Rousseau and the road to totalitarianism

It’s impossible to understand the 19th century without taking the Romantic Movement into account, and it’s difficult to imagine the Romantic Movement without the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

I’ve recently been reading Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals. The idea behind the book is that over the past couple of centuries a succession of intellectuals have set themselves up as being uniquely qualified to tell us how to live our lives, usurping the role once played by religious teachers, priests and prophets. Johnson argues that if these people are going to tell the rest of us how to live then we’re entitled to ask how well they managed their own lives and how successfully they put into practice the ideals they would enjoin upon others. Which seem reasonable enough – after all if a politician or a religious leader made similar claims we’d certainly feel justified in asking if they lived up to their own principles.

Which brings us back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first of the intellectual instructors in the art of living.

As Johnson points out, Rousseau was an habitual liar who exploited those around him shamelessly. He was also a paranoiac and among other hobbies he enjoyed exposing himself to women and also enjoyed masochist sexual adventures. His ingratitude and his boorish behaviour were of epic proportions. He quarreled with everyone with whom he came into contact. He was described by Diderot as “deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical, and full of malice.”

He also saw himself as a expert on the upbringing and education of children although he abandoned all his own children.

Apart from his stunning hypocrisy Johnson sees Rousseau as having set western civilisation on the path that would lead inexorably to the modern totalitarian state, particularly in his enthusiasm for giving the state complete control of education. He is in a way the grandfather of political correctness.

In both the chapter on Rousseau and in the other chapters dealing with other intellectuals Johnson raises some pertinent points about the motivations and psychologies of such individuals. They are essentially people trapped in a kind of permanent adolescence, with all the monstrous self-centred egotism of youth, worshipping ideas but in an embarrassingly naïve manner and entirely incapable of dealing with either the real world or real people.


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