Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique 1758

Geneva, the Encyclopedia, and Rousseau

Source: Correspondance littéraire, philosphique, et critique. Vol 2. Paris, Furne, 1829;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor 2018.

December 1, 1758

M. d'Alembert inserted into the seventh volume of the “Encyclopedia” an article of the republic of Geneva that has caused much uproar. Amidst the well-deserved praise he lavishes on many of the institutions of this little state, he accuses the ministers of Geneva of Socianism. It was not with the aim of wounding them or speaking ill of them that M. d'Alembert put forth this extraordinary assertion, not in the least. On the contrary it can be easily seen that he wants to do honor to the partisans of natural religion by showing that a body full of wisdom and enlightenment allied its doctrines to the dogmas of a reasonable and purified religion. This zeal is quite singular. We're not accustomed to seeing so apostolic a fervor in philosophers, and intolerant philosophers merit no more indulgence than believers who persecute.

The ministers of Geneva behaved on this occasion with much prudence. They opposed a wise, moderate, and dignified declaration to the article “Geneva.” In passing I would note that we can and should only judge a body on its statutes and rules and in matters of religion on its symbolic books, and never on the results of the different opinions of individuals. When I say that someone is a Protestant it doesn’t mean that he adheres with all his might to the opinions of Luther or Calvin or the dogmas of their faith, but only that he externally and publicly says that he says he is of such a sect. In a word, we can only speak unjustly and uselessly of an individual’s religion, but this was not the only extraordinary thing in the article “Geneva.” Among other quite singular things, M. d'Alembert advises the republic to establish a comedy theater and goes on at great length on the advantages this would result in for the tastes and morals not only of Geneva, but of almost all of Europe. One must read this entire piece: it would be difficult not to find it extravagant. Our philosophers are sometimes quite mad. I'm not speaking of how out of place the article was in the Encyclopedia, where the city of Geneva should only take up three or four lines and not whole columns to tell us what it should or shouldn’t do, which is absolutely foreign to the arts and sciences that are the object of this dictionary. It is commonly said that one extravagance gives birth to another, and this has indeed occurred in this case. J.-J. Rousseau, who assumed the title of citizen of Geneva par excellence didn’t want to allow this occasion to pass without expressing his feelings concerning something he believes is of the greatest importance for his compatriots. He addressed to M. d'Alembert a “Letter” of 264 in-octavo pages to refute his article and to prove that comedy in itself is a bad thing and that it would be dangerous and harmful to Geneva.

M. Rousseau was born with all the talents of a sophist. Specious arguments, fallacious reasoning, and art and artifice joined to a virile, simple, and touching eloquence make him a fearsome adversary for anyone he might attack. But despite the enchantment and magic of his tone he will not persuade you, for only the truth can persuade. We are always tempted to say: this is very beautiful and very false. Though M. Rousseau’s new work seemed to me diffuse, languid, and even flat in many places I have no doubt but that you would read it with pleasure. It’s just that upon leaving it you will be surprised that it didn’t lead you to change your feelings about anything. If we were to attack things the way M. Rousseau goes after this subject it is certain there is nothing in the world we couldn’t overthrow, especially with a hatchet like his. Nothing being without its inconveniences, I could easily prove that the sun is the most maleficent and dangerous star of the universe. All I would have to do is to remain silent about its beneficent influences and occupy myself with the few ills it produces, to which I would join a list of ills it could later cause. The more eloquent, witty, and talented I am the more seductive a book I would have written, but I would have convinced no one. Those who would have read me with the most pleasure would think no less than before that the sun is a necessary and beneficent star. I will thus note that it is a waste of effort to seriously respond to M. Rousseau concerning what he has to say against comedy in general, and when one doesn’t have his force and energy of style it is a clumsy undertaking. People of spirit and sense refute M. Rousseau’s arguments as they are reading; they have no need of anyone to advise them. While rendering justice to the author’s talent they nevertheless note a lack of logic throughout the book, as a result of which what the author establishes in one place is destroyed a few pages later through an assertion which, without being directly opposed to it, nevertheless contradicts it. It is this conflict of principles advanced in accordance with one’s need for them and then forgotten a moment later for others not in agreement with the first that M. Rousseau has justly been reproached with. And this is nowhere more obvious than in his philippic against comedy, not to mention the false and bad faith reasoning that the author advances with vehemence and heat, as if he wanted to make himself drunk on the falsehoods there. In a word, if M. Rousseau looks on comedy as an art and genre of imitation and condemns it from this point of view this dispute becomes like that on the danger of the arts and sciences he so long sustained. If admitting the arts and culture among a civilized people he banishes spectacles from them, he can only proffer things absurd and false in favor of his sentiment. M. Rousseau has put forth nothing but paradoxes of great generality, like the dangers of science and society, and with eloquence we can succeed in saying specious things. But if he tries to particularize his paradoxes, whatever the force of his style it will be difficult for him to avoid the absurd and the ridiculous.