Rousseau - Volumes I. and II.
by John Morley
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Rousseau speaks in the Confessions of having married Theresa five-and-twenty years after the beginning of their acquaintance,[147] but we hardly have to understand that any ceremony took place which anybody but himself would recognise as constituting a marriage. What happened appears to have been this. Seated at table with Theresa and two guests, one of them the mayor of the place, he declared that she was his wife. "This good and seemly engagement was contracted," he says, "in all the simplicity but also in all the truth of nature, in the presence of two men of worth and honour.... During the short and simple act, I saw the honest pair melted in tears."[148] He had at this time whimsically assumed the name of Renou, and he wrote to a friend that of course he had married in this name, for he adds, with the characteristic insertion of an irrelevant bit of magniloquence, "it is not names that are married; no, it is persons." "Even if in this simple and holy ceremony names entered as a constituent part, the one I bear would have sufficed, since I recognise no other. If it were a question of property to be assured, then it would be another thing, but you know very well that is not our case."[149] Of course, this may have been a marriage according to the truth of nature, and Rousseau was as free to choose his own rites as more sacramental performers, but it is clear from his own words about property that there was no pretence of a marriage in law. He and Theresa were on profoundly uncomfortable terms about this time,[150] and Rousseau is not the only person by many thousands who has deceived himself into thinking that some form of words between man and woman must magically transform the substance of their characters and lives, and conjure up new relations of peace and steadfastness.

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We have, however, been outstripping slow-footed destiny, and have now to return to the time when Theresa did not drink brandy, nor run after stable-boys, nor fill Rousseau's soul with bitterness and suspicion, but sat contentedly with him in an evening taking a stoic's meal in the window of their garret on the fourth floor, seasoning it with "confidence, intimacy, gentleness of soul," and that general comfort of sensation which, as we know to our cost, is by no means an invariable condition either of duty done externally or of spiritual growth within. It is perhaps hard for us to feel that we are in the presence of a great religious reactionist; there is so little sign of the higher graces of the soul, there are so many signs of the lowering clogs of the flesh. But the spirit of a man moves in mysterious ways, and expands like the plants of the field with strange and silent stirrings. It is one of the chief tests of worthiness and freedom from vulgarity of soul in us, to be able to have faith that this expansion is a reality, and the most important of all realities. We do not rightly seize the type of Socrates if we can never forget that he was the husband of Xanthippe, nor David's if we can only think of him as the murderer of Uriah, nor Peter's if we can simply remember that he denied his master. Our vision is only blindness, if we can never bring ourselves to see the possibilities of deep mystic aspiration behind the vile outer life of a man, or to believe that this coarse Rousseau, scantily supping with his coarse mate, might yet have many glimpses of the great wide horizons that are haunted by figures rather divine than human.


[104] In theory he was even now curiously prudent and almost sagacious; witness the Projet pour l'Education, etc., submitted to M. de Mably, and printed in the volume of his Works entitled Melanges, pp. 106-136. In the matter of Latin, it may be worth noting that Rousseau rashly or otherwise condemns the practice of writing it, as a vexatious superfluity (p. 132).

[105] Conf., vi. 471.

[106] Ib., vi. 472-475; vii. 8.

[107] Conf., vii. 18, 19.

[108] Musset-Pathay (ii. 72) quotes the passage from Lord Chesterfield's Letters, where the writer suggests Madame Dupin as a proper person with whom his son might in a regular and business-like manner open the elevating game of gallant intrigue.

[109] M. Dupin deserves honourable mention as having helped the editors of the Encyclopaedia by procuring information for them as to salt-works (D'Alembert's Discours Preliminaire). His son M. Dupin de Francueil, it may be worth noting, is a link in the genealogical chain between two famous personages. In 1777, the year before Rousseau's death, he married (in the chapel of the French embassy in London) Aurora de Saxe, a natural daughter of the marshal, himself the natural son of August the Strong, King of Poland. From this union was born Maurice Dupin, and Maurice Dupin was the father of Madame George Sand. M. Francueil died in 1787.

[110] Mem. de Mdme. d'Epinay, vol. i. ch. iv. p. 176.

[111] Ib. vol. i. ch. iv. pp. 178, 179.

[112] Conf., vii. 46, 51, 52, etc. A diplomatic piece in Rousseau's handwriting has been found in the archives of the French consulate at Constantinople, as M. Girardin informs us. Voltaire unworthily spread the report that Rousseau had been the ambassador's private attendant. For Rousseau's reply to the calumny, see Corr., v. 75 (Jan. 5, 1767); also iv. 150.

[113] Bernardin de St. Pierre, Oeuv., xii. 55 seq.

[114] Conf., vii. 92.

[115] Conf., vii. 38, 39.

[116] Lettres de la Montagne, iii. 266.

[117] Conf., vii. 75-84. Also a second example, 84-86. For Byron's opinion of one of these stories, see Lockhart's Life of Scott, vi. 132. (Ed. 1837.)

[118] Lettre sur la Musique Francaise (1753), p. 186.

[119] Conf., ix. 232.

[120] Ib. vii. 97.

[121] Hotel St. Quentin, rue des Cordiers, a narrow street running between the rue St. Jacques and the rue Victor Cousin. The still squalid hostelry is now visible as Hotel J.J. Rousseau. There is some doubt whether he first saw Theresa in 1743 or 1745. The account in Bk. vii. of the Confessions is for the latter date (see also Corr., ii. 207), but in the well-known letter to her in 1769 (Ib. vi. 79), he speaks of the twenty-six years of their union. Their so-called marriage took place in 1768, and writing in that year he speaks of the five-and-twenty years of their attachment (Ib. v. 323), and in the Confessions (ix. 249) he fixes their marriage at the same date; also in the letter to Saint-Germain (vi. 152). Musset-Pathay, though giving 1745 in one place (i. 45), and 1743 in another (ii. 198), has with less than his usual care paid no attention to the discrepancy.

[122] Conf., vii. 97-100.

[123] Conf., vii. 101. A short specimen of her composition may be interesting, at any rate to hieroglyphic students: "Mesiceuras ancor mien re mies quan geu ceures o pres deu vous, e deu vous temoes tous la goies e latandres deu mon querque vous cones ces que getou gour e rus pour vous, e qui neu finiraes quotobocs ces mon quere qui vous paleu ces paes mes le vre ... ge sui avestous lamities e la reu conec caceu posible e la tacheman mon cher bonnamies votreau enble e bon amiess theress le vasseur." Of which dark words this is the interpretation:—"Mais il sera encore mieux remis quand je sera aupres de vous, et de vous temoigner toute la joie et la tendresse de mon coeur que vous connaissez que j'ai toujours eue pour vous, et qui ne finira qu'au tombeau; c'est mon coeur qui vous parle, c'est pas mes levres.... Je suis avec toute l'amitie et la reconnaissance possibles, et l'attachement, mon cher bon ami, votre humble et bonne amie, Therese Le Vasseur." (Rousseau, ses Amis et ses Ennemis, ii. 450.) Certainly it was not learning and arts which hindered Theresa's manners from being pure.

[124] Oeuv. et Corr. Ined., 365.

[125] Conf., vii. 102. See also Corr., v. 373 (Oct. 10, 1768). On the other hand, Conf., ix. 249.

[126] M. St. Marc Girardin, in one of his admirable papers on Rousseau, speaks of him as "a bourgeois unclassed by an alliance with a tavern servant" (Rev. des Deux Mondes, Nov. 1852, p. 759); but surely Rousseau had unclassed himself long before, in the houses of Madame Vercellis, Count Gouvon, and even Madame de Warens, and by his repudiation, from the time when he ran away from Geneva, of nearly every bourgeois virtue and bourgeois prejudice.

[127] Conf., vii. 11. Also footnote.

[128] Reveries, ix. 309.

[129] Conf., viii. 142, 143.

[130] The other day I came for the first time upon the following in the sayings of Madame de Lambert:—"Ce ne sont pas toujours les fautes qui nous perdent; c'est la maniere de se conduire apres les avoir faites." [1877.]

[131] Conf., xii. 187, 188.

[132] Ib., viii. 221.

[133] Bernardin de St. Pierre, Oeuv., xii. 103. See Conf., xii 188, and Corr., v. 324.

[134] Referring, no doubt, to the ceremony which he called their marriage, and which had taken place in 1768.

[135] Corr., vi. 79-86. August 12, 1769.

[136] Composed in 1745. The Fetes de Ramire was represented at Versailles at the very end of this year.

[137] Some time in 1746-7. Conf., vii. 113, 114.

[138] Probably in the winter of 1746-7. Corr., ii. 207. Conf., vii. 120-124. Ib., viii. 148. Corr., ii. 208. June 12, 1761, to the Marechale de Luxembourg.

[139] George Sand,—in an eloquent piece entitled A Propos des Charmettes (Revue des Deux Mondes, November 15, 1863), in which she expresses her own obligations to Jean Jacques. In 1761 Rousseau declares that he had never hitherto had the least reason to suspect Theresa's fidelity. Corr., ii. 209

[140] Conf., vii. 123.

[141] Ib., viii. 145-151.

[142] Reveries, ix. 313. The same reason is given, Conf., ix. 252; also in Letter to Madame B., January 17, 1770 (Corr., vi. 117).

[143] Corr., vi. 152, 153. Feb. 27, 1770.

[144] Letter to Madame de Francueil, April 20, 1751. Corr., i. 151.

[145] Corr., i. 151-155

[146] August 10, 1761. Corr., ii. 220. The Marechale de Luxembourg's note on the subject, to which this is a reply, is given in Rousseau, ses Amis et ses Ennemis, i. 444.

[147] Conf., x. 249. See above, p. 106, n.

[148] To Lalliaud, Aug 31, 1768. Corr., v. 324. See also D'Escherny, quoted in Musset-Pathay, i. 169, 170.

[149] To Du Peyrou, Sept. 26, 1768. Corr., v. 360.

[150] To Mdlle. Le Vasseur, July 25, 1768. Corr., v. 116-119.



The busy establishment of local academies in the provincial centres of France only preceded the outbreak of the revolution by ten or a dozen years; but one or two of the provincial cities, such as Bordeaux, Rouen, Dijon, had possessed academies in imitation of the greater body of Paris for a much longer time. Their activity covered a very varied ground, from the mere commonplaces of literature to the most practical details of material production. If they now and then relapsed into inquiries about the laws of Crete, they more often discussed positive and scientific theses, and rather resembled our chambers of agriculture than bodies of more learned pretension. The academy of Dijon was one of the earliest of these excellent institutions, and on the whole the list of its theses shows it to have been among the most sensible in respect of the subjects which it found worth thinking about. Its members, however, could not entirely resist the intellectual atmosphere of the time. In 1742 they invited discussion of the point, whether the natural law can conduct society to perfection without the aid of political laws.[151] In 1749 they proposed this question as a theme for their prize essay: Has the restoration of the sciences contributed to purify or to corrupt manners? Rousseau was one of fourteen competitors, and in 1750 his discussion of the academic theme received the prize.[152] This was his first entry on the field of literature and speculation. Three years afterwards the same academy propounded another question: What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorised by the natural law? Rousseau again competed, and though his essay neither gained the prize, nor created as lively an agitation as its predecessor had done, yet we may justly regard the second as a more powerful supplement to the first.

It is always interesting to know the circumstances under which pieces that have moved a world were originally composed, and Rousseau's account of the generation of his thoughts as to the influence of enlightenment on morality, is remarkable enough to be worth transcribing. He was walking along the road from Paris to Vincennes one hot summer afternoon on a visit to Diderot, then in prison for his Letter on the Blind (1749), when he came across in a newspaper the announcement of the theme propounded by the Dijon academy. "If ever anything resembled a sudden inspiration, it was the movement which began in me as I read this. All at once I felt myself dazzled by a thousand sparkling lights; crowds of vivid ideas thronged into my mind with a force and confusion that threw me into unspeakable agitation; I felt my head whirling in a giddiness like that of intoxication. A violent palpitation oppressed me; unable to walk for difficulty of breathing, I sank under one of the trees of the avenue, and passed half an hour there in such a condition of excitement, that when I arose I saw that the front of my waistcoat was all wet with my tears, though I was wholly unconscious of shedding them. Ah, if I could ever have written the quarter of what I saw and felt under that tree, with what clearness should I have brought out all the contradictions of our social system; with what simplicity I should have demonstrated that man is good naturally, and that by institutions only is he made bad."[153] Diderot encouraged him to compete for the prize, and to give full flight to the ideas which had come to him in this singular way.[154]

People have held up their hands at the amazing originality of the idea that perhaps sciences and arts have not purified manners. This sentiment is surely exaggerated, if we reflect first that it occurred to the academicians of Dijon as a question for discussion, and second that, if you are asked whether a given result has or has not followed from certain circumstances, the mere form of the question suggests No quite as readily as Yes. The originality lay not in the central contention, but in the fervour, sincerity, and conviction of a most unacademic sort with which it was presented and enforced. There is less originality in denouncing your generation as wicked and adulterous than there is in believing it to be so, and in persuading the generation itself both that you believe it and that you have good reasons to give. We have not to suppose that there was any miracle wrought by agency celestial or infernal in the sudden disclosure of his idea to Rousseau. Rousseau had been thinking of politics ever since the working of the government of Venice had first drawn his mind to the subject. What is the government, he had kept asking himself, which is most proper to form a sage and virtuous nation? What government by its nature keeps closest to the law? What is this law? And whence?[155] This chain of problems had led him to what he calls the historic study of morality, though we may doubt whether history was so much his teacher as the rather meagrely nourished handmaid of his imagination. Here was the irregular preparation, the hidden process, which suddenly burst into light and manifested itself with an exuberance of energy, that passed to the man himself for an inward revolution with no precursive sign.

Rousseau's ecstatic vision on the road to Vincennes was the opening of a life of thought and production which only lasted a dozen years, but which in that brief space gave to Europe a new gospel. Emilius and the Social Contract were completed in 1761, and they crowned a work which if you consider its origin, influence, and meaning with due and proper breadth, is marked by signal unity of purpose and conception. The key to it is given to us in the astonishing transport at the foot of the wide-spreading oak. Such a transport does not come to us of cool and rational western temperament, but more often to the oriental after lonely sojourning in the wilderness, or in violent reactions on the road to Damascus and elsewhere. Jean Jacques detected oriental quality in his own nature,[156] and so far as the union of ardour with mysticism, of intense passion with vague dream, is to be defined as oriental, he assuredly deserves the name. The ideas stirred in his mind by the Dijon problem suddenly "opened his eyes, brought order into the chaos in his head, revealed to him another universe. From the active effervescence which thus began in his soul, came sparks of genius which people saw glittering in his writings through ten years of fever and delirium, but of which no trace had been seen in him previously, and which would probably have ceased to shine henceforth, if he should have chanced to wish to continue writing after the access was over. Inflamed by the contemplation of these lofty objects, he had them incessantly present to his mind. His heart, made hot within him by the idea of the future happiness of the human race, and by the honour of contributing to it, dictated to him a language worthy of so high an enterprise ... and for a moment, he astonished Europe by productions in which vulgar souls saw only eloquence and brightness of understanding, but in which those who dwell in the ethereal regions recognised with joy one of their own."[157]

This was his own account of the matter quite at the end of his life, and this is the only point of view from which we are secure against the vulgarity of counting him a deliberate hypocrite and conscious charlatan. He was possessed, as holier natures than his have been, by an enthusiastic vision, an intoxicated confidence, a mixture of sacred rage and prodigious love, an insensate but absolutely disinterested revolt against the stone and iron of a reality which he was bent on melting in a heavenly blaze of splendid aspiration and irresistibly persuasive expression. The last word of this great expansion was Emilius, its first and more imperfectly articulated was the earlier of the two Discourses.

Rousseau's often-repeated assertion that here was the instant of the ruin of his life, and that all his misfortunes flowed from that unhappy moment, has been constantly treated as the word of affectation and disguised pride. Yet, vain as he was, it may well have represented his sincere feeling in those better moods when mental suffering was strong enough to silence vanity. His visions mastered him for these thirteen years, grande mortalis oevi spatium. They threw him on to that turbid sea of literature for which he had so keen an aversion, and from which, let it be remarked, he fled finally away, when his confidence in the ease of making men good and happy by words of monition had left him. It was the torment of his own enthusiasm which rent that veil of placid living, that in his normal moments he would fain have interposed between his existence and the tumult of a generation with which he was profoundly out of sympathy. In this way the first Discourse was the letting in of much evil upon him, as that and the next and the Social Contract were the letting in of much evil upon all Europe.

Of this essay the writer has recorded his own impression that, though full of heat and force, it is absolutely wanting in logic and order, and that of all the products of his pen, it is the feeblest in reasoning and the poorest in numbers and harmony. "For," as he justly adds, "the art of writing is not learnt all at once."[158] The modern critic must be content to accept the same verdict; only a generation so in love as this was with anything that could tickle its intellectual curiousness, would have found in the first of the two Discourses that combination of speculative and literary merit which was imputed to Rousseau on the strength of it, and which at once brought him into a place among the notables of an age that was full of them.[159] We ought to take in connection with it two at any rate of the vindications of the Discourse, which the course of controversy provoked from its author, and which serve to complete its significance. It is difficult to analyse, because in truth it is neither closely argumentative, nor is it vertebrate, even as a piece of rhetoric. The gist of the piece, however, runs somewhat in this wise:—

Before art had fashioned our manners, and taught our passions to use a too elaborate speech, men were rude but natural, and difference of conduct announced at a glance difference of character. To-day a vile and most deceptive uniformity reigns over our manners, and all minds seem as if they had been cast in a single mould. Hence we never know with what sort of person we are dealing, hence the hateful troop of suspicions, fears, reserves, and treacheries, and the concealment of impiety, arrogance, calumny, and scepticism, under a dangerous varnish of refinement. So terrible a set of effects must have a cause. History shows that the cause here is to be found in the progress of sciences and arts. Egypt, once so mighty, becomes the mother of philosophy and the fine arts; straightway behold its conquest by Cambyses, by Greeks, by Romans, by Arabs, finally by Turks. Greece twice conquered Asia, once before Troy, once in its own homes; then came in fatal sequence the progress of the arts, the dissolution of manners, and the yoke of the Macedonian. Rome, founded by a shepherd and raised to glory by husbandmen, began to degenerate with Ennius, and the eve of her ruin was the day when she gave a citizen the deadly title of arbiter of good taste. China, where letters carry men to the highest dignities of the state, could not be preserved by all her literature from the conquering power of the ruder Tartar. On the other hand, the Persians, Scythians, Germans, remain in history as types of simplicity, innocence, and virtue. Was not he admittedly the wisest of the Greeks, who made of his own apology a plea for ignorance, and a denunciation of poets, orators, and artists? The chosen people of God never cultivated the sciences, and when the new law was established, it was not the learned, but the simple and lowly, fishers and workmen, to whom Christ entrusted his teaching and its ministry.[160]

This, then, is the way in which chastisement has always overtaken our presumptuous efforts to emerge from that happy ignorance in which eternal wisdom placed us; though the thick veil with which that wisdom has covered all its operations seemed to warn us that we were not destined to fatuous research. All the secrets that Nature hides from us are so many evils against which she would fain shelter us.

Is probity the child of ignorance, and can science and virtue be really inconsistent with one another? These sounding contrasts are mere deceits, because if you look nearly into the results of this science of which we talk so proudly, you will perceive that they confirm the results of induction from history. Astronomy, for instance, is born of superstition; geometry from the desire of gain; physics from a futile curiosity; all of them, even morals, from human pride. Are we for ever to be the dupes of words, and to believe that these pompous names of science, philosophy, and the rest, stand for worthy and profitable realities?[161] Be sure that they do not.

How many errors do we pass through on our road to truth, errors a thousandfold more dangerous than truth is useful? And by what marks are we to know truth, when we think that we have found it? And above all, if we do find it, who of us can be sure that he will make good use of it? If celestial intelligences cultivated science, only good could result; and we may say as much of great men of the stamp of Socrates, who are born to be the guides of others.[162] But the intelligences of common men are neither celestial nor Socratic.

Again, every useless citizen may be fairly regarded as a pernicious man; and let us ask those illustrious philosophers who have taught us what insects reproduce themselves curiously, in what ratio bodies attract one another in space, what curves have conjugate points, points of inflection or reflection, what in the planetary revolutions are the relations of areas traversed in equal times—let us ask those who have attained all this sublime knowledge, by how much the worse governed, less flourishing, or less perverse we should have been if they had attained none of it? Now if the works of our most scientific men and best citizens lead to such small utility, tell us what we are to think of the crowd of obscure writers and idle men of letters who devour the public substance in pure loss.

Then it is in the nature of things that devotion to art leads to luxury, and luxury, as we all know from our own experience, no less than from the teaching of history, saps not only the military virtues by which nations preserve their independence, but also those moral virtues which make the independence of a nation worth preserving. Your children go to costly establishments where they learn everything except their duties. They remain ignorant of their own tongue, though they will speak others not in use anywhere in the world; they gain the faculty of composing verses which they can barely understand; without capacity to distinguish truth from error, they possess the art of rendering them indistinguishable to others by specious arguments. Magnanimity, equity, temperance, courage, humanity, have no real meaning to them; and if they hear speak of God, it breeds more terror than awful fear.

Whence spring all these abuses, if not from the disastrous inequality introduced among men by the distinction of talents and the cheapening of virtue?[163] People no longer ask of a man whether he has probity, but whether he is clever; nor of a book whether it is useful, but whether it is well written. And after all, what is this philosophy, what are these lessons of wisdom, to which we give the prize of enduring fame? To listen to these sages, would you not take them for a troop of charlatans, all bawling out in the market-place, Come to me, it is only I who never cheat you, and always give good measure? One maintains that there is no body, and that everything is mere representation; the other that there is no entity but matter, and no God but the universe: one that moral good and evil are chimeras; the other that men are wolves and may devour one another with the easiest conscience in the world. These are the marvellous personages on whom the esteem of contemporaries is lavished so long as they live, and to whom immortality is reserved after their death. And we have now invented the art of making their extravagances eternal, and thanks to the use of typographic characters the dangerous speculations of Hobbes and Spinoza will endure for ever. Surely when they perceive the terrible disorders which printing has already caused in Europe, sovereigns will take as much trouble to banish this deadly art from their states as they once took to introduce it.

If there is perhaps no harm in allowing one or two men to give themselves up to the study of sciences and arts, it is only those who feel conscious of the strength required for advancing their subjects, who have any right to attempt to raise monuments to the glory of the human mind. We ought to have no tolerance for those compilers who rashly break open the gate of the sciences, and introduce into their sanctuary a populace that is unworthy even to draw near to it. It may be well that there should be philosophers, provided only and always that the people do not meddle with philosophising.[164]

In short, there are two kinds of ignorance: one brutal and ferocious, springing from a bad heart, multiplying vices, degrading the reason, and debasing the soul: the other "a reasonable ignorance, which consists in limiting our curiosity to the extent of the faculties we have received; a modest ignorance, born of a lively love for virtue, and inspiring indifference only for what is not worthy of filling a man's heart, or fails to contribute to its improvement; a sweet and precious ignorance, the treasure of a pure soul at peace with itself, which finds all its blessedness in inward retreat, in testifying to itself its own innocence, and which feels no need of seeking a warped and hollow happiness in the opinion of other people as to its enlightenment."[165]

* * * * *

Some of the most pointed assaults in this Discourse, such for instance as that on the pedantic parade of wit, or that on the excessive preponderance of literary instruction in the art of education, are due to Montaigne; and in one way, the Discourse might be described as binding together a number of that shrewd man's detached hints by means of a paradoxical generalisation. But the Rousseau is more important than the Montaigne in it. Another remark to be made is that its vigorous disparagement of science, of the emptiness of much that is called science, of the deadly pride of intellect, is an anticipation in a very precise way of the attitude taken by the various Christian churches and their representatives now and for long, beginning with De Maistre, the greatest of the religious reactionaries after Rousseau. The vilification of the Greeks is strikingly like some vehement passages in De Maistre's estimate of their share in sophisticating European intellect. At last Rousseau even began to doubt whether "so chattering a people could ever have had any solid virtues, even in primitive times."[166] Yet Rousseau's own thinking about society is deeply marked with opinions borrowed exactly from these very chatterers. His imagination was fascinated from the first by the freedom and boldness of Plato's social speculations, to which his debt in a hundred details of his political and educational schemes is well known. What was more important than any obligation of detail was the fatal conception, borrowed partly from the Greeks and partly from Geneva, of the omnipotence of the Lawgiver in moulding a social state after his own purpose and ideal. We shall presently quote the passage in which he holds up for our envy and imitation the policy of Lycurgus at Sparta, who swept away all that he found existing and constructed the social edifice afresh from foundation to roof.[167] It is true that there was an unmistakable decay of Greek literary studies in France from the beginning of the eighteenth century, and Rousseau seems to have read Plato only through Ficinus's translation. But his example and its influence, along with that of Mably and others, warrant the historian in saying that at no time did Greek ideas more keenly preoccupy opinion than during this century.[168] Perhaps we may say that Rousseau would never have proved how little learning and art do for the good of manners, if Plato had not insisted on poets being driven out of the Republic. The article on Political Economy, written by him for the Encyclopaedia (1755), rings with the names of ancient rulers and lawgivers; the project of public education is recommended by the example of Cretans, Lacedaemonians, and Persians, while the propriety of the reservation of a state domain is suggested by Romulus.

It may be added that one of the not too many merits of the essay is the way in which the writer, more or less in the Socratic manner, insists on dragging people out of the refuge of sonorous general terms, with a great public reputation of much too well-established a kind to be subjected to the affront of analysis. It is true that Rousseau himself contributed nothing directly to that analytic operation which Socrates likened to midwifery, and he set up graven images of his own in place of the idols which he destroyed. This, however, did not wholly efface the distinction, which he shares with all who have ever tried to lead the minds of men into new tracks, of refusing to accept the current coins of philosophical speech without test or measurement. Such a treatment of the great trite words which come so easily to the tongue and seem to weigh for so much, must always be the first step towards bringing thought back into the region of real matter, and confronting phrases, terms, and all the common form of the discussion of an age, with the actualities which it is the object of sincere discussion to penetrate.

The refutation of many parts of Rousseau's main contention on the principles which are universally accepted among enlightened men in modern society is so extremely obvious that to undertake it would merely be to draw up a list of the gratulatory commonplaces of which we hear quite enough in the literature and talk of our day. In this direction, perhaps it suffices to say that the Discourse is wholly one-sided, admitting none of the conveniences, none of the alleviations of suffering of all kinds, nothing of the increase of mental stature, which the pursuit of knowledge has brought to the race. They may or may not counterbalance the evils that it has brought, but they are certainly to be put in the balance in any attempt at philosophic examination of the subject. It contains no serious attempt to tell us what those alleged evils really are, or definitely to trace them one by one, to abuse of the thirst for knowledge and defects in the method of satisfying it. It omits to take into account the various other circumstances, such as climate, government, race, and the disposition of neighbours, which must enter equally with intellectual progress into whatever demoralisation has marked the destinies of a nation. Finally it has for the base of its argument the entirely unsupported assumption of there having once been in the early history of each society a stage of mild, credulous, and innocent virtue, from which appetite for the fruit of the forbidden tree caused an inevitable degeneration. All evidence and all scientific analogy are now well known to lead to the contrary doctrine, that the history of civilisation is a history of progress and not of decline from a primary state. After all, as Voltaire said to Rousseau in a letter which only showed a superficial appreciation of the real drift of the argument, we must confess that these thorns attached to literature are only as flowers in comparison with the other evils that have deluged the earth. "It was not Cicero nor Lucretius nor Virgil nor Horace, who contrived the proscriptions of Marius, of Sulla, of the debauched Antony, of the imbecile Lepidus, of that craven tyrant basely surnamed Augustus. It was not Marot who produced the St. Bartholomew massacre, nor the tragedy of the Cid that led to the wars of the Fronde. What really makes, and always will make, this world into a valley of tears, is the insatiable cupidity and indomitable insolence of men, from Kouli Khan, who did not know how to read, down to the custom-house clerk, who knows nothing but how to cast up figures. Letters nourish the soul, they strengthen its integrity, they furnish a solace to it,"—and so on in the sense, though without the eloquence, of the famous passage in Cicero's defence of Archias the poet.[169] All this, however, in our time is in no danger of being forgotten, and will be present to the mind of every reader. The only danger is that pointed out by Rousseau himself: "People always think they have described what the sciences do, when they have in reality only described what the sciences ought to do."[170]

What we are more likely to forget is that Rousseau's piece has a positive as well as a negative side, and presents, in however vehement and overstated a way, a truth which the literary and speculative enthusiasm of France in the eighteenth century, as is always the case with such enthusiasm whenever it penetrates either a generation or an individual, was sure to make men dangerously ready to forget.[171] This truth may be put in different terms. We may describe it as the possibility of eminent civic virtue existing in people, without either literary taste or science or speculative curiosity. Or we may express it as the compatibility of a great amount of contentment and order in a given social state, with a very low degree of knowledge. Or finally, we may give the truth its most general expression, as the subordination of all activity to the promotion of social aims. Rousseau's is an elaborate and roundabout manner of saying that virtue without science is better than science without virtue; or that the well-being of a country depends more on the standard of social duty and the willingness of citizens to conform to it, than on the standard of intellectual culture and the extent of its diffusion. In other words, we ought to be less concerned about the speculative or scientific curiousness of our people than about the height of their notion of civic virtue and their firmness and persistency in realising it. It is a moralist's way of putting the ancient preacher's monition, that they are but empty in whom is not the wisdom of God. The importance of stating this is in our modern era always pressing, because there is a constant tendency on the part of energetic intellectual workers, first, to concentrate their energies on a minute specialty, leaving public affairs and interests to their own course. Second, they are apt to overestimate their contributions to the stock of means by which men are made happier, and what is more serious, to underestimate in comparison those orderly, modest, self-denying, moral qualities, by which only men are made worthier, and the continuity of society is made surer. Third, in consequence of their greater command of specious expression and their control of the organs of public opinion, they both assume a kind of supreme place in the social hierarchy, and persuade the majority of plain men unsuspectingly to take so very egregious an assumption for granted. So far as Rousseau's Discourse recalled the truth as against this sort of error it was full of wholesomeness.

Unfortunately his indignation against the overweening pretensions of the verse-writer, the gazetteer, and the great band of socialists at large, led him into a general position with reference to scientific and speculative energy, which seems to involve a perilous misconception of the conditions of this energy producing its proper results. It is easy now, as it was easy for Rousseau in the last century, to ask in an epigrammatical manner by how much men are better or happier for having found out this or that novelty in transcendental mathematics, biology, or astronomy; and this is very well as against the discoverer of small marvels who shall give himself out for the benefactor of the human race. But both historical experience and observation of the terms on which the human intelligence works, show us that we can only make sure of intellectual activity on condition of leaving it free to work all round, in every department and in every remotest nook of each department, and that its most fruitful epochs are exactly those when this freedom is greatest, this curiosity most keen and minute, and this waste, if you choose to call the indispensable superfluity of force in a natural process waste, most copious and unsparing. You will not find your highest capacity in statesmanship, nor in practical science, nor in art, nor in any other field where that capacity is most urgently needed for the right service of life, unless there is a general and vehement spirit of search in the air. If it incidentally leads to many industrious futilities and much learned refuse, this is still the sign and the generative element of industry which is not futile, and of learning which is something more than mere water spilled upon the ground.

We may say in fine that this first Discourse and its vindications were a dim, shallow, and ineffective feeling after the great truth, that the only normal state of society is that in which neither the love of virtue has been thrust far back into a secondary place by the love of knowledge, nor the active curiosity of the understanding dulled, blunted, and made ashamed by soft, lazy ideals of life as a life only of the affections. Rousseau now and always fell into the opposite extreme from that against which his whole work was a protest. We need not complain very loudly that while remonstrating against the restless intrepidity of the rationalists of his generation, he passed over the central truth, namely that the full and ever festal life is found in active freedom of curiosity and search taking significance, motive, force, from a warm inner pulse of human love and sympathy. It was not given to Rousseau to see all this, but it was given to him to see the side of it for which the most powerful of the men living with him had no eyes, and the first Discourse was only a moderately successful attempt to bring his vision before Europe. It was said at the time that he did not believe a word of what he had written.[172] It is a natural characteristic of an age passionately occupied with its own set of ideas, to question either the sincerity or the sanity of anybody who declares its sovereign conceptions to be no better than foolishness. We cannot entertain such a suspicion. Perhaps the vehemence of controversy carries him rather further than he quite meant to go, when he declares that if he were a chief of an African tribe, he would erect on his frontier a gallows, on which he would hang without mercy the first European who should venture to pass into his territory, and the first native who should dare to pass out of it.[173] And there are many other extravagances of illustration, but the main position is serious enough, as represented in the emblematic vignette with which the essay was printed—the torch of science brought to men by Prometheus, who warns a satyr that it burns; the satyr, seeing fire for the first time and being fain to embrace it, is the symbol of the vulgar men who, seduced by the glitter of literature, insist on delivering themselves up to its study.[174] Rousseau's whole doctrine hangs compactly together, and we may see the signs of its growth after leaving his hands in the crude formula of the first Discourse, if we proceed to the more audacious paradox of the second.


The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among men opens with a description of the natural state of man, which occupies considerably more than half of the entire performance. It is composed in a vein which is only too familiar to the student of the literature of the time, picturing each habit and thought, and each step to new habits and thoughts, with the minuteness, the fulness, the precision, of one who narrates circumstances of which he has all his life been the close eye-witness. The natural man reveals to us every motive, every process internal and external, every slightest circumstance of his daily life, and each element that gradually transformed him into the non-natural man. One who had watched bees or beetles for years could not give us a more full or confident account of their doings, their hourly goings in and out, than it was the fashion in the eighteenth century to give of the walk and conversation of the primeval ancestor. The conditions of primitive man were discussed by very incompetent ladies and gentlemen at convivial supper parties, and settled with complete assurance.[175]

Rousseau thought and talked about the state of nature because all his world was thinking and talking about it. He used phrases and formulas with reference to it which other people used. He required no more evidence than they did, as to the reality of the existence of the supposed set of conditions to which they gave the almost sacramental name of state of nature. He never thought of asking, any more than anybody else did in the middle of the eighteenth century, what sort of proof, how strong, how direct, was to be had, that primeval man had such and such habits, and changed them in such a way and direction, and for such reasons. Physical science had reached a stage by this time when its followers were careful to ask questions about evidence, correct description, verification. But the idea of accurate method had to be made very familiar to men by the successes of physical science in the search after truths of one kind, before the indispensableness of applying it in the search after truths of all kinds had extended to the science of the constitution and succession of social states. In this respect Rousseau was not guiltier than the bulk of his contemporaries. Voltaire's piercing common sense, Hume's deep-set sagacity, Montesquieu's caution, prevented them from launching very far on to this metaphysical sea of nature and natural laws and states, but none of them asked those critical questions in relation to such matters which occur so promptly in the present day to persons far inferior to them in intellectual strength. Rousseau took the notion of the state of nature because he found it to his hand; he fitted to it his own characteristic aspirations, expanding and vivifying a philosophic conception with all the heat of humane passion; and thus, although, at the end of the process when he had done with it, the state of nature came out blooming as the rose, it was fundamentally only the dry, current abstraction of his time, artificially decorated to seduce men into embracing a strange ideal under a familiar name.

Before analysing the Discourse on Inequality, we ought to make some mention of a remarkable man whose influence probably reached Rousseau in an indirect manner through Diderot; I mean Morelly.[176] In 1753 Morelly published a prose poem called the Basiliade, describing the corruption of manners introduced by the errors of the lawgiver, and pointing out how this corruption is to be amended by return to the empire of nature and truth. He was no doubt stimulated by what was supposed to be the central doctrine of Montesquieu, then freshly given to the world, that it is government and institutions which make men what they are. But he was stimulated into a reaction, and in 1754 he propounded his whole theory, in a piece which in closeness, consistency, and thoroughness is admirably different from Rousseau's rhetoric.[177] It lacked the sovereign quality of persuasiveness, and so fell on deaf ears. Morelly accepts the doctrine that men are formed by the laws, but insists that moralists and statesmen have always led us wrong by legislating and prescribing conduct on the false theory that man is bad, whereas he is in truth a creature endowed with natural probity. Then he strikes to the root of society with a directness that Rousseau could not imitate, by the position that "these laws by establishing a monstrous division of the products of nature, and even of their very elements—by dividing what ought to have remained entire, or ought to have been restored to entireness if any accident had divided them, aided and favoured the break-up of all sociability." All political and all moral evils are the effects of this pernicious cause—private property. He says of Rousseau's first Discourse that the writer ought to have seen that the corruption of manners which he set down to literature and art really came from this venomous principle of property, which infects all that it touches.[178] Christianity, it is true, assailed this principle and restored equality or community of possessions, but Christianity had the radical fault of involving such a detachment from earthly affections, in order to deliver ourselves to heavenly meditation, as brought about a necessary degeneration in social activity. The form of government is a matter of indifference, provided you can only assure community of goods. Political revolutions are at bottom the clash of material interests, and until you have equalised the one you will never prevent the other.[179]

Let us turn from this very definite position to one of the least definite productions to be found in all literature.

* * * * *

It will seem a little odd that more than half of a discussion on the origin of inequality among men should be devoted to a glowing imaginary description, from which no reader could conjecture what thesis it was designed to support. But we have only to remember that Rousseau's object was to persuade people that the happier state is that in which inequality does not subsist, that there had once been such a state, and that this was first the state of nature, and then the state only one degree removed from it, in which we now find the majority of savage tribes. At the outset he defines inequality as a word meaning two different things; one, natural or physical inequality, such as difference of age, of health, of physical strength, of attributes of intelligence and character; the other, moral or political inequality, consisting in difference of privileges which some enjoy to the detriment of the rest, such as being richer, more honoured, more powerful. The former differences are established by nature, the latter are authorised, if they were not established, by the consent of men.[180] In the state of nature no inequalities flow from the differences among men in point of physical advantage and disadvantage, and which remain without derivative differences so long as the state of nature endures undisturbed. Nature deals with men as the law of Sparta dealt with the children of its citizens; she makes those who are well constituted strong and robust, and she destroys all the rest.

The surface of the earth is originally covered by dense forest, and inhabited by animals of every species. Men, scattered among them, imitate their industry, and so rise to the instinct of the brutes, with this advantage that while each species has only its own, man, without anything special, appropriates the instincts of all. This admirable creature, with foes on every side, is forced to be constantly on the alert, and hence to be always in full possession of all his faculties, unlike civilised man, whose native force is enfeebled by the mechanical protections with which he has surrounded himself. He is not afraid of the wild beasts around him, for experience has taught him that he is their master. His health is better than ours, for we live in a time when excess of idleness in some, excess of toil in others, the heating and over-abundant diet of the rich, the bad food of the poor, the orgies and excesses of every kind, the immoderate transport of every passion, the fatigue and strain of spirit,—when all these things have inflicted more disorders upon us than the vaunted art of medicine has been able to keep pace with. Even if the sick savage has only nature to hope from, on the other hand he has only his own malady to be afraid of. He has no fear of death, for no animal can know what death is, and the knowledge of death and its terrors is one of the first of man's terrible acquisitions after abandoning his animal condition.[181] In other respects, such as protection against weather, such as habitation, such as food, the savage's natural power of adaptation, and the fact that his demands are moderate in proportion to his means of satisfying them, forbid us to consider him physically unhappy. Let us turn to the intellectual and moral side.

If you contend that men were miserable, degraded, and outcast during these primitive centuries because the intelligence was dormant, then do not forget, first, that you are drawing an indictment against nature,—no trifling blasphemy in those days—and second, that you are attributing misery to a free creature with tranquil spirit and healthy body, and that must surely be a singular abuse of the term. We see around us scarcely any but people who complain of the burden of their lives; but who ever heard of a savage in full enjoyment of his liberty ever dreaming of complaint about his life or of self-destruction?

With reference to virtues and vices in a state of nature, Hobbes is wrong in declaring that man in this state is vicious, as not knowing virtue. He is not vicious, for the reason that he does not know what being good is. It is not development of enlightenment nor the restrictions of law, but the calm of the passions and ignorance of vice, which keep them from doing ill. Tanto plus in illis profitcit vitiorum ignoratio, quam in his cognitio virtutis.

Besides man has one great natural virtue, that of pity, which precedes in him the use of reflection, and which indeed he shares with some of the brutes. Mandeville, who was forced to admit the existence of this admirable quality in man, was absurd in not perceiving that from it flow all the social virtues which he would fain deny. Pity is more energetic in the primitive condition than it is among ourselves. It is reflection which isolates one. It is philosophy which teaches the philosopher to say secretly at sight of a suffering wretch, Perish if it please thee; I am safe and sound. They may be butchering a fellow-creature under your window; all you have to do is to clap your hands to your ears, and argue a little with yourself to hinder nature in revolt from making you feel as if you were in the case of the victim.[182] The savage man has not got this odious gift. In the state of nature it is pity that takes the place of laws, manners, and virtue. It is in this natural sentiment rather than in subtle arguments that we have to seek the reluctance that every man would feel to do ill, even without the precepts of education.[183]

Finally, the passion of love, which produces such disasters in a state of society, where the jealousy of lovers and the vengeance of husbands lead each day to duels and murders, where the duty of eternal fidelity only serves to occasion adulteries, and where the law of continence necessarily extends the debauching of women and the practice of procuring abortion[184]—this passion in a state of nature, where it is purely physical, momentary, and without any association of durable sentiment with the object of it, simply leads to the necessary reproduction of the species and nothing more.

"Let us conclude, then, that wandering in the forests, without industry, without speech, without habitation, without war, without connection of any kind, without any need of his fellows or without any desire to harm them, perhaps even without ever recognising one of them individually, savage man, subject to few passions and sufficing to himself, had only the sentiments and the enlightenment proper to his condition. He was only sensible of his real wants, and only looked because he thought he had an interest in seeing; and his intelligence made no more progress than his vanity. If by chance he hit on some discovery, he was all the less able to communicate it; as he did not know even his own children. An art perished with its inventor. There was neither education nor progress; generations multiplied uselessly; and as each generation always started from the same point, centuries glided away in all the rudeness of the first ages, the race was already old, the individual remained always a child."

This brings us to the point of the matter. For if you compare the prodigious diversities in education and manner of life which reign in the different orders of the civil condition, with the simplicity and uniformity of the savage and animal life, where all find nourishment in the same articles of food, live in the same way, and do exactly the same things, you will easily understand to what degree the difference between man and man must be less in the state of nature than in that of society.[185] Physical inequality is hardly perceived in the state of nature, and its indirect influences there are almost non-existent.

Now as all the social virtues and other faculties possessed by man potentially were not bound by anything inherent in him to develop into actuality, he might have remained to all eternity in his admirable and most fitting primitive condition, but for the fortuitous concurrence of a variety of external changes. What are these different changes, which may perhaps have perfected human reason, while they certainly have deteriorated the race, and made men bad in making them sociable?

What, then, are the intermediary facts between the state of nature and the state of civil society, the nursery of inequality? What broke up the happy uniformity of the first times? First, difference in soil, in climate, in seasons, led to corresponding differences in men's manner of living. Along the banks of rivers and on the shores of the sea, they invented hooks and lines, and were eaters of fish. In the forests they invented bows and arrows, and became hunters. In cold countries they covered themselves with the skins of beasts. Lightning, volcanoes, or some happy chance acquainted them with fire, a new protection against the rigours of winter. In company with these natural acquisitions, grew up a sort of reflection or mechanical prudence, which showed them the kind of precautions most necessary to their security. From this rudimentary and wholly egoistic reflection there came a sense of the existence of a similar nature and similar interests in their fellow-creatures. Instructed by experience that the love of well-being and comfort is the only motive of human actions, the savage united with his neighbours when union was for their joint convenience, and did his best to blind and outwit his neighbours when their interests were adverse to his own, and he felt himself the weaker. Hence the origin of certain rude ideas of mutual obligation.[186]

Soon, ceasing to fall asleep under the first tree, or to withdraw into caves, they found axes of hard stone, which served them to cut wood, to dig the ground, and to construct hovels of branches and clay. This was the epoch of a first revolution, which formed the establishment and division of families, and which introduced a rough and partial sort of property. Along with rudimentary ideas of property, though not connected with them, came the rudimentary forms of inequality. When men were thrown more together, then he who sang or danced the best, the strongest, the most adroit, or the most eloquent, acquired the most consideration—that is, men ceased to take uniform and equal place. And with the coming of this end of equality there passed away the happy primitive immunity from jealousy, envy, malice, hate.

On the whole, though men had lost some of their original endurance, and their natural pity had already undergone a certain deterioration, this period of the development of the human faculties, occupying a just medium between the indolence of the primitive state and the petulant activity of our modern self-love, must have been at once the happiest and the most durable epoch. The more we reflect, the more evident we find it that this state was the least subject to revolutions and the best for man. "So long as men were content with their rustic hovels, so long as they confined themselves to stitching their garments of skin with spines or fish bones, to decking their bodies with feathers and shells and painting them in different colours, to perfecting and beautifying their bows and arrows—in a word, so long as they only applied themselves to works that one person could do, and to arts that needed no more than a single hand, then they lived free, healthy, good, and happy, so far as was compatible with their natural constitution, and continued to enjoy among themselves the sweetness of independent intercourse. But from the moment that one man had need of the help of another, as soon as they perceived it to be useful for one person to have provisions for two, then equality disappeared, property was introduced, labour became necessary, and the vast forests changed into smiling fields, which had to be watered by the sweat of men, and in which they ever saw bondage and misery springing up and growing ripe with the harvests."[187]

The working of metals and agriculture have been the two great agents in this revolution. For the poet it is gold and silver, but for the philosopher it is iron and corn, that have civilised men and undone the human race. It is easy to see how the latter of the two arts was suggested to men by watching the reproducing processes of vegetation. It is less easy to be sure how they discovered metal, saw its uses, and invented means of smelting it, for nature had taken extreme precautions to hide the fatal secret. It was probably the operation of some volcano which first suggested the idea of fusing ore. From the fact of land being cultivated its division followed, and therefore the institution of property in its full shape. From property arose civil society. "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, could think of saying, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, miseries, and horrors would not have been spared to the human race by one who, plucking up the stakes, or filling in the trench, should have called out to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you forget that the earth belongs to no one, and that its fruits are for all."[188]

Things might have remained equal even in this state, if talents had only been equal, and if for example the employment of iron and the consumption of agricultural produce had always exactly balanced one another. But the stronger did more work; the cleverer got more advantage from his work; the more ingenious found means of shortening his labour; the husbandman had more need of metal, or the smith more need of grain; and while working equally, one got much gain, and the other could scarcely live. This distinction between Have and Have-not led to confusion and revolt, to brigandage on the one side and constant insecurity on the other.

Hence disorders of a violent and interminable kind, which gave rise to the most deeply designed project that ever entered the human mind. This was to employ in favour of property the strength of the very persons who attacked it, to inspire them with other maxims, and to give them other institutions which should be as favourable to property as natural law had been contrary to it. The man who conceived this project, after showing his neighbours the monstrous confusion which made their lives most burdensome, spoke in this wise: "Let us unite to shield the weak from oppression, to restrain the proud, and to assure to each the possession of what belongs to him; let us set up rules of justice and peace, to which all shall be obliged to conform, without respect of persons, and which may repair to some extent the caprices of fortune, by subjecting the weak and the mighty alike to mutual duties. In a word, instead of turning our forces against one another, let us collect them into one supreme power to govern us by sage laws, to protect and defend all the members of the association, repel their common foes, and preserve us in never-ending concord." This, and not the right of conquest, must have been the origin of society and laws, which threw new chains round the poor and gave new might to the rich; and for the profit of a few grasping and ambitious men, subjected the whole human race henceforth and for ever to toil and bondage and wretchedness without hope.

The social constitution thus propounded and accepted was radically imperfect from the outset, and in spite of the efforts of the sagest lawgivers, it has always remained imperfect, because it was the work of chance, and because, inasmuch as it was ill begun, time, while revealing defects and suggesting remedies, could never repair its vices; people went on incessantly repairing and patching, instead of which it was indispensable to begin by making a clean surface and by throwing aside all the old materials, just as Lycurgus did in Sparta.

Put shortly, the main positions are these. In the state of nature each man lived in entire isolation, and therefore physical inequality was as if it did not exist. After many centuries, accident, in the shape of difference of climate and external natural conditions, enforcing for the sake of subsistence some degree of joint labour, led to an increase of communication among men, to a slight development of the reasoning and reflective faculties, and to a rude and simple sense of mutual obligation, as a means of greater comfort in the long run. The first state was good and pure, but the second state was truly perfect. It was destroyed by a fresh succession of chances, such as the discovery of the arts of metal-working and tillage, which led first to the institution of property, and second to the prominence of the natural or physical inequalities, which now began to tell with deadly effectiveness. These inequalities gradually became summed up in the great distinction between rich and poor; and this distinction was finally embodied in the constitution of a civil society, expressly adapted to consecrate the usurpation of the rich, and to make the inequality of condition between them and the poor eternal.

We thus see that the Discourse, unlike Morelly's terse exposition, contains no clear account of the kind of inequality with which it deals. Is it inequality of material possession or inequality of political right? Morelly tells you decisively that the latter is only an accident, flowing from the first; that the key to renovation lies in the abolition of the first. Rousseau mixes the two confusedly together under a single name, bemoans each, but shrinks from a conclusion or a recommendation as to either. He declares property to be the key to civil society, but falls back from any ideas leading to the modification of the institution lying at the root of all that he deplores.

The first general criticism, which in itself contains and covers nearly all others, turns on Method. "Conjectures become reasons when they are the most likely that you can draw from the nature of things," and "it is for philosophy in lack of history to determine the most likely facts." In an inductive age this royal road is rigorously closed. Guesses drawn from the general nature of things can no longer give us light as to the particular nature of the things pertaining to primitive men, any more than such guesses can teach us the law of the movement of the heavenly bodies, or the foundations of jurisprudence. Nor can deduction from anything but propositions which have themselves been won by laborious induction, ever lead us to the only kind of philosophy which has fair pretension to determine the most probable of the missing facts in the chain of human history. That quantitative and differentiating knowledge which is science, was not yet thought of in connection with the movements of our own race upon the earth. It is to be said, further, that of the two possible ways of guessing about the early state, the conditions of advance from it, and the rest, Rousseau's guess that all movement away from it has been towards corruption, is less supported by subsequent knowledge than the guess of his adversaries, that it has been a movement progressive and upwards.

This much being said as to incurable vice of method, and there are fervent disciples of Rousseau now living who will regard one's craving for method in talking about men as a foible of pedantry, we may briefly remark on one or two detached objections to Rousseau's story. To begin with, there is no certainty as to there having ever been a state of nature of a normal and organic kind, any more than there is any one normal and typical state of society now. There are infinitely diverse states of society, and there were probably as many diverse states of nature. Rousseau was sufficiently acquainted with the most recent metaphysics of his time to know that you cannot think of a tree in general, nor of a triangle in general, but only of some particular tree or triangle.[189] In a similar way he might have known that there never was any such thing as a state of nature in the general and abstract, fixed, typical, and single. He speaks of the savage state also, which comes next, as one, identical, normal. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. The varieties of belief and habit and custom among the different tribes of savages, in reference to every object that can engage their attention, from death and the gods and immortality down to the uses of marriage and the art of counting and the ways of procuring subsistence, are infinitely numerous; and the more we know about this vast diversity, the less easy is it to think of the savage state in general. When Rousseau extols the savage state as the veritable youth of the world, we wonder whether we are to think of the negroes of the Gold Coast, or the Dyaks of Borneo, Papuans or Maoris, Cheyennes or Tierra-del-Fuegians or the fabled Troglodytes; whether in the veritable youth of the world they counted up to five or only to two; whether they used a fire-drill, and if so what kind of drill; whether they had the notion of personal identity in so weak a shape as to practise the couvade; and a hundred other points, which we should now require any writer to settle, who should speak of the savage state as sovereign, one, and indivisible, in the way in which Rousseau speaks of it, and holds it up to our vain admiration.

Again, if the savage state supervened upon the state of nature in consequence of certain climatic accidents of a permanent kind, such as living on the banks of a river or in a dense forest, how was it that the force of these accidents did not begin to operate at once? How could the isolated state of nature endure for a year in face of them? Or what was the precipitating incident which suddenly set them to work, and drew the primitive men from an isolation so profound that they barely recognised one another, into that semi-social state in which the family was founded?

We cannot tell how the state of nature continued to subsist, or, if it ever subsisted, how and why it ever came to an end, because the agencies which are alleged to have brought it to an end must have been coeval with the appearance of man himself. If gods had brought to men seed, fire, and the mechanical arts, as in one of the Platonic myths,[190] we could understand that there was a long stage preliminary to these heavenly gifts. But if the gods had no part nor lot in it, and if the accidents that slowly led the human creature into union were as old as that nature, of which indeed they were actually the component elements, then man must have quitted the state of nature the very day on which he was born into it. And what can be a more monstrous anachronism than to turn a flat-headed savage into a clever, self-conscious, argumentative utilitarian of the eighteenth century; working the social problem out in his flat head with a keenness, a consistency, a grasp of first principles, that would have entitled him to a chair in the institute of moral sciences, and entering the social union with the calm and reasonable deliberation of a great statesman taking a critical step in policy? Aristotle was wiser when he fixed upon sociability as an ultimate quality of human nature, instead of making it, as Rousseau and so many others have done, the conclusion of an unimpeachable train of syllogistic reasoning.[191] Morelly even, his own contemporary, and much less of a sage than Aristotle, was still sage enough to perceive that this primitive human machine, "though composed of intelligent parts, generally operates independently of its reason; its deliberations are forestalled, and only leave it to look on, while sentiment does its work."[192] It is the more remarkable that Rousseau should have fallen into this kind of error, as it was one of his distinctions to have perceived and partially worked out the principle, that men guide their conduct rather from passion and instinct than from reasoned enlightenment.[193] The ultimate quality which he named pity is, after all, the germ of sociability, which is only extended sympathy. But he did not firmly adhere to this ultimate quality, nor make any effort consistently to trace out its various products.

We do not find, however, in Rousseau any serious attempt to analyse the composition of human nature in its primitive stages. Though constantly warning his readers very impressively against confounding domesticated with primitive men, he practically assumes that the main elements of character must always have been substantially identical with such elements and conceptions as are found after the addition of many ages of increasingly complex experience. There is something worth considering in his notion that civilisation has had effects upon man analogous to those of domestication upon animals, but he lacked logical persistency enough to enable him to adhere to his own idea, and work out conclusions from it.

It might further be pointed out in another direction that he takes for granted that the mode of advance into a social state has always been one and the same, a single and uniform process, marked by precisely the same set of several stages, following one another in precisely the same order. There is no evidence of this; on the contrary, evidence goes to show that civilisation varies in origin and process with race and other things, and that though in all cases starting from the prime factor of sociableness in man, yet the course of its development has depended on the particular sets of circumstances with which that factor has had to combine. These are full of variety, according to climate and racial predisposition, although, as has been justly said, the force of both these two elements diminishes as the influence of the past in giving consistency to our will becomes more definite, and our means of modifying climate and race become better known. There is no sign that Rousseau, any more than many other inquirers, ever reflected whether the capacity for advance into the state of civil society in any highly developed form is universal throughout the species, or whether there are not races eternally incapable of advance beyond the savage state. Progress would hardly be the exception which we know it to be in the history of communities if there were not fundamental diversities in the civilisable quality of races. Why do some bodies of men get on to the high roads of civilisation, while others remain in the jungle and thicket of savagery; and why do some races advance along one of these roads, and others advance by different roads?

Considerations of this sort disclose the pinched frame of trim theory with which Rousseau advanced to set in order a huge mass of boundlessly varied, intricate, and unmanageable facts. It is not, however, at all worth while to extend such criticism further than suffices to show how little his piece can stand the sort of questions which may be put to it from a scientific point of view. Nothing that Rousseau had to say about the state of nature was seriously meant for scientific exposition, any more than the Sermon on the Mount was meant for political economy. The importance of the Discourse on Inequality lay in its vehement denunciation of the existing social state. To the writer the question of the origin of inequality is evidently far less a matter at heart, than the question of its results. It is the natural inclination of one deeply moved by a spectacle of depravation in his own time and country, to extol some other time or country, of which he is happily ignorant enough not to know the drawbacks. Rousseau wrote about the savage state in something of the same spirit in which Tacitus wrote the Germania. And here, as in the Discourse on the influence of science and art upon virtue, there is a positive side. To miss this in resentment of the unscientific paradox that lies about it, is to miss the force of the piece, and to render its enormous influence for a generation after it was written incomprehensible. We may always be quite sure that no set of ideas ever produced this resounding effect on opinion, unless they contained something which the social or spiritual condition of the men whom they inflamed made true for the time, and true in an urgent sense. Is it not tenable that the state of certain savage tribes is more normal, offers a better balance between desire and opportunity, between faculty and performance, than the permanent state of large classes in western countries, the broken wreck of civilisation?[194] To admit this is not to conclude, as Rousseau so rashly concluded, that the movement away from the primitive stages has been productive only of evil and misery even to the masses of men, the hewers of wood and the drawers of water; or that it was occasioned, and has been carried on by the predominance of the lower parts and principles of human nature. Our provisional acquiescence in the straitness and blank absence of outlook or hope of the millions who come on to the earth that greets them with no smile, and then stagger blindly under dull burdens for a season, and at last are shovelled silently back under the ground,—our acquiescence can only be justified in the sight of humanity by the conviction that this is one of the temporary conditions of a vast process, working forwards through the impulse and agency of the finer human spirits, but needing much blood, many tears, uncounted myriads of lives, and immeasurable geologic periods of time, for its high and beneficent consummation. There is nothing surprising, perhaps nothing deeply condemnable, in the burning anger for which this acquiescence is often changed in the more impatient natures. As against the ignoble host who think that the present ordering of men, with all its prodigious inequalities, is in foundation and substance the perfection of social blessedness, Rousseau was almost in the right. If the only alternative to the present social order remaining in perpetuity were a retrogression to some such condition as that of the islanders of the South Sea, a lover of his fellow-creatures might look upon the result, so far as it affected the happiness of the bulk of them, with tolerably complete indifference. It is only the faith that we are moving slowly away from the existing order, as our ancestors moved slowly away from the old want of order, that makes the present endurable, and makes any tenacious effort to raise the future possible.

* * * * *

An immense quantity of nonsense has been talked about the equality of man, for which those who deny that doctrine and those who assert it may divide the responsibility. It is in reality true or false, according to the doctrines with which it is confronted. As against the theory that the existing way of sharing the laboriously acquired fruits and delights of the earth is a just representation and fair counterpart of natural inequalities among men in merit and capacity, the revolutionary theory is true, and the passionate revolutionary cry for equality of external chance most righteous and unanswerable. But the issues do not end here. Take such propositions as these:—there are differences in the capacity of men for serving the community; the well-being of the community demands the allotment of high function in proportion to high faculty; the rights of man in politics are confined to a right of the same protection for his own interests as is given to the interests of others. As against these principles, the revolutionary deductions from the equality of man are false. And such pretensions as that every man could be made equally fit for every function, or that not only each should have an equal chance, but that he who uses his chance well and sociably should be kept on a level in common opinion and trust with him who uses it ill and unsociably, or does not use it at all,—the whole of this is obviously most illusory and most disastrous, and in whatever decree any set of men have ever taken it up, to that degree they have paid the penalty.

What Rousseau's Discourse meant, what he intended it to mean, and what his first direct disciples understood it as meaning, is not that all men are born equal. He never says this, and his recognition of natural inequality implies the contrary proposition. His position is that the artificial differences, springing from the conditions of the social union, do not coincide with the differences in capacity springing from original constitution; that the tendency of the social union as now organised is to deepen the artificial inequalities, and make the gulf between those endowed with privileges and wealth and those not so endowed ever wider and wider. It would have been very difficult a hundred years ago to deny the truth of this way of stating the case. If it has to some extent already ceased to be entirely true, and if violent popular forces are at work making it less and less true, we owe the origin of the change, among other causes and influences, not least to the influence of Rousseau himself, and those whom he inspired. It was that influence which, though it certainly did not produce, yet did as certainly give a deep and remarkable bias, first to the American Revolution, and a dozen years afterwards to the French Revolution.

It would be interesting to trace the different fortunes which awaited the idea of the equality of man in America and in France. In America it has always remained strictly within the political order, and perhaps with the considerable exception of the possibles share it may have had, along with Christian notions of the brotherhood of man, and statesmanlike notions of national prosperity, in leading to the abolition of slavery, it has brought forth no strong moral sentiment against the ethical and economic bases of any part of the social order. In France, on the other hand, it was the starting-point of movements that have had all the fervour and intensity of religions, and have made men feel about social inequalities the burning shame and wrath with which a Christian saw the flourishing temples of unclean gods. This difference in the interpretation and development of the first doctrine may be explained in various ways,—by difference of material circumstance between America and France; difference of the political and social level from which the principle of equality had to start; and not least by difference of intellectual temperament. This last was itself partly the product of difference in religion, which makes the English dread the practical enforcement of logical conclusions, while the French have hitherto been apt to dread and despise any tendency to stop short of that.

* * * * *

Let us notice, finally, the important fact that the appearance of Rousseau's Discourses was the first sign of reaction against the historic mode of inquiry into society that had been initiated by Montesquieu. The Spirit of Laws was published in 1748, with a truly prodigious effect. It coloured the whole of the social literature in France during the rest of the century. A history of its influence would be a history of one of the most important sides of speculative activity. In the social writings of Rousseau himself there is hardly a chapter which does not contain tacit reference to Montesquieu's book. The Discourses were the beginning of a movement in an exactly opposite direction; that is, away from patient collection of wide multitudes of facts relating to the conditions of society, towards the promulgation of arbitrary systems of absolute social dogmas. Mably, the chief dogmatic socialist of the century, and one of the most dignified and austere characters, is an important example of the detriment done by the influence of Rousseau to that of Montesquieu, in the earlier stages of the conflict between the two schools. Mably (1709-1785), of whom the remark is to be made that he was for some years behind the scenes of government as De Tencin's secretary and therefore was versed in affairs, began his inquiries with Greece and Rome. "You will find everything in ancient history," he said.[195] And he remained entirely in this groove of thought until Rousseau appeared. He then gradually left Montesquieu. "To find the duties of a legislator," he said, "I descend into the abysses of my heart, I study my sentiments." He opposed the Economists, the other school that was feeling its way imperfectly enough to a positive method. "As soon as I see landed property established," he wrote, "then I see unequal fortunes; and from these unequal fortunes must there not necessarily result different and opposed interests, all the vices of riches, all the vices of poverty, the brutalisation of intelligence, the corruption of civil manners?" and so forth.[196] In his most important work, published in 1776, we see Rousseau's notions developed, with a logic from which their first author shrunk, either from fear, or more probably from want of firmness and consistency as a reasoner. "It is to equality that nature has attached the preservation of our social faculties and happiness: and from this I conclude that legislation will only be taking useless trouble, unless all its attention is first of all directed to the establishment of equality in the fortune and condition of citizens."[197] That is to say not only political equality, but economic communism. "What miserable folly, that persons who pass for philosophers should go on repeating after one another that without property there can be no society. Let us leave illusion. It is property that divides us into two classes, rich and poor; the first will alway prefer their fortune to that of the state, while the second will never love a government or laws that leave them in misery."[198] This was the kind of opinion for which Rousseau's diffuse and rhetorical exposition of social necessity had prepared France some twenty years before. After powerfully helping the process of general dissolution, it produced the first fruits specifically after its own kind some twenty years later in the system of Baboeuf.[199]

The unflinching application of principles is seldom achieved by the men who first launch them. The labour of the preliminary task seems to exhaust one man's stock of mental force. Rousseau never thought of the subversion of society or its reorganisation on a communistic basis. Within a few months of his profession of profound lament that the first man who made a claim to property had not been instantly unmasked as the arch foe of the race, he speaks most respectfully of property as the pledge of the engagements of citizens and the foundation of the social pact, while the first condition of that pact is that every one should be maintained in peaceful enjoyment of what belongs to him.[200] We need not impute the apparent discrepancy to insincerity. Rousseau was always apt to think in a slipshod manner. He sensibly though illogically accepted wholesome practical maxims, as if they flowed from theoretical premisses that were in truth utterly incompatible with them.


[151] Delandine's Couronnes Academiques, ou Recueil de prix proposes par les Societes Savantes. (Paris, 2 vols., 1787.)

[152] Musset-Pathay has collected the details connected with the award of the prize, ii. 365-367.

[153] Second Letter to M. de Malesherbes, p. 358. Also Conf., viii. 135.

[154] Diderot's account (Vie de Seneque, sect. 66, Oeuv., iii. 98; also ii. 285) is not inconsistent with Rousseau's own, so that we may dismiss as apocryphal Marmontel's version of the story (Mem. VIII.), to the effect that Rousseau was about to answer the question with a commonplace affirmative, until Diderot persuaded him that a paradox would attract more attention. It has been said also that M. de Francueil, and various others, first urged the writer to take a negative line of argument. To suppose this possible is to prove one's incapacity for understanding what manner of man Rousseau was.

[155] Conf., ix. 232, 233.

[156] Rousseau Juge de Jean Jacques, Dialogues, i. 252.

[157] Dialogues, i. 275, 276.

[158] Conf., viii. 138.

[159] "It made a kind of revolution in Paris," says Grimm. Corr. Lit., i. 108.

[160] Rep. au Roi de Pologne, p. 111 and p. 113.

[161] Rep. a M. Bordes, 138.

[162] Ib. 137.

[163] "The first source of the evil is inequality; from inequality come riches ... from riches are born luxury and idleness; from luxury come the fine arts, and from idleness the sciences." Rep. au Roi de Pologne, 120, 121.

[164] Rep. a M. Bordes, 147. In the same spirit he once wrote the more wholesome maxim, "We should argue with the wise, and never with the public." Corr., i. 191.

[165] Rep. au Roi de Pologne, 128, 129.

[166] Rep. a M. Bordes, 150-161.

[167] P. 174.

[168] Egger's Hellenisme en France, 28ieme lecon, p. 265.

[169] Voltaire to J.J.R. Aug. 30, 1755.

[170] Rep. au Roi de Pologne, 105.

[171] In 1753 the French Academy, by way no doubt of summoning a counter-blast to Rousseau, boldly offered as the subject of their essay the thesis that "The love of letters inspires the love of virtue," and the prize was won fitly enough by a Jesuit professor of rhetoric. See Delandine, i. 42.

[172] Preface to Narcisse, 251.

[173] Rep. a M. Bordes, 167.

[174] P. 187.

[175] See for instance a strange discussion about morale universelle and the like in Mem. de Mdme. d'Epinay, i. 217-226.

[176] Often described as Morelly the Younger, to distinguish him from his father, who wrote an essay on the human heart, and another on the human intelligence.

[177] Code de la Nature, ou le veritable esprit de ses loix, de tout tems neglige ou meconnu.

[178] P. 169. Rousseau did not see it then, but he showed himself on the track.

[179] At the end of the Code de la Nature Morelly places a complete set of rules for the organisation of a model community. The base of it was the absence of private property—a condition that was to be preserved by vigilant education of the young in ways of thinking, that should make the possession of private property odious or inconceivable. There are to be sumptuary laws of a moderate kind. The government is to be in the hands of the elders. The children are to be taken away from their parents at the age of five; reared and educated in public establishments; and returned to their parents at the age of sixteen or so when they will marry. Marriage is to be dissoluble at the end of ten years, but after divorce the woman is not to marry a man younger than herself, nor is the man to marry a woman younger than the wife from whom he has parted. The children of a divorced couple are to remain with the father, and if he marries again, they are to be held the children of the second wife. Mothers are to suckle their own children (p. 220). The whole scheme is fuller of good ideas than such schemes usually are.

[180] P. 218.

[181] This is obviously untrue. Animals do not know death in the sense of scientific definition, and probably have no abstract idea of it as a general state; but they know and are afraid of its concrete phenomena, and so are most savages.

[182] This is one of the passages in the Discourse, the harshness of which was afterwards attributed by Rousseau to the influence of Diderot. Conf., viii. 205, n.

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