Rousseau predicts the Terror

Rousseau dedicated his Discourse on Inequality to his hometown of Geneva, praising its republican constitution. Part of his praise was for its age, since he believed that a newly-formed republic would have uncertainty about the fitness of the government for the citizens, and vice-versa. He goes on:

For freedom is like those solid and rich foods, or those hearty wines, which are suited to nourish and fortify robust constitutions who are used to them, but which overwhelm, ruin and intoxicate the weak and delicate  who are unsuited for them. Once peoples are accustomed to masters they are no longer able to do without them. If they try to shake off the yoke, they move all the farther away from freedom because, mistaking it for an unbridled license which is its opposite, their revolutions almost always deliver them to seducers who make only make their chains heavier (29).

The quote is from Helena Rosenblatt’s translation. Rousseau’s Social Contract, of course, influenced the purveyors of Terror in the Revolution. It’s interesting that he also made a plausible case (at least to me) for what was at the Terror’s root. He cites Rome after the overthrow of the monarchy but before establishing what he considered a stable republic as a population unready for freedom.


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