Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Geneva, Calvinism And Universals In Political Discourse

In 17654, definitively estranged from Catholicism, Rousseau, once more the proud "citizen of Geneva," dedicated his second discourse to his native city-state. And a few years later, as he meditated on the political treatise that was to become the Social Contract, it was Genevan society, Genevan scenes, Genevan political controversies, as he recalled and reshaped them in the urgency of intellectual creation, that dominated his mind. His celebrated assault on representation in the Social Contract is a striking instance of how much Geneva was on his mind as he laid down principles he proclaimed to be universally valid.
And later:
As passages in the Social Contract testify, [Rousseau] was enough of a relativist -the disciple of Montesquieu in this matter as in others- to see the possibility of freedom in moderate aristocracies or elective monarchies. But his ultimate preference was for a Geneva purified, the Geneva in his fertile mind.
And to be more explicit:
And "Geneva" also implied a powerful incentive toward a certain religious style. Rousseau's native city was, of course, a Calvinist stronghold -the very home of Calvinism. ANd while secular doctrines of the Enlightenment had invaded cultivated circles in Geneva, the Calvinist atmosphere remained a palpable legacy even among Voltaire's sophisticated Genevan friends. And this is the atmosphere that pervades Rousseau's Genevan friends. And this is the atmosphere that pervades Rousseau's thinking. He was never an orthodox believer; never a good Calvinist, never a good Catholic. As a mature thinker, he adopted the deism current among the philosophes of his time: the doctrine that a beneficent god had created the world with its laws and then withdrawn from it to leave virtuous men to discover its moral rules and live according to its dictates.
- Peter Gay, "Introduction," in Jean Jacques Rousseau: The Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1987).

No comments: