Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hero Worship: Robespierre and Jean Jacques Rousseau

Yesterday I wrote of Wilson's over the top respect for Walter Bagehot. I did not really quote Wilson's essays, which I will do here, but rather a letter he wrote in which he details a visit to Bagehot's grave site. Robespierre also exhibited this behavior. In "The Life of Maximilien Robespierre", by George Henry Lewes, the following is written: (page 337)
Robespierre, although he had no precise doctrine, had, in an extraordinary degree, what Lamartine calls the sentiment of the revolution. He felt—no one more strongly—the necessity of a doctrine: and that religious tendency which I have been careful to point out as characteristic of his mind, now suggested to him his famous festival " de l'Etre Supreme." A republic, he thought, should have no other sovereignty than that of morality; it should have for its basis a divine idea.

In the beginning of April, he passed some days in the forest of Montmorency. There he often visited the hut in which Jean Jacques Rousseau had lived. It was in this house, in this garden, where his master had so eloquently written of God, that he finished his famous report.

Here is what Wilson wrote:

I saw Glastonbury this morning, and came here this afternoon. It is a quaint interesting little place. The churchyard lies upon a hill, standing at Bagehot’s grave, one looks out upon just such a view as that from Prospect Ave [in Princeton], only more beautiful with a sweet river running through it, and a wonderful golden light lying on it, as, it would seem, the whole of Somerset. The leaf enclosed is from Bagehot's grave, darling; please press it and keep it for me.

Simply going to visit a man's grave is not inherently wrong, even if they aren't specifically your family members. Millions of people have been to New York's Trinity Church Cemetery, where several Founding Fathers and delegates to the Continental Congress are laid to rest. The difference is the worshipping part. Robespierre gave speeches in which he mentioned Rousseau, such as this portion: (page 339)

"A sect propagated with great zeal the materialism which prevailed amongst the nobles and the beaux esprits; to it is owing, in great part, that practical philosophy which, reducing egotism to a system, regards human society as a war of cunning, success as the rule of the just and of the unjust, honesty as an affair of taste and convenience, and the world as the patrimony of adroit rogues. Amongst those who, at the time of which I speak, signalized themselves in the career of letters and of philosophy, one man, Rousseau, by the elevation of his mind and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of being the'preceptor of the human race. He openly attacked tyranny. He spoke with the enthusiasm of the Divinity ; his masculine and virtuous eloquence painted in glowing colors the charms of virtue; it defended those consolatory dogmas with which reason supports the human heart. The purity of his doctrine, drawn from nature, and in profound hatred of vice, no less than his invincible contempt for the intriguing sophists who usurped the name of philosophers, drew upon him the hatred and persecution of his rivals and of his false friends. Ah, if he had witnessed this Revolution, of which he was the precursor, and which has carried him to the Pantheon, who can doubt that his generous soul would have embraced with transport the cause of justice and equality? But what have his cowardly adversaries done for it? They have fought against the Revolution from the moment they feared that it would raise the people above them.
And Wilson: (A Literary Politician)
Walter Bagehot is a name known to not a few of those who have a zest for the juiciest things of literature, for the wit that illuminates and the knowledge that refreshes. But his fame is still singularly disproportioned to his charm; and one feels once and again like publishing him at least to all spirits of his own kind. It would be a most agreeable good fortune to introduce Bagehot to men who have not read him! To ask your friend to know Bagehot is like inviting him to seek pleasure. Occasionally, a man is born into the world whose mission it evidently is to clarify the thought of his generation, and to vivify it; to give it speed where it is slow, vision where it is blind, balance where it is out of poise, saving humor where it is dry, - and such a man was Walter Bagehot. When he wrote of history, he made it seem human and probable; when he wrote of political economy, he made it seem credible, entertaining, - nay, engaging, even ; when he wrote criticism, he wrote sense. You have in him a man who can jest to your instruction, who will beguile you into being informed beyond your wont and wise beyond your birthright. Full of manly, straightforward meaning, earnest to find the facts that guide and strengthen conduct, a lover of good men and seers, full of knowledge and a consuming desire for it, he is yet genial withal, with the geniality of a man of wit, and alive in every fibre of him, with a life he can communicate to you. One is constrained to agree, almost, with the verdict of a witty countryman of his, who happily still lives to cheer us, that when Bagehot died he "carried away into the next world more originality of thought than is now to be found in the three Estates of the Realm."

There are plenty of key words used that stand out in both sections, but the one thing that stands out the most is that both elevate their idols beyond all reason. I have plenty of respect for our Founding Fathers, but I don't describe them this way. It's the ideas, not the man. Benjamin Franklin was right. In his speech on the floor of the Continental Congress, (among other things) Franklin wrote the following:

There is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government.

Both of them use that phrasing: "one man". One man.

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