Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism

By Gregory Dart | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
'Sour Jacobinism': William Hazlitt and the
resistance to reform

When Rousseau stood behind the chair of the master of the château of —, and smiled to hear the company dispute about the meaning of the motto of the arms of the family, which he alone knew, and stumbled as he handed the glass of wine to his young mistress, and fancied she coloured at being waited upon by so learned a young footman — then was first kindled that spark which can never be quenched, then was formed the germ of that strong conviction of the disparity between the badge on his shoulder and the aspirations of his soul — the determination, in short, that external situation and advantages are but the mask, and that the mind is the man — armed with which, impenetrable, incorrigible, he went forth conquering and to conquer, and overthrew the monarchy of France and the hierarchies of the earth. 1


I

In the sixteenth of his Conversations with Northcote (1830) William Hazlitt was to cite an episode from book III of the Confessions in an attempt to exemplify how its author had 'stamped his own character and the image of his self-love on the public mind'. Like Robespierre before him, he believed that Rousseau's autobiography had exerted an immense influence upon the French Revolution, far more significant, in its way, than his works of educational or political theory. For in his eyes the Confessions had succeeded in firing an entire generation with enthusiasm for the principles of liberty and equality through its extended account of its author's heroic opposition to the ancien régime. Where many nineteenth-century commentators, especially in England, had found themselves concurring with Burke's remarks upon Rousseau's transgressive egotism, Hazlitt was to defend it as a Promethean force which, in its very excess, had served to counter aristocratic prejudice, and popularise the principle of meritocracy.

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