Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The High Priest of Civic Religions

By George J. Marlin

From the French Jacobins of the eighteenth century to today’s environmentalists and other ideologues dedicated to instructing people how to conduct their daily lives, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) has been the favorite of trendsetters because he popularized the cult of nature, the getaway country home, rural simplicity, outdoor exercise and sports, fresh air, walks through the woods, and the cold bath. But especially the sovereign self, which he also manages to combine with the oppressive state.

Rousseau believed he was a servant of the people dedicated to directing mankind toward happiness. When it came to daily contact with his fellow man, however, he was an open narcissist. (“I feel too superior to hate,” “I love myself too much to hate anybody.”) Yet he treated his mistresses badly and his five illegitimate children were condemned at birth to the dreaded Paris orphanage system where the life-expectancy for two-thirds of the boarders was less than a year. One scholar has colorfully summed up Rousseau as a “masochist, exhibitionist, neurasthenic, hypochondriac, onanist … incipient paranoiac, introvert … infantilist, irritable and miserly.”

Born in Geneva and raised as a Calvinist, for a short time, Rousseau became a Catholic in order to receive financial support from a wealthy French noblewoman. Studying daily life in the France’sancien régime, he concluded society – i.e., “cosmopolitanism” – was the root of all evil. Civilization for Rousseau was not the patient accumulation of knowledge and skills, but the new original sin, an all-consuming cancer. The history of civil society was the story of “human sickness.”

Reversing the Christian story of the Fall, Rousseau argued that we are in our original state of nature inherently good – it is society that corrupts us. Social institutions, private property, wealth, luxuries, competition, social standing were unnatural and compelled men to be bad. He preferred communal living conditions that he believed were found in tribal life and ancient patriarchal families.

Assuming men would not willing return to their primitive state, Rousseau called for a new social contract whereby individuals – contrary to the sovereign freedom he accords them in other places in his work – would subordinate their rights and judgment to the needs and judgments of the entire community. The sovereign power would not be placed in one ruler but in the Volonté générale – the sacred and supreme General Will: “Let all surrender their will, their goods, their person, under the contract of the general will.” Despite his own self-indulgence and paeans to self-expressiveness, social virtue for Rousseau was, oddly, the conformity of particular wills with the General Will.

Under that scheme, each person would be both a citizen and a subject. The citizen participates in the supreme authority and the subject submits to the supreme authority of the General Will. The General Will delegates power to executives mandated to create harmony by social engineering that eliminates evil interests, biases, prejudices, and bad habits. Submitting to these decrees, Rousseau argued will preserve true freedom. Blind obedience “forces [man] to be free.”
There is no room for Catholicism in Rousseau’s society. We don’t need the help of Christ or his Church to lead a good life because each man “is the infallible judge of good and evil which renders man like unto God.” Of course, at the same time, the Rousseauvian state functions like a church of a different kind and limitless scope.

Seeking a celestial afterlife and not an earthly paradise renders Catholics unworthy of citizenship, according to Rousseau. Because of their divided loyalties, Catholics are evil agents undermining the state: “Whoever dares to say ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation’ ought to be driven from the state unless the state is the Church and the prince is the pontiff.”

Rousseau was the founder of an anti-Christian civic religion that substituted service to the state for service to God. And rejection of his civic religion was not to be tolerated:
There is then a purely civil profession of faith, of which the sovereign must fix the articles, not as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which it is impossible to be a faithful citizen or subject…. While the state can compel no one to believe them, it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an antisocial being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death.

Rousseau’s creed, which put moral and civic order in the hands of the infallible state, laid the groundwork for totalitarian rule. His earliest converts were the Jacobins who established a dictatorship in France ten years after his death. They named Rousseau one of the revolution’s gods and placed his ashes in the Pantheon – their civic temple. The masses were instructed to venerate Rousseau instead of the saints and his clothes and books were treated as relics.

Rousseau was one of many figures who prepared the way for the disintegration of the West and the horrors of the twentieth century by breaking the link between God and the natural rights of man. Communists, fascists, and Nazis looked to him to justify the new kind of state that brooked no opposition and imposed ideological policies that glorified the collective. The result was predictable: the slaughter of tens of millions of innocent human persons.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter.

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