Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 36.djvu/781

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By Prof. T. H. HUXLEY, F. R. S.

THE political speculations set forth in Rousseau's "Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité parmi les hommes," and in the more noted essay, "Du Contrat Social," which were published, the former in 1754 and the latter eight years later, are, for the most part, if not wholly, founded upon conceptions with the origination of which he had nothing to do. The political, like the religious, revolutionary movement of the eighteenth century in France came from England. Hobbes, primarily, and Locke, secondarily (Rousseau was acquainted with the writings of both), supplied every notion of fundamental importance which is to be found in the works which I have mentioned. But the skill of a master of the literary art and the fervor of a prophet combined to embellish and intensify the new presentation of old speculations; which had the further good fortune to address itself to a public as ripe and ready as Balak himself to accept the revelations of any seer whose prophecies were to its mind.

Missionaries, whether of philosophy or of religion, rarely make rapid way, unless their preachings fall in with the prepossessions of the multitude of shallow thinkers, or can be made to serve as a stalking-horse for the promotion of the practical aims of the still larger multitude, who do not profess to think much, but are quite certain they want a great deal. Rousseau's writings are so admirably adapted to touch both these classes that the effect they produced, especially in France, is easily intelligible. For, in the middle of the eighteenth century, French society (not perhaps so different as may be imagined from other societies before and since) presented two large groups of people who troubled themselves about politics—in any sense other than that of personal or party intrigue. There was an upper stratum of luxurious idlers, jealously excluded from political action and consequently ignorant of practical affairs, with no solid knowledge or firm principles of any sort; but, on the other hand, open-minded to every novelty which could be apprehended without too much trouble, and exquisitely appreciative of close deductive reasoning and clear exposition. Such a public naturally welcomed Rousseau's brilliant developments of plausible first principles by the help of that a priori method which saves so much troublesome investigation.[1]

  1. In his famous work on "Ancient Law" the late Sir Henry Maine has remarked, with great justice, that Rousseau's philosophy "still possesses singular fascination for the looser thinkers of every country"; that "it helped most powerfully to bring about the grosser disappointments of which the first French Revolution was fertile," and that "it gave birth, or intense stimulus, to the vices of mental habit all but universal at the time, disdain of