work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

rousseau as puritan?

12.06.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

Not really – but his Calvinist background clearly shows – as for example in his seemingly square and unromantic condemnation of unproductivity he deploys in his prize-winning rant against the arts and sciences that  kick-started his career as a writer

« Si nos sciences sont vaines dans l’objet qu’elles se proposent, elles sont encore plus dangereuses par les effets qu’elles produisent. Nées dans l’oisiveté, elles la nourrissent à leur tour ; et la perte irréparable du temps est le premier préjudice qu’elles causent nécessairement à la société. En politique comme en morale, c’est un grand mal que de ne point faire de bien ; et tout citoyen inutile peut être regardé comme un homme pernicieux. »

How does this tally with the fact that Rousseau went on to become the patron saint of the Romantic movement? Certainly not in that the Discourse was taken off the Romantic reading list – to the contrary: it’s uncompromising turn to Nature set the tone.

What is more likely that this is an anachronistic occurrence in which Romanticism’s Puritan legacy surfaces. In his genealogy of modern consumerism Colin Campbell argues that the fact that the most avid consumers came from the the same Protestant middle classes which, some generations before, had produced the pioneers of industrial capitalism is linked to the transformations Protestant spirituality underwent – transformations that started with cold Calvinism and ended with emotional Romanticism.

So can we see Rousseau’s Franklinesque condemnation of idleness and inefficient time use as a lapse – a use of a familiar argument out of the Calvinist repertoire which Rousseau had picked up growing up in Calvin’s old city which is slightly misplaced in a Romantic context? I don’t think so.

What the Romantics share with the Puritans is an intuitive belief in election and grace. While there are various ways of getting there – the status of being among the elect, of having grace is not one that can be achieved by following set rules, by performing well-defined good deeds. It must be a state of being – an inner state. For the Puritan this would be true belief – for the Romantic it is inspiration or even genius. Both can be longed for and found – but they can’t be acquired by taking lessons, reading up recipe knowledge etc. And both need external confirmation, need to prove themselves. The Puritan, who could never be sure of their state of grace, was on the lookout for external signs of grace – and, as Max Weber’s famous argument goes, capitalism provided a handy mechanism in that the odd admixture of meritocratic and random distribution it afforded could be interpreted as one of God’s ways to favour those he elected for eternal life in the beyond already in this world. While the Puritan was aware that the reprobate could reap great returns from immoral business practices and this was one of God’s ways to lull him in false security on his way to damnation – and that as in the story of Job God may test the believer by not granting him success, the (ideal-typical) answer was to commit to an ascetic, frugal and economically productive life and hope for the best. Being lazy was not an option since, while economic success could not be a sure sign of election, a propensity to idleness was a sure sign of reprobation.

The Romantic, too, had to validate his version of grace: inspiration. God has been replaced by Nature and the reward of eternal life has been replaced by a cult of infinity, but how do you know whether you’re inspired and creative if you don’t create? Charles Taylor(1989: 374) speaks of an ‘expressive turn’ – he claims that

‘the idea of nature as an intrinsic source goes along with an expressive view of human life. Fulfilling my nature means espousing the inner élan, the voice of impulse. And this makes what was hidden manifest for both myself and others.’

The Romantic must produce just like the Puritan must produce. The modes of production are as different as the inner natures to be proved are – but both need to be at work relentlessly. And there are overlaps and cross-fertilisations Campbell (1989: 185) points out that Wesley had read Rousseau… and I have previously highlighted that imagination is a key ingredient in post-Puritan entrepreneurship. Both come together in Blake’s famous line that ‘my business is to create’ which, as Eric Wilson (2011) argues, very much sums up the frantic productivity of this Romantic par excellence.

So even when Jean-Jacques is hanging out meditating in the park – as in this painting by Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy – he’s working, really…

 

 

 

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Discours qui a remporté le prix a l’académie de Dijon. En l’année 1750. Sur cette Question propoſée par la même Académie : Si le rétabliſſement des Sciences & des Arts a contribué a épurer les mœurs. Par un Citoyen de Genève, in: Oeuvres complètes de J J Rousseau, Tome quatrième, Paris: Chez Lefèvre, 1839, p.14

Taylor, Charles (1989): Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Wilson, Eric G. (2011): My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

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