When Rousseau Advocated for Book-Burning
One of France's Great Philosophers, a Troll Ahead of His Time
Childhood must be protected—the childhood of the individual. But it was regarding another childhood—the childhood of humankind, lost for good—that Jean-Jacques Rousseau launched his first assault against literature; the pedagogical argument would not come until later.
In 1749, the Academy of Dijon selected the following question for its competition: “Has the restoration of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification of morals?” The philosopher set about crafting a response in the negative; he sent his text to the academy, which awarded him the prize. This was the genesis of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. It was also the real beginning of his career: the discourse made waves, responses were written, the author replied. In a few months, his reputation had been established.
Diderot spread the rumor that he himself had directed Rousseau, who was hesitating over which position to take in his entry to the competition: “There is no need to waver, I told him, you will take the position that no one will take.—You’re right, he answered me, and he worked accordingly.” It was to be a discourse against literature. Still open to doubt are the truthfulness of the anecdote and the decisive nature of Diderot’s intervention; less puzzling, however, is the paradoxical nature of the discourse. Was it really as paradoxical as Rousseau and Diderot claimed? If that had actually been the case, the Academy’s question would not have been the topic of the competition, and Rousseau would not have won the prize.
In fact, mistrust of the moral value of letters was in the air—a real cliché of anti-literature. One need only think of Tanneguy Le Fèvre the younger or Bossuet, and to the objections to their arguments that Louis Racine still felt it necessary to make in 1747. One also need only think of Plato.
It is true that Rousseau did not pull any punches: according to him, far from contributing to the purification of morals, the sciences and the arts had had the opposite effect. The progress brought about by the restoration of letters in the Renaissance had only been superficial, exclusively affecting appearances; in reality, letters provoke the degeneration of morals, today just as in Antiquity.
This was the case in Rome, which began to decay with the first appearance of Latin poetry:
It was not till the days of Ennius and Terence that Rome, founded by a shepherd, and made illustrious by peasants, began to degenerate. But after the appearance of an Ovid, a Catullus, a Martial, and the rest of those numerous obscene authors, whose very names are enough to put modesty to the blush, Rome, once the shrine of virtue, became the theater of vice, a scorn among the nations, and an object of derision even to the barbarians.
The same was true of China and its learned Mandarins:
There is in Asia a vast empire, where letters are held in honor, and lead to the highest dignities in the state. If the sciences improved our morals, if they inspired us with courage and taught us to lay down our lives for the good of our country, the Chinese should be wise, free, and invincible. But, if there be no vice they do not practice, no crime with which they are not familiar; if the sagacity of their ministers, the supposed wisdom of their laws, and the multitude of inhabitants who people that vast empire, have alike failed to preserve them from the yoke of the rude and ignorant Tartars, of what use were their men of science and literature? What advantage has that country reaped from the honors bestowed on its learned men? Can it be that of being peopled by a race of scoundrels and slaves?
Sparta won because, alone in Greece, it did not engage in the delicacies of the arts. Letters only teach laxness, hypocrisy, and deference to the powerful. Rousseau claims that they are (to use Le Fèvre’s term) purely futile: “Your children will be ignorant of their own language, when they can talk others which are not spoken anywhere. They will be able to compose verse which they can hardly understand.”
In this century of industry, poetry distracts from real work and actual enterprises: “A man who will be all his life a bad versifier, or a third-rate geometrician, might have made nevertheless an excellent clothier.” A convincing argument—at least among bourgeois, industrious families. But is it admissible from the future apologist for the state of nature, for whom “the odds are a hundred to one that he who first wore clogs was worthy of punishment, unless his feet hurt”?
In this case, if Rousseau had been consistent, he would at least have given poetry credit for the fact that if the inventor of clogs had been a poet, he would never have become a clog maker.
The philosopher went so far in his violent attack on letters as to praise the burning of books. First, to note that the barbarians only abstained from the practice in order to weaken their enemies:
When the Goths ravaged Greece, the libraries only escaped the flames owing to an opinion that was set on foot among them, that it was best to leave the enemy with a possession so calculated to divert their attention from military exercises, and keep them engaged in indolent and sedentary occupations.
Next, to regret that the pope had not personally burned the library of Alexandria rather than leaving this honor to the caliph:
It is related that the Caliph Omar, being asked what should be done with the library at Alexandria, answered in these words. “If the books in the library contain anything contrary to the Alcoran, they are evil and ought to be burnt; if they contain only what the Alcoran teaches, they are superfluous.” This reasoning has been cited by our men of letters as the height of absurdity; but if Gregory the Great had been in the place of Omar, and the Gospel in the place of the Alcoran, the library would still have been burnt, and it would have been perhaps the finest action of his life.
It is hard to know which to admire more: Rousseau’s irony or his cynicism. He later claimed that he had not suggested “overthrowing existing society, burning libraries and all books,” or “destroying colleges and academies.” He justified himself: “I have seen the evil and tried to discover its causes: others, more daring or more foolish, may seek to find the cure.” A poor justification, tantamount to admitting that the only solutions could come from recklessness or madness, and to regretting that it was impossible to hold the book-burnings that he was accused of wanting to organize.
What inconsistency, what fragile suppositions, what unlikely historical simplifications Rousseau deploys! But also what vigor, what animosity, what resentment. The Discourse is both a masterpiece of rhetoric and the tomb of history and logic; for in truth, it must be said, without the arts and sciences, what evidence of virtue would have been preserved? Would we even know what it was? The same goes for vice: the periods and civilizations we believe to be free of any depravity are highly likely to be those whose archives have not been preserved or which never even kept archives and were idealized after the fact. It is too easy to imagine that they were better than those that succeeded them; in all likelihood, they were only more ignorant and less self-aware, less able to make moral distinctions and less concerned with leaving a written trace of their existence.
Rousseau’s entire reasoning is based on the fundamental inconsistency that involves concluding that the absence of documents means the absence of vice, as though virtue lay strictly in ignorance—which is essentially the philosopher’s central thesis, but is a circular argument in terms of the question asked.
“There is no better weapon against letters than letters themselves: this duplicity may be the worst criticism that can be leveled at them.”
This can be recognized as a final development of the Pauline ethics partially inherited by the philosopher from Geneva: it is written law that creates sin, and spontaneity is always good in the state of grace (which in Rousseau becomes the state of nature, before the expulsion from Eden). As a matter of principle—or dogma—letters are the foundation of sin.
It is more than a little paradoxical that the virtue so highly praised in the Discourse ultimately comes down to fervor in combat and is measured by the number of battles won. The least-peaceful of virtues, then, and the least-compatible with the state of nature, the least Rousseauist, though undoubtedly the most virile: pure virtus in the etymological sense. (It should be mentioned that the question asked by the Academy of Dijon focused on morals, which is not exactly the same thing as virtue.) In contrast, letters belong in the realm of laxness, weakness, and femininity—a caricature that reflects the characteristic gendering of anti-literary discourse. As we have seen in the Second Trial, one still found traces of this in the 20th century in C. P. Snow.
This is far from the only contradiction displayed by the Discourse’s author, the principal one being that in order to condemn letters he deploys every resource of eloquence, at which he excels. His replies to his opponents provide abundant examples, always to his advantage. There is no better weapon against letters than letters themselves: this duplicity may be the worst criticism that can be leveled at them.
Since he was unable to physically do away with all the literature that preceded him, Rousseau would later write The New Heloise and his Confessions in a bid to create a new kind of literature that was free of hypocrisy and closer to the truth of feelings: here, anti-literature is no more than a prelude to a revolution in discourse—a revolution that would be called romanticism and was destined for a great future. The declared disconnect between letters and morals and, in parallel, the detachment of literature from life, prefigure, in an inverse manner, the future developments of art for art’s sake and the independence of literature: one can see the entire future of literary art in the 19th century implicitly take shape in the anti-literary discourse of Rousseau, as well as in Bossuet and Le Fèvre the younger.
Despite his hatred of books, Rousseau would continue to write, more than ever, in fact, and would justify this activity throughout his career, simultaneously finding in it his punishment and the only consolation for his existence. His condemnation of letters applies only to the common people, he explains, and the problem is that all of society wants to learn literature, when only an intellectual and moral elite should have access to it: sometimes anti-literature is a form of aristocratism, even on the part of the thinker behind The Social Contract.
Adapted from THE HATRED OF LITERATURE by William Marx, translated by Nicholas Elliot. Published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2018 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.