Monday, May 16, 2011

“for whom only Heaven’s angels are fit company”

In his book Rousseau: The Self-Made Saint, J.F. Huizinga tells how quite soon after his death an industry developed around Rousseau’s relics, as many intellectuals took the long pilgrimage to visit his tomb. The account of one pilgrimage was typical. A French curate and a Prussian baron began their journey by paying their respects to Rousseau’s tobacco-pouch. One of them records that “my fingers touched this box, my heart trembled, and my soul became purer”. As they approached the island where he was buried, they were “agitated as Apollo’s highpriestess at the approach of the god’. When they actually reached the spot they conducted a liturgical ritual with prayers and vows, ending by offering Rousseau a burnt sacrifice. (The sacrifice consisted in burning an essay that one of Rousseau’s enemies had written, while proclaiming in a loud voice: “we offer this expiatory sacrifice on the tomb of the great man, hanging over to he flames a libel which the lie claims its own and truth disavows…”
These pilgrims were not alone. In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson presents a smattering of the praise that has been heaped upon him by notorieties from the late 18th century to the present (all by people who never had to live with him):
To Kant he had ‘a sensibility of soul of unequalled perfection’. To Shelley he was ‘a sublime genius’. For Schiller he was ‘a Christlike soul for whom only Heaven’s angels are fit company’. John Stuart Mill and Goerge Eliot, Hugo and Flaubert, paid deep homage. Tolstoy said that Rousseau and the Gospel had been ‘the two great and healthy influences of my life’. One of the most influential intellectuals of our own times, Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his principal work, Tristes Tropiques, hails him as ‘our master and our brother…every page of this book could have been dedicated to him, had it not been unworthy of his great memory’.
What did Rousseau deserve this type of praise? Read the following two article's of mine on Rousseau and then decide for yourself:

Rousseau and the Parenthood of the State, Part 1

Rousseau and the Parenthood of the State, Part 2

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