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Tainted greatness: The case of voltaire's anti-semitism

The testimony of the correspondence

Arnold Ages
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Rousseau is generally associated with the eighteenth century French philosophes in what Peter Gay called “The Party of Humanity.”While it is true that Rousseau shared many of the progressive political and philosophical ideas of that group of enlightened figures, he parted company with them on basic issues of theology and religion. This is apparent in the reading of Rousseau's published works - where his religious instincts especially, separate him from the radical wing of the French Enlightenment. There is an enormous distance between his “Profession du vicaire savoyard”and Diderot's Penses philosophiques. It is in his great correspondence, however, that one may see just how Rousseau differed from his colleagues in the struggle against religious and political obscurantism. In his letters he discourses brilliantly on basic metaphysical questions and proposes intuition over reason as a more serious intellectual modality. Beyond even those philosophes such as Voltaire, who embraced a kind of vapid deism, Rousseau uses his correspondence to endorse a mystical conception of the universe in which emotion, imagination and feeling are inextricably bound up. In his survey of contemporary philosophical ideas Rousseau expresses as much scorn for intolerant religious dogma as he does for the extreme expressions of atheism. There are many letters in which he argues against the materialist interpretation of matter and demands of the atheist school convincing intellectual proofs for their theses. In the correspondence Rousseau has a great deal to say about his own conception of God, immortality and the soul. His eschatology is, of course, different from the conventional Christian one; he cannot or will not accept the idea of eternal damnation. In his discussion of religion in the letters Rousseau ranges far and wide; he considers, interalia, extra terrestrial life, the idea of free will, the purpose of rapture and theodicy. In this last arena, where a just God is seen to permit evil in the world, Rousseau waxes eloquent in trying to solve this age-old theological quandary. He does so by exploring definitions of the word evil and emphasizing the orderly nature of the universe. In this context, Rousseau, a master of the religious dialectic, reduces the problem of evil and death through an astute linguistic approach. Rousseau's final plea, as extracted from his correspondence, is that human beings must recognize the limits of reason as an instrument capable of solving all the metaphysical problems.

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In his correspondence Rousseau’s unfolding of character shows him to be a brilliant polemicist when pushed against the wall by religious fanaticism. That brilliance manifests itself in the sharpness of his argument, the clarity of his images and the combative vocabulary which he can summon effortlessly. On the religious issue his letters are full of sarcasm, indignation and regret. This is the outcome of his encounter with theodium theologicum, that non-filterable virus which forced him to uproot himself frequently and traverse the map of Europe seeing respite and asylum. The letters contain relatively little on the substantive issues raised in theological discourse; they reflect Rousseau’s response to the unfortunate result of that discourse as they were concretized in his own life through persecution and ostracism. It is not surprising, therefore that the letters are a kind of sermon in which Rousseau calls for an ecumenical approach to religion in which, as he put it in theLettre de la Montagne, where there can be “de grands changements dans les coeurs, des conversions sans clat, de la foi sans dispute, du zle sans fanatisme, de la raison sans impit”.

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