Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 21



Eighteenth-Century Life, Volume 27, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 52-71



For additional information about this article


Access provided by Universites de Paris I (31 Aug 2015 15:53 GMT)

ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 52

The Theater of Morals: Culture and Community in

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d’Alembert

Timothy M. Costelloe
College of William & Mary

In this paper I explore aspects of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s moral philosophy

in light of his Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles,1 published in 1758 and
occasioned famously by d’Alembert’s article in L’Encyclopédie describing the
benefits that a theater would bring to Geneva.2 In response to d’Alembert’s
suggestion, Rousseau argues that, rather than improving the life and cul-
tural standing of the city, a theater would be harmful, damaging the cus-
toms of the people, and undermining the moral life of the community.
Ostensibly, Rousseau’s polemic takes aim at d’Alembert’s specific claim that
a theater would enhance Genevan life; but Rousseau goes beyond this and
used the Lettre as an opportunity to address the more general theme around
which much of his philosophy revolves — the conflict between the simplic-
ity of nature and the artifice of civilization — and to articulate the principles
of morals and politics which follow from it.3 Thus, as Robert P. Politzer puts
it succinctly, “Rousseau’s discussion of the theater, especially the Lettre à
d’Alembert, should . . . be interpreted as being simultaneously a discussion of
art and society, and of fiction and reality in which the theater and the actor
become the symbols of society and social man.”4 If elsewhere in his work
other issues afford an opportunity for exploring this theme — the develop-
ment of the arts and sciences, for example, the state of nature, the question

Eighteenth-Century Life
Volume 27, Number 1, Winter 2003 © 2003 by The College of William & Mary
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 53


of education, or even the narrative of his own life — in the Lettre, it is the
concept of the theater that organizes Rousseau’s thinking.
As in other parts of his philosophy, Rousseau’s position on the theater
is a complex amalgam of various points of view that, on the surface at least,
strike one as contradictory. Most obviously, Rousseau’s declared distaste
for the theatrical arts stands in stark contrast to his own creative and liter-
ary endeavors, a fact not lost on critics who saw flat-out hypocrisy in the
author of the Discours sur les sciences et les arts at once indulging himself in
the very labors he claimed to despise. (Rousseau composed his seven plays
and three operettas between 1742 and 1752; the Discours won the prize of
the Academy of Dijon in 1750 and was published the following year.)5
Indeed, if his own account in the Confessions is to be believed, Rousseau
certainly desired the recognition he received for his musical and theatrical
accomplishments, and he clearly valued success when he achieved it. He
reports how, for example, on watching the audience’s reaction to the per-
formance of Le Devin du Village, he “soon abandoned himself fully and
without distraction to the pleasure of savoring [his] glory” [“et je me livrai
bientot pleinement et sans distraction au plaisir de savourer ma gloire”]
(pp. 318; 379); and says of the Lettre that it “had a great success. All my
works had done so; but this one was more favorable to me” [“Ma lettre à
d’Alembert eut un grand sucçés. Tous mes ouvrage en avoient eu; mais
celui-ci me fut plus favorable”] (pp. 420; 501).
Further, there is something decidedly theatrical about the work itself.
Not only does the Lettre rely upon and employ a variety of literary and dra-
matic devices to persuade his readers, as C. Joel Block has pointed out,6 but
in the Confessions Rousseau presents both its composition and content as
something between melodrama and tragedy. “I began the work,” he reports,
“with a zeal that surmounted everything”; and in this state of mind, “during
a rather severe winter, in the month of February,” he continues,

Every day I went to pass two hours in the morning, and as much after
dinner in a completely open Turret I had at the end of the garden where my
habitation was. This Turret, which ended a terraced path, opened onto the
valley and pond of Montmorency. . . . It was in this place at that time iced
and without shelter against the wind and snow, and without any other fire
than the one in my heart that I composed my Letter to d’Alembert on the
Theater in the space of three weeks. . . . this is the first of my writings in
which I found charms in the labor. (p. 415)7
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 54

54 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

To this image of his physical suffering in an desolate landscape, Rousseau

adds a layer of psychological drama. He interprets the Lettre as an uncon-
scious depiction of his pain at the betrayal of once close friends, and as a
symbol for the death of his artificial public self and the return of the simple
and honest man to his proper element. “Without me noticing it,” Rousseau
says, “I described my present situation; in it I depicted Grimm, Mme
d’Epinay, Mme d’Houdetot, St. Lambert, myself . . . Along with all this
was mixed a certain emotion toward myself; I felt myself to be dying,
and believed I was bidding my last farewell to the public” (Confessions,
p. 415).8
At the same time, Rousseau was not unaware of the irony that a man
so recently celebrated at the Paris Opera should write so passionately
about the corrupting influence of the arts and the urban life in which they
flourished. Rousseau is quite candid about this, and in the narrative of his
Confessions the composition of the Lettre appears as the dénouement of a
series of life-changing events, and the swan song of his creative youth.9 In
the earlier Preface to Narcisse, however, which appeared in 1753 (and thus
between the first and second Discours), Rousseau offers a characteristically
philosophical solution to the apparent problem; he resolves the contradic-
tion by turning it into a paradox. Having blamed his love of such theatrical
“amusements” on the vagaries of the human lot and the passion of youth,
he restates his thesis that morals degenerate as a taste for arts and letters
increases, and concludes:

If I have the talent, the time, the energy and the will, I shall write books, I
shall compose verse and music, I shall continue to speak frankly of all the
evil I find in letters and those who cultivate letters and I will not think to
have valued them any less for all this. It is of course true that one day it may
be said: this declared enemy of the arts and sciences nonetheless wrote and
published works for the theater; and this declaration will, I avow, be a bitter
and ironic comment not on me, but on the age in which I lived.10

One can hardly fail to notice how some of the sharp criticism Rousseau
directs towards theatrical artifice and the dissembling nature of the acting
resonates with the descriptions in the Confessions of his own sense of self in
Parisian society; and this is perhaps what Rousseau had in mind when he
speaks of “the age” in such derogatory terms. However, the details of his
colorful and sometimes self-consciously dramatic life also speak to the suc-
cess of a self-promoter, a fact reflected in David Hume’s witticism that
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 55

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 55

Voltaire, the King of Prussia, and Mr. Pitt, notwithstanding, Rousseau had
“become more the subject of general conversation in Europe than any per-
son in it.” It is perhaps not without justification that Rousseau has been
called the “first ‘philosophical personality’.”11
Thus the complex and paradoxical nature of Rousseau’s view of the
theater is reflected in the essentially dramatic nature of both the Lettre itself
and the role played by the theater in it. In what follows I want to bring out
these features of the work and, by extension, to emphasize the social and
political dimensions of Rousseau’s thought that they contain. I shall do so by
distinguishing two different concepts of the theater which Rousseau devel-
ops in the course of the polemic. For purposes of presentation, I shall refer
to these as the “literal” and “metaphorical” concepts, respectively. Under-
stood literally, Rousseau treats the theater as a place established for the pur-
pose of public entertainment. As such, he responds directly to d’Alembert by
developing an anthropology of art: identifying the causes that lead people
to consider a theater necessary, and documenting the effects of such an
institution once it has been established. Taken metaphorically, by contrast,
the theater is less the cause of certain psychological or sociological effects
than a literary symbol through which Rousseau articulates his view of
human morality, its origins, and the corruption it suffers in the course of the
civilizing process. For Rousseau, that is, the position taken by d’Alembert
in his article only serves as a metaphor for social and moral decay, and pro-
vides an occasion to emphasize the fragility of modernity and the failure of
philosophy to recognize and endorse standards appropriate to a commu-
nity of flourishing individuals. Corresponding to the themes I address, my
paper is divided into three parts. In the first I describe the literal concept
of the theater; in the second I turn to its metaphorical counterpart; finally,
in the third section I draw some conclusions concerning the nature of
moral and political life which are intimated in Rousseau’s presentation.

The Literal Theater and Rousseau’s Anthropology of Art

On the face of it, d’Alembert’s article in volume seven of L’Encyclopédie is
quite innocuous. He suggests only that theatrical performances “would
form the taste of the citizens [of Geneva] and give them a fineness of tact”
[“les réprésentations théatrales formeroient le goût des citoyens, et leur
donneroient une finesse de tact”] (pp. 4; 4), and that in paying due respect
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 56

56 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

to the acting profession and implementing strong laws to curb any excess,
the city would not only win the praises of cultivated Europeans, but become
a “model to the actors of other nations and . . . a lesson to those who have
treated them until now with some severity and . . . inconsistency” [“peu
à peu l’example des Comédiens de Genéve . . . serviroient de modéle aux
Comédiens des autres nations, et de leçon à ceux qui les ont traittés
jusqu’ici avec tant de rigeur et même d’inconsequénce”] (pp. 5; 5). Yet
despite such mild opinions, as well as his own “stress and illnesses,” Rous-
seau reports that he began work on the Lettre “with a zeal that surmounted
everything” [“je me mis à l’ouvrage avec un zèle qui surmonta tout”] (Con-
fessions, pp. 415; 495). The result was a detailed polemic against the theater,
explaining both its psychological origins and documenting its social
With regard to the former, Rousseau argues that although to seek pleas-
ure and amusement is certainly the result of natural desires which should
be satisfied, in itself the demand for a theater reflects a fundamental weak-
ness in a culture. The satisfaction of needs through the theater is actually
a misuse of time and evidence that a citizenry has succumbed to boredom
and the “burden of idleness” [“poids de l’oisiveté”] (pp. 16; 15). Only the
neglect of more simple tastes makes “foreign amusements” [“amusement
étranger”] such as theater-going attractive. Persons inclined to attend such
entertainment, Rousseau urges, are already ill at ease with themselves, and
their isolation within the stalls of the theater reflects their alienation
within the community at large. Taking their seats before the stage is not, as
d’Alembert assumes, a sign of a people attaining the heights of culture and
good taste, but evidence of a social order already corrupted from within.
“People think they come together in the theater,” Rousseau declares, “and it
is there that they are isolated. It is there that they go to forget their friends,
neighbors, and relations in order to concern themselves with fables, in
order to cry for the misfortunes of the dead, or to laugh at the expense of the
living” [“L’on croit s’assembler au Spectacle, et c’est là que chacun s’isole;
c’est là qu’on va oublier ses amis, ses voisins, ses proches, pour s’interésser à
des fables, pour pleurer les malhers des morts, our rire aux dépends des
vivans”] (pp. 16 – 17; 16; emphasis added).
Rousseau’s thesis here is not so much— as Amal Banerjee has argued—
that “art is alienation” (emphasis added) but rather that artistic and liter-
ary productions tend to reflect a culture which is already showing the signs
of alienation.12 Rousseau does not condemn the dramatic arts tout coup,
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 57

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 57

and accepts that under some circumstance the theater is an acceptable pas-
time. Where a nation is in good moral health and the character of its peo-
ple strong, the theater can be assigned its proper place.13 It is on such a
basis that Rousseau is willing to distinguish ancient from modern theater.
The Romans, he observes, though they indulged themselves in spectacle,
also showed a healthy disrespect for it by restricting the acting profession
to slaves rather than citizens; in Greece the theater was properly despised
by the Spartans, and the Athenians saved it from indecency by the fact
that it was used to “represent [sic] on all sides only combats, victories,
prizes, objects capable of inspiring the Greeks with ardent emulation and
of warming their hearts with sentiments of honor and glory” (p. 78).14 In
the Preface to Narcisse Rousseau even finds a useful (though cynical) role
for the theater to play, recommending it as a sort of artistic damage-control
to distract people from doing ill in a culture long corrupted by “idleness
and the desire for distinction”:

My counsel then . . . is to leave the academies, the colleges, the universities,

the libraries and the theaters; indeed, to support them along with all the
other entertainments that divert the wicked, and deter then from occupying
their idleness with still more dangerous affairs. . . . As long as there are
no morals, one can only resort to policing. And it is well enough known
that music and theater are two of the chief objects of their attention.
(pp. 551 –52)15

Even in the Preface, however, theater is associated with vice and decay, and
by the time he wrote the Lettre Rousseau seems to have come to the con-
clusion that despite being relatively benign in a culture that it is strong
drama is, in and of itself, a corrupt form of artistic expression.16 Its very
essence is the spectacle of counterfeit; its being the embodiment of pre-
tense and imitation where nothing is as it appears. Rousseau presents the
theater as being defined by hypocrisy, and even where it is of use it can only
prevent “bad morals from degenerating into brigandage” [“que les mau-
vaises mœurs ne dégénérent en brigandage”] (pp. 64, 59). As such, the the-
ater stands as a fitting indictment of the very culture which embraces it: in
modernity, Rousseau holds, “to be and to seem to be have become two
totally different things.”17
This view of the inherently corrupting nature of drama also informs
Rousseau’s predictions concerning the practical consequences of founding
a theater in Geneva. As the artistic form to which they belong is intrinsi-
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 58

58 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

cally artificial, so the actors themselves cannot help but commit to a pro-
fession dishonorable in itself. The “talent” of the actor, Rousseau remarks,
consists in “the art of counterfeiting himself ”; and his trade is defined by
putting “his person publicly on sale” (p. 79).18 The very “estate of the actor,”
Rousseau contends, “is one of license and bad morals,” giving men and
women over to disorder and scandalous living marked by cycles of pro-
fligacy and debt. That the acting profession is held in contempt by so
many, Rousseau feels entitled to conclude, is due not — as d’Alembert
claims — to a poor and unwarranted image gained through the vagaries of
a few wanton individuals, but to the fact that it is, in its very nature, con-
temptible. It is partly for this reason that Rousseau rejects d’Alembert’s
suggestion that the institution of strong laws would function to restrain
the vagaries of the acting profession and compel them to live decent lives
(Lettre, VII, pp. 60ff.).
The unfortunate consequences of pursuing the theatrical arts are not
confined to the questionable paths pursued by those who make it their
profession, however. In the apparently innocuous presence of theatrical
entertainment Rousseau sees a cause from which follows a chain of effects
that undermine the very foundation of community life (pp. 62 – 64; 57 –59).
This new amusement, he argues, will tend to undermine the pleasure peo-
ple previously derived from engaging in their day-to-day labors. The spec-
tacles they witness on the stage will come to fill their waking thoughts;
industry will decline; and, as a result, merchants, finding their business
diminished, will leave and seek a market elsewhere. Further, hard-earned
money will be diverted from necessary expenses to cover entrance fees and
pay for the sartorial refinements that attending theatrical performances
demands. Such luxury and competition among individuals will be reflected
in the outlay of public expenses; the city would be obliged to construct
new roads to ensure winter access to the theater, a plan which could only
be realized by encumbering the populace with new and burdensome taxes.
In such a manner, Rousseau fears, Geneva would become Paris: the theater
would prove to be a “metaphysic of all morality” and “turn citizens into
wits, housewives into bluestockings, and daughters into sweethearts out of
the drama” [“à mettre toute la morale en métaphysique; à travestir les
citoyens en beaux esprits, le méres de famille en Petites-Maitresses, et les
filles en amoureuses de Comedie”] (pp. 59; 64).
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 59

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 59

The Metaphorical Theater and the Origin of Morals

So far, I have outlined an anthropology of art which attaches to what I am
calling the literal concept of the theater in Rousseau’s Lettre. Rousseau,
that is, extrapolates from what he sees as the essential nature of theater a
variety of consequences which undermine the health of an otherwise flour-
ishing community. He achieves this by locating the appeal of the theater in
the isolation of individuals within a culture already corrupted by artifice,
and by documenting the practical effects which would follow unavoidably
from founding a theater in a city such as Geneva. In this section I turn to
the second meaning of the “theater” in the Lettre. This is what I am calling
its metaphorical sense, and it provides Rousseau with the opportunity to
develop a philosophical account of moral life. Employing the concept of
the theater in this way, Rousseau is able to draw a set of conclusions from
the practical consequences of the theater I described above, and from this a
particular understanding of moral and political life emerges. Thus the the-
ater ceases to be simply an institution which occasions deleterious effects,
but becomes an idea through which Rousseau expresses his views on the
nature of human beings. As such, it attains a symbolic status, representing
the human condition and the corruption of nature wrought by the vagaries
of modern society.
One way of bringing this view of the Lettre to the fore is to juxtapose it
with the interpretation offered by Banerjee, who concentrates on the purely
aesthetic concerns of Rousseau’s approach. On this view, Rousseau’s main
concern is to develop a new philosophy of art, one which rejects the tradi-
tional Aristotelian approach with its emphasis upon catharsis, in favor of a
neo-Kantian view focusing upon the dangers of “under-distancing.” For
Rousseau, Banerjee argues, “instead of creating any cathartic effect, [drama]
merely relieves the spectators of their moral burden and this is possible only
through their identification with imaginary characters of the stage” (p. 173).
Such a view clearly has its merits, and understanding the Lettre through the
idea of distance is especially pertinent given Rousseau’s emphasis on the
artificiality of civilization in which appearance and reality become confused.
Yet understanding the Lettre primarily as a philosophy of art minimizes the
more general argument that Rousseau develops concerning the nature and
origins of human morality. Rousseau’s interest in the theater, I suggest, lies
less in its aesthetic form or in its aesthetic possibilities than in what it can
show about the nature of morals and civilization.
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 60

60 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

This is a feature of the Lettre that has been brought out by David
Marshall. Choosing to call it a “literal manifestation” of the theater, Mar-
shall emphasizes how

Rousseau is condemning a point of view that allows people to look at others

from the position of an audience, through a distancing frame that is
associated with the theater. Theater in its literal manifestation represents or
figures the theatrical relations formed between self and others that Rousseau
denounces in society. In Rousseau’s view, what goes on in the playhouse
between actors and audience mirrors the more dangerous theater that society
has become. (p. 86)

Thus theater “represents the fall from the state of nature,” Marshall con-
tends, such that Rousseau’s real worry “is less the presence of a theater in
Geneva than the possibility of Geneva as theater. . . .Theater would threaten
to transform Geneva into Paris, to change it from a modern-day state of
nature to a theatrical society” (pp. 86, 88, 90, & 98).19 My focus here is not
as it is for Marshall on the relation between theater and sympathy, but on
the philosophical account of morals that Rousseau’s treatment of the the-
ater involves.20 In order to support this contention I want to concentrate
on two related themes in Rousseau’s discussion: first, his assumption that
human beings are naturally good, and second, his contention that moral-
ity can never have its source in external phenomena such as art, but can
arise only from the sentiments of individuals who are members of a social
and political community.
As is well-known, the view that man is naturally good and tends to
become corrupt as a result of the civilizing process is a common thread
running through Rousseau’s thought. In the Lettre this idea is developed in
part through examining the relationship between the arts and the practi-
cal life of the people who produce and patronize them. In his article,
d’Alembert suggests that this relationship is mutually constitutive, and
although he does not insist that moral life derives solely from the arts, he
clearly assumes that the theater can have positive effects. He contends that
it will strengthen national character (pp. 21; 19 – 20) and make virtue lovable
and its opposite odious (pp. 22; 21). For Rousseau, by contrast, d’Alembert’s
assumption reflects a philosophical misunderstanding of human morality.
It assumes that moral life follows from the artifice of institutions when, in
fact, the latter depend upon pre-existing natural sentiments. Society reflects
and confirms what is there by nature. This means that the arts presuppose
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 61

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 61

the common life to which they putatively give rise; they themselves lack
the power to create virtuous citizens precisely because morality has its source
elsewhere. “Before there were dramas,” Rousseau asks, “were not virtuous
men loved, were not the vicious hated, and are these sentiments feebler in
the places that lack a theater?” [“Quoi donc? avant qu’il y eût des Comédies,
n’aimoit-on point les gens de bien, ne haïssoit-on point les méchans, et ces
sentimens sont ils plus foibles dans les lieux dépourvus les Spectacles?”]
(pp. 22; 21). Since moral sentiments are older than and presupposed by the
theater, the mere act of attending dramas cannot greatly affect either
virtue or vice. “The love of the [morally] beautiful,” Rousseau declares, “is
a sentiment as natural to the human heart as the love of self; it is not born
out of an arrangement of scenes; the author does not bring it; he finds it
there; and out of this pure sentiment, to which he appeals, are born the
sweet tears that he causes to flow” [“L’amour de beau est une sentiment
aussi naturel au cœur humain que l’amour de soi-même; il n’y nait point
d’un arrangement de scénes; l’auteur ne l’y porte pas, il l’y trouve; et de ce
pur sentiment qu’il flate naissent les douces larmes qu’il fait couler” ] (pp.
23; 22).
This observation is certainly confirmed by Rousseau’s own experience
when, watching the Devin du Village, he witnessed not only the effect of
his work on an audience, but on his own “pure sentiment”:

Around me, I heard a whispering of women who seemed as beautiful as

angels to me, and who said to each other in a whisper, ‘That is charming,
that is ravishing; there is not a sound in it that does not speak to the heart.’
The pleasure of giving some emotion to so many lovable persons moved me
to the point of tears, and I could not hold back at the first duo, while
noticing that I was not alone in crying. (Confessions, p. 318)21

Once the correct order of the relationship between nature and artifice
which such moments portray has been understood, it is easier to grasp,
pace d’Alembert, that good never can originate in the theater, and to
explain why the latter is more often than not a source of corruption. First,
people go to a play already convinced of what they will find in it. This is
reflected in the fact that characters hated at the beginning of the play are
also hated at the end; and, armed with a natural sense of justice, unless the
action speaks to individuals in a personal way, a disinterested audience will
always side with right. Indeed, people attend performances, Rousseau
argues, in order to have their moral sentiments confirmed and, although he
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 62

62 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

bemoans how mere spectacle and the idleness of watching comes to

replace the active pursuit of one’s duty, it does not undermine the observa-
tion that the individual comes to a play intent on discovering “what he
wants to find everywhere: lessons of virtue for the public” [“Que va-t-il
donc voir au Spectacle? Préçisement ce qu’il voudroit trouver partout; des
leçons de vertu pour le public dont il s’excepte, et des gens immolant tout à
leur devoir, tandis qu’on n’exige rien de lui”] (pp. 24; 23).
Second, since individual responses reflect moral predispositions, the
content of any given play will always be derivative. The intentions of the
playwright, notwithstanding, rather than changing moral conduct, the
authors of plays always follow public opinion. This not only reveals how a
play is essentially a form of entertainment and reflects the fact that an
author seeking popularity and commercial success seeks to please the pub-
lic, it also shows that a successful play succeeds by engaging the extant sen-
timents of an audience. To achieve this, rather than transforming the pas-
sions of the spectators, the playwright must flatter what is already there. A
“good” play never fails, as Rousseau points out, because its content corre-
sponds to the mores of its viewers; a play falls flat, by contrast, when the
characters bear no resemblance to us. “We would be unable,” Rousseau
remarks, “to put ourselves in the places of men who are totally dissimilar to
us” [“On ne sauroit se mettre à la place de gens qui ne nous ressemblent
point”] (pp. 18; 19). This also means, in the third place, that in giving
energy to the passions, the theater cannot strengthen the character of a
people. Drama does not, as the Aristotelian tradition assumed, purge
human beings and make them master of their passions. On the contrary,
people give in to their passions, which, allowed free reign, will tend more
to the vicious than to the virtuous (pp. 21; 19 – 20).
Rousseau, it should be emphasized, is not suggesting that the arts
have no affect whatsoever on a community, nor as I pointed out above does
he condemn drama entirely. It remains true that the actual effect theater
will have depends upon the culture in question and — much like the “supe-
rior intelligence” of the Contrat social, who is capable of judging when a
people is fit to receive laws — upon ascertaining the degree of corruption
that will follow requires knowledge of a people’s character (Contrat social,
pp. 381; 84). Tragedy, for example, depends for its effect upon distance and
exaggeration; and although Rousseau describes it in terms of “soil[ing] the
imagination with crimes at which nature trembles” (p. 34),22 it corrupts
only so far as people model their conduct upon the tragedies they witness.
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 63

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 63

A healthy culture might well be able to indulge its desire for theater and
derive pleasure from it without suffering the effects predicted for Geneva,
but a culture already unhealthy cannot avoid further decline. However,
strong cultures like the Greeks, and the limited role assigned to theater in
the Preface, notwithstanding, Rousseau is inclined to the view that theater
can have no positive effect and is inherently and necessarily corrupting. A
successful and interesting comedy, for example, is obliged by its nature to
take the form it does. Comedy works its effects by teaching falsehood,
ridiculing goodness and simplicity, celebrating the corruption of the world,
and, like the followers of Molière, flattering “debauched young men and
women without morals” (pp. 45; 42).23 Without these traits, a comedy
would be a bore and even the good citizens of Geneva would be unable to
resist the evils it disseminates.
In a similar way, Rousseau sees corruption at work in the dramatic
treatment of love with its depiction on the stage giving women ascendancy
over men, and making the young appear better than their elders (pp.
49 –50).24 In these and other instances, Rousseau emphasizes how the
order of nature is reversed: natural pity is replaced by its hypocritical coun-
terpart (pp. 25; 23); crimes go unpunished (pp. 28; 26), while fanaticism is
encouraged (pp. 31; 29); disrespect parades as virtue (pp. 50; 46); and the law
itself — the reflection and ostensible guarantor of moral life — is unable to
direct to appropriate ends a public opinion changed for the worse by the
power of theatrical effect (pp. 74; 67 – 68). Nature herself is put out of time
by the theater; and in the conduct of individuals she reports upon herself —
good triumphs over evil and society reflects the moral order turned upside

A Literal and a Metaphorical Concept of the Theatre

Thus far, I have tried to articulate the sense in which Rousseau’s response
to d’Alembert’s article is organized around literal and metaphorical con-
cepts of the theater. Approaching the Lettre in this way has allowed me to
distinguish two sorts of questions that Rousseau takes up: one, an anthro-
pology of art addressing the practical effects of founding such an institu-
tion in the city of Geneva; the other, a philosophical account of morality,
its source, and the relation it has to the artifice of human society. In this
latter, metaphorical sense, I have suggested that the theater provides a way
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 64

64 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

for Rousseau to explain both the form and content of moral life. In this
third and final section I want to pursue this latter point further and, as I
promised in the introduction, to offer some concluding remarks concern-
ing Rousseau’s conception of politics and morality which follow from his
treatment of the theater in the Lettre.
As I have emphasized, Rousseau’s approach to the theater is premised
on the view that morality has its source antecedent to institutions which
human beings construct; and, conceptually speaking, once this has been
understood, it becomes clear in what sense d’Alembert’s faith in the the-
ater is misplaced. A question remains, however, as to the ways these senti-
ments are shaped. In the present context I want to broach the issue by way
of the paradox to which I alluded above, namely, Rousseau’s view that
there is teleology in human beings who are obliged to embark upon the
very civilizing process which inevitably corrupts their natural virtue.
Human beings are compelled to struggle against their own nature in the
very act of affirming it.
In the Lettre, as elsewhere, Rousseau appeals to the natural condition
of human beings as an explanation of human society. Man “by nature” is
continuously juxtaposed to man “by artifice,” and, as a number of commen-
tators have emphasized, it is the faculty of imagination— especially its man-
ifestation in compassion or pity — which accounts for this paradoxical
condition. As Benjamin Barber puts it, “The imagination by virtue of
which we pervert our innocence and deprave our natural simplicity is also
the faculty by virtue of which we overcome our perversity and transform
our nature.”25 The paradox is made more complex by Rousseau’s insistence
that his natural simplicity and the “original state of nature” in which it
thrives are part of inquiries which are, as he describes them near the begin-
ning of the Discours sur l’inégalité, “hypothetical and conditional reason-
ings; better suited to elucidate the Nature of things than to show their
genuine origin.”26 If this is the case, the apparent naturalism of Rousseau’s
approach is tempered by the fact that the fiction of a natural state must
always be made real through the institutional arrangements of any given
society, and this comes about through working out the paradox mentioned
above. Moral life might have an ideal form, but it is only extant and always
manifest in a particular arrangement of human conduct.27 Morality, in
other words, is part and parcel of political life, and understanding what it
means to be moral also involves understanding the nature of politics.
This, I suggest, is the central lesson Rousseau teaches readers of the
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 65

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 65

Lettre. Since art in general, and the theater in particular, lacks the power to
improve morals, the only solution to the paradoxical nature of human
beings is to arrive at a practical compromise. This, for Rousseau, is the
meaning of politics, and investigating its principles constitutes the
explanandum of political philosophy, an inquiry which points towards his
conception of republican government and the doctrine of the general will.
In the Lettre, Rousseau pursues this investigation by focusing on the nature
of a moral community and demonstrates that morals can only be guaran-
teed by first understanding that virtue is constituted by engaging in activi-
ties of a certain sort. This is why the theater poses such a danger to Geneva:
the body politic suffers when the institutions composing it are undermined,
and therewith, the bonds binding citizens together are loosened.28
It is no coincidence, therefore, that in the latter sections of his Lettre
Rousseau turns to moral education and the role of public festivals in social
life. As Politzer emphasizes, if the spectacle is a “symbol for society at its
worst. . . . the spectacle of the public festival . . . becomes a symbol for soci-
ety at its best.” Where the former is dominated by the actor who performs
out of amour-propre for a passive audience, the latter removes “any differ-
ence between man the spectator and man the actor. . . . Pseudo pity has been
replaced by genuine emotion, by real and true self-identification” (p. 256).
It is for this reason that Rousseau places such emphasis on the “circles”
(cercles) of Geneva which, reflecting the tenor of ancient civic life, provide
opportunity for meeting and offer amusements without undermining
“republican morals” (mœurs republicaines) or the spirit of a free people (pp.
100; 91). These social clubs, as Rousseau says, aim to create persons of
moral character by making “friends, citizens, and soldiers out of the same
men” [“Enfin ces honnêtes et innocentes institutions rassemblent tout ce
qui peut contribüer à former dans les mêmes hommes des amis, des
citoyens, des soldats, et par consequent tout ce qui convient le mieux à un
peuple libre”] (pp. 105; 96). He is thus “concerned to foster a human type,”
as Lionel Trilling puts it, and in this respect Rousseau’s “intention is not
moralistic or utilitarian but in itself aesthetic, although the beauty to
which it refers is not that of artistic products but actual persons.”29 Such
institutions are not without disadvantages of their own, but the drunken-
ness to which members are sometimes prone is preferable to inflamed pas-
sions under sober tyranny, and gambling, though pernicious, can be easily
controlled by public opinion. Such faults are “not in the circles,” Rousseau
maintains, “but in the men who compose them; and there is no imaginable
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 66

66 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

form of social life in which the same faults do not produce more harmful
effects” [“Conservons donc les Cercles, même avec leurs défauts; car ces
défauts ne sont pas dans les cercles, mais dans les hommes qui les com-
posent, et il n’y a point dans la vie sociale de forme imaginable sous lac-
quelle ces mêmes défauts ne prodvisent de plus nuisibles effets”] (pp. 110;
101). After all, Rousseau’s vision of politics is not that it aims at “the
chimera of perfection but [that it seeks] the best possible according to the
nature of man and the constitution of society” (p. 110).30 Nature might
promise an ideal state and the philosopher can certainly articulate a vision
of one, but the person of practical wisdom seeks a mean — a point at which
the useful and the desirable are reconciled.
In this view of politics, the health of a community is paramount, and
in the pursuit of this goal public gatherings are indeed to be preferred to
private occupations and open air gatherings and balls to an insular family
life. Such entertainments are not indulged for mere pleasure, however, but
are pursued as a means of reconciling divisions and bolstering good rela-
tions. Rousseau even concedes that under such circumstances theater
might be permissible in Geneva as long as it — like its Athenian forbear —
stages productions of plays concerning themes from the city’s own history
(pp. 120; 109 – 10). For entertainment proper to a republic must fulfill a
civic function. Like the public festivals of ancient Sparta, they encourage
republican virtues and bring the city together “as for the gathering of a big
family” [“l’assemblée de une grande famille”] (pp. 131; 120). In this sense,
one might conclude, in the Lettre not only does Rousseau provide an
anthropology of art and an account of morals, as I have described, but he
also presents a practical guide to moral and political conduct. The weak-
ness and corruption manifest in the call for a theater, and the natural con-
dition of human beings revealed in its consequences, are reconciled in a
political prudence which underlies a form of government befitting a com-
munity of flourishing individuals.

1. Ed. Bernard Gagnebin, in Œuvres complètes I (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque
de la Pléiade, 1995), pp. 1 – 125; Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. D’Alembert on the
Theater, trans. Alan Bloom (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1960). Quotations in the text are
from Bloom’s edn.; the original French and refs. to the Pléiade edn. are supplied in
parenthesis or, for longer quotes, in the notes. Throughout the paper, where two page
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 67

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 67

references are given to any of Rousseau’s works, the first is to the English trans. and the
second to the Pléiade edn.
2. L’Encyclopédie, VIII, p. 578, in Politics and the Arts, pp. 139 –48. Rousseau
himself cites the pertinent passages at the beginning of the Lettre. He claims that he
found the article to have been “written with much skill and art, and worthy of the pen
from which it had come” [“je trouvai l’article fait avec beaucoup d’adresse et d’art,
digne de las plume dont il étoit parti”]. See Les Confessions, Œuvres complètes V (Paris:
Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1959), p. 495; The Confessions and
Correspondence, The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 5, ed. Christopher Kelly, Roger
D. Masters, & Peter G. Stillman, trans. Christopher Kelly (Hanover: Univ. Press of
New England), p. 415. As Kelly et al. point out (p. 659, n22), d’Alembert was the
censor who approved the Lettre for publication.
3. In this sense, I am following those who have resisted understanding the Lettre
primarily as a work within the anti-theatrical tradition. See David Marshall,
“Rousseau and the State of Theater,” Representations 13 (Winter 1986): 84. For views
that do see the Lettre as an “antitheatrical tract,” see John Barish, The Antitheatrical
Prejudice (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1981), chap. 9; and more recently José
Eisenberg, “The Theater and Political Theory in Rousseau and Diderot,” Kriterion
41:101 ( June 2000): 86 – 108. At one point, Barish characterizes the Lettre as a “prayer
for its [the theater’s] suppression” (p. 294).
4. “Rousseau on the Theatre and the Actors,” The Romanic Review 46:4
(December 1955): 250. See also his comment that “in the Lettre itself Rousseau
proceeds from a thesis that the theatre not only adapts itself to the mores of a given
society, but also tends to reinforce these very same mores. . . . Once this point is
established, it is almost impossible to distinguish in the Lettre whether Rousseau is
attacking the French theatre or French society” (p. 255).
5. See the introduction to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Preface to Narcisse,” trans. and
ed. Benjamin R. Barber & Janis Forman, Political Theory 6:4 (Nov. 1978): 537 –42; and
for a succinct account of Rousseau’s life and a chronology of his work, N. J. H. Dent,
A Rousseau Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 4 – 20.
6. “La ‘Lettre d’Alembert sur les spectacles’: Production textuelle et corruption
des moeures,” Revue de L’Université d’Ottawa 51:1 ( January/March 1981): 137 –42. Block
notes that “il [Rousseau] adorait le théâtre et a écrit lui-même plusiers pièces, des
ballets, et un opera” and that “[il] emploie des procédés tels que la surprise, la
digression, et l’interrogation, parmi d’autres, pour divertir et, d’une façon, piéger le
lecteur en le convaioncant que les effets du théâtre sont . . . des plus nuisibles” (pp.
137 – 38). Block goes on to describe the dramatic effect Rousseau achieves with his
“digressions” on the simple life of the rural village, the place of dueling in French
society, and relations between the sexes (pp. 139ff ). Cf. Barish, The Antitheatrical
Prejudice, who sees the same as evidence for a notable volte-face: after “lively ventures
towards a theatrical career,” Barish remarks, Rousseau “went on to become one of the
most dogged enemies the theater has ever seen” (p. 259).
7. “Pendant un hiver assez rude, au mois de Février, et dans l’état que jai décrit ci-
davant, j’allois tous les jours passer deux heures le matin, et autant l’apres-dinèe dans
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 68

68 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

un Donjon tout ouvert que j’avois au bout du jardin où étoit mon habitation. Ce
Donjon, qui terminoit une allée en terrasse, donnoit sur la vallée et l’étang de
Montmorenci . . . Ce fut dans ce lieu, pour lors glacé, que sans abri contre le vent et la
neige, et sans autre feu que celui de mon coeur, je composai dans l’epace de trois
semaines ma Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles . . . le prémier de mes ecrits, où j’aye
trouvé des charmes dans le travail” (p. 495).
8. “Sans m’en appercevoir j’y décrivis ma situation actuelle; j’y peignis Grimm,
Made d’Epinay, Made d’Houdetot, St. Lambert, moi-même . . . A tout cela se mêloit
un certain attendrissement sur moi-même, que me sentois mourant, et qui croyois
faire au public mes derniers adieux” (pp. 495 – 96). Rousseau remarks later: “The letter
to d’Alembert breathed a gentleness of souls that was not felt to be at all pretended . . .
Ill humor did prevail in all the writings I had done at Paris: it no longer regined in the
first one I had done in the country. That remark was decisive for those who know how
to observe. They saw that I had returned into my element” [“La lettre à d’Alembert
respiroit une douceur d’ame qu’on sentit n’être point jouée. Si j’eusse été rongé
d’humeur dans ma retraite mon ton s’en seroit senti. Il en régnoit plus dans le prémier
que j’avois faits à Paris: il n’en régnoit plus dans le prémier que j’avois fait à la
campagne. Pur ceux qui savent observer cette remarque étoit décisive. On vit que
j’étois rentré dans mon element”] (420; 502).
9. See also Roussseau’s remark: “Even though it [Narcisse] was stiff in performance,
I had it printed, and in the Preface, which is one of my good writings, I began to put
my principles in open view a little more than I had done until then. I soon had an
occasion to develop them completely in a work of the greatest importance” [viz., the
Discours sur l’origine et les fondemonets de l’inégalit] [“Cependant, comme il étoit sûr que
la piéce, quoique glacée à la réprésentation soutenoit la lecture, je la fis imprimer, et
dans la Préface qui est un de mes bons écrits, je commençai de mettre à découvert mes
principes un peu plus qu je n’avois fait jusqu’alors. J’eus bietôt occasion de developper
tout à fait dans un ouvrage de plus grande importance”] (Confessions, 326; 388).
10. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Preface to Narcisse,” p. 553. “En attendant, j’écrirai des
Livres, je ferai des Vers et de la Musique, si j’en ai le talent, le tems, la force et la
volonté: je continuerai à dire très-franchement tout le mal que je pense des lettres et de
ceux qui les cultivent, et croirai n’en valoir pas moins pour cela. Il est vrai qu’on pourra
dire quelque jour: Cet ennemi si déclaré des sciences et des arts, fit pourtant et publia
des Pièces de Thèâtre; et ce discours sera, je l’avoue, une satyre très amére, non de moi,
mais de mon siécle” (Rousseau, Narcisse ou L’Amant de lui-même, Preface, Œuvres
complètes IV [Paris: Gallimard, 1964], p. 974).
11. See Donald W. Livingston, Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s
Pathology of Philosophy (Chicago: Chicago Univ., 1998), pp. 244ff. Hume’s comment on
Rousseau is to be found in The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols.
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), 2:108. Rousseau echoes Hume’s observation when he
remarks of himself that his name was “already famous and known throughout Europe”
(Confessions, 412; 492. See also pp. 308 – 9; 367 – 69). Le bon David, one might note,
enjoyed a similar status in French society while there as the private secretary to the
British Ambassador, and in the Confessions Rousseau reports how the “le célébre
Hume” had “acquired a great reputation for himself in France” (see pp. 484 & 527 – 28;
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 69

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 69

578 & 629 – 30). For a discussion of Hume’s reputation in France, as well as Rousseau’s
fame and ill-fated sojourn in England under Hume’s patronage, see Ernst Campbell
Mossner, The Life of David Hume, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), pp. 441 –55 &
507 – 32, respectively.
12. “Rousseau’s Concept of Theater,” British Journ. of Aesthetics 17 (Spring 1977):
171 – 77. Banerjee argues explicitly that “the thesis put forward [in the Lettre] is that art
is alienation” (p. 172).
13. See in this context Rousseau’s account of the lawgiver and the people in Du
Contrat social, Œuvres complètes III (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,
1964), II: vii – x & 381 – 91; The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston (N.Y.: Penguin,
1968), pp. 84 – 96.
14. “Ces grands et superbes spectacles donnés sous le Ciel, à la face de toute une
nation, n’offroient de toutes parts que des combat, des victoires, des prix, des objets
capables d’inspirer aux Grecs une ardente émulation, et d’échauffer leurs coeurs de
sentiments d’honneur et de gloire” (p. 72).
15. “Mon avis est donc . . . de laisser subsister et même d’entretenir avec soin les
Académies, les Collèges, les Universités, les Bibliothèques, les Spectacles, et tous les
autres amusemens qui peuvent faire quelque diversion à la méchanceté des hommes, et
les empêcher d’occuper leur poisivité à des choses plus dangereuses . . . Lorsqu’il n’y a
plus de mœurs, il ne faut songer qu’à la police; et l’on sait assez que la Musique et les
Spectacles en sont un des plus importans objets” (pp. 972 – 73).
16. Cf. Benjamin R. Barber, “Rousseau and the Paradoxes of the Dramatic
Imagination,” Daedelus 107:3 (Summer 1978): 79 – 92, who says that the “discussion in
the Preface to Narcisse moves beyond this cynicism [of the Letter to d’Alembert],
suggesting an ameliorative role for drama in cities already in a condition of advanced
civilization, and thus advanced decay. . . . In contrast to the Letter to d’Alembert, the
spirit of the Preface is unreservedly prudent and relativistic, displaying an almost
Montesquiean sensibility” (p. 87). See also Barber and Forman who, in their
introduction to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Preface to Narcisse,” contrast the “palliative role”
of the theater in the Preface with the less compromising tone of the Lettre: “These
arguments [in the Preface] provide a stimulating contrast to the wholly deprecatory
case against theater developed in the Letter to d’Alembert, spelling out in detail the
remark made in the Letter that while theater may be bad for men who are good, it is
good for men who are bad” (p. 539).
17. On this point see Paul Redding, “Absorbed in the Spectacle of the World:
Hegel’s Criticism of Romantic Historiography,” Clio 16:4 (1987): 307 – 309. Redding
remarks: “From as early as his ‘Discourse on the Arts and Sciences’ Rousseau had been
concerned with what he perceived as a systematic separation of appearance and reality
in modern forms of behavior: like actors, modern individuals acted out, for the gaze of
others, roles unconnected with their essential selves” (p. 309). Cf. Politzer, who
emphasizes that Rousseau’s advice to both actor and public is “ultimately that they
should fuse fiction and reality,” since only when this has been achieved is artificiality
finally eliminated (pp. 255 –56). On the truth of this observation for Rousseau’s own
life, see Confessions, pp. 308 – 309.
18. “Qu’est-ce que le talent du comedien? L’art de se contrefaire, de revetir autre
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 70

70 Eighteenth-Centur y Life

caractére que le sien, de paroitre différent de ce qu’on est . . . Qu’est ce que la

profession du comedien? Un métier par lequel il se donne en réprésentation pour de
l’argent, se soumet à force de prendre celle d’autrui” (pp. 72 – 73).
19. Cf. Barber, “Rousseau and the Paradoxes of the Dramatic Imagination,” who
emphasizes the dialectic between city and country, Paris and Geneva, and the ways
this is reflected in the Preface and Lettre. He remarks at one point that “Rousseau’s
relativism — his sociological realism — allow him to view drama as a bane in
republican Geneva before the fall, but as a necessary and less evil in metropolitan Paris
after the fall; there the choices are in any case exclusively between evil and lesser evil”
(p. 87). On the claim that Geneva could represent the “state of nature.”
20. See Marshall, “Rousseau and the State of Theater,” pp. 93ff. His claim is that
“theater is dangerous for Rousseau, because it teaches people how to avoid sympathy”
(p. 93).
: 21. “J’entendois autour de moi un chuchotement de femmes qui me sembloient
coeur. belles comme dees anges, et qui s’entredisoient à demi-voix: celas est charmant, cela
moi- est ravissant; il n’y a pas son là qui ne parle au coeur. La plaisir de donner de l’émotion
à tant d’aimables personnes m’émut moi-même jusqu’aux larmes, et je ne les pus
contenir au prémier nduo, en remarquant que je n’étois pas seul à pleurer” (pp. 378 – 79).
22. Rousseau is comparing tragedy with the circus of Rome: of the latter, he
remarks, “[o]n voyoit couler du sang, ile est vrai; mais on ne souilloit pas son
imagination de crimes qui font frémir la nature” (p. 31).
23. Rousseau is referring to the “successors” of Moliére: “qui, n’ayant ni son
(Moliére’s) genie, ni sa probité, n’en ont que mieux suivi ses vües intéressées, en
s’attachant à flatter une jeunesse débauchée et des femmes sans mœurs” (p. 42).
24. See also Rousseau’s discussion of shame as a natural safeguard of chastity in
Lettre, pp. 82 – 83; 75 – 76.
25. Barber, “Rousseau,” p. 88. See also Elizabeth Wingrove, “Sexual Performance
as Political Performance: Performance in the Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles,”
Political Theory 23:4 (Nov. 1995): 585ff.
26. The passage reads: “Il ne faut pas prendre les Recherches, dans lesquelles on
peut entrer sur ce Sujet, pour des verités historiques, mais seulement pour des
raisonnemens hypothétiques et conditionnels; plus propres à éclaircir la Nature des
choses qu’à montrer la véritable origine, et semblables à ceux que font tous les jours
nos Physiciens sure la formation du Monde,” Discours sur l’origine et les fondemonts de
l’inégalitè, in Œuvres complètes III (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1964),
pp. 132 – 33; The First and Second Discourses, trans. Victor Gourevitch (N.Y.: HarperRow,
1990), p. 139. See also Victor Gourevitch, “Rousseau’s Pure State of Nature,”
Interpretation 16 (1988): 21 –59. Gourevitch remarks that Rousseau “brackets” moral
needs and social relations as an exercise in “analysis,” and in so doing aims “not to
establish fact [but to] extrapolate to the limits or conditions of humanity” (p. 37). On
the same point, cf. Ernst Cassirer, The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 2nd. edn.
(New Haven: Yale Univ., 1989), who talks of Rousseau’s state of nature as a necessary
conjecture: “the man who speaks of a ‘state of nature’ speaks of a state which no longer
exists, which may never had existed, and which probably never will exist. . . . it is a state of
ECL27104-Costello.q4.jw 4/14/03 10:56 AM Page 71

Rousseau’s Lettre à M. d ’Alembert 71

which we must, nevertheless, have an adequate idea in order to judge correctly of our
present condition” (p. 50, emphasis in original). Some of these issues are also addressed
in Costelloe, “The Concept of a ‘State of Nature’ in Vico’s New Science,” History of
Philosophy Qrtrly 16:2 ( July 1999): 320 – 39.
27. In this respect, at least, Rousseau seems to have much in common with
Hume, especially with the view expressed in the latter’s “A Dialogue,” in Enquiries
Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. A.
Selby-Bigge, 3rd rev. edn., ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1975), pp. 324 –43.
Hume argues that moral categories are correctly thought of as general even though
they will be manifest in particular cultures in different and sometimes contradictory
ways. For divergent interpretations of Hume’s position, see Donald W. Livingston,
Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1984), pp. 220 – 22;
Donald T. Siebert, The Moral Animus of David Hume (Newark: Univ. of Delaware,
1990), pp. 184 – 86; and Robert Shaver, “Hume’s Moral Theory?” History of Philosophy
Qrtrly 12:3 ( July 1995): 325.
28. See in this context Marshall, “Rousseau and the State of Theater,” who is
inclined to see the specter of totalitarianism behind Rousseau’s festivals: “The state
cannot tolerate the theater because it needs theater for its own ends. . . . If there is to
be theater in Rousseau’s republic . . . it must belong to the state. . . . The fêtes Rousseau
proposes are either military displays or spectacle in which representatives of authority
exercise their role as censors who police the behavior of those under their surveillance.
Both kinds of spectacle are finally representations (and performances) of the power of
the state and the power of theater that has established society in Geneva as well as in
Paris” (pp. 101 – 102). Cf. Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et
l’obstacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), pp. 116 – 21; Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and
Obstruction, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1988), pp. 92 – 96,
who emphasizes the “idealized” nature of the picture Rousseau paints. In contrast to
the dark, enclosed space of the theater, where each individual is alone, the public
festival represents open, unmediated communion. “Thus the theater is to the festival,”
Starobinksi remarks, “as opacity is to transparency” (p. 95).
29. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard Univ., 1972),
p. 66.
30. Cf. Aristotle, The Politics and the Constitution of Athens, ed. Steven Everson
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1988), section VII; and for a treatment of Rousseau
which emphasizes the “prudential aspects” of his political philosophy, Ruth W. Grant,
Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics (Chicago: Univ.
of Chicago, 1997), pp. 102ff.