Rousseau’s suicide?

by Chris Bertram on September 3, 2004

I bought my copy of Blom’s “Encyclopédie”: yesterday afternoon and it promises to be an entertaining read rather than a scholarly one. Leafing through for Rousseau references I found that the author claims that JJR’s unexpected death in 1778 may have been suicide. This is the first time I’ve come across such a speculation and it is certainly at odds with what Maurice Cranston has to say in “The Solitary Self”: . Cranston tells us that Rousseau suffered a brief illness and died of a stroke. Incidentally, the relevant page of “The Solitary Self”: also covers Rousseau’s re-interrment in the Pantheon in 1794. The fashion these days on the libertarian right (you know, the sort of people who bang on about “the wisdom of the founders”) is to see the French and American revolutions as springing from very different impulses and to hold Rousseau as responsible for the collectivist faults of the French model. For many reasons I think this latter is deeply mistaken, but the American participation in the Pantheon ceremony at least reminds us that people back then didn’t see the two traditions as so sharply divided:

bq. The procession escorting Rousseau’s remains was led by a captain of the United States Navy carrying the stars and stripes, along with others bearing the tricolour and the flag of republican Geneva. At the end came members of the national legislature, preceded by their “beacon”, _The Social Contract_ . The American Minister in Paris, James Monroe, accompanied by his staff, was the only foreign guest invited to witness the ceremony inside the Pantheon. (p. 186).



John Isbell 09.03.04 at 2:54 pm

Discussion of JJR’s possible suicide was routine after his death. See for instance Mme de Stael’s “Lettres sur Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, 1788.


kevin donoghue 09.03.04 at 6:18 pm

It may be true that “people back then didn’t see the two traditions as so sharply divided” but it can’t have been too easy for them to figure out what the hell was going on. Robespierre had just been overthrown when Monroe arrived and the USA was busy negotiating the Jay treaty with Britain. If the French had known about that there probably wouldn’t have been any foreign guests in the Pantheon.


jrv 09.03.04 at 9:12 pm

Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” focused quite nicely on the differences between the American and French Revolutions, as seen in England and by many in the US who admired Burke. Other perspectives developed in America with the experiences of Thomas Paine, who was rotting in a French prison when Monroe arrived at the Pantheon. Monroe had to lobby the Committee on Public Safety for a stay of his execution. Of course Paine was soon after despised in America with the publication of The Age of Reason, which is reason enough to think Americans had different views of the American and French Revolution without libertarian influence.


Phill 09.04.04 at 1:15 am

The big difference was the context. The US revolution began with a political objective, it was the lack of representation that was the primary issue. The French revolution was largely the result of an economic failure. The Russian revolution the result of a political failure – WWI.

What is interesting about the US revolution is that it is rare in that the causes were almost exclusively political. A political problem usually gets resolved within the political process.

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