Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism

By Gregory Dart | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
'The Prometheus of Sentiment': Rousseau,
Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education

I

Pondering the failure of the Norwegian peasantry to follow her enlightened advice on child-rearing in the eighth of her Letters Written During A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark of 1796, Mary Wollstonecraft was moved to comment upon the peculiar resistance to 'improvement' often exhibited by primitive societies:

Reflecting on these prejudices made me revert to the wisdom of those legislators who established institutions for the good of the body under the pretext of serving heaven for the salvation of the soul. These might with strict propriety be termed pious frauds, and I admire the Peruvian pair for asserting that they came from the sun, when their conduct proved that they meant to enlighten a benighted country, whose obedience, or even attention, could only be secured by awe. Thus much for conquering the inertia of reason; but, when it is once in motion, fables, once held sacred, may be ridiculed; and sacred they were, when useful to mankind. — Prometheus alone stole fire to animate the first man; his posterity need not supernatural aid to preserve the species, though love is generally termed a flame, and it may not be necessary much longer to suppose men inspired by heaven to inculcate the duties which demand special grace, when reason convinces them that they are happiest who are most nobly employed. 1

Ostensibly, Wollstonecraft considers the possibility of a persistent inertia of reason only in order finally to dismiss it; briefly contemplating the usefulness of 'pious frauds' before laying them aside. Western civilization will soon render such grand impostures a thing of the past, she suggests, once the progress of reason has gained sufficient momentum. Implicitly, however, she does admit that this time had not yet come to pass, half-acknowledging the existence of a disconcerting interregnum between superstition and enlightenment.

What identifies Wollstonecraft's reflections as characteristically postrevolutionary, in spite of the fact that they make no specific reference to recent French history, is their markedly utilitarian attitude to religion, in

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