‘To still find pleasure today in authors such as Rousseau compromises a person once and for all.’footnote1 If one were to base one’s judgement on the esteem in which the theorist of the ‘will to power’ is today held, one might be persuaded to think that the bi-centenary of Rousseau’s death could have fallen during a period more propitious to his thought. No doubt there is some truth in this; but there is equal cause to reflect upon a judgement that is all the more significant if taken in the context of Nietzsche’s overall attitude towards Rousseau. It is well known that the history of Rousseau’s reputation has had its ups and downs: successive waves of Rousseauphilia or Rousseauphobia have been separated by periodic phases of indifference. Nietzsche is certainly a typical case of acute Rousseauphobia, though this has become diluted to the point of indifference in much of the culture influenced by him. Just as, in that culture, the admiration for Voltaire which is a constant theme in the development of Nietzsche’s thought (at least from Human-all-too Human to Ecce Homo) has likewise become diluted and faded away. And this twofold diminution of interest too needs explanation.

In 1878, which marked the centenary of the deaths of Voltaire and Rousseau, Nietzsche published the first edition of Human-all-too Human, dedicating the work to Voltaire, ‘one of the greatest liberators of the spirit’.footnote2 All the same, one should not see his admiration during this period as simply the straightforward counterpart, the other side of the coin, of his aversion for Rousseau. That opposition, however, does emerge clearly in the works of the subsequent decade, especially in the posthumously published writings of 1887–8. There, not only does the Rousseauphobia become a much more insistent theme than ever before, but also the contrast between Rousseau and Voltaire comes to be consciously recognized as the central axis around which the whole of Nietzsche’s thought revolves. Although he openly sides with Voltaire against Rousseau, Nietzsche does not appear at all persuaded that the conflict between them can be thought resolved in favour of the former. On the contrary, he claims that it was his merit to have posed anew, among the ‘unsolved problems’, precisely the ‘problem of civilization, the struggle between Rousseau and Voltaire about the year 1760’.footnote3 The terms in which he sets forth the problem are clear enough, even if somewhat over-simplified: while for Rousseau, ‘man perfects himself in proportion as he approaches Nature’, for Voltaire, by contrast, he attains to perfection ‘in proportion as he leaves Nature behind’. Voltaire is ‘Missionary of Culture, aristocrat, representative of the triumphant and ruling classes and their values. But Rousseau remaind a plebeian, even as homme de lettres.’ While Rousseau struggles on behalf of the people, whose cause he identifies with the cause of humanity as such, Voltaire—who has cut himself off from his popular origins, and still subscribes to the Renaissance conception of umanit` and virtù—‘fights for the cause of the “honnêtes gens”, “la bonne compagnie”, taste, science, arts, and even for the cause of progress and civilization’.footnote4

Nietzsche, then, admired Voltaire, but could not be said to take him for a model, while his critique of Rousseau is much more radical and tends to escape the confines of the framework in which the problem was originally posed. Nietzsche, that is to say, does not deny that civilization corrupts man and makes him wicked, but if anything laments the fact that it does not corrupt him sufficiently: ‘Alas! man is no longer sufficiently evil; Rousseau’s opponents, who say that “man is a beast of prey”, are unfortunately wrong. Not the corruption of man, but the softening and moralizing of him is the curse. In the sphere which Rousseau attacked most violently, the relatively strongest and most successful type of man was still to be found (the type which still possessed the great passions intact: Will to Power, Will to Pleasure, the Will and Ability to Command).’footnote5 And already in The Dawn of Day, confronting paradox with paradox, he had argued against Rousseau: ‘If it is true that there is something contemptible about our civilization, we have two alternatives: to conclude, with Rousseau, that “This despicable civilization is to blame for our bad morality”; or to infer, contrary to Rousseau’s view, that “Our good morality is to blame for this contemptible civilization. Our social conceptions of good and evil, weak and effeminate as they are, and their enormous influence over both body and soul, have had the effect of weakening all bodies and souls and of crushing all unprejudiced, independent and self-reliant men, the real pillars of a strong civilization: wherever we still find the evil morality today, we see the last crumbling ruins of these pillars”.’footnote6

It is this paradox that enables one to understand that Nietzsche’s dislike of Rousseau shares a common matrix with the hostility he feels towards Christianity. His main bone of contention is Rousseau’s attempt to assert the value of the common man, and to render him a ‘person’. ‘We should on no account jump to the conclusion that there are many people who are personalities. Some men are but conglomerations of personalities, whilst the majority are not even one. In all cases in which those average qualities preponderate, which ensure the maintenance of the species, to be a personality would involve unnecessary expense, it would be a luxury—in fact, it would be foolish to demand of anybody that he should be a personality. In such circumstances everybody is a channel or a transmitting vessel.’footnote7 Here the target of his attack is as much Christianity as democracy (which for Nietzsche, moreover, is not to be considered anything other than ‘naturalized Christianity’). Thus what holds for Christianity holds equally for Rousseau: ‘What I do not at all like in Jesus of Nazareth and his Apostle Paul is that they stuffed so much into the heads of paltry people, as if their modest virtues were worth so much ado. We have had to pay dearly for it all; for they brought the most valuable qualities of both virtue and man into ill repute; they set the guilty conscience and the self-respect of noble souls at loggerheads, and they led the braver, more magnanimous, more daring, and more excessive tendencies of strong souls astray—even to self-destruction.’footnote8 At this point, the words of The Joyful Wisdom become wholly comprehensible: ‘The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad, has made the world ugly and bad.’footnote9 Nor will the terse verdict of Beyond Good and Evil any longer seem shocking: ‘It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong.’footnote10

When treated in this way, however, the conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire on the problem of civilization, re-posed in acute form by Nietzsche, was in reality superseded. According to Nietzsche, not only is society’s tendency to conflict ineliminable; it is also, contrary to what Voltaire appears to propose, a mistake to attempt to reduce it. If the degeneration and enfeeblement of humanity is to be prevented, its antagonistic internal structure must be maintained intact, and even encouraged to develop to the maximum. There can only exist superior men, capable of great passion, endowed with the will to power and enjoyment, with the will and capacity to command, if these are able to isolate, detach and distance themselves from the mass of mediocre men, whose instinct is that of the herd. Nietzsche makes this point quite clearly: the solitary and the gregarious type are both necessary, because their antagonism is necessary. There is, therefore, degeneration in both cases: ‘the approximation of the qualities of the herd to those of solitary creatures, and vice versa—in short, when they begin to resemble each other’.footnote11 It is not, then, a case of the exception undermining the rule, but on the contrary ‘of understanding that the continued existence of the rule is the first condition of the value of the exception’.footnote12

It is clear that any continuation on this basis of Nietzsche’s struggle against Rousseau could only have been conducted from a right-wing standpoint, and indeed those who have chosen to pursue it belong among the most reactionary elements of twentieth-century political thought. As we all know, however, Nietzsche’s thought as a whole, partly by virtue of its very ambiguity, has made its impact felt in a very much wider milieu than this. It has been the source of a stream of suggestions offering themselves to every possible cultural manipulation, including that which separates what is in fact inseparable in Nietzsche—his critique of bourgeois civilization and his relentless hostility to democracy. In such a stream, the attack on Rousseau and the admiration of Voltaire could not but become submerged, as minor episodes in a philosophical drama played out for the most part by allegorical figures.

Nietzsche’s interest in the conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire on the problem of civilization was that of a philosopher of history, and not that of a historian—something he certainly had no wish to be. The low opinion in which he held the historian’s craft is well reflected, in fact, in one of his most acerbic epigrams: ‘Historians and other grave-diggers, people who live among coffins and sawdust.’footnote13 But even Nietzsche himself was not entirely above a little sawdust-heaping, precisely when he sought to affix a date to the conflict between Voltaire and Rousseau: ‘The flare-up occurred towards 1760: on the one hand the citizen of Geneva, on the other le Seigneur de Ferney. It is only from that moment and henceforward that Voltaire was the man of his age, the philosopher, the representative of Toleration and of Disbelief (theretofore he had been merely un bel esprit). His envy and hatred of Rousseau’s success forced him upwards.’footnote14