In Karl Barth’s significant work Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century he focuses largely on individuals and their influence to the theological environment of the nineteenth century and lasting relevance for theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The first influential that Barth deals with is the Geneva born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778).
Barth’s in-depth presentation of Rousseau is essentially biographical which gives insight into Rousseau the man and not simply his thought. Barth reveals Rousseau’s complexities as a person and in some instances paradoxical in light of his social contract and educational theories, which has lead many to find excuse in dismissing the contribution of Rousseau. However, for Barth, to dismiss Rousseau on his seemingly apparent contradictions is a total misunderstanding of the significance of Rousseau. To dismiss him in this way, however, is actually to fully understand the eighteenth century (p161) and to criticise his rationalism or individualism is to simultaneously criticise Hegel and Goethe (p162). For Barth, Rousseau was both a man of the eighteenth century and was whom the eighteenth century achieved fulfilment (p160); “a man of the new era, in eighteenth-century garb” (p162).
Barth focuses on three major works of Rousseau that of the very popular fictional work Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (The New Heloise), the political work Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique (Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right), and his treatise of human nature Émile ou de l'éducation (Emile, or, On Education). Through these works Rousseau attempts to present new structures for morality, politics, and education (p199). Reference is also made to Rousseau’s groundbreaking autobiographical work Les Confessions (Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and his concept of genius in his Dictionnaire de Musique (Dictionary of Music). Throughout Barth’s biographical sketch and examination of major works he is highlighting certain facets that contribute to Rousseau’s anthropology and his influence upon nineteenth-century theology. In particular, Rousseau’s Pelagianism and his opposition to the church’s emphasis of no free will and the original sin of the human being. Barth points out that Rousseau still believed in a “fall” of humanity though, however, not in the biblical sense.
“The two dimensions of Rousseau’s anthropology come about only in this way, that he distinguishes between man in nature and man in society. According to Rousseau it was man’s transition from this one to the other which constituted what might be called the Fall.” (p207)His understanding of evil is really only a possibility or potentiality for human nature; man may do evil but cannot be evil.
“man can in fact be wicked and is wicked times without number; but he is never essentially wicked and need not be so. He may well do evil but he is not evil.” (p208)His Roman Catholic and Protestant opponents were critical of Rousseau’s position on original sin and also his attitude toward revelation, Christ, and miracles yet were not able to successfully correct Rousseau due to their own assailable positions (193-194). This is an interesting point made by Barth about Rousseau that his faith in God was captured by the uniqueness of the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ but couldn’t reconcile many things in the Bible he considered contrary to reason and of those he respectfully doubted. Rousseau would always prefer to learn from nature and reason than simply accept the findings of anyone else (p189-191).
Barth sees the contribution of Rousseau as the origination and lasting influence of theological rationalism. For Rousseau, his Pelagian concept of human nature rejected the doctrine of original sin and upheld the essential good of man. Rousseau’s apotheosis of man even identifies with the self-sufficiency of God (p213). With this emphasis on man’s inherent goodness Rousseau developed the peculiar absolutism of his day and challenged the way theology was done. With original sin and revelation already under threat doing away with the sinfulness of man opened up a new path for the activity of theology.
“Rousseau’s new gift to theology ultimately consists in this very widening of the concept of reason by means of the discovery of man’s spirit-nature, for which objectivity and non-objectivity, non-identity and identity become reciprocal and interchangeable ideas. The theological significance of this discovery was nothing less than the settlement of the conflict between reason and revelation, since by it man was encouraged to look upon himself alternatively now as reason and now as revelation… Rousseau’s doctrine was meant to convey a demand that this theology should at last understand itself rightly, i.e. truly understand man as one who in his true humanity can also command the true God… It is from Rousseau onwards and originating from Rousseau that the thing called theological rationalism, in the full sense of the term, exists: a theology for which the Christian spirit is identical with the truly humane spirit, as it is inalienably and tangibly present to us in that depth of the ratio in that inmost anthropological province.” (218-219)It is interesting to note that the apotheosis of man in Rousseau and his lasting contribution of theological rationalism stem from an understanding of the falleness of humanity. This is an understanding that avoids the entire fallen nature of humanity as extending to its rationality and establishes its inability to truly apprehend God. Throughout different theological methods and various forms of apologetics this Pelagian view still has influence today, even if it is in an anonymous sense. Pelagius and Rousseau would be strange places to start to learn theological method, yet, of course, theological rationalism is still a popular method, which works to confirm and convince the existence of God based on reason being a foundation to faith as opposed to fides quaerens intellectum. In light of this, an appreciation of Barth comes in his understanding of the falleness of humanity and the transcendence of God turns our attention away from the mirage of man’s grasping for the divine to God’s inseparable self-revelation and reconciliation of humanity.
- Michael J. Pailthorpe