Monday, 3 April 2017




This year is the occasion of many notable anniversaries, but perhaps the most interesting of them all is the bicentenary of the birth of Jean Jacques Rousseau—inspirer of the French Revolution and the American Constitution, philosopher, educationalist, writer of novels, and composer of operas, the most potent influence of the 18th century, and one of the greatest minds of the present era.

To this day violent controversies range round his influence on the Revolution, his character, and his inspiration of literature. In spite of all that Mrs. Macdonald and others have done in recent years to lessen the impression generally accepted of the ignoble side of his character, his gross, non-moral life is made clear from his "Confessions," which Burke described as a record of a life flung with wild defiance in the face of his Creator. Here he set down with extraordinary literary charm and an almost reckless candour the pettiness and immorality of his thoughts and actions—his quarrels with his friends, his ingratitude towards his patrons, his desertion of his mistress and neglect of his children, his vanity and caprice, incapacity for recording the truth, and numerous other undesirable traits of character, both small and great. Yet, apart from its worth as a literary production, the "Confessions" must be reckoned as a remarkable psychological study, as the revelation of one of the greatest minds in history, and as involving no little courage and self-sacrifice in its composition. Samuel Johnson did not approve of Rousseau, but we suspect that if the prim and proper doctor had set down faithfully and scrupulously his innermost thoughts and the smallest of his actions, the result would have made the hair of James Boswell stand on end. "Let not Donna Bertha, of Ser Martino, suppose that, because this man steals, and that man makes offerings, it may seem so within the divine counsel, for one may rise and the other may fall." Dante was no sentimentalist with regard to sinners, but he also knew a good deal about the saints.


But, after all, however interesting it is to pierce through the veil concealing the inner life of great men, Rousseau's influence will abide, whether or not he quarrelled with Diderot, and Grimm, and Hume, and the Duke of Luxemburg, or wrongfully accused a servant girl of stealing a ribbon, or behaved with unnatural cruelty to his children. The fame of Nelson or Napoleon does not rest on their irregular marital relations. Men who have never read a line of Rousseau's writings accuse him of direct responsibility for the jacqueries of the French Revolution, whereas he undoubtedly hated the thought of revolution, and loathed agitation. That he achieved what Voltaire failed to accomplish is unquestioned. Not only did statesmen obey his dictates, but mothers suckled their babes because he told them to do so.

"Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains"—the opening words of the "Contrat Social"—provided a clue to the whole of his treatise, which fired the imaginations of his countrymen by the impassioned eloquence and emotional rhetoric with which he had clothed the cold logic of his philosophical argument. Burke, whose prejudiced and violent attacks on Rousseau did much to influence public opinion in England against him, was compelled to confess In his "Letter to a Member of the National Assembly" (1791): "Him they study; him they meditate; him they turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the day or the debauches of the night. Rousseau is their canon of holy writ; in his life he is their canon of Polyclitus; he is their standard figure of perfection." Sir James Mackintosh, In his "Vindiciae Gallicae," and Lord Morley, and other writers in modern times have placed in their proper perspective Rousseau's lack of responsibility for the excesses of the revolution, and have vindicated him as one of the immortal band of sages, "who unshackled and emancipated the human mind." His influence on the American Revolution has also been questioned, but the constitution was In its very phraseology based on his writings, and Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and other framers of the constitution were clearly much influenced by him.


Rousseau has often been accused of plagiarism. So has Shakespeare. But the schoolboy has settled the latter question by defining a plagiarist as a person who writes plays. The root principles of his philosophy may be traced to Bentham, Hobbes, Locke, or Althusen. The educational theories he set out in "Emile" were in part at least borrowed from Rabelais, Montesquieu, Locke, and the Jesuits. He has even been accused of moulding his "Nouvelle Heloise" on Richardson's "Clarissa." But if all this be granted his place in history is not lessened, his influence was not less great. One is reminded in a discussion of the ethics of plagiarism which so often arises in connection with Rousseau of the line in Aristophanes, when Cleon, convinced at last by his own confessions of too-glaring obligations to the public treasury, blurts out an apology: "Well, if I stole, 'twas for the public good." Rousseau was clearly one of the fathers of the romanticist school of literature. Of his direct influence on the sentimental "pantisocracy" of the youthful Lake poets there are differences of opinion. It is at least debatable whether Wordsworth and Southey would have written as they did it it had not been for Rousseau's inspiration, although Coleridge called him "the trimmer of love-sick tales and the spinner of speculative cobwebs." Hazlitt, In the "Round Table," in 1814, described the "Confessions" as "the most valuable of all Rousseau's writings. The pilgrimage which Byron and Shelley made to the scenes of Rousseau's novels, and how they steeped themselves in his works, is recorded in Shelley's "Letters." Byron's enthusiasm took the form of the famous stanzas in "Childe Harold," beginning, "Here the self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau," and Rousseau is the first illustrious name mentioned in Byron's "Heroes of Immortality."


Walter Scott, in a review of the "Nouvelle Heloise," In the "Quarterly Review," wrote that "the dulness of the story is the last apology for its exquisite immorality," but, at least two later famous English writers acknowledged their indebtedness to Rousseau. George Eliot wrote to a friend in 1849: "It would signify nothing to me if a very wise person were to stun me with proofs that Rousseau's views of life, religion, and government were miserably erroneous—that he was guilty of some of the worst "bassesses" that have degraded civilised man. I might admit all this; and it would not be the less true that Rousseau's genius has sent that electric thrill through my intellectual and moral frame which has awakened me to new perceptions." And John Ruskin wrote the following confession in 1862: "I know of no man whom I more entirely resemble than Rousseau. If I were asked whom of all men of any name in past time I thought myself to be grouped with, I should answer unhesitatingly, Rousseau." In "Preterita" he openly acknowledged his life-long debt to Rousseau.

Individuals will differ upon this phase of his character and upon that. But whenever we look to the well from which men have drunk the waters of liberty, and have sought inspiration from the blessings of individual freedom and social and economic equality; if we seek the sources of much that is best in our literature, and search for the fundamental principles upon which the education of our children and ourselves are based, we shall have to include in our quest the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Saturday 31 August 1912, page 5

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