Writing for the Academy: The Rhetoric of Rousseau’s First Discourse, 1750

Writing for the Academy: The Rhetoric of Rousseau’s First Discourse (1750)

Many of us expect politicians to be devious, calculating, ambitious and vain. Should we expect the same from political theorists? My MSt dissertation in Intellectual History set out to answer this question in relation to a man renowned for his earnestness, conviction and sincerity: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778).

The object of my research was to make sense of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750). Historians typically approach this text as an intervention in the eighteenth-century luxury debate, and specifically in the contemporary discourse that weighed the relative merits of ancient republics against modern commercial monarchies. By contrast, I began with the immediate context of the discoursethe Dijon Academy’s morale prize questions. The Dijon Academy, like many academies in eighteenth-century France, judged their ethics concours by the criteria of eloquence. If we are to understand Rousseau’s text, then, it is important to analyse it as primarily a stylistic construction, submitted with the intention of winning the eloquence prize.

                                                           frontispiece rousseau first discourse

What was eloquence in eighteenth century? Perhaps the preeminent work on style and taste in eighteenth century France is Elena Russo’s Styles of Enlightenment (2007). It charts critical contemporary distinctions between good taste (grand goût) and guff. Eloquence, however, was still indebted to classical oration, rhetorical theory and renaissance humanism. Embedded in the education system, young scholars in the collèges closely studied Quintilian’s rhetoric manual, the Institutio oratoria. They learnt that rhetoric had three main genres: the forensic rhetoric of the law courts; the deliberative rhetoric of political speeches in the agora or the forum; and the epideictic rhetoric of praise or blame. They also learnt that structure and organisation (dispositio) was fundamental to eloquent speech. Quintilian’s Institutio codified and provided substantive suggestions for the key sections, from the introductory exordium, through to main evidential body of the speech (confirmatio) and the emotive closing appeal (peroratio). With this rhetorical training in hand, early-modern students then became the lawyers in the parlements, and the learned men of the academies.

The cross-pollination of parlement and academy in the context of Dijon was particularly significant. Both institutions were strongly influenced by the local patriarch and jurist, Jean Bouhier (1673 –1746). As one of the last legal humanists, he provided a bridge between the intellectual culture of humanism and the Dijon academy of the mid-eighteenth century. The style of Bouhier and his students, who later sat on the panel for the 1750 essay prize, makes for fascinating reading. It embodies the early-modern legal rhétorique des citations, a form of writing inherited from learned humanism and predicated on the assumption that an argument is worth the weight of its authorities.

                                                           President Bouhier by Nicolas de Largilliere, Dijon Musee des Beaux Arts

             This context begins to have significance when we then turn to Rousseau’s text. It is eloquent in precisely the way his judges at the Dijon Academy would have understood. The text is structured according to Quintilian’s formal structure and stylistic prescriptions. As Quintilian suggested, Rousseau’s exordium begins with an extensive self-fashioning to establish his credibility. He also seeks the goodwill of the audienceanother component of classical rhetoricby way of praise and flattery. After narrating a main argument with rich metaphors, he moves onto an extensive confirmatio. Here, Rousseau draws lessons from the Romans, Spartans, Athenians, Scythians, Persians, Egyptians, Ottomans and Tacitus’s Germans, vividly exhibiting his evidence as Quintilian had advised. The classical period had particular resonance for Rousseau personally, but it was also an effective way of demonstrating his erudition. He also deviously and tendentiously cites Socrates to lend credence to his case, a scholarly sleight-of-hand with a rich heritage in humanist erudition and legal rhétorique des citations.

As if his Burgundian readers were not already drunk on his rhetoric, Rousseau reveals one final vintage: the prosopopoeia of Fabricius. A prosopopoeia was a formal rhetorical device wherein the orator “speaks through” a historical or fictional figure. It was one of the key formal devices in the classical and later humanist rhetorical toolkit, allowing the orator to exhibit further rhetorical prowess in a different register. Rousseau chose to speak through the incorruptible and virtuous Roman Fabricius to culminate a text with stylistic debts as important as its intellectual ones. 

                                                           Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David

What this study sought to demonstrate is that insufficient attention has been paid to the immediate and primary intention of Rousseau’s textto appeal to his academic audience and win the prize. His motivations at this moment in his life were as devious and calculating as any politician. He wanted to climb out of obscurity, fall into the celebrated circles of Paris, and reap the financial rewards of fame and success. To do this, he needed to win the prize. And win the prize he did, by conforming in an unprecedented way to certain kinds of academic style, erudition and learned behaviour.


George Widdicombe, MSt Intellectual History, University of Oxford 2019-2020