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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Ou Rousseau juge de Jean Jacques


At

fifteen the passions are awake; let them be gently and wisely guided. Let pity, gratitude, benevolence be formed within the boy's heart, so that the self-regarding passions may fall into a subordinate place. To read Plutarch is to commune with noble spirits; to read Thucydides is almost to come into immediate contact with facts. The fables of La Fontaine will serve as a criticism of the errors of the passions.

And now Emile, at eighteen, may learn the sublime mysteries of that faith which is professed by Rousseau's Savoyard vicar. A Will moves the universe and animates nature; that Will, acting through general laws, is guided by supreme intelligence; if the order of Providence be disturbed, it is only through the abuse of man's free-will; the soul is immaterial and survives the body; conscience is the voice of God within the soul; "dare to confess God before the philosophers, dare to preach humanity before the intolerant;" God demands no other worship than that of the heart. With such a preparation as this, Emile may at length proceed to aesthetic culture, and find his chief delight in those writers whose genius has the closest kinship to nature. Finally, in Sophie, formed to be the amiable companion and helpmate of man, Emile should find a resting-place for his heart. Alas, if she should ever betray his confidence!

The _Confessions_, with its sequels in the _Dialogues, ou Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques_, and

the _Reveries du Promeneur Solitaire_, constitute an autobiographical romance. The sombre colours of the last six Books throw out the livelier lights and shades of the preceding Books. While often falsifying facts and dates, Rousseau writes with all the sincerity of one who was capable of boundless self-deception. He will reserve no record of shame and vice and humiliation, confident that in the end he must appear the most virtuous of men. As the utterance of a soul touched and thrilled by all the influences of nature and of human life, the _Confessions_ affects the reader like a musical symphony in which various movements are interpreted by stringed and breathing instruments. If Rousseau here is less of the prophet than in his other writings, he is more of the great enchanter. Should a moral be drawn from the book, the author would have us learn that nature has made man good, that society has the skill to corrupt him, and finally that it is in his power to refashion himself to such virtue as the world most needs and most impatiently rejects.

The influence of Rousseau cannot easily be over-estimated. He restored the sentiment of religion in an age of abstract deism or turbid materialism. He inaugurated a moral reform. He tyrannised over France in the person of his disciple Robespierre. He emancipated the passions from the domination of the understanding. He liberated the imagination. He caught the harmonies of external nature, and gave them a new interpretation.[1] He restored to French prose, colour, warmth, and the large utterance which it had lost. He created a literature in which all that is intimate, personal, lyrical asserted its rights, and urged extravagant claims. He overthrew the classical ideal of art, and enthroned the _ego_ in its room.

[Footnote 1: Among writers who fostered the new feeling for external nature, Ramond (1755-1827), who derived his inspiration, partly scientific, partly imaginative, from the Swiss Alps and the Pyrenees, deserves special mention.]

II

The fermentation of ideas was now quickened by the new life of passion--passion social and democratic as the days of Revolution approached; passion also personal and private, which, welcomed as a sacred fire, too often made the inmost being of the individual a scene of agitating and desolating conflict.


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