Young German provincials such as the philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried von Herder—the fathers, respectively, of economic and cultural nationalism—simmered with resentment toward cosmopolitan universalists. Many small-town revolutionaries, beginning with Robespierre, have been inspired by Rousseau’s hope—outlined in his book “The Social Contract” (1762)—that a new political structure could cure the ills of an unequal and commercial society.
Diderot was happy to indulge Rousseau’s polemic, and did not initially realize that it amounted to a declaration of war on his own project. Most of his peers saw science and culture as liberating humankind from Christianity, Judaism, and other vestiges of what they saw as barbarous superstition. They commended the emerging bourgeois class, and placed much stock in its instincts for self-preservation and self-interest, and in its scientific, meritocratic spirit. Adam Smith envisaged an open global system of trade powered by envy and admiration of the rich along with mimetic desires for their power and privileges. Smith argued that the human instinct for emulation of others could be turned into a positive moral and social force. Montesquieu thought that commerce, which renders “superfluous things useful and useful ones necessary,” would “cure destructive prejudices” and promote “communication among peoples.”
In the course of nearly twenty books, Rousseau amplified his objections to intellectuals and their rich patrons, who presumed to tell other people how to live. Rousseau did share a crucial assumption with his adversaries: that the age of clerical tyranny and divinely sanctioned monarchy was being replaced by an era of escalating egalitarianism. But he warned that the bourgeois values of wealth, vanity, and ostentation would impede rather than advance the growth of equality, morality, dignity, freedom, and compassion. He believed that a society based on envy and the power of money, though it might promise progress, would actually impose psychologically debilitating change on its citizens.
Rousseau refused to believe that the interplay of individual interests, meant to advance the new civilization, could produce any natural harmony. The obstacle, as he defined it, existed in the souls of sociable men or wannabe bourgeois: it was the insatiable craving to secure recognition for one’s person from others, which leads “each individual to make more of himself than of any other.” The “thirst” to improve “their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others,” would lead people to try to subordinate others. Even the lucky few at the top of the new hierarchy would remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of those below, albeit hidden behind a show of deference and civility. In a society in which “everyone pretends to be working for the other’s profit or reputation, while only seeking to raise his own above them and at their expense,” violence, deceit, and betrayal become inevitable. In Rousseau’s bleak world view, “sincere friendship, real esteem and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud lie constantly concealed.” This pathological inner life was a devastating “contradiction” at the heart of modern society.
According to Rousseau, modern civilization’s tendency to make people seek the approval of those they hate deformed something valuable in “natural” man: simple contentment and unself-conscious self-love. True freedom in these circumstances could be reached only by overcoming the hypocritical, painfully divided bourgeois within us.
Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta. Small, austere, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic, and defiantly un-cosmopolitan, it was as much an idealized vision of an ancient political community as the Islamic State caliphate is to radical Islamists today. As Rousseau saw it, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others had been sublimated in Sparta into civic pride and patriotism. There was obviously no place in such a society for the universalist egghead who loves distant peoples “so as to be spared having to love his neighbors.”
Tocqueville pointed out that the passion for equality can swell to “the height of fury” and help boost authoritarian figures and movements to power. But it was the socially maladjusted Genevan, whose writings Tocqueville claimed to read every day, who first attacked modernity for the unjust way in which power accrues to a networked élite.