Rousseau's Platonic Enlightenment. By David Lay Williams
Version of Record online: 16 FEB 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 332–333, March 2009
How to Cite
Madigan, P. (2009), Rousseau's Platonic Enlightenment. By David Lay Williams. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 332–333. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00460_18.x
- Issue online: 16 FEB 2009
- Version of Record online: 16 FEB 2009
Pp. xxxiii, 306 , University Park, PA , The Pennsylvania State University Press , 2007 , $55.00
Williams' thesis is that, if we think of ‘modernity’ as characterized by the scepticism, materialism, and atheism of Hobbes and the 18th-century philosophes Diderot, Helvetius, and d'Holbach, then Rousseau is an ‘anti-modern’, an ‘ancient’, and indeed a ‘Platonist’, in consistently maintaining the existence of a transcendent, immaterial and immutable ‘idea’ of Justice as a criterion against which he measured the deficiencies and laid bare the faults of the ancient régime amongst which he lived and as a standard for the new society he wished to bring about. Indeed, Williams' presentation shows ‘modern’ political theory oscillating between inimical opposites of austere ‘scientism’ and extreme Platonism, without easily finding a more acceptable position in the middle. In his support, Williams is successful at showing Rousseau inspired by the revival of Platonism during the Italian Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino, by the Cambridge Platonists, Malebranche, Leibniz, and notably Bishop Fénelon, whose Telemachus is the only ‘modern’ book Rousseau would allow his Emile to read, and indeed which served as a model for his own novel about proper education; and Fr. Bernard Lamy, another Oratorian whose Dialogue on the Sciences Rousseau confessed he ‘read and re-read a hundred times; I resolved to make it my guide.’ (quoted p. 40)
Williams dilutes his thesis, however, by not exploring another way he is a ‘Platonist’: Rousseau saw himself as living on the cusp of the transition from an oligarchy (masquerading as a ‘timocracy’ or historical aristocracy) toward an unprecedented ‘democracy’, to use terms for the degenerate states in Plato's Republic); indeed, the heart and soul of his oeuvre is to lay before the reader's gaze the uncrossable divide that has grown up between the rich and the poor, how the ‘one state’ has in fact become two, how the former oppress the latter, and how this an intolerable affront to the standard of Justice written in the heart of every person. Rousseau is preeminently modern in using his pen to arouse a consciousness of and anger towards these ‘unjust’ conditions, to pull away the emoluments which the oppressors use to reconcile the oppressed to their ‘chains’, and thereby to accelerate the transition to a more acceptable social form. What is deficient in Rousseau's Platonism is that throughout his whole life he was looking backwards, never forwards, and the same is true of Williams' presentation. The phrase ‘French Revolution’ never appears in this text, nor is it listed in the index. Rousseau gains our sympathy by calling for equal rights before the law for aristocrat and peasant, by devising a system of income re-distribution through such ‘modern’ measures as a luxury tax and a progressive income tax, but loses it by adopting an unbending posture and uncompromising, contrarian style, choosing the role of a prophet who denounces ‘intolerable’ conditions, arouses class hatred and antagonism, and walks away from the consequences, never seeing or caring where this might lead. It is the option of an alienated, excluded fantasist over a responsible social critic who has a commitment and investment in the outcome. Rousseau was mentally disturbed during his final years, but after his death his ideas inflamed his (initially middle class) contemporaries; Williams does not mention that Rousseau's bones were later disinterred and re-buried in the Pantheon. He is pre-eminently ‘modern’ in having given birth to ‘ideology’, the rhetorical transformation of historical presentation into a plot involving a demonized ‘other’ bordering on a conspiracy theory, designed to propel society towards revolution.
Rousseau was mature enough in his Platonism to see that it involved a series of painful ‘conversions’ by which the individual turned ‘within’ and remade himself according to progressively higher patterns; however, his view of the unfolding of man's ‘natural’ condition was dire to the point of being gnostic; working one's way back from such a great distance would be extremely difficult, and certainly justified anger at whatever ‘creator god’ placed us in this parlous condition. Despite his early success in music and writing an opera, Rousseau's personality displays an unsociable or churlish streak that grew more pronounced as he grew older; there may have been an element of mental illness present from the beginning. In his prize winning essay he provocatively proposes that the arts and sciences have brought about the corruption rather than the elevation of society. His later blanket condemnation of the theatre would never lead one to suppose that he lived during an era when the works of Corneille, Racine, and Molière were being performed.
In his ‘state of nature’ he specifies that people originally lived happily as hermits, without social communication. Natural catastrophes then drove them into society, which was a ‘fall’. ‘Everyone began to look at everyone else and to wish to be looked at himself, and public esteem acquired a price. The one who sang or danced best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent came to be the most highly regarded, and this was the first step at once toward inequality and vice.’ (quoted p. 240) This is the ‘original sin’ of society which is constitutional and universal, that eventually gives rise to the lust for domination that brings about the class system, and which no ‘revolution’ can remove. It seems contradictory to claim that a ‘Platonic’ conversion can overcome or reverse it. But here the old adage applies, the first person a preacher is preaching to is – himself. The pressure of society, the desire to ingratiate himself and be accepted especially into aristocratic circles, was something this mis-born Swiss youth who was a psychological orphan never successfully accomplished or accommodated. His high-born mother died before he could know her, and his low-born father was forced to move literally ‘down’ to the banks of Lake Geneva and apprentice Jean-Jacques to a cruel printer. Rousseau began with a strong sense of injured merit and unrecognized entitlement, of having been passed over and shabbily treated by the patricians of his home canton. He embarked on an aggressive program of social-climbing, only to be surprised and eventually frustrated and embittered at the rebuff he received and refusal of admittance by the upper classes. In his works he returned the compliment and took his revenge.