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The Religion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

by J. Middleton Murry

These are times when men have need of the great solitaries; for each man now in his moment is a prey to the conviction that the world and his deepest aspirations are incommensurable. He is shaken by a presentiment that the lovely bodies of men are being spent and flaming human minds put out in a conflict for something which never can be won in the clash of material arms, and he is distraught by a vision of humanity as a child pitifully wandering in a dark wood where the wind faintly echoes the strange word 'Peace.' Therefore he too wanders pitifully like that child, seeking peace, and men are become the symbols of mankind. The tragic paradox of human life which slumbers in the soul in years of peace is awakened again. When we would be solitary and cannot, we are made sensible of the depth and validity of the impulse which moved the solitaries of the past.

The paradox is apparent now on every hand. It appears in the death of the author of La Formation Réligieuse de J.J. Rousseau.[1] One of the most distinguished of the younger generation of French scholar-critics, M. Masson met a soldier's death before the book to which he had devoted ten years of his life was published. He had prepared it for the press in the leisure hours of the trenches. There he had communed with the unquiet spirit of the man who once thrilled the heart of Europe by stammering forgotten secrets, and whispered to an age flushed and confident with material triumphs that the battle had been won in vain. Rousseau, rightly understood is no consoling companion for a soldier. What if after all, the true end of man be those hours of plenary beatitude he spent lying at the bottom of the boat on the Lake of Bienne? What if the old truth is valid still, that man is born free but is everywhere in chains? Let us hope that the dead author was not too keenly conscious of the paradox which claimed him for sacrifice. His death would have been bitter.

   [Footnote 1: La Formation Réligieuse de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Par
   Pierre Maurice Masson. (Paris: Hachette. Three volumes.)]

From his book we can hardly hazard a judgment. His method would speak against it. Jean-Jacques, as he himself knew only too well, is one of the last great men to be catechised historically, for he was inadequate to the life which is composed of the facts of which histories are made. He had no historical sense; and of a man who has no historical sense no real history can be written. Chronology was meaningless to him because he could recognise no sovereignty of time over himself. With him ends were beginnings. In the third Dialogue he tell us—and it is nothing less than the sober truth told by a man who knew himself well—that his works must be read backwards, beginning with the last, by those who would understand him. Indeed, his function was, in a deeper sense than is imagined by those who take the parable called the Contrat Social for a solemn treatise of political philosophy, to give the lie to history. In himself he pitted the eternal against the temporal and grew younger with years. He might be known as the man of the second childhood par excellence. To the eye of history the effort of his soul was an effort backwards, because the vision of history is focused only for a perspective of progress. On his after-dinner journey to Diderot at Vincennes, Jean-Jacques saw, with the suddenness of intuition, that that progress, amongst whose convinced and cogent prophets he had lived so long was for him an unsubstantial word. He beheld the soul of man sub specie æternitatis. In his vision history and institutions dissolved away. His second childhood had begun.

On such a man the historical method can have no grip. There is, as the French say, no engrenage. It points to a certain lack of the subtler kind of understanding to attempt to apply the method; more truly, perhaps, to an unessential interest, which has of late years been imported into French criticism from Germany. The Sorbonne has not, we know, gone unscathed by the disease of documentation for documentation's sake. M. Masson's three volumes leave us with the sense that their author had learnt a method and in his zeal to apply it had lost sight of the momentous question whether Jean-Jacques was a person to whom it might be applied with a prospect of discovery. No one who read Rousseau with a mind free of ulterior motives could have any doubt on the matter. Jean-Jacques is categorical on the point. The Savoyard Vicar was speaking for Jean-Jacques to posterity when he began his profession of faith with the words:—

'Je ne veux argumenter avec vous, ni même de tenter vous convaincre; il me suffit de vous exposer ce que je pense dans la simplicité de mon coeur. Consultez le vôtre pendant mon discours; c'est tout ce que je vous demande.'

To the extent, therefore, that M. Masson did not respond to this appeal and filled his volumes with information concerning the books Jean-Jacques might have read and a hundred other interesting but only partly relevant things, he did the citizen of Geneva a wrong. The ulterior motive is there, and the faint taste of a thesis in the most modern manner. But the method is saved by the perception which, though it sometimes lacks the perfect keenness of complete understanding, is exquisite enough to suggest the answer to the questions it does not satisfy. Though the environment is lavish the man is not lost.

It is but common piety to seek to understand Jean-Jacques in the way in which he pleaded so hard to be understood. Yet it is now over forty years since a voice of authority told England how it was to regard him. Lord Morley was magisterial and severe, and England obeyed. One feels almost that Jean-Jacques himself would have obeyed if he had been alive. He would have trembled at the stern sentence that his deism was 'a rag of metaphysics floating in a sunshine of sentimentalism,' and he would have whispered that he would try to be good; but, when he heard his Dialoguesdescribed as the outpourings of a man with persecution mania, he might have rebelled and muttered silently an Eppur si muove. We see now that it was a mistake to stand him in the social dock, and that precisely those Dialogues which the then Mr Morley so powerfully dismissed contain his plea that the tribunal has no jurisdiction. To his contention that he wrote his books to ease his own soul it might be replied that their publication was a social act which had vast social consequences. But Jean-Jacques might well retort that the fact that his contemporaries and the generation which followed read and judged him in the letter and not in the spirit is no reason why we, at nearly two centuries remove, should do the same.

A great man may justly claim our deference, if Jean-Jacques asks that his last work shall be read first we are bound, even if we consider it only a quixotic humour, to indulge it. But to those who read the neglected Dialogues it will appear a humour no longer. Here is a man who at the end of his days is filled to overflowing with bitterness at the thought that he has been misread and misunderstood. He says to himself: Either he is at bottom of the same nature as other men or he is different. If he is of the same nature, then there must be a malignant plot at work. He has revealed his heart with labour and good faith; not to hear him his fellow-men must have stopped their ears. If he is of another kind than his fellows, then—but he cannot bear the thought. Indeed it is a thought that no man can bear. They are blind because they will not see. He has not asked them to believe that what he says is true; he asks only that they shall believe that he is sincere, sincere in what he says, sincere, above all, when he implores that they should listen to the undertone. He has been 'the painter of nature and the historian of the human heart.'

His critics might have paused to consider why Jean-Jacques, certainly not niggard of self-praise in the Dialogues, should have claimed no more for himself than this. He might have claimed, with what in their eyes at least must be good right, to have been pre-eminent in his century as a political philosopher, a novelist, and a theorist of education. Yet to himself he is no more than 'the painter of nature and the historian of the human heart.' Those who would make him more make him less, because they make him other than he declares himself to be. His whole life has been an attempt to be himself and nothing else besides; and all his works have been nothing more and nothing less than his attempt to make his own nature plain to men. Now at the end of his life he has to swallow the bitterness of failure. He has been acclaimed the genius of his age; kings have delighted to honour him, but they have honoured another man. They have not known the true Jean-Jacques. They have taken his parables for literal truth, and he knows why.

'Des êtres si singulièrement constitués doivent nécessairement s'exprimer autrement que les hommes ordinaires. Il est impossible qu'avec des âmes si différemment modifiés ils ne portent pas dans l'expression de leurs sentiments et de leurs idées l'empreinte de ces modifications. Si cette empreinte échappe à ceux qui n'ont aucune notion de cette manière d'être, elle ne peut échapper à ceux qui la connoissent, et qui en sont affectés eux-mêmes. C'est une signe caracteristique auquel les initiés se reconnoissent entre eux; et ce qui donne un grand prix à ce signe, c'est qu'il ne peut se contrefaire, que jamais il n'agit qu'au niveau de sa source, et que, quand il ne part pas du coeur de ceux qui l'imitent, il n'arrive pas non plus aux coeurs faits pour le distinguer; mais sitôt qu'il y parvient, on ne sauroit s'y méprendre; il est vrai dès qu'il est senti.'

At the end of his days he felt that the great labour of his life which had been to express an intuitive certainty in words which would carry intellectual conviction, had been in vain, and his last words are: 'It is true so soon as it is felt.'

Three pages would tell as much of the essential truth of his 'religious formation' as three volumes. At Les Charmettes with Mme de Warens, as a boy and as a young man, he had known peace of soul. In Paris, amid the intellectual exaltation and enthusiasms of the Encyclopædists, the memory of his lost peace haunted him like an uneasy conscience. His boyish unquestioning faith disappeared beneath the destructive criticism of the great pioneers of enlightenment and progress. Yet when all had been destroyed the hunger in his heart was still unsatisfied. Underneath his passionate admiration for Diderot smouldered a spark of resentment that he was not understood. They had torn down the fabric of expression into which he had poured the emotion of his immediate certainty as a boy; sometimes with an uplifted, sometimes with a sinking heart he surveyed the ruins. But the certainty that he had once been certain, the memory and the desire of the past peace—this they could not destroy. They could hardly even weaken this element within him, for they did not know that it existed, they were unable to conceive that it could exist. Jean-Jacques himself could give them no clue to its existence; he had no words, and he was still under the spell of the intellectual dogma of his age that words must express definite things. In common with his age he had lost the secret of the infinite persuasion of poetry. So the consciousness that he was different from those who surrounded him, and from those he admired as his masters, took hold of him. He was afraid of his own otherness, as all men are afraid when the first knowledge of their own essential loneliness begins to trouble their depths. The pathos of his struggle to kill the seed of this devastating knowledge is apparent in his declared desire to become 'a polished gentleman.' In the note which he added to his memoir for M. Dupin in 1749 he confesses to this ideal. If only he could become 'one of them,' indistinguishable without and within, he might be delivered from that disquieting sense of tongue-tied queerness in a normal world.

If he cheated himself at all, the deception was brief. The poignant memory of Les Charmettes whispered to him that there was a state of grace in which the hard things were made clear. But he had not yet the courage of his destiny. His consciousness of his separation from his fellows had still to harden into a consciousness of superiority before that courage would come. On the road to Vincennes on an October evening in 1749—M. Masson has fixed the date for us—he read in a news-sheet the question of the Dijon Academy: 'Si le rétablissement des arts et des sciences a contribué à épurer les moeurs?' The scales dropped from his eyes and the weight was removed from his tongue. There is no mystery about this 'revelation.' For the first time the question had been put in terms which struck him squarely in the heart. Jean-Jacques made his reply with the stammering honesty of a man of genius wandering in age of talent.

The First Discourse seems to many rhetorical and extravagant. In after days it appeared so to Rousseau himself, and he claimed no more for it than that he had tried to tell the truth. Before he learned that he had won the Dijon prize and that his work had taken Paris by storm, he was surely a prey to terrors lest his Vincennes vision of the non-existence of progress should have been mere madness. The success reassured him. 'Cette faveur du public, nullement brigué, et pour un auteur inconnu, me donna la première assurance véritable de mon talent.' He was, in fact, not 'queer,' but right; and he had seemed to be queer precisely because he was right. Now he had the courage. 'Je suis grossier,' he wrote in the preface to Narcisse, 'maussade, impoli par principes; je me fous de tous vous autres gens de cour; je suis un barbare.' There is a touch of exaggeration and bravado in it all. He was still something of the child hallooing in the dark to give himself heart. He clutched hold of material symbols of the freedom he had won, round wig, black stockings, and a living gained by copying music at so much a line. But he did not break with his friends; the 'bear' suffered himself to be made a lion. He had still a foot in either camp, for though he had the conviction that he was right, he was still fumbling for his words. The memoirs of Madame d'Epinay tell us how in 1754, at dinner at Mlle Quinault's, impotent to reply to the polite atheistical persiflage of the company, he broke out: 'Et moi, messieurs, je crois en Dieu. Je sors si vous dites un mot de plus.' That was not what he meant; neither was the First Discourse what he meant. He had still to find his language, and to find his language he had to find his peace. He was like a twig whirled about in an eddy of a stream. Suddenly the stream bore him to Geneva, where he returned to the church which he had left at Confignon. That, too, was not what he meant. When he returned from Geneva, Madame d'Epinay had built him the Ermitage.

In the Rêveries, which are mellow with the golden calm of his discovered peace, he tells how, having reached the climacteric which he had set at forty years, he went apart into the solitude of the Ermitage to inquire into the configuration of his own soul, and to fix once for all his opinions and his principles. In the exquisite third Rêverie two phrases occur continually. His purpose was 'to find firm ground'—'prendre une assiette,'—and his means to this discovery was 'spiritual honesty'—'bonne foi.' Rousseau's deep concern was to elucidate the anatomy of his own soul, but, since he was sincere, he regarded it as a type of the soul of man. Looking into himself, he saw that, in spite of all his follies, his weaknesses, his faintings by the way, his blasphemies against the spirit, he was good. Therefore he declared: Man is born good. Looking into himself he saw that he was free to work out his own salvation, and to find that solid foundation of peace which he so fervently desired. Therefore he declared: Man is born free. To the whisper of les Charmettes that there was a condition of grace had been added the sterner voice of remorse for his abandoned children, telling him that he had fallen from his high estate.

  'J'ai fui en vain; partout j'ai retrouvé la Loi.
  Il faut céder enfin! ô porte, il faut admettre
  L'hôte; coeur frémissant, il faut subir le maître,
  Quelqu'un qui soit en moi plus moi-même que moi.'

The noble verse of M. Claudel contains the final secret of Jean-Jacques. He found in himself something more him than himself. Therefore he declared: There is a God. But he sought to work out a logical foundation for these pinnacles of truth. He must translate these luminous convictions of his soul into arguments and conclusions. He could not, even to himself, admit that they were only intuitions; and in the Contrat Social he turned the reason to the service of a certainty not her own.

This unremitting endeavour to express an intuitive certainty in intellectual terms lies at the root of the many superficial contradictions in his work, and of the deeper contradiction which forms, as it were, the inward rhythm of his three great books. He seems to surge upwards on a passionate wave of revolutionary ideas, only to sink back into the calm of conservative or quietist conclusions. M. Masson has certainly observed it well.

'Le premier Discours anathématise les sciences et les arts, et ne voit le salut que dans les académies; le Discours sur l'Inégalité paraît détruire tout autorité, et recommande pourtant "l'obéissance scrupuleuse aux lois et aux hommes qui en sont les auteurs": la Nouvelle Héloïse prêche d'abord l'émancipation sentimentale, et proclame la suprématie des droits de la passion, mais elle aboutit à exalter la fidelité conjugale, à consolider les grands devoirs familiaux et sociaux. Le Vicaire Savoyard nous reserve la même surprise.'

To the revolutionaries of his age he was a renegade and a reactionary; to the Conservatives, a subversive charlatan. Yet he was in truth only a man stricken by the demon of 'la bonne foi,' and, like many men devoured by the passion of spiritual honesty, in his secret heart he believed in his similitude to Christ. 'Je ne puis pas souffrir les tièdes,' he wrote to Madame Latour in 1762, 'quiconque ne se passionne pas pour moi n'est pas digne de moi.' There is no mistaking the accent, and it sounds more plainly still in the Dialogues. He, too, was persecuted for righteousness' sake, because he, too, proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was within men.

And what, indeed, have material things to do with the purification and the peace of the soul? World-shattering arguments and world-preserving conclusions—this is the inevitable paradox which attends the attempt to record truth seen by the eye of the soul in the language of the market-place. The eloquence and the inspiration may descend upon the man so that he writes believing that all men will understand. He wakes in the morning and he is afraid, not of his own words whose deeper truth he does not doubt, but of the incapacity of mankind to understand him. They will read in the letter what was written in the spirit; their eyes will see the words, but their ears will be stopped to the music. The mystique as Péguy would have said, will be degraded into politique. To guard himself against this unhallowed destiny, at the last Rousseau turns with decision and in the language of his day rewrites the hard saying, that the things which are Cæsar's shall be rendered unto Cæsar.

In the light of this necessary truth all the contradictions which have been discovered in Rousseau's work fade away. That famous confusion concerning 'the natural man,' whom he presents to us now as a historic fact, now as an ideal, took its rise, not in the mind of Jean-Jacques, but in the minds of his critics. The Contrat Social is a parable of the soul of man, like the Republic of Plato. The truth of the human soul is its implicit perfection; to that reality material history is irrelevant, because the anatomy of the soul is eternal. And as for the nature of this truth, 'it is true so soon as it is felt.' When the Savoyard Vicar, after accepting all the destructive criticism of religious dogma, turned to the Gospel story with the immortal 'Ce n'est pas ainsi qu'on invente,' he was only anticipating what Jean-Jacques was to say of himself before his death, that there was a sign in his work which could not be imitated, and which acted only at the level of its source. We may call Jean-Jacques religious because we have no other word; but the word would be more truly applied to the reverence felt towards such a man than to his own emotion. He was driven to speak of God by the habit of his childhood and the deficiency of a language shaped by the intellect and not by the soul. But his deity was one whom neither the Catholic nor the Reformed Church could accept, for He was truly a God who does not dwell in temples made with hands. The respect he owed to God, said the Vicar, was such that he could affirm nothing of Him. And, again, still more profoundly, he said, 'He is to our souls what our soul is to our body.' That is the mystical utterance of a man who was no mystic, but of one who found his full communion in the beatific dolce far niente of the Lake of Bienne. Jean-Jacques was set apart from his generation, because, like Malvolio, he thought highly of the soul and in nowise approved the conclusions of his fellows; and he was fortunate to the last, in spite of what some are pleased to call his madness (which was indeed only his flaming and uncomprehending indignation at the persecution inevitably meted out by those who have only a half truth to one who has the whole), because he enjoyed the certainty that his high appraisement of the soul was justified.