ROUSSEAU: Dreamer of Democracy by James Miller

ROUSSEAU: Dreamer of Democracy

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A fresh, firmly grounded interpretation of Rousseau's political thought, showing his complex ties to the French Revolution and reaffirming him as a prophet of democracy. Miller (once at the U. of Texas, now a general editor of Newsweek) argues that in the latter half of the 18th century ""democracy"" was turned from an abusive into a laudatory term because a) Rousseau transvalued it in The Social Contract, Letters from the Mountain, and other writings, while b) Robespierre and the orators and activists of the Revolution incarnated this transvaluation in the real world. This is not to say that Rousseau caused the Revolution in any simplistic way--although his work was widely disseminated before 1789, he did not become a grand iconic figure till after then--but that, ""passionately pursuing a dream of freedom they had made their own, the militants of Paris instinctively gave flesh to Rousseau's ideas and forced them to undergo the vicissitudes of action."" Rousseau himself muddies this Clear distinction by his ambiguous use of ""democracy"" to mean both one historical form of government (and not necessarily the best form, at that) and ""the one true form of sovereignty,"" of which all governments are the temporary, inadequate servants. But, as Miller shows, the bedrock of Rousseau's political theory, not only in The Social Contract, but in La Nouvelle Heloise, The Confessions, etc., is that all human beings, as ontologically free creatures, have the ability and ""desire for goodness"" needed to govern their own lives. Rousseau's vision--as much a mythic construct based on a fantasized Geneva, the ideal Alpine republic, as on a coherent philosophy--is ironically marred by totalitarian loopholes (his ""Great Legislator,"" for example, suggests the possibility of a Stalinist dictator). But this doesn't vitiate Rousseau's epoch-making redefinition of ""the meaning and appeal of democracy."" Its dullish style notwithstanding, Miller's broad, careful study is an interesting contribution to contemporary Rousseau scholarship.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press