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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Rousseau and Robespierre

Cartoon of Robespierre guillotining
the executioner after having guillotined
everyone else in France.
The leaders of the French Revolution—Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Maximilien Robespierre, Saint-Just, and others—were mesmerized by Rousseau’s vision of General Will leading to the creation of total harmony and unanimity in France. In 1778, before the French Revolution began, Robespierre met Rousseau. Susan Dunn talks about their meeting in her Introduction to The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here’s an excerpt:
"I saw you in your last days," Robespierre recalled, "and this memory is a source of proud joy for me." According to Robespierre, Rousseau commented that he had prepared the field and sowed the seeds for the immense change that was about to take place in France, but, like Moses, he would not live to see the promised land. The young lawyer pledged to his master that he would be "constantly faithful to the inspiration" that he had drawn from Rousseau’s writings.
The book's final essay, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “Rousseau, Robespierre, Burke, Jefferson, and the French Revolution,” begins with a description of Rousseau’s strong grip on the minds of Robespierre and other revolutionaries:
Rousseau was also, in a curious way, the guarantee of Robespierre’s impartiality, as a being above normal politics, spokesman for a mysterious and awe-inspiring entity: the General Will. In his address to the French of the eighty-three Departments in the summer of 1792—about the summit period of his personal authority—Robespierre came forward confidently in the persona of spokesman for the General Will, addressing the Jacobins whom he now totally dominated:  
"For us, we are not of any party, we serve no faction, you know it, brothers and friends, our will is the General Will."  
"Our will is the General Will." Once accepted as spokesman for the General Will, itself an absolute, Robespierre was able to wield absolute power, even at a time when he held no office.  
He was seen as the "guide" or "legislator" who makes his appearance in chapters 6 and 7 of Book 2 of The Social Contract. The function of the guide or legislator is to direct the General Will, "to show it how to see objects as they are, sometimes as they ought to be." 
In 1793–1794, to be designated by Robespierre, with no evidence at all, as opposed to the General Will, was invariably the prelude to the fatal prosecution of the individual concerned, to a trial with the result known in advance, and then to speedy execution.  
The cult of the General Will flourished, in a way, even after the fall of Robespierre. The Thermidorians, having killed Robespierre, declared that he had falsified Rousseau and that they themselves were the true heirs to Rousseau. On 14 September 1794 the Thermidorian-dominated Convention ordered that Rousseau’s remains be brought from his original burial place on the Isle of Poplars in Ermenonville and placed in the Pantheon in Paris with appropriate ceremony. Gordon MacNeil describes the central place of The Social Contract in the ceremonies: "The Social Contract, the ‘beacon of legislators’ was carried on a velvet cushion, and a statue of its author in a cask pulled by twelve horses."

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