Reading Rousseau: Letters Written from the Mountains

I have a copy of  a new edition of Rousseau.  I won’t mention what edition exactly until I’ve finished blogging on its contents, which will mostly be about Rousseau’s thought rather than the qualities of the edition.  I’ll comment on the edition after I’ve posted on its contents, bit by bit, by which time I should have the basis for a judgement.

The ‘Letters from the Mountains’ (extracts from which appear in the collection discussed here) are Rousseau’s response to the decision of the Small Council of Geneva to burn the Social Contract, and the associated ‘Letters from the Country’ written in  defence of that action.  Rousseau has a lot to say about the charge that the book undermines government and religion, and about the decay of democracy, of which are supposed to take Geneva as an example. As noted in previous posts, Geneva was Rousseau’s home town, and he praised the city and its constitution so the persecution was certainly deeply wounding and really extremely spiteful.

Rousseau’s response to the charge of undermining all religion and government is that the ‘Letters’, he is answering, offer only an assertion without support. Rousseau’s reply is that he asserts that his work does no such thing, and that even without  further support, his claim must be as good as any unsupported claim made by his critics.  Rousseau adds that he the author must know better than anyone else what the intentions behind the author’s work is, so really without doing any further work Rousseau thinks he has established that he is wrong and his critics are wrong.  This is not the most intellectually astute passage in Rousseau’s writing.  It is interesting as stimulation to thought about the relations between author, writing and effects of that writing.  Rousseau himself does not refer to the possibility of a gap between author’s intentions and the consequences of a text.  Rousseau clearly did not intend for the book to be burned by the authorities in Geneva, and he is himself is complaining that they misunderstood his intentions.  All of that raises questions about the author’s capacities and responsibilities with regard to the way a book is understood.  Rousseau himself had a great belief in sincerity and self-revelation, his autobiography, The Confessions, is itself a major work of self-revelation, and is maybe the most important work of this kind ever along with the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo.  Rousseau was  thorough and self damning, referring to his sexual fantasies, a period when he was a flasher, and most infamously the dumping of his newly born children at an orphanage.  All of this points to someone with an extreme belief in his own self-knowledge extending to the understanding of his own texts and why he wrote them.  These are not such obvious issues though. How can anyone have completely reliable memory of why they did something, and everything they thought while writing something?  And maybe an author should think carefully about the more extreme possible reactions.  After all, The Social Contract does start with the famous phrase, that men are born free but live everywhere in chains.  Why should Rousseau  not expect governments to react with horror, and with symbolic violence, at least, during a period when sadly censorship was very normal?  None of this is meant to justify (or so I hope) the repression visited on Rousseau’s works, but his response is a either self-deceving or disingenuous in some respects.

Adding to the my heartless criticisms of Rousseau’s objections to his persecution by the state of Geneva, I have to also point out that he writes as if the Geneva authorities were unique in persecuting Rousseau, with France mentioned as a country where he was less persecuted.  This is rather peculiar.  He refers a ban on his work in France, and also to the way his books still circulated in France through unauthorised copies of the edition printed legally in the Netherlands and claims that such copies circulate in Geneva in the same way.  The issue is simply that Geneva had burned some copies, which it is clear we can take as a a reaction to Rousseau’s status as citizen, which makes him particularly threatening.

Another big theme in these letters is the rise and decline of a democratic government, directed at the Geneva authorities in order to suggest that they are the representatives of such degeneracy.  Rousseau’s account is in his normal paradoxical manner, which suggests that democracy is corrupt from the moment of the slightest deviation from the making of decisions by all citizens.  In the beginning citizens gather to establish the general will, and make some laws out of the general will; they may also decide to make some governmental decisions while not acting as the general will.  It is this separation between general will and government which is the basis of Rousseau’s claim that his position is not against government, since all government is legitimate that operates under the laws of the general will.  Of course the idea of the general will suggests citizen gatherings of a kind unknown in 18th century Europe, and which are likely to attract the non-benevolent interest of all established governments.  In Rousseau’s hypothetical history, the citizens’ gathering delegates some governmental decisions to representatives.  This delegation keeps increasing over history until the government is completely detached from the general will and from the people it represents. While Rousseau emphasises that he prefers aristocracy as a form of government, and that is a consistent position in some ways in Rousseau, he is also consistent in talking as if anything that removes decision making from the people as a whole  is a step of degeneration, as we have seen.


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