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  • The Cult of the Legislator in France, 1750–1830: A Study in the Political Theology of the French Enlightenment
  • Patrick Riley
The Cult of the Legislator in France, 1750–1830: A Study in the Political Theology of the French Enlightenment. By David A. Wisner (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1997) 162 pp. N.P.

In recent years, some of the best studies of French political thought have organized themselves around a unifying theme that provides a vertebrate structure: Nannerl O. Keohane’s magisterial Philosophy and the State in France (Princeton, 1980) links up every important French thinker from Jean Bodin and Michel de Montaigne to Baron de Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau through (constantly changing) ideas of “the state”; George A. Kelly’s wonderful Mortal Politics in Eighteenth-Century France (Toronto, 1986) uses the notions of death and dying to connect everything from Jacques-Benigne Bossuet’s oraisons funèbres and Francois de Fénelon’s Dialogues des morts to the Reign of Terror and the guillotine. This is a legitimate way of keeping diversity from degenerating into chaos. With The Cult of the Legislator in France, Wisner now joins the select company of Kelly and Keohane; his book is a splendid achievement.

As Wisner fully understands, any study of “the legislator” in eighteenth-century French thought stands or falls with its treatment of Rousseau. In Du contrat social (1762) II, 7, Rousseau stated that a “new-born” people is nothing but an aggregation of natural egoists with self-loving volontés particulières; that these natural egoists must be “denatured” and “transformed” if they are finally to become citizens with city-loving volontés générales (in the manner of the Spartan mother in Émile [1762], who asks not whether her soldier-sons have survived but whether the polis still lives); that this denaturing and transforming must be brought about by a great legislator with semidivine qualities (even if, historically, the human race usually gets not un dieu but Caligula); that this transforming legislator cannot use force (since might does not make right) or argument (since at the beginning of civic time, his reasons would not be understood by particularistic egoists); that the legislator must therefore temporarily use religious authority—an authority that must finally wither away, since “civil association is the most voluntary act in the world,” and the Rousseauean republic must ultimately have a general will, not just a Montesquieuean esprit général; that legislator-denatured Rousseauean citizens must in the end be able to say (with Émile), “I have decided to be what you have made me” (otherwise [End Page 319] “will” and “generality” are not in perfect equilibrium, and Rousseau’s ideal of “a union of will and understanding” is not achieved).

Wisner grasps perfectly this Rousseauean equilibrium between will and generality, between autonomy and authority—in which Rousseau’s legislator must be provisionally authoritative but never permanently authoritarian:

Rousseau insists throughout on the extraordinary character of the legislator. Indeed, this is what gives Rousseau’s conception its unique quality next to other eighteenth-century images of the lawgiver. Ideally it would take a god (or gods), or at the very least a superior intelligence, to give laws to mankind. Rousseau claims that the legislator must in a sense be neutral, untainted by human passions and independent of the functions of government. Yet paradoxically he must also be fully versed in human nature and able to implement the entire weight of his legislation without any coercive authority.


Rousseau always had in mind a trinity of great legislators who constituted a secular, civic “true miracle” (as against the doubtful Christian miracles that Rousseau spurns in the Lettres écrites de la montagne [1764]); the persons of this trinity are Moses, Numa Pompilius, and Lycurgus. So devoted to these (exclusively ancient) civic educators was Rousseau that in the “Discourse on the Virtue of Heroes” (1753), he forgot his own crucial insistence on “will” (“to deprive your will of all freedom is to deprive your actions of all morality”) and let his Spartan/Roman/Jewish trinity “generalize” with a vengeance, imposing a civic “iron yoke.”

There is only one weakness in Wisner’s book: Since he...

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