Jean-Jacques Rosseau and the Antinomian Principle

“… the political fantasies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau have a great deal to answer for. For two centuries, his sentimentalizing utopian rhetoric has provided despots of all description with a means of pursuing conformity while praising freedom. It is a neat trick. Words like “freedom” and “virtue” were ever on Rousseau’s lips. But freedom for him was a chilly abstraction; it applied to mankind as an idea, not to individual men. “I think I know man,” Rousseau sadly observed near the end of his life, “but as for men, I know them not.” In the Confessions, he claimed to be “drunk on virtue.” And indeed, it turned out that “virtue” for Rousseau had nothing to do with acting or behaving in a certain way toward others. On the contrary, the criterion of virtue was his subjective feeling of goodness. For Rousseau, as for the countercultural radicals who followed him, “feeling good about yourself” was synonymous with moral rectitude. Actually behaving well was irrelevant if not, indeed, a sign of “inauthenticity” because it suggested a concern for conventional approval. Virtue in this Rousseauvian sense is scarcely distinguishable from moral intoxication.

The Antinomian Temptation

Translated into the political sphere, Rousseau’s ideas about freedom and virtue are a recipe for totalitarianism. “Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people,” Rousseau wrote in the Social Contract, “must feel themselves capable, as it were, of changing human nature, … of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it.” As the philosopher Roger Scruton observed in an essay on the French Revolution, “the revolutionary consciousness lives by abstract ideas, and regards people as the material upon which to conduct its intellectual experiments.”

Man is “born free,” Rousseau famously wrote, but is “everywhere in chains.” Alas, most men did not, according to him, truly understand the nature or extent of their servitude. It was his job to enlighten them—to force them, as he put it in one chilling epithet, to be free. Such “freedom” is accomplished, Rousseau thought, by bringing individual wills into conformity with what he called the “general will”—surely one of the most tyrannical political principles ever enunciated. “If you would have the general will accomplished,” he wrote, “bring all the particular wills into conformity with it; in other words, as virtue is nothing more than this conformity of the particular wills, establish the reign of virtue.”

Establishing the reign of virtue is no easy task, as Rousseau’s avid disciple Maximilien Robespierre discovered to his chagrin. All those “particular wills”—i.e., individual men and women with their diverse aims and desires—are so recalcitrant and so ungrateful for one’s efforts to make them virtuous. Still, one does what one can to convince them to conform. And the guillotine, of course, is a great expedient.

Robespierre was no political philosopher. But he understood the nature of Rousseau’s idea of virtue with startling clarity, as he showed when he spoke of “virtue and its emanation, terror.” It is a remark worthy of Lenin, and a grim foreshadowing of the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric that informed a great deal of Sixties radicalism. I mention Rousseau here because, acknowledged or not, he is an important intellectual and moral grandfather of so much that happened in the cultural revolution of the 1960S. (Important “fathers” include Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.)

Rousseau’s narcissism and megalomania, his paranoia, his fantastic political ideas and sense of absolute entitlement, his sentimentalizing nature-worship, even his twisted, hypertrophied eroticism: all reappeared updated in the tumult of the 1960S. And so did the underlying totalitarian impulse that informs Rousseau’s notion of freedom.” — Roger Kimball

“Free speech” eh? More like a frontal assault on traditional morals and family.