engraving for Rousseau's Emile
engraving for Rousseau’s Emile – Botanical virtue as exemplary lesson.

In between diaper changes, and 300 pages later, I’ve finally made it to 1788 and the beginning of the French Revolution in Simon Schama’s incredible narrative history – Citizens.

Schama’s primary thesis, that the Old Regime was in many ways not very old at all, and that the downfall of the regime was in large part due to the revolutionary and scientific ideas propagated by the noble intellectual class themselves, convinces and entertains. Schama’s biographical sketches are exquisite. Four examples of complicit nobility:  Lafayette – French envoy to G. Washington who later drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen at the Estates General,  Lavoisier – the famous chemist by vocation and abhorred tax collecting intendant by day, Talleyrand – the Catholic priest/disciple of Voltaire and opportunist diplomat and went on to betray in turn the revolution, Napoleon, and the restoration, Malesherbes – manager of the royal household, correspondent with Rousseau, and compulsive botanist who tipped off Diderot to a search and burn of the Encyclopedia, hiding manuscripts in his own house.

One of my primary goals in reading the history is to understand the influence of Rousseau’s ideas. Educational histories often often portray Rousseau through literal readings of his works – the greatest of which was Emile: or On Education, the allegorical education of a youth in the state of nature. There are many reasons to be skeptical of literal readings. Here is Rousseau’s wildly rhetorical and therefore wildly popular doctrine concerned the political effects of breastfeeding:

“but let mothers deign to nurse their children, morals will reform themselves, nature’s sentiments will be awakened in every heart, the state will be re-peopled.”

First modern French painting of breast-feeding, 1783. (Labille-Guiard)
First modern French painting of breast-feeding, 1783. (Labille-Guiard)

If only!

The collective suicide of the governing class had much to do with their allegiance to a new cult of “Sensibility.” Through Rousseau’s Emile (1762), Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro (1786), and Greuze’s paintings depicting scenes of domestic bliss and sorrow, the stuffiness of court etiquette was rejected in favour of a natural virtue:

In this new world, heart was to be preferred to head; emotion to reason; nature to culture; spontaneity to calculation; simplicity to the ornate; innocence to experience; soul to intellect; the domestic to the fashionable; Shakespeare and Richardson to Moliere and Corneille; English landscape gardening to French-Italian formal parks…

The key word was sensibilite: the intuitive capacity for intense feeling. To possess un coeur sensible (a feeling heart) was the precondition for morality. (149)

Schama draws out the consequences:

The drastic cultural alteration represented by this first hot eruption of the Romantic sensibility is of more than literary importance. It meant the creation of a spoken and written manner that would become the standard voice of the Revolution, shared by both its victims and its most implacable prosecutors.. The speeches of Mirabeau and Robespierre as well as the letters of Desmoulins and Mme Roland and the orchestrated festivals of the Republic broadcast appeals to the soul, to tender humanity, Truth, Virtue, Nature and the idyll of family life. The virtues proclaimed in Greuze’s paintings formed the moral basis of what the Revolution was to understand as Virtue. “It is virtue that divines with the speed of instinct what will be conducive to the general advantage,” wrote Mercier in 1787. “Reason with its insidious language can pain the most equivocal enterprise in captivating colors but the virtuous heart will never forget the interests of the humblest citizen. Let us place the virtuous statesman before the clever politician.”

…In this scheme of values there could be no distinction between the private and public realm. (153)

Schama relates how even Marie Antoinette made a pilgrimage to Rousseau’s tomb at Ermenonville, twenty five miles outside of Paris. He also notes that it was the literary underclass and the huge adoring readership of Emile and Nouvelle Heloise that created a community of believers in the transfer of childhood innocence to the political realm of freedom. The paradoxical nature of the political “general will” played out with disastrous results, but Rousseau did not consciously advocate revolt:

What he invented was not a road map to revolution, but the idiom in which its discontents would be voiced and its goals articulated. And most of all he provided a way in which the torments of ego-an increasingly popular pastime in the late eighteenth century-could be assuaged by membership in a society of friends. In place of an irreconcilable opposition between the individual, with his freedom intact, and a government eager to abridge it, Rousseau substituted a sovereignty in which liberty was not alienated but, as it were, placed in trust. The surrender of individual rights to the General Will was itself conditional on that entity preserving them, so that the citizens could truly claim (so the theory ran) that for the first time he governed himself.