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James Beattie’s Ironic Encomium of Rousseau

The unjustly forgotten Scottish poet and philosopher James Beattie has a delightful invective against David Hume, his once-celebrated Essay on Truth. In it, Dr. Beattie provides a philosophical rebuttal, a powerful rhetorical display, an interesting commentary on the Enlightenment, and among other things a personal review of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Contrasting what he believes to be true genius against the sophistries of the modern skeptics, Mr. Beattie writes:

Would you know what that genius is, and where it may be found? Go to Shakespeare, to Bacon, to Johnson, to Montesquieu, to Rousseau; and when you have studied them, return, if you can, to Hume, and Hobbes, and Malebranche, and Leibnitz, and Spinosa. If, while you learned wisdom from the former, your heart exulted within you, and rejoiced to contemplate the sublime and successful efforts of human intellect; perhaps it may now be of use, as a lesson of humility, to have recourse to the latter, and, for a while, to behold the picture of a soul wandering from thought to thought, without knowing where to fix; and from a total want of feeling, or a total ignorance of what it feels, mistaking names for things, verbal distinctions and analogies for real difference and similitude, and the obscure insinuations of a bewildered understanding, puzzled with words, and perverted with theory, for the sentiments of Nature and the dictates of Reason. A metaphysician, exploring the recesses of the human heart, has just such a chance for finding the truth, as a man with microscopic eyes would have for finding the road. The latter might amuse himself with contemplating the various mineral strata that are diffused along the expansion of a needle’s point; but of the face of Nature he could make nothing: he would start back with horror from the caverns yawning between the mountainous grains of sand that lie before him; but the real gulf or mountain he could not see at all.

(An Essay on Truth 3.2, 6th ed. (London: 1778), 399–403)

Apparently Dr. Beattie’s inclusion of Rousseau on the side of the angels (in the midst of such biting satire and ridicule aimed at thinkers often associated with him) provoked questions among his audience. In response, he affixed a lengthy footnote giving his personal estimation of Rousseau. In it, we see many backhanded compliments, interesting-yet-polemical psychological commentary, some literary criticism, an orthodox Christian perspective on Enlightenment philosophies, a vindication of classical philosophy and learning over and against the new methods, and a first-rate example of muscular prose. All in all, it is an entertaining and informative read:

As several persons, highly respectable both for their talents and principles, have desired to know my reasons for joining Rousseau’s name to those of Bacon, Shakespeare, Johnson, and Montesquieu, I beg leave to take this opportunity of explaining my sentiments in regard to that celebrated author.

It is because I consider Rousseau as a moral writer of true genius, that I mention his name in this place. Sensibility of heart, a talent for extensive and accurate observation, liveliness and ardour of fancy, and a style copious, nervous, and elegant, beyond that of any other French writer, are his distinguishing characteristics. In argument he is not always equally successful, for he often mistakes declamation for proof, and hypothesis for fact; but his eloquence, when addressed to the heart, overpowers with force irresistible. A greater number of important facts relating to the human mind are recorded in his works, than in all the books of the sceptical philosophers, ancient and modern. And he appears in general to be a friend to virtue, to mankind, to natural religion, and sometimes to Christianity.

Yet none even of his best works are free from absurdity. His reasonings, on the effects of the sciences, and on the origin and progress of human society, are diffuse, inaccurate, and often weak; much perverted by theories of his own, as well as by too implicit an admittance of the vague assertions of travelers, and of the systems and doctrines of some favourite French philosophers: and he seems, in these, and frequently too in his other writings, to consider animal pleasure and bodily accomplishments as the happiness and perfection of man. His plan of education, though admirable in many parts, is in some injudicious and dangers, and impracticable as a whole. The character of Julia’s lover is drawn with a masterly hand indeed, and well conducted throughout; but the lady has two characters, and those incompatible; – the wife of Wolmar is quite a different person from the mistress of St. Preux. Wolmar himself is an impossible character; destitute of principle, yet of rigid virtue; destitute of feeling, yet capable of tenderness and attachment; delicate in his notions of honour, yet not ashamed to marry a woman whom he knew to be to all intents and purposes devoted to another.

Some of this author’s remarks on the spirit of Christianity, and on the character of its Divine Founder, are not only excellent, but transcendently so; and I believe no Christian ever read them without feeling his heart warmed, and his faith confirmed. But what he says, – of the absurdities which he fancies to be contained in the sacred history, – of the impropriety of the evidence of miracles, – of the analogy between those of Jesus Christ and the tricks of the jugglers, – of the insignificancy and impertinence of prayer, – of the sufficiency of human reason for discovering a complete and comfortable scheme of natural religion, – of the discouraging nature of the terms of salvation offered in the gospel, – of the measure of evidence that ought to accompany divine revelation, (which, as he states it, would be incompatible with man’s free agency and moral probuion), – what he says of these, and of several other theological points of great importance, betrays a degree of ignorance and prejudice, of which, as a philosopher, as a scholar, and as a man, he should have been utterly ashamed. He appears to be distressed with his doubts; and yet, without having ever examined whether they be well or ill founded, scruples not to exert all his eloquence on purpose to infuse them into others: a conduct which I must ever condemn, as illiberal, unjust, and cruel. Had Rousseau studied the scriptures, and the writings of rational divines, with as much care as he seems to have employed in reading the books, and listening to the conversation, of French infidels, and in attending to the unchristian practices of doctrines warranted by some ecclesiastical establishments; I may venture to assure him, that his mind would have been much more at ease, his works much more valuable, and his memory much dearer to all good men.

Rousseau is, in my opinion, a great philosophical genius, but wild, irregular, and often self-contradictory; disposed, from the fashion of the times, and from his desire of being reputed a bold speaker and free thinker, to adopt the doctrines of infidelity; but of a heart too tender, and an imagination too lively, to permit him to become a thorough-paced infidel. Had he lived in an age less addicted to hypothesis, he might have distinguished himself as a moral philosopher of the first rank. What pity, that a proper sense of his superiority to his contemporaries upon the continent, could not preserve him from the contagion of their example! For, though now it is the fashion for every French declaimer to talk of Bacon and Newton, I question, whether, in any age since the days of Socrates, the building of fanciful theories was so epidemical as in the present. If the men of learning formerly employed their ingenuity in defending the theories of that philosopher by whose name they were ambitious to be distinguished; they are now no less industrious in devising and vindicating, each man a theory of his own.

To conclude: the writings of this author, with all their imperfections, may be read by the philosopher with advantage, as they often direct to the right observation and interpretation of nature; and by the Christian without detriment, as the cavils they contain against religion are too slight and too paradoxical to weaken the faith of any one who is tolerably instructed in the principles and evidence of Christianity. To the man of taste they can never fail to recommend themselves, by the charms of the composition.

The improprieties in Rousseau’s late conduct appear to me to have arisen rather from bodily infirmity than from moral depravation, and consequently to render him an object of forbearance and pity rather than of persecution or ridicule.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.