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									                      Rousseau and the French Revolution

                                                                        David Gress

   Rousseau's fundamental doctrine was that "man is born free, yet everywhere he
is in chains." Human nature in its original condition was good. Civilization
represented a fall from this happy state of innocence, introducing dishonesty,
competition, vice, and ambition, which led to inequality, the great evil of society
and the cause as well as the consequence of the psychological trap that prevented
people from breaking free and returning to their true natures. In civilization, man is
a divided creature, his original goodness obscured and dominated by a persona of
greed and insincerity. The political task therefore was to find a way to restore man
to his pristine state.

   The doctrine of original human goodness overlaid by a vicious civilized nature
was a politicized, secular version of Christianity, or rather, of the Calvinist
Christianity of Rousseau's homeland Geneva. In his Confession of Faith of a
Savoyard Vicar, a part of his pedagogical novel Emile, Rousseau spelled out his
political religion. As in his earlier writing on the origins of inequality, he began by
positing an original unity of the human spirit. Inequality and divisions between
men were the source of all social and personal evils, but they were acquired habits
and could therefore be abolished. By introducing inequality, vice, and ambition,
civilization also corrupted reason, which always found ways of justifying
inequality. Therefore, we should trust our emotions rather than our reason, for our
emotions were a link to the state of nature, to original innocence. Nature, or God,
was the source of harmony and goodness, whereas civilized man was capable only
of chaos and confusion. Rousseau agreed with Saint Paul that people desired the
good but did what was evil. But Rousseau then claimed, a little paradoxically, man
remained free and able to break the bonds of civilization and inequality. The inner
voice of emotion and conscience, the voice of nature, had not wholly died.
Informed by conscience, reason would be able to recognize the good, and human
freedom would be strong enough to choose it.

   The fatal division in man between a pristine nature and a corrupt persona, or civil
personality, had also, Rousseau said, fatally undermined religion. Christianity was
in essence good and true, but Christians had committed a fatal mistake when they
distinguished what was God's from what was Caesar's. In distinguishing religious
from civil obligation, the churches in effect instituted two religions: a personal
religion of charity and a civil religion of obedience to the powers that be. But such
a split was immoral and intolerable, like the split in the human soul between
original innocence and corrupt convention. The task of the wise legislator and
reformer was to heal both breaches, to restore the unity of human beings and the
unity of their religion. The goal of political action, Rousseau held, was to build a
society of good people whose religion would also constitute their social norms and
civil obligation. The wise legislator should have the right to enforce good behavior
and right belief. If any citizen refused to accept the rules that true, uncorrupted
human nature indicated, he should be banished. If any citizen accepted the rules but
then showed by his actions that he did not believe them, he should be executed,
because he would then have committed the greatest of all crimes, that of deceiving

the law.

   Rousseau rejected the classical liberal philosophy found in embryonic form in
Montesquieu, namely, that human nature, history, and society were a blend of good
and evil, reason and emotion, liberty and coercion. He wanted unity and coherence.
The good society for Rousseau was not one where people were free to pursue their
particular interests, but one that forced them to be free according to what he knew
was their deepest, uncorrupted desire, the desire of the state of nature for harmony
and equality. The good society united the best part of individual wills into "the
general will," a common purpose and policy that would be the immediate reflection
of what each individual knew, deep down in his or her conscience, was right. The
good society, in short, would recreate the original unity of the human race by a
political act.

    As Benjamin Constant pointed out, since creating the good society was
necessarily a moral demand, no one could morally refuse to participate. Those who
had discovered how to achieve the good society, in which citizens had the right
desires and the correct morality, had, by Rousseau's doctrine, an incontrovertible
license to coerce in the name of the general will, which by definition was always in
the right and ought always to prevail over the corrupted, private, individual wills,
caught as they were in the illusions of ambition and the temptations of inequality.
Rousseau desperately wanted to elide what he saw as the fatal gap in man's social
life, the gap between what people knew, or should know, to be good and what they
actually did. The practical attempt to elide that gap never failed to lead to mass
murder and war, whether in the relatively mild form of the 1790s or the more cata-
strophic versions launched by the Bolshevik and National Socialist revolutions of
1917 and 1933, respectively.

   Rousseau truly believed that "man was born free, yet everywhere he is in
chains." As Montesquieu would have said, that was a profoundly unhistorical and
naive idea. Neither part of the sentence was historically or philosophically
coherent. That man was born free was a metaphysical postulate that begged the
definition of freedom. That he was everywhere in chains was a judgment that
depended for its meaning on the same, absent definition of freedom. And the
relation between the two statements, the "yet," implied yet a third metaphysical and
moral postulate-that a bad thing had happened to reduce man from the asserted
original state. As well might one say, "Sheep were born as carnivores, yet
everywhere they eat grass.

   The American Revolution was the product of Montesquieu in the same inexact
but revealing sense that the French Revolution was the product of Rousseau.
Montesquieu described the conditions of liberty and prosperity; these were divided
power, the government of several rather than of one or of all, and the incentive that
such power sharing and secure laws gave to men to produce and invest, to make
money, finance inventions and new methods, create employment, and raise the total
prosperity and potentiality of their society. He identified Britain as the society with
the best conditions for enterprise and liberty, which were two sides of the same
coin. He died twenty years before the Declaration of Independence and thirty years
before the American Constitution, but he would have understood and endorsed

James Madison's hopeful but, in the main, accurate definition of America as a great
commercial republic. A commercial republic was exactly what Montesquieu
identified as the best framework for individual and social liberty, as well as for

   The most striking feature of the stormy and often imperiled history of political
and social liberty in the West from the days of the late antique synthesis through the
grand bargain of church and empire, the Renaissance, and the Reformation was its
marriage to Christian ideas of freedom. A marriage less made in heaven would, at
first glance, seem hard to imagine. Germanic freedom was the freedom of
aristocratic warriors to decide the actions of their tribe or nation; a freedom tinged
with the heroic ethos of self-assertion and self-sacrifice. Christian freedom was
freedom from the world, fulfilled in humble service of God and without regard to
one's social or economic state; male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. Yet the
marriage took place, and produce! the militia Dei, the war service of God, of
Boniface the martyr and of the Carolingian warriors, of the eleventh-century
reformers of the church and their contemporaries, the crusaders. Blood and holiness
were close in those days, as the Song of Roland demonstrated. Turpin the
archbishop brained a Moor with Toledo steel, and the poet told us in the same
breath that "no man chanted a better mass." The Muslims understood; this was as
close to jihad, the holy striving to do God's will, as Christendom ever got.

   The commercial republic that Madison saw growing around him in America
partook of Montesquieu's original freedom but also of its history. What the French
baron for all his perception did not fully see was that the commercial and social
liberty of his own time was the modern, pacific, debellicized face of the Dark Age
marriage. The piecemeal, partial pacification of Europe after 1648, itself the result
in part of better expectations of life and less patience with wars, holy or political,
turned the energies of the West from militia Dei to trade, commerce, and invention.
The modern triad did not spring into being in the late eighteenth century; it was
present in embryo in the eleventh-century Rhineland.

   The French Revolution chose a different path, obscuring the commercial option
and choosing the option of a modernized militia Dei, now called patriotism.
Jefferson and the other Americans knew what that was; it motivated their political
and religious rebellion against their dread sovereign lord, His Britannic Majesty
King George the Third, Defender of the Faith. But the distance and the commercial
orientation of the American Republic delayed for eighty-five years the military
explosion that tested American patriotism to its limits and thereby forged it anew:
the Civil War. The French Republic was born in a fever of populist hate against
aristocrats, and then, with an eye to the foreigners who were not three thousand
miles away but across the Rhine and the Alps, in a fever of a different and more
urgent kind of patriotism, one that defined the patriot as the mobilized and armed
citoyen. The task of the French revolutionaries was to forge a mobilized and
defensible nation that would at one and the same time be able to constitute itself as
a self-governing body politic, and maintain itself against the attack of hostile

  The Americans won their liberty thanks in part to patriotic fervor; they could

then lay down their arms and constitute themselves into a free republic. The French
first constituted themselves into a political nation and then had to defend
themselves. The first sequence made militant patriotism an emergency feeling, not
necessary in the important task of political creation. The second sequence, the
French, made militant patriotism into the essence of political creation, for the two
were not separated by time and space but run together. The Jacobin and Girondin
majority of the National Assembly proclaimed the republic in September 1792 and
found fa patrie en danger, France at war. The Americans had been at war, and
were at peace, when their republic was instituted. The opposing sequences by no
means fully explained why the Jacobins thought it necessary to employ terror to
enforce their Republic of Virtue; but it made the Jacobin impulse in the French
Revolution, and its temporary success in 1792-94, more comprehensible.

  Mirabeau, one of the leaders of the early phase of the revolution, defined popular
sovereignty as made up of two parts: "the power of willing, and the power of
acting." The legacy of Rousseau to the Jacobins was that they thought they had to
merge the two, that the democratic people had to be at the same time its own master
and the executor of its own laws. Rousseau prescribed that the free community of
individuals must constitute itself as sovereign, because only the people that
knowingly liberated itself was in a position to create and maintain liberty by healing
the fatal breach in human social nature between the good and the artificial, the true
and the corrupt, the noble and rightly guided general will and the wayward,
particularistic, and selfish individual will. Because the Jacobins believed this, and
because they found themselves engaged in the impossible task of forcing their
people to be themselves, that is, free, in the midst of war, they turned to terror.

  The revolutionary era launched the divided identity of the New West, with one
part, the universalist and progressive impulse, denying history, and the other
studying it for clues to the growth of freedom and security. Edmund Burke, who
defended the Americans against George III in Parliament, was often classed as a
conservative because he opposed the French Revolution, which he defined as "a
Revolution of doctrine and theoretic dogma" in which "a spirit of proselytism
makes an essential part." As early as 1790, when the atmosphere in Paris was still
one of national solidarity and optimism, Burke predicted "transmigrations, fire, and
blood." To call Burke a conservative, however, was to misunderstand his
commitment to "liberty connected with order," which "inheres in good and steady
government, as in its substance and vital principle." Burke, like Montesquieu,
detected the forces that shaped the interests, and hence the behavior, of large social
groups like nations. He warned against playing with those forces or ignorantly
conjuring them. But, again like Montesquieu, his constant focus was the real
freedom, the niches of liberty, found in the history of the Old West and taken by
him to define its identity. He rejected the false promise of absolute freedom held
out by the radical revolutionaries in France, for he saw in it a denial of the Old West
and a denial of the idea of reasoned progress into the New.

  The battle between the advocates of reasoned progress based on history and of
radical change based on hope and the claims of justice defined the internal conflict
and the schizophrenic identity of the New West from 1789 on. The conflict
between universalists and sceptics in the 1990s demonstrated that the conflict had

not been concluded.


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