Monday, 10 July 2017

The Foolish Self-Made Saint

The Chameleon Who Inspired Robespierre

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a name to conjure with.  Many in our post-Christian world remain intensely loyal to him and his writings.  The irony is that Rousseau was in many ways a charlatan, a fraud.  He was an emotionally unstable man.  His biographer, J. H. Huizinga uses the phrase "weathercock nature" to characterize him--meaning, essentially, that Rousseau was a past master at sensing the way the wind was blowing, and setting his sails accordingly.

Consequently, much of his writing was (and remains) chaotically incoherent.  Choose any opinion or position about man and society you wish and somewhere in his writing Rousseau will agree with you, and somewhere else he will attack you.  Here are some of Rousseau's hypocritical behaviours:

Rousseau, the democrat, who insisted that his mistress--ill-bred, uneducated--serve dinner to his guests and then take her own meal in the kitchen.

Rousseau, the educator, who wrote a celebrated and influential book, Emile, about a natural, child-centred method of education--and who consigned five illegitimate children of his own to a foundling hospital, much against their mother's wishes.

Rousseau, the iconoclast, who in his writings scorned the manners and morals of his age, yet who in his own life pandered to nobility and zealously pursued his "rightful" place.

Rousseau the great romantic, whose own love life was squalid and whose account of it was absurd.  [J. H. Huizinga,  Rousseau, the Self-Made Saint.  A Biography (New York: Grossman Publishers/Viking Press, 1976),  Frontispiece.]
And here is his confession of mental instability and how he played the intellectual gadfly.
. . . his head tired as easily of its passions as his heart, witness . . . his own testimony: "there is nothing grand, beautiful and generous that he is not capable of by fits and starts, but he tires quickly relapsing into inertia."  So striking are the resulting contradictions that one beings to wonder whether he even remembered what he had said a few pages or chapters earlier, whether he forgot as "incredibly" quickly what he had written as what he felt the moment before.   Thus in one and the same book he described his life-companion as the "woman I loved" and as someone for whom he "never felt the least glimmering of love."  In one and the same chapter he says of his grande passion, "in my heart I have committed the crime of seducing her a hundred times over" and "I loved her too much to want to possess her".  On one and the same page he gloried in his "noble pride" and calls it "silly".  And, indeed, he himself admits that "once I have written a thing down I cease to remember it".  [Ibid, p. 18f.]
His self-confession of his unstable reasoning and thinking abilities runs as follows:
"To proceed in an orderly and methodical manner is beyond my powers . . . . All the thoughts that come to my mind are isolated from one another . . . . I find it difficult to link my ideas together . . . I jot down my scatted and unconnected ideas on bits of paper and then try to sew them together as best I can . . . I get quite a lot of ideas but without ever seeing the consequences; order and method I abhor . . . . Thinking is very painful to me . . . . It is only when I let my ideas take their course without constraining them in any way that I sometimes enjoy it." [Ibid., p. 19.]
It must be one of the deep ironies of the Modern Period that this self-absorbed brooding narcissist should become the shining light and beacon that inspired the French Revolution.  He was deified as its grand patron saint.   Writes Huizinga:
It was this man who, eleven years after his death at the age of sixty-eight, was hailed as the great moral teacher in whose virtuous spirit the men of 1789 would try to build the good society.  "There is a great dispute among their leaders," said Burke, "which of them is the best resemblance of Rousseau. . . . Him they study, him they meditate. . . . He is their standard figure of perfection.  To this man and this writer . . . the foundries of Paris are now running for statues and with the kettles of their poor and bells of their churches."

The great orator was hardly exaggerating.  "Divine man," cried Robespierre, "I have seen your last days.  And this memory is to me a source of proud joy.  I have contemplated your august traits.  I have understood all the sorrows of a noble life devoted to the cultivation of truth.  [Ibid., p. 265.]
 Robespierre, of course, was one of the foremost animating spirits of the Terror of the French Revolution where mass murder was grandly celebrated as a wondrous good.  He was a forerunner of the depredations of extremist groups in our day, such as ISIS.  Rousseau was his idol.

When God raises up such a self-preoccupied fool to be the animating spirit of bloody murderers we see clearly the hand of His just wrath and judgement.

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