Rousseau and the French Revolution

[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

Rousseau and the French Revolution

rousseau-ramsay-50x61Rousseau died in 1778 when France was at the height of its Enlightenment. At the time of his death, Rousseau’s writings were well known in France, though he had not exerted the influence that he would when France entered its revolution. It was Rousseau’s followers who prevailed in the French Revolution, especially in its destructive third phase.

The revolution had started with the nobility. Spotting the weakness of the French monarchy, the nobles had succeeded in 1789 in forcing a meeting of the Estates-General, an institution that they usually controlled. Some of the nobles had hoped to enhance the power of the nobility at the expense of the monarchy, and some had hoped to institute Enlightenment reforms.

The nobles, however, were unable to form a unified coalition, and they were no match for the vigor of the liberal and radical delegates. Control of events slipped out of the hands of the nobles, and the Revolution entered a second, more liberal phase. The second phase was dominated by broadly Lockean liberals, and it was they who produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

The liberals, however, were in their turn no match for the vigor of the most radical members of the Revolution. As the members of the Girondin and Jacobin parties assumed greater power, the Revolution entered its third phase.

marat-j-p-75x94The Jacobin leaders were explicitly disciples of Rousseau. Jean-Paul Marat, who took on a disheveled and unbathed appearance, explained that he did so in order “to live simply and according to the precepts of Rousseau.” Louis de Saint-Just, perhaps the most bloodthirsty of the Jacobins, made his devotion to Rousseau clear in speeches to the National Convention. And speaking for the most radical of the revolutionaries, Maximilien Robespierre expressed the prevailing adoring opinion of the great man: “Rousseau is the one man who, through the loftiness of his soul and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the role of teacher of mankind.”

Under the Jacobins, the Revolution became more radical and more violent. Now the spokesmen for the general will, and having at their disposal plenty of the “universal compulsory force” that Rousseau had dreamed about with which to combat recalcitrant private wills, the Jacobins found it expedient that many die. The guillotine was busy as the radicals ruthlessly killed nobles, priests, and just about anyone whose politics was suspect. “We must not only punish traitors,” urged Saint-Just, “but all people who are not enthusiastic.” The nation had plunged into a brutal civil war, and in an enormously symbolic act, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793. That only made things worse, and all of France declined into the Reign of Terror.

robespierre-78x75The Terror ended with the arrest and execution of Robespierre in 1794, but it was too late for France. Its energies were dissipated, the nation was exhausted, and a power vacuum emerged that Napoleon Bonaparte would fill.

The story of the Counter-Enlightenment then shifts to the German states. Among German intellectuals, there had been some early sympathy for the French Revolution. German intellectuals were not ignorant of the Enlightenment in England and France. Several were attracted by Enlightenment themes, and in the mid-1700s Frederick the Great had attracted to Berlin several Enlightenment-minded scientists and other intellectuals. Berlin for a while was a hotbed of French and English influences.

For the most part, however, the Enlightenment had made a few inroads among intellectuals in the German states. Politically and economically, Germany was a set of feudal states. Serfdom would not be abolished until the nineteenth century. The majority of the population was uneducated and agrarian. Most were deeply religious, dominantly Lutheran. Unthinking obedience to God and to one’s feudal lord had been ingrained for centuries. This was especially true in Prussia, whose people Gotthold Lessing called “the most servile in Europe.”

So among the Germans the reports of the Terror of the French Revolution caused horror: They killed their king and queen. They hunted down priests, cut off their heads, and paraded up and down the streets of Paris with the heads stuck on the ends of pikes.

Yet the lesson most German intellectuals took from the Revolution was not that Rousseauian philosophy was the culprit. To most, the culprit was clearly the Enlightenment philosophy. The Enlightenment was anti-feudal, they noted, and the Revolution was a practical demonstration of what that means—the wholesale slaughtering of one’s sovereign lords and ladies. The Enlightenment was anti-religion, they noted, and the Revolution is a practical demonstration of what that means—killing holy men and burning down churches.

But from the German perspective, the situation became worse, for out of the power vacuum in France arose Napoleon.

bonaparte-dabos-apsley-house-75x98Napoleon was also provided an opportunity by a weakened feudal Europe. Europe’s hundreds of small dynastic units were no match for Napoleon’s new military tactics and his sheer audacity. Napoleon ran roughshod over old feudal Europe, swept into the German states, defeated the Prussians in 1806, and proceeded to change everything.

From the perspective of the Germans, Napoleon was not only a foreign conqueror, he was a product of the Enlightenment. Where he conquered and ruled, he extended equality before the law, opened government offices to the middle class, and guaranteed private property. On matters of religion, he destroyed the ghettoes, gave Jews freedom of religion, and gave them the right to own land and practice all trades. He opened secular public schools, and modernized Europe’s transportation network.

Napoleon outraged many powerful forces in doing so. He abolished guilds. He angered the clergy by abolishing church courts, tithes, monasteries, convents, ecclesiastical states, and he seized much church property. He angered the nobles by abolishing feudal estates and feudal dues, by breaking up large estates, and generally by lessening the power of the nobles over the peasantry. He functioned, in effect from the Enlightenment perspective, as a benevolent dictator, as one who embraced many of the modern ideals but who used the full force of government to impose them.

His dictatorial impositions went further. He enacted censorship wherever he went, conscripted subjugated peoples to fight foreign battles, and taxed subjugated peoples to finance France.

So now most German intellectuals faced a serious crisis. The Enlightenment, as they saw it, was not merely a foreign disaster across the Rhine—it was a dictatorial presence ruling Germany in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte. How, wondered every German, did Napoleon win? What did the Germans do wrong? What was to be done?

kant_50x64The poet Johann Hölderlin, Hegel’s roommate in college, declared: “Kant is the Moses of our nation.” For the story of how the now-dead Kant was to lead Germany out of bondage, we return to Königsberg.

[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

6 thoughts on “Rousseau and the French Revolution

  • June 20, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Well written. Having been re-inspired to dig up history of the French Revolution after taking in part of the Ann Coulter book, Demonic, I ended up at your site while searching Rousseau. The work here adds useful bricks to the structure of better understanding what I now perceive as the birth of liberalism.

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  • February 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    this site is truely inspiring. I really feel like I know more about Rousseau and the French Revolution, but there was no mention of why babies are evil? Poeple need to read my blog to find that out. Peace out girl scout!

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  • November 24, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Good work on the article. There is one thing I should point out:

    Does Johann Hölderlin even realize that Kant was actually a huge fanboy of the French Revolution and its carnage, even considering it the “crowning event of [his] life”?

    There’s definitely no way Kant could be the Moses of the German nations at the time, especially if they were anti-Enlightenment at the time thanks to the events of the French Revolution.

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