Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher, and writer of a franco-swiss origin, is often called a precursor to the French Revolution. Rousseau’s political and philosophical thought had a tangible impact on Jacobins and several aspects of the French Revolution as a whole. In his autobiographical work called Confessions, the author deconstructs and analyzes various social issues through the prism of self-criticism. Rousseau attempts to depict his own life, as well as the lives of Jesus, Socrates, and Cato, as the ‘exemplary’ ones (Kelly 49). By portraying and criticizing the level of corruption and immorality of his contemporaries’ society, especially that of high echelons of society, Rousseau stresses the need to embrace civic and natural virtue. Thus, Rousseau’s revolutions in Confessions consist in his proclamation of natural and citizen virtues (mainly composed of universal equality and human beings’ freedom) and a need to return to them from the state of corruption.
Depiction of a Social Injustice and Its Effects
One of the essential aspects that influenced the formation of the revolutionary thought, particularly the ideological basis of the French Revolution, was Rousseau’s depiction of his encounters with social injustice and their effect on his identity. Probably the very first Rousseau’s encounter with injustice, according to the author, happened when he was accused of breaking a comb and punished for what he did not do during his childhood years (29). As a result, this occasion played a serious role in forming Rousseau’s vision that would later influence one of the primary moral principles of the French Revolution – the inability to tolerate any injustice (29). “To suffer death rather than submit” – that is another principle proclaimed by the author concerning the struggle against oppression. During the Catholic baptism ceremony in which Rousseau participated with several Moors and Jews, the author witnessed a higher level of disdain for him, a protestant ‘heretic’ than to previously mentioned men (Rousseau 77). Along with Rousseau’s encounter of “conspicuous consumption,” the described event stimulated the author’s attraction towards the idea of social equality (Kelly 103). Thus, these aspects can be linked with the French Revolution’s ideas and the ideas of a Jacobin Club in particular.
The Return to Natural Virtue
Apart from the aspects mentioned prior, Rousseau’s ‘revolutions’ are the series of events that influence his being, turning it into a more natural state; thus, the natural physical and mental state leads to virtuous existence. Rousseau “presents a revolution outside the realm of normal political activity” (Kelly 62). After the author’s arrival to the countryside in Book 6, he experienced the ‘revolution of the body’ – the first revolution described in his work (Rousseau 226). Following the first revolution, came the ‘revolution of the soul’, which was the continuation of the first revelation of the author (Kelly 201). However, on the contrary to the unconscious discovery of nature, the aware approach led to the changes in the author’s mental state (Kelly 201). The idea, which Rousseau attempts to promote through these ‘revelations’ is that the early industrialization and the lack of moral values among the elite of the society replaced the natural values with the unnatural ones (Kelly 201). The unending and unconscious consumption along with the desire to gain as much riches as possible lead to the increase of crime and immorality. Thus, Rousseau claims that true virtue can only be obtained through nature.
Finally, Rousseau’s attraction to the original Christian values can be observed throughout the work; the Christian revolution, which was mostly apolitical, promoted the values of unity and gentleness. According to Kelly, “in Rousseau’s view, the most salutary aspect of the Christian revolution is the superiority of Christian gentleness” (67). As Rousseau says, “the ideas of equality, union, and gentleness of manners touched me even to tears” (Rousseau 146). Thus, according to the author, Jesus Christ set an example of charity in order to teach the people unity and mutual respect (Rousseau 228). Therefore, an example of Jesus as an apolitical and virtuous revolutionary correlates with the ideas described prior and expresses Rousseau’s perception of revolution.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions express the author’s attitude towards the society of his contemporaries, along with the idea that the encountered injustice often shapes a person’s revolutionary sentiments. The oppression Rousseau experienced during his childhood, youth, and adult life made him intolerant to any kind of inequality or injustice. Moreover, the principles that he proclaimed inspired various French revolutionaries, including the members of the Jacobin Club. However, apart from listing social and political injustices of his time, Rousseau describes the revolution of mind and body caused by the human being’s existence in rural or even wild natural conditions. He perceived the early industrial society as one of the factors that restrained a human being from being virtuous, just and free. The Christian revolution was the embodiment of Rousseau’s values. The author depicted Jesus Christ (as well as himself) as an apolitical person, a revolutionary, whose main goal was to reach universal equality, mutual respect, and unity.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated by David Widger, Project Gutenberg, 2006.
Kelly, Christopher. Rousseau’s Exemplary Life: The Confessions as Political Philosophy. Cornell University Press, 2019.