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Dr. Paul Rahe On Rousseau

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HH: Time for the weekly Hillsdale Dialogue. Once a week, I sit down and I talk with either Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, or one of his terrific colleagues there about one of the classics, one of the things we ought to be focused on. And in this week of atrocity and barbarity, when medieval, the incineration of a pilot alive has been dominating our news cycle, I want to go back to someone who should warn us not to be surprised by any of this, Rousseau. And I’m going to do it with Dr. Paul Rahe, one of the great scholars at Hillsdale, and a frequent guest on the program. I just saw him law week when I was up at Hillsdale. Dr. Rahe, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show. How are you?

PR: Good, but cold. It’s cold here in Michigan.

HH: It was cold when I was there. So I’m not, the Arctic big melt has come down. I’ve been watching the weather. I’m glad I got out of there in time.

PR: Right, right.

HH: Now Dr. Rahe, last time we talked, we were talking about Montesquieu even as the French were being attack by Islamist terrorists. And you pointed out that maybe the French had become unmanned. Today, we’re going to talk about the second great Frenchman of the late or early modern period, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. How does he fit in with Montesquieu? And how does he fit with your theory of the French sort of coming apart at the seams?

PR: Well, you know, Montesquieu is French. Rousseau is not. He’s from Geneva. He is from a little, tiny quasi-Calvanist, it had been fully Calvanist, republic on the edge of France. It’s French speaking. So moving from there to France is perfectly possible and easy, because you’re working in the same language.

HH: Wouldn’t he always sign his books a citizen of Geneva?

PR: Yes, he did.

HH: Yeah.

PR: He emphasized his difference. The other thing you can say about him is he’s an artist before he’s anything else. He was a musician. He was a composer. He composed an opera. He wrote and published in 1736, quite early, a dissertation on modern music. He was a musical theoretician. And in his youth, he was not a political man at all. In fact, it’s really very late in his development that he begins to show an interest in politics. And it happens in 1745-1746. He needs a job, because he comes from a poor background. And he works for the French ambassador to Venice as a kind of an assistant. And that brings him in contact with politics. Then he returns to Paris, and he’s teaching music, and not making much of a living. And he’s hired as a secretary for the most beautiful woman in France – Madame Dupin. And one of the regulars at her dinner parties is Montesquieu. So they almost certainly met. And Madame Dupin puts him to work reading Montesquieu right after the book is published in November, 1748. And it is about eight months later that he sort of, at least he describes himself, went walking out to see his friend, Diderot, and being struck down by a thought. And his whole system’s in his mind at this time, according to him. He dramatizes everything.

HH: Instantly, right? I mean, this is, the Confessions is full of salacious detail and instant expositions…

PR: Yeah.

HH: And so it’s really a weird guy.

PR: Yes. He’s a self-promoter, and he dramatizes everything. Now I have idea whether this really happened to him, this falling down. But he did take 500 pages or so of notes on Montesquieu’s Spirit Of Laws right after it was published, and those notes still exist. They’re in the Municipal Library in Bordeaux, and they have never been fully exploited by scholars. And everything that he writes after that, after this event in 1749, beginning with his first discourse, which is published in 1750, and the second discourse in 1755, and on to the Social Contract and Emile in 1762, everything he writes, he writes with an eye to Montesquieu.

HH: Now I want to jump ahead, and then I’m going to come back. France is convulsed by a revolution less than 30 years later, right?

PR: Yeah.

HH: They go through the terror. Many people associate Rousseau with that. And before we walk through what he wrote and what he said, do you think that’s fair?

PR: Not exactly. If you look at the speeches of the Jacobins, they quote Montesquieu much more often than Rousseau.

HH: So where does this odor come from around Rousseau? Why does he make so many conservatives uneasy, Paul Rahe?

PR: Well, because he is a radical democrat, and he is the most vehement, and powerful, I think, critic of commercial society.

HH: Interesting.

PR: And let’s put it this way. He articulates his argument by taking one aspect of Montesquieu’s thought, extracting it from Montesquieu, changing the polarities, and making his argument. And so Montesquieu, who is quoted by the Jacobins, is the Montesquieu that Rousseau is interested in.

HH: Now you have a book called Soft Despotism, and there’s a lot of Rousseau in Soft Despotism.

PR: Yes.

HH: And so the immediate conclusion is you view him with a bit of a jaundiced eye as well, Paul Rahe.

PR: I do. I do. I think you can learn a great deal from him, however, if you’re careful. I think, let’s put it this way. I think his analysis of some of the defects of commercial society is very powerful. I think that the remedies he suggests are unworkable and often inspire dangerous conduct.

HH: Now I’ve got to tell the audience as well, as we were working through this, Dr. Arnn is off at the funeral of Sir Martin Gilbert, great Churchill biographer and a friend of Hillsdale College and a friend of Larry’s. And so Dr. Rahe rushed into the breach for me, and we’re doing this alone. And I’m unprepared, because my Rousseau is limited to the Confessions and lectures on Emile. And you are the political theory side of this. And Rousseau, in the Confessions, is a literary genius, and it was wonderful to have been taught that. And I heard Allan Bloom lecture on Emile, and it was fascinating, though I didn’t understand much about it. But you’re coming at it from the entire, he’s got two sides to him, Paul Rahe.

PR: Well, more than two. He, look, he is the father of the romantic novel. It’s called Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse. And it is the first novel to make adultery thematic, which is the theme of all the romantic novels. And he founds the romantic novel. By the way, his Julie is the bestselling book of the 18th Century, apart from the Bible.

HH: Wow.

PR: He is the father of the modern educational theory with Emile. He is the founder of modern radical politics with his first discourse, his second discourse, especially the second discourse, which is on inequality, and his Social Contract. He is a very important figure in musical theory with his Dissertation sur la musique modern. He’s, you know, he writes operas. He writes plays. He comes up with a kind of theory of civil religion, with the The Creed of a Savoyard Vicar, which he lays out in the Social Contract, and repeats in the Confessions. And in the Confessions, he offers himself as an alternative to Augustine, as a model for human conduct. He’s also a major figure in linguistic theory, has an essay on the origin of languages. And then there’s this aesthetic work called The Reveries of the Solitary Walker that he writes towards the end of his life, embracing a kind of solitude, and laying out an account of man’s relations with nature that points on to Friedrich Nietzsche.

HH: Well, that’s going to, okay, that’s a note for my next week. Let me talk a bit, though, about how big, how he looms over the present age. When we come back, I want to talk about the speech that French President Hollande gave yesterday.

PR: Ah, yes.

HH: And we’re talking about this on Friday, and it’s just yesterday he gave this speech which taps right into that radical sort of egalitarianism with regards to religion. But were people aware of his genius at the time? You mentioned Diderot. The Encyclopedists are around. Do people know Rousseau’s a different order of intellect when he’s around?

PR: Yes. They also think that he is mad. All of these people around him initially, Didero and D’alembert and so forth are committed to modern commercial society. And they are committed to administration. They’re committed to rational administration and to the rule of elite of credentialed people. They would look forward to the École nationale d’administration and the énarques, who run France, who are graduates of that school, and they would approve. Rousseau would be appalled.

HH: Interesting. And so the American Revolution, and everyone who depended upon Montesquieu, they are not of Rousseau?

PR: No.

— – – –

HH: Dr. Rahe, I want to go back to yesterday. President Hollande of France gave a speech in which he said about the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the terrorism of last month, “France was attacked in what it holds most sacred – freedom of expression.” And he went on to say it wasn’t just freedom of expression, but the republic and human equality. France reacted with dignity and pride. When the terrorists wanted to put it on its knees, it stood its ground. When the fanatics wanted to spread fear, it came together. When the extremists wanted it divided, it stood as one. He said there was one thing that was non-negotiable. Secularism is a guarantee for France. How much is that tradition of secularism linked to Rousseau?

PR: I think in profound ways. Rousseau was the proponent of what he calls in the Social Contract civil religion. He was a profound opponent of the, what you might call the separation of church and state. He looked back to Ancient Rome. He looked back to Ancient Athens. Above all, he looked back to Ancient Sparta. With the onset of Christianity, human beings, from his perspective, from Machiavelli’s perspective, are divided. They’re citizens of what Augustine calls the city of God, and they’re citizens of the city of man here. They are divided souls. Machiavelli wanted to reunite the soul. Rousseau even more emphatically wanted to reunite the soul. So what he wanted was a religion that was associated with a particular political community. He didn’t go as far as the Greeks and the Romans, and you know, he didn’t want to go back and restore paganism. He wanted a kind of monotheism that was a political religion that united the citizens of a particular polity. That was never achieved, but an attempt was made by the Jacobins to create a kind of rational deism that would dominate things. And you know, the Catholic Church was absorbed, as a political church, separated from Rome under the Jacobins. The republic that Francois Hollande talks about goes back. That idea goes back to the Jacobins, and it is applied in France a second time. Beginning in about 1907, when the religious orders of the Catholic Church are abolished, when churches, the Catholic Church in particular, because it was the largest and the most dominant church in France, is denied the right to own property. This is tied up with something that Rousseau pushes very hard. Commercial societies, thing of Federalist #10. Our society is marked by diversity – a diversity of religion, a diversity of interest, lots of competition. They change constantly because of technological dynamism. And there are associations formed to push particular things. Okay, Rousseau was fundamentally opposed to what he called partial societies. A partial society is a society that you would belong to, but I wouldn’t belong to. And so what he wanted was a unitary political community.

HH: But you know, that’s Sparta, but that wasn’t Rome, Paul Rahe. I know that…

PR: Early Rome, yeah.

HH: Okay, early Rome, because he loves Plutarch, right?

PR: Yes.

HH: And I read as much as I could about Rousseau before we did this on the biographical side. And he loved Plutarch, and he was a Protestant, and he was going to be a preacher, and then he was a Catholic, and then he was nothing.

PR: Right.

HH: And he was everything. And he’s just all over the map. That’s got nothing to do with our framers, who were almost certainly in one camp or another when it came to theology, but also said let a thousand flowers bloom, don’t wipe them all out.

PR: Right. Look, the framers of the American Constitution, I’ve been thinking about this, because we’re doing an online course on the federalists, and I’ve taped one of the lectures this week. The framers are interested in establishing a republic on an extended territory. They take diversity of a thousand kinds – religious and economic and social for granted.

HH: Ethnic. Ethnic. They come from everywhere.

PR: And they do say let a thousand flowers bloom, and good things will come of it. Rousseau wants a small republic, okay? The Jacobins tried to take Rousseau’s ideas about a small republic, and Montesquieu’s ideas about a small republic and try them at the level of a great nation. And that’s what the republicanism that is pressed home in France in the Third Republic does as well.

HH: Well, blood flows at the time of the revolution, and it does not look to be turning out well right now, either, does it, Paul Rahe?

PR: No, no, and look, the old republican order, despite that speech that Hollande gave, has weakened. And they have been willing to accept and tolerate intolerance. That is to say they have not indoctrinated their Muslim immigrants in the spirit of this Rousseauian, or quasi-Rousseauian republicanism that has been driving France for more than a hundred years now.

HH: And is that, and this is the ultimate, is that because it’s impossible to do? Rousseau’s just clueless? You can’t do that unless you have Spartan, unless you have everyone in the military, and a generation of serfs, a generation after generation of slaves? I mean, it’s just not possible to do this, right?

PR: Right. Now Rousseau is not clueless, because he doesn’t believe it’s possible to do it on an extended territory. He calls himself a citizen of Geneva, because Geneva is not on an extended territory. He thinks you can have a certain kind of politics that will be more satisfying to the human soul in a place like Geneva, but never, never, never does he say you could do this in France.

HH: And so when it comes time for the American Revolution to happen, and they’re reading Montesquieu, are they also, I want to come back and talk to you about the Enlightenment and about sociability and all these other things, but when, I’m mostly concerned with how did we get here to this day? And I think, my view is, the framers just said Rousseau, not for us, let’s go with Montesquieu. Did he have an impact on us?

PR: Not much at all. He was not widely read. Eventually, Jefferson reads him. I think John Adams reads him, too. But nobody takes him very seriously on the North American continent until the progressives come along.

HH: That’s, and then he begins, and then Emile, right?

PR: Right, and you get your Rousseau, to some degree, second-hand, transformed a bit by Hegel.

HH: And the effects are calamitous, in my view.

PR: Yes, and oh, and he has a second return. The 1960s are all about Rousseau.

HH: I know you’re serious, but I’m struck that is not a good thing to have on your tombstone, is it?

PR: No, no, no. My generation, too, God help us.

HH: When we come back from break, we’re going to talk about Rousseau and the Enlightenment, and then Rousseau and citizenship, because he does, he’s such a unique character, and very compelling to young people. He’s like Nietzsche. If not to have loved Rousseau at one point means not to have been reading.

— – — –

HH: I was laughing when we went to break, Dr. Rahe. You said Rousseau gets credit for the 60s, and I was thinking back to my reading of the Confessions. He’s a licentious, he’s a randy, old goat.

PR: Yes, he is.

HH: And he gives away all of his children, right? He’s just a terrible human being in some respects. No wonder the 60s want him.

PR: Yes, yes. Well, here’s the thing about him. He is the great critic of what you might call celebrity. And one of the things, I love teaching the First Discourse, because Rousseau is the first person to have recognized the corruption effect of celebrity, and of the desire for celebrity on the intelligentsia.

HH: The idol literati? Is that his?

PR: Yes, and it’s Voltaire he goes after, and he goes after him with a meat cleaver. Let me read a passage to you that sort of conveys this.

HH: Please.

PR: He says at the same time that the cultivation of sciences withdraws, so the speak, the heart of the philosopher from the crowd, in another sense, engages with the crowd that of the man of letters. Every man who occupies himself in developing talents which are agreeable wants to please, to be admired, and he wishes to be admired more than anyone else. Public applause belongs to him alone. I would say that he does everything to obtain it if he did not do still more to deprive his rivals of it. From this is borne, on the one side, refinements of taste and politesse. Violent-based flattery, cares, seductive, insidious, childish, which in the long run, diminish the soul and corrupt the heart, and on the other side, jealousies, rivalries, the renowned hatreds of artists’ perfidious calumny, duplicity, treachery and every element and vice which is most cowardly and odious. So he thinks that having a public, having a large group of people who read, having the possibility of sort of doing a little public dance and being applauded is disastrous for men of letters like Voltaire.

HH: Oh, my gosh, because that, you just described modern journalism, modern celebrity, Hollywood.

PR: Yes, oh yes.

HH: You just described what we have. But one the, the irony…

PR: And nobody describes this before Rousseau.

HH: But the irony is he lived it. If he wrote the bestselling romantic novel of that century, and he’s, you know, feted across all the salons of Paris, and he goes back and forth with his buddy, Hume, and all these people in England, and they think he’s mad but they tolerate him, he’s condemning what he lived.

PR: Yes. Yes, he is, and if you think about the 60s, the rhetoric of the 60s attacks the life that the survivors of the 60s went on to live. It’s, you know, did Hollywood embrace the 60s? You bet Hollywood embraced the 60s, big time.

HH: Do you start people with the First Discourse? For this audience, now they’re intrigued, they want to read something by Rousseau, do you send them to start with the First Discourse?

PR: I do. I think it is very powerful, and I think it is exceedingly insightful.

HH: Now everybody thinks the Enlightenment, though, up until Rousseau, I gather, is just the greatest thing in the world. I’m sure Ben Franklin thinks the Enlightenment is terrific. You know, everybody thinks the Enlightenment is freeing us from the dark corridors of religion, right?

PR: Yes, and Rousseau argues no, the Enlightenment is preparing us for a new species of priestcraft, that practiced by the philosophe. And he compares the philosophe of France to the Jesuits, and suggests that they were worse than the Jesuits, that they’ve learned all of the arts of manipulation of the Jesuits, and what they’re interested in is establishing a new kind of tyranny over the human mind.

HH: Now I’m curious…

PR: So he takes the Enlightenment critique of priestcraft, and the old Protestant critique of Catholic priestcraft, and he applies it to the philosophe. That’s why they hate him.

HH: Does he anticipate and condemn the very progressives who seek to possess him 150 years later?

PR: Yes. Oh, yes.

HH: How interesting.

PR: You know, he is worried that you are going to end up with a despotism of administrators. That is to say you’re going to have a kind of world in which you’re managed by people who understand the arts of managing other people.

HH: Well, how…you know this is, we’ve got to go to break. When I come back, how does that happen, Paul Rahe, if you write to condemn something to become the object of affection of that which you’ve condemned? How does that happen?

PR: Think of all the people who attack capitalism and are read by the wealthy in America.

HH: Oh, Michael Moore. You just described Michael Moore.

PR: Yes.

HH: Another Michigander, I might point out.

PR: Yeah.

— – – –

HH: So Rousseau sees all these problems, and he sees the progressives coming, even though they like him, and he has a remedy. His remedy is, you say, citizenship. How does that work?

PR: Well, what he wants is to take the human soul, which is divided between the church and the polity in which we live, but also divided profoundly by all the temptations of commercial society, the things that cause one to watch this TV show, to go to that movie, to go to this sports event and so forth, he wants to restore a kind of unity to the human soul, and he thinks that’s only achievable on a small scale in a small community, and that there can be a kind of health that comes about for human beings from living in a community where you know everybody, where there’s a kind of common friendship that drives the community. So there’s a nostalgia for ancient republics that drives this. And he believes that in a way, the more we have, the more miserable we are. Now the key to understanding this is he thinks that within human society, especially commercial society, the quality in the human heart that gets developed to its highest point is vanity. The vanity that causes us to want to have a fancy, new car because our neighbors have a fancy, new car, or to have an HD TV that, a smart TV so you can get everything, because the neighbors have that, or that causes people to want to dress in one particular kind of clothing because the neighbors dress in that particular kind of clothing. This critique of vanity, by the way, is very, very attractive to adolescents.

HH: Of course, but it’s also just absurd. He loved the high life.

PR: Yes.

HH: He loved everything to do with pleasure, and he needed an economy that supported it. So he’s criticizing that which enabled him to criticize it. And so many people fall for this, Paul Rahe.

PR: Of course. Look, think of all these people who are arguing that we have to live with less because of the climate. And they go off to meetings, and they fly there in their private jets.

HH: Oh, they’re Rousseauians.

PR: Yeah.

HH: Yeah, so…

PR: I mean, it’s a kind of dreaminess that is especially powerful in successful bourgeois societies. And the dreaminess, you know, Rousseau’s the guy who invented the critique of the bourgeois. He’s the first to use that…

HH: And Marx appropriates it?

PR: Yes, yes, it’s, I believe that, and you know, he’s very popular, always been very popular. And you teach it, and kids get excited about it. I think it is a kind, its success and its purchase on us has to do with the emptiness of commercial society. And you might say are there people who are immune to Rousseau? And I think the answer is people who are seriously religious are immune to Rousseau.

HH: That’s what I was going to say. I just, he hates Christianity of any sort, right? He just doesn’t like any kind of Christianity. And I think that that betrays, he doesn’t want to have to live under its disciplines.

PR: Yes, and his appeal is to those people who live the hedonistic life in a bourgeois society. And of course, there are now and always have been quite a few of these people. Their lives are empty. They go, they flit from one pleasure to another, sating themselves. And there’s a kind of misery that comes from it, and a profound loneliness.

HH: So do people grow out of Rousseau, in your experience, like Nietzsche?

PR: I did.

HH: Yeah, so you were there. You’re talking about…

PR: Yes, yes.

HH: …yourself.

PR: I remember reading it and being very excited by it. And over time, let’s put it this way. When you stop worrying about what other people think about you, when you stop worrying about what he calls consideracion, and you don’t give a damn anymore, then Rousseau seems silly, because its appeal is to those people who are obsessed with what other people think about them. And his critique of modern society is it puts us in the position where we depend upon the opinion of other people. And we’re never really ourselves in such a society. Well, you know, at a certain point, you grow up.

HH: You know, yesterday, Peter Kreeft put out a piece, the great Catholic scholar, saying there are three most profound things he ever learned. One is there is one thing necessary, two, the way to happiness is self-forgetful love, and three is everything God works for good for those who love Him. This is very basic Christianity.

PR: Yup.

HH: And it’s not really that hard. And it’s also very intuitive. At the end of his life, what is Rousseau doing? And does he reconcile his experience with this? I think he just ran away from his actual licentiousness.

PR: Well, he runs away, also, from persecution, because he does something in France you can’t get away with. You can’t attack the monarch and the Church, both. You can attack the monarch, and the Church might protect you if you’re loyal to the Church. You can attack the Church, and the monarchy might protect you. But you can’t attack both. So he was on the run in his last years. And now there’s something interesting, and I want to bring this up, because this’ll give you something really to think about, and your listeners to think about. There’s a book he carries with him everywhere when he’s on the run, and it is Pascal’s Pensee. And his critique of bourgeois society is Pascal’s critique of fallen man. We are in the, Pascal says that fallen man is under the control of inquietude, of uneasiness, of a profound discomfort. He gets this from St. Augustine, who says we will not rest ‘til we rest in Thee, and uses the same inquietum in Latin for our being restless. Rousseau picks that up and says that’s what bourgeois society does to you.

HH: And we actually know it’s just the human condition. Paul Rahe, always a pleasure, Dr. Rahe, from Hillsdale College, for everything that Hillsdale has to offer, which is much.

End of interview.


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