Rousseau and the barbarity of education

Rousseau's concept of the 'noble savage' presented an enduring challenge to the Enlightenment moral order.

'Lesson in Ploughing', an illustration for 'Emile' by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Education was regarded by Rousseau as the source of moral corruption. Credit: Photo12 / Universal Images Group / Getty Images.
'Lesson in Ploughing', an illustration for 'Emile' by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Education was regarded by Rousseau as the source of moral corruption. Credit: Photo12 / Universal Images Group / Getty Images.

The opposition between civilisation and the state of nature as value categories was among the central strands of the quarrel between Rousseau and the Diderot circle over several decades, a key problematic of the High Enlightenment. In several respects, Rousseau’s critique of ‘civilisation’ also became one of the most powerful devices for attacking the Enlightenment generally and, as such, a pivotal element in the emergence of both Counter-Enlightenment and also, from June 1793 when the Montagne gained control of the French Revolution, for Robespierre’s assault on democratic republicanism.

Rousseau’s conception of civilisation damaged the kind of political reformism that saw itself as the heir to the Enlightenment in the first place, because his critique entailed rejection of the cardinal Enlightenment doctrine that knowledge, science and understanding are the key to grasping man’s political and social situation and hence to auto-emancipation, as well as all possibility of improvement of society and institutions. In the second place, it displaced free and independent critical judgment and the crucial need to develop this expertise in individuals, from its central position in late 18th-century debate and educational theory. Thirdly, and perhaps most damaging of all, it encouraged and provided ideological justification for Robespierre’s and Saint-Just’s cult of the ‘ordinary’, the idea that political virtue and legitimacy is found in its pristine, most admirable state not in the philosophe, or in discerning judgment, or in the widely-travelled, or the highly experienced, but in the thoroughly ordinary, in the mass of those without any distinction, training or knowledge.

This particular cluster of tendencies – anti-intellectualism, scorn for the cultivated intellect and anti-philosophique discourse in Rousseau’s educational theory – was emphatic in his early works, well before his final break with Diderot in 1757. In the 1750 Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, he says:

Consider Egypt, that first school of the universe, that climate so fertile beneath a brazen sky. She became the mother of philosophy and the fine arts and, soon thereafter, was conquered by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and, finally, the Turks.

Rousseau makes a similar comment about ancient Greece in general and then remarks:

Could I forget that it was in the very bosom of Greece that there was seen to arise that city as famous for her happy ignorance, as for the wisdom of her laws, that republic of demi-gods rather than men, so superior to humanity did their virtue seem? O Sparta! Eternal shame to a vain doctrine! While the vices, led by the fine arts, intruded themselves together into Athens, while a tyrant there gathered so carefully the works of the prince of poets, Sparta drove out from her walls the arts and the sciences, the sciences and scientists.

This, of course, was a deliberate reversal of the familiar 18th- century trope which envisaged Athens, and not Sparta, as the ancient antecedent of all that was best in modernity and, in particular, the combining of commerce with the arts, science and philosophy.

Education in 18th-century century Europe and America prior to the revolutions of the late 18th century was generally for the few, not the many. In France, many or most were nearly, or actually, illiterate. During the Revolution, the pressing need for a coherent education policy to replace the now-collapsed system of the ancien régime, which had relied chiefly on the resources of the church, obliged the republican leadership to think urgently about the pressing problem of primary, secondary and higher education.

Society needs an educational system suited to forming free men, explained Condorcet, the democratic republicans’ leading theorist, in October 1791, to ‘advance the progress of reason and perfect the human race’, without which democracy and human happiness are impossible. Only thus can the harmful effects of popular notions, privilege, credulity, gullibility and religious authority be counteracted and corrected. Here was a doctrine directly opposed to Rousseau’s thought (as indeed the Revolution’s democratic republicanism, prior to the Montagnard coup d’état of June 1793, was in many respects), deriving directly from the revolutionary ideology of Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, Raynal and other collaborators on the Histoire philosophique. ‘Wise of the earth, philosophers of all the nations’, runs one of the characteristic lines of the Histoire philosophique, ‘it is for you alone to make the laws, by indicating to other citizens what is needed, by enlightening your brothers.’ By demolishing the idea of a social contract (following Spinoza in his Tractatus Politicus), Diderot cleared the decks for revolution and, in the Histoire philosophique, said as much, all too plainly.

Condorcet was as much opposed to Rousseau as he was to Robespierre and stood very much in the line of succession to Diderot, d’Holbach and Helvétius. The Cercle social, the think-tank of the revolutionary democratic republicans in 1790–91, set up a national education committee meeting weekly and, among many other innovative projects, published a newspaper, La Feuille villageoise, which was the first in modern times addressed specifically to the rural peasantry. More specifically, its aim was to inform, educate and try to bring la philosophie to the peasantry. An early issue of La Feuille villageoise, of October, 1790, explaining the Declaration of Rights of Man to villagers, declared the Declaration to be the fruit of ‘philosophy’ and something devoid of any basis in religion. A philosophe is a ‘man courageous enough to say and write all the useful truths to men’, a being whose books the lawyers and parlements burnt and whom they persecuted and banished ‘or worse’, because philosophes inform men about those indispensable truths the ancien régime authorities did not wish ordinary folk to discover or learn about.

Proposals for radical reform of education originally drafted by Mirabeau and Condorcet – conferring with Chamfort, Garat, Cabanis and Talleyrand – presented to the Assembly in April 1791, shortly after Mira- beau’s funeral on April 4, developed into Condorcet’s project for a general reform of public instruction, leading to the setting up of the Assembly’s Comité d’instruction publique on December 14, 1791. This committee, over which Condorcet presided, was charged with drawing up a comprehensive plan for sweeping reform. In its mature form, Condorcet’s concept, one in which not just would everyone, the poor included, be educated for the first time in the modern world’s history, but education would no longer be controlled by religious authority at any level, was laid before the Legislative Assembly in January 1792. The guiding doctrine of Condorcet, Cérutti, Garat and the Revolution’s other chief education theorists was that a democratic republic requires its citizens to be educated in a secular fashion in order to understand and fulfil the requirements of their own liberty, civic responsibilities and duties, as well as to support advancement of the nation’s prosperity and their own fulfilment and happiness as individuals. Universal education, especially in civics, essential to the emancipation and progress of society and education, is hence the responsibility of society as a whole, via the state. It is something that must be free and equally available to all, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian, girls and boys.

Another reason why schooling, in their view, needed to be entirely removed from the sway of religious authority and all theology eradicated from its basic principles was that true morality, as the democratic republicans – and the Radical Enlightenment more generally – viewed matters, is quite separate from religion and theology. Education in the democratic republic should encourage independent, critical thinking above all and responsibility to society and a sense of equality with others, but also respect freedom of conscience. Though supposed not to challenge the private religious views of the families to which children belonged, the task of ‘public education’ was to teach civics, morality and the public sphere, without permitting any role to religion. On August 4 and 18, 1792, the Legislative Assembly proceeded to suppress the remaining religious orders still allowed to function in France, those occupied with teaching, a change following directly from the Brissotin ascendancy and, hence, dominance of philosophique educational doctrine, secular but libertarian and wholly un-Rousseauist, during 1792 and early 1793.

The embryonic new education system was to accomplish multiple tasks. The right to be enlightened and to have access to the texts of the Enlightenment belongs to all and, by Condorcet and his colleagues, was considered vital to forging a viable and true democratic republic. For without general Enlightenment, ran Condorcet’s doctrine, civilisation and progress must mean enslavement and exploitation, rooted in ignorance and credulity for those who remain uneducated. ‘Inequality of education is one of the main sources of tyranny’ counted among his favourite maxims and implied the need to inculcate and foment an entirely new attitude towards authority, social status and the state into and among the population. The future public elementary schools he envisaged would equalise opportunity, establish the hegemony of talent and ensure equality between social classes, as well as between men and women, the latter being an issue of considerable concern to him, albeit much less so to most of the revolutionary leadership. Under a decree of December 19, 1793, one of the great landmarks in the history of modernity, elementary education was proclaimed obligatory in France, equal and free for all children from six to eight years of age. Municipalities were charged with finding premises and teachers and paying their salaries. The National Convention and its committees would devise and supply the textbooks and basic principles of education.

According to Robespierre’s latest biographer, Peter McPhee, the education plan finalised in April 1793, however, was fatally compromised in Robespierre’s eyes; and what compromised it was Condorcet’s authorship. Robespierre, never a genuine republican or democrat, detested and was implacably hostile, unforgiving and antagonistic toward Condorcet as well as Brissot and everything they stood for. Condorcet was also contemptuous of Robespierre.

But this personal approach to explaining Robespierre’s opposition to their education plans fails to do justice to Rousseau’s massive influence on the great education debate of the late 18th century and the reasons why those Jacobins who sided with Robes- pierre and the Montagne rejected the system proposed by the republican education committee. Education should focus more on allowing a child’s natural goodness to emerge freely, he recommended in Émile, or Treatise on Education, rather than instilling knowledge, discipline or moral notions. Where radical thought envisaged the progress of l’esprit humain, or knowledge and reason to be the basic engine of mankind’s moral improvement, and education, the arts and sciences as devices for furthering knowledge and ameliorating the human condition, Rousseau asserts the opposite, insisting ‘virtue’ is best fostered in primitive societies. This prompted his radical adversaries to dub him l’apologiste de l’ignorance, a false prophet returning man to his original state of misery, stupidity and unreason. ‘Disgusted with artificial manners and virtues’, as Mary Wollstonecraft later expressed it in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ‘the citizen of Geneva, instead of properly sifting the subject, threw away the wheat with the chaff, without waiting to inquire whether the evils which his ardent soul turned from indignantly, were the consequence of civilisation or the vestiges of barbarism.’ As it happened, this doctrine was extremely useful to the Montagnards in their opposition to the Brissotins.

On July 13, 1793, a month after the overthrow of the Brissotins by the Montagne, with the new Montagnard dictatorship already preparing for the Terror and the elimination of the democrats, a triumphant Robespierre could give free rein to his boundless ardour for Rousseau and spell out the new mass education policy, making no concessions to Enlightenment and ensuring policy was dominated by Rousseau’s legacy. When it came to instilling discipline and moral notions, Robespierre’s ideas were in several ways actually very different from Rousseau’s, whatever he claimed, but when it came to rejecting education as a programme for civilising and instilling knowledge through instruction and reading, Robespierre’s approach was Rousseauist.

The central feature of the system Robespierre and his colleagues advocated was the removal of children from the care of their parents for six or seven years, so as to mould their moral characters. All emphasis was removed from reading, forming critical judgment and learning languages, literature, science or philosophy. Children should not be learning things in a philosophique sense at all; they should be imbibing ‘virtue’, conceived in Rousseau’s sense. ‘The objective of national education’, declared Robespierre, ‘will be to strengthen children’s bodies, to develop them through gymnastic exercise, accustom them to manual labour, inure them to fatigue of every kind, to shape their hearts and minds through useful information and give them the knowledge necessary to all citizens, whatever their profession.’ The children would receive healthy but frugal meals and coarse clothing.

Robespierre’s educational philosophy militated against fashioning enlightened, independently-thinking individuals in its quest to instil ‘virtue’, raising children in a disciplined, collective fashion. Separation of gender roles, likewise in sharp contrast to Condorcet’s programme, was also essential to this Montagnard-Rousseauist vision. ‘Girls and boys would learn to read, write and count; they would learn patriotic songs and the lessons of history, as well as basic points of the constitution.’ All children would learn the importance of performing manual work. But boys would have separate studies, learning carpentry, measuring and other skills; girls alone would learn to spin, sew and to bleach. Most of all, children should be taught to venerate the glorious ancient Spartans and their austere, unyielding morality and venerate also Jacobin martyrs like their two assassinated ‘heroes’, Marat and Le Peletier.

Rousseau’s obsession with the ‘virtue’ and physical prowess of the pristine Romans, as well as Spartan austerity, may have had a wide appeal, but it also greatly reinforced his highly problematic conception of liberty, by emphasising cohesion and failing to accommodate dissent and was firmly rejected and derided by the philosophes. Here, again, Robespierre was a foe of the Enlightenment. To Robespierre, Rousseau’s conception of ancient Rome and Sparta and the way he applied this to modern societies, such as those of the rural Swiss cantons and Corsica, seemed wisdom itself. He was also entirely in accord with Rousseau’s stress on the undesirability of intellectual sophistication. In short, Robespierrist education conceived the nation’s children as pliable material to be fashioned by the Montagne to produce a disciplined new nation, raised in ignorance and uncritical acceptance, with no one dissenting and all geared for austerity, uniformity and war. What ‘virtue’ meant for Robespierre was indeed ‘unalloyed commitment to the revolutionary cause’, as Barrington Moore puts it in Moral Purity and Persecution in History; but commitment, we should add, within a cohesive and if necessary coerced unity. This wide gap between education for enlightenment and education for ‘virtue’ and collective action, between republican left and authoritarian populism, between the educational vision of the Revolution of 1788–93 and that of 1793–94, mirrored that separating the general core ideologies of the rival political blocs.

As is well known, the public break between Rousseau and the coterie d’Holbachique in 1757 – about which, Rousseau later claimed to feel few regrets, apart from losing his friend, Diderot – was followed by open feuding between Rousseau and his former comradesThis contest began with Rousseau’s Lettre à M d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), an attack on d’Alembert and Diderot that created a sensation in Switzerland and Germany, as well as France. Philosophically, it marked a turning-point that had a certain inevitability about it, given Rousseau’s antipathy to the idea of humanity’s progress via philosophy, reason and knowledge and the incompatibility of his newly reconsidered and revised opinions concerning religion, faith, sexuality and, also, ‘enlightening’ the masses, a goal the Genevan now roundly repudiated.

Intellectually, Rousseau’s growing antagonism towards the stance of his philosophe foes was partly driven by what Cloots later termed his ‘esprit religieux’ – the same preaching quality that Condorcet discerned in Robespierre – and certainly, after 1757, Rousseau became much more accepting of the religious beliefs of the common people (this tendency, too, was shared by Robespierre) and more willing to adopt an element of censorship in his projected republican society, which led French Catholic apologists in the late eighteenth century to become more forgiving of his deism and generally more amenable towards him. But also, and equally important, as the Lettre à d’Alembert demonstrates, Rousseau’s hostility to the moral thought of his opponents was driven – again like Robespierre’s – by a classical republican, rather austere, ‘Roman’ notion of virtue which contrasts sharply with Diderot’s libertarian morality.

Finally, to this mix Rousseau added a sentimental traditionalism regarding segregation of the sexes and confining women to the home. In fact, a lasting point of disagreement between Rousseau and his former friends was the origin and nature of morality itself. Diderot and his circle all consistently dismissed Rousseau’s opposition of feeling to rational thought, heart to intellect and nature to reason, viewing barbarism and the savage state as something men need to evolve for their moral, no less than their economic and political, development. For them, civilisation is a story of progress; for Rousseau it was not.

For his divergent and stringent views on ‘virtue’, Rousseau expected to be derided by ‘cette philosophie d’un jour’, thriving, according to him, only in Paris and flattering itself that it could stifle the cry of nature and the ‘unanimous voice of the human race’, not least as regards female chastity and confining women to the home, as tradition dictated. Anticipating being derided by them for peddling prejugés populaires, he charged the encyclopédistes with great presumption. Especially, he abjured and scorned their dismissing feminine modesty as just a social device in- vented to buttress fathers’ and husbands’ disciplinary control over their wives and daughters which, indeed, is precisely what Diderot, Helvétius d’Holbach and Condorcet, Rousseau’s foremost opponents, did think. The revolution in gender relations and sexual mores which the radical Enlightenment of Rousseau’s philosophe opponents directly entails, Rousseau always rejected. Becoming the standard-bearer of a traditional view of woman’s place, he, like Robespierre and the Montagne later, in sharp distinction to Condorcet, the latter’s wife, Sophie de Condorcet, Etta Palm d’Aelders, Olympe de Gouges and other revolutionary feminists, urged women’s exclusion from all debate and public life. During the autumn of 1793, Robespierre and the Montagne did indeed take steps to exclude women from the clubs and from political activity. Following marriage, according to Rousseau, women should remain within four walls, take care of their children and not be seen by the outside world. ‘Women do wrong’, argues Rousseau in Émile, ‘to complain of the inequality of manmade laws; this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate not the result of mere prejudice, but of reason… Nature has decreed that woman, both for herself and her children, should be at the mercy of man’s judgment.’

Renouncing the radical doctrine that virtue does not exist in the state of nature, but is a social construct arising with civilisation and which is taught to children, Rousseau henceforth grounded ‘virtue’ in natural sentiment and prowess rather than reason. The Contrat Social, appearing just a month after Émile, reaffirmed Rousseau’s thesis that our heart, not our reason, governs our consciences. But the Rousseauist conception that there is a vast distance separating the ‘state of nature’ from man in society and his consequent thesis that man is closer to nature in isolation, or outside of civilisation, were always indignantly rejected by Diderot and d’Holbach who, on the contrary, envisaged man in society as in every way the natural state. In this respect, they agreed with Spinoza’s view that nothing is more useful to man than man, more enhances his liberty than society and is more able to afford him security and protection than the state.

The savage state or ‘state of nature’, the retreat from civilisation, to which certain ‘speculateurs chagrins’ (i.e. Rousseau) would like men to revert is actually, retorted d’Holbach, nothing but a condition of misery, imbecility and déraison. He, Diderot, Helvétius and Condorcet were right perhaps philosophically; but Rousseau had his revenge politically. Over several decades, this particular dimension of Rousseau’s thought, so useful to the Montagne, both helped bruise the Enlightenment generally and, in the frightful shape of Robespierre, devastate democratic republicanism during the Revolution.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Civilisation and the “State of Nature” in the Quarrel between Rousseau and the Diderot Circle’, in ‘Civilisation: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2013.


Jonathan Israel