History and Context: Rousseau and The French Revolution


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an 18th century ‘philosophe’ born in Geneva into a very poor family. He was regarded as the father of the Romantic Movement and is believed to have influenced the French Revolution due to his appeal to ‘la sensibilité’.

In terms of moral religion Rousseau didn’t seem too anxious with otherworldly punishment like Hell as, during his lifetime, he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism and then back again.

Rousseau started to become more largely recognised when he won a prize for his essay about how arts and science have not conferred benefits on mankind – they are in fact the worst enemies of morals as they create wants and wants are the source of slavery.

The Social Contract (1762) was Rousseau’s most famous treatise on political rights. One of the most famous comments in the treatise was that: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” He believed that man is born naturally good and only by institutions is he made bad. This opposes previous views of Plato and Hobbes that man is essentially bad or aggressive. Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau thought that people should exercise sovereignty rather than bend to a monarch’s absolute rule and group together to create a public person called a sovereign who aims for the common good.

He believed there were two conditions for legitimate public authority:

(1) no relationships of dependence

(2) by obeying laws people only obey themselves

However, if citizens do not agree with the general will, Rousseau says they must be forced to be free and obey it which is slightly confusing as the idea of forcing somebody to be free is surely a contradiction?

Rousseau believed a man of sensibility would be moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute family but should be cold to improving the entire social class. He also said that the poor have more virtue than the rich – which is arguably a biased opinion considering that he came from a poor background!

The French Revolution

The French Revolution spanned ten years between 1789 and 1799 and triggered the Romantic Movement, which saw a revolt against the ‘Enlightenment’ and scientific structure.

Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: The Fallacies of Hope

Clark describes the first steps of the Revolution as: “pedantic and confused”.

He uses the metaphor of the sea (movement and escape) to describe the Romantics and believes us to be the “offspring of the Romantic Movement” and the fallacy of hope.

Jean-Paul Marat is portrayed by Clark as the “first cloud to overcast Wordsworth’s dawn” and darken the optimism of the first Romantics to a pessimism that has lasted to our own day.

In 1798, France got “a leader with a vengeance”, General Napoleon Bonaparte, who had the insatiable urge to conquer and explore. He was a political realist reviving the great traditions of unity and stability, which previously existed in Rome. He thought Europe would be better off if it was united under his rule but this couldn’t happen because the realistic ruler was dominated by the romantic conqueror.

Clark poses the question: What happened to the great heroes that spoke for humanity in the revolutionary years? His answer was that they were silenced by fear of disorder, bloodshed and the fear that humanity was not yet capable of liberty. He concludes that it was despair that poisoned the Romantic Movement.

By around 1810 all optimistic hopes of the 18th century had been proven false– the rights of man, the fall of tyrants and the benefits of industry – all a delusion.

The freedoms of one revolution had all been lost, either by counter-revolution or by the revolutionary government falling into the hands of military dictators.

Artists and poets were shattered by despair and the spokesman of this pessimism was Byron who became, after Napoleon, the most famous name in Europe.

Byron’s works were read with hysterical enthusiasm and although he wrote good poetry, it was his bad poetry that made him famous. He wrote a poem about the opening of a prison – the dungeon of the Château de Chillon on the lake of Geneva and: “I learned to love despair” was his negative conclusion. Clark explains how the positive side of Byron’s “genius” was a sense of self-identification with the great forces of nature in short with the sublime.

About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
This entry was posted in History and Context (Western Philosophy) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s