Rousseau and Revolution

Rousseau and Revolution
© 1957 Will and Ariel Durant
1092 pages

“…little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

Edmund Burke, on the execution of Marie-Antoinette

In the tenth volume of Will Durant’s  Story of Civilization, we now approach the latter half of the 18th century.  This is an age of titanic personalities, in every field.  Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia,  Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Bach, Schiller, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Rousseau, Voltaire — what an age to be alive in!    For those unfamiliar with Durant’s epochal series, his approach was a symphonic history that covered politics, economics, religion, architecture, music,  and literature. This particular volume opens with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critique of reason, and — amid all the politics — examines the influence of the Romantic reaction on the arts and politics, ending with the storming of the Bastille.

This is an age of enormous change; the industrial revolution has spread beyond England, and its social consequences are brewing political revolution, especially in France. It is an age of war, like most ages; Russia, Austria, and Turkey bicker incessantly over the Black Sea, and western Europe sees several wars of succession. The most influential conflict, however,  is the Seven Years War. This saw most of Europe allied against Prussia and England, with from some instability on Russia’s part. While the consequences in Europe were minimal,  this was the war that made England an superpower.  While everyone invaded (and was rebuffed by) Prussia, the English chased the French out of  both India and North America, creating an incredible global empire.  The Seven Years War would set the stage for the American War of Independence, removing as it did America’s great opponent on the continent, and pressuring the British to make the colonies pay for themselves via taxation.

Although the Enlightenment has already provoked its reaction in the form of the Romantic movement in the arts, the ‘age of reason’ itself is not yet spent: it is only now beginning to enter some subjects, like economics.  Irreligion among the intellectual caste is de rigeur, although in the Protestant north, a few individuals (Boswell and Gibbon, for instance) get their subversive kicks by embracing Catholicism, if only temporarily.  Writers like Voltaire and Rousseau write constantly of novel approaches to old problems: Emile, for instance,  is ostensibly about the proper education of a human being. (A curious subject, given that the author sent his own children to an orphanage on their birth.)  In the decline that which had been sustaining public morality, the Church and faith in general, people tried to find new ways of justifying a moral life. Some, like the Marquis de Sade, didn’t bother; they rejoiced in the fact that without God, all things were permissible. Much of the philosophy here, skeptical as it was of the old authority, also rebelled against reason; this was an age of Feeling, of sensibility — hence a larger role here for literature, theater, and other arts in the history. Rousseau in particular is used to epitomize the beginning of the romantic age, for his writings condemned cities, civilization, and material learning as corruptive elements leading the inherently good hearts of men astray. (Burk’s comment about sophisters and economists almost echoes him there.) His emphasis on humanistic morals, however, did not make him a traditionalist; he regarded the Church with suspicion because it threatened patriotism, being an institution which transcended nations. (This was an age of French literature, Italian opera, and German music — every nation had something to be extremely proud of.)  Rousseau is most remembered for his political philosophy, which emphasized the ‘will of the people’.  While sometimes cited as an inspiration for the American revolution, Rousseau did not believe that representative legislatures truly served the will of the people; that had to be effected through full democratic assemblies, and so genuine democracies must remain small.   Rousseau’s emphasis on popular will  and republics put him at odds with Voltaire, who distrusted the populace and smiled upon enlightened kings. In general, Durant noted, the revolutions of the 19th century would follow Rousseau in politics and Voltaire in religion.

Rousseau and Revolution is, like  all of the books in Durant’s series, formidable in its size but not in its writing. Durant, when he shows his personality, is utterly amiable. He is not as personal with his pen here as he was in The Age of Faith or The Reformation, but at times we witness the human being behind the pen, mindful that he is not writing of abstractions but of real people. He cautions the reader to never lose sight of the individual people whose lives were creating what we perceived as larger trends. Accordingly,  Durant writes not just of big things — the epic novels, the epic personalities — but of passing affections, like fashion and frivolities, the concerns of the flesh and blood creatures who then walked abroad. The Durants are gentle and humane authors, students of the very history they write, forgiving of their subjects’ sins and excesses.  We’ll see if that lasts throughout the French Revolution, for this book ends with the storming of the Bastille.

We move now to Napoleon and the end of civilization; or at least, the end of Will and Aerial Durant’s Story thereof.

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Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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6 Responses to Rousseau and Revolution

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    a brilliant review of a brilliant book… the Durant's, imo, were major contributors to the modern understanding of history; plus the writing style is wonderful: clear and easily comprehensible… speaking of which, Burke's phraseology, also imo, represents the western standard for elegance and clarity; it's such a pleasure to read… tx for the inspiring review…

  2. R.T. says:

    Stephen, I applaud and envy your reading of the Durant books. Thanks for sharing your first rate review/commentary.

  3. CyberKitten says:

    The Enlightenment is a fascinating period. In hindsight you can see how momentous the change was as humanity changed direction into a more fact/science/reason based system. It's no coincidence that science and technology really took off around then as Europe went into high gear. Things have been steadily accelerating ever since.

  4. Stephen says:

    @R.T. I am not sure what prompted me to begin the series back in 2007, but they've been a boon.

    @Mudpuddle: Yes, Durant has a way of sticking in my head. He and his wife spent over forty years doing this research…it's incredible to think of their dedication.

    @Cyberkitten: Our systems are more rational, anyway. I couldn't say we people are! 😉

  5. Brian Joseph says:

    This period was fascinating, Rousseau was fascinating and this book sounds fascinating. With that, I have only read Confessions. I think that I would want to read more of his actual works before I read this. It also sounds as if I would like other books by Durant.

  6. Stephen says:

    Durant notes that the Confessions contradicted some of what Rousseau wrote in his earlier years, but people do change as their experiences accumulate. I suspect more will be said about him in Napoleon.

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