|About the Book|
Feuchtwangers books are immensely readable as works of historical fiction. Narrenweisheit is no exception. This time, its Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution. Although a work of fiction, Feuchtwanger conveys a lot of historical and philosophical content.- Jean-Jacques RousseauHis life is the main theme of the book, nonetheless Narrenweisheit is not essentially about him as a person, rather the philosophy he stands for and the repercussions his ideas had. As an individual, hes described as a weak conflicted man who was in constant quarrels with other philosophers. He sought loneliness, tried rather unsuccessfully to mingle with common folk and found refuge in a marriage with a simple, constricted wife. His behaviour in personal life was often contradicting his philosophy, e.g. he gave his own children into the custody of an orphanage while he wrote an authoritative book on the education of children. At least, he didnt hide this conflict as his Confessions bear witness.- PhilosophyOthers are better qualified to represent his philosophy. Two quotes from wikipedia.com can stand in for the message, Feuchtwanger conveys:Rousseau asserted that the stage of human development associated with what he called savages was the best or optimal in human development, between the less-than-optimal extreme of brute animals on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilization on the other. ...553othing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.Man as an individual is good but society is corrupting him, transforming man from the positive self-preserving amour de soi into amour propre which is artifical and designed to compare with and impress others.According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law.The personal freedom ends where it violates the freedom of another human.His ideas were heavily (mis-)used by all involved in the French revolution, be it the enlightened aristocrats or the extremist Jacobin Club of Robespierre. His work was open and vague enough to allow all kinds of interpretations and claims.His philosophy is contrasted with other important contemporaries, namely Voltaire. While Rousseau supposedly fed the heart, Voltaire provided food for the brain and the intellectual spine of the revolution.- DemocracyThe French Revolution provided the base on which modern democracy developed. From a violent although rational start in 1789 things quickly degraded into la terreur. Even the terror was justified in the name of the people. Through his protagonist Fernand, Feuchtwanger explains the internal logic. A weak democracy couldnt succeed against its enemies. To stand strong, injustice and drastic measures temporarily have to be accepted to establish a better society. Effectualy, the mob took over in the worst phases. The corruption of men by society is proven.Feuchtwanger gives us another example for the corruption of men by society, the American struggle for independence which happened at end of Rousseaus lifetime. The aristocratic rule simply was replaced by the ruthless & rich dominating. No sign of the noble savages.While theres no question about the superiority of democracy and the basic validitiy of the social contract, the inherent weaknesses of men pose a constant challenge to the good of society.- Death & transfigurationRousseaus ideas were heavily romanticized by the French Revolution and successive generations, his personal life being transfigured with his introduction into the Pantheon. The weaknesses of the individual disappeared.If theres one thing to be learned from this book, then its the acceptability of weaknesses of individuals as well as of society as long as progress is made to the common good.