Published Humanitas, Volume XII, No. 1, 1999

Political theorists have paid too little attention to the role of literature and the arts in the shaping of political ideals, and of no period is this more true than Rousseau’s. This is a great shame, for “conceptions of the nature and purpose of art closely parallel man’s conceptions of himself and of his destiny,” and they speak to us in ways far more compelling than abstract theory can do. Critics, when trying to trace the cause of modern political evils, often say “It’s Rousseau’s fault.” In a sense they are right, but it is more broadly correct to say that the fault lies with a whole complex of popular ideas (only later described as “Romantic”) that were already working powerful changes on the public mind through art, literature, and poetry. While it is true that the entire modern democracy movement has been indelibly shaped by the ideas of Rousseau, that is partly because he so effectively articulated assumptions that were emerging in his time and gave them enduring political expression. They were ideas about the nature of freedom and democracy that were transformed, and used (or misused) by others, such as Robespierre, in ways that surely would have shocked Rousseau. But it is for their susceptibility to use in such manner that they must be studied. Rousseau’s political ideas were at once idealistic, “mystical,” and collectivist. They became particularly dangerous during a time of social upheaval in the hands of people who had little perspective on the true nature and history of democracy and who therefore succumbed to its considerable powers of collectivistic mystification.

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