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by William H. Benson

July 10, 2008

     Next Monday, July 14, marks the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, the day that the French Revolution began in 1789 in Paris. The Bastille was the King’s prison, a hated symbol of oppression under the absolutist monarchy, and on that day, the people had captured it to secure arms and release any political prisoners.

      The Revolution turned violent and bloody, and thousands perished under the knife of the guillotine during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, but by 1799 when the Revolution breathed its last, French royal power was gone, swept aside. The King, Louis XVI, and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, too had been marched to the guillotine.

     Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French writer and philosopher, had died a decade before the Revolution began, and yet, many, including Louis XVI and Napoleon, blamed him for the Revolution. The English philosopher Edmund Burke, said of the revolutionaries: “There is a great dispute among their leaders which of them is the best resemblance of Rousseau. . . . He is their standard figure of perfection.”

     To whom do the people listen? Who best can diagnose the difficulties of any society and offer solutions? Who holds the power to change a society?

     For centuries, people in Europe had looked to the Church and to the clergy for direction, but by the eighteenth century clerical power had waned. The Kings in the principalities spread across Europe had then claimed a “divine right,” to rule, a philosophy crushed by revolution. In democratic societies, people listen either to the glib politicians, or to the journalists who often slant the news toward their own bias.

     Over two hundred years ago, people began to listen for the first time to the secular “intellectuals,” men such as Thomas Paine in America and Jean Jacques Rousseau in France. Rousseau did not have any authority or power; all he had was his own common sense, his vision of what was wrong in France and what needed changing, and an especially agile ability to write. And the people read and heeded his words.

     Rousseau wrote of the importance of staying close to nature, for there, he believed, people were essentially good. It was when people formed communities that they became evil because of competitiveness, inclined toward aggression and egotism. He believed that children should be taught with sympathy by appealing to their interests and not through discipline and harsh lessons.

     In his major work, The Social Contract, Rousseau argued that governments should be established only by the sovereignty of the people, not by the Church or the King. This was revolutionary, a stunning and liberating idea. Governments, he argued, are formed by a compact among the people themselves.

     People accept Rousseau’s ideas today, and consider them modern, but they were not when he first wrote them. “He shifted around the furniture of the human mind.”

     What is surprising is that Rousseau may have been a visionary genius when dealing with society, but as a person, he was weak, quarrelsome, supersensitive to injustices, and filled with vice: he gave away to an asylum each of his five children immediately after their birth. Those who befriended him came away convinced that he was unhinged.

     David Hume said that he was “a monster who saw himself as the only important being in the universe.” Diderot labeled him “deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical, and full of malice.” Another said he was “odious, monstrous.” Voltaire, called him “a monster of vanity and vileness.” A woman’s last words to him were, “I have nothing left for you but pity.”     

     All this is baffling. That anyone would read anything that such a social pariah would write is astonishing, evidence of human gullibility, and yet people did and still do read him. The historian Paul Johnson summed up Rousseau. “[He] was a writer of genius but fatally unbalanced both in his life and in his views.”

     Again, the question is before us—to whom should we the people listen? The religiously-inspired televangelist? The persuasive politician? The media talking head? The maniacal intellectual? Rousseau is proof that grand ideas that will dramatically improve our lives can originate from even the most unlikely sources.