theguardian: by Theo Hobson —
In the previous article, I considered Rousseau’s political radicalism, at some speed. I want to offer a summarizing reflection on that theme, before moving on to his religious thought.
Political justice, said Rousseau, depends on an understanding that state power belongs to the people, exists to serve the common good. What is this vision? Where does it come from? It is motivated by a moral idealism rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition (social justice, concern for the poor, hostility to luxury, the equal worth of all human lives). But its practical side is derived mainly from Plato’s Republic. It’s a potent conjoining. Rousseau is perhaps the principal pioneer of the idea that a more moral politics must be established and sustained through force – as all political order is.
His political radicalism annoyed the authorities, but what really provoked them was his religious radicalism. In his novel Emile he put his thoughts into the mouth of an ultra-liberal priest, the original trendy vicar (in his youth Rousseau was deeply influenced by a real-life version of this figure). He explains that God is the creator of the orderly universe, that his rules are written in our hearts, in the form of conscience, that virtuous action brings true happiness. We are made for virtue – though we are free to misunderstand this and do evil. Because “the greatest ideas of the divinity come to us from reason alone”, revealed religion is dubious, a source of conflict and error. It is a slur on God to associate him with anger and vengeance, and narrow intolerant doctrines. “If one had listened only to what God says to the heart of man, there would never have been more than one religion on earth.”