea which Rousseau took up as a paradox to display his ingenuity, produced so great a sensation that he began to believe he had discovered a truth. He had accidentally lighted upon a mine; and now dug vigorously onwards in search of the ore. His own unhappy life, his own unsociable temper, his consciousness of genius, and irritated self-love, all fitted him for the task of declaiming against unjust social distinctions; and while thus indulging in his vengeance, he was as he proceeds, the dangerous consequences, rigorously deduced from it, appear. Men were born equal. Equal in health, in strength, in virtue, in property. The earth belonged to all, and to none. Society began with the spoliation of the many, in favour of the few: it, and its laws, are the consecration of that spoliation. The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, took it into his head to say, 'This is mine,' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. What crimes, what battles, what murders, and what horrible miseries, would he have spared the human race, who should have torn down the fence, and exclaimed, 'Beware how you listen to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all, and the earth to no one!'" This bold attack upon the very nature of property so startled the age, that even Voltaire called it the philosophy of a blackguard who counselled the poor to plunder the rich. It was passing beyond the limits of permissible . . .
From this we see that Proudhon's definition of property being theft is only an energetic expression of Rousseau's idea. Yet what an uproar it created but the other day! . . . . He spat upon the society wherein he felt his false position; and the world applauded that indulgence of his wrath! No sane man could seriously maintain such arguments, although this was not the first time they had found paradox, and was becoming alarming. Rousseau was serious. He met the objection naturally made, that a man having built a wall by his own labour was entitled to its benefit, by asking, "Who gave you the right to build it? How can you pretend to be repaid for a labour we, the masses, never imposed upon you? The unanimous consent of the whole human race was necessary before you could appropriate from the common funds, more than was necessary for your own subsistence. You are rich! but we suffer. Your wealth is our poverty. In vain you appeal to laws. What are laws but the adroit selfishness of men, who framed maxims for the preservation of their possessions? Property is a spoliation; laws may secure, but they cannot justify it."
This is no longer a mere audacious paradox; it is an unhappy error. It is not a caprice of speculative ingenuity; it is a vigorously deduced conclusion. It has not only logical consistency, but is strengthened by popular feeling. It is a doctrine which will fructify in Revolutions! To those who are in misery and want it comes like a revelation of truth, responding to their sense of social injustice. To those who roll in wealth it comes like a spectre to scare them from their possessions: a spectre they cannot exorcise. It is a doctrine, it is a conviction, and is backed by millions, stung by a sense of injustice! Attempt not to answer it with phrases about "sacred rights of property," "security of order," " wellbeing of the state," and so forth: it tells you plainly that these rights are wnsacred, and that this well-being of a state is the pampered indulgence of a few, wrung from the sufferings of millions!
We in our wealthy England also suffer from it. In thousands of heads and hearts it works, forming the basis of a political gospel. Those who most revolt against it, find it difficult to answer. It never will be answered so long as social science continues in the hands of metaphysicians. Happily their reign is drawing to a close!
In a former work, after due recognition of the services which metaphysical speculation has afforded to the development of opinion, I have endeavoured to show the incompetence of Metaphysics to solve its own problems, and have historically exhibited the gradual decline it has undergone, till it has now almost universally fallen into discredit. But the metaphysical method still remains. It still lingers on the outskirts of the sciences; while in the sciences of man and of society it is almost the universal method. That method may be characterised in a sentence: it is the method whereby instead of examining the thing before us to find out its properties, we studiously examine the idea of that thing as it exists in our own minds.
In the sciences another method is pursued. A man wishing to know the structure and organic processes of plants, examines plants, and not his idea of a plant; but wishing to know the nature of mind, he is not content, as in the former instance, with the observation of phenomena, and from that observation deducing the laws which regulate them, but must, forsooth, despise that as "materialism,1' and straightway occupy himself with the "idea."
In Rousseau we see this vicious method leading to vicious consequences. Instead of examining society as a natural growth — as the sum total of man's nature, developed through an infinite variety of circumstances — he That bold idea once thrown upon the world, the world "will not willingly let die." France suffered from it. straightway eliminates all the phenomena before him, and reduces society to its abstract idea; arriving at a period when society was not, he there discovers certain metaphysical Rights and Conventions; and these he proclaims to be the eternal principles of things ; these he proclaims to be the great truths upon which social science must be based. As well might the botanist disregard all present phenomena, and, eliminating the various influences of air, earth, and water, arrive at the abstract idea of a flower, and tell us that is the flower!
When Charles Bonnet objected to Rousseau's system, that society was the natural product of man's faculties, the inevitable result of his constitution, Rousseau replied, " Yes, in the same way as old age and decrepitude are natural to man, the inevitable results of his constitution; and arts, laws, and governments are as necessary to people as crutches to old men. All the difference is, that old age results naturally and solely from the human constitution; whereas society is not immediately derived from man's faculties, but also from certain external circumstances."! Neither Rousseau, nor his adversaries, saw that he was stepping out of the question, and that his political philosophy was constructed on a radically false basis.
But this metaphysical method was in high favour at that period; and Rousseau's success is owing as much to it as to his eloquence. It has been well said of him, "il a plus de logique que de raison;" which is an epigrammatic way of saying, that he reasoned closely upon loose premises — a true description of a metaphysician, and — will the reader pardon the rapprochement? — has often been given as the definition of a madman. At last he produced "Le Contrat Social" (1762), and this, as the consummation of his metaphysical speculation, became the text-book of the Revolution. Here all trace of paradox has disappeared, and he seems thoroughly in earnest. In proof of this earnestness let not the important modification of his two leading ideas be forgotten.
He no longer regards society as necessarily corrupt, nor indeed as inferior to a savage life. . . . And he concludes by a panegyric on intelligence, as developed by civilisation, adding, that if abuses did not sometimes degrade him lower than his primitive condition, man ought incessantly to bless the happy occasion "qui d'un animal stupide et borne, fit un etre intelligent et un homme." Here he has come round to the opinion of Lucretius, whose picture of savage life he formerly b orrowed, omitting the important reserves which that great poet made — such for instance as — Equally important is his modification of the theory of property. It is no longer a spoliation, but the right of the first occupant, and to this right he annexes three conditions, — 1st. That the land be not already occupied; 2nd. That a man occupies only so much as is necessary for his subsistence ; 3rd. That possession be taken, not by an idle ceremony, but by labour and cultivation — the only signs of proprietorship, which, in default of legal titles, ought to be respected.
With regard to the fundamental idea of this work, viz.: that society is a contract by which the members consent to abide — a contract made by all for the good of all — it is the most powerful revolutionary dogma ever put forward. It has the great merits of distinctness, and apparent certainty. Capable of being understood by the most ignorant, it seems to carry with it the irresistible force of an axiom. It is a striking example of the metaphysical method employed in politics. Let us examine it.
That society exists by the consent of its members is so far true, that if all men chose to separate from their fellows, and live like birds and beasts of prey, they certainly could do so. In this sense there is a sort of tacit contract which forms the basis of society. But I need scarcely say, that, in point of fact, this contract is altogether illusory; no one's consent was ever asked or given. The contract is not a reality, but an hypothesis. . . . To show the absurdity of this hypothesis of a social contract, we have only to refer to a despotism. In a despotic country, society exists only by the same tacit consent of its members; since if they chose to withdraw their consent, and revolt, the despotism must cease. But to draw from such a premiss the conclusion, that despotism was a social contract made by all for the good of all, however it might satisfy a Hobbes, would scarcely be accepted by any one else. The truth is, men are very much like sheep: gregarious by nature, willing to follow any leader, to obey any one bold enough to assume the command; their consent is never asked; they are ordered, and obey. Force has always been King. Mights have been rights.
If we throw aside this abstract and metaphysical method of inquiry, and follow the march of history, we shall see at once, that so far from there having been a social contract, (in which each individual member consented to forego certain privileges for the security of the whole fabric of society), this recognition of every individual member and his rights has been a growing tendency — the great development of the law of progress — the greatest fact in history. Whether we date the origin of society from a family, or from the aggregation of tribes, in each case we see a few leading men and a mass of obedient followers dependent on their captains. In the ancient republics it was only the few who were free, who were real participators in the legislation. Athens and Sparta were but aristocracies. It appeared necessary to the wisest of the Greeks that the masses should blindly obey the behests of the few. Slaves were necessary to society. They are weak and ignorant, and therefore are they slaves. The strong deserved the power, and took it. Might was right. . .
Slavery itself, horrible as it may appear, was a step in advance towards civilisation. Instead of slaughtering their captives, victorious tribes converted them to use; they made their captives slaves. Servage succeeded slavery. Servage became abolished. The growing necessities of the times, and the widening of social views, gradually enfranchised serfs, and proclaimed at last the Rights of Man. Before the eighteenth century, although the rights of every individual member of the state were not formally denied, they were not distinctly recognised. Even now in our nineteenth century they are only distinctly recognised by the democratic party.
To talk of a social contract in face of an historical survey is preposterous. The time will come when society will be a contract; when government will be made by all for the good of all; but Rousseau should have placed his ideal in the future, instead of in the past. It was thus Plato framed his "Utopia," though he too looked back upon a golden age when society was perfect. But his golden age was not an age of ignorance ; it was the age when men were ruled by superior beings, by guardian demons, by intelligences. The ideal of all politicians is to restore this age, which can be done in some degree, by the creation of just laws, which, emanating from the universal reason of mankind, will take the place of those departed guardians.
Whatever may be the value of Rousseau's doctrine as a philosophical solution of the great problem, its potency as a revolutionary instrument, and its fitness for the age which produced it, are incontestable.
It was a political transformation of the dogma of man's fall; and made civilisation the instrument of degeneration. By this it led to the conviction of the necessity for an entire renovation of society. Civilisation, it said, tends to an increased development of the inequality of mankind. But men are born equal; and they should preserve their birthright by resisting that pernicious tendency. Absolute equality — the most disorganising of all doctrines — was proclaimed as the basis of the new scheme of society. We must do Rousseau the justice to say, that he did not warrant all the extravagances of this doctrine. On the contrary, he sometimes speaks with great moderation, as in this passage: —
By Equality, we must not understand that the degrees of power and wealth are to be absolutely the same; but that power should be purified from, all violence, and should be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws; and that in wealth no citizen should be rich enough to purchase another citizen, nor poor enough to be forced to sell himself. If you wish to make the State durable, you must neither allow opulence nor want.
Lewes, George Henry. The Life of Maximilien Robespierre; with extracts from his unpublished correspondence. London, Chapman and Hall, 1849. Hathi Digital Library Trust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 25 April 2017.
Last modified 28 April 2017