Rousseau has been loved and hated, but has never been ignored. His name rings in our ears because he expressed every form of human resentment with such intensity and intelligence that his endless nay-saying is still illuminating and seems edifying. His versatility was such that there is a different Rousseau for every reader. Dislike, however, produced his most enduring personae - first the man who spawned Robespierre and then the godfather of Romanticism. He is to be blamed for 1789 and all that: he was a bad thing. And it is as a bad thing that he most often appears, especially in historical scripts in which 'ideas' act as palpable forces that push and pull large numbers of people to behave in quite specific ways. One might well speak of a sort of psychological materialism. The first part of Norman Hampson's Will and Circumstance reads like just such a production. It begins with Rousseau singing a revolutionary song in counterpoint to Montesquieu's reforming liberalism. They were the two writers most often quoted by the revolutionaries, but they moved their admirers in wholly opposite directions. From this account it would seem that Montesquieu was soon discarded, so his presence here is merely a warning to those tempted to forget him. He was indeed the prophet of constitutional liberty - always aware of the limits imposed by national character and historical circumstances on political possibilities. But as neither his theory of climate, and the enormous debate it aroused, nor his views on religion are discussed, Hampson is not weighing either Montesquieu's caution or his daring. Only those passages that set him apart from Rousseau are mentioned, which makes the latter's enormous admiration for him entirely incomprehensible. As for Rousseau, we get bits of the Social Contract, as well as of some lesser pieces that were unknown to his early readers. This is a pastiche of Rousseau as a crude monomaniac who claimed that a transforming political will could re-create Sparta here and now. That his notion of a general will implies, not the actual, but the higher public will of the people is true, but that he thought that it could be mobilised at present to set up a republic of virtuous citizens is not. Hampson mentions that Rousseau harboured no revolutionary designs. He is, however, said to have taught a violent civil ideology to Mercier, Brissot, Marat, Robespierre and Saint-Just, and that is all that matters, apparently.
LRB 4 August 1983 | PDF Download