Rousseau and the perils of public address

In December 1776, the Courrier d’Avignon reported a curious incident in Ménilmontant: a supposedly mortal collision between the famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and…a great dane.

‘Rousseau, qui se promène souvent seul à la campagne, a été renversé il y a quelques jours par un de ces chiens Danois qui précèdent les equipages lestes: on dit qu’il est très malade de cette chute, et on ne peut trop deplorer son sort d’avoir été écrasé par des chiens.’ (no.97, December 3, 1776, p.4).

‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau est mort des suites de sa chute. Il a vécu pauvre, il est mort misérablement; et la singularité de sa destinée  l’a accompagné jusqu’au tombeau.’ (no.102, December 20, 1776, p.4).

Jean Jacques François Le Barbier, Brusselles (éd. de Londres), 1783, ‘Rousseau apportant le manuscrit des “Dialogues” à Notre-Dame de Paris’. Illustration pour Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques dans Œuvres de J.-J. Rousseau.

Rousseau, as we know, died a few years later in 1778 – the event in Ménilmontant leaving him not mortally injured, but with a face bruised and beaten. The mistaken reports in the Courrier d’Avignon prompted his Rêveries critical assessment of eighteenth-century public culture and, in particular, the social and discursive mechanisms that permitted the spread of rumours, an absence of fact-checking, and sensationalism. It was hardly, however, his first diagnosis of ‘fake news’.

In the very era when the postal system and print culture brought people together in ‘imagined communities’, Rousseau worried deeply about the risks of dead letters. Although Rousseau’s colleague, Diderot, was convinced that the two most important technological developments in early modern Europe were the postal system and print culture (enthusing to his sculptor friend Falconet, ‘Il y a deux grandes inventions: la poste qui porte en six semaines une découverte de l’équateur au pôle, et l’imprimerie qui la fixe à jamais’), Rousseau was much more leery of the new information age.

A critical assessment of the Enlightenment’s faith in transparent communication must attune itself to the persistent traces of ancient modes of rhetoric: the traditions of doublespeak and dog-whistle politics. Rousseau, sensitive to the tensions between an esoteric, libertine tradition of communication and an intellectual climate of social progressivism, frames the debate in a series of vexed questions: for whom should I be writing? what is a public and what can it do? Despairing over the absence of any true ‘ami de la vérité’, Rousseau heads to Notre Dame cathedral to deposit, in a famous acte manqué, a copy of Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques on the altar of the church.

‘En entrant, mes yeux furent frappés d’une grille que je n’avois jamais remarquée et qui séparoit de la nef la partie des bas-cotés qui entoure le Chœur. Les portes de cette grille étoient fermées, de sorte que cette partie des bas-cotés dont je viens de parler étoit vuide & qu’il m’étoit impossible d’y pénétrer. Au moment où j’apperçus cette grille je fus saisi d’un vertige comme un homme qui tombe en apoplexie, et ce vertige fut suivi d’un bouleversement dans tout mon être, tel que je ne me souviens pas d’en avoir éprouvé jamais un pareil. L’Eglise me parut avoir tellement changé de face que doutant si j’étois bien dans Notre-Dame, je cherchois avec effort à me reconnoître et à mieux discerner ce que je voyois. Depuis trente six ans que je suis à Paris, j’étois venu fort souvent et en divers tems à Notre Dame; j’avois toujours vu le passage autour du Chœur ouvert et libre, et je n’y avois même jamais remarqué ni grille ni porte autant qu’il put m’en souvenir.’ (‘Histoire du précédent écrit’, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, OC, t.1, p. 980).

He notes that in spite of having been in the church scores of times, he had failed to notice the barrier blocking access to the altar. The unpredictability of the reading public – indeed, the plurality of publics and their occasionally indeterminate nature – makes literary reception a chancy affair. In the very loud and crowded market of ideas of the French Enlightenment, the rhetorical gesture of address underscored the vulnerability and power of the modern writer. In my study, Jean-Jacques Rousseau face au public: problèmes d’identité, I explore the vagaries of public communication during the Enlightenment and the dialectical tensions between shadow and illumination, musicality and transparency.

As an insider of the Encyclopédie project turned outsider, Rousseau understood the complexities of the new social and ethical demands placed on the philosophes in a way that is fundamentally different from his contemporaries. By noting the unpredictability and inconsistencies of systems of public address (with readers and spectators moved alternatively by emotions, reason, flows of information, and the major works of a few key power players), Rousseau proposes alternative ways of thinking about communication and the circulation of information. He places value on economies of speech that include silence, babil (babbling), laconism, and musicality – modes of communication that contest conventional modalities of rationality and social exchange. His work is thus an invitation to consider the precarity of address within modern social life and, consequently, the politics of truth at stake in symbolic exchange.

Masano Yamashita

My name is nobody

Debate on authorship, pseudonymity and anonymity has been rife in the past few days in the wake of the revelation of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s true identity. What is surprising, one could argue, is that the best-selling author’s unmasking took so long. How could a hugely popular writer hope to keep her identity secret in a celebrity-obsessed age when anonymous publishing is very much the exception?

But it was not always so. The expectations of the reading public were very different in eighteenth-century Europe, a time when most books were published without any mention of their author’s name at all. The cover of anonymity allowed for levels of audacity, risk-taking and mischief that would have been unthinkable otherwise, but it also made possible a fair amount of what we would nowadays call “trolling”.

Voltaire and Rousseau reconciled at last, according to this print (Gallica)

An unlikely pairing (Image Gallica, 1794-1799, artist unknown)

As observed in an earlier post on this blog, Voltaire was not averse to criticising and mocking his enemies under assumed names (in that particular instance playfully borrowing the identity of his devoted secretary, Jean-Louis Wagnière). One would be hard pressed to find the slightest trace of playfulness in the Sentiment des citoyens though.[1] This short pamphlet was published anonymously in December 1764 and its target was none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had published – very much under his own name – the Lettres écrites de la montagne only a few weeks earlier.

In the ‘Lettre cinquième’ of his book, Rousseau had advised Voltaire to put into practice that “spirit of tolerance that he preaches relentlessly” and, crucially, he had outed the philosophe as the author of the fiercely anti-Christian Sermon des cinquante, which had been published anonymously in 1752. Voltaire did not take kindly to what he saw as an unforgivable act of treachery, and retaliated with the scathing Sentiment des citoyens, an excoriating ad hominem attack in which he revealed, among other things, that Rousseau had abandoned his children. This attack ended with what can be construed as an exhortation to the Genevan authorities to eliminate Rousseau physically for sowing the seeds of sedition in the Republic.

Just as he always denied being the author of the Sermon des cinquante, Voltaire never admitted to having penned the Sentiment des citoyens, and he was very much amused by Rousseau’s misattribution of the pamphlet to Jacob Vernes, which he did his best to propagate. Central to this episode was of course the deep detestation that the two men had for each other, arising from very different temperaments and worldviews; but, as Jean Sgard explains in his preface to volume 58 of the Complete Works of Voltaire, the fundamentally irreconcilable conceptions of authorship held by the two writers inevitably placed them on a collision course.

Georges Pilard

[1] Just published in volume 58 of the Complete Works of Voltaire.

Mirabeau meets Voltaire and Rousseau in the underworld

‘Mais le voilà donc ce prétendu égoïste, cet homme dur, cet impitoyable misanthrope, que ses lâches ennemis déchirent plus que jamais après sa mort!’ (Mirabeau to Marie Thérèse Sophie Richard de Ruffey, marquise de Monnier, on the subject of Rousseau’s acts of kindness during his lifetime.)[1]

Today marks the 223rd anniversary of the death of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the comte de Mirabeau. A courter of controversy, Mirabeau is famous for being a nobleman who joined the third estate for the Estates General and became rapidly popular thanks to his oratory skills.[2] He died of a suspected inflammation of the diaphragm, on 2 April 1791, though some did question the rapidity of the illness and wondered if he had been poisoned.[3] Other than for a few individuals, such as Marat, who publicly rejoiced at his passing, Mirabeau’s death seems to have been overall a source of sorrow, provoking numerous displays of affection including prints and plays.

The representation of Mirabeau’s post-life is part of a wider Revolutionary fascination for the gathering of historical characters in the afterlife. Indeed, it was viewed by artists as an opportunity to create imaginary encounters between characters of different eras, stage reconciliations or provide a commentary on the situation in France. One can see an example of this in Olympe de Gouges’s rapidly penned Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées, first performed on 15 April 1791, in which Rousseau and Voltaire are quick to shake hands and forgive each other in their joy at the French Revolution: ‘tu as posé les premières bases de tout ce qui s’est opéré de grand et d’utile en France’ exclaims Rousseau. [4]

Prints were more likely to pick either Voltaire or Rousseau as the object of Mirabeau’s affection. For instance, in ‘Le Voile est tombé’, Voltaire can state ‘Mon triomphe est beau sans doute, puisque il est l’ouvrage des Français’, while the archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, burns in the background.


Le Voile est tombé (source: French Revolution Digital Archive)

However, in ‘Mirabeau arrive aux Champs-Elysées’, it is to Rousseau that Mirabeau presents a charte constitutionelle as if it were ‘un de ses ouvrages’, involving him in the Revolution.


These representations are not just a homage to Mirabeau, but also an occasion to revisit the historical thinkers who influenced Revolutionary ideology and to place Mirabeau within this illustrious canon. [5]

While only a few of these representations can be deemed negative, this was all to change with the discovery of the armoire de fer, a secret cupboard in the Tuileries which contained compromising correspondence, in November 1792. Even after death, there is no rest for the depicted.


Apparition de l’ombre de Mirabeau (source: French Revolution Digital Archive)

Claire Trévien

[1] Correspondance complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, ed. R. A. Leigh et al., 52 vol. (Oxford, 1965-1998), vol.44, p.187-91, letter 7686 (27 March 1780).

[2] John R. Neill and Charles F. Warwick, Mirabeau and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2005), p.431.

[3] Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, Journal de la maladie et de la mort d’Honoré-Gabriel-Victor Riquetti Mirabeau, ed. Carmela Ferrandes (Bari, 1996), p.137.

[4] Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées, p.6. Numerous plays and prints of the period staged what their creators saw as a long overdue reconciliation between the two feuding philosophes. See Ling-Ling Sheu, Voltaire et Rousseau dans le théâtre de la Révolution française (1789-1799) (Brussels, 2005).

[5] I will be exploring these representations in greater detail in an article, ‘Théâtre de l’ombre: visions of afterlife in prints of the French Revolution’, in Shadows of the Enlightenment: chiaroscuro in Early-Modern France and Italy, a study in analogy and metaphorology, a special issue of Journal of eighteenth-century studies,ed. Mark Darlow and Marion Lafouge (forthcoming).

Happy birthday Denis Diderot! A letter from Marian Hobson

Cher Denis Diderot, happy 300th birthday!

birthdaydiderotWherever you are – for you were a non-believer all your life, and the afterlife you looked forward to was one of infinitely recyclable molecules living on in ever new combinations. A process possibly without end, spinning out like the cosmos itself, but one that was sufficiently complex to leave room for human intervention.

So for 20 years of your life and against the odds you edited the Encyclopédie, aiming to consolidate what was known about agriculture, art, theology, trade – a raft of subjects that probably no other European would have dared bring together – in order that intervention might improve, and wrongs in human systems and thought be at least discussed, and if possible righted.

However, that changing of opinions and recycling of molecules requires energy – that you also knew. In deliciously underhanded ways you developed yours by writing: for instance, dialogues of speculative science prefiguring cloning (Le Rêve de D’Alembert); a hilarious novel (Jacques le fataliste), anticipating le nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, one presenting a net of random co-occurrences out of which events develop in a way that mimics freedom. Your novel forms a net which thus appears as the paradoxical opposite of a linear, causal determinism, and from it we see that these apparent opposites take in each other’s philosophical washing: What is it to be free? Not to be determined. To be determined? Not to be free.

Notably kind, you yet had a talent for comedy and satire which you hid in unpublished work, the satire in the form of a novel-cum-dialogue (Le Neveu de Rameau). Unlike your friend-enemy Rousseau, you are not in the Panthéon; your work doesn’t appear as a set philosophical text in that summum of your country’s education ladder, the written exam of the agrégation en philosophie.DiderotJacquesFatalist01

Your accolades are less of the Establishment, are more wayward and in the future – you will be translated by Goethe, be used as a springboard towards the dialectic by Hegel, and Freud will be glad to find in you a past confirmation of his Oedipus complex. Your work ghosting for others (the atheist d’Holbach), commenting on and round them (Helvétius and the believer Hemsterhuis) and collaborating namelessly on a history of colonialisms (L’histoire des Deux-Indes) has gently rocked beliefs without inculcating dogma or doctrine. We can’t turn you into a memorial, not yet anyway, there is too much to do. You make us keep on thinking. Thank you for all this, cher Denis Diderot!

-Marian Hobson

To find out more about Diderot, please visit our dedicated page.