Protesters walk past a mock gravestone that reads "RIP Freedom of Speech" during a protest against new licensing regulations imposed by the government for online news sites, at Hong Lim Park in Singapore June 8, 2013. Photo: Reuters
Protesters walk past a mock gravestone that reads "RIP Freedom of Speech" during a protest against new licensing regulations imposed by the government for online news sites, at Hong Lim Park in Singapore June 8, 2013. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong may currently be conspicuous in the struggle for free speech, but it should not be overlooked that attacks on freedom of speech are widespread across the West. In Britain, a person can be jailed for political speech deemed inappropriate by the government; in Canada, one can be dragged before a social justice tribunal; and in the United States, where citizens are protected from the government by the First Amendment of the constitution, speech can be shut down by rioting “students” while university administrators stand idly by.

An attack on freedom of speech is ipso facto an attack on freedom of thought, and, consequently, on freedom of belief. As stated by Immanuel Kant, “Certainly one may say, ‘Freedom to speak or write can be taken from us by a superior power, but never the freedom to think!’ But how much, and how correctly, would we think if we did not think, as it were, in common with others, with whom we mutually communicate!”

The irreconcilable division with regard to freedom of the mind is drawn in two treatises published in the 18th century by two towering figures of the French Enlightenment, on one side Voltaire, champion of reason, science, freedom and civilization, and on the other Jean-Jacques Rousseau, their foe, and spiritual godfather of the modern left. In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract, and in 1763, Voltaire published the Treatise on Tolerance. Voltaire argues fervently for freedom of belief and Rousseau is equally ardent in his demand for mandatory adherence to state dogma.

In 1762, in his Traité sur la tolerance, Voltaire wrote,

“Do I propose, then, that every citizen shall be free to follow his own reason, and believe whatever his enlightened or deluded reason shall dictate to him? Certainly, provided he does not disturb the public order.”

A year earlier, in his seminal political work Du Contrat Social, Rousseau had written,

“There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them – it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.”

The articles of which Rousseau speaks are not based on the Word of God, universal moral truths, or rational principles. Having the proper feelings makes one a good citizen. The articles cannot be defended with reason because they are sentiments. Rousseau realizes that no one can be compelled to believe, but not believing makes one antisocial, an outcast who can be banished. Should one pretend to believe so that he can live with relatives and friends in the society in which he was born, then the punishment is clearly prescribed: death.

Rousseau’s great disciple Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, addressed Rousseau as “Divine man.” Rousseau’s contemporary children lack the power of Robespierre, but what would they do were they to gain such power? Do they not speak the same language as the totalitarian regimes that have murdered more than 100 million people in the quest for their socialist utopias? Have we not witnessed their willingness to defile a man’s family, to deprive one of his living, and to accost their opponents in their daily lives?

The enragés inside and outside the chamber during the US Senate hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh were reminiscent of the trial of Charles Darnay in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. After the reading of Dr Manette’s letter, Charles Dickens writes,

“A terrible sound was heard when the reading of the document had finished – an eager, hungry, blood-chilling scream. The story called up the most revengeful passions of the time, and every head in all of France dropped before it. Little need, in presence of that tribunal and that auditory, to show how the Defarges had not made the paper public, with the other captured Bastille memorials borne in procession, and had kept it, biding their time.… The man never trod ground whose virtues and services would have sustained him in that place that day, against such denunciation.”

The aims of today’s Rousseauians can usually be achieved without cutting off heads. The threat of social approbation or loss of livelihood is sufficient to silence the vast majority, who need only witness a few recalcitrants disgraced, fined or imprisoned. Since the US is a corporate state in which government, industry and academia are closely intertwined, overt state action of the kind Rousseau countenanced is generally not needed. The ruling class, both inside and outside of government, can effectively silence heresy by job loss, thuggery, or ostracism. Should this prove insufficient, can it be doubted that they will go further? For them, “everything is permitted.”

Should one wish to give contemporary Rousseauians the benefit of the doubt and presume that they would not go as far as Robespierre, or his heirs, it might be wise to remember the words of Georges Danton as he sat in the Conciergerie awaiting his appointment with the guillotine: “In revolutions authority remains with the greatest scoundrels.” Robespierre soon followed Danton to the guillotine.

The war between Voltaire and Rousseau cannot be mediated. The combatants live in different universes. Voltaire was the conscience of Europe in his passionate argument for freedom of belief and speech; Rousseau was the hero of the Terror. The Voltairean believes that to be fully human one must be able to think freely. He sees reason as necessary to human flourishing and to knowledge. The Rousseauian demands that all thinking conform to his personal feelings. There is no knowledge beyond feelings. As the master advises, he rejects the facts that do not accord with his feelings. He prefers pseudo-science to authentic science because the latter requires rigorous empirical confirmation, whereas the former only requires theory that fits his sentiment.

In Rousseauian fashion, university campuses are home to faculty who expound epistemologically vacuous “theories” that fit their sentiment and justify their resentment. What does a Rousseauian “student” know beyond shouting childish slogans? With his avowed interest in politics, has he studied Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke or Montesquieu? With his moral posturing, has he read Nietzsche or Dostoevsky? What about Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality or the Social Contract?

The issue cannot be decided by reason. Indeed, reason is at issue. A bitter reality must be faced: No rational, scientific, or religious argument can persuade Rousseau’s minions. Their hatred for Western Civilization is grounded in feeling. The fight for civilization is a contest of wills, not reason, between two irreconcilable groups. Look at the faces of the enragés. They will give to reason the same respect as that given to it by Madame Defarge.

Will and Ariel Durant framed the great conflict in which we are engaged:

“On October 11, 1794, [Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s] remains were removed to the Panthéon, and were laid near those of Voltaire. From that haven of neighborly peace their spirits rose to renew their war for the soul of the Revolution, of France, and of Western man.”

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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