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CENTRE ROUSSEAU
Groupe d’Études dédié à Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Goodness, virtue and faith. Christopher Kelly

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mercredi, 18 juin 2014 16:28 Written by 

1. Il paroît d’abord que les hommes dans cet état n’ayant entre eux aucune sorte de relation morale, ni de devoirs connus, ne pouvoient être ni bons ni méchans, et n’avoient ni vices ni vertus, à moins que, prenant ces mots dans un sens physique, on n’appelle vices dans l’individu, les qualities qui peuvent nuire à sa propre conservation, et vertus celles qui peuvent y contribuer; auquel cas il faudroit appeller le plus vertueux, celui qui résisteroit le moins aux simples impulsions de la Nature.
Discours, 152
2. Emile est laborieux, tempérant, patient, ferme, plein de courage. Son imagination nullement allumée ne lui grossit jamais les dangers; il est sensible à peu de maux, et il sait souffrir avec constance, parce qu’il n’a point appris à disputer contre la destinée. A l’égard de la mort, il ne sait pas encore bien ce que c’est, mais accoutumé à subir sans resistance la loi de la necessité, quand il faudra mourir, il mourra sans gemir et sans se débattre; c’est tout ce que la nature permet dans ce moment abhorré de tous. Vivre libre et peu tenir aux choses humaines est le meilleur moyen d’apprendre à mourir.
En un mot Emile a de la vertu tout ce qui se rapporte à lui-même.
Emile, 487-488
3. Faire le bien est l’occupation la plus douce d’un homme bien né. Sa probité, sa bienfaisance ne sont point l’ouvrage de ses principes, mais celui de son bon naturel. Il céde à ses penchans en pratiquant la justice, comme le méchant céde aux siens en pratiquant l’iniquité. Contenter le goût qui nous porte à bien faire est bonté, mais non pas vertu.
Ce mot de vertu signifie force. Il n’y a point de vertu sans combat, il n’y en a point sans victoire. La vertu ne consiste pas seulement à être juste, mais à l’être en triomphant de ses passions, en regnant sur son propre cœur.
Lettre à M. de Franquières, 1142-1143
4. En effet, la force est le vrai fondement de l’Héroisme; elle est la source ou le supplement des vertus qui le composent, et c’est elle qui le rend propre aux grandes choses.
Pour être grand il ne faut que se rendre maître de soi. C’est au-dedans de nous-mêmes que sont nos plus redoutables ennemis; et quiconque aura su les combattre et les vaincre, aura plus fait pour la gloire, au jugement des Sages, que s’il eut conquis l’Univers.
Voilà ce que produit la force de l’ame; c’est ainsi qu’elle peut éclairer l’esprit, étendre le génie et donner de l’énergie et de la vigueur à toutes les autres vertus.
Pléiade, OC, t. 2, Discours sur la vertu du héros 1274 and 1275

5. Mon enfant, il n'y a point de bonheur sans courage ni de vertu sans combat. Le mot de vertu vient de force ; la force est la base de toute vertu. La vertu n'appartient qu'à un être foible par sa nature et fort par sa volonté; c'est en cela que consiste le mérite de l'homme juste, et quoique nous appellions Dieu bon nous ne l'appellons pas vertueux, parce qu'il n'a pas besoin d'effort pour bien faire. Pour t'expliquer ce mot si profané, j'ai attendu que tu fusses en état de m'entendre. Tant que la vertu ne coûte rien à pratiquer on a peu besoin de la conoitre. Ce besoin vient quand les passions s'éveillent; il est déja venu pour toi.
En t'élevant dans toute la simplicité de la nature, au lieu de te prêcher de pênibles devoirs je t'ai garanti des vices qui rendent ces devoirs pénibles, je t'ai moins rendu le mensonge odieux qu'inutile, je t'ai moins appris à rendre à chacun ce qui lui appartient qu'à ne te soucier que de ce qui est à toi. Je t'ai fait plustôt bon que vertueux: mais celui qui n'est que bon ne demeure tel qu'autant qu'il a du plaisir à l'être, la bonté se brise et périt sous le choc des passions humaines; l'homme qui n'est que bon n'est bon que pour lui.
Qu'est-ce donc que l'homme vertueux? C'est celui qui sait vaincre ses affections. Car alors il suit sa raison, sa conscience, il fait son devoir, il se tient dans l'ordre et rien ne l'en peut écarter. Jusqu'ici tu n'étois libre qu'en apparence; tu n'avois que la liberté précaire d'un esclave à qui l'on n'a rien commandé. Maintenant sois libre en effet; apprends à devenir ton propre maitre; commande à ton cœur ô Émile, et tu seras vertueux.
Emile, 817-818
6. Mon fils, tenez vôtre ame en état de desirer toujours qu'il y ait un Dieu et vous n'en douterez jamais. Au surplus, quelque parti que vous puissiez prendre, songez que les vrais devoirs de la religion sont indépendans des institutions des hommes, qu'un cœur juste est le vrai temple de la divinité, qu'en tout pays et dans toute secte aimer Dieu par dessus tout et son prochain comme soi-même est le sommaire de la loi, qu'il n'y a point de religion qui dispense des devoirs de la morale, qu'il n'y a de vraiment essentiels que ceux-là, que le culte intérieur est le premier de ces devoirs, et que sans la foi nulle véritable vertu n'éxiste.
Emile, 631-632

7. Le moyen, Monsieur, de résister à des tentations violentes quand on peutr leur céder sans crainte, en se disant: à quoi bon resister? Pour être vertueux le philosophe a besoin de l’être aux yeux des hommes : mais sous les yeux de Dieu le juste est bien fort. Il compte cette vie et ses biens et ses maux et toute sa gloriole pour si peu de chose! Il apperçoit tant au delà! Force invincible de la vertu, nul ne te connoit que celui qui sent tout son être, et qui sait qu’il n’est pas au pouvoir des hommes d’en disposer.

8.Sans doute l’homme vil et corrompu pouvoit interpréter de loin nos discours selon la bassesse de son cœur; mais le témoin sans reproche, l’oeil éternel qu’on ne trompe point voyoit peut être avec complaisance deux ames sensibles s’encourager mutuellement à la vertu et nourrir par un épanchement délicieux tous les purs sentimens dont il les a pénétrés.
Lettres Morales 1085
(Les mots mis en gras par C. Kelly)
I would like to follow a thread through Rousseau’s works. This thread will treat Rousseau’s distinction between la bonté naturelle and la vertu morale and will lead to some reflections—some of which I will leave implicit--on Rousseau’s view of God and man. Most of the passages I will cite are very well known and, certainly, much of what I say will come as a surprise to no one. Nevertheless, the sum of these remarks may lead in a direction that is not usually taken by most students of Rousseau.
The least surprising thing I will do is to begin with la bonté naturelle. Rousseau frequently says that this is his distinctive discovery and forms the basis of all his thought. It is, I think, important to note that in the Discours sur l’inegalité bonté is introduced as a part of the description of l’Homme physique and only afterward extended to “le côté Métaphysique et Moral” de cet homme. This means that, in the first place, bonté naturelle means that life is good for l’homme naturel. Life is good in that there are few needs and these needs are fairly easily satisfied. It may be going too far to say that men are naturally happy, but they are not naturally wretched. Life is hard, but not full of anxiety, of inquietude as a Hobbes or Locke might insist. This is, as I have indicated, a physical question, not a moral one. When we turn to the moral side of things, we find that la bonté naturelle means primarily that the ease of satisfying natural needs and the lack of developed passions indicate that men are not wicked. This does not mean that they actively seek the good of others and renounce their own good. It means only that seeking their own good does not often require harming others: they have no specific desire to harm. Even commiseration leads to refraining from harm to others rather than helping them. Thus, bonté naturelle has a rather weak moral meaning; it can appear strong in comparative terms only because social men are so wicked.
From this it is clear that one should not confuse bonté naturelle with vertu morale. This is a mistake that is easy to make when one first reads Rousseau, but which one should quickly learn to correct. Rousseau makes the distinction most clearly in the Lettre à M. de Franquières. He says, “Faire le bien est l’occupation la plus douce d’un homme bien né. Sa probité, sa bienfaisance ne sont point l’ouvrage de ses principes, mais celui de son bon naturel. Il céde à ses penchans en pratiquant la justice, comme le méchant céde aux siens en pratiquant l’iniquité. Contenter le gout qui nous porte à bien faire est bonté, mais non pas vertu. Ce mot de vertu signifie force. Il n’y a point de vertu sans combat, il n’y en a point sans victoire. La vertu ne consiste pas seulement à être juste, mais à l’être en triomphant de ses passions, en regnant sur son propre cœur.” Here, of course, Rousseau is not speaking of l’homme naturel for whom the notions of probité, bienfaisance, and justice are not applicable. This is a civilized man, like Rousseau himself, who takes pleasure in doing good for others when he can do so at little expense to himself. This passage does reveal the essence of la bonté naturelle by indicating that the one who possesses it “cede a ses penchans”, he does not triumph over his passions the way the virtuous man does.
Again, I think I am saying nothing that is not well acknowledged, but I will point out that this allows us to make sense of two passages in the Discours that are often ignored. First, when introducing his novel idea of la perfectibilité, Rousseau indicates, among other things, that this faculty, “faisant éclore avec les siècles ses lumiéres et ses erreurs, ses vices et ses vertus, le rend à la longue le tiran de lui-meme, et de la Nature.” In other words, vices et vertus, in the sense in which Rousseau is using the terms here, do not exist naturally, but owe their existence to la perfectibilité. He returns to this issue at the end of the Discours when he refers to “cette fureur de se distinguer qui nous tient Presque toûjours hors de nous-mêmes” that is to say amour-propre in its most enflamed state. He says that it is à cette fureur, “que nous devons ce qu’il y a de meilleur et de pire parmi les hommes, nos vertus et nos vices, nos Sciences et nos erreurs.” Here, to be sure, it is from the amour-propre that comes from perfectibilité not to perfectibilité directly that our virtues and vices come, but the point remains the same. While it may be true that this departure from nature leads to “une multitude de mauvaises choses” and only “un petit nombre de bonnes” we should not forget that vertu in the moral sense is one of those good things. What I wish to emphasize here is that la vertu morale is necessarily linked with amour-propre. It depends on it absolutely.
This leads to the questions of what accounts for moral vertu, this ability to triumph over our passions and of whether this unnatural quality is good for the one who possesses it. Before addressing this, I want to raise one complication in the argument. The account I have given so far suggests that we must understand virtue in opposition to nature. This implies that there is no such thing as a natural virtue, but this is not quite true. I am not thinking of commiseration or pitié as an exception to this rule. When Rousseau begins his discussion of commiseration in the Discours he does say, “Je ne crois pas avoir aucune contradiction à craindre, en accordant à l’homme la seule vertu Naturelle, qu’ait été forcé de reconnoître le Detracteur le plus outré des vertus humaines.” But it is Mandeville, this Detracteur, not Rousseau, who acknowledges commiseration as a natural virtue. When speaking for himself a few pages later Rousseau says, “Il est donc bien certain que la pitié est un sentiment naturel” that is to say, it is a sentiment not a vertu. Certainly we see that in its primitive form, when it is strong but unreflective, la pitié “tient lieu de Loix, de moeurs, et de vertu.” Elle “détournera” le sauvage robuste. It does not inspire action. In short something qui tient lieu de vertu cannot be a vertu.
The complication I do want to point out resides elsewhere in the Discours. There is a passage in which Rousseau is precisely denying that moral relations exist in the pure state of nature in which he, nonetheless speaks of a natural virtue.”Il paroît d’abord que les hommes dans cet état n’ayant entre eux aucune sorte de relation morale, ni de devoirs connus, ne pouvoient être ni bons ni méchans, et n’avoient ni vices ni vertus, à moins que, prenant ces mots dans un sens physique, on n’appelle vices dans l’individu, les qualites qui peuvent nuire à sa propre conservation, et vertus celles qui peuvent y contribuer; auquel cas il faudroit appeller le plus vertueux, celui qui résisteroit le moins aux simples impulsions de la Nature.” If there is such a physical or natural virtue it is almost the opposite of moral virtue in a crucial respect. “Le plus vertueux est celui qui résisteroit le moins aux simples impulsions de la Nature.” This, however, is like the description in the Lettre à M. de Franquières of the man with a “bon naturel” rather than a man with vertu. In short, this presumed or hypothetical vertu physique closely resembles la bonté naturelle. If it can be distinguished from bonté naturelle that is because it consists of” qualités qui peuvent contribuer à sa propre conservation.” It is a sort of plus or bonus beyond bonté naturelle, something that allows it to be preserved or flourish. To be sure, Rousseau presents natural humans as strong (with the exception of those who die in infancy). Moreover, the purpose of the natural education of Emile is to preserve and enhance this strength. Nonetheless, the existence of natural inequalities means that some natural humans are stronger than others. These are what I call the naturally virtuous.
Here, of course, Rousseau hestitates to call this a genuine virtue. It is a virtue in a manner of speaking, but is such a vertu physique a virtue in the strictest sense of the word? I would say, yes. In l’Emile Rousseau says so without any hesitation. At the end of Livre III Rousseau gives a little sketch that summarizes what Emile has acquired from his education by the age of fifteen. He says, “Emile est laborieux, tempérant, patient, ferme, plein de courage. Son imagination nullement allumée ne lui grossit jamais les dangers; il est sensible à peu de maux, et il sait souffrir avec constance, parce qu’il n’a point appris à disputer contre la destinée. A l’égard de la mort, il ne sait pas encore bien ce que c’est, mais accoutumé à subir sans resistance la loi de la necessité, quand il faudra mourir, il mourra sans gemir et sans se débattre; c’est tout ce que la nature permet dans ce moment abhorré de tous. Vivre libre et peu tenir aux choses humaines est le meilleur moyen d’apprendre à mourir. En un mot Emile a de la vertu tout ce qui se rapporte à lui-même.” “Laborieux, tempérant, patient, ferme, plein de courage:” These are all qualities that » peuvent contribuer à sa propre conservation.” I conclude that vertu physique ou naturelle is that part of virtue “qui se rapporte à soi-même.”
We are still left with a dilemma. What do vertu physique and vertu morale have in common? Why can we call them both, “vertu?”We have seen that, at least once, Rousseau hesitated to call the former genuine vertu. As we have seen they seem to be opposites in that one allows us to follow our inclinations without wavering and to our own profit. The other allows us to triumph over our inclinations and to deny ourselves a profit. Underlying this apparent opposition is a significant element. Both following our inclinations without wavering and triumphing over these same inclinations require an ability to focus and make use of our resources. The man who is simply naturally good without having natural virtue floats along with his inclinations. His weakness, however, makes him vulnerable and obstacles to his desires will deflect his application, leading ultimately to a loss of his goodness or of his life. The man who is neither naturally good nor virtuous in any sense will vacillate continuously as his desires change and as he seeks to be just without being able to apply himself to being so. In short, both natural and moral virtue require an unusual strength or force. As Rousseau says in the Discours sur la vertu du héros, ”En effet, la force est le vrai fondement de l’Héroisme; elle est la source ou le supplement des vertus qui le composent, et c’est elle qui le rend propre aux grandes choses. Pour être grand il ne faut que se rendre maître de soi. C’est au-dedans de nous-mêmes que sont nos plus redoutables ennemis; et quiconque aura su les combattre et les vaincre, aura plus fait pour la gloire, au jugement des Sages, que s’il eut conquis l’Univers. Voilà ce que produit la force de l’ame; c’est ainsi qu’elle peur éclairer l’esprit, étendre le génie et donner de l’énergie et de la vigueur à toutes les autres vertus.” In this passage Rousseau emphasizes the self-mastery that is characteristic of moral virtue, but elsewhere in this Discours, he emphasizes that heros need not have the moral virtues in the ordinary sense of the term. I believe that his formulation “la force…est la source ou le supplement des vertus,” is fairly precise. I would suggest that “la force de l’ame” is identical to natural or physical virtue—remember that in the Discourse sur l’inégalité Rousseau says that “des qualités de l’Esprit. ou de l’Ame” are included in les inégalités naturelle ou Phisique.” This natural virtue is the source of moral virtue even though something in addition is required to constitute moral virtue. This force de l’Ame must be directed against oneself or one’s desires.
This account of force de l’ame helps to illustrate something that is not always noticed in Rousseau, his admiration for a certain sort of criminal. As he says in the Observations, written around the same time as the Discours sur la vertu du héros, “Il y a des caractéres élevés qui portent jusques dans le crime je ne sçai quoi de fier et de génereux, qui laisse voir au dedans encore quelque étincelle de ce feu céleste fait pour animer les belles ames.” He continues, “On auroit pû raisonablement tenter la conversion de Cartouche.” Thus we can see in Rousseau’s account of vertu naturelle one of the origins of the now very common idea of the generous criminal. It is no accident that the Vautrin of Balzac can declare himself to be a student or disciple of Jean-Jacques! I remind you that in La Dernière incarnation de Vautrin he does undergo a surprising conversion of a sort.
To summarize then, force seems to be identical to vertu physique ou naturelle which is, in turn the source or precondition of vertu morale. I would now like to turn my attention back to vertu morale. This time I would like to cite, not Rousseau the author of l’Emile, but Jean-Jacques the tutor who gives Emile an account of vertu that is very compatible, to say the least, with the one I have been developing. Near the end of the book, and hence of the education, he for once delivers a long speech to his student. He says, “Mon enfant, il n'y a point de bonheur sans courage ni de vertu sans combat. Le mot de vertu vient de force ; la force est la base de toute vertu. La vertu n'appartient qu'à un être foible par sa nature et fort par sa volonté; c'est en cela que consiste le mérite de l'homme juste, et quoique nous appellions Dieu bon nous ne l'appellons pas vertueux, parce qu'il n'a pas besoin d'effort pour bien faire. Pour t'expliquer ce mot si profané, j'ai attendu que tu fusses en état de m'entendre. Tant que la vertu ne coûte rien à pratiquer on a peu besoin de la conoitre. Ce besoin vient quand les passions s'éveillent; il est déja venu pour toi.” I would like to call attention to several things in this section of his speech. First, he begins by discussing what is necessary for happiness before turning his attention to vertu. The two things are related, but they are not identical. Second, he comes even closer to identifying vertu et force here than he does elsewhere: “Le mot de vertu vient de force.” Finally, he insists that God cannot be called virtuous. This is certainly not because He lacks force, but because he is so powerful that he need not ever triumph over himself. God is the limit case of a being who is both good and possesses what I have been calling vertu naturelle. God, however, absolutely does not possess vertu morale. In this respect I am almost tempted to say that the divine being is more like Cartouche than he is like Caton.
This account of God indicates that at least in this limit case bonté is superior to vertu as God is superior to man. A Kant might say that the ability to triumph over himself makes man superior to God, but ,in my view at least, Rousseau is not Kant. This leads me to suspect that the good man is similarly superior to the virtuous man, at least if he has the strength, or vertu naturelle to preserve his goodness. But we should not forget that Rousseau does provide an argument in favor of vertu morale. In fact, it is made in its clearest form in this speech by Jean-Jacques, l’instituteur, who goes on to say, “Qu'est-ce donc que l'homme vertueux? C'est celui qui sait vaincre ses affections. Car alors il suit sa raison, sa conscience, il fait son devoir, il se tient dans l'ordre et rien ne l'en peut écarter. Jusqu'ici tu n'étois libre qu'en apparence; tu n'avois que la liberté précaire d'un esclave à qui l'on n'a rien commandé. Maintenant sois libre en effet; apprends à devenir ton propre maitre; commande à ton coeur, ô Émile, et tu seras vertueux.” Once again, he emphasizes that “l’homme vertueux” is so because il “sait vaincre ses affections.” He identifies vertu with true liberté. The good man, who is identified with Emile up to this point in his education, on the other hand, is compared with “un esclave à qui l'on n'a rien commandé.” This makes the virtuous man appear to be superior to the good man in the same way that the condition of a master is superior to that of a slave. The slavery in question here is not enslavement to a master, but slavery to our own affections. This is important because we must distinguish someone with few passions from someone with many artificial ones. The latter is a slave who must always be ready to obey, but someone with only natural passions would be “un esclave a qui l’on ne commande jamais.” From the perspective of the virtuous person this is not a crucial difference, but in itself it is important and makes it difficult for us to say that Rousseau himself has an unqualified preference for virtue. Again, it is clear that force is preferable to weakness, but force can take a variety of forms and virtue is only one of these.
This point is conceded by Rousseau himself in the Lettre à Franquières and also by the Vicaire Savoyard, who does not always agree with Rousseau, but he does in this case. The Vicaire insists that we have a natural love of order that supports virtue, but he is not completely confident that this is sufficient. Therefore he adds, “Mon fils, tenez vôtre ame en état de desirer toujours qu'il y ait un Dieu et vous n'en douterez jamais. Au surplus, quelque parti que vous puissiez prendre, songez que les vrais devoirs de la religion sont indépendans des institutions des hommes, qu'un coeur juste est le vrai temple de la divinité, qu'en tout pays et dans toute secte aimer Dieu par dessus tout et son prochain comme soi-même est le sommaire de la loi, qu'il n'y a point de religion qui dispense des devoirs de la morale, qu'il n'y a de vraiment essentiels que ceux-là, que le culte intérieur est le premier de ces devoirs, et que sans la foi nulle véritable vertu n'éxiste. This conclusion, “sans la foi nulle veritable vertu n’existe,” is a striking concession from anyone who wants to argue that vertu is superior to bonté. It appears that the strength manifested by the virtuous man is not sufficient to support virtue. This is true, I think, for two reasons. First, our strength, particularly when it is called upon to master ourselves (rather than to pursue our own good) is not reliable. We are often not strong enough to be virtuous when it is painful to be so. This consideration does not question the importance of strength, it merely suggests that our strength needs reinforcement. Second, our commitment to virtue demands a reward or compensation. It is not self-evident that the strength of virtue is good for us in every case even if it is in many. Faith means that virtue ultimately will be rewarded. This second consideration does call into question the worth of virtue in that it suggests that without a reward guaranteed by faith it sometimes would be better not to be virtuous. Virtue has too high a price. Bonté, on the other hand, does not. What I want to emphasize here is the close link between faith and virtue. Faith provides the consolation for the sufferings of virtue. Virtue depends on faith, but it is also the sufferings of the virtuous or the innocent in this world that make faith necessary. In a sense, the case for faith depends on the ultimate importance of virtue just as the case for virtue depends on the ultimate truth of faith.
How does faith add to our force independently of the reward it promises? Rousseau indicates this in the Lettre à Franquières as well as elsewhere. There he says, “Le moyen, Monsieur, de résister à des tentations violentes quand on peut leur céder sans crainte, en se disant: à quoi bon resister? Pour être vertueux le philosophe a besoin de l’être aux yeux des hommes: mais sous les yeux de Dieu le juste est bien fort. Il compte cette vie et ses biens et ses maux et toute sa gloriole pour si peu de chose! Il apperçoit tant au delà! Force invincible de la vertu, nul ne te connoit que celui qui sent tout son être, et qui sait qu’il n’est pas au pouvoir des hommes d’en disposer.” Even more than the Vicaire Savoyard, the young Franquières would like to believe that virtue is attractive enough not to need any support beyond itself. Rousseau, however, denies this. He appears to assert that virtue is pleasant for the one who experiences it but he insists that being “sous les yeux de Dieu” is crucial. He says something similar in the Lettres Morales. When describing to Sophie d’Houdetot their own experience of resisting temptation in their intimate conversations, he says, “Sans doute l’homme vil et corrompu pouvoit interpréter de loin nos discours selon la bassesse de son cœur; mais le témoin sans reproche, l’œil éternel qu’on ne trompe point voyoit peur être avec complaisance deux ames sensibles s’encourager mutuellement à la vertu et nourrir par un épanchement délicieux tous les purs sentimens dont il les a pénétrés.” We can put the issue this way, the exercise of one’s strength is pleasant, it allows one to feel one’s existence with great intensity. This is the pleasure known to the virtuous man and unknown to the weak and wicked, although something like it may be known to the man who is naturally, but not morally virtuous. In spite of its enhancement of our sentiment of existence, sometimes the exercise of moral virtue is unbearably painful and this can be demoralizing. The idea that there is an eternal witness to our suffering and strength is consoling even independently of any eventual compensation or reward. The virtuous man who is not known by anyone to be virtuous—who might even be thought to be vicious—cannot prefer his virtue to giving way to temptation. Certainly this would be especially true if he is tempted only by things that are good and do not cause his enslavement to enflamed and contradictory passions or to other people.
I think that it is important to see that Rousseau does not depict the dependence of virtue on God in terms of following divine commandments. If he did he would have to depict the virtuous man as “un esclave a qui l’on commande toujours.” If God exists and commands, this would be a necessary part of our existence, but Rousseau seems to believe that it would make us truly miserable beings to be enslaved this way. Enslavement to a perfect being is still enslavement. Dependence on a perfect will is dependence on a will. Saint Augustine might regard this as an acknowledgment of our true status and therefore necessary for our own good, but Rousseau does not. The role of God in Rousseau’s teaching concerning virtue is clear: He offers the hope of compensation; He bears witness; but He does not command. He is not a lawgiver whatever the Vicaire might say about the summary of the law.
As we have now seen, belief in God is in Rousseau’s view, a necessary support for moral virtue in the most extreme cases. Without it, virtue is still usually preferable to vice because of the connection between vice and both weakness and subjection to inflamed passions to say nothing of the dependence on other people that often accompanies vice. The most serious issue for Rousseau is whether it is preferable to goodness, especially when goodness is supported by natural or physical virtue. I would like to conclude with some reflections on this question. What I would like to focus on in particular is Rousseau’s denial that God himself, the guarantor of virtue, possesses virtue. Rousseau’s insistence that the perfect being is good without virtue indicates that, as I said earlier, considered in themselves goodness is superior to virtue. The question is whether this divine goodness is available to human beings or whether virtu is the most they can attain. Another way of putting this question is to ask whether human goodness can be self-sufficient or whether it inevitably falters because of human weakness.
There are, in fact, several places in his works where Rousseau indicates that it is possible for humans to possess this divine goodness without possessing moral virtue. The most prominent of these occur in the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire. I am well aware that in the Reveries Rousseau also appeals to God as the source of his hope that there will be a compensation after his death for his sufferings. Nevertheless, in the huitième promenade he says very clearly that he has come to understand that hope for compensation from God is a manifestation of amour-propre. Remember the claim in the Discours that virtue depends on amour-propre; now we learn that faith does as well. I believe that a part of the drama of the Rêveries, a work whose drama is usually ignored, is the movement away from the hope of compensation to an enjoyment of goodness. Rousseau says, “un innocent persecuté prend longtems pour un pur amour de la justice l’orgueil de son petit individu.” He continues, mon amour-propre “commença par se revolter contre l’injustice mais il a fini par la dédaigner. En se repliant sur mon ame et en coupant les relations extérieures qui le rendent exigeant, en renonçant aux comparaisons et aux préferences il s’est contenté que je fusse bon pour moi; alors redevenant amour de moi même il est rentré dans l’ordre de la nature.” I emphasize “que je fusse bon pour moi” not que je fusse juste dans les yeux de Dieu. It is in the light of this conclusion that I would read the earlier claims, “m’y voilà tranquille au fond de l’abime, pauvre mortel infortuné, mais impassible comme Dieu même from the première promenade, or “tant que cet état dure, on se suffit à soi-même comme Dieu.” This self-sufficient goodness in which life is good for le promeneur solitaire and leads him not to harm others depends in no way upon any belief in God. It requires no future compensation or eternal witness, only the desire that tomorrow be like today. It might not require the force elicited by attachment to moral virtue, but it is, nonetheless, strong in that it requires freeing oneself from pleasing delusions.
There is one additional reference to the human possibility of this nearly divine self-sufficiency to which I would like to call attention. I will not discuss the reference to the père de famille” who is said in Julie to be “heureux comme Dieu même. The one I am thinking of does not involve Jean-Jacques. I have already spoken about the preceptor’s speech to Emile in Livre V. Now I want to turn to Emile’s own speech after he has completed his education with his travels around Europe. Emile concludes by saying, “Si j’étois sans passions, je serois, dans mon état d’homme indépendant comme Dieu même, puisque ne voulant que ce qui est, je n’aurois jamais à lutter contre la destinée. Au moins, je n’ai qu’une chaine, c’est la seule que je porterais jamais, et je puis m’en glorifier. Venez donc, donnez-moi Sophie, et je suis libre.” Emile admits that his attachment to Sophie means that he is not “indépendant comme Dieu même.” He even calls this attachment “une chaine.” In spite of this “chaine” he considers himself free. Presumably this is because of his moral virtue which allows him to bear a chain without being enslaved to his passions. Emile, then, is an example of a virtuous man, not of a good man and particularly not one who is “comme Dieu même” like the Rousseau of the Rêveries. I would connect this with Emile’s final speech in which he refers to his role as a father and repeatedly exclaims, “A Dieu ne plaise” when insisting that he will not neglect his duty. Faith supports virtue, here as elsewhere in Rousseau. This is, however, not the end of the story. In Emile et Sophie we see the chain broken. It is very striking to me that never in all of his suffering do we hear Emile invoke God either as a witness or as a source of compensation. It is as if he is completely freed of the need for an eternal witness to his struggles with virtue. In his account of his life after his split with Sophie we see numerous examples of what could be called Emile’s natural virtue, his strength and resourcefulness in preserving himself. His one act that could be considered one of moral virtue, the renunciation of his claims over his son, is also justified by his own interest. I think it is fair to say that in this work we see Emile becoming “indépendant comme Dieu même.”
The core of my presentation has been based on two of Rousseau assertions and a conclusion that I draw from them.
1. C’est à cette fureur de se distinguer que nous devons nos vertus.
2. Un innocent persecuté prend longems pour un amour de la justice l’orgueil de son petit individu.
3. C’est l’amour-propre qui forme le lien (pas toujours visible) entre la vertu et la croyance.
I conclude that goodness that does not depend on amour-propre and does not require belief may well be superior to virtue in Rousseau’s view.

Additional Info

  • Auteur: Sermain Jean-Paul
  • Angle d'étude: Autobiographie
  • Année de publication: 2006
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