Title of Dissertation:
Joshua Karant, Ph.D., 2004
Dissertation Directed By:
Professor Benjamin R. Barber, Department of
Government and Politics
The relationship between religion and politics poses a pressing—and
oftentimes combustible—problem for contemporary democracies. The terror of
September 11 th , global suicide bombings, and attacks on America’s abortion clinics
illustrate the imminent dangers of political protest driven by fanatical faith. But
authors such as Machiavelli, Tocqueville and, more recently, William Galston and
Manning Marable suggest something different. Religion, they argue, cultivates virtue
amongst citizens and must be incorporated into the pluralist fold.
These dissonant conclusions underscore the difficulty of navigating the
tension between spiritual and secular values. Does religion subvert liberal democratic
principles of neutrality and equality under law, or does it offer an essential foundation
for secular virtue? If religion provides a moral compass compatible with democracy,
do religious systems inevitably undermine open, participatory politics? If so, how
might we cultivate political virtue without compromising strong citizenship?
For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the answer lies in Civil Religion, a model
wherein spiritual virtue and religious piety uphold political liberty and strong
citizenship. Does Rousseau ask too much? Does he attempt to marry irreconcilable
partners, or is his vision practicable and persuasive? Adopting the divisive
relationship between religion and politics as its central concern, A Peculiar Faith
examines Rousseau’s secular theology as a means of confronting this contentious and
still-relevant dilemma.
Joshua Karant
Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Maryland, College Park, in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Advisory Committee:
Professor Benjamin R. Barber, Chair
Professor Charles E. Butterworth
Professor William A. Galston
Professor James E. Miller
Professor Vladimir Tismaneanu
© Cop yright by
Joshua Karant
To Luka and Jan .
The sentences you are about to read are mine, but they would not have been
written without the guidance and support of colleagues, friends and family. First and
foremost, I owe tremendous gratitude to Benjamin R. Barber. I first met Dr. Barber
in a Rousseau seminar at Rutgers University. When he accepted an offer to join the
faculty at the University of Maryland, he graciously suggested that I accompany him.
What, at the time, seemed a potentially brash gamble proved, in hindsight, to be the
most significant decision of my academic career. I cannot thank Barber enough for
his contributions to my personal and professional development, his generosity in
funding my interests and supporting me at every turn, and his role as an educator,
mentor and friend. I am as grateful for his warmth, insight, and encouragement, as I
am for the passion with which he challenged, provoked, confronted and tested me.
The work at hand is a testament to, and reflection of, our relationship.
If Barber was my fountainhead, several prepared me for his tutelage. My path
to political theory began at Pomona College, and the blame (as it were) rests largely
on the shoulders of John Seery. To this day, Seery remains a gadfly, a confidant, a
compatriot, and one of the most influential professors with whom I have had the
pleasure of studying. The same holds true for James Miller and Richard Shusterman.
I happened across Miller’s Passion of Michel Foucault while living in Oahu, and
made the fruitful pilgrimage to New York to work with him at the New School. His
commitment to my intellectual growth never wavered (even when I did), and I was
fortunate to have benefited from his affection, erudition, scholarly rigor, and utter
lack of artifice. He taught me how to approach texts critically but independently,
with a disciplined eye for precision that never sacrificed creativity. Shusterman
proved a particularly empathetic ally as well. Sensitive to my interests, strengths and
weaknesses alike, he treated me as an equal and exposed me to an art of life towards
which I continue to humbly, and hopefully, aspire.
It is barely possible to list every person who influenced and assisted me
during my academic training, but several others warrant especial acknowledgment.
Wilson Carey McWilliams’ wisdom and warmth provided great inspiration, solace,
and guidance both during and well beyond my tenure at Rutgers. And at the
University of Maryland, I was fortunate to have worked with William Galston and
Vladimir Tismaneanu. Galston’s decency, attentiveness, sound judgment, and
remarkably fluid mind made the move to College Park wholly worthwhile.
Tismaneanu likewise graced me with his generous spirit, critical acuity, and
wonderfully provocative reading of Rousseau. Along with the accomplished and
estimable Charles Butterworth, and Barber and Miller, they formed a committee
invaluable in realizing and honing the vision that guided this work.
I am also grateful for the feedback and critique I received from friends and
colleagues alike, including Derek Barker, Isabelle V. Barker, Sharon E. Goldman,
Bryan McGraw, Philip Spivey, and Matthew Voorhees. Charles Kim also merits
special recognition. Kim took significant time from his own research on Korean
history to provide as close, thoughtful and thorough a reading of early drafts as any I
In addition, this work would not have been possible without support from the
Democracy Collaborative. The Collaborative went above and beyond the call of duty
in ensuring my sustained and generous funding as a Research Fellow, providing the
framework and autonomy to pursue my own scholarly interests while simultaneously
realizing projects on global citizenship and civic education.
Finally, these acknowledgments would be woefully incomplete without a
recognition of Janet Austin. Harboring a graduate student is no mean feat,
particularly in my case. At times I would have been hard-pressed to find my way out
of a paper bag, let alone write a coherent work. Yet throughout it all, Janet provided
not merely encouragement and affection, but also grounding, focus, strength, and the
wellsprings of her tremendous organizational skills. When I drifted off into sermons
on the Pelagian heresy, she reminded me of the task at hand; when I suggested fleeing
to Paris, she kept me at my computer in Brooklyn, plugging ahead; and whenever the
goal seemed beyond my capacities, she insisted otherwise. It is with love and
admiration that I dedicate A Peculiar Faith to her.
Brooklyn, New York
November 8, 2004
Table of Contents
Dedication ..................................................................................................................... ii
Acknowledgements...................................................................................................... iii
Table of Contents ......................................................................................................... vi
Note on Translation..................................................................................................... vii
List of Abbreviations ................................................................................................. viii
Introduction................................................................................................................... 1
Chapter 1: Strained Relations ..................................................................................... 10
Chapter 2: The Virtue of Paradox ............................................................................... 35
Chapter 3: A Claim of Innocence ............................................................................... 86
Chapter 4: The Reluctant Recluse............................................................................ 150
Chapter 5: Church and State ..................................................................................... 200
Chapter 6: The Road to Vincennes ........................................................................... 247
Bibliography ............................................................................................................. 269
Note on Translation
Rather than recreating the wheel, and for the sake of consistency, translations
of Rousseau’s works are largely based upon the wonderful University Press of New
England series, The Collected Writings of Rousseau . I have only occasionally found
need to make corrections (based upon the Pléiade edition), or draw attention to
nuances particular to the French language. All other translations are mine, unless
List of Abbreviations
In French
OC Oeuvres complètes, tomes 1-5 . Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond, eds.
(Paris: Éditions Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1959-1995).
CC Correspondance complète de Jean-Jacques Rousseau , R.A. Leigh, ed.
(Genève: Institut et Museé Voltaire, 1965— )
In Translation
CW The Collected Writings of Rousseau, Vols. 1-10 . Roger D. Masters and
Christopher Kelly, eds. (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England,
Emile, or On Education , Allan Bloom, tr. (New York: Basic Books, 1979).
Rousseau touched the hearts of a great many people who felt the author spoke
directly to them. 1 Yet the reputation of his works is dogged by their perceived
contradictions. Rousseau vehemently rejected such charges, even as he admitted to
the paradoxical nature of his thought. If the temperamental author had his way,
readers would surely follow the fictional Frenchman’s lead in his Dialogues and
recognize his oeuvres as “things that were profoundly thought out, forming a coherent
system which might not be true but which offered nothing contradictory.” 2
Rousseau’s insistent claims notwithstanding, his writings strike inharmonious chords.
Of these, perhaps none rings more awkwardly than his simultaneous embrace of
religiosity and secularism.
Writing as if attuned to the means of salvation, Rousseau incorporated both
Christian and Pagan traditions within a vision of strong democratic citizenship and
corporeal improvement. How did these competing influences unfold as a model of
practicable reform? Was their synthesis compelling? Or even coherent? What might
we make of Rousseau’s religious conviction, and its relation to civic harmony and
political virtue? And for a thinker so obviously concerned with secular affairs, why
was religion necessary to his thought?
1 See: Robert Darnton, “Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity,” in
The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History . (New York: Basic Books,
2 In claiming both that his works “offered nothing contradictory” and that paradox was “necessary” to
his thought, Rousseau forced a crucial distinction between paradox and inconsistency discussed in
Chapter 2 above. Dialogues . CW I.209; OC I.930.
Because Rousseau’s writings are rife with paradoxes and antinomies, answers
do not come easily. Indeed, his efforts have conspicuously divided audiences. In
Rousseau’s own age, Frederick the Great believed that the Genevan’s moral rigor was
matched only by his saint-like self-castigation. 3 Yet the Archduke Christophe de
Beaumont derided him as a dangerous heretic, the living epitome of Saint Paul’s
prophecy of “perilous days” destined to cloud mankind’s future. 4 To most—his
friends, foes, and intellectual peers alike—Rousseau was a rabble-rouser cut of
Diogenes the Cynic’s abrasive cloth. Yet to himself, he was one of the last few true
Christians, believers who followed the gospel of Christ rather than the Church’s
Was Jean-Jacques pious or profane, a disciple of Jesus or a radical Pagan
upstart? Evidence suggests that each of these descriptions bears some measure of
truth. Deeply engaged with the corporeal world as critic and reformer, he drew a
paradoxical faith in the capacity for human redemption from a heterodox assumption
of man’s natural goodness. Applying virulent social criticism to an optimistic vision
of political reform, he rose to fame as a demonstrative recluse—a thinker ill-at-ease in
the society to whose improvement he was so deeply committed. Such engagement
reflects wholly secular concerns, yet Rousseau’s work also betrayed strong
religiosity. His faith in human innocence rested upon a self-professed love of divine
order and the natural world of God’s creation. From his very first Discourse , to the
Vicar’s Profession , to the final Reveries , Rousseau urged us to follow the principles
3 For a detailed discussion of Frederick’s claim, see Chapter 4 below.
4 Pastoral Letter . CW IX.3. Beaumont’s Biblical reference is to 2 Timothy 3:1-4, 8.
of virtue “engraved in all hearts” and revealed through the God-given conscience
from which socialized man had alienated himself.
One of his epoch’s most virulent anti-Clericalists, Rousseau nonetheless
embraced religion as a necessary foundation for individual and collective
improvement. Yet his vision of piety rested upon a Pelagian heresy, a claim of
ontological innocence that was itself colored by a profound mistrust of human
society. A self-designated recluse, he expressed personal distaste for social
obligation, duty and convention. A champion of cohesive communities, he found
peace only in solitude, alone amongst nature while lost in his passionate reveries.
Perhaps the greatest social critic of his age, he staked his career—and following his
motto, 5 his very life—on a mission of public service: pursuing the truth and revealing
it to his peers. Yet this secular calling was itself the fruit borne of a spiritual
conversion, an epiphany that changed his life on the road to Vincennes.
Such are the beds of Rousseau’s making, and the conspicuously strange
bedfellows he conjured. Taken together, his skepticism of men (as social creatures
infected with amour-propre) and faith in man ( en générale , as creations of God
endowed with conscience) appear to be incompatible. Rousseau’s sunny view of
human nature seems ill-fitted with his belief in Divine order and an afterlife, two
concepts traditionally used to literally instill the fear of God in the descendents of
Adam. His acute distrust of formal religion only complicates matters. If man is
good and religion is necessary, yet men have grown as wicked and corrupt as
religious institutions, can we honestly hope for improvement? What concrete lesson
5 Namely, Vitam impendere vero ( Dedicate life to truth ). For a more thorough examination of
Rousseau’s motto see Chapter 2 below.
might we draw from these inchoate conclusions? Can such a dissonant theory
materialize in practice?
Again, Rousseau’s readers harbored strong doubts. Even those who
appreciated his work have wished aloud that the Genevan abandon his dialectic
approach for a more singular methodology and agenda. If only Rousseau had chosen
a more righteous path unencumbered by earthly affairs, perhaps he would have
survived the Enlightenment as one of the world’s great martyrs, a figure deified
without irony or scorn. Infighting with the philosophes , repentant success,
hypersensitivity over his reputation and legacy, and eventual exile only heightened
his discomfort and fueled his critics; yet he never relinquished his burdensome
commitment to corporeal reform.
Rousseau was, after all, equally enamored with spiritual and secular
improvement. To abandon one would have been to destroy the provocative dialectic
that makes his thought so compelling. Had he convincingly renounced his ties to the
world, the questions that now confront us would be irrelevant. He would not have
struggled to envision religious associations compatible with liberal democratic
principles of tolerance, equality and strong citizenship. He would not, in other words,
have formulated his theory of Civil Religion.
Civil Religion is a nexus of Rousseau’s earthly and otherworldly concerns.
One of his most widely-disparaged writings, this attempt to found a “purely civil
faith” (a term which itself testifies to his confluence of spiritual and secular values)
marked a culminating point in Rousseau’s life-consuming quest to foster religious
and political reform. In it, we find an author struggling to apply his faith to practice,
to reconcile his dour view of the world as it was with his dream of society as it should
be . 6 In the end, was he successful? Were his apparently competing influences and
aims irreconcilable? Or does Rousseau offer a powerful lens through which to
reconsider the relationship between religion and politics?
* * * * *
Readers may yet ask, why another book about Rousseau? Although the topic
of his religiosity has been long-studied, I believe it could be better studied. After all,
the most thorough and widely-acclaimed writings are both aged and unavailable in
English: P.-M. Masson and William Cuendet wrote nearly one century ago, while
comparable works from renowned scholars such as Robert Dérathe and Pierre
Burgelin date from the middle of the twentieth-century. 7
To be fair, contemporary authors have expanded upon these pioneering
efforts. James Miller and Helena Rosenblatt discussed Rousseau’s relationship to
Protestantism in illuminating the significance of his Swiss heritage. 8 In Not By
Reason Alone , Joshua Mitchell explored the influence of Christian and Protestant
6 This is, of course, a reference to The Social Contract ’s opening lines: “I want to inquire whether there
can be a legitimate and reliable rule of administration in the civil order, taking men as they are and
laws as they can be .” As we will see, this dialectic between realism and idealism is central to
Rousseau’s religious and political thought alike. The Social Contract . CW IV.131; OC III.351. (My
7 See: Pierre-Maurice Masson, La Religion de J. J. Rousseau , Vols. I-III. (Paris: Librairie Hachette,
1916); William Cuendet, La Philosophie religieuse de Jean-Jacques Rousseau et ses sources . (Geneva:
A. Jullien, 1913); Robert Dérathe, Le rationalisme de Jean-Jacques Rousseau . (Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, 1948); Pierre Burgelin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la religion de Genève .
(Geneva: Éditions Labor et Fides, 1962).
8 See: James Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy . (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984);
Helena Rosenblatt, Rousseau and Geneva: From the First discourse to the Social Contract , 1749-
1762 . (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
authors upon his thought. 9 Ann Hartle’s eloquent work, The Modern Self in
Rousseau’s Confessions , 10 analyzed the Augustinian elements within his model of
self-discovery, a connection likewise detailed by Christopher Brooke 11 and
Christopher Kelly. 12 Victor Gourevitch 13 drew attention to Rousseau’s providential
description of “nature,” while Ronald Grimsley 14 expounded upon his Biblical
concept of redemption. And Patrick Riley’s well-documented The General Will
Before Rousseau illustrated the Malebranchian influence upon his concept of
voluntarism, while charting the general will’s movement from a divine to a civic
emphasis. 15
Despite the breadth and depth of such scholarship, however, rarely is
Rousseau’s religion considered as a keystone to his political vision, and a crucial
linkage which unites his entire oeuvres . 16 Quite the contrary, far more effort has been
9 Mitchell goes so far as to claim that “Rousseau and Luther embark on identical projects” of social
criticism. Joshua Mitchell, Not By Reason Alone: Religion, History and Identity in Early Modern
Political Thought . (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).
10 See: Ann Hartle, The Modern Self in Rousseau’s Confessions: A Reply to Saint Augustine . (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).
11 Christopher Brooke, “Rousseau’s Political Philosophy: Stoic and Augustinian Origins,” in Patrick
Riley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau . (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
12 Christopher Kelly, Rousseau’s Exemplary Life: The “Confessions” as Political Philosophy . (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).
13 Victor Gourevitch, “The Religious Thought,” in Riley.
14 Ronald Grimsley, Rousseau and the Religious Quest . (London: Oxford University Press, 1968).
15 Patrick Riley, The General Will Before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic .
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).
16 Instead, scholars often look for ways to subvert or disprove Jean-Jacques’ claim of consistency. The
most compelling example of this approach is Judith Shklar’s Men and Citizens . Shklar argued
forcefully that Rousseau was a deeply pessimistic thinker whose vision of secular redemption—of
cultivating men and citizens—was, by his own admission and example, fatally flawed. With due
respect, I believe that Shklar subverts his significant and sincere optimism (a value tied to his
religiosity) by exaggerating the extent and implications of his pessimism. Yet Rousseau’s writings did
not fall into the category of philosophical speculation he so loathed; he meant his vision to be
implemented in practice. We should, however, note that not all authors follow Shklar’s skeptical lead.
As much as anyone, Jean Starobinski struggled to identify the underlying coherence of Rousseau’s
work. In La transparence et l’obstacle , he noted the simultaneous piety and profanity that
characterized the Genevan’s morality, without taking this as evidence of his inconsistency. This work
is therefore in part an attempt to flesh out Starobinski’s claim, to determine where exactly Rousseau’s
opposed values coalesced within his singular vision of democratic virtue. See: Judith N. Shklar, Men
made to use his concept of religion against him: to argue that his spiritual optimism is
fundamentally incoherent and incompatible with his political vision; that his Civil
Religion reveals a despotic, totalitarian temperament; and that his conversions from
Protestantism to Catholicism back to Protestantism attest to his capricious nature. 17
A fresh perspective is needed, one which defends Rousseau from these claims
by clarifying the significance of his religiosity, particularly as it informs a coherent
model of democratic virtue. Towards this end, we will explore the Pagan and
Christian traditions evident in concepts central to his life and writings; examine his
more contentious theological beliefs, particularly his sorely overlooked Pelagianism,
his proclamations of Christian faith, and his self-defense against the charges of heresy
brought against Emile ; and explore how his simultaneous piety and profanity shapes a
compelling vision of political reform.
Drawing upon previous efforts, considerable space will be devoted to textual,
historical, and biographical analysis. We will also take seriously the abundant
misgivings put forth by Rousseau’s critics, and broach the question of his consistency
and coherence from the outset. In addition to addressing oft-overlooked figures (both
Pagan and Christian alike) crucial to fleshing out the complexity of his faith, we will
also explore Rousseau’s more neglected writings: the many letters, fragments, and
and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Thought . (London and New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1969); Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction . Arthur
Goldhammer, tr. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988). Originally published as Jean-
Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l’obstacle suivi de Sept essais sur Rousseau . (Paris: Éditions
Gallimard, 1971).
17 See: J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy . (London: Martin Secker & Warburg,
Ltd., 1952); Lester G. Crocker, Rousseau’s Social Contract . (Cleveland: Press of Case Western
Reserve University, 1968); Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty . (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1969); J. H. Huizinga, Rousseau: The Self Made Saint . (New York: Viking Press, 1976); Arthur
M. Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau’s Thought . (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1990).
minor works that supplement his (in)famous chapters On Civil Religion and the
Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar . Finally, we will examine Civil Religion as
the practical realization of Rousseau’s religious and secular convictions, before
concluding on the very path where he claimed his career began: the road to
Vincennes, where a life-changing revelation pressed him to serve both God and man.
Although we begin by introducing politico-theological relations as a tension
still-relevant (perhaps more than ever) to democratic theory, this is not a work of
public policy. It makes no claim to provide programmatic solutions to the
contentious relationship between religion and politics, nor even explicitly apply
Rousseau’s writings to contemporary problems. Nor, for that matter, is it an attempt
to draw linear relations between the Genevan and his Christian and Pagan forebears.
It rather suggests that Rousseau offers valuable insight into the relationship between
religion and politics; that his secular thought cannot be understood without reference
to his views on religion; and that his connection to such disparate figures as
Augustine and Pelagius, Diogenes and Saint Antony, Hobbes and Saint Paul, clarifies
the roots, innovations, and implications of Rousseau’s peculiar 18 faith. By examining
these inchoate influences, we may determine why Rousseau lauded religion yet was
so critical of religious dogmatism; why he was condemned as a heretic, despite
insisting upon his piety; and how his radical faith in man and God alike informed a
distinctly political vision of virtue with decidedly religious undertones. In the end, by
reconciling Rousseau’s uncompromising amalgam of spiritual and secular traditions,
18 According to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary . (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1971), the term peculiar has two senses equally applicable to Rousseau’s faith: particular to him,
and highly unusual.
we will be poised not only to explain the necessity of religion to his thought, but also
glean a coherent political lesson from its role in the path to civic virtue.
Chapter 1: Strained Relations
On February 11, 1906, Pope Pius X unleashed an eloquent fury on the French
government. The object of his wrath was La Loi concernant la séparation des
Églises et de l'État (December 9, 1905), which instituted a formal separation between
church and state in France. In an elaborate Encyclical entitled Vehementer Nos , Pius
condemned the legislation on moral, political, practical and legal grounds, levying the
following censure on behalf of the Vatican:
We do, by virtue of the supreme authority which God has confided to
Us … reprove and condemn the law voted in France for the separation
of Church and State, as deeply unjust to God whom it denies, and as
laying down the principle that the Republic recognizes no cult. We
reprove and condemn it as violating the natural law, the law of nations,
and fidelity to treaties; as contrary to the Divine constitution of the
Church, to her essential rights and to her liberty; as destroying justice
and trampling underfoot the rights of property which the Church has
acquired by many titles and, in addition, by virtue of the Concordat.
We reprove and condemn it as gravely offensive to the dignity of the
Apostolic See, to Our own person, to the Episcopacy, and to the clergy
and all the Catholics of France. Therefore, We protest solemnly and
with all Our strength against the introduction, the voting and the
promulgation of this law, declaring that it can never be alleged against
the imprescriptible rights of the Church.” (§13) 19
Amongst his many specific charges, he concluded that French legislators were “guilty
of a great injustice to God” (§3). Evoking Augustine’s City of God , he argued that
the separation sabotaged the state’s “ultimate object which is man’s eternal happiness
after this short life shall have run its course.” (§3) Such disregard “inflicts great
injury on society itself, for it cannot either prosper or last long when due place is not
19 All section numbers refer to: Vehementer Nos , Encyclical of Pope Pius X, promulgated on February
11, 1906. All quotes are taken from the official Vatican translation.
left for religion, which is the supreme rule and the sovereign mistress in all questions
touching the rights and the duties of men.” (§3) The ruling betrayed a nation’s
ungratefulness, as France had been “during the course of centuries the object of…
great and special predilection on the part of the [Roman Catholic Church].” (§4) It
constituted a breach of international treaty law by unceremoniously revoking the
bilateral Concordat between the Roman Pontiff and the French Government. (§5) La
Loi also subverted a Papal hierarchy rooted in both divine and natural law, placing
“the Church under the domination of the civil power” (§7), and assigning “the
administration and the supervision of public worship… to an association formed of
laymen,” provisions which “seriously violate the rights of the Church, and are in
opposition with her Divine constitution.” (§8)
Labeling the legislation “an event of the gravest import, and one that must be
deplored by all the right-minded, for it is as disastrous to society as it is to religion,”
Pius admitted that “it is an event which surprised nobody who has paid any attention
to the religious policy followed in France of late years.” (§1) Indeed, though La Loi
stands as the legal foundation of France’s separation between church and state, its
inception marked the culmination of a hundred-year movement towards strict
secularism. A process which began in 1792 during the short-lived First Republic, the
subsequent century saw a series of legislation which instituted a civil code (1804) and
civil marriage mandates (1810), abolished an 1814 law prohibiting work on Sundays
and holidays (1880), and barred public prayers before parliamentary sessions (1884).
During this period, France also secularized its schools and hospitals, enlisted clerics
in military service, banished Catholic practices and emblems from all public
establishments, and removed religious references from its judicial oath. The 1905
law formally upheld the spirit of these measures, reasserting on no uncertain terms
what had been a central theme of post-Jacobin politics: “La République assure la
liberté de conscience.” 20 The official separation of church and state, codified at the
start of the twentieth century, was deemed essential to protecting this liberty. By
prohibiting federal support of religious institutions, the ruling broadly denounced
preferential treatment towards any one particular faith; égalité , as much as liberté ,
was the law’s guiding spirit.
It was not without concern, then, that a debate of some consequence began in
France in the early days of 2003. On January 17, according to Le Monde , Secretary
of State Pierre Bédier and government spokesman Jean-François Copé announced
unequivocally that la Loi de 1905 was sorely in need of reform. 21 The catalysts to
this claim were the September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center,
subsequent bombings conducted by the Al Qaeda network, and a correlative fear of
future fundamentalist violence. As justification for his proposal, Bédier drew an
explicit connection between the dangers posed by Islamic extremism today and
Catholicism one hundred years prior: “In 1905, the government thought that Catholics
were anti-republican, and constituted a menace as such. Today, Islam poses a similar
problem. It would be unrealistic to ignore this concern.” 22
At heart of this debate are anxieties associated with the foreign financing of
Muslim mosques. Although la Loi explicitly prohibits public sponsorship of houses
20 La Loi concernant la séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat , Article 1. Promulgated on July 3, 1905
with 314 votes for, 233 against.
21 “Faut-il réviser la loi de séparation des Eglises et de l’Etat?” Le Monde , January 17, 2003.
22 Ibid., Le Monde , January 17, 2003.
of worship (a practice sometimes circumvented by partitions which establish ‘non-
prayer’ areas), there is growing concern that mosques are financed by persons or
organizations with terrorist ties or sympathies; that they might either serve as covert
terrorist communities, or distribute laundered funds to extremist cells within France;
and that state subsidization could effectively limit the amount of suspicious capital
entering from abroad. Alluding to both an “Islamic league” and unspecified Saudi
sources as possible perpetrators, Bédier cited the need for “extreme vigilance” in
regulating money arriving from ill-intentioned “foreign powers.” 23 An “Islam of
France,” he argued, must supplant “Islam in France”—the religion must be sponsored
and regulated by the government, and not merely allowed to infiltrate the nation’s
borders. 24
Leaving aside the logic of this argument and the vagueness of its targets, the
proposal is radical: the state must oversee the affairs of one specific creed. 25 To
monitor mosques and prevent the laundering of “terrorist” funds, France must first
reform a hard-fought hallmark of its democracy (the strict separation of church and
state). To protect republican virtues, Bédier and Copé argue, they must revise a
paradigmatic republican law. Whereas in 1905 similar fears of Catholicism inspired a
strict separation of church and state, misgivings about Muslimism are now prompting
the French government to reconsider its abstention.
23 “Bédier souhaite un ‘islam de France’ et non plus un ‘islam en France.’” Agence France-Presse ,
January 23, 2003.
24 If Bédier’s distinction is not terribly clear, we might consider it in relation to Rousseau, who was a
man in Paris but never considered himself a man of Paris. Ibid. (My emphasis.)
25 It is worth noting that this charge takes issue with the church (or, more precisely, the Mosque), and
not the religious practice itself.
The seeds for such revisionism had already been planted five years prior,
when, on October 7, 1998, the National Assembly unanimously approved Décret n°
98-890 . The decree instituted mission interministérielle de lutte contre les sects
(MILS), an interdepartmental effort which “incites public services to take, in respect
of public liberties, appropriate measures to anticipate and combat sects who
undermine personal human dignity or who threaten the public order.” 26 Under the
auspices of civic welfare—to “inform the public of the dangers posed by the sectarian
phenomenon”—the French government established an agency to officially monitor
religious factions. 27
These are striking examples of a democratic nation rethinking the interstices
of religion and politics, but not isolated ones. On December 12, 2002, George W.
Bush passed a unilateral Executive Order entitled “Equal Protection of the Laws for
Faith-based and Community Organizations.” This so-called “Faith-based initiative”
entitled religious groups to receive federal tax dollars for “social service programs”—
those which provide “services directed at reducing poverty, improving opportunities
for low-income children, revitalizing low-income communities, empowering low-
income families and low-income individuals to become self-sufficient, or otherwise
26 “Décret n° 98-890 du 7 octobre 1998 instituant une mission interministérielle de lutte contre les
sectes .” Taken from: Journal Officiel N° 234, du 9 Octobre 1998, page 15286.
27 Earlier in the same year, the United States passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998
“To express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on
behalf of, individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion.” According to the
subsequent “International Religious Freedom Report of 2002” released by the Bureau of Democracy,
Human Rights, and Labor, religious groups in France “continued to be concerned about the possible
impact of [recent] legislation passed,” although “no overall change in the status of respect for religious
freedom” was noted. See: “International Religious Freedom Act of 1998” (H.R. 2431), and the U.S.
Department of State “International Religious Freedom Report 2002: France.”
helping people in need.” 28 Immediately condemned by The New York Times as being
“unconstitutional, and fundamentally unfair,” and running “counter to decades of
First Amendment law, which holds that government dollars cannot be used to
promote religion,” the initiative has nonetheless garnered support from citizens of all
faiths who cite the growing need for spiritual guidance amongst charitable
organizations. 29
If the separation of church and state offers an essential foundation of a strong,
pluralist democracy, then the new millennium has begun on an ominous note. In very
different manners and for very different reasons, two of the world’s leading
democratic powers are redrawing the boundaries between secular and spiritual
institutions. In part, such revisionism is a sign of the times. Since September 11,
2001, ours has been a climate in which the ambiguous and ubiquitous use of the word
“terrorist” has supplanted “communist” as this era’s primary antonym for democracy,
and where terrorism is often conflated with Muslim fundamentalism. Yet amidst this
atmosphere of mistrust, western nations have increasingly embraced another creed—
Christianity—for guidance in social, moral, political, and educational reform. 30 If
France has deemed Islam a potential threat to republican order and “public liberties,”
the United States has approached faith-based groups as heretofore neglected sources
28 George W. Bush, “Equal Protection of the Laws for Faith-based and Community Organizations.”
Executive Order 13279 of December 12, 2002.
29 “Using Tax Dollars for Churches.” The New York Times , December 30, 2002.
30 Shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed increasing
state-funding for religious schools as part of a New Labour Party plan to reform secondary education.
Although roughly 7,000 of Britain’s 25,000 schools already have religious affiliations, the measure
was in part seen as a means of luring middle class families—an increasing number of whom send
children to privately financed schools—back to the public sector. More recently (in 2002), Polish
president Aleksander Kwasniewski successfully solicited Pope John Paul II to raise public support for
inclsion into the European Union, arguing that such an alliance would help to “restore Christian
values in Western Europe.” See: “Tony and the little children” ( The Economist , December 6, 2001);
“Preaching for the European Union” ( The Economist , March 14, 2002).
of “helping people in need.” Whether guided by skeptical mistrust or philanthropic
idealism, such divergent positions and policies reveal a common conviction:
democracies cannot ignore the civic significance (for better or worse) of religious
associations. Furthermore, in both instances (and no matter the motives) the end
result is similar: democratic states are increasingly involved in religious affairs.
Given these turns of events, we may well ask: was Nietzsche wrong? When
the prophetic German foretold the death of God, when he heralded that “belief in the
Christian god has become unbelievable,” had he spoken too soon? 31 Ours is certainly
an age of scientific rationalism and global capitalism, of a liberalism whose most
visible ambassadors travel through television and film, music and internet lines. Pat
Buchanan’s infamous “Culture War” speech and his Republican National Convention
address of 1992 were both offensive and vitriolic, but were they entirely far-
fetched? 32 America does seem awash in the godless libertinism of popular culture;
the nuclear family is a dying unit; we are increasingly tolerant, and do parade our
sexual, ethnic and political diversity with pride rather than shame.
But ours is equally an age of religious resurgence, of Jihad and missionaries,
of the sudden integration of church and state. According to The Economist ,
Millenarianism—the fundamentalist “belief in the thousand-year reign of King
Jesus”—has appealed to broader audiences since September 11, a rise evidenced by
both its popularity amongst conservative radio station audiences, and the soaring sales
31 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science , Walter Kaufmann, tr. (New York: Random House, Inc.,
1974), §343, p. 279.
32 According to Buchanan, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It
is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” See:
Patrick J. Buchanan, “1992 Republican National Convention Speech” (August 17, 1992). Similarly, in
his speech entitled “The Cultural War for the Soul of America” (September 14, 1992), Buchanan asks:
“Are we any longer ‘one nation under God,’ or has one-half of that nation already begun to secede
from the other?”
of the bestselling evangelical novel series “Left Behind” which molds a message of
Old Testament fire-and-brimstone fury to isolationist politics. 33 Even more centrally,
membership in Christian churches exceeded two billion in the new millennium, a
growth of roughly 1.2 billion over 30 years. 34 In America alone, the number of
Christians have risen by over 200 percent in the past 50 years (to 171 million);
membership in churches of all faiths now comprises over 60 percent of the
population, or roughly twice what it was in the mid-nineteenth century. These
circumstances should give us pause. Has the “cheerfulness” Nietzsche saw in a
Europe released from the shadow of God already begun to fade, in both the Continent
and the New World?
Clearly, Nietzsche’s assertion is debatable now, just as it was when written.
In 1885, three years following the publication of the first edition of The Gay
Science , 35 Pope Leo XIII described church-state relations in organic terms, arguing
that “[t]here must … exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection,
which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man.” 36 What the
German reviled as a slavish specter haunting human livelihood, the Roman extolled
as natural and necessary. What Nietzsche attacked as systematic self-inurement, Leo
XIII lauded as both physically and spiritually healthy. Neither vision triumphed
wholly. The relationship between religious and political institutions is still hotly
33 The first book alone (of this as yet nine-book series) has sold over 7 million copies to date. See:
Lexington, “Behold the Rapture.” The Economist , August 22, 2002.
34 “The fight for God.” The Economist , December 19, 2002.
35 Nietzsche first writes of “the death of God” in The Gay Science , §108. He also discusses this
phenomenon in §343, as well as in Thus Spoke Zarathustra pp. 124f., 191, 202, 294, 371-379, 398f. in
The Portable Nietzsche , Walter Kaufmann, tr. (New York: The Viking Press, 1954).
36 Immortale Dei , Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, promulgated on November 1, 1885.
contested, particularly when drawing boundaries according to liberal democratic
principles of neutrality and equality under law.
A tension clearly relevant to contemporary democratic discourse, less evident
is how it may be resolved. Perhaps religion generally is neither reducible to the
philanthropic salvation central to Bush’s vision, nor the vengeful violence of
fundamentalist terrorism. Perhaps its relationship to democracy is significantly more
complicated, and begs further examination, rather than the reactionary regulation and
surveillance advocated by Bédier and Copé. To arrive at a more nuanced assessment
we might turn to a thinker whose beliefs encompassed both poles, one enamored with
and mistrustful of religion’s relationship to the secular state, who identified spiritual
faith as a cornerstone of civic morality, and spiritual associations as potentially
divisive sources of intolerance and exclusion. To better assess the relationship
between religion and politics generally, and Christianity and democracy specifically,
we might cast our gaze back to one of the first modern democrats, himself a
Protestant: 37 Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
* * * * *
It is within Rousseau that we find both piousness and profanity, a secular
theodicy in which man (rather than God) bears the burdens of enacting his own
salvation. Standing at a pivotal crossroads in political thought, one where
37 Although Rousseau was born a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism at the age of 16. For
Rousseau’s own account, see: The Confessions , CW V.38-40; OC I.45-47. In The Reveries of the
Solitary Walker (Third Promenade), Rousseau adds this: “Given into my own keeping while still a
child and enticed by caresses, seduced by vanity, lured by hope, forced by necessity, I became a
Catholic, but I always remained a Christian.” CW IX.19; OC I.1013. For Rousseau’s description of
his rejoining the Protestant faith in 1754, see: CW V.329-330; OC I.392-393.
Enlightenment philosophes challenged the theologism dominant since the age of
Augustine, the Genevan straddled awkward lines indeed. On one hand he was a
compelling secularist, a prolific author who championed radical reform drawn
according to democratic principles of liberty and equality. Rousseau’s vision of
legitimate sovereignty was rooted in the common will of citizens (rather than God),
and supported by the primacy of positive law. Yet he was also enraptured with an
incomprehensibly harmonious divine order revealed in nature, and urged men to
willfully follow their God-given conscience to live in greater accord with this
heavenly example.
Incorporating both Christian and secular sources within a singular model of
legitimate democratic governance, Rousseau illustrates one possible means of
reconciling religion and politics. Guided by a dual sense of past failings and future
potential, 38 he neither categorically dismissed nor blindly accepted the compatibility
of corporeal and spiritual associations. Indeed, despite arguing for their integration,
Rousseau took seriously the premise that man’s earthly and otherworldly needs can
be either mutually exclusive or mutually enriching; the choice, as he presents it, is
entirely up to us. Religion can serve as a shared source of moral duty, a means of
unifying individuals and cultivating our natural sense of brotherly love. It can also
breed artificial divisions between people of different creeds, acting as a catalyst to the
sectarianism and violent persecution so destructive of common welfare. Religion can
38 Elsewhere I describe this dual sense of past failings and future potential as pessimistic realism and
heuristic idealism . These two stances are two mutually constitutive within Rousseau’s work. His deep
dissatisfaction with the status quo pressed to him envision a better possible future, even as it forced
him to recognize the difficulties in bringing about substantive change. This phenomenon is
particularly evident in his assessment of positive religion: Rousseau’s condemnation of Catholicism
provided impetus for him to found a more virtuous, civil alternative.
damn man to hell, and also nurture a sense of interdependence and faith in better
times. As with politics, it can adopt different forms , some legitimate, some coercive;
some enriching, some self-destructive; some polarizing, some unifying. If papist
dogma presented an example of religion at its most harmful, Rousseau struggled to
clarify the terms of a truly beneficial piety: one that cultivated reverence towards God
and man, binding us to our fellows, community and Creator alike.
The faith upon which his vision rested was paradoxical in both senses of the
word: it contradicted the commonly held truths of his age, and drew upon apparently
incompatible beliefs in man’s intrinsic innocence and his capacity for wickedness.
Directly refuting orthodox Roman Catholicism, Rousseau revived the Pelagian heresy
that humankind was naturally good. Yet this belief was qualified by his equally
vociferous insistence upon man’s capacity for wickedness, a propensity evidenced by
our well-documented history of decline. His solution to the problem of theodicy 39
namely, the question of how evil can exist in a world created by an omnipotent
God—forced us to consider salvation in secular terms, taking recourse in the very
faculties and traits (willing, pride, perfectionism) that led us astray from our
inherently pure natures. Yet he never failed to remind men of their self-incurred
failings, the degree to which they had strayed from their state of natural harmony.
Rousseau’s theory of redemption was simultaneously informed by this pessimistic
view of human history and optimistic assessment of human nature; if man had made a
mess of society, he also possessed the capacity to correct his self-incurred failings.
Unlike Augustine, for whom free will offered a moral test geared towards post-
39 To compare Rousseau’s views with those of Leibniz see: Theodicy I.7-8. For Rousseau’s self-
distancing from Leibniz see: Letter to Philopolis . CW III.129-130; OC III.232-234.
mortem salvation (and thus comprised God’s gift to humankind), man replaced God
as the facilitator of a salvation possible in this world and this lifetime.
However, far from absolving religion of a role in politics Rousseau
appropriated Christian tropes to serve civic ends, through secular measures. His
portrait of human history evoked a fall of Biblical proportions, yet he framed the
means of possible redemption in exclusively corporeal terms. 40 In this, the Genevan’s
formula stood in sharp contrast to his Christian voluntarist forebears. Augustine
understood divine forgiveness as the sole antidote to Adam’s debilitating legacy.
Salvation, if at all possible, lay in God’s merciful grace; human lives were grueling
trials of which conformity was the aim. Life was best served by emulating, to the
best of our meager human ability, a magnificent, unified divine will. Luther and
Calvin shared this sentiment, arguing that man had little recourse to alter his divinely-
determined fate. 41 For Luther, the “false idea of ‘free-will’ is a real threat to
salvation, and a delusion fraught with the most perilous consequences”—namely, the
misguided premise that human agency influences divine redemption. 42 Calvin
likewise insisted that the human will was emphatically not free, meaning neither
40 It can be argued that this is untrue of all of Rousseau’s works. To wit, Julie and the Reveries seek
solace to varying degrees (and for varying reasons) after life ends. But even these aims are established
after earthly remedies have apparently failed. Transcendent post-mortem redemption is a last resort,
rather than (as for Augustine) a guiding principle. Although this tension will be examined in greater
detail in later chapters, I will side here with Starobinski, who urges his readers to locate consistency in
Jean-Jacques’ work. Clearly, the bulk of the Genevan’s writings grapple with secular solutions to
moral and political problems.
41 There are obviously crucial differences between Luther and Calvin, not least of which involves the
latter’s emphasis upon the role of good works in gauging the possibility of election. For the purposes
of this introduction, however, they both fall under the broad rubric of Protestant voluntarism, under
whose terms God alone affects salvation.
42 Martin Luther, “Bondage of the Will,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings , John
Dillenberger, tr. and ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1961), p. 189.
strictly autonomous nor capable of emulating a divine, omnipotent will. 43 Salvation
rested solely on the shoulders of God, whose will alone dictated an individual’s fate.
In breaking with this tradition, Rousseau understood our decline as a temporal
crisis in need of earthly solutions. The woeful state of human affairs—emblematized
by the ironic “triumph” of science and reasoning over nature—was empirically
demonstrable throughout history, evidenced by growing inequality and individual
alienation from our harmonious, divine natures. Rousseau’s ambivalent view of
progress did not, however, cause him to categorically condemn humankind as
inherently sinful. Rather, modern society was the object of his scorn, a source of
moral indeterminacy in need of a political balm. Two thousand years prior, Socrates
famously argued that men never knowingly commit evil: acts of ill-repute revealed
ignorance more than malfeasance. 44 As Ernst Cassirer rightly noted, eighteenth
century thinkers clarified this sentiment, condemning “not ignorance as such, but
ignorance which pretends to be truth and wants to pass for truth.” 45
that which “inflicts the mortal wound on knowledge”—found its most egregious form
in superstition. Presaging Kant, who famously described enlightenment as “ man’s
43 See: John Calvin, On God and Political Duty, Second Revised Edition , John Allen and Benjamin B.
Warfield, eds. (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1956); Institutes of the Christian
Religion in Two Volumes , John T. McNeill, ed. and Ford Lewis Battles, tr. (Philadelphia: The
Westminster Press, 1960).
44 As Socrates argued in Timaeus (86d), “almost all those affections which are called by way of
reproach ‘incontinence in pleasure,’ as though the wicked acted voluntarily, are wrongly so
reproached; for no one is voluntarily wicked.” Similarly, he asserted in Protagoras (345d-345e) that
“I am fairly certain that no wise man believes anyone sins willingly or willingly perpetrates any evil or
base act. They know very well that all evil or base action is involuntary.” And finally, the Athenian
argued in The Laws (731c-731d) that “no unjust man is ever voluntarily unjust. For no one anywhere
would ever voluntarily take the greatest evil into his most honorable possession and keep it for the rest
of his life. So the unjust man, like the man who possesses bad things, is pitiable in every way, and it is
permissible to pity such a man when his illness is curable.” See: Protagoras and Meno , W.K.C.
Guthrie, tr. (New York: Penguin Books, 1956), pp. 80-81; The Laws of Plato , Thomas L. Pangle, tr.
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 117.
45 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment , Fritz C. A. Koelln & James P. Pettegrove, trs.
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), p. 161.
emergence from his self-incurred immaturity … [namely] the inability to use one’s
own understanding without the guidance of another,”
46 Rousseau expounded upon
this idea, arguing that doing good depends on knowing and actively pursuing the
good, a goal realized through education, and fortification against the vain temptations
cultivated by societal pressures. Such practical wisdom was gleaned through sober
assessment and individual effort, rather than revelation or divine intervention. 47
Hobbes had also stayed the hand of God in arguing for a radical corporeal
solution to the pressing problems of political instability and resultant (apolitical)
anarchy. 48 Yet whereas Jean-Jacques’ Social Contract promised virtuous rapture, the
Englishman’s renunciation of individual will (to the Monarch’s authority) offered a
more physical assurance: protection in a world torn asunder by the war of all against
all. Hobbesian psychology, rooted in a hedonistic physics of appetite and aversion,
allowed little room for nuance much less transcendence. His was a world-view in
which crisis was a universal condition; humankind had little hope for stability beyond
self-abrogating, strong-armed rule. As Charles Taylor noted, Hobbes “thought of our
world picture as almost literally put together out of building blocks—which were
ultimately the sensations or ideas produced by experience.” 49 By contrast,
Rousseau’s puzzle was built of more awkward pieces: innocence and guilt,
46 Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in Political Writings ,
Second Enlarged Edition , Hans Reiss, ed. and H.B. Nisbet, tr. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1991), p. 54.
47 As we will discuss, Rousseau also stressed the necessity of following our divinely-instilled
conscience, although he recognized the acute difficulties this task posed to denatured, socialized
48 This statement follows the basic assumption of C.B. MacPherson, who saw in Hobbes’ “state of
nature” a thinly-veiled description of Civil War-torn England. See: The Political Theory of Possessive
Individualism: Hobbes to Locke . (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 64-67.
49 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity . (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1989), p. 197.
involvement and retreat, freedom and chains, individual liberty facilitated by
conformity to divine order and corporeal sovereignty, historical decline and the
possibility of secular salvation. 50
Given Rousseau’s cacophonous terms, and the critical tone of his own
exegeses, a specific problem confronts us from the outset: how can man claim purity
of heart if history (and Jean-Jacques himself) suggest quite the opposite? It is
tempting to suppose that he cannot: the evidence weighs too heavily against him.
Following Rousseau’s own account, society is of man’s making; amour propre and
urbanity are perverse human predilections. Given this assessment, Jean-Jacques’
insistence upon individual innocence seems inconsistent at best. Redemption, after
all, presupposes guilt. One cannot rise again without having first fallen. In the
Christian tradition, the source of our guilt (free will) is axiomatic; in Rousseau’s
analysis, blame is more ambiguous. Although Jean-Jacques follows a Biblical
narrative replete with innocence, corruption, and redemption, he insists throughout
that individuals en générale are not culpable because we are not beholden to Adam’s
sinful legacy. 51 He adheres to an orthodox narrative of decline, while subverting the
very foundations of Roman Catholic ontology. Yet perhaps this tension is not as
incoherent as it might appear. Recalling Rousseau’s famous plea to forgive him of
his paradoxes, 52 the dialectic born of these competing visions serves a substantive
purpose: it makes Rousseau’s visionary perfectionism remarkably compelling. The
50 As we will discuss, Rousseau also maintained his faith in eternal redemption. Indeed, following his
exile after the publication of Emile , he increasingly embraced the afterlife as a source of solace, a point
when God (in contrast to his peers) would recognize and reward his goodness.
51 As we will examine in Chapters 2 and 3, this proved to be Rousseau’s most controversial paradox.
52 “Common readers, pardon me my paradoxes. They are necessary when one reflects, and no matter
what you might say, I prefer to be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices.” OC IV.323; E 93.
strength of his solution lies in its stubbornness, in its steadfast adherence to both
Biblical form and secular means. It is powerful precisely because it speaks of
salvation, and identifies common man as catalytic agent.
Writing amidst an age of accelerated spiritual debauchery, of urbanization and
cosmopolitan hubris, Rousseau finds redemption in the very faculties which have led
humankind to stray from its sympathetic nature. We can, the abbreviated lesson goes,
save ourselves only by being true to ourselves: by redirecting our naturally pure wills,
and recasting the objects of our desires. A shepherd of sorts, Jean-Jacques challenges
us to follow him in simply being , in cultivating our intrinsically virtuous natures on a
moral and practical path towards earthly redemption. Although we are good at heart,
society has swayed our judgment and clouded our conscience. We must therefore re-
educate ourselves, solidify our resolution with Spartan fortitude and forge a strong
general will to combat the errant appetites of modern particularism. More precisely,
the means of existential improvement employ the very faculties (such as self-interest)
which have perverted our natural goodness. Man himself has strayed from a virtuous
course, and man himself must right his own ship. Prophetic punch combined with
clear heresy: such is Rousseau’s attachment to and break from orthodox theological
discourse, a dissonant rupture that begs clarification.
Examining the confluence of theological and secular sources in Rousseau’s
work therefore serves three purposes. First, it reveals which aspects of his philosophy
are Pagan in origin and which are indebted to earlier Christian traditions. Second, it
clarifies both the radical, paradoxical newness of Rousseau’s vision (how it departed
from existent tradition and commonly held opinion) and the genuine connectedness
he shared with Christian voluntarism. 53 And third, exploring these linkages offers a
means of reassessing the relationship between spiritual and secular values. Using
Rousseau as a lens, we might revisit a “strong” model of democracy enriched and
invigorated by its diverse roots, one that sacrifices neither earthly nor otherworldly
welfare, balances a skeptical view of positive religion with an undying faith in divine
order, and encourages us to move beyond the overly simplistic dichotomies that
characterize discussions of the relationship between religion and politics.
Given these terms, this work is best understood as descriptive, restorative and
argumentative. Descriptive, in that it identifies Rousseau’s appropriation of both
Christian and Pagan concepts of virtue. Restorative, in that it involves—not unlike
either Confessions —the recollection and attempted reconciliation of these divided
(conceptual) histories. And argumentative, in that it finds within Rousseau’s
awkward alliance of conflicting traditions a compelling means of incorporating
religion into the fabric of a virtuous democracy.
In l’Ancien régime et la révolution , Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the
Jacobin “campaign against all forms of religion was merely incidental to the French
Revolution, a spectacular but transient phenomenon, a brief reaction to the ideologies,
emotions, and events which led up to it—but in no sense basic to its program.” 54 This
work is also, therefore, in part a rejoinder to the prescient Frenchman. I use
53 We may consequently read Rousseau not simply as a “modern” with “ancient” affinities, but as a
complicated amalgam of competing philosophical, political, ontological and religious world-views.
Allan Bloom famously disagreed. As he argued, the “Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns”
dominated philosophical discourse in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. For Bloom, “[n]o
issue is more important in the history of thought, and Rousseau emphatically takes the side of the
ancients… at least so far as literature and morals are concerned.” Although this conclusion is lacking
in nuance, we might still accept his claim that “[n]o study of Rousseau can be serious which does not
take seriously ‘The Quarrel.’” See: Bloom, Emile , p. 492 n. 86.
54 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution , Stuart Gilbert, tr. (New York:
Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1955), pp. 5-6.
“rejoinder” rather than “repudiation” because I agree with Tocqueville’s basic
premise: the spirit of the French Revolution seemed rightly cosmopolitan, and
aggressively agonistic; it aimed at the overhaul of humankind , a revision which
heralded the death of obsolete hierarchies and mores, secular and spiritual institutions
alike. Yet l’Ancien régime errs in drawing a sharp distinction between supposedly
enlightened, anarchistic, revolutionary upheaval and the attack of specific political
and religious institutions. 55
As Rousseau’s writings make plain, the political landscape of pre-
revolutionary France was dominated by papal interests. Political reform required
religious reform because the two authorities were so deeply linked. Although
Tocqueville concurred, in Democracy and America he also identified the New
World’s religiosity as a primary source of its admirably fierce liberal spirit. 56
According to Tocqueville, religion (free of clerical dogmatism) fostered community
and solidarity, a phenomenon exemplified by American constitutional faith. Given
this predilection, it should come as no surprise that when assessing his native land he
carefully distinguished between the populist “resuscitation” of man and the “studious
ferocity” of anti-Church sentiment. 57 He was quick to draw a line between popular
sovereignty and anti-religiosity because, as America demonstrated, the two were not
mutually dependent. Yet in so doing, Tocqueville concealed a point I will attempt to
problematize: that the democratic revolution envisioned by Rousseau was both
55 Readers should note that although Tocqueville argues that the events of 1789 were neither explicitly
political nor religious in aim, he nonetheless details similarities between the Reformation and the
French Revolution. Ibid., §I.3.
56 As with Rousseau, Tocqueville’s writings force a crucial distinction between anticlericalism and
irreligiosity. Arguing that papists exerted a corrupting influence upon the ancient régime , he also held
that America’s religious spirit was a crucial component of its robust civic culture.
57 Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution , p. 6.
indebted to and radically dismissive of theological tradition. If Jean-Jacques praised
religiosity’s moral role within secular polities, so did he repudiate papal authority
(which cultivated subordination and political alienation) and Catholic ontology
(rooted in the narrative of Original Sin). 58
According to Rousseau, society could hardly rise from the ashes of our self-
incurred wickedness were we not first been able to place trust in our intrinsic
innocence as creations of a benevolent deity. Nor, more generally, could the French
Revolution have occurred sans le Siècle des lumières , an age characterized by its
simultaneous embrace of reason and sharp critique of clericalism. Although Voltaire,
Diderot, Helvétius, Holbach and d’Alembert made Church-bashing a spectator sport,
far less obvious is the degree to which this period of thought—like, following
Tocqueville, the Jacobin fervor and the France of his day—was still deeply mired in
Christian tropes of redemption, rebirth and enlightenment itself. 59 Rousseau offers
the best example of a thinker at such a nexus of spiritual faith and scientific reason,
one whose work at turns drew upon and rejected both traditional theology and
Enlightenment rationalism.
58 This is not to say that democracy and Christian ontology are necessarily mutually exclusive, but
rather to stress this relationship within Rousseau’s works.
59 By contrast, David P. Jordan argues the following: “Robespierre would speak at significant moments
in his career about some providential scheme of which he was a part, but his providence is so
politically conceived, so deliberately tailored to the immediate needs of the French Revolution, that it
would be wrong to think of these appeals in traditional religious terms.” Although the French
Revolution falls beyond the immediate scope of this work, I would argue merely in passing that this
assertion follows the “error” already identified in Tocqueville: that the semantic and substantive use of
“providence,” in this instance, does reveal a connection to “traditional religious terms,” even if these
terms are opportunistically, politically, purposefully, or even perversely employed. See Jordan, The
Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre . (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985),
p. 9.
This dialectical quality permeated Rousseau’s religious, political and
biographical 60 works alike. As Pierre Hadot rightly notes, the Genevan consistently
conveyed “both the echo of ancient traditions and the anticipation of certain modern
attitudes.” 61 A radical visionary wedded to classical virtue, he applied a deeply
Protestant perfectionism to secular politics. No stranger to personal sin, 62 he waged a
veritable holy war of innocence regained in hell-bent times. From the early spitfire of
the discourses, to his final Reveries (whose longing spirit is well-captured by
Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God”), Rousseau’s was
a will at war not so much with itself—unlike Augustine—but with society. He drew
an emphatic line in the sand, daring men of letters to quell the revolution of the
common man : he was the harbinger of a revolution in politics founded firmly upon
the broad shoulders of les peuples , their exemplar and liberator alike.
Given the severity of Rousseau’s project—his do-or-die terms, his moral
righteousness—it should come as no surprise that the standard range of critiques
applied to Jean-Jacques mirrors modern critiques of Christianity’s place in politics.
The Genevan was, by diverse accounts, anything from a hopeless Utopist to a proto-
60 Rousseau makes his life central to his political philosophy. He wrote numerous autobiographical
texts ( The Confessions , The Dialogues , and the Reveries , as well as fragments, documents, and letters)
that, significantly, comprise the first volume of the Pléaide edition of his Oeuvres Complètes . The
bulk of his additional works also bear marks of intimacy: he addressed readers as Jean-Jacques,
revealed intimate details of his life, and stressed the openness of his writings as a testament of his
honesty and sincerity. As such, any study of Rousseau must recognize the unusual personal tenor of
his works, and treat his life as he suggested: as a text to be read in conjunction with his more
traditional philosophical and political writings. Towards this end, Christopher Kelly succeeds
wonderfully with Rousseau’s Exemplary Life: The Confessions as Political Philosophy .
61 Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life , Michael Chase, tr. and Arnold I. Davison, ed. (Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1995), p. 259.
62 In The Confessions , Rousseau admits to—amongst other things—a bizarre sexual appetite (being
spanked, flashing strangers), his erotic relationship with the older Mme. de Warens (whom he called
‘maman’), his escapades with various women in France, the abandonment of his children on the
footsteps of an orphanage, and lying and thieving as a youth.
Totalitarian. 63 These charges prove equally worthy of consideration when applied to
Christianity, which classically urges men to place faith in an afterlife, to renounce
their individual desires and conform to a divine will. There is a reason such critiques
are levied against both Christianity and Rousseau—both tradition and man are prone
to similar excesses. Prominent authors from Tocqueville to, more recently, William
Galston and Manning Marable have argued for the inclusion of religious groups into
the fabric of pluralist politics. 64 But compelling evidence suggests that religion in
practice —the positive worship and tenets of organized congregations and creeds—is
the proverbial oil to democratic water, a force historically at odds with popular
sovereignty. 65
Democracy is, after all, a politics of pragmatic consensus reflective of its
citizenry’s general will. Rule of the masses can hardly be confused with Platonic
elevation or Christian humility. The strength of democratic theory rather lies in its
emphasis upon the common good, an embrace of temporal progress and potential. A
government which allows each to pursue his own vision without infringing upon the
rights of others surely upholds these values. Yet perhaps a democracy which also
adopts transcendent plateaus offers a productive balance to pure proceduralism.
Succumbing neither to the surreal remoteness ridiculed by Aristophanes, 66 nor the dry
63 See: J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy ; Lester G. Crocker, Rousseau’s Social
Contract ; Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty ; J. H. Huizinga, Rousseau: The Self Made Saint ;
Arthur M. Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau’s Thought .
64 See: William A. Galston, Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political
Theory and Practice . (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Manning Marable, The Great
Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life . (New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2002).
65 As we will discuss in Chapter 5, Rousseau himself makes precisely this point in On Civil Religion .
66 See: The Clouds in Four Plays by Aristophanes , William Arrowsmith, Richard Lattimore, and
Douglass Parker, trs. (New York: Meridian, 1994).
conciliation pioneered by Dewey, 67 we may foster a democracy guided by a vigorous
dialectic between reason and spirit, pragmatism and idealism, what is and what ought
to be . 68 Might we not, as Rousseau did, keep one foot firmly planted on our home
turf, whilst our gaze is cast towards a better future?
The problem, of course, is that a politics which seeks both the here and now
and the proverbial pie in the sky seems divided by mutually exclusive aims. Karl
Lowith made precisely this point regarding modernity writ large, arguing that modern
man is tragically torn between competing senses of history. 69 “The modern mind,” he
wrote, “has not made up its mind whether it should be Christian or Pagan. It sees
with one eye of faith and one eye of reason.” 70 The modern world “is the outcome of
an age-long process of secularization”; it is “worldly and irreligious and yet
dependent on the Christian creed from which it is emancipated”; in sum, “it is
Christian by derivation and anti-Christian by consequence.” 71
Georges Poulet located a like-minded dissonance in contemporary concepts of
time. 72 During the Eighteenth Century, he observed, “[m]an is revealed as the
feckless creator of man,” an awkward burden under which we invariably fail to meet
our own lofty, self-imposed standards. 73 Echoing Nietzsche, he argued that amidst
this intoxicating moment “man suddenly feels for the first time in the Christian era
that the instant of his existence is an instant free of all dependence, liberated from all
67 See: John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems . (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/Ohio University
Press, 1954).
68 Again, readers should consult: The Social Contract . CW IV.131; OC III.351.
69 See Karl Lowith, Meaning in History , (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949), especially
pp. 19, 194, 207.
70 Ibid., p. 207.
71 Ibid., pp. 201-202
72 See Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time , Elliott Coleman, tr. (New York: The Johns Hopkins
Press, 1956), especially pp. 25-29.
73 Poulet, p. 26.
duration, equal to all its own potentialities … It knows itself to be faultless.” 74
Although neither Poulet nor Lowith specifically addressed Rousseau in these
instances, the Genevan is not above either charge. Caught between ancient and
modern notions of fraternity and autonomy, societal guilt and individual innocence,
future grace and corporeal redemption, perfectionism and fallibility, Jean-Jacque’s
“man” stood at a complicated crossroads indeed.
How, then, did people and politics look for Rousseau, in the real world? To
paraphrase Christopher Wallace, was it all a dream , or are his reveries coherent? 75 If
we follow Lowith and Poulet, perhaps not. Perhaps the confluence of modern and
ancient, Christian and secular, divine and human, subverts the constancy
characteristic of a strong theory. But perhaps we may yet accept these analyses and
still find in their effects some measure of strength: not one gleaned from the sole
standard of either Christian piety or Pagan virtue, but from a democratic amalgam
enriched by its eclectic roots. Was this not the conclusion Rousseau himself
solicited? Appropriating contrasting traditions within a single model of reform, he
forced us to envision a democratic polity supported by religious practice, one which
sacrificed neither the spiritual nor secular welfare of its citizens.
This was a peculiar reverie indeed. As Jean Starobinski rightly notes,
“Rousseau formule sans doute ici une morale toute profane, mais elle ne se comprend
qu’en référence à un modèle religieux.” 76
Jean-Jacques himself told us as much. He
slammed his ill-matched cards on the table for all to see, calling our bluff. He alone
was a virtuous homme á Paris , wandering much as Diogenes the Cynic combed
74 Poulet, p. 21.
75 Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy.” From the album: Ready to Die , Bad Boy Records, 1994.
76 Starobinski, La transparence et l’obstacle , p. 83 (tr. p. 63).
Athens’ streets nearly four centuries Before Christ, searching with lit lantern in broad
daylight for another real man. 77 With the original Cynic’s force, and religious zeal,
Jean-Jacques dared us to follow him in enacting a plan previously left in God’s hands.
The bait lies in full sight: Spartan stoicism and civil religion; a defense of natural
innocence corrupted by artifice and hubris; Enlightenment Deism which rejects
philosophe atheism; a patriotic hymn shunned by Geneva; Rousseau’s own
conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism, back to Protestantism; an ode to fallen
man (both himself and others) raised by the sheer force of his own divinely-guided
will; the fervor of a vision which accepts no compromise. If Rousseau’s secular
stylings marginalized divinity as never before, they bore the divine marks of an all-
seeing eye and a master plan. It is, in the final analysis, this mixture of piousness and
profanity that makes the Genevan’s prescriptions so provocative.
By fleshing out this challenging dialectic, we might achieve some measure of
clarity regarding Rousseau’s peculiar faith generally, and his practical contribution to
the reconciliation of religion and politics specifically. Plagued by potentially
irreconcilable divisions, how does his amalgam of Christian and Pagan ideals allow
us to reconceptualize the relationship between spiritual and secular values within
democratic polities? Are Rousseau’s contradictory aims fatally debilitating? Does he
merely prop humankind up to fail, charging us with a task (secular salvation) we are
incapable of fulfilling? Or do his discordant sources offer an unlikely foundation for
democratic meliorism, specifically one that recognizes a positive role for religion?
77 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers: Volume II , R.D. Hicks, tr. (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1925), p. 43.
It is my belief—and this work’s central argument—that Rousseau offers a
uniquely revealing lens through which to examine the tensions between religion and
politics. Yet because the value of his contribution lies precisely in its recourse to
conflicting traditions (Pagan and Christian) and sentiments (deep pessimism and
profound optimism), the coherence and (dare we say) utility of his paradoxical project
is far from self-evident. Attacked as heretical, Rousseau’s reverie of secular salvation
drew heavily upon Christian ideals and assumptions. Mistrustful of religious
associations, he urged us to accept divine reverence as a foundation for moral duty
and civic unity alike. Contemptuous of society, he found solace in the natural order
of God’s creation, and nurtured a faith in mankind’s intrinsic innocence. An
awkward mix that coalesced as a singular contention, Rousseau insisted that
religiosity both encouraged and preserved democratic virtue. Was his vision
practicable, much less compelling? Because the unity of his aim so sharply belies the
dissonance of his means, it remains to be seen. Until that point in time we might
summon our courage, and even a bit of faith, as we follow our provocative, peculiar
guide down this thorny path.
Chapter 2: The Virtue of Paradox
As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of
corrupt mind and counterfeit faith; but they will not get very far, for their folly will be
plain to all.
—The Second Letter of Paul to Timothy, 3.8, The New Testament 78
I believe in God quite as strongly as I believe any other truth.
—Rousseau, Letter to Voltaire 79
A study of Rousseau’s religiosity serves at least three purposes: it sheds light
on his broader philosophic project; it offers a possible means of locating the
consistency he claimed was intrinsic to his works; and it provides a lens through
which to reconsider the relationship between spiritual and secular values. Still, critics
of Rousseau have contended that his collective musings on God, human nature, and
society were of little utility because, taken as a whole, they were neither consistent
nor coherent. Naysayers attributed this failing to our peculiar author’s penchant for
paradox, a charge from which he hardly retreated.
Consider, for example, Rousseau’s request (polite yet insistent) in Book II of
Emile : “Common 80 readers, pardon me my paradoxes. They are necessary when one
78 2 Timothy 3.8. All Biblical passages not quoted in primary sources are taken from the following
edition: The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version , Herbert G. May and Bruce M.
Metzger, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
79 Letter to Voltaire , August 18, 1756. OC IV.1071; CW III.117.
80 Rousseau uses the word vulgaire , which is understood as common when coupled with reader . It is
worth noting that vulgaire has a more confrontational (and negative) connotation than other, more
familiar word choices, such as commun or ordinaire .
reflects, and no matter what you might say, I prefer to be a man of paradoxes than a
man of prejudices.” 81
Pardon me my paradoxes . Not even halfway through his massive pedagogical
tome, the Tutor’s confession stands out like a sore thumb; it seems a lot to ask. In
common contemporary usage, paradox often implies contradiction, or even
irreconcilable confusion. Could it be that Rousseau was subverting himself at this
early stage? Was he merely presaging the criticisms of a text whose reception
pressed him into exile for his remaining years? Was it self-deprecation, or brutally
honest self-scrutiny? Should we don investigative caps and uncover the hidden
context? Or must we, common readers, take him at his oft-repeated word to take him
at his word.
Rousseau never claimed to be a virtuous man, and his Confessions make clear
an early pattern of less than upright actions. But he did claim to be a good man, a
unique man, and a consistent and honest man. 82 Giving him the benefit of the doubt,
and seeking clarity, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary and found this under
Paradox : 83
81 “Lecteurs vulgaires, pardonnez-moi mes paradoxes. Il en faut faire quand on réfléchit, et quoi que
vous puissiez dire, j’aime mieux être homme à paradoxes qu’homme à préjuges.” OC IV.323; E 93.
82 In his Letter to Beaumont , Rousseau applies this consistency to his own defense: “Thus the foolish
public vacillates about me, knowing as little why it detests me as why it liked me before. As for
myself, I have always remained the same: more ardent in my quests, but sincere in everything, even
against myself; simple and good, but sensitive and weak, often doing evil and always loving the
good…” CW IX.22; OC IV.928-9; and: “…all these Books [of mine], which you have read, since
you judge them, breath the same maxims; the same ways ( manières ) of thinking are not more disguised
in them.” OC IV.933; CW IX.26.
83 We might also consider the etymology. Paradox comes from the Latin paradoxum , from the Greek
paradoxus , meaning “contrary to received opinion or expectation,” and “past, beyond, contrary to
opinion.” According to Raymond Trousson and Frédéric S. Eigeldinger, the Encyclopédie entry for
paradoxe (penned by d’Alembert) presented a relatively new meaning of the word most frequently in
used in relation to the sciences. This sense implied an “iconoclastic idea, if not heretical, that is to say
a false idea.” In fact, d’Alembert’s definition was more ambiguous: “ en Philosophie , c'est une
proposition absurde en apparence, à cause qu'elle est contraire aux opinions reçues, & qui néanmoins
A statement or tenet contrary to received opinion or belief; often with
the implication that it is marvelous or incredible; sometimes with
unfavourable connotation, as being discordant with what is held to be
established truth, and hence absurd or fantastic; sometimes with
favourable connotation, as a correction of vulgar error. 84
Pardon me my paradoxes might therefore be rephrased as pardon me my statements
which stand in contrast to commonly held opinion . 85
On this—the contrariness and correlative uniqueness of his thought—
Rousseau was certainly consistent. Throughout Emile , as in many of his other works,
he reminded us of his opposition to the two major intellectual forces of his age: the
Christian ecclesiasts and the philosophes . No meager foes, Church and academy
dominated the production and dissemination of political, social and spiritual thought.
This was no mean feat in a century described then—and, nearly three centuries later,
now—as an age driven by ideas, by the illumination born of inspired reasoning.
est vraie au fond, ou du - moins peut recevoir un air de vérité.” (“ in Philosophy , it is a seemingly
absurd proposition, because it is contrary to received opinions, & it nevertheless is basically true, or at
least can hold an inkling of truth.”) See: Trousson and Eigeldinger, Dictionnaire de Jean-Jacques
Rousseau . (Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 2001), p. 683. For d’Alembert’s definition see: Diderot,
Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Métiers, par une société de gens
de lettres, première édition de 1751-1780 . (Neuchâtel: Chez Samuel Faulche & Compagnie, 1765),
Tome XI, pp. 894-895.
84 The Oxford English Dictionary . Long before Rousseau, Socrates popularized paradox as a
philosophical method of seeking the truth. Throughout Emile , Rousseau affirms the most central
Socratic injunction to “know thyself.” His Socratic lineage is often raised in relation to this Delphic
command. Less frequently mentioned is their common insistence upon the pedagogical value of
paradox—the exercise of contradictory opinion as a means of seeking and uncovering the truth. For
examples of the importance of self-knowledge in Emile see: E 48, 74, 83, 213, 240, 243-4, 270, 287.
85 Three French dictionaries confirm this reading. In his 1690 Dictionnaire Universel , Furetière
describes “paradoxe” as a “[p]roposition surprenant et difficile à croire, à cause qu’elle choque les
opinions communes et reçues.” As examples, he cites the Stoics and Copernicus. The Grand
Larousse likewise lists “paradoxe” as both an “[o]pinion contraire aux vues communément admises,”
and (more negatively) as something “qui paraissent défier la logique parce qu’ils présentent en eux-
mêmes des aspects contradictoires.” Hugo’s label of Rousseau—the “Don Quixote of Paradox”—is
attributed to the former sense. The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française confirms this less
critical usage in the eighteenth century. Although as early as 1662 Pascal implied that paradoxes
clashed with “good sense” (a charge clearly shared by Rousseau’s critics), this more pejorative
connotation was not formally adopted in dictionaries until 1832. See: Antoine Furetière’s Dictionnaire
Universel , Tome III. (The Hague and Rotterdam: Chez Arnout & Reinier Leers, 1690). Grand
Larousse de la langue française en sept volumes: tome cinquième . (Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1976), p.
3956. Dictionnaire historique de la langue française , Alain Rey, ed. (Paris: Dictionnaires LE
ROBERT, 1992), p. 1422.
Contemporary readers may scoff at priests or professors, as purveyors of
pedophilia, or a tweedy clan totally removed from the machinations of real world
politics. But during Rousseau’s age, these men of the cloth and men of letters
wielded an influence far beyond the scope of their professional domains. To attack
either one was a feat of daring, and (because they were mutually antagonistic) a
corresponding proclamation of allegiance to either philosophy or the papacy.
Attacking both might have seemed, especially in hindsight, to possess the reckless
energy of a suicidal mission. At the very least, it left so bold a protagonist with few
Such was Rousseau’s fate. The tragedy, the inevitability, the sheer weight of
that ancient term holds particularly true to a thinker for whom truth-telling (as he saw
it) was less an option than an obligation, a destiny, a civic duty. 86 He alone was
poised to tell the truth, because he alone recognized so clearly the problems of and
prescriptions for his age. Urgent necessity underscored Rousseau’s descriptions of
human history’s abject spiral, and his prescriptions for the possible means of our
redemption. By his own admission, he had little choice; our collective future
depended upon bringing these truths to light.
It was this dire term—not personal safety, security, welfare, or reputation—
that drove the Genevan’s quest. Consider this soliloquy, taken from the twelfth
fragment of his Letter to Christophe de Beaumont :
86 The compulsive nature of Rousseau’s confessional style notwithstanding, he was deeply ambivalent
about his career as an author. I explore this dynamic elsewhere in greater detail, addressing issues
such as: his epiphany and subsequent “conversion” en route to Vincennes; his insistence that he
defends himself in writing only out of necessity; his elusions to being “forced” to take up his pen; and
his aspiration to abandon writing and the public life for a solitary, self-contained existence. This study
draws much from Jean Starobinski’s reading of Rousseau as a fundamentally passive figure in
Transparency and Obstruction .
My own interest is to say what is useful to others without regard to my
own utility, and that honor which I alone will have among the authors
of my century will always cause me to be distinguished from them all
and will compensate me for all their advantages. If one wishes they
will be better philosophers and finer wits, they will be more profound
thinkers, more precise reasoners, more pleasing writers; but I, I will be
more disinterested in my maxims, more sincere in my sentiments,
more an enemy of satire, bolder in speaking the truth, when it is useful
to others without troubling myself about my fortune nor about my
safety. They may deserve pensions, employments, places in
academies, and I, I will have only insults and slights; they will be
decorated and I, I will be stigmatized, but it does not matter, my
disgraces will honor my courage… 87
Voltaire may revel in his witticisms. Diderot’s plays may delight more people.
Philosophers may enjoy their profundity and sophistication. Others may be honored
in academies and salons, and decorated by their governments. But these gains were
of little concern to Jean-Jacques. He had only his claim to the truth, and the courage
to press this upon a people ‘tyrannized’ by irresponsible élites.
Rousseau’s argument drew upon classical tales of individual courage
legitimized by both resistance to authority and an ascetic aversion to prosperity;
persecution and privation actually offered testimony of his sincerity. 88 In so
defending himself, he resurrected tropes pioneered by Socrates, the Stoics, and the
figure of Jesus. Socrates famously refused compensation for his teachings, and
87 Letter to Beaumont . OC IV.1022; CW IX.94. The original passage reads: “Mon intérêt à moi est de
dire ce qui est utile aux autres sans égard à ma propre utilité, et cet honneur que j’aurai seul parmi les
auteurs de mon siècle me fera toujours distinguer d’eux tous et me dédommagera de tous leurs
avantages. Ils seront si l’on veut meilleurs philosophes et plus beaux esprits, ils seront penseurs plus
profond[s], raisonneurs plus exacts, écrivains plus agréables ; mais moi je serai plus désintéressé dans
mes maximes, plus sincère dans mes sentiments, plus ennemi de la satire, plus hardi a dire la vérité,
quand elle est utile aux autres sans m’embarrasser de ma fortune ni de ma sûreté. Ils pourront mériter
des pensions, des emplois, des places d’académies et moi je n’aurai que des injures et des affronts ; ils
seront décorés et moi je serai flétri, mais n’importe, mes disgrâces honoreront mon courage…”
88 The word testimony has strong Biblical connotations. In Scriptural language, it refers to the Mosaic
Decalogue. See, for example, Exodus 31.18: “And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of
speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the
finger of God.”
presented his poverty as an exhibit of self-defense during his trial. 89 Seneca and the
Stoics shunned material possessions as a virtuous means of living in greater accord
with nature. And Jesus, Saint Paul revealed, willfully abandoned riches for rags, a
sacrifice committed for the spiritual wealth of his followers. 90
Rousseau made a similar claim. For the sake of his fellow citizens and,
indeed, the human race, he willfully denied his material best-interests. Even if his
own age misunderstood him, in the end he trusted his reputation to the hindsight of
history. His “disgrace will honor his courage” because eventually his paradoxes
would reveal the goodness of his heart, the truthfulness of his writings, the practical
value of his vision, and the short-sightedness of those contemporaries scornful of his
Truth be told, no matter the cost; his Confessions drives this point home,
exposing past episodes of un truthfulness in explicit detail. The shame of his petits
mensonges are left to public domain, a testament to his honesty even when it reveals a
pattern of dis honesty. His second apprenticeship to the engraver M. Ducommun gave
him “vices that I would have hated, such as lying, laziness, theft.” 91 After being
cajoled by a journeyman named Verrat, he commits his first theft, stealing asparagus
and reselling it for pocket change. 92 He reveals an unsavory penchant for flashing
strangers “of the opposite sex” from dark alleys. After one such episode he was
chased down and, upon being caught, attempted to excuse himself by way of a tall
89 See: The Apology , 19D-21A in Plato, The Last Days of Socrates , Hugh Tredennick, tr. (New York:
Penguin Books, 1969), pp. 48-49.
90 2 Corinthians 2 8.9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet
for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
91 The Confessions . CW V.39; OC I.31.
92 The Confessions . CW V.27-8; OC I.32-33.
tale: he claimed to be “a young foreigner of high birth whose brain was deranged.” 93
Most memorably, he forces himself to admit “the long remembrances of crime and
the unbearable weight of remorse with which my conscience is still burdened after
forty years,” 94 the stealing of a pretty pink ribbon whose theft he imputed to a young
innocent, a local girl named Marion.
Ribbons and vegetables, a proclivity for perversity, an adolescent streak of
erratic judgment. A riches of embarrassment, certainly, but necessary to understand
Rousseau as he truly was. His was a heart unmasked, a life laid bare to the public.
His work turned on this principle of honesty: the honesty with which he presents both
himself and his age, with which he reveals strengths and weaknesses with equal
candor. Humankind was naturally good, society artificially bad. In so arguing, was
Rousseau not compelled to press this critique upon himself? He too was a good man
guilty of actions with ignoble consequences. 95 To hide such memorable
transgressions would have been, not in poor taste, but in poor faith. Guarding his
missteps would have been, not an act of paradox, but an act of self-subversion that
undermined the very quest to which Rousseau had dedicated his life: to seek and
reveal the truth.
As he wrote unabashedly in Emile , “[z]eal and good faith have taken the place
of prudence for me up to now. I hope these guarantors will not abandon me in time
of need. Readers, do not fear from me precautions unworthy of a friend of the truth.
93 The Confessions . CW V.74-75; OC I.88-90.
94 The Confessions . CW V.70; OC I.84. For Rousseau’s full account see CW.V 70-73; OC I.84-87.
95 As he makes plain in The Confessions , “I have shown myself as I was, contemptible and low when I
was so, good, generous, sublime when I was so.” CW V.5; OC I.V.
I shall never forget my motto.” 96 His motto, clipped from Juvenal’s Satires , was
Vitam impendere vero ( Dedicate life to truth ). 97 Truth cast a broad swath indeed, and
took its sharpest stabs when revealing flaws: of his own, of the Church, of the
academy, of human society. This critical acumen proved a costly profession,
particularly for a mere man of the peoples, a Genevan set loose in the hotbed that was
eighteenth century Paris, an expatriate slowed by a urinary tract disorder no less.
Truth be damned, the odds were against him; an individual attacking both papists and
philosophers was bound to lose something .
Yet attack he did. Rousseau has been accused of many things by his
compatriots and posthumous critics alike, but cowardly he was not. He targeted
theological and intellectual élites with equal force and candor. Although mutual
enemies, Rousseau charged both with similar offenses: they were deceptive
dogmatists cultivating private interests under the auspices of public good. Both were
grossly self-promoting, driven by vanity and amour-propre , rather than a concern
with the welfare of society and ses peuples . They were fundamentally dishonest,
preaching salvation through subservience (to either dogma or reason), while
subordinating the welfare of all to exclusive, sectarian interests. Presenting
themselves as above reproach, they deserved our greatest censure.
96 Emile . E 206.
97 Rousseau also mentions this “motto” in his Letter to d’Alembert , the epigraph to Letters Written
From the Mountain , and The Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Fourth Promenade). Its original context
is quite revealing. The Satire in which it appears is a story illustrating the Emperor Domitian’s tyranny
and absurdity. Domitian summons his cringing court to solve a ridiculous problem: how to cook a fish
too large for its pan. We are told that one of these members, Crispus, never spoke out against him and
thus “he survived for eighty winters and as many summers, protected by that armour” of passive
obedience. (IV.92-93) As Juvenal writes, “Crispus never struck out against the current, nor was he
ever that noble type of Roman subject who could freely state his opinions and risk his life for the
truth.” (IV.89-91) In adopting this last line as his motto, Rousseau identifies himself precisely with the
“noble” citizen who would —and did—risk personal livelihood “for the truth.” See: Juvenal, The
Satires , Niall Rudd, tr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 28.
The Church, for example, taught a “barbarous education which sacrifices the
present to an uncertain future, which burdens a child with chains of every sort and
begins by making him miserable in order to prepare him from afar for I know not
what pretended happiness which is to be believed he will never enjoy.” 98 With their
“insipid lessons,” “long-winded moralizing,” and “eternal catechisms,” 99 they
promoted a “false wisdom which incessantly projects us outside of ourselves, which
always counts the present for nothing, and which, pursuing without respite a future
that retreats in proportion as we advance, by dint of transporting us where we are not,
transports us where we shall never be.” 100 The chimera of post-mortem redemption
lures us to seek an ever-elusive salvation. In the process, it discourages the
possibility of genuine reform and salvation in this world, instead fixing our gaze on
an indeterminate future while chaining us to a grim present.
Philosophers were no better. “Raised in all the corruption of the colleges,” 101
enraptured by their own hubris, 102 their vanity and pride was no less pernicious than
that of their orthodox enemies. “Where,” Rousseau asked, “is the philosopher who
would not gladly deliver mankind for his own glory? Where is the one who in the
secrecy of his heart sets himself any other goal than that of distinguishing
himself?” 103 His contemporary hommes à lettres claimed to possess truth, but taught
only vainglory. “Under the haughty pretext that they alone are enlightened, true, and
of good faith, they imperiously subject us to their peremptory decisions and claim to
98 Emile . E 79.
99 Emile . E 316.
100 Emile . E 79.
101 Emile . E 221.
102 “I know of no philosopher who has yet been so bold as to say: this is the limit of what man can
attain and beyond which he cannot go. We do not know what our nature permits us to be.” ( Emile . E
103 Emile . E 269.
give us as the true principles of things the unintelligible systems they have built in
their imagination.” 104 Their purported truths were elaborate feats of fancy whose
want of substance was rivaled only by a conspicuous incoherence. Philosophic
perfectionism mixed Spartan coercion and Athenian frivolousness, to decidedly
deleterious consequences. Rather than aiding society, they increased the speed of its
downfall. Rather than putting their erudition and learning to practical purposes, they
wasted their time (and ours) on vain frivolities.
The church and the academy were, in short, two birds of a feather. “The two
parties attack each other reciprocally with so many sophisms,” yet neither fostered
virtue, goodness or meaningful enlightenment. 105 Put more strongly, they actually
caused much harm. Both falsely claimed to possess a monopoly on truth, and used
this self-anointed grace to subject humankind to the tyranny of elaborately justified
opinions. Peddling ideals unfulfilled in practice, priest and philosopher alike
demanded contrition to hollow promises. As such, they epitomized society’s most
perverse influence: the denaturing rule of doxa .
It was a story of muses whose lulling tunes promise big payoff but lead to
swift demise. Jean-Jacques ignored their refrains, and refused to bow to their
authority. Instead, he countered with paradox in its sharpest form: a severe mistrust
of these dominant poles of opinion whose empires—Christian dogmatism and
philosophic rationalism—were enemies of truth and societal welfare alike.
To better gauge Rousseau’s request of pardon, we must therefore bear in mind
the contentious nature of his paradoxes, and the vigorous charges he levies against the
104 Emile . E 312.
105 Emile . E, 312n.
established “truths,” and so-called truth-tellers, of his age. To pardon Rousseau, we
must first accept the substance of his accusations. Doing so, in turn, requires
acknowledging his candid evaluations of his influential adversaries. Forgiveness in
this instance is an act of solidarity. Rousseau demands not simply siding with him
(both the “honest” author and the “good” man), but rejecting the targets of his wrath.
Rousseau was perhaps the most famous to press this demand upon his readers,
but certainly not the first. His much-maligned foil Hobbes said just as much in 1656,
in a moment of aggressive self-defense. In 1645, Hobbes and the Anglican Bishop
John Bramhall, both Royalists forced into exile during the Civil War, were invited by
William Cavendish, the Marquess of Newcastle, to debate the question of human
freedom at his Paris home. These discussions led to the publication some nineteen
years later of Hobbes’ The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance . In
this work, Hobbes railed against Bramhall and linguistic ignorance in one fell swoop:
The Bishop speaks often of Paradoxes with such scorn or detestation,
that a simple Reader would take a Paradox either for Felony, or some
other heinous crime, or else for some ridiculous turpitude; whereas
perhaps a Judicious Reader knows what the word signifies; And that a
Paradox, is an opinion not yet generally received. 106
“Simple” readers conflate paradox with unpardonable offense. The more “judicious”
exercise greater restraint in judgment. They understand that paradoxes are
unfashionable, but not necessarily erroneous.
To punctuate this point, Hobbes reminds us that even “Christian religion was
once a Paradox.” 107 Historically, he is correct. As Karl Jaspers argued, although “it
is not possible to base a portrait of Jesus on compelling historic proof, his reality is
106 Thomas Hobbes, The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance . (London: Printed for
Andrew Crook, 1656), p. 239.
107 Ibid., p. 239.
clearly discernible through the veil of tradition.” 108 For reasons unclear, we know
that Jesus did in fact go to Jerusalem preaching what were then paradoxes, and was
crucified for his teachings. 109
Hobbes’ reminder is twofold: popular opinion is fallible and relative in
character, and contrary opinions may be redeemed in time. Nonconformity
demonized in one age or locale can pass for gospel in another. In fact, canonization
and martyrdom occur only through the passage of time (through reification). This is
particularly true of Christianity, a phenomenon whose appreciation emerged in
hindsight, and drew legitimacy from its resistance to the remarkable hostility with
which it was first received. What was once paradox, what once begged a sentence of
death, became the most wildly influential spiritual, political and intellectual force of
Hobbes’ realm.
Again, the lesson is simple: paradoxes are relative by definition. They are
measured in relation to temporal opinion, rather than objective standards of truth or
virtue. Although paradoxes run contrary to general opinion, they are neither
inherently ill-conceived, nor categorically criminal. Yet for Rousseau, this distinction
was moot. As with Jesus, the Genevan’s paradoxes did criminalize him, particularly
following the publication of Emile . And here, Hobbes’ example sounds a powerful
108 Karl Jaspers, Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The Paradigmatic Individuals , Hannah Arendt,
ed. and Ralph Manheim, tr. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962), p. 64. Jaspers also
demonstrates the relative unimportance of historic accuracy to Christian believers, a point compatible
with Rousseau’s own appreciation of myth. (See pp. 64-86.) For an extended discussion of this theme
in Rousseau’s works, see below.
109 “This God who for Jesus was not physically present—not in visions and not in voices—was able to
put absolutely everything in the world in question,” Jaspers writes. The consequences were radically
contrary: “Jesus broke free from every practical order in the world. He saw that all orders and habits
had become pharisaical; he points to the source in which they melt to nothingness. All earthly reality
is deprived of its foundation, absolutely and definitively. All orders whatsoever, the bonds of piety, of
law, of reasonable custom, collapse.” Humankind kind is left only with the absolute imperative “to
follow God into the kingdom of heaven.” See: Jaspers, p. 79.
note. The once-hunted—Christian religion—had become the hunter; Jean-Jacques,
condemned for impiety, was its prey.
* * * * *
Rousseau should have known better. Evidence suggests that he in fact did. In
Fragment VII of Institutions politiques ,
110 “Luxury, Commerce, and the Arts,” he
admitted that “I have learned through experience the damage that demonstrated
propositions can suffer from being called Paradoxes.” 111 Rousseau was referring to
the abundant criticism that followed the publication of his Discourses . As Genevan
naturalist Charles Bonnet (under the antagonistic pseudonym M. Philopolis, or “Mr.
City-lover”) wrote in a letter dated August 25, 1755, Jean-Jacques “has adopted ideas
that seem to me so opposed to the truth and so ill suited to make happy people” that
“[m]uch will, without doubt, be written against this new Discourse, as much has been
written against the one that won the prize of the Academy of Dijon.” 112 Rousseau
paraded banners of natural goodness and truth, but presented only misery and
falsehoods. This was “a paradox that he has cherished only too much.” 113 In closing,
110 In its preface, Rousseau describes The Social Contract as a “short treatise… taken from a more
extensive work, which I undertook in the past without considering my strength, and have long since
abandoned.” ( Social Contract . CW IV.131; OC III.349). The “more extensive work” was his
intended masterpiece, Institutions politiques . Rousseau began writing this unfinished work sometime
between 1754 and 1759. Fragment VII was likely written no earlier than 1756, and no later than 1758.
This would place its composition after the publication of the Second Discourse , and before the
publication of the Letter to d’Alembert . For Rousseau’s description see: The Confessions . CW V.340-
341; OC I.404-405.
111 Political Fragments . CW IV.46; OC III.518.
112 Letter from M. Philopolis on the Subject of the Discourse of M. J.-J. Rousseau of Geneva on the
Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men . CW III.123; OC III.1383.
113 Letter from M. Philopolis . CW III.123; OC III.1383.
Bonnet struck an incredulous note: “Had we ever presumed that a Writer who thinks,
would advance in a century like ours this strange paradox”? 114
According to Bonnet, Jean-Jacques was a depressing rabble-rouser, his
writings desolate tirades, and his inexplicable contrariness an affect to garner
attention. 115 Rousseau bristled at the charges. He was particularly upset with the
implication that his paradoxes were falsehoods, and perverse sources of personal
pride. “Let us suppose,” he wrote in rebuttal, “that a singular mind ( esprit ), bizarre,
and in fact a man of paradoxes , then dared to reproach others for the absurdity of
their maxims, to prove to them that they run to death in seeking tranquility, that by
dint of being reasonable they do nothing but ramble.” 116
The note of pardon struck later in Emile here smacks of indignation.
Rousseau the contrary, Rousseau the unique, was merely holding his peers
accountable for the “absurdity” of their “ramblings.” At this early date he was
conscious of the practical dangers of writing paradox; he simply threw caution to the
wind. The truth of one was all the more important considering the falsehoods of
many . Drawing courage from faith in his own truthfulness, Rousseau was firmly
convinced that his contemporaries were in the wrong. Their maxims posed the
philosophical equivalent of lemmings, leading us from steep cliffs towards
accelerated demise. His Discourses offered an alternate path to tread.
114 Letter from M. Philopolis . “Eût-on jamais présumé qu’un Écrivain qui pense, avanceroit dans un
siècle tel que le nôtre cet étrange paradoxe, qui renferme seul une si grande foule d’inconséquences,
pour ne rien dire de plus fort ?” OC III.1385; CW III.125.
115 This follows Diderot’s charge that Rousseau had reversed his position on the arts and sciences,
implying that a critical stance would garner more attention than an affirmative case.
116 Letter from J.-J. Rousseau to M. Philopolis . OC.III.231; CW III.127. (My emphasis.)
In asking pardon some years later, Rousseau softened his tone—though not
his resolve. Still convinced of the value of his contentiousness, he turned to readers
for reprieve. Demanding that we pardon him his paradoxes, Jean-Jacques was
certainly begging an important question; he was just asking it of the wrong people.
“Common readers” were clearly not his most pointed critics. In the years
following his exchange with Bonnet, Julie became the best-selling novel of the
eighteenth century. 117
Le Devin du village , an opera composed in the Italian style,
opened in Fontainebleu to a stunningly positive reception. In spite of unequivocal
censure and censoring, Emile was widely read and followed (to the extent that
breastfeeding became très chic amongst French mothers). And his Social Contract
was embraced as far as Poland, for whose government he wrote a commissioned
piece on political reform.
Although Rousseau’s influential detractors multiplied their protests following
his 1762 publications, 118 evidence in the form of letters suggest that the public had
not yet followed suit. On June 15, 1762, d’Alembert wrote Rousseau to assure him
that the French peoples applauded his controversial writings. 119 And one day later,
Genevan minister Paul-Claude Moultou comforted his friend that a majority of his
117 Robert Darnton labeled Julie Rousseau’s “supreme best-seller.” The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-
Revolutionary France , (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), p. 66.
118 Namely, The Social Contract and Emile .
119 Raymond Trousson and Frédéric S. Eigeldinger, Rousseau au jour le jour: Chronologie . (Paris:
Honoré Champion Éditeur, 1998), p. 172. Notably, d’Alembert was the only philosophe to offer such
support, save Charles Duclos. In The Confessions , Rousseau seems characteristically ungrateful,
underscoring the fact that d’Alembert had not signed the letter. For Rousseau’s account see: The
Confessions , OC I.574; CW V.480. Quoted in Maurice Cranston, The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques
Rousseau in Exile and Adversity . (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 2-3. Letter
appears in CC XI.1874.82-84.
fellow Swiss (“ nos bourgeois ”) admired The Social Contract as the “arsenal of
liberty.” 120
Common readers were certainly far more forgiving than the subjects of his
scorn. Rousseau’s intellectual peers, a proud lot of atheists and anti-Clericalists,
might have been more supportive had he not already alienated and infuriated them.
His friendship with Diderot deteriorated over a controversy dating from 1757. In his
play Le fils naturel , Diderot attacks the idea of a solitary individual (whose part is
played by Dorval, a character based on Rousseau) with a line much to Jean-Jacques’
disliking: “il n' y a que le méchant qui soit seul.” 121 On August 30, 1755, Voltaire
wrote a letter to Rousseau in which he described the Second Discourse as a “book
against the human race.” 122 Voltaire sounds both hostile and dumbfounded, quipping
that “[n]ever has so much intelligence been used in seeking to make us stupid.” 123
Following Rousseau’s Letter to d’Alembert (denouncing a proposed Genevan theater)
nearly three years later, Voltaire wrote his own letter to d’Alembert dismissing
Rousseau as “a Diogène barking.” 124 “There is a double ingratitude in him,” Voltaire
120 “Nos bourgeois n’en disent pas moins que ce Contrat social est l’arsenal de la liberté, et tandis
qu’un petit nombre jette feu & flammes, la multitude triomphe.” Le minister Paul-Claude Moultou à
Rousseau . CC XI.1877.90.
121 The full sentence is actually quite inflammatory. Diderot’s character Constance uses a Rousseauist
argument (an ‘appeal to the heart’) to convince Dorval that the “good man” exists only in society: “
J'en appelle à votre coeur; interrogez-le; et il vous dira que l'homme de bien est dans la société, et qu' il
n' y a que le méchant qui soit seul.” From Le fils naturel , Act IV, Scene 3. In: Diderot: Œuvres , Tome
IV: Esthétique – Théâtre , Laurent Versini, ed. (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A., 1996), p. 1113.
For Rousseau’s reaction to this “scathing and harsh sentence without any qualification,” see: The
Confessions . CW V.382; OC I.455.
122 Letter from Voltaire to Rousseau (August 30, 1755). CW III.102; CC III.317.156.
123 Letter from Voltaire to Rousseau (August 30, 1755). CW III.102; CC III.317.157. Voltaire’s
sentence reads: “On n’a jamais tant employé d’esprit a vouloir nous rendre Bêtes.”
124 Quoted in Cranston, The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762 . (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 137. Voltaire here compares Rousseau to Diogenes the Cynic,
one of the most colorful figures in the history of Greek philosophy. An exile himself (from his native
Sinope), Diogenes’ practice of Cynicism was notably flamboyant. Embracing hardship as a training
method for self-sufficiency, he earned an (in)famous reputation for spectacles such as public
masturbation, begging to statues, and sleeping in hard tubs. He was often described as a “mad dog”
continued. “He attacks an art which he practices himself, and he has written against
you, who have overwhelmed him with praises.” 125 Years later, Rousseau’s reputation
as an ingrate magnified. Retreating from the continent following the furor of 1762,
he even managed to enrage his host, the notoriously mild-mannered Hume, who
vilified him as “the blackest and most atrocious villain, beyond comparison, that now
exists in the world.” 126
If Rousseau’s personality incensed his peers, his paradoxes—particularly
those detailed in The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar —aroused the wrath of
Church and state alike. Despite his fame as an author throughout Europe, official
critics in France and Geneva greeted his 1762 publications with swift orders of
interdiction. In Moultou’s same June 16 letter pledging Swiss popular support, he
also warned Rousseau that the Petit Conseil had banned The Social Contract and
begun a formal investigation of Emile . 127
The news came as no surprise. One week prior, on June 9, the French
Parlement had issued a warrant for his arrest. The Genevan was charged with
penning a work of “impious and detestable principles” contemptuous of religion,
and a “Socrates gone mad.” See: Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers: Volume II , pp.
125 Quoted in Ibid., p. 137. Voltaire vigorously repeated these charges in a subsequent letter to
d’Alembert. (See Ibid., p. 278). These correspondences followed his biting (and very personal)
attacks on Julie and its author, written under the pseudonym Marquis de Ximénès. See: Lettres à M.
de Voltaire sur La Nouvelle Héloïse (Geneva: 1761, 25 pages in octavio ).
126 Quoted in Cranston, The Solitary Self , 168. In leaving England, Rousseau also rejected the one
hundred pound yearly pension granted him by King George III. For a concise exposition of the sudden
demise of the relationship between Rousseau and Hume, see pp. 165-169. See also: Edward Duffy,
Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley’s Critique of the Enlightenment . (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1979).
127 Moultou à Rousseau . CC XI.1877.90. Dates confirmed in Trousson and Eigeldinger, Rousseau au
jour le jour , p. 172. The works were formally investigated, beginning on June 11, 1762. By June 14,
both were officially deemed “very dangerous.” See: James Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy ,
pp. 81-82.
Church and King alike. 128 The court order condemned him as a blasphemer “who
subjects Religion to the examination of reason, who establishes nothing but a purely
human faith, and who accepts neither truths nor dogmas in the matter of Religion.” 129
Adding insult to impiety, Rousseau also asserted “propositions which tend to give a
false and odious character to the sovereign authority, to destroy the principle of
obedience due to him, and to weaken the respect and the love of the People for their
King.” 130
Rousseau had struck a passionate nerve, one not easily calmed. Nearly three
months later, on August 28, Archduke Christophe de Beaumont continued the robust
denouncement. In a Pastoral Letter, he condemned Emile for
containing an abominable doctrine, suited to overturning natural Law
and to destroying the foundations of the Christian Religion;
establishing maxims contrary to Evangelical morality; tending to
disturb the peace of States, to stir up Subjects against the authority of
their Sovereign; as containing a very great number of propositions
respectively false, scandalous, full of hatred against the Church and its
Ministers, departing from the respect due to Sacred Scripture and the
Tradition of the Church, erroneous, impious, blasphemous, and
heretical. 131
Beaumont described the work’s author as “a character given to paradoxes of opinions
and conduct, zeal for ancient maxims with the rage for establishing novelties, the
obscurity of retreat with the desire to be known by everyone.” 132 The ensuing order
128 These quotes appear in the Extrait des Registres du Parlement , Arrêt de la cour de Parlement , Qui
condamne un Imprimé ayant pour titre Émile , ou de l’Éducation , par J. J. Rousseau , imprimé à La
Hage… M.DCC.LXII ., à être lacéré & brûlé par l’Exécuteur de la Haute Justice . The text is
reproduced in the beginning of Rousseau’s Letter to Beaumont , 1763 edition. See: Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, Citoyen à Genève, à Christophe de Beaumont, Archevêque de Paris, Duc de St. Cloud, Pair
de France, Commandeur de l’Ordre du St. Esprit, Proviseur de Sorbonne, &c . (Amsterdam: Chez
Marc Michel Rey, 1763). See also: CC XI.A254.262-266.
129 Ibid.
130 Ibid.
131 Pastoral Letter of His Grace, the Archbishop of Paris . CW IX.16.
132 Pastoral Letter . CW IX.4.
of contraband reiterated what the Parlement had previously made plain. Emile was a
work deeply threatening to the very fabrics of eighteenth century order. It was
immoral, revolutionary, hateful, and fundamentally wrong . Rousseau’s “paradoxes”
were irresolvable contradictions, the public ravings of a supposedly solitary
individual who evoked traditionalism in the service of its own destruction. They also
carried the stigma of a communicable disease: not only were they offensive, they
would infect the masses with dreams of overthrowing Church and Sovereign alike. A
work of imminent danger, its distribution had to be stopped, its author held
It should now be clear why Maurice Cranston describes, without exaggeration,
this latter third of Jean-Jacques’ life as a period of “exile and adversity.” 133 Woody
Allen once dubbed paranoia another word for realism; for Rousseau, the hostile
suspicion which swelled within him after 1762 was rooted in an all-too-real
persecution waged on theological, political and intellectual fronts.
Given this turn of events, Rousseau’s request of pardon in Emile seems
particularly prescient and all the more compelling. As contemporary readers armed
with historical hindsight, we are surely poised to grant him reprieve. Still, before
doing so we must answer two questions: what, specifically, were the theological and
political paradoxes put forth, and why were they necessary to his thought, as he so
forthrightly claimed?
* * * * *
133 Cranston, The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity .
Emile holds the dubious distinction of being Rousseau’s most controversial
book. Burned and banned for impiousness in 1762, critics were especially incensed
by its third-person Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar . A substantial section of
Book IV, this deistic sermon preached two particularly unpopular paradoxes: the
pressing need for religious tolerance, and the Pelagian heresy that man was naturally
innocent. If these proved to be Rousseau’s most threatening ideas, their exposition
was not without precedent. He had argued analogous points eight years prior in the
Discourse on Inequality . Presented as searing socio-political critique, Rousseau’s
Second Discourse tempered a deeply critical genealogy of human history with the
radical optimism of a doctrine of natural goodness.
Even then, Rousseau understood the dangers in making such claims. He
began the Discourse with a declaration of courage: the questions raised within its
pages were “not proposed by those who are afraid of honoring the truth.” 134 The
Genevan had no such fear; but to honor veritas , he first abandoned the facts. 135
Without a hint of irony, he urged his readers to follow him, to
begin by setting all the facts aside, for they do not affect the question.
The Researches which can be undertaken concerning this Subject must
not be taken for historical truths, but only for hypothetical and
conditional reasonings better suited to clarify the Nature of things than
to show their genuine origin. 136
Rousseau’s logic here offers yet another paradox, a rejoinder to the scientific method
popularized by his Enlightenment peers. But it also reflects a methodology privileged
134 Second Discourse . CW III.18; OC III.131.
135 By contrast, Bloom writes that in Emile , “Rousseau banishes poetry altogether and suppresses all
lies.” (E 8) As noted above, this is not entirely accurate. Rousseau was, indeed, a self-proclaimed
“friend of truth.” But his relationship with the arts and fiction reflects deep ambivalence rather than
categorical condemnation. Rousseau clearly appreciates arts which serve a specific social function
(such as the education of virtue).
136 Second Discourse . CW III.19; OC III.132-133.
throughout his works: namely, the use of subjective memory in writing political
philosophy. The clearest example is that of his autobiography. Halfway through the
text Rousseau himself reminded us that the “first part [of The Confessions ] was
written entirely from memory and I must have made many errors in it. Forced to
write the second from memory also, I will probably make many more.” 137 Recent
scholarship has confirmed greater historical accuracy than Jean-Jacques would have
us believe, yet the discrepancies to which he drew our attention have been verified. 138
Even more dramatically, scholars have described in detail the dissonance between
Rousseau’s ideal vision of Geneva and the city in practice in works such as Letters
Written From the Mountain , Letter to d’Alembert , La Nouvelle Héloïse, and the
dedicatory epistle to the Second Discourse . 139
For Rousseau, these inaccuracies actually served a distinct purpose. As he
reiterated in Emile , facts are not always useful in teaching virtue. He gleaned this
lesson from ancient Pagan histories, epic works of men like Plutarch “filled with
views which one could use even if the facts which present them were false.” 140
age, by contrast, ignored the vitality of this lesson. “Critical erudition absorbs
everything, as if it were very important whether a fact is true, provided that a useful
teaching can be drawn from it.” 141 In their haste to compile and systematize
knowledge, the encyclopedic lumières discounted the pedagogical value of fabled
137 The Confessions . CW V.233; OC I.277.
138 By far the most impressive of such efforts is Raymond Trousson and Frédéric S. Eigeldinger,
Rousseau au jour le jour: Chronologie . Although certainly not aligned with the spirit Rousseau here
articulates, the Chronologie is a remarkable feat of scholarship tracing nearly every day in the life of
Jean-Jacques, and detailing what he did, where he went, and with whom he corresponded.
139 See: Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy , pp. 93-96; Benjamin Barber, “How Swiss is
Rousseau?” Political Theory , Vol. 13, No. 4, November 1985.
140 Emile . E 156; OC IV.415.
141 Emile . E 156; OC IV.415.
histories. Unlike the dissemination of cold facts, tales of glorious deeds—of Spartan
rigor, of Robinson Crusoe’s self-sufficiency 142 —serve the most noble of aims: they
lead by example, allowing us to revel in reveries of greatness. “Critical erudition”
might enhance our knowledge of science or refine philosophic discourse, but it
contributes little to the subject of instituting virtue amongst individuals in a corrupted
society. 143
Such was the scope of Rousseau’s ambition. By his own admission, education
had less to do with child-rearing than the pursuit of a more enlightened social order.
Rousseau reiterated this point in the Letters Written From the Mountain , insisting that
“[i]t is a question of a new system of education the plan of which I offer to the
examination of the wise, and not of a method for fathers and mothers, about which I
never dreamed.” 144
Emile —like Plato’s Republic —taught us how to reclaim virtue amidst a
society in decline. Rousseau pointed us towards this very connection in Book I: “Do
you want to get an idea of public education? Read Plato’s Republic . It is not at all a
political work, as think those who judge books only by their titles. It is the most
142 Rousseau makes countless glowing references to Sparta throughout his works. Robinson Crusoe ,
the story of solitary virtue par excellence , is the first and only book Emile reads: “Since we absolutely
must have books, there exists one which, to my taste, provides the most felicitous treatise on natural
education. This book will be the first that my Emile will read… What, them, is this marvelous book?
Is it Aristotle? Is it Pliny? Is it Buffon? No. It is Robinson Crusoe .” E 184; OC IV.454-455.
143 Rousseau uses this standard of general merit in his own defense in Letters Written From the
Mountain . “My God, what would happen if, in a great work full of useful truths, lessons of humanity,
piety, and virtue, one was allowed to go looking with a malicious precision for all the errors, all the
equivocal, suspect, or ill-considered propositions, all the inconsistencies that amid the detail can elude
an Author overburdened with his material, overwhelmed by the numerous ideas it suggests to him,
distracted from some by the others, and who can hardly assemble in his head all the parts of his vast
plan?” Even the Gospel, Rousseau concludes, would fare poorly in the face of such “slanderous
analysis.” CW IX.150-151; OC III.708-709. From a moral standpoint, intent is more significant than
execution. As Rousseau writes in the Reveries (Fourth Promenade), “Only the intention of the speaker
gives them their worth and determines their degree of malice or goodness.” CW VIII.32; OC I.1029.
144 Letters Written From the Mountain (Fifth Letter). CW IX.211; OC III.783.
beautiful educational treatise ever written.” 145 As in Emile , Plato presented a model
of how to live virtuously. And like Rousseau, he employed myth to teach this
difficult lesson. 146
Methodology notwithstanding, Socrates opened Book X of the Republic by
emphasizing the dangers of poetry. Poesis , he reminded us, was misleading; it
provided only seductive simulacrums of ideal forms. Even the works of “tragic
poets… seem to maim the thought of those who hear them and do not as a remedy
have the knowledge of how they really are.” 147 Socrates’ objection echoed his belief
that philosophers must always prefer true wisdom to a pale or distorted shade;
anything less, particularly an imitative art, distracts us from our pursuit of the good.
For Socrates, “[t]he maker of the phantom, the imitator” was essentially
superficial; he “understands nothing of what is but rather of what looks like it is.” 148
Imitation was a form of “wizardry”; it ruled from the throne of doxa , tended towards
imprudence, and reflected a fundamental disunity of the soul (the dissonance between
reality and appearance). 149 Poetry was also dangerous because it unleashed excessive
spiritedness: “we give ourselves over to following the imitation; suffering along with
145 Emile . E 40.
146 In the Laws , Plato’s Athenian counters those who “opine that the gods exist, but scorn and neglect
human affairs.” (900b) Against “him who loves to censure the gods for neglect,” he first uses force
before conceding that “he needs also, as it seems to me, some words of counsel to act as a charm upon
him.” (903b) To do so, the Athenian evokes Odysseus and the myth of transported souls to illustrate
his lesson. Myth here plays a vital role in the philosophic education, persuading where force alone
cannot. (903b-905d) See: Plato, Laws , R. G. Bury, tr. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926),
pp. 353, 363-371. See also: Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy , pp. 92-104.
147 The Republic X.595b. (Bloom 277) All quotes are taken from: Plato, The Republic of Plato , Second
Edition , Allan Bloom, tr. (New York: Basic Books, 1968 & 1991).
148 The Republic X.601b (Bloom 284).
149 See: The Republic X.602d, 603a-c. (Bloom 285-287).
the hero in all seriousness, we praise as a good poet the man who most puts us in this
state.” 150
The Athenian sage seemed to draw a Manichaean line. Yet immediately after,
he introduces Homer 151 as neither a philosopher nor an imitator, but a class in-
between “able to recognize what sorts of practices make human beings better or
worse in private and in public.” 152 Homer is redeemed from the status of phantom-
menace because he both understood and taught virtuous conduct: “it is told that
Homer, while he was himself alive, was in private a leader for education for certain
men who cherished him for his intercourse and handed down a certain Homeric way
of life to those who came after.” 153 His art possessed normative value because it
lighted the path to pursue higher goods.
Rousseau’s simultaneous (and at face value, awkward) embrace of truth and
‘dismissal’ of facts fulfils a similar purpose. For Rousseau, pseudo-fictionalized
histories conjured visions of possible virtue unrealized in his modern world. Tales of
inspired heroism, epic wisdom, or ideal polities offered heuristic models that both
inspired appreciation and urged action. 154
Socrates—and, for that matter, the poetic Plato—demonstrated this dynamic
by evoking the myth of Er. The latter part of Republic’s Book X recounts this fable
150 The Republic X.605d (Bloom 289).
151 This follows Socrates’ condemnation of Homer in Book II: “we mustn’t accept Homer’s—or any
other poet’s—foolishly making this mistake about the gods” being “the cause of everything” for
humans. See: The Republic II.379c-d (Bloom 57).
152 The Republic X.599d (Bloom 282).
153 Plato adds that “Pythagoras himself was particularly cherished for this reason, and his successors
even now still give Pythagoras’ name to a way of life that makes them seem somehow outstanding
among men.” The Republic X.600a (Bloom 283).
154 Furthermore, Rousseau believes such fictions to possess meaningful truths. “Fictions which have a
moral purpose are called allegories or fables; and as their purpose is or ought to be only to wrap useful
truths in easily perceived and pleasing forms, in such cases we hardly care about hiding the de facto
lie, which is only the cloak of truth; and he who merely sets forth a fable as a fable in no way lies.”
Reveries (Fourth Promenade). CW VIII.32; OC I.1029.
of a warrior’s descent into a demonic place where souls must choose hosts to inhabit.
Odysseus, remembering the honor of past deeds, wisely claims “the life of a private
man who minds his own business.” 155 This story is one of redemption that
demonstrates through allegory the significance of sound judgment in both this and the
next life. 156 Socrates’ company learns a persuasive lesson of agency—“[t]he blame
belongs to him who chooses, god is blameless” 157 —and are reminded of mankind’s
challenge “always to choose the better from among those that are possible.” 158 In so
doing, Odysseus demonstrates the practical benefits of wisdom and the eternal
repercussions of choice.
Regardless of the facts, the myth is useful if the lesson holds. As Socrates
tells Glaucon, “a tale was saved and not lost; and it could save us, if we were
persuaded by it, and we shall make a good crossing of the river of Lethe and not
defile our soul.” 159 Rousseau was perhaps more concerned with this life than the
next, 160 but the point he undoubtedly drew from the Republic stands: parable can offer
a powerful tool of learning. 161
Unlike poetry for Plato, or theater and the hollow speech of philosophes , Jean-
Jacque’s historical conjecture serves a practical and virtuous aim: an education
committed to social transformation. Reverie acts as a heuristic device, a pseudo-
fictional means of posing both clear and present problems (our history of decline) and
155 The Republic X 620c (Bloom 303).
156 It is worth noting that Rousseau also accepted the immortality of the soul.
157 The Republic X.617e (Bloom 300).
158 The Republic X.618b-c (Bloom 301).
159 The Republic X.621b-c (Bloom 303).
160 We must, however, bear in mind that Rousseau placed increasing faith in future redemption as the
persecution of his works and person increased: in an afterlife, in the annals of history, from readers.
As we will later see, this was particularly evident in his posthumously-published Reveries .
161 Readers should compare this position to Rousseau’s assessment of the arts in his Letter to
d’Alembert and the First Discourse ..
viable solutions (sociopolitical reform). Epic histories encourage a process of
discovery and improvement by painting vivid canvasses of how life might have been
and how it ought to be . In Rousseau’s own works, this dual purpose serves a single
end: teaching humankind to enact a better future as both individuals and citizens. 162
As he writes near the end of Emile , if “[t]he golden age is treated as a chimera,…
What, then, would be required to give it a new birth? One single but impossible
thing: to love it.” 163 Such love—of our fellow citizens, of society, of mankind’s
future—begins precisely with the courage to dream the virtuous dream.
At this point, skeptical readers may charge Rousseau with the very crimes he
imputes to theologians and academicians. If his philosophical musings indeed present
“a reality to be encountered, experienced, and savored,” 164 why are they not also
guilty of vain or misguided perfectionism? The answer lies in an indelicate balance.
If Rousseau embraces myth as a form of pedagogy, his idealized images—of Geneva,
162 Judith Shklar takes a grim view of Rousseau’s worldview, one which she believes “offers no
occasion for happiness or civic virtue.” Shklar ends her book with this overstatement: “When he
called upon his readers to choose between man and the citizen he was forcing them to face the moral
realities of social life. They were asked, in fact, not to choose, but to recognize that the choice was
impossible, and that they were not and would never become either men or citizens.” (p. 214) This is
misleading in two significant ways. First, Rousseau’s concept of moral individualism is coterminous
with society in the sense that morality is nonexistent in the state of nature. The duties and relations
born of citizenship constrict and pervert individual goodness, particularly in large cosmopolitan cities
such as Athens and Paris. But Rousseau’s vision of virtue also finds fruition within societies—whether
those of quaint Geneva, or the self-contained community under Wolmar’s watchful eye (in Julie ), or
through the general will. His attempt to apply The Social Contract to the politically-challenged nation
of Poland also illustrates an effort to institute a greater measure of virtue under less-than-ideal
conditions. Still, in her Appendix , Shklar notes the dismal failures of Emile and Sophie to reenter
society in Les Solitaires : “The happy end of Emile is false,… and Emile’s character cannot reveal itself
until he really becomes a man, that is, a suffering victim.” (p. 235) Again, it is hard to argue against
the extreme difficulty of living virtuously within society. It is quite another thing to take this as
evidence that Rousseau condemns the human condition to one of permanent, necessary suffering. At
the very least, readers must reconcile this conclusion with the abject optimism of his Pelagianism, and
the sincerity of his efforts to promote political reform. If this tension is irreconcilable, it still suggests
Rousseau is a dialectician rather than an abject pessimist. See: Shklar, Men and Citizens . For a more
balanced assessment of Rousseau’s sense of futility as an idea later adopted by nineteenth-century
conservatives, see: Starobinski, p. 100.
163 Emile . E 474.
164 Barber, “How Swiss is Rousseau?” p. 477
of Poland, of society—are always moderated by blunt honesty. The Church demands
abject deference. Philosophy cultivates egregious hubris. Rousseau’s worldview, by
contrast, combines both critical realism and active idealism; he worked within the
boundaries of the actual in outlining the horizons of the possible. This is why Poland
may yet democratize, even though the nation fulfilled so few of the essential tenets
outlined in The Social Contract . This is why theater—so deadly a threat to virtuous
Geneva—must be accepted in cosmopolitan Paris, a city already given to sin. As for
society, he writes to Voltaire, “a time comes when the evil is such that the very causes
that gave birth to it are necessary to prevent it from becoming larger. It is the sword
that must be left in the wound for fear that the wounded person will die when it is
removed.” 165 In dreaming of a better future, Rousseau is always nagged by this
sword in his side.
This is not simply dramatic overstatement; virtuous reform necessarily begins
with such an honest awareness of man as he is . As described in the preface to the
Second Discourse , “[t]he most useful and least advanced of all human knowledge
seems to me to be that of man; and I dare say that the inscription of the Temple of
Delphi alone contained a Precept more important and more difficult than all the thick
Volumes of the Moralists.” 166 Know thyself! Political philosophers must invoke the
Oracle’s inscription. 167 As with Socrates, wise or useful speculation proceeds only
from self-knowledge. 168 It is from this understanding of the “very Nature of man,…
165 Réponse à Voltaire , September 10, 1755. CW III.106; OC 227.
166 Preface to the Second Discourse . CW III.12; OC III.122.
167 Readers should consult Socrates’ description of the Delphic injunction in Apology 20D-22E. See:
Plato, The Last Days of Socrates , pp. 49-51.
168 By contrast, Tracy Strong argues that for Rousseau it is “precisely ‘becoming someone else’ that
enables him to know himself.” “The purpose of knowing himself is not in the end self -knowledge,”
but a means of painting “a portrait of himself as he is, as a human being… [that] will then be available
his constitution and his state, that the principles of that science [of natural right] must
be deduced.” 169 Likewise, as Rousseau later asserts in the Social Contract , only by
understanding “men as they are” might we deduce “laws as they can be.” 170
No mean feat, studying man involves a good deal of conjecture. Philosophers
possess a meager understanding of nature, and “one notes the little agreement which
prevails on this important matter among the various Authors who have discussed
it.” 171 Yet neither this lack of consensus, nor the difficulty of the enterprise, deterred
Rousseau. As he wrote in the Preface to the Second Discourse ,
The same study of original man, of his true needs, and of the
fundamental principles of his duties, is also the only good means one
could use to remove those crowds of difficulties which present
themselves concerning the origin of moral inequality, the true
foundations of the Body politic, the reciprocal rights of its members,
and a thousand similar questions as important as they are ill
explained. 172
Genealogy, we are reminded, is an essentially negative enterprise. It looks backwards
and reveals problems, as in Nietzsche’s exposé of Judeo-Christian morality and
Foucault’s histories of punishment and sexuality. 173 For Rousseau, genealogy is also
to others.” Strong uses this argument to debunk the possible conclusion that Rousseau is engaging in a
precursory form of identity politics. Perhaps. But as I argue here, self-knowledge is a necessary
starting point for species-knowledge, without which prescriptive politics are untenable. Rousseau’s
image of himself certainly provides a pedagogical model for others. Yet structurally, in the Second
Discourse for example, self-knowledge precedes the transformation of society (the phenomenon
Strong labels “becoming someone else”). Simply put, to envision reform, we must first understand the
subject of reform. For Rousseau, this clarity begins with following the Delphic injunction. See: Tracy
B. Strong, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Politics of the Ordinary , New Edition . (Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), p. 17.
169 Preface to the Second Discourse . CW III.13; OC.III.124.
170 The Social Contract . CW IV.131; OC III.351.
171 Preface to the Second Discourse . CW III.13; OC III.124.
172 Preface to the Second Discourse . CW III.15; OC III.126.
173 See: Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo , Walter Kaufmann and R.J.
Hollingdale, tr. (New York: Random House, 1967); Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth
of the Prison , Alan Sheridan, tr. (New York: Random House, 1979); Foucault, The History of
Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction , Robert Hurley, tr. (New York: Random House, 1978).
practical and prescriptive. 174 Exploring our origins and development allows us to
contrast our unfettered selves in nature with our denatured political identities. In turn,
we can define and distinguish between natural and political rights, natural freedoms
and political obligation. Virtuous political reform demands understanding our present
woes, which logically follows the study of our physical, social and moral
evolution. 175
There is an additional motive at play in Rousseau’s use of speculative history,
one that returns us to the problem of paradox. In his narrative of the fall, he
challenged the Christian ontology of Original Sin as a false opinion. To pacify an
audience which accepted Adam’s legacy as gospel truth, Rousseau qualified his
counter-narrative as conjecture. As he described,
Religion commands us to believe that since God Himself took Men out
of the state of Nature immediately after creation, they are unequal
because He wanted them to be so; but it does not forbid us to form
conjectures, drawn solely from the nature of man and the Beings
surrounding him, about what the human Race might have become if it
had remained abandoned to itself. 176
Rousseau here understood “religion” as Christianity. Scripture taught us that God
banished man from Eden. Our fall was our fault, the result of a sinfully curious (and
174 Interestingly, Robert Nozick—whose worldview is fairly categorized as antithetical to Rousseau’s
own—makes a similar claim. As Nozick argues, “State-of-nature explanations of the political realm
are fundamental potential explanations of this realm, and pack explanatory punch and illumination,
even if incorrect.” Additionally, “We learn much by seeing how the state could have arisen, even if it
didn’t arise that way. If it didn’t arise that way, we would also learn much by determining why it
didn’t; by trying to explain why the particular bit of the real world that diverges from the state-of-
nature model is as it is.” As with Rousseau, Nozick’s endeavor is not, by his own description,
necessarily accurate. A state-of-nature argument may not explain every event in the real world.
Actual events may well deviate from this theoretical model. But even if nature and state, theory and
event, follow divergent paths, investigating this schism is itself revealing, and necessary in defining the
state’s legitimacy. See Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia . (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1974), pp.
4, 6, 8-9.
175 As Rousseau writes in The Confessions , “[t]o establish the duties of man one must go back to their
principle.” CW V.77; OC I.91.
176 Second Discourse . CW III.19; OC III.133.
curiously sinful) nature, and the imperfection of our less-than-divine, errant free will.
Yet because God crafted us, this fateful descent conformed to His divine design.
Papal logic therefore placed Original Sin above reproach; challenging the notion was
tantamount to attacking the will of the “Author of all things.” Undeterred, Rousseau
identified a loophole. This doctrine of Original Sin came from Scripture as
interpreted by man . As another mere mortal, was he not also free to speculate? Was
this not the very enterprise undertaken by the Church itself in cultivating such myths?
And if freed from the punitive fable of a vengeful God, he wondered, what might we
look like? How might we shape our future, and wherein lies the key to our
For starters, we must redress the guilt of crimes imputed to us by the Christian
narrative. It is precisely on this point of intrinsic goodness that papists and
philosophers have erred. Hobbes, for example, incorrectly concluded that “because
man has no idea of goodness [in the state of nature] he is naturally evil; that he is
vicious because he does not know virtue.” 177 In typically paradoxical fashion,
Rousseau argued precisely the contrary, outlining his first concise doctrine of natural
goodness. This goodness is defined by its innocence, sheltered in a natural state from
the pernicious effects of society and social interactions. In this pre-moral, pre-human
state, envy, hubris, and the most destructive human passions have yet to be born. We
feel only simple amour-de-soi and pitié .
Pitié , a “natural feeling,” fulfills several functions: it
contributes to the mutual preservation of the entire species. It carries
us to the aid of those whom we see suffer; in the state of Nature, it
177 This is a slightly misleading description of Hobbes, for whom man in nature was morally neutral
and aggressively self-interested. Second Discourse . CW III.35; OC III.153.
takes the place of Laws, morals, and virtue, with the advantage that no
one is tempted to disobey its gentle voice; it will deter every robust
Savage from robbing a weak child or an infirm old man of his hard-
won subsistence if he himself hopes to be able to find his own
elsewhere. 178
The Hobbesian state of nature portrayed a war of all-against-all waged by calculating,
rationally self-interested individuals. 179 For Rousseau, Hobbes’ confusion was
conceptual. He imputed denatured developmental faculties (reason, avarice) to
natural creatures. Our natural state was plagued by none of these vices. More
precisely, vice ( and virtue) followed societal development, particularly civic
interactions, mores, and laws. Rousseau’s depiction of the natural state was by
contrast a benign condition of individuals characterized by instinctual self-
preservation ( amour-de-soi ), and bound by an innate recognition of interdependence,
the intuition that survival is somehow linked to that of one’s fellow creatures ( pitié ).
Rousseau gleaned a golden rule from these concepts, one that supplanted “that
sublime maxim of reasoned justice, Do unto others as you would have them do unto
you ” with “this other maxim of natural goodness, much less perfect but perhaps more
useful than the preceding one: Do what is good for you with the least possible harm to
others .” 180 We possess natural sentiments of both self-preservation and
connectedness to our species. This combination of amour-de-soi and pitié provides a
178 Second Discourse . CW.III.37; OC.III.156.
179 From De Cive , Chapter I, “In men’s mutual fear,” §12: “…it cannot be denied that men’s natural
state, before they came together into society, was War; and not simply war, but a war of every man
against every man.” Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen , Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne, trs.
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 29. From Leviathan , Part I, Chapter 13: “Hereby
it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are
in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as if of every man, against every man.”
Hobbes, Leviathan , Revised Edition , Richard Tuck, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1996), p. 88.
180 Second Discourse . CW III.37-38; OC III.156.
pre-moral code which, unlike juridical law, we instinctively obey to mutually
beneficial results.
“In a word,” Rousseau argued, “it is this Natural feeling, rather than in subtle
arguments, that we must seek the cause of the repugnance every man would feel in
doing evil.” 181 The evidence of our capacity to cohabitate lies inscribed in our very
natures. Where a justification based upon “subtle argumentation” requires reason and
reflection, Rousseau’s proofs were unmediated by the intellect. His argument speaks
directly to our hearts, and may be confirmed by the mind. It intuitively makes sense .
And it assumes, of course, that humankind is not sinful by nature.
Long before the Savoyard Vicar , then, Rousseau was preaching a form of
Pelagianism. 182 His vision of reform—of creating more virtuous bonds in an
unnatural world, thereby reinstituting our natural freedom—presupposed this positive
foundation of natural goodness. Freed from Adam’s legacy, we might drastically
improve our fates; an innocent nature suggested nothing less. This assertion that
untainted by society, we would seek what is best for ourselves and those around us,
therefore preceded the more explicit denial of Original Sin found in Emile . But the
essential charge remained: the problem of vice is social, and therefore of man’s
making, not ontological, or of God’s making. Adam’s legacy was swiftly debunked,
replaced by an unnecessarily self-incurred fall.
Vice came from without, from the advent of social relations in denatured
societies. How, then, did society emerge? 183 Humankind, increasing in numbers,
aligned in herds, free associations held together by passing needs, limited obligations,
181 Second Discourse . CW III.38; OC III.156.
182 For a further discussion of this connection see Chapter 3 below.
183 For Rousseau’s full account see: Second Discourse , CW III.43-55; OC III.164-179.
and immediate interests. From this occurred the “first revolution”: the familial unit,
where language and conjugal love develop. Families over time evolved into tribes,
which in turn gave rise to social distinctions and morality, virtue and vice. The
turning point occurred when “[t]he first person who, having fenced off a plot of
ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to
believe him.” 184 This concept of private property, the true foundation of civil society
and an idea born slowly over time, led us to “forget that the fruits belong to all and
the Earth to no one.” 185 It also transformed natural inequalities into social
inequalities. The stronger and the smarter, for example, used these natural benefits to
acquire property, and establish and secure social institutions that privileged the fruits
of their labors. The dangerous pride of possessive self-interest subsequently took
root, and the rest, as they say, is history—woeful, at that.
Rousseau’s narrative was received by many as the pessimistic polemic of a
deranged luddite. Prodded by his paradoxes, people not only vilified the Genevan;
they also misread him. He was most commonly charged with promoting a retarding
socialism, with seeking to send us back to egalitarian nature, tails between our legs.
As Voltaire put it, “[o]ne acquires the desire to walk on all fours when one reads your
work.” 186 But Rousseau’s ideas were far more threatening. In an age of progress and
perfectionism, he dared to propose that human development had ambivalent
consequences. To Christian nations, he had the temerity to reject Original Sin. And
against the upper classes, he attacked property generally and vested interests
specifically. His pessimism and optimism alike were affronts to the age.
184 Second Discourse . CW III.43; OC III.164.
185 Second Discourse . CW III.43; OC III.164.
186 Letter from Voltaire to Rousseau (August 30, 1755). CW III.102; CC III.317.157.
Rousseau made plain that humankind neither should nor can (by definition)
return to a pre-human existence. We might and must , however, redirect the miserable
course of our history. We must redouble our efforts not on an impossible return, but
on social solutions which redeem and protect natural freedom and goodness, while
correcting the damage wrought of artificial inequalities.
* * * * *
If history offers any indication, the odds of success seem unlikely. After all,
our fall was steady and precipitous; reversing this trend requires nothing less than
social reformation. On these points, the Second Discourse is unequivocal.
Redressing our self-incurred wrongs calls for a radical reeducation, a pedagogy which
both inures us to and recasts the social relationships which subject our freedom to the
tyrannies of inequality and opinion.
It is thus that Rousseau’s educational treatise necessarily employs paradox.
Not only does he challenge the educational paradigms of his age, he questions the
very mechanisms of society, the very essence of contemporary opinion. Chained by
adverse attachments and desires, individuals might reclaim their natural goodness
only by first resisting the coercive pull of social relations. To reverse our fall we
must strike at the heart of our misery, challenging opinions such as Original Sin
(which leave us hopelessly at God’s post-mortem mercy), but also the opinions of our
fellow creatures (which cultivate perverse passions and destructive desires).
If The Social Contract envisioned a good society to promote natural goodness,
Emile wondered how individuals may preserve their goodness in a bad society. We
quickly learn that the well-educated individual—one raised in accord with nature—
must be sheltered from harmful influence. As Rousseau advised in Book II of Emile ,
“the first education ought to be purely negative. It consists not at all in teaching
virtue or truth but in securing the heart from vice and the mind from error.” 187
Education is negative in the defensive sense: it guards individuals against external
corruption. Such resistance is possible only if we allow children to develop their
natural instinct and judgment. “Reason alone teaches us to know good and bad,”
Rousseau writes. “Conscience, which makes us love the former and hate the latter,
although independent of reason, cannot therefore be developed without it.” 188
Conscience (emotion and will), not reason (mind and intellect) provides humankind
with a natural moral compass. 189 As the Vicar reminds, “I have only to consult
myself about what I want to do. Everything I sense to be good is good; everything I
sense to be bad is bad.” 190 Conscience, that “innate principle of justice and virtue
according to which, in spite of our own maxims, we judge our actions and those of
others as good or bad,” 191 is nonetheless
timid; it likes refuge and peace. The world and noise scare it; the
prejudices from which they claim it is born are its cruelest enemies. It
flees or keeps quiet before them. Their noisy voices stifle its voice and
prevent it from making itself heard. Fanaticism dares to counterfeit it
and to dictate crime in its name. It finally gives up as a result of being
dismissed.” 192
187 Emile . E 93.
188 Emile . E 67.
189 In this, Rousseau follows a classically voluntarist trope which identifies the will (and not the
intellect) as humankind’s most Divine faculty.
190 Emile . E 286.
191 Emile . E 289.
192 Emile . E 291.
If Rousseau presupposed human goodness, he also assumed society’s perverseness.
Conscience, a timid woodland creature, must therefore be nurtured in nature away
from the prejudices of the cruel, noisy world.
Given this corrupting dynamic of social interactions, people require
compelling force to follow their natural instincts. Until they are capable of clear
reasoning and sound judgment, pupils must be unknowing subjects discouraged from
acquiring social attachments. In Rousseau’s ominous words, “Let him always believe
he is the master, and let it always be you who are. There is no subjection so perfect
as that which keeps the appearance of freedom. Thus the will itself is made
captive.” 193
Emile’s positive moral lessons are also drawn in negative terms: “The only
lesson of morality appropriate to childhood, and the most important for every age, is
never to harm anyone.” 194 We have already seen this “golden rule” introduced in the
Second Discourse . In addition, it draws upon a discussion of justice in the Republic
in which Socrates concludes that “it has become apparent to us that it is never just to
harm anyone.” 195 Rousseau also follows Luther, who argued that good works (which
we can control, unlike motives or good faith) are no measure of a grace free of
193 Emile . E 120. Sentences such as these do not help Rousseau’s reputation as a totalitarian thinker.
The tutor-pupil role clearly evokes Antonio Gramsci’s definition of hegemony as a coercive system
strengthened by its insidiousness. In Rousseau’s defense, the control of a young pupil’s will is
necessary for two reasons: first, youth are not yet developmentally capable of sound judgment and self-
rule; and second, his extreme stance is dictated by an extreme situation. Raising people according to
nature while shielding them from society demands holding their uncorrupted wills in captivity. The
Tutor must “force” Emile to be free in order to manipulate his pupil to follow his natural conscience.
Readers should compare this to The Social Contract , I.VII: “whoever refuses to obey the general will
shall be constrained to do so by the entire body; which means only that he will be forced to be free.”
CW IV.141; OC III.364.
194 Emile . E 104.
195 The Republic I.335e (Bloom 13).
contrivance. 196 Good works do not offer a normative moral standard, for “[w]ho does
not do good? Everybody does it—the wicked man as well as others. He makes one
man happy at the expense of making a hundred men miserable; and this is the source
of all our calamities.” 197 What is good for one is not necessarily good for many.
Recalling Rousseau’s study of inequality, this simple reminder reinforces the
dangers of particular self-interest, even when acted upon under the auspices of public
good. The architects of Lisbon, for example, may well have believed that they were
serving society’s best interests in building the eighteenth-century equivalent of sky-
scrapers. But the earthquake of 1755, and the subsequent damage precipitated by the
destruction of such unnatural constructions, multiplied our misery. 198 As such,
Rousseau concludes that caution is sometimes in order. “The most sublime virtues
are negative” because restraint reduces the likelihood that we will harm our
fellows. 199
Finally, even the Savoyard Vicar begins his sermon with a negative lesson. In
matters of speculation he learns “to limit my researches to what was immediately
related to my interest, to leave myself in a profound ignorance of all the rest, and to
worry myself to the point of doubt only about things it was important for me to
196 For Luther, a good heart (not good works) reveals the depth of human faith. If anything, good
works are misleading, allowing those of impure motives an easy way of serving God. Clearly for
Luther, “ease” had no role in true piousness. As he writes in Preface to the Epistle of Saint Paul to the
Romans : “God judges according to your inmost convictions; His law must be fulfilled in your very
heart, and cannot be obeyed if you merely perform certain acts.” And in The Freedom of a Christian :
“Let this suffice concerning the inner man, his liberty, and the source of his liberty, the righteousness
of faith. He needs neither laws nor good works but, on the contrary, is injured by them if he believes
that he is justified by them.” From: Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings , pp. 20, 66-67.
197 Emile . E 105.
198 Readers should consult Pope’s Essay on Man and Voltaire’s Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne .
199 Emile . E 105.
know.” 200 Against the vain grasp of philosophers generally and the dysfunctional
doubt of skeptics specifically, he preaches the practical value of self-imposed limits.
Following these examples, Emile’s tutelage may be described as negative in at
least four respects. First, it reflects a critical assessment of contemporary education.
Second, it understands virtue as a passive value (doing “no harm” rather than doing
“some good”). Third, it describes development as a process of sheltering and
resistance. And fourth, it guards against the cultivation of unnatural desires, urges
defined by the weakness of unnecessary want or perceived lack.
In brief, Emile’s education finds fortitude through resistance. As late as Book
IV Jean-Jacques notes with some satisfaction that “[o]pinion, whose actions [Emile]
sees, has not acquired its empire over him.” 201 Soon after, he writes that “[i]t suffices
that, enclosed in a social whirlpool, [Emile] not let himself get carried away by either
the passions or the opinions of men.” 202 And finally, we are asked “who in the world
is less of an imitator than Emile? Who is less governed by ridicule than the man who
has no prejudices and does not know how to concede anything to those of others?” 203
In other words, who is more immune to the empire of opinion than the Tutor’s prized
Rousseau’s education inures Emile to the opinions of others, and for as long
as possible. But why? Prior to Vicar’s Profession of Faith , he justifies this practice
in terms reminiscent of the Second Discourse’s fall. Amidst a discussion on love,
200 Emile . E 269. Rousseau reiterates this claim (in his “own” voice) in the Reveries . Describing how
he overcame the doubts instilled in him by his philosophe peers which left him “not wiser, more
learned, or of better faith than when I settled all those great questions,” he concludes that “I therefore
limited myself to what was within my reach, without getting myself involved in what went beyond it.”
See: Reveries (Third Promenade). CW VIII.25; OC I.1021-1022.
201 Emile . E 244.
202 Emile . E 255.
203 Emile . E 331.
Rousseau describes the evolution of human attachment. We begin with hearts
naturally overflowing with love, yet lacking companionship. In a desire to secure
reciprocal adoration, we acquire a mistress. This new intimacy in turn creates a
correlative need for friendship. From this apparently harmless (and undoubtedly
natural) pull, we suddenly fall prey to the opinions of others. “With love and
friendship are born dissensions, enmity, and hate. From the bosom of so many
diverse passions I see opinion raising an unshakable throne, and stupid mortals,
subjected to its empire, basing their own existence on the judgment of others.” 204
The turn of events is somewhat shocking. We start, innocently enough, with
pure hearts and motives, and end under the rule of doxa’s “unshakable throne,”
trapped by the attachments to which we were naturally drawn. Here, then, is the
evolution of amour-de-soi to amour-propre described in social terms, with no less
disastrous consequences. To preserve Emile’s freedom and natural goodness, the
Tutor must occlude his reliance upon others. The impressionable youth must rely
upon the singular judgment of his ward until he is capable of self-legislation. He
must be sheltered from society until he is strong enough to resist its pull.
The pupil must also avoid exposure to that which his mind cannot yet
comprehend. This is why the Tutor withholds religion. “I foresee how many readers
will be surprised at seeing me trace the whole first age of my pupil without speaking
to him of religion,” Rousseau writes. “At fifteen he did not know whether he had a
soul. And perhaps at eighteen it is not yet time to learn it; for if he learns it sooner
than he ought, he runs the risk of never knowing it.” 205 The argument is logistical,
204 Emile . E 215.
205 Emile . E 257.
not theological. Children are not developmentally capable of understanding religion,
any more than they are capable of fine reasoning or self-rule. Rousseau therefore
does “not see what is gained by teaching [catechisms] to children, unless it be that
they learn how to lie early.” 206 The mysteries of God and divinity are lost on youth
for whom, “[a]t the age when everything is mystery, there are no mysteries strictly
speaking.” 207 If “[t]he obligation to believe assumes the possibility of doing so,”
children are simply not able. 208
Where the Second Discourse painted in broad, sweeping strokes, Emile is
much more specific. The Church requires children to learn lessons contrary to
nature. 209 It inundates pupils with ideas which they cannot yet comprehend. This
emphasis on rote repetition reflects a more significant problem: by privileging their
own hollow platitudes, the Church fails to cultivate genuine faith. If “[i]t is especially
in matters of religion that opinion triumphs,” there is no greater culprit than a Church
whose righteous opinions take the dangerous form of aggressively intolerant
gospel. 210
By Rousseau’s description, papists also ground their authority on a tautology:
“The Church decides that the Church has the right to decide.” 211 The certainty of
their judgment is matched only by the circularity of their logic. More dangerously,
the dogmatism of this conviction breeds despotic conformity. Presaging Rousseau’s
own censure, the Vicar asks “what is there to do? If someone dared to publish among
206 Emile . E 257.
207 Emile . E 257.
208 Emile . E 257.
209 Given Rousseau’s description of nature as a product (and reflection) of the divine will, this also
represented an offense against God.
210 Emile . E 260.
211 Emile . E 304.
us books in which Judaism were openly favored, we would punish the author, the
publisher, the bookseller. This is a convenient and sure policy for always being right.
There is a pleasure in refuting people who do not dare to speak.” 212
Rousseau was no deliberative democrat, as the Social Contract makes clear. 213
But neither was he a totalitarian. 214 The general will is by definition the will shared
by all in common, not the will imposed upon us from above. By contrast, the Church
would have us believe that they alone possess true faith, and criminalize opposing
visions. But if we simply look around us, piety is evident in all peoples. “Cast your
eyes on all the nations of the world, go through all the histories,” the Vicar urges.
“Among so many inhuman and bizarre cults, among this prodigious diversity of
morals and characters, you will find everywhere the same ideas of justice and
decency, everywhere the same notions of good and bad.” 215 Even in Pagan cultures
has “[t]he holy voice of nature, stronger than that of the gods, made itself respected
212 Emile . E 303-304. In an author’s note, Rousseau earlier takes the Stoics to task for similarly
discounting the value of discussion: “Plutarch reports that the Stoics maintained, among other bizarre
paradoxes, that in an adversary proceeding it was useless to hear the two parties.” (E 302n) The
reference is to Plutarch’s essay “On Stoic Self-Contradictions,” 1034E: “Against him who said / Nor
give your verdict till you’ve heard both sides / Zeno asserted the contrary with an argument something
like this: The second speaker must not be heard whether the former speaker proved his case (for then
the inquiry is at an end) or did not prove it (for that is tantamount to his not having appeared when
summoned or to having responded to the summons with mere gibberish); but either he proved his case
or he did not prove it; therefore, the second speaker must not be heard. After he had propounded this
argument, however, he continued to write against Plato’s Republic, to refute sophisms, and to bid his
pupils to learn dialectic on the ground that it enables one to do this. Yet either Plato proved or did not
prove what is in the Republic, and either way it was not necessary but was utterly superfluous and vain
to write against it. The same thing can be said about sophisms also.” See: Plutarch, Moralia: Volume
XIII, Part II , Harold Cherniss, tr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), pp. 427 & 429.
213 See: The Social Contract Book II, Chapter 3, “Whether the General Will Can Err.”
214 For “totalitarian” critiques of Rousseau see: Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy ;
Crocker, Rousseau’s Social Contract ; Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty ; Huizinga, The Self Made Saint .
Arthur M. Melzer also argues that Rousseau promotes an “antiliberal” democracy “not to establish, but
to eliminate men’s rights against the state. All private, natural rights are to be totally alienated in
exchange for political rights, for a share in control over the absolute and unlimited state.” At the very
least, this reading misappropriates Rousseau’s strict division between general (public) and particular
(private) rights, and obscures his definition of the general will as the will that each individual shares in
common. See: The Natural Goodness of Man , p. 109.
215 Emile . E 288.
on earth and seemed to regulate crime, along with the guilty, to heaven.” 216 Well
before the Church, reverence of nature—much like pitié and more than polytheism—
served a normative social function in the form of a regulative moral code. Its
authority was rooted not in the sophistication of human reasoning, but in a simple
appreciation of the natural world order. It is in such divine—not human—creations
that we may find evidence of the “Author of all things,” and glean necessary
inspiration from His perfection.
By forcing us to comply to their mediated vision, Christians ironically debase
faith and breed intolerance. Speaking on salvation, the Vicar explains: “ You must
believe in God to be saved . This dogma badly understood is the principle of
sanguinary intolerance and the cause of all those vain instructions that strike a fatal
blow to human reason in accustoming it to satisfy itself with words.” 217 But
salvation, like true piety, is more than a matter of rote repetition: “if in order to obtain
it, it is enough to repeat certain words, I do not see what prevents us from peopling
heaven with starlings and magpies just as well as with children.” 218
If the Church parades dogma as spirituality, reduces worship to compulsory
recitation, and peddles it to unawares, what is Rousseau’s alternative vision of true
religion? What is genuine faith? It appears as a form of both rational appreciation
and an awareness of the limitations of human reason: appreciating God’s creation,
and accepting the incomprehensible wisdom of his order. As the Vicar expounds,
216 Emile . E 288-289.
217 Emile . E 257.
218 Emile . E 257. For a similar argument, readers should also consult Montaigne’s Of Pedantry in The
Complete Essays of Montaigne , Donald M. Frame, tr. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), pp.
The greatest ideas of the divinity come to us from reason alone. View
the spectacle of nature; hear the inner voice. Has God not told
everything to our eyes, to our conscience, to our judgment? What
more will men tell us? Their revelations have only the effect of
degrading God by giving Him human passions. I see that particular
dogmas, far from clarifying the notions of the great Being, confuse
them; that far from ennobling them, they debase them; that to the
inconceivable mysteries surrounding the great Being they add absurd
contradictions; that they make man proud, intolerant, and cruel; that,
instead of establishing peace on earth, they bring sword and fire to it. I
ask myself what good all this does, without knowing what to answer. I
see in it only the crimes of men and the miseries of mankind. 219
Teaching by negation, we learn that religion is not a particularly misguided vision of
God. It is not the imposition of human passions upon a Being surely devoid of these
qualities. If the Author of all things is characterized by immaculate order,
contradictions and confusions do not describe him. If he is a wise, benevolent deity
who loves his creations, his worship should not facilitate cruel intolerance. To
understand religion we must first reject the dogmas preached by an historically
violent church and look to nature, whose wonder and coherent order is a clearer
testament of God’s grace than any catechism.
Although spoken by the Vicar, the charge reveals themes consistent with
Rousseau’s own beliefs. Foremost amongst them is his abhorrence of mediation. 220
Papists have attributed vengeance and justified bloodshed to the service of a surely
munificent God. And in so doing, they have committed an act of vile
transubstantiation, imputing their own malicious, particular interests to the One they
purportedly serve. As Rousseau later writes in the first of his Letters Written From
the Mountain , his enemies “put themselves in the place of God to do the work of the
219 Emile . E 295.
220 In Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction , Starobinski persuasively identifies this
love of immediacy and detestation of mediation as the unifying theme of Rousseau’s oeuvres .
Devil.” 221 Entranced by “that dangerous amour-propre which always wants to carry
men above his sphere,” they have lowered God to ours while placing themselves in-
between. 222
The empire of their opinion knows no bounds. The papacy has extended their
rule to the heavens. They would have us accept their interpretation as gospel, and
God as their puppet. “As soon as peoples took it into their heads to make God speak,
each made Him speak in its own way and made Him say what it wanted,” the Vicar
laments. 223 Yet “[i]f one had listened only to what God says to the heart of man,
there would never have been more than one religion on earth.” 224
This argument for religious tolerance is grounded in a classically voluntarist
belief in the impenetrable mysteries of divinity. Neither Rousseau, nor the Vicar, nor
M. de Beaumont can tell us who God really is, what He looks like, or when He speaks
only to us. 225 And unlike mythic Pagan history, such interpretations have served
decidedly unvirtuous ends. Instead of solidifying universal brotherhood, the Church
has used dogma and Scripture to create divisions, to bring blood and fire upon the
earth of God’s creation. Instead of affirming the truth that God created us all, they
221 Letters Written From the Mountain (First Letter). OC III.697; CW.IX.141.
222 Emile . E 296.
223 Emile . E 295.
224 Emile . E 295.
225 Although voiced by the Vicar, this mirrors Rousseau’s own condemnation of miracles as vain
presumptions that God would take the time to speak directly to select individuals. In this position,
Rousseau follows Malebranche, who argued that God was defined by simplicity and consistency in His
perfection, not intrusion into the particular affairs of humankind. In Elucidations of the Search After
Truth , Malebranche says that sinners “would have God perform miracles in their favor and not follow
the ordinary laws of grace.” More directly, in the Fourth of his Dialogues on Metaphysics , he states
that “God never performs miracles. He never acts by special volitions contrary to His own laws which
Order does not require or permit. His conduct always manifests the character of His attributes.”
Miracles clearly “do not follow His general laws.” (Eighth Dialogue) From: Nicolas Malebranche:
Philosophical Selections , Steven Nadler, ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1992),
pp. 109, 188-189, 242. For a convincing, clear and thorough discussion of this connection see: Riley,
The General Will Before Rousseau .
cultivate violent artificial boundaries. Yet rather than accept such deadly
interpretations as God’s word, we can (and should) intuitively feel His existence, and
recognize our common bond as His creations. This heartfelt sentiment is confirmed
by observation: by appreciating the world of his making, by finding examples of
pious love and fraternity in peoples of all nations.
Following in the Protestant tradition, the Vicar reminds us to
not confuse the ceremony of religion with religion itself. The worship
God asks for is that of the heart. And that worship, when it is sincere,
is always uniform. One must be possessed of a mad vanity indeed to
imagine that God takes so great an interest in the form of the priest’s
costume, in the order of the words he pronounces, in the gestures he
makes at the altar, and in all his genuflections. 226
Worship is a matter of individual conscience, not conformity to sectarian ceremony.
If God truly presides over this and all other worlds, his adulation should be equally
unconstrained. This, after all, “is the duty of all religions, all countries, all men” who
serve a (or more precisely the ) single deity. 227
Beyond that, particular forms of worship are somewhat arbitrary. 228 “The
226 Emile . E 296.
227 Emile . E 296
228 Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1482), an accomplished mathematician and scholar, believed that ships
could sail to Asia far more quickly than had previously been imagined by altering traditional westward
routes. He presented a chart of his findings to the Court of Portugal. Although King John II was wary,
Christopher Columbus—then a mapmaker and entrepreneur—was intrigued. This conclusion
reaffirmed the work of classical geographer Marinus of Tyre, the travelogues of Venetian merchant
Marco Polo, and Columbus’ own study of the Apocrypha (particularly II Esdras 6:42) that argued the
earth was almost entirely (six-sevenths) composed of land. Armed with Toscanelli’s support,
Columbus eventually convinced the Spanish monarchy (under Ferdinand) to fund an Oriental
expedition. This voyage, of course, led him eastwards , where he “discovered” a New World inhabited
by “savages”—peoples untouched by Christianity.
Columbus’ accidental discovery led many others to follow his mistaken path to the Americas.
One of these explorers was his friend Amerigo Vespucci who, beginning in 1502, made several
voyages to the New World. It was during this period that Vespucci’s cousin Agostino served as both
confidant and assistant to Niccolo Machiavelli (assisting, for example, on an ambitious engineering
project of Machiavelli’s between 1503 and 1506). Machiavelli, famously denounced by Jesuits,
Humanists, Roman Catholics, counter-Reformationists, Huguenots, and French Monarchists (amongst
others) was seen as an intellectual threat to the political and philosophical dominance of Christian
theology in the pre-Enlightenment world.
faith of children and of many men is a question of geography.” 229 Choice of religion
is likewise “the effect of chance; to blame [non-Catholics] for it is iniquitous. It is to
reward or punish them for being born in this or in that country. To dare to say that
God judges us in this way is to insult His justice.” 230 Intolerance is anything but
pious. As the Vicar elaborates, “[i]f there were a religion on earth outside of whose
worship there was only eternal suffering, and if in some place in the world a single
mortal of good faith had not been struck by its obviousness, the God of that religion
would be the most iniquitous and cruel of tyrants.” 231
But He is not. His justice and grace are both indisputable and universal, and
must be confirmed by appealing to conscience and reason, not dogmatism and
Machiavelli’s godlessness was widely assumed, although (like Rousseau) he is more
accurately described as anticlerical. His Discourses identify religion as a crucial catalyst to ancient
Rome’s republican virtue: Numa, not Solon, is credited with this accomplishment. Machiavelli’s
blatant hostility towards the church is storied, but his connection to the New World explorers often
goes unnoticed. The two, I believe, are related.
Christianity assumed a privileged role amongst religions because it was said its missionaries
graced the entire world. The exposure of a vast continent of peoples untouched by the hand of a
Christian God severely tested this supposition. Machiavelli, closely privy to such information, was
certainly aware of this demystifying discovery, whose influence may be gleaned in his denouncement
of the Church. The argument Rousseau makes in the Emile on the arbitrariness of particular forms of
worship—written especially in rebuttal to the Papal order—similarly assumes that non-Christians may
be pious, even if they are ignorant of the Church raised in His name. In so doing, he draws upon
precisely such discoveries of heathen lands.
Consider this argument posed by the Vicar: “Two-thirds of mankind are neither Jews nor
Mohammedans nor Christians, and how many million men have never heard of Moses, Jesus Christ, or
Mohammed? This is denied; it is maintained that our missionaries go everywhere. That is easily said.
But do they go into the still unknown heart of Africa,… to deepest Tartary,” Japan or Asia? “Do they
go into the immense continents of America, where whole nations still do not know that peoples from
another world have set foot in theirs?” (E 304) The conclusion is glaring: Christianity is just another
religion . This argument rests specifically upon the discovery of “the immense continents of America”
(also the subject of Rousseau’s early opera, La Découverte du Nouveau Monde ), and its non-Christian
communities. Given this evidence, deism is the only form of piety capable of reconciling the universal
truth God’s existence with the seeming savagery of a continent untouched by the Church’s mores.
Readers should consult: Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy , Julia Conaway Bondanella and
Peter Bondanella, trs. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), I.11, pp. 50-53; La Découverte du
Nouveau Monde . OC I.815-841; CW X.12-36. In addition, I am grateful to Roger D. Masters for
bringing this matter to my attention, and taking the time to sketch its significance.
229 Emile . E 258.
230 Emile . E 297.
231 Emile . E 297.
revelation. As the Vicar quips, it matters not what the Church commands in questions
of faith: “I need reasons for subjecting my reason.” 232 Demonstrative proofs, not
human mediation, reveal the will of God: “When I believe what he says, it is not
because he says it but because he proves it. Therefore the testimony of men is at
bottom only that of my own reason and adds nothing to the natural means God gave
me for knowing the truth.” 233
The Church therefore deals in the worst form of sophism, a manipulation of
opinion which compromises our highest, most natural relationship. Consider the
following paragraph, written with an indignation worthy of Luther:
Apostle of the truth, what then have you to tell me of which I do not
remain the judge? “God Himself has spoken. Hear His revelation.”
That is something else. God has spoken! That is surely a great
statement. To whom has He spoken? “He has spoken to men.” Why,
then, did I hear nothing about it? “He has directed other men to give
you His word.” I understand: it is men who are going to tell me what
God has said. I should have preferred to have heard God himself. It
would have cost Him nothing more, and I would have been sheltered
from seduction. 234
This is a mock dialogue in both senses of the word. Taking the form of a hypothetical
conversation with a cleric, it ridicules the idea that only a select few may mediate and
dictate our relationship with God. The very suggestion leaves the Vicar incensed.
“What! Always human testimony? Always men who report to me what other men
have reported! So many men between God and me!” 235 So many fallible human
opinions perverting the practice of faith! So many meddlers confounding the natural
purity of conscience!
232 Emile . E 297.
233 Emile . E 297.
234 Emile . E 297.
235 Emile . E 297.
Rousseau was not simply nay-saying. He firmly believed that dogmatism
discouraged the pious adoration of God. In dictating the terms of external worship,
papal intrusion into corporeal affairs carries unjust consequences. Specific religious
customs, accidents of history and geography but also the free interpretations of the
Divinity’s creatures, are a matter settled amongst citizens, not man and God. “As to
the external worship,” the Vicar advises, “if it must be uniform for the sake of good
order, that is purely a question of public policy; no revelation is needed for that.” 236
Religious custom boils down to a political question of “public policy”; its form must
support the “good order” of strong civil society. 237
This is a social prescription, one which presses upon us the necessity for
living in mutual harmony. Papists (like philosophers) sacrifice society’s general
welfare for the sake of their own (particular) interests. Rousseau, by contrast, insists
that all forms of religion must be allowed so long as they encourage virtuous
(general) order. Conversely, sects which divide and conquer must be banned; they
serve neither God nor state. This becomes a problem of practical fruition, one whose
difficulty is compounded by Rousseau’s own claims. We are innocent by nature and
literally guilty by association. Our fall was ushered by our interactions in society,
which corrupt individual virtue. If the empire of opinion (a ripe phenomenon
amongst religious sects) is particularly blameworthy, how might we find a religion
which retains its civic benefits while avoiding its social pitfalls?
Rousseau outlined his solutions in Emile and The Social Contract , but his
prescriptions were overshadowed by the grating character of his paradoxes. Jean
236 Emile . E 296.
237 Readers should consult Rousseau’s concept of Civil Religion in The Social Contract , IV.8 and the
Geneva Manuscript , Book III, both of which I discuss elsewhere in detail.
Starobinski illuminates the irony of this predicament, noting that “Rousseau made
himself a stranger to man in order to protect against the alienation that makes men
strangers to one another.” 238 His “renunciation of the world’s vanities and…
conversion to ‘another moral world’ 239 took Rousseau not toward the Church but
toward the forest and the life of the vagabond.” 240 It would still take Rousseau some
ten years after Emile’s publication to return to the woods for good, to reintroduce
himself to botany and write his final works. But his estrangement began long before
his final retreat.
This rift was facilitated by Rousseau’s paradoxical nature. It was also a
consequence of his inimitable style, the force and certainty with which he pursued
truth and exposed ideas. Prior to 1762, Rousseau nonetheless cast blame elsewhere.
It was the opinions of others which rightfully deserve the loaded label of paradox. As
he asserted in the Introduction to his Fragments politiques ,
But since I have learned through experience the damage that
demonstrated propositions can suffer from being called Paradoxes, I
am relieved to remove this resource in advance from those who have
none other to argue against what I am about to prove. I warn them,
therefore, that it is the opinion I attack that should be called a paradox,
as unheard of to this day as it is ridiculous and pernicious; and that by
refuting this soft and effeminate Philosophy whose convenient maxims
have won it so many supporters among us, I only add my voice to the
cry of all nations, and plead the cause of common sense as well as that
of society. 241
This dual cause—of (naturally) good sense and social welfare—inspired his
contrariness. In the matter of religion, piety is essential and true to both society and
238 Starobinski, p. 41
239 Starobinski’s reference is to the following quote: “Une grande révolution qui venoit de se faire en
moi, un autre monde moral qui se devoiloit à mes regards…” Reveries (Third Promenade). OC
I.1015; CW VIII.20.
240 Starobinski, pp. 39-40.
241 Political Fragments 1. CW IV.46; OC III.518.
human nature. God’s very magnificence—the scope and effect of his will—reminds
us of his existence, and our mutually-supportive duties as His creations. But the faith
of men as dictated by the Catholic Church discourages such reverence.
As Rousseau’s paradoxes grew even more specific they elicited more severe
consequences. Just as he was compelled to write as he felt, so did he feel compelled
to defend himself from mounting attacks. In the self-justifying works following
1762, he turned to readers to rescue him from the judgments levied by his age. Too
many men of power had too many interests vested in the ideas he opposed. This,
finally, is why Rousseau begged “common readers” to pardon him his paradoxes;
they were, supposedly, written on behalf of the people to whom he appealed.
His request of pardon still belies the insistence of his prose. Paradox was
necessary , Rousseau writes—and therefore not, strictly speaking, a matter of choice.
But common people—of society, and also of God and nature—might still choose.
Pardon him? The choice is ultimately left neither to Church nor state nor academy,
but to fellow men and citizens. Defending the Vicar’s deism in his Letters Written
From the Mountain , Rousseau makes the question characteristically blunt:
[T]he doctrine in question is good for the human race and bad for its
oppressors. In what absolute category must it be put? I have faithfully
stated the pros and cons. Compare and choose. 242
Was he right or wrong, decent or vicious, worthy of praise or blame? In the end, was
his belief in man’s innocence, society’s guilt, and divine beneficence of any use to the
human race? Such are the choices laid before us. Our response either redeems
Rousseau’s perplexing paradoxes, or casts them from the realm of virtuous reverie to
one of well-forgotten memory.
242 Letters Written From the Mountain (First Letter). CW IX.146; OC III.702.
Chapter 3: A Claim of Innocence
And so it was “not I” that brought this about “but sin which dwelt in me,” sin
resulting from the punishment of a more freely chosen sin, because I was a son of
—Augustine, Confessions 243
True innocence is ashamed of nothing.
—Rousseau, Emile 244
When Rousseau begged us to pardon his paradoxes, 245 the request was hardly
hollow. The proliferation of contradictory thought—at odds with others and,
according to critics, 246 itself—gives us ample opportunity to do so. The decision is
still ours to make, but before either granting or denying Rousseau his wish we might
revisit his most compelling, controversial (and hence potentially unpardonable)
paradox: namely, innocence.
243 Saint Augustine, Confessions , Henry Chadwick, tr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991),
VII.x.22, p. 149. Augustine’s Biblical reference is to Romans 7:17, 20.
244 Emile . E 217.
245 Emile . E 93; OC IV.323.
246 Most notably J.H. Huizinga who, citing Benjamin Constant, writes that Rousseau “thrashes about
among a thousand contrary ideas as in a dark night lit up by frequent flashes of lightening.” Rousseau:
The Self-Made Saint , p. 268. Huizinga also lists amongst Rousseau’s notable critics William Ralph
Inge, a Christian Platonist and dean of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. “The influence of this
sentimental rhetorician,” Inge wrote, “has perhaps been more pernicious than that of any other man
who has ever lived.” Inge, Christian Ethics and Modern Problems . (New York: The Knickerbocker
Press, 1930), pp. 249-250. French literary critic Jules Lemaître (“thanks to human credulity and
stupidity no man had ever done more harm to mankind than the writer who, it seems, hardly knew
what he was writing”) and François Mauriac, 1952 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (“the
modern era is rooted in his lies… It has taken a century and a half for his poison to accomplish its
work”) likewise saw Rousseau’s legacy as catastrophic. See also: Jules Lemaître, Jean-Jacques
Rousseau . (New York: The McClure Company, 1907); François Mauriac, Trois grands hommes devant
Dieu . (Paris: Editions du capitale, 1930).
Throughout his works, Rousseau maintained his innocence in three crucial
senses: 247 as an individual whose writings revealed a uniquely good soul bared to the
public; as a human being , an ontological claim that contradicted the orthodox
Christian narrative of Original Sin; and as a defendant , a refutation of the charges
levied against him following the publications of Emile and The Social Contract .
Despite his paradoxes, Rousseau claimed his oeuvres were characterized by their
consistency. 248 A thread linking his most provocative positions, innocence offers a
means of locating this continuity.
Such common ground is particularly helpful when reconciling Rousseau’s
religious and political beliefs. After all, his spiritual optimism (epitomized by his
rejection of Original Sin) and social pessimism (revealed in his stark critiques of
contemporary society and human history) seem to push readers in opposite directions.
Rousseau framed the fall of humankind in decidedly Edenic terms as a genealogy of
decline from a blissful natural state to one corrupted by illegitimate societal chains.
Yet he based this dour history upon an optimistic heresy, a renunciation of Original
Sin and correlative faith in the intrinsic goodness of man.
This paradoxical stance left him open to charges of hypocrisy. A virulent
social critic who exalted human nature, Rousseau insisted that society had corrupted
otherwise benevolent creatures. Marveling at the wonder of a natural world alienated
by human artifice, he urged us to follow our God-given consciences and embrace our
divinely-created natures. This is a refrain sung throughout Rousseau’s writings, one
247 Together, this triple claim evokes the four major senses of innocence cited by the Oxford English
Dictionary : “freedom from sin, guilt, or moral wrong in general” or “moral purity”; “freedom from
specific guilt” or “not being guilty of that with which one is charged”; “freedom from cunning or
artifice” or “guilelessness”; and “harmlessness, innocuousness.”
248 As I later discuss, Rousseau makes this consistency central to his defense of Emile .
concisely captured in Emile ’s famous opening line: “Everything is good as it leaves
the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” 249
An individual uniquely attuned to this intrinsic goodness, Rousseau presented himself
as a testament to the possibility of regeneration. 250
Of course, as his autobiographical writings make clear, Jean-Jacques was no
saint. Far from it, his life was characterized by impulsiveness and fluctuation, from
his early abandonment of Geneva, to his rather capricious conversion to Catholicism,
to his sudden epiphany on the road to Vincennes. He was also guilty of what is
generally considered unsavory or immoral behavior: romantic affairs, indecent
exposure, lies and theft. A man of such blatantly self-described faults who frequently
succumbed to his overwhelming passions should hardly claim absolution from guilt.
Yet for Rousseau, innocence was rooted in something deeper than acts: namely the
goodness of our natural will, a faculty often led astray by social interactions. 251
Given his own suspect personal history, such self-exculpation proved
unconvincing to the many who found him abjectly guilty of crimes against the
church, his patrie , and his religion, and breaches of friendship, civic duty, and
249 Emile . E 37.
250 By this, I do not mean to suggest that Rousseau asks us to follow his life as a model. After all, it is
not entirely evident that this is possible. Consider, for example, his emphasis upon his uniqueness (the
prefatory note to The Confessions describes the work as “the only portrait of a man, painted exactly
according to nature and in all its truth, that exists and that probably will ever exist”), and discrepancies
between his own autonomous education (self-directed immersion and remarkable erudition) and that of
Emile’s (which, under the guidance of a highly controlling tutor, actively discourages reading). I do
believe that Rousseau reveals himself as a testament to the possibility of living more naturally. If he
himself is an anomaly, his life is still exemplary, and therefore serves a heuristic purpose.
251 As Rousseau writes in Emile , “let us set down as an incontestable maxim that the first movements
of nature are always right. There is no original perversity in the human heart.” By contrast, “there is
not a single vice to be found in it of which it cannot be said how and whence it entered.” Because the
natural will never errs and all vice is artificially constructed, actions guided by inner sentiment follow
innocent motives. A return to our innocent nature occurs only in society through this act of free will.
Emile . E 92. For the foundation of this argument see: Second Discourse . CW III.36-38; OC III.155-
philosophic decorum. Condemned as an author, an individual, and a human being,
his claim of innocence also constituted a self-defense. Pardoning Rousseau this
paradox therefore determines his culpability—where he errs, where his accusers make
legitimate claims, and (most broadly) where his renunciation of guilt informs a
coherent philosophical vision rather than a convenient self-acquittal.
Whatever the verdict, Rousseau’s triple claim of innocence can hardly be
confined to a question of individual reputation. More than a matter of narrow
interest, it underlies his faith in both religion as a virtuous moral guide and
democracy as the self-rule of essentially good creatures. Do his caustic accusations
and personal misdeeds compromise this optimism? More specifically, does his
renunciation of Original Sin stand at irreconcilable odds with his deeply pessimistic
view of human society? Or does Rousseau’s paradoxical insistence unfold as a
compelling catalyst for politico-theological reform?
To investigate these questions, we will begin by addressing Rousseau’s
testament of personal innocence particularly as revealed in his Confessions . Next we
will turn to a discussion of Pelagianism as the foundation of his religious thought, a
creed he most clearly develops in the voice of the Savoyard Vicar. We will then
explore his response to the charges raised in the censure of Emile , a defense in which
Rousseau reiterates both his individual and ontological innocence. After examining
this concept in its three major guises, we will be poised to judge the coherence and
cohesion of his claim. In so doing, we will determine not only whether we may
pardon him his most illustrious paradox; we may also see how this controversial
notion illuminates the dialectic between spiritual perfectionism and secular pessimism
so central to his political philosophy.
* * * * *
To read Rousseau as he requested we must allow him his manifold paradoxes
while struggling to find unity between his many discourses and novels, letters and
plays, treatises and personal reveries. Reading Rousseau therefore demands not
simply a strong constitution; it also requires a good deal of patience. To hold him to
his oft-repeated claims of consistency and honesty, utility and acuity, we must treat
his massive oeuvre as an old Genevan watch: dissect it with courage and caution,
while wondering whether the parts still fit a working whole.
Answers are far from self-evident. In different styles and tones Rousseau
revealed sharply different takes on humankind’s past (a descent from natural harmony
to artificial subjugation), present (a disastrous empire of opinion guided by academic
and papal hubris), and possible future (legitimizing the chains of our mutual
attachments through radical democratic reform). The very faculties—free will,
imagination, sociability—that contributed to our decline allowed us the possibility of
redemption. This purported solution was further complicated by Rousseau’s
subversiveness: both his pessimistic realism and optimistic perfectionism were based
upon stark critiques of his own age.
Rousseau’s contentious, contradictory methodology clearly evokes the role of
Socrates, the gadfly immortalized for his prodding attempts to awaken the great, lazy
beast that was Athens. 252 In delivering his social criticism as the accusations of a
truth-seeking man, Rousseau likewise urged his peers to know—and question—
themselves and the society of their making. Reform was hardly possible without
honest self-assessment; 253 this was the challenge pressed upon his audience as both
individuals and members of society, and the first stage in reclaiming the hereditary
fruits of our natural goodness.
To paint Rousseau as an Enlightenment-era Socrates is nonetheless hasty.
After all, as Christopher Kelly reminds us, Rousseau was no Socrates. 254 The
Athenian never left his city’s walls save for a brief military expedition and one
conversation with Phaedrus; 255 the Genevan, by contrast, spent most of his life away
from his birthplace. Socrates accepted death by hemlock after his final, ill-fated
apology; Rousseau never even stood trial, fleeing his home before Parisian authorities
arrived to execute the Parlement’s arrest warrant. The most telling difference,
however, is revealed in a simple fact: in discussing his life and writings, Rousseau
was wholly unapologetic. 256 Not only did he justify the supposed misdeeds of his
life, he made their candid revelation a testament of his individual innocence.
Nowhere is this more clear than in his autobiography.
252 As Socrates argues in The Apology , “It is literally true (even if it sounds rather comical) that God
has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of
its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly.” Plato, The Last
Days of Socrates , pp. 62-63. For a comparison of how Rousseau’s shamelessness differs from that of
Diogenes the Cynic (the “Socrates gone mad”), see Chapter 4 above.
253 For a fine summary of the scholarly debate surrounding Rousseau’s ability to honestly appraise
himself see: Kelly, Rousseau s Exemplary Life : The “Confessions” as Political Philosophy , pp. 5-8.
254 Ibid., pp. 10, 54-57, 64-75.
255 See: Plato, Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters , Walter Hamilton, tr. (New York: Penguin
Books, 1973), p. 21.
256 Socrates’ own “apology” was clearly not devoid of ironic criticism. However, the very fact that he
accepted the verdict of his peers greatly distinguishes him from Rousseau.
The subtitle to The Neuchâtel Preface 257 of The Confessions claims to contain
“the detailed account of the events of [the author’s] life, and of his secret feelings in
all the situations in which he has found himself.” 258 In its final printed version,
Rousseau reiterates this declaration as a hypothetical monologue:
Behold what I have done, what I have thought, what I have been. I
have told the good and the evil with the same frankness. I have been
silent about nothing bad, added nothing good… I have shown myself
as I was, contemptible and low when I was so, good, generous,
sublime when I was so. 259
That he presents these lines as the speech he will “loudly” deliver to God on his day
of judgment is of no small consequence. Taken alone, this admission possesses a
notable dearth of humility; when read as a proclamation of merit to “the Sovereign
Judge” it sounds abjectly heretical.
After all, Augustine’s own archetypal Confessions eloquently espoused
mankind’s unworthiness in relation to God. In the Saint’s narrative, salvation was a
gift bestowed upon humankind solely by the mercy and grace of God. Man had little
hope of incurring redemption by affecting His will, much less by fearlessly
proclaiming innocence on Judgment Day. For Augustine the hallmark of human
nature was inescapable guilt, a hereditary affliction levied against the descendents of
Adam as punishment for Original Sin. Man could only hope for salvation through
divine mercy, a fate stipulating unassertive deference before God. In stark contrast,
Rousseau suggests that he has nothing to fear (much less regret) on his day of
257 This is the earlier, incomplete draft of The Confessions . Of the two completed editions—the
“Geneva” and “Paris” manuscripts—neither is considered definitive. For an explanation see: CW
258 The Neuchâtel Preface to The Confessions of J . -J . Rousseau . CW V.585; OC I.1148.
259 The Confessions . CW V.5; OC I.5.
judgment. 260 When Kierkegaard later lamented Rousseau’s conspicuous dearth of
Christian humility, he surely had this episode in mind. 261 Was it not pride in a life
well-lived, rather than the burdens of incurable sin, that Jean-Jacques trumpets at the
gates of heaven? 262
Even the non-God-fearing must cringe slightly at Rousseau’s resoluteness.
He is certain of his thoroughness, having revealed “what I have done, what I have
thought, what I have been.” He is convinced of his objectivity (“I have shown myself
as I was”). He suggests that forthrightly admitting his “contemptible” deeds merits
his salvation. And he delivers all of this in a defiant tone, begging the question of
whether or not God, as Rousseau pictured Him, really appreciates anyone raising his
or her voice in His presence. Yet such are the uncompromising terms of Rousseau’s
openness, a value championed from the outset of an autobiography whose author
makes plain that he will hide nothing. The text itself is a realization of this
transparency, a revelation of far more than the mere details of one man’s life. As
Rousseau declares to God, “I have unveiled my interior as Thou hast seen it
Thyself.” 263
The Confessions is his testament, its readers his witnesses. 264
Such grandiose claims seem to ignore the difficulty of self-revelation. As
Philippe Lejeune reminds us, autobiography poses a distinct methodological problem:
260 See: Reveries . (Third Promenade). CW VIII.22; OC I.1019.
261 Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (4: 252-253). I address Kierkegaard’s claim in further detail in
Chapter 4.
262 Compare this with Julie’s description of her “Christian end” emboldened by a clear conscience.
Julie . CW VI.586-589, 598; OC II.713-718, 729.
263 The Confessions . CW V.5; OC I.5.
264 Although this speech is ostensibly delivered before God such revelation is superfluous because, as
Rousseau reminds us, God sees all. This is therefore a testament made before man, a declaration of
innocence and not (as with Augustine) a public display of humility.
“Est-il possible de raconteur sa vie?” 265
Is it, he elaborates, possible to truly recall,
disseminate, and articulate the essence (or even events) of one’s own life? Rousseau
appears untroubled by the subjective complexity of his enterprise. Not only has he
told his life’s story, he has peered within his very soul and “unveiled” his interior,
revealing the insight of a gaze often exclusively attributed to divine beings. 266
Furthermore, he challenges anyone who would cast aspersions. “Eternal Being,” he
requests, “assemble around me the countless host of my fellows: let them listen to my
confessions, let them shudder at my unworthiness, let them blush at my woes. Let
each of them in his turn uncover his heart at the foot of Thy throne with the same
sincerity; and then let a single one say to Thee, if he dares: ‘ I was better than that
man .’” 267
We must take the term “unworthiness” lightly, for little in these opening lines
suggest anything of the sort. Rousseau is, in fact, claiming precisely the opposite. He
is worthy: to stand before God, without shame or fear, openly touting the goodness of
his bared soul. He has nothing to fear, not because he was better behaved than the
next man. He has nothing to fear because he is like any man—exhibiting faults and
failings, goodness and generosity—with one monumental caveat: he has looked
within himself, and delighted in the natural innocence to which he is closely attuned.
Augustine also looked inward, albeit to a decidedly different conclusion. Soul
searching left the Saint with an ineradicable sense of shame. Bowed under the weight
265 Philippe Lejeune, L’autobiographie en France , Deuxième Édition . (Paris: Armand Colin, 1998), p.
266 Judith Shklar discusses the all-knowing eye of Wolmar the atheist in great detail in Men and
Citizens . The Vicar also claims similar insight: “I can observe and know the beings and their relations,
I can sense what order, beauty, and virtue are, I can contemplate the universe and raise myself up to the
hand which governs it.” Emile . E 278.
267 The Confessions . CW V.5; OC I.5.
of his own human sinfulness, he had little hope but to pay deference to the One whose
goodness immeasurably surpassed his own, and dictated the course of his fate. By
contrast, Rousseau drew courage from the insights borne of self-examination.
Unveiling his soul revealed a source of solace in a corrupt world: an individual, a
human being , whose natural innocence remained intact.
If Rousseau seems prone to self-glorification, his affirmation posed a far more
compelling problem to Catholic authorities. It conveyed an abject heresy
(conspicuous pride in human nature), one that sharply distinguishes The Confessions
of Rousseau from that of Augustine. Although the works bear substantive and
structural similarities, 268 this fundamental difference divides them: Augustine is
consumed by the certainty of his own guilt, while Rousseau bears little in the way of
regret. More specifically, while Augustine holds himself (as both an individual and a
descendent of Adam) accountable for his sinfulness, Rousseau attributes his own
wavering will to “mitigating factors” beyond his control. 269 Kelly wonderfully
illustrates this schism by contrasting each author’s recollection of youthful
misdemeanors. 270 Reactions worth revisiting, consider first Augustine’s:
I wanted to carry out an act of theft and did so, driven by no kind of
need other than my inner lack of any sense of, or feeling for, justice.
Wickedness filled me. I stole something which I had in plenty and of
268 Lionel Gossman, “The Innocent Art of Confession and Reverie,” Daedalus , Vol. 7, No. 103
(Summer, 1978), p. 60. For a careful comparison of these works see: Ann Hartle, The Modern Self in
Rousseau’s Confessions : A Reply to St. Augustine .
269 Kelly, p. 105.
270 Ibid., pp. 100-108. It is worth noting that Kelly uses a different example, focusing on Rousseau’s
first theft (of asparagus). Kelly uses this to demonstrate the centrality of private property within
Rousseau’s concept of injustice. Readers might compare this with Emile’s experience of ruining a
farmer’s melon seeds by planting his own beans in the same soil. In Emile , both parties reach a
mutually acceptable compromise, and thus learn how to navigate the difficult tension between self-
interest and the common good. For Rousseau’s first theft (and candid discussion of his thieving
techniques) see: The Confessions . CW V.27-30; OC I.32-36. For the beans and melons incident see:
Emile . E 98-99.
much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by
stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what
was wrong. 271
The object of theft in question—pears from the tree of a plentiful vineyard—were
carried off in a “huge load… not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs.” This
seems a routine juvenile prank, quaint by contemporary standards and harmless
enough to all save the pigs and perhaps a disgruntled farmer. But Augustine
describes his actions as a “foul” example of “wickedness itself,” a testament to his
“lack of any sense of, or feeling for, justice.” His recollections lead him to a
humorless conclusion, one whose gravity far outweighs the physical act itself: “I
loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my
fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was
seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.” 272
In relatively light-hearted contrast, Rousseau opens his Confessions with a
“short and veracious history of all my childish misdeeds.” 273 Admitting to a doting
upbringing (at the expense of his neglected older brother), Rousseau writes that “the
children of Kings could not have been cared for with greater zeal than I was during
my earliest years.” 274 Idealized pampering notwithstanding, he still possessed “the
flaws of my age; I was a babbler, a glutton, sometimes a liar. I would have stolen
fruits, candies, food.” 275 He even recalls “once having pissed into the cooking pot of
one of our neighbors… while she was at church,” a memory that “still makes me
271 Augustine, Confessions , II.iv.9, p. 29.
272 Ibid., p. 29.
273 The Confessions . CW V.9; OC I.10. Although Rousseau elsewhere draws ample attention to his
various misdeeds (including theft), this short paragraph marks The Confessions ’ first mention of vice.
274 The Confessions . CW V.9; OC I.10.
275 The Confessions . CW V.9; OC I.10.
laugh.” 276 This rather disgusting (and decidedly unneighborly) episode elicits only
mirth in recollection, and immediately follows a claim of personal innocence oddly
detached from the act to which he has just confessed: “I never took pleasure in doing
harm, damage, in accusing others, in tormenting poor animals.” 277
This comparison underscores the striking discrepancy with which each author
holds himself accountable for his actions. What Augustine identifies as symptomatic
of eternal, hereditary sin, Rousseau dismisses as the tomfoolery of a well-nurtured
lad. What leads Augustine to grueling self-examination and a tortured assessment of
his own depravity leaves Rousseau mildly amused. While Augustine interprets his
theft as a microcosm for the failings of his entire species, Rousseau couches his
“misdeeds” within a declaration of individual goodness, a natural quality cultivated
by his loving upbringing amongst “the best people in the world.” 278
Differences notwithstanding, we must recall that Rousseau’s Confessions
adhere to Augustine’s formula in one decisive fashion: both works involve “a
repudiation of worldly signs and pleasure, of art and literature; both offer themselves
therefore not as art, but as inmost truth.” 279 The 17 th Century contributed its share of
such autobiographical literature—most notably Duclos’ 1741 Confessions du Comte
de ***—which, as Lionel Gossman describes, “drew attention to the private
personality, the inner life and time of the individual as opposed to the public events,
the public personalities, and the external chronology and history, to which the
276 The Confessions . CW V.9; OC I.10.
277 Rousseau’s mention of “tormenting poor animals” seems particularly incongruous, unless we read
in it a sly critique of Augustine (who had, as just noted, confessed to throwing pears at pigs). The
Confessions . CW V.9; OC I.10.
278 The Confessions . CW V.9; OC I.10. Given his upbringing, Rousseau finds the very idea that he
might have possessed a vicious nature to be inconceivable: “How could I have become wicked, since
under my eyes I had only examples of gentleness, and around me only the best people in the world?”
279 Gossman, p. 60.
authors… bore witness.” 280 Yet few before Rousseau had paraded their flaws with
such simultaneous straightforwardness and obvious lack of regret. It was the
unrepentant conclusions his quest unearthed, rather than the journey inwards, that
most clearly distinguished him from the confessional tradition. He established a
pattern of admission and qualification (revealing sundry details as pardonable
reactions to external circumstances), shifting the source of accountability from
indigenous failings to exogenous forces. Peer pressure, locked city gates, the sinful
culture of Paris, a desire to please, honest self-assessment, and an overflowing heart
explain (in order) his first theft, his leaving Geneva, his argumentative writings, his
conversion to Catholicism, the abandonment of his children, and his romantic affairs.
In each instance Rousseau exculpates himself, requesting that we judge him on his
intentions rather than his actions. 281
Given his illustrious past, such a standard seems baldly self-serving. After all,
Jean-Jacques was a naughty boy. We know this because he tells us, over many pages
and through many incidents in The Confessions . Yet from the outset he initiates a
trend that continues throughout the work: Rousseau is unrepentant. Because he never
sought to harm (the maxim of his “golden rule” from the Second Discourse ), 282 he
can reflect upon misdeeds with a clear conscience. In examining and revealing his
life he never pleads mea culpa , but rather reduces errant behavior to either
developmental immaturity or weakness in the face of exogenous pressures. What
280 Ibid., p. 60.
281 As Rousseau later writes in the Reveries (Fourth Promenade): “Only the intention of the speaker
gives them their worth and determines their degree of malice or goodness.” CW VIII.32; OC I.1029.
282 Second Discourse . CW III.38; OC III.156.
Augustine accepted as evidence of an intrinsically sinful nature, Rousseau deflects to
forces external (and thereby foreign or alien) to himself.
By several accounts, this pattern of admission and rationalization presented
the eighteenth century with a radically new vision of self-examination. As Lejeune
writes, “Rousseau est le premier à s’apercevoir qu’il faudrait un ‘langage nouveau,’ et
inaugure un critique des techniques du récit au nom du réalisme subjectif.” 283
generous assessment—one made by Rousseau himself in the famous first lines of The
Confessions 284 —was not shared by those who found his “subjective realism” to be
entirely more subjective than real. As Hérault de Séschelles wrote in 1800,
Rousseau’s was an “errant life,” one “abandonnée aux hasard et aux passions.” 285
This was a common charge amongst critics of the age who found such unbridled
passion ill-suited for an author of his stature, let alone a self-proclaimed bearer of
truth. 286
More recently, Edgar Quinet reiterated and clarified this concern. “Les seuls
livres dangereux pour moi sont ceux où l’on me donne comme réel ce qui ne l’est
pas.” 287
Rousseau was dangerous for precisely this reason. He presented interior
narratives and reverie as objective manifestations of a truth more useful than
283 Lejeune also identifies Rousseau as a founding member of the first generation of a “new form of
biography” which spoke in the first-person, emphasized training, displayed a pre-romanticist
sensitivity, and demonstrated a deep involvement with the contemporary world. Lejeune, pp. 31, 24,
284 “I am forming an undertaking which has no precedent, and the execution of which will have no
imitator whatsoever. I wish to show my fellows a man in all the truth of nature; and this man will be
myself. Myself alone.” The Confessions . CW V.5; CW I.5.
285 Hérault de Séschelles, Voyage à Montbard , (Paris: 1800), pp. 37-38. Quoted in Bernard Gagnebin,
“L’Étrange accueil fait aux ‘Confessions’ de Rousseau au XVIII Siècle,” Annales de la Société Jean-
Jacques Rousseau , Tome 38, 1969-1971 (Geneva: A. Jullien, Éditeur), p. 119.
286 For additional examples of this criticism see: Gagnebin, pp. 108-112, 121-123.
287 Edgar Quinet, Histoire de mes idées . (Paris: Flammarion, 1972), p 47.
empirical certainty. 288 Echoing de Séschelles, Quinet finds such musings
fundamentally irresponsible: they point us down a slippery slope of self-justification
wherein hyper-subjective “feelings” are conflated with, and presented as, impartial
“reality.” To be fair, Rousseau’s writings offer an anticipatory rebuttal. In an age
ruled by the empire of opinion, the sophisticated logic of philosophers and the
righteous dogma of papists were the real enemies of truth masquerading self-interest
as certainty. Such adroit minds twisted supposedly objective facts to serve
particularist agendas “good only at destructive criticism.” 289 By contrast, Rousseau
argued that his internal sentiments were uncontrived, and served only the common
good. The certainty that Quinet finds perilously misrepresented might only be
uncovered by looking inwards.
Amongst Rousseau’s contemporaries, this standard was typically (and in the
case of Voltaire, sarcastically) 290 dismissed as ill-conceived self-justification or
inflated pride; far more menacing were his practical claims. In assailing private
property, ridiculing scientific advancement, rejecting Original Sin, and calling for
religious tolerance and legitimized self-rule, he threatened Church, state and
Academy alike. His image as an anti-hierarchical thinker was only confirmed by The
Confessions , a work that defied conventional boundaries of Enlightenment society
288 As Plutarch reminds us, facts are only valuable if they help to instill virtue. In Rousseau’s age, by
contrast, “Critical erudition absorbs everything, as if it were very important whether a fact is true,
provided that a useful teaching can be drawn from it.” Emile . E 156; OC IV.415. For further
discussion of this position see Chapter 2 above.
289 Emile . E 268. The ensuing paragraph further discusses the limits of reason and the utility of
imagination. Delivered by the Vicar, these lines conform to Rousseau’s hierarchy of human faculties.
290 Voltaire’s most famous quip against Rousseau followed the Second Discourse : “One acquires the
desire to walk on all fours when one reads your work.” Letter from Voltaire to Rousseau , August 30,
1755. CW III.102; CC III.317.157. In a similar spirit, following the Letter to d’Alembert , Voltaire
wondered if Rousseau had “become a priest of the Church?” Theodore Besterman, ed., Voltaire's
Correspondence . (Genève: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1953-1965), XIX.D7864.
and elicited shrill “disapproval of the author’s rejection of the neoclassical
discriminations of noble and base, high and low, public and private, tragic and
comic.” 291 As Gossman explains, Rousseau’s “candor about the details of his sexual
life was not in itself shocking; what was, was the seriousness with which he treated
them and asked the reader to treat them,” an approach that blatantly ignored
traditional dismissals of the body as a crass domain ill-suited for philosophical
inquiry. 292
If Jean-Jacques was guilty of indecent exposure, 293 Gossman locates a
democratic impulse in his breach of propriety, a tacit valorization of common (in both
senses of the word) experience. Rousseau’s somatic emphasis also offered a sharp
rejoinder to Augustine, who had urged his audience to look beyond the corporeal
world in anticipation of an eternal life freed from physical desire. 294 For Augustine,
the body was a symbol of man’s most visible weakness (concupiscence) and a
reminder of our fall from grace and distance from God; physical shame was a
logically pious stance given the sins of our flesh. His writings therefore take the body
seriously only as a threat to salvation, an object of denial and repression, and a
hereditary punishment levied upon man for Adam’s transgression. In defying this
tradition Rousseau was not merely titillating his audience or challenging the literary
291 Gossman, pp. 60-61.
292 Ibid., pp. 60-61.
293 I use this term both literally and figuratively. In The Confessions , Rousseau admits to a penchant
for seeking out “dark alleys, hidden nooks where I could expose myself from afar to persons of the
opposite sex.” CW V.74; OC I.88-89. He was also charged with slandering the memories of
upstanding citoyens such as Mme. de Warens by revealing unsavory details of his romantic affairs. As
M. Geoffrey wrote in the Année littéraire (1783, V.vii.99-100), such candor was particularly indecent
for “a Philosopher, a Sage, a Legislator of morals.” For examples of similar critiques see: Gagnebin,
pp. 110-112, 121, 123.
294 This reflects a classical bias of philosophy as well, one epitomized by Plato (for whom wisdom was
an absolute form encumbered by physical trappings). For a thorough overview of this problem see:
Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art . (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).
standards of a prudish élite. His elevation of somatic concerns reveals, more
pointedly, a repudiation of the denigration of the corporeal life. 295 Dwelling on his
sexual proclivities, uncontrolled appetites, and sundry weaknesses was necessary
given his commitment to revealing the truth. But such exposure also taught an
affirmative lesson, one accessible to those of all walks of life: fear not our corporeal
sins, for they are only skin-deep. 296
At heart of Rousseau’s argument is a faith in the innocence of human nature.
Rather than teaching us to humble ourselves as woefully inadequate creatures before
God, he urged us to follow his lead in The Confessions , to draw courage from our
status as divine creations. Jean-Jacques’ candor was therefore calculated or
purposeful in that it lighted a hopeful path to reform. It was also deeply problematic,
for it left him open to charges of blatant hypocrisy and gave detractors a convenient
means of dismissing him. 297 His authority as a moral critic lay in his relative lack of
culpability. But by unveiling the sundry details of his life he presented the portrait of
an individual objectively ill-suited to exculpate himself.
In his own defense, Rousseau reiterated his guiding principals (natural
goodness, and a pursuit of truth that demanded unmitigated revelation) while
deflecting the significance of his actions. In a world of corrupting attachments, he
ascribed guilt to external sources. The radical implications of his rationalization
295 From his very first Discourse , Rousseau had argued that “the needs of the body are the foundations
of society.” First Discourse . CW II.5; OC III.6.
296 In this, Rousseau falls between Machiavelli and Nietzsche who both recognized “slavishness” in
Christian morality. See: Discourses on Livy , II.2.159.
297 Rousseau was particularly insulted by this charge. As he asks Beaumont, “Why would I be a
hypocrite, and what would I gain from being one? I attacked all particular interests, I aroused all
factions against me, I upheld only the cause of God and humanity, and who cares about that?”
Rousseau suggests that he would have been far less prosecuted if, following the philosophes , “I had
openly declared myself in favor of atheism.” Letter to Beaumont . CW IX.50; OC OV.964.
cannot be understated. In it we find a neophyte theory of political victimization, one
that attributes blame to unjust social forms rather than intrinsically flawed beings. 298
Nurture, not nature, is the culprit in this equation. As an individual raised in idyllic
circumstances, Rousseau was uniquely nurtured to follow his nature, an exemplar of
goodness particularly resistant to society’s influence. His personal innocence
therefore supports his claim of ontological innocence: the life he revealed to the
public offered testament to his species’ inherent worth.
This is the “truth” put before the audience to whom he bears his very soul, an
argument pressed upon his peers. After all, Rousseau was far more anxious about
being misjudged by men than God. If he begins his Confessions by testifying before
the Sovereign Judge, he reminds us of the superfluity of this revelation. God sees us
for who we are; this is why Rousseau is unafraid to assert his innocence in His
presence. By contrast, human judgment is far more fallible, our reason woefully
limited. 299 This boundary is acutely evident in our comprehension of divinity, a
failing discussed at length by the Savoyard Vicar in Emile . The Vicar chastises
humankind for believing “we possess intelligence for piercing… [such] mysteries,”
when in fact “all we have is imagination.” It is “through this imaginary world [that]
each blazes a trail he believes to be good. None can know whether his leads to the
goal [of salvation]. Nevertheless we want to penetrate everything, to know
298 Inge labeled this “sentimental humanitarianism” Rousseau’s single worst contribution to the
modern world, a “mawkish travesty of Christianity which transforms morality by basing it solely on
pity, and transfers guilt from the individual to the state under which he lives. Man is always innocent,
the government always guilty.” (Inge, p. 250) Arthur Melzer offers a more judicious assessment,
noting that Rousseau “initiates the philosophic tendency, which has dominated almost all subsequent
thought, to understand the human problem in terms of historical, social, or environmental causes rather
than natural or divine ones.” Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man, p. 17.
299 Compare with René Descartes’ Sixth Meditation in Meditations on First Philosophy , Revised
Edition , John Cottingham, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
everything.” 300 Although raised by the Vicar, this concern articulates a problem later
posed in The Confessions . 301 Not only do we believe ourselves capable of
comprehending God, we parade these “imaginary” visions as righteous, intolerant
truths. This vanity is twofold: because the limits of our reasoning prevent us from
clearly comprehending the divine state we personalize God, reducing Him to an
extension of our own particular predilections and worldviews. 302 As Rousseau
In general, believers make God as they are themselves, the good make
him good, the wicked make him wicked; the devout who are spiteful
and choleric see only Hell because they would like to damn the whole
world: loving and gentle souls hardly believe in it. 303
The reduction of God to the self-image of the worshipper is therefore morally
ambiguous. It can have wicked (for the wicked) and just (for the just) consequences.
Given his scathing criticism of Catholic dogma, Rousseau likely had papists in mind
as those who “damn the whole world” to Hell. But he also poses a positive
alternative, the “loving and gentle souls” who place faith in a benevolent deity.
To illustrate this, Rousseau presents Mme. de Warens as a unique figure in a
corrupt age, a “soul without bitterness, which could not imagine God as vindictive
and always wrathful, saw only clemency and mercy where the devout saw only
300 Emile . E 268.
301 This argument is also consistent with the Second Discourse . In this case, artificial desires
(encouraged by amour-propre ) are self-destructive because they surpass both our natural needs and
capacities for fulfillment.
302 In this, Rousseau follows Malebranche who similarly preached the generality and simplicity of
God. For a thorough study of this connection see: Riley, The General Will Before Rousseau .
303 The Confessions . CW V.192; OC I.228-229. It is worth noting that the pressure exerted by the
Church was overwhelming, affecting even the noble Fénelon: “one of the astonishing things from
which I cannot recover is to see the good Fénelon speak about it in his Telemachus , as if he truly
believed it: but I hope that he was lying then; for in the end however truthful one may be, one certainly
must lie sometimes when one is a Bishop.” In the Dialogues , Rousseau describes Fénelon as one of
the few virtuous men who “did honor to modern times,” praise affirmed by Telemachus ’ role in
Emile’s education. CW I.158; OC I.863-864.
justice and punishment.” 304 A woman of rare gentleness, de Warens’ vision of divine
mercy lies in sharp contrast with the vengeful figure propagated by the Catholic
Church. She hardly believed the Author of all things had endowed His creations with
an irreparably sinful nature. Rousseau’s beloved maman found failing not in God,
but in His misleading portrayal by men: “It seemed to her that Scripture was
explained too literally and too harshly,” and when discussing specific articles of the
Bible “it happened that she saw [each] completely differently from the Church, even
while always submitting to it.” 305 More specifically, she believed Purgatory—not
eternal damnation—offered a suitable fate for the wicked, a group “always very
vexing both in this world and in the other.” 306
What begins as a passing (and seemingly innocent) plea for theological
moderation immediately leads to a radical renunciation. As Rousseau hastily
concludes, “one sees that the whole doctrine of original sin and redemption is
destroyed by this system [of Purgatory], and the basis of vulgar Christianity is shaken
by it, and that at least Catholicism cannot subsist.” 307 The certainty of his conclusion
is matched only by the suddenness of its intrusion into the text. Rousseau, it appears,
is eager to remind readers that Adam’s supposed legacy of hereditary sin is a fallacy
propagated by men, one debunked with as little effort as the passing mention of
Purgatory. In one fell swoop, he claims a startling accomplishment: crippling
Catholicism by shaking the “vulgar” foundations upon which it rests.
304 The Confessions . CW 192; OC I.229.
305 The Confessions . CW 192; OC I.229.
306 Given the rosy glow that often shades Rousseau’s recollections of de Warens, his account may be
inaccurate. If this were the case, Rousseau would be repeating the crime imputed to him by Christophe
de Beaumont of presenting impious beliefs in “chimerical voices,” a charge discussed in greater detail
307 The Confessions . CW 192; OC I.229.
Rousseau’s antagonism towards the Church reflects what Ernst Cassirer
described as a principal fear of Enlightenment philosophers, that to “change religion
into mere opinion… [is to] deprive it of its real moral and political force.” 308 Unlike
his philosophe peers, however, Rousseau shared this concern without abandoning his
faith in God. More strongly, he insisted that religious associations provided a
necessary moral foundation for virtuous democratic societies. 309 Yet papal faith
should not be considered genuine; it denuded religion of its ethical and practical
value, supplanting divine truths with vicious myths. Nowhere was the blasphemy of
their orthodoxy more evident than in the narrative of Original Sin.
* * * * *
The innocence of which Rousseau speaks is surely personal, yet its
implications extend far beyond the author himself. This is evident in his self-
justification: Jean-Jacques, more natural than his denatured peers, was subsequently
more innocent. In ontological terms, this position assumes that humankind is good by
nature and not tainted by Adam’s fall. Far from it, we have corrupted ourselves,
introducing evils that place us at sharp odds with our divinely-crafted natures.
Rousseau’s rebuke of hereditary guilt lies at the heart of The Confessions , just as it
rests at Emile ’s center. 310 It was also the reason he fled Paris in 1762: he escaped an
arrest warrant issued by the Parlement and applauded by the Church, both of whom
308 Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment , p. 165. This claim is demonstrable in the influence
of Bayle upon the philosophe circle, particularly Diderot (and his Encyclopédie article on Pyrrhonism).
309 See Chapter 5 below.
310 Not only does Rousseau describe the Profession as Emile ’s moral core, it appears literally halfway
through the text.
viewed his renunciation of Original Sin as a threat to spiritual and political order. 311
What might strike contemporary readers as a dry and distant debate was a life-
changing event for Rousseau. In this, he was not alone; roughly fourteen centuries
prior, the Christian ascetic Pelagius rejected hereditary guilt to equally momentous
consequences. 312
Rousseau’s indebtedness to Pelagius is typically assumed. This was true as
early as 1765 when, in passing, the Abby Laurent François identified Pelagianism in
Rousseau’s diminution of grace as a means of salvation. 313 More recently, Karl Barth
described the Genevan’s doctrine of natural goodness as “the apogee of humanist
Pelagianism,” while Jean Guehenno located a Pelagian legacy within Rousseau’s
mistrust of metaphysics, his “sentimental” emphasis upon freedom, and the righteous
tenor of his social criticism. 314 Pierre Burgelin saw shadows of Pelagius in Saint-
Preux’s defense of human liberty, a figure commonly assumed to be modeled after
Rousseau himself. And Jean-François Thomas—in the only work devoted
exclusively to this relation—concluded that Rousseau was indeed a semi-Pelagian,
albeit one very much indebted to Molinism and Jesuit writings on freedom and
311 Extrait des Registres du Parlement , June 9, 1762. CC XI.A254.262-266.
312 Accused of heresy in Jerusalem in 415, newly condemned for his De libero arbitrio ( On Free Will )
in 416, Pelagius was finally condemned and excommunicated in 417 by Pope Innocent I, a ruling
confirmed by Innocent’s successor Zosimus in 418. This verdict was influenced by the verbose wrath
of Augustine, who wrote volumes against Pelagius and went so far as to demand his public censure: “I
do not hesitate at once to affirm that such a man [as Pelagius] ought to be removed from the public ear,
and to be anathematized by every mouth.” Augustine, A Treatise Concerning Man’s Perfection in
Righteousness , Chapter XXI (44) in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church: Volume
V , Benjamin B. Warfield, tr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), p.
313 Robert Derathé, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau et le Christianisme,” in Revue de Métaphysique et de
Morale (1948), p. 379.
314 Jacques-François Thomas, Le Pélagianisme de J . -J . Rousseau . (Paris: Librairie Nizet, 1956), pp. 8-
grace. 315 Although many have labeled Rousseau’s concept of innocence Pelagian,
few have explored the association in any detail. 316 Correcting this paucity allows us
to both impart coherence to an oft-bandied yet ill-defined term, and shed light upon
the seeds from which Rousseau’s most controversial theological paradox grows. 317
Before discussing parallels between Pelagius and Rousseau, we might begin
with an obvious difference. Unlike the well-documented Genevan, the figure of
Pelagius is marked by relative obscurity. 318 We know little of the details of his life
save that he was well-educated and born some time after 350 AD, probably in
Britain. 319 We also know that he was an exile of sorts. He left his birth land for
reasons unknown 320 and arrived in Rome circa 380 AD, becoming a spiritual advisor
315 In the late sixteenth century in works such as Concordia liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis ( The
Harmony of Free Will with Gifts of Grace ), the Jesuit theologian Molina attempted to reconcile a
concept of free will with his faith in divine justice and mercy. He presented a notably optimistic view
of human nature, one that allowed man sufficient grace to aspire towards redemption. For a thoughtful
exposition of the Jesuit influence upon Rousseau during his stay in Montmorency see: Gilbert Py,
“Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la Congrégation des Prêtres de l’Oratoire de Jésus,” Annales de la Société
Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Tome 38 (Geneva: A. Jullien, 1969-1971), pp. 127-153.
316 More striking than the typical brevity with which this connection is raised are the thoughtful studies
that fail to even mention Pelagius’ name. Allan Bloom examines Rousseau’s concept of goodness in
great length. P. M. Masson’s unrivaled three-volume La Religion de J. J. Rousseau work investigates
the heretical foundations of Rousseau’s theological thought. And in The Natural Goodness of Man ,
Arthur Melzer discusses Rousseau’s radical renunciation of Original Sin. In all of these studies,
Pelagius is conspicuously absent.
317 I do not mean to suggest that Rousseau was steeped in (or even directly influenced by) the writings
of Pelagius, but rather argue that a study of Pelagianism illuminates a problem central to Rousseau: the
concomitant concern with spiritual and secular values. A figure who also expressed deep faith in
heretical terms, Pelagius is far more helpful on this count than Augustine (who similarly described sin
as a self-incurred disease, yet concluded that only God might cure us).
318 “The writings of the Pelagians are notoriously anonymous,” Peter Brown notes, “and so are their
supporters.” Much of what we know about Pelagius and his followers comes from writings assumed to
be theirs, references in works of their contemporaries (most notably Augustine and Jerome), and a
small number of primary sources (governmental and ecclesiastical documents). B. R. Rees attributes
Pelagianism’s “poor press” to this scarcity of definitive primary sources. See: Peter Brown, Religion
and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine . (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 208; and The Letters of
Pelagius and His Followers , B. R. Rees, tr. (Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1991), p. 1.
319 See: Pelagius’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans , Theodore de Bruyn, tr. (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 10; Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic . (Suffolk: The Boydell Press,
1988), pp. xii-xiv.
320 The two most common explanations are career ambitions and a spat with his father. Rees, Ibid., p.
to Roman Christian aristocrats. 321 Pelagius entered Rome during a period of wealth
and flamboyance but also insecurity and striving, one ruled by a gluttonous
aristocracy both habituated to and increasingly disgusted with its routine
decadence. 322 The practical consequence of such ambivalence was a demand for
guidance. Nobles were “in constant need of mentors—from teachers of literature to
father-confessors”—to instruct them to rise above the concupiscence so rampant
amongst their socially-illustrious ranks. 323
It was an age “clouded with doubts” not simply about the plight of the
privileged, but around a core tenet of the Catholic Church: the origin and legacy of
the Fall of the human soul, a subject of protracted (and indeterminate) writings,
debate and dialogue. 324 Before Pelagianism “there had been little open debate about
matters of doctrine and belief.” 325 Indeed, history suggests that the Catholic Church
lacked a “coherent body of doctrine tried, tested and refined in the furnace of
321 This was a popular practice amongst the wealthy and spiritually ambitious. Brown, pp. 186-188.
322 Brown describes the privileged class of statesmen and orators as “a heterogeneous and, in part, a
nondescript body of men.” Yet they could hardly be accused of dullness, baring all the exaggerated
marks of ancient decadence: conspicuous consumption, lusty indiscretions, a propensity for gambling,
and a distaste for scholarly work. Roman élites were also notably competitive, “determined to live
according to… distinctive standards of excellence”—an aspiration guided by both “their sense of high
birth” and the desire to distinguish themselves from their peers. There was also a vocal conservative
backlash reared by the pagan orator Symmachus (who upheld strict protocol and ceremony in the
Senate) and the Christian Senator Jerome (who no less disapprovingly beseeched his peers to “learn
from me a holy arrogance”). Ibid., pp. 186-188.
323 In becoming a spiritual advisor, Pelagius was simply joining a well-established and increasingly
popular profession. The neo-Platonist Plotinus, an influence upon the young Augustine, was one of the
earliest figureheads of this tutorial tradition. Ibid., p. 188.
324 Ibid., p. 220. The free-will debates had spanned over 200 years. Augustine’s eventual victory over
Pelagius was aided more by the Saint’s tireless public sermons and growing influence than unified
doctrinal consensus amongst Church fathers.
325 Rees, The Letters of Pelagius and His Followers , p. 10. Rees goes so far as to suggest that “[t]here
had been no heresy before this one, if one excludes Priscillianism which arose in the peripheral area of
Spain.” One must also exclude Arianism (an early fourth century movement rejecting the divinity of
Jesus Christ), as well as smaller sects such as the Manichaeans and Gnostics (from which
Priscillianism is derived). It is worth noting that in his 1690 Dictionnaire Universel , Furetière names
only three examples of heretics: Arius, Luther and Calvin; Pelagius is conspicuously absent. See:
Furetière’s Dictionnaire Universel , Tome II.
controversy.” 326 Although Pelagius and his followers claimed to be integri Christiani
(authentic Christians), prior to his writings there existed little consensus as to what
this term actually meant. 327
If by the late fourth century orthodox dogma was still a work in progress, 328 a
definitive position had begun to coalesce around Augustine’s influential sermons on
free will. According to Augustine, Scripture is unequivocal on the origins and
transmission of sin: Genesis 3 describes the fall of man as punishment for Adam’s
errant appetite; 1 Corinthians 15 teaches that Christ died for our sins and was raised
by God as a redeemer; and Romans 5 describes sin as an ineradicable hereditary
disease. Adam was held accountable for tasting fruit from the tree of knowledge
because he was told not to (by God) and free not to (through an act of will). In falling
to temptation, Adam revealed the weakness of a will whose divided nature stood in
hideous contrast to the unified Divine will. Such was the legacy passed on to his
species. Fatally self-subverting and the source of enduring shame, our very natures
predisposed us to stray from God’s righteous example. 329
At first glance, Pelagius’ teachings may seem compatible with this
Augustinian (and decidedly un-Rousseauist) world-view. He urged his brethren to
live a stern, disciplined life, envisioning a Christian community connected by what
Peter Brown describes as an “icy puritanism,” hither unto binding ideals of propriety
326 Rees, Ibid., p. 10.
327 Brown, pp. 192-3.
328 Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic , p. 56. For a summary of the two main theories of Original Sin
in the second and third centuries—what N. P. Williams describes as “Hellenic, once-born or
minimizing” and “African, twice-born or maximizing”—see pp. 57-58.
329 Under this view, our only hope for redemption lay after earthly penance was paid, at the
postmortem, grace of the Being whose laws we are incapable of following. For Augustine, then, the
first penalty of Adam’s eternal gaffe—mortality—also provides our only hope. Because Original Man
had sinned, all men must die; yet because we all lay at God’s mercy, salvation might only be attained
following death.
and piousness, secular conduct aimed at spiritual elevation consummated by the grace
of Christ. 330 Yet Pelagius understood asceticism as redemptive corporeal vigilance
rather than shameful self-denial. Far from discounting human action, he granted
somatic reform a central role in the grueling struggle towards Christian elevation.
Unlike Augustine, for whom salvation depended solely upon God’s grace, Pelagius
shifted the burden of redemption upon man’s meager shoulders. Where Augustine
understood human free will as the catalyst for sin, Pelagius located the means of
training ourselves to live righteously. Where Augustine saw grace as the only means
of transcending Adam’s legacy, Pelagius identified an antidote independent of God’s
will. Where Augustine felt sin permeate the marrow of his soul, Pelagius saw a
superficial (albeit ubiquitous) condition—bad habits reified through the ages—in
need of a corporeal remedy. 331 Pelagius therefore presented a twofold offense to the
teachings of Augustine: not only did he soften the impact of the Fall, he claimed that
Christians should and could raise themselves . 332 Because man was not irreparably
330 Brown, p. 194. Although Rees affirms the severity of the Pelagian “evangelical, salvationist and
didactic” vision ( Letters , p. 12), not everyone agrees. De Bruyn reminds us that “[f]or most Christians,
both clergy and laity, the regime advocated by zealots was too severe. Even those who approved of
asceticism in general were disturbed by extreme manifestations.” He describes Pelagius as just such a
moderate, citing his position on a heated dispute of Manichaean origins: whether or not Christians
should eat meat. Pelagius carefully abstains from passing categorical judgment, instead claiming that
scripture does not explicitly require vegetarianism of the faithful. De Bruyn overly signifies this
concession, one that hardly conforms to Pelagianism’s broader Christian “ascetic program” that
“envisaged not the end of corporeal existence, but rather the extirpation of the passions which obscured
the vision of God.” Furthermore, this isolated instance of compromise does not even distinguish
Pelagius from Augustine who arrived at a similarly cautious defense of meat-eating in the Confessions
(xxxi.45). See: De Bruyn, pp. 2-7, 12, 15; and Pelagius Commentary on the Romans 14:1-23, pp.
331 Rousseau shared a skeptical view of habit. In an author’s note to Emile he describes a vicious
circle: “The appeal of habit comes from the laziness natural to man, and that laziness increases in
abandoning oneself to habit.” Both he and Pelagius faced criticism for failing to explain habituated sin
in light of natural goodness. See: De Bruyn, p. 24; Emile . E 160n.
332 This divergence is acutely evident in their competing beliefs about baptism. Augustine preached
the necessity of infant baptism as the first stage of redeeming ourselves in God’s eyes. By contrast,
Pelagius understood baptism as a commitment to self-conscious change, one only meaningful to
mature adults. Rousseau makes a similar argument about religion in Emile , stressing the need
burdened with guilt, human agency in addition to divine grace could cleanse us of our
In works such as the Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and On
Nature , Pelagius argued that sin was not a hereditary condition but a habituated lapse
in judgment. 333 Predating Rousseau’s description of denatured man, he argued that
corruption “lives as a guest” in humankind “as an accidental quality, not a natural
one.” 334 Drawing upon the metaphor of an unwanted disease attacking a host-victim,
Pelagius claimed that “carnal habit,” far from characterizing human desire, actually
“opposes the will.” 335 As with Rousseau, corruption distorts and disserves (rather
than epitomizes) our divinely-crafted natures.
In framing this argument, Pelagius draws upon a vision of a tough-but-fair
God, a figurehead who would hardly set us up to fail by establishing a standard of
conduct impossible to fulfill. 336 Nor would He levy eternal punishment upon
creatures whom He both loved and created in His image. Rather than wait for
salvation in an afterlife, we must rethink the mantra of accountability that plays so
prominent a role in Augustine’s narrative of the Fall. We must bear responsibility for
our own actions, using Adam’s model as a lesson of malfeasance rather than proof of
introduce God only after human beings are developmentally capable of comprehending Divinity (“for
if he learns it sooner than he ought, he runs the risk of never knowing it”). E 257.
333 It is in these works that Pelagius developed what Augustine later described as the “three principal
heads in the Pelagian heresy”: the denial of Original Sin; the contention that “the grace of God
whereby we are justified is not given freely, but according to our merits”; and the argument that “in
mortal man, however holy and well doing, there is so great righteousness that even after the washing of
regeneration [Baptism], until he finishes this life of his, forgiveness is not necessary to him.” His
influence as a spiritual leader had grown with his role as a pedagogue, but it was not until
approximately 405 AD, after these works had reached Augustine’s disapproving eye, that he became
embroiled in controversy. See: Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians , Book III, Chapter 24.
(Warfield, p. 414)
334 Commentary on the Romans , 7:17. (De Bruyn, p. 104)
335 Ibid., 7:18, p. 104.
336 Readers should note this parallels the position Rousseau approvingly attributes to de Warens in The
Confessions .
irredeemable guilt. As Pelagius concludes, “I myself have provided myself with this
compulsion.” 337 If “I” am the agent, it follows logically that “I” must take
responsibility for curing my self-incurred concupiscence.
To support his case, Pelagius distinguished between rational instinct and
irrational desire. “Habitual desires, or the persuading of the enemy” is opposed to
The law of my mind . Namely, of natural conscience, or of the divine law, which
resides in the mind.” 338 In terms clearly presaging Rousseau, “divine law” is
inscribed upon our “natural conscience.” Wickedness results from a failure to
comprehend and follow this order, an estrangement whose redress requires the
cultivation of our natural God-given ability to determine right from wrong. As
Pelagius argues, we must retrain our wills, not damn our natures, because “the will
was arraigned, not the nature, which God created in such a way that it [was able] not
to sin.” 339 Carnal impulse does not mask the stench of irredeemably tainted flesh; it
rather reveals the force of habit and the prevalence of poor decision-making amongst
humankind. As with Rousseau, a stifled conscience is no sign of irredeemable fault;
it rather punctuates the need to reawaken this innate faculty through meaningful
corporeal reform.
Augustine found in these urgings utter blasphemy. 340 Defining corruption as
habitual rather than necessary reduced sin to a problem of human “negligence,” one
curable through an act of will. 341 Where Augustine saw “confirmed invalids,”
337 Commentary on the Romans , 7:20. (De Bruyn, p. 104)
338 Ibid., 7:22, p. 107.
339 Commentary on the Romans , 8:3, (De Bruyn, p. 107).
340 Augustine found this position Scripturally unsound. Citing Psalms 12:1 & 8; 41:4, he reminds us
that the “[t]he nature of which our author [Pelagius] speaks is corrupted.” Augustine, On Nature and
Grace , Ch. 57 (Warfield, pp. 140-141).
341 Ibid., Ch. 14 [XIII] (p. 125).
Pelagius envisioned humankind “like the man found wounded on the road from
Jerusalem to Jericho—saved from certain death… [yet] resigned to spending a
lifetime of precarious convalescence in the Inn of the Catholic Church.” 342 Neither
might be confused with a libertine, and despite Augustine’s portrayal Pelagius was
hardly an unqualified optimist. Like Rousseau, he recognized the ubiquity of societal
corruption and—in a tone reminiscent of Seneca 343 —the difficulty of reform. Yet as
with Rousseau, Pelagius looked squarely in the eyes of what he believed was a
decadent culture, and challenged the necessity of this decline. Where Rousseau later
invoked our divinely-crafted nature as evidence of inherent innocence, so did
Pelagius take recourse in our intrinsic God-given goodness. Rousseau and Pelagius
agreed that men had made a mess of a divine creation; man must therefore halt his
self-incurred fall, reorient himself to follow his conscience with the knowledge that
sin was actually the logical and finite consequence of improvident action.
Because God is the “Author” of nature (a phrase Rousseau also frequents),
natural order must reflect his unquestionable goodness. Pelagius applied this logic to
human nature which, as a divine creation, possessed the capacity for goodness. Yet
in making the ontological claim that humankind is naturally good and not necessarily
342 Brown, p. 203.
343 The Stoic sage, according to Seneca, is of so rare character that one “perhaps springs into existence,
like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years.” ( Epistulae Morales xiii.1) Sages are beings
hardened to external circumstances and worldly forces who follow a moral code drawn in accordance
with nature. Despite manifold difficulties, Seneca advises that the human will, can, with enough effort,
achieve this plateau through personal fortification, an act of will that overcomes “weakness of the
mind,” ( De Ira II.ii.2) and an indifference to forces beyond one’s control, a state Martha C. Nussbaum
labels “radical detachment” (both external resistance and internal command of one’s emotions). For a
discussion of this term see: The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics ,
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 363-364. On Tertullian’s reference to Seneca as
“often one of us [Christians]” see: A. A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy , Second Edition . (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1986), p. 236. Saint Jerome also makes this connection in Against
Rufinus . See: Dogmatic and Polemical Works , John N. Hritzu, tr. (Washington, DC: The Catholic
University of America Press, 1965), p. 210.
beholden to sin, Pelagius rendered an unqualified blasphemy: he negated the value of
Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. As Augustine lamented, the mere
possibility of man’s innocence “renders the cross of Christ of none effect.” 344
Denying man’s hereditary guilt as descendents of Adam did not merely disserve the
obedience we owe God (as the only possible cause of our redemption), or brazenly
raise our self-estimation; it meant that “Christ [is] dead in vain.” 345 Jesus could not
have died a sacrificial death (bearing a brutal punishment for our sins) were we not all
sinners. By reducing a crime of eternal guilt to one of temporal circumstance, human
goodness renders the terms of his sacrifice moot.
Not that Pelagius was lenient. If eating from the tree of knowledge did not
elicit eternal punishment, God’s vengeance was still indisputably fierce. After all,
Adam received “the death-penalty for breaking one single prohibition; and even he
was less to blame than us, for he did not have the great benefit of the previous
execution of a human being to deter him.” 346 To understand Pelagius’ feud with
Augustine as a conflict over severity is therefore inaccurate; Augustine was far more
agitated by Pelagius’ emphasis .
Let us recall the Saint’s two distinct albeit related lines of criticisms: first,
Pelagianism gives man an inflated sense of the value of his actions; and second, so
doing demeans the role of God in our lives. If humankind is endowed with
conscience, free will and a universal potential to rise above sin, this might also
suggest a democratic vision of egalitarian reform. However, asceticism—a practical
remedy for societal decay—posed a challenge few would except, one that conformed
344 Augustine, On Nature and Grace , Ch. 21, p. 127. See also: Ch. 9, p. 124.
345 Ibid., Ch. 9, p. 124.
346 Brown, p. 204.
to a rigid and grueling vision of the Christian life prone, much like Seneca’s quest for
enlightened wisdom, to failure. In the end, and unlike Rousseau, Pelagius was neither
republican nor Protestant; he was simply “looking for better Christians and not for a
more democratic form of government.” 347
In the Social Contract , Rousseau makes a strong distinction between “the
Religion of man and that of the Citizen” and demands that we choose. 348 For
Pelagius, there was hardly a choice; Christians, not citizens, were his overarching
concern. Furthermore, “he sincerely believed that his teaching was orthodox and
consistent with that [Catholic] Church’s tradition.” As B. R. Rees argues, this belief
guided his protracted self-defense: “it was in order to prove [his orthodoxy] to his
critics that he allowed himself to become involved in an arduous and prolonged
controversy for which he was by ethos and training quite unsuited.” 349 If, as Rees
concludes, we should consider Pelagius a “reluctant” heretic we might also consider
him a “stubborn” heretic, so certain was he of his own piety.
Whatever the qualifying adjective, Pelagius’ heresy is indisputable in
hindsight. He maintained theological doctrine in opposition, or held to be contrary, to
the Roman Catholic Church. Yet Brown reminds us that Augustine—not Pelagius—
“abandoned a great tradition of Western Christianity” by denying that “it was ever
possible for a man to slough off his past; neither baptism nor the experience of
conversion could break the monotonous continuity of a life that was ‘one long
temptation.’” 350 By contrast, Pelagius adhered to the “the idea that conversion and
347 Rees, A Reluctant Heretic , p. 112.
348 The Social Contract . CW 219; OC III.464.
349 Rees, A Reluctant Heretic , p. 131.
350 Brown, p. 200.
initiation could make a total break in personality,” a belief that W. H. C. Frend
describes as “the Christianity of discontinuity.” 351 In claiming that man might be
reborn through an act of will, Pelagius revealed himself to be “the last, the most
radical, and the most paradoxical exponent” of the ancient faith. 352
And here we return to this chapter’s initial concern. Heresies are, by
definition, paradoxical; they are defined by the rejection of commonly held truths.
Pelagian heterodoxy offers an additional paradox—one charged to Rousseau as
well—by using traditional values as the foundation of radical revisionism. Both men
preached ontological innocence as a heuristic catalyst to reform; both refused to
abandon core Christian doctrines including the existence of an afterlife and the moral
guidance provided by God (as revealed in either the natural world or scripture); and
both set redemptive doctrines against the backdrop of pessimistic realism (stark
sociopolitical critique). Most significantly, both insisted upon the righteousness of
their paradoxical faiths, maintaining the conviction that they were more pious than
their many detractors.
* * * * *
If the messages were similar, the messengers were less so. Pelagius was an
austere ascetic who lived as he preached. Rousseau was neither sternly disciplined
nor God-fearing, facts that did not prevent him from passing judgment. Curiously,
for a thinker wedded to the idea of innocence life appeared anything but. Man may
be intrinsically good but the society of his making was undoubtedly corrupting, “fit
351 Ibid., p. 200. See also: W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (1964), p.
352 Ibid., p. 200.
only for making double men.” 353 In evoking this image Rousseau hearkened back to
Augustine, whose Confessions provides the locus classicus of divided individualism.
As the Saint described, “in the process of deliberation a single soul is wavering
between different wills” that pull us towards mutually exclusive loves of spiritual and
carnal gratification. 354 This morbid, painful condition “pull[s] apart the human heart”
and debilitates the mind. 355 Yet for Augustine, such was man’s lot: this internalized
“struggle of myself against myself” was a manifestation of the “‘sin which dwelt in
me,’ sin resulting from the punishment of a more freely chosen sin, because I was a
son of Adam.” 356
By contrast, Rousseau understood such contradictory impulses as a struggle
between nature and artifice, natural instincts and social pressures, man (as divine
creations) and men (as socially distorted creatures):
Swept along in contrary routes by nature and by men, forced to divide
ourselves between these different impulses, we follow a composite
impulse which leads us to neither one goal nor the other. Thus, in
conflict and floating during the whole course of our life, we end it
without having been able to put ourselves in harmony with ourselves,
and without having been good either for ourselves or for others. 357
Far from epitomizing human nature, divergent wills oppose it. 358 In broader terms,
“conflict and floating” is symptomatic of a disconnect between the way things truly
353 Emile . E 41.
354 Augustine, Confessions , VIII.x.23, p. 149.
355 Ibid., VIII.ix.21 & VIII.x.24. pp. 148 & 150.
356 Ibid., VIII.xi.27 & VIII.x.22, pp. 152 & 149. Augustine’s reference is to Romans 7: 17, 20.
357 Emile . E 41.
358 In works such as The Social Contract and Poland , Rousseau sought to reform society by
legitimizing political institutions. Yet in Emile he seems far more withdrawn, suggesting we raise “a
man… uniquely for himself.” Such “negative” or defensive education protects individuals from a
corrupt world while cultivating their natural goodness. “To form this rare man” we must “prevent
anything from being done.” (E 41) As he elaborates in his Letter to Beaumont , “If man is good by his
nature, as I believe I have demonstrated, it follows that he remains so as long as nothing foreign to
himself spoils him. And if men are wicked, as [papists] have gone to the trouble of teaching me, it
follows that their wickedness comes from elsewhere. Close the entrance to vice, then, and the human
are by nature and the way they are made to seem in a denatured world. For Rousseau,
this condition was a source of tremendous angst, one which he repeatedly confronts
throughout his works. 359 It was also, as Jean Starobinski believes, a preoccupation
rooted in personal experience. 360
As a youth in Bossey, Rousseau was a house servant to the Lambercier
family. Alone in a room where his master’s comb was found broken and “no one but
myself had entered,” he appeared guilty of vandalism. 361 Despite the weight of
evidence and the Lamberciers’ dogged interrogations, he “stubbornly persisted” in
denying any wrongdoing. “I would have suffered death and I was resolved to do so,”
he thunders, rather than suffer the indignation of taking responsibility for a crime he
had not committed. 362 As his vivid recollection of an incident that occurred more
than fifty years prior makes plain, Rousseau was still haunted by the memory of this
false accusation. It marked his conversion from naive innocent to outraged victim. In
his own words, he was transformed from
a child always governed by the voice of reason, always treated with
gentleness, equity, kindness; who did not even have the idea of
injustice, and who suffers such a terrible one for the first time from
precisely the people he loves and respects the most. What a reversal of
heart will always be good. On this principle, I established the negative education as the best or rather
as the only good one. I show how all positive education, no matter how it is pursued, follows a path
contrary to its goal. And I show how one tends to the same goal and how one reaches it by the route I
have sketched.” CW IX.35; OC IV.945.
359 Here I follow Starobinski, who cites “transparency” as Rousseau’s primary unifying concern. This
manifests itself both positively (as baring his soul in The Confessions , for example), and negatively—
as the rejection of mediating bodies in religion (the church), politics (representative democracy), and
the arts (theater).
360 It is worth noting that Kelly disagrees: “Contrary to what Starobinski claims, Jean-Jacques feels no
split between appearance and truth. He feels a split between the Lamberciers’ past gentleness and their
present injustice.” (Kelly, p. 94) However, these points are not mutually exclusive. The “present
injustice” of denatured society, for example, also indicates a failure to act in accord with our “true”
361 The Confessions . CW V.16; OC I.18. For Rousseau’s full account see: CW V.16-17; OC I.18-20.
362 The Confessions . CW V.16-17; OC I.19.
ideas! what disorder of feelings! what an upheaval in his heart, in his
brain, in all his little intellectual and moral being! 363
Falsely impugned guilt left him with a “feeling of violence and injustice,” one that
“has remained so deeply engraved on my soul, that all the ideas related to it give me
back my first emotion.” 364 An enduring source of indignation, Rousseau drew upon a
general hatred from this particular experience: “my heart is inflamed at the spectacle
of all unjust actions—whatever their object might be and wherever they are
committed—just as if their effect fell on me.” 365 This was a point of no return, one
which evoked a bitter conclusion: “From that moment I ceased to enjoy a pure
happiness, and even today I feel that the remembrance of the charms of my childhood
stops there.” 366
Under Rousseau’s adroit pen, a broken comb adopts the significance of
Adam’s fall from Eden. It is an event replete with crime, accusation, punishment,
breach of trust, epiphany, and a sudden and enduring loss of innocent bliss—with one
crucial caveat. He insists that his Original Sin was a crime in appearance only: “Jean-
Jacques appears to be guilty although in fact he is not. He appears to lie when in fact
he is sincere.” 367 His experience becomes a sacrificial testament of integrity, one
where an innocent victim bears the individual burden of a general failure to determine
truth from opinion. Furthermore, an error of this sort carries dire consequences.
363 The Confessions . CW V.17; OC I.19.
364 The Confessions . CW V.17; OC I.20.
365 The Confessions . CW V.17; OC I.20.
366 The Confessions . CW V.18; OC I.20.
367 Starobinski, Transparency and Obstruction , p. 7.
Rousseau was forced not simply from his masters’ home, but from the very “serenity
of my childlike life.” 368
In Edenic terms, this rude awakening forces us to consider the significance of
a Fall in which man is not guilty. It was an idea first developed (in relatively
impersonal terms) in the Second Discourse where, as with Jean-Jacques himself,
humankind begins in a natural state of benign bliss and falls victim to apparently
arbitrary, corrupting circumstances beyond its immediate control. As in The
Confession s, an underlying claim of innocence appears to contradict empirical
evidence. In each instance, readers must dismiss the facts Rousseau himself
introduces—be it ubiquitous corruption or his sole access to a broken comb—in order
to arrive at a deeper truth. Whether the subject is Jean-Jacques or humankind, readers
are asked to sympathize with the innocent wronged.
Rousseau repeats this request in Emile , lamenting that sometimes a youth “is
chastised before he is able to know his offenses or, rather, to commit any.” 369 Yet by
falsely imputing malice we actually awaken it. “We fill up his young heart at the
outset with the passions which later we impute to nature.” 370 This unfounded
ascription epitomizes societal corruption for two reasons: it attributes intrinsic guilt to
innocent creatures, and plants “the development of the artificial seeds” of amour
propre and malicious self-interest. A child so reared grows to become a dangerous
man, a “slave and tyrant, full of science and bereft of sense, frail in body and soul
alike.” Inept and proud, a carrier of vice, this unnatural product “becomes the basis
368 The Confessions . CW V.18; OC I.20.
369 Emile . E 48.
370 “After having taken efforts to make him wicked, we complain about finding him so.” Emile . E 48.
for our deploring human misery and perversity.” 371 Such a dour conclusion is,
however, misguided. “He is the man of our whims; the man of nature is differently
constituted.” 372
At heart of this argument is an undying faith in the ontological innocence of
humankind, a connection Rousseau reinforces by suddenly directing us to his most
provocative Pelagian treatise, The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar . 373
Profession itself makes an equally conspicuous entrance into Emile . Neither taught to
the prized pupil nor told in the tutor’s voice, it follows an introductory caveat: “I am
not propounding to you the sentiment of another or my own as a rule. I am offering it
to you for examination.” 374 The “other” in question is the “decent ecclesiast,” a
nameless Vicar 375 who begins his soliloquy with a refrain suspiciously familiar to
Jean-Jacques himself. “Do not expect either learned spectacles or profound reasoning
from me,” he warns. “I am not a great philosopher, and I care little to be one. But I
sometimes have good sense, and I always love the truth.” 376
This humble sense of limitation immediately leads the Vicar to question his
obligations as a Catholic cleric. As he admits, “it was not long before I sensed that in
371 Emile . E 48.
372 Emile . E 48. Hobbes, for one, got it wrong when he “called the wicked man a robust child.” This
is somewhat misleading. As Hobbes wrote in the Preface to De Cive , children are pre-moral only
because they are not bound by duty: “because not having the use of reason, they are totally exempt
from duties. If they continue to do the same things when they are grown up and have acquired the
strength to do harm, then they begin to be evil and to be called so. Thus an evil man is rather like a
sturdy boy, or a man of childish mind, and evil is simply want of reason at an age when it normally
accrues to men by nature governed by discipline and experience of harm.” Hobbes, On the Citizen , p.
373 Amidst a discussion of innate moral sense, conscience, and natural love of goodness, Rousseau
writes: “See hereafter the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar.” Emile . E 67
374 Emile . E 260.
375 The Vicar is based on two Abbés Rousseau encountered (and admired) as a youth: “the decent M.
Gaime” and “the most gentle of men,” M. Gâtier. See: The Confessions . CW V.76-77, 99-100; OC
I.90-92, 118-119.
376 Emile . E 266.
obliging myself not to be a man I had promised more than I could keep.” 377 His sense
of imminent failure—of the unnatural demands pressed upon him—caused him to
question his piety. “I was in that frame of mind of uncertainty and doubt that
Descartes demands for the quest for truth.” This “disturbing and painful” state, one
“hardly made to last,” compounded his misgivings of doubt itself. “How can one
systematically and in good faith be a skeptic,” he asks? “I cannot understand it.
These skeptic philosophers either do not exist or are the unhappiest of men.” 378
Rousseau knew perfectly well that such philosophers did exist, and—from
Pyrrho to Montaigne—were famous for their preternatural calm. But the Vicar’s
sensational claim establishes his creed’s guiding principle: given the limits of human
reasoning, piety cannot rest upon reason alone. As evidence he points to the
“diversity of sentiments,” the variety of religious opinions whose sheer numbers
subvert any one’s claim to possessing an exclusive truth. 379 Their incongruity reveals
not righteousness but “the insufficiency of the human mind” guided by excessive
“pride.” “Insufficiency” prevents us from truly comprehending God, while hubris
deludes us into thinking otherwise. Divine mysteries are nonetheless impenetrable:
[They] surround us on all sides; they are above the region accessible to
the senses. We believe we possess intelligence for piercing thee
mysteries, but all we have is imagination. Through this imaginary
world each blazes a trail he believes to be good. None can know
whether his leads to the goal. Nevertheless we want to penetrate
everything, to know everything. The only thing we know is how to be
ignorant of what we cannot know. We would rather decide at random
and believe what is not than admit that none of us can see what is. We
are a small part of a great whole whose limits escape us and whose
Author delivers us to our mad disputes; but we are vain enough to
377 Emile . E 367.
378 Emile . E 367-368.
379 Emile . E 268. On this point, Rousseau’s influence can be seen in William James’ The Varieties of
Religious Experience .
want to decide what this whole is in itself and what we are in relation
to it. 380
Definitive knowledge of the divine is, however, nothing short of self-delusion. More
specifically, such claims are both dangerous and unnecessary. Dangerous because, as
the history of the Catholic church illustrates, dogmatic certainty leads to violent
intolerance; and unnecessary because they do not cultivate true piety. The Vicar
accepts as “true” only that which he feels “in the sincerity of my heart.” Everything
else is left in a sort of spiritual purgatory, a state of “uncertainty without rejecting it
or accepting it and without tormenting myself to clarify it if it leads to nothing useful
for practice.” 381
Admitting not to “know why the universe exists,” he approaches it “like a man
who saw a watch opened for the first time,” admiring the craftsmanship without
understanding the mechanics. 382 He is also certain that its parts “are moving in
harmony only for a common end which it is impossible for me to perceive.” But such
380 Emile . E 268. Compare this with the Vicar’s remarks on the difficulties of contemplating God
(285), and the tutor’s description of God as an “incomprehensible Being who embraces everything,
who gives motion to the world and forms the whole system of beings, Is neither visible to our eyes nor
palpable to our hands; He escapes all our senses.” (255). This position adheres to a traditional
voluntarist belief in the incomprehensibility of God, one shared by thinkers as diverse as Augustine,
Ockham, Duns Scotus and Malebranche.
381 Emile . E 270. The Vicar’s skepticism sets the stage for his diminution of belabored reasoning.
Although conscience (our moral compass) never errs, the faculty of comparison is prone to error—it
relies upon “understanding, which judges the relations, mixes its errors in with the truth of the
sensations, which only reveal the objects.” (E 271) Descartes reached a similar conclusion in his Sixth
Meditation , but understood man’s “confusion” as a consequence of his nature, “a combination of mind
and body… that is bound to mislead him from time to time.” The Vicar modifies this dualism: man’s
dividedness is a consequence of denaturization . Pitié and amour-de-soi are the sole impulses guiding
our will in the natural state, and they never lead us astray. In the Second Discourse , Rousseau
describes willing as a “purely spiritual act.” Perception and sentiment defines man’s first state, while
willing, desire and fear “will be the first and almost the only operations of his soul.” (CW III.26-27;
OC III.142-143.) As evidence, he offers two articles of faith. First, “a will moves the universe and
animates nature.” (E 273) And second, because “moved matter” reveals a causal act of will, “matter
moved according to certain laws shows me an intelligence.” (E 275) A retreat to conscience therefore
offers a point of communion with God, a deference to the “intelligence” that orders the natural world.
See also: Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy , VI.88, p. 61.
382 Emile . E 275.
absolute comprehension is unnecessary. Where reason requires certitude, faith is
affirmed through simple observance of a divine order, one revealed “not only in the
heavens which turn, not only in the star which gives us light, not only in myself, but
in the ewe which grazes, in the bird which flies, in the stone which falls, in the leaf
carried by the wind.” 383 Such is evidence of a “supreme intelligence” neither
“healthy mind” nor “unprejudiced eyes” can refute. 384
Lest we think him an incurable romantic or a long-gone hippie, the Vicar turns
his gaze to the real world. The results shock him from his starry-eyed sentimentality.
“What a spectacle! Where is the order I had observed? The picture of nature had
presented me with only harmony and proportion; that of mankind presents me with
confusion and disorder!... Beneficent Being, what has become of your power? I see
evil on earth.” 385 As with Pelagius, the Vicar concludes that corruption is self-
inflicted. “Our sorrows, our cares, and our sufferings come to us from ourselves.
Moral evil is incontestably our own wor .”
386 Of this he is certain.
Man, seek the author of evil no longer. It is yourself. No evil exists
other than that which you do or suffer, and both come to you from
yourself. General evil can exist only in disorder, and I see in the
system of the world an unfailing order. Particular evil exists only in
383 Emile . E 275. Invocations such as these have led many to associate Rousseau with Deism, the
belief that religious sentiment is inborn and not acquired strictly through revelation or Church
384 By contrast, theological “sophisms” are not simply contestable; they lead to debilitating doubt and
actually make it “impossible to recognize the harmony of the beings and the admirable concurrences of
each piece in the preservation of others.” (E 275) This “harmony”—the ordered expression of divine
will—justifies the Vicar’s celebration of humanity: “content with the place in which God has put me, I
see nothing, except for Him, that is better than my species.” As with Pelagius, evidence of man’s
innocence “lies precisely in his being a peculiar, special creature of God.” Robert F. Evans, Pelagius:
Inquiries and Reappraisals . (New York: The Seabury Press, 1968), p. 92. For a discussion of this
“new idealism” (which, along with radical skepticism and humble realism informs Rousseau’s concept
of natural goodness) see: Melzer, p. 26.
385 Emile . E 278.
386 Emile . E 281. (My emphasis.)
the sentiment of the suffering being, and man did not receive this
sentiment from nature: he gave it to himself. 387
Evil is a corporeal affliction, one that exists only as a finite sentiment. Attributing its
cause (and absolution) to the will of God disserves both the Author and His creation
alike. To do so “is to want Him to do my work while I collect the wages for it. Not
to be contented with my condition is to want no longer to be a man, it is to want
something other than what is, it is to want disorder and evil.” 388 If, as the Vicar
laments, we were only “satisfied to be what we are, we would not have to lament our
fate.” 389 Rather than embrace our divinely-crafted natures we seek “imaginary well-
being,” a process that “give[s] ourselves countless real ills.” An argument familiar to
Rousseau’s readers, the unfettered pursuit of unnatural desires has disastrous
consequences. As the Vicar makes plain, “take away our fatal progress, take away
our errors and our vices, take away the work of man, and everything is good.” 390
A return to God is clearly in order. But if, as the Vicar confides, “the more
effort I make to contemplate His infinite essence, the less I can conceive it,” how
might we commune? 391 Given the limits of reason we must look within. “Let us
return to ourselves,” the Vicar exclaims! “Let us examine, all personal interest aside,
387 Emile . E 282. In stressing the coherence of a general divine order Rousseau again follows
388 Emile . E 294. Following Pelagius, because our sins are self-inflicted their remission does not
require divine grace. As the Vicar makes plain, “death is the remedy for the evils you do to
yourselves; nature”—and therefore God—“did not want you to suffer forever.” (E 281) Note that this
both precedes and supports Rousseau’s “purgatory” argument from The Confessions .
389 Emile . E 281. As in The Confessions , the Discourses , and the Letter to d’Alembert , man’s desire to
live beyond his natural limits is the source of significant woe.
390 Emile . E 282. Rousseau began Emile with a similar claim: “Everything is good as it leaves the
hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” (E 37)
391 Emile . E 286.
where our inclinations lead us.” 392 It is this very examination that, as with Rousseau,
leads him to affirm his natural goodness:
All the morality of our actions is in the judgment we ourselves make
of them. If it is true that the good is good, it must be so in the depths
of our hearts as it is in our works… If moral goodness is in
conformity with our nature, man could be healthy of spirit or well
constituted only to the extent that he is good. If it is not and man is
naturally wicked, he cannot cease to be so without being corrupted,
and goodness in him is only a vice contrary to nature. 393
Here is a Pelagian manifesto of notable assertiveness and simplicity. Man is either
good or bad. “If he were made to do harm to his kind, as a wolf is made to slaughter
his prey… virtue would leave us with remorse” because it would contradict our God-
given natures. 394 But it does not. We are gratified by the happiness of others, find
beneficent acts more agreeable than wicked ones, and possess “admiration for heroic
actions” and “raptures of love for great souls.” Furthermore, the Vicar notes,
“[a]mong so many inhuman and bizarre cults, among this prodigious diversity of
morals and characters, you will find everywhere the same ideas of justice and
decency, everywhere the same notions of good and bad.” 395 Such sentiments attest to
an underlying universal order, one to which all men are naturally drawn regardless of
their social differences. As creatures of the same God, we are beholden to the same
divine law. 396
“If one had listened only to what God says to the heart of man,” the Vicar
argues, “there would never have been more than one religion on earth.” 397 Because a
392 Emile . E 287.
393 Emile . E 287.
394 Emile . E 287.
395 Emile . E 288.
396 Emile . E 286.
397 Emile . E 295.
“just heart is the true temple of the divinity,” one accessible to “every country and
every sect,” the “true duties of religion are independent of the institutions of men.” 398
Specific forms of worship are therefore somewhat arbitrary, based upon
contingencies such as birthplace and familial tradition, but not the embodiment of
exclusive truths. 399 A positive argument for religious tolerance, this also serves as a
renunciation of revelation. “View the spectacle of nature; hear the inner voice,” he
urges. “Has God not told everything to our eyes, to our conscience, to our judgment?
What more will men tell us?” 400 Not only is human testimony superfluous, it is also
[R]evelations have only the effect of degrading God by giving Him
human passions. I see that particular dogmas, far from clarifying the
notions of the great Being, confuse them; that far from ennobling
them, they debase them; that to the inconceivable mysteries
surrounding the great Being they add absurd contradictions; that they
make man proud, intolerant, and cruel; that, instead of establishing
peace on earth, they bring sword and fire to it. I ask myself what good
all this does, without knowing what to answer. I see in it only the
crimes of men and the miseries of mankind. 401
As in The Confessions , man’s meddling only corrupts religion’s spiritual and practical
value. “As soon as peoples took it into their heads to make God speak, each made
Him speak in its own way and made Him say what it wanted.” 402 Reduced to a
reflection of human passions and “absurd contradictions,” God becomes a puppet of
those who arrogantly assume to represent him.
398 Emile . E 311.
399 Nature “made itself respected on earth and seemed to relegate crime, along with the guilty, to
heaven.” Emile . E 288-289. Compare this with the Vicar’s dismissal from E 296: only “a mad
vanity” could convince us “that God takes so great an interest in the form of the priest’s costume, in
the order of the words he pronounces, in the gestures he makes at the altar, and in all his
genuflections.” External worship “is purely a question of public policy” and civil harmony. By
contrast, true piety—“that of the heart”—is nourished internally.
400 Emile . E 295.
401 Emile . E 295.
402 Emile . E 295.
The Vicar suggests his provocative creed should only inspire “reasons for
doubt,” and demands that we “seek the truth” for ourselves. This qualification
precedes a condemnation of those who, by contrast, believe “that they alone are
enlightened, true, and of good faith,” and “imperiously subject us to their peremptory
decisions.” 403 It is at this point that we find Rousseau’s most revealing intrusion in
his own voice, in an author’s note. He takes the Vicar’s critique as an opportunity to
air his own grievances, specifically against papists. “Are the people who traffic in
religion those who are religious? All the crimes committed among the clergy, as
elsewhere, do not prove that religion is useless, but that very few people are
religious.” 404 Thus an argument for tolerance ends as an attack against the self-
anointed mediators of God’s will. 405
A claim of innocence that contradicts Catholic orthodoxy; a strike against the
vanity of those who purport to comprehend and represent God; a defense of religious
tolerance and condemnation of fanatical dogmatism. 406 All this coupled with a
forthright accusation against the self-proclaimed faithful who prove “that very few
people are religious.” Should there be any surprise that this work was anathematized?
What began as a skeptical quest to uncover simple answers to complicated questions
unfolds as a renunciation of Original Sin and Catholic authority alike. Rousseau was
403 Emile . E 295, 312. For a extended discussion of this claim see: Ch. 4, “Rousseau as Recluse.”
404 Emile . E 313.
405 This was precisely the line of argumentation Rousseau adopted in The Social Contract ’s discussion
of Civil Religion. Readers should consult Chapter 5 below for a detailed examination.
406 However, in typically paradoxical fashion, Rousseau actually defends fanaticism as preferable to
irreligion: “fanaticism, although more deadly in its immediate effects than what is today called the
philosophic spirit, is much less so in its consequences.” In a tone presaging Nietzsche, Rousseau
laments that “indifference to the good” born of the “philosophic spirit” is the greater of two evils, one
that “quietly saps the true foundations of every society.” Emile . E 312.
soon held accountable for these heresies and forced, yet again, to defend his
* * * * *
Reaction to Emile was unprecedented. As P.-M. Masson notes, it marked the
first time the publicly-sold work of a celebrated author approved by the censor
Malesherbes had elicited such severe reprobation. 407 Rousseau’s critical attitude
towards Catholicism hardly distinguished him from the philosophes of his age, but his
writings lacked their “ordinary hypocrisies” and “irony.” 408 He attacked papal
authority as neither an atheist nor a libertine, but a champion of genuine religious
faith. The resultant scandal was so loud, the refutation so imperious, “que la justice
fut obligée si sévir.” 409 Ruthless it was: on June 7, 1762 Emile was brought before
the general assembly and publicly burned in Paris four days later. On June 19, the
Genevan government burned both Emile and The Social Contract following the
Conclusions du Procureur général . 410 And on July 18, Emile was banned in notably
tolerant Amsterdam. 411
In The Confessions Rousseau professed obliviousness to these impending
storms, although his private correspondence suggests otherwise. 412 He had previously
expressed anxiety over Emile ’s reception in a November 30, 1761 letter to
407 Masson, La Religion de J. J. Rousseau , vol. III, p. 47.
408 Ibid., vol. III, p. 47.
409 Masson, “La profession de foi du Vicaire Savoyard” de Jean-Jacques Rousseau , édition critique .
(Fribourg-Paris, 1914), pp. liii-liv.
410 Conclusions du Procureur général sur deux livres intitulés de Contract Social & de l’Education .
CC XI.A266, pp. 298-301. See also: la Condamnation . CC.A267, pp. 301-302.
411 Les Etats de Hollande et de West-Frise à la Municipalité d’Amsterdam . CC XI.A268, pp. 302-303.
412 See: The Confessions . CW V.481-482; OC 575.
Malesherbes. 413 And in a May 29, 1762 letter to his publisher Michel Rey, he
described The Social Contract as a work that would be neither “admitted nor tolerated
in France.” 414 Reaction to his political treatise was decidedly more muted, most
threatening to the Genevan Council who viewed it as a radical critique of their own
government 415 yet greeted in France as “one of many abstract books on the
philosophy of law, which, because of its obtuse nature, could not have a great
influence on the public.” 416
Emile , however, received no such reprieve.
Marcel Françon described its censure as an “injustice and cruelty without
equal,” arguing that the charge of blasphemy was a “pretext” obscuring the malicious
machinations of “Voltaire et son clan pour perdre Rousseau.” 417 This was, of course,
the argument Jean-Jacques presented in his autobiography. So convinced was he of
both his own piety and a “Holbachian” plot against him that he reduced Emile ’s
condemnation to an elaborate personal vendetta. 418 Françon’s accord
notwithstanding, Rousseau’s conspiracy theory is at best incomplete: it hardly
acknowledges the unmistakably heretical substance of his condemned work. 419
413 Quoted in Marcel Françon, “La condamnation de ‘l’Émile,’” Annales de la Société Jean-Jacques
Rousseau , Tome 31 (Geneva: A. Jullien, 1946-1949), p. 227.
414 Quoted in Ibid., p. 233.
415 Rousseau’s most elaborate response to the Genevan Council’s condemnation of the Social Contract
is found in his Letters Written From the Mountain .
416 “During the commotion caused by the Emile and the religious ideas that it contained,” Rosenblatt
continues, “the Social Contract had practically been ignored in France.” Helena Rosenblatt, Rousseau
and Geneva , p. 271.
417 Françon, p. 244
418 The Confessions . CW V.482;OC I.576.
419 In its entry on Heresy , the 1957 edition of A Catholic Dictionary makes an apparent concession to
Protestants: “Such Protestants as are in good faith and sincerely desirous of knowing the truth are not
heretics in the formal sense, inasmuch as they do not pertinaciously reject the Church’s teaching.
Their heresy is material only—their tenets are in themselves heretical, but they are not formal heretics:
they do not incur the guilt of heresy.” This conclusion is indebted to Aquinas, for whom the heretic’s
guilt was incurred by willfully contradicting orthodoxy: “certain doctors seem to have differed either in
matters the holding of which in this or that way is of no consequence, so far as faith is concerned, or
even in matters of faith, which were not as yet defined by the Church; although if anyone were
obstinately to deny them after they had been defined by the authority of the universal Church, he
As we have already seen, the Profession of Faith renounced Original Sin,
Catholic revelation and papal authority alike. Espoused by the Vicar, it nonetheless
developed views Rousseau presented elsewhere in his own voice. This concordance
did not escape his most vociferous critics. As the Archbishop of Paris Christophe de
Beaumont commented, the use of an “assumed character who serves him as
mouthpiece” was a literary sleight-of-hand, the thinly-veiled attempt of an author to
distance himself from what he surely knew were inflammatory paradoxes. By
renouncing Original Sin “through the organ of a chimerical character,” Rousseau was
not simply blasphemous; he was also a coward. 420
More gravely, Beaumont’s Pastoral Letter presents the author of Emile as
living proof that the “ perilous days ” of Saint Paul’s predictions had come to pass. 421
An exemplar “ of corrupt spirit and perverted Faith ,” Rousseau’s disbelief took many
forms: the “light, pleasant, frivolous style” of novels (such as Julie ) aimed at stoking
the imagination, seducing the mind, and corrupting the heart; the feigned “air of
profundity and sublimity” in works like The Second Discourse that pretend “to go
back to the first principles of our knowledge… in order to shake off a yoke that,
according to it, dishonors humanity, even the Divinity”; “enraged” attacks “against
Religion’s zeal,” and misguided defenses of “universal tolerance.” Sometimes,
Beaumont concludes, disbelief unites
all these diverse languages, it mixes the serious with playfulness, pure
maxims with obscenities, great truths with great errors, Faith with
blasphemy; it undertakes, in a word, to harmonize light with shadows,
would be deemed a heretic.” ( Summa Theologica , 2.2.11) Although Rousseau claimed to be in good
faith, he clearly rejected Catholic orthodoxy; his heresy was therefore more than merely “material,”
and indisputable even by these relatively generous standards.
420 Pastoral Letter of His Grace the Archbishop of Paris . CW IX.8.
421 Pastoral Letter . CW IX.3. Beaumont’s Biblical reference is to 2 Timothy 3:1-4, 8.
Jesus Christ with Belial. And such is especially, My Very Dear
Brethren, the object that appears to have been proposed in a recent
Work, which has as its title Emile , or on Education . 422
Emile was a perverse amalgam, a paradoxical pairing of God and Satan that paraded
purity as obscenity, error as truth, heterodoxy as faith. It was also woefully
impractical, proposing “a plan of education that, far from agreeing with Christianity,
is not even suited to making Citizens or Men.” 423 Rousseau spoke in “contradictory
language,” ignored empirical evidence (“an infinite number of facts, even prior to that
of Christian Revelation, that it would be absurd to doubt”), 424 and exhibited “glaring
bad faith.” 425 He slandered the papacy (“in clouds, he cunningly imputes to us
dealings that dishonor reason”), 426 Catholics (as evidenced by the “revolting…
language he puts into the mouth of a supposed Catholic,” the Vicar), and monarchs
(“Kings who are the images of God”). 427
In short, Rousseau posed a theological and political threat. A heretic who
took “pleasure in poisoning the sources of public felicity, by inspiring maxims that
tend only to produce anarchy and all the calamities that follow from it,” 428 he
undermined both Church and state. These ruling bodies were intimately linked and
literally above reproach, their authority synonymous with that of Christ Himself, the
“one through whom Kings reign .” 429 Because “ there is no Power that does not come
422 Pastoral Letter . CW IX.3.
423 Pastoral Letter . CW IX.4.