Hero or Hypocrite:

Reflections on Rousseau's Savoyard Vicar


In his 1782 novel "Emile", the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau aired his thoughts about religion in the form of "a profession of faith" by a nameless clergyman whom he calls "a Savoyard Vicar" who seems to have been modeled on two Catholic priests who favorably impressed Rousseau in his youth. Rousseau, raised as a Protestant in Geneva, professed a thorough-going rationalistic "natural theology" what might be termed "deism" today. This was much in keeping with his times, as well as with Rousseau's own naturalistic philosophy, which held that primitive man, uncorrupted by civilization and its prejudices, would naturally arrive at a reasonable and happy mode of existence.


Rousseau's religion, as expressed by his Vicar, follows suite. After a rather lengthy discussion of various points of philosophy, he lists the basic articles of his faith. They are the existence of a supreme "Will" that in its workings in nature, displays intelligence, power, and goodness -- in short the attributes we generally ascribe to God. Next, he holds that Man, as the highest being within the order of nature is "a free agent and as such is animated by an immaterial substance" which he later on calls "soul". Finally, that there can be discovered within nature itself an innate order of things that can act as a sure moral or ethical guide as to how we should act to guarantee the good order of society and through it, our own happiness. From these three rational principles can be deduced everything else that follows, including a more or less complete repudiation of the necessity of Revelation or a supernatural foundation to religion backed by miracles, prophecies, and many of the other claims that Rousseau (or his Vicar) finds often to be as much a hinderance as a help.

As for Christian religion in particular, the Vicar says that while the majesty of the Scriptures fill him with admiration, it is the purity of the gospel that most influences his heart. Though he finds the "life and death of Jesus" (but mentions no resurrection) "that of a God", it is obvious that Rousseau's view of Jesus is of one more sublime than divine. In other words, his good Vicar is not even a "believer" according to the official definitions of practically every Christian church.

Yet, despite his repudiation of all dogma, and his opinion that one religion, provided it truly lead people to God, is probably as good as another, given the various circumstances under which people live, Rousseau's free-thinking cleric remains in his post, scrupulously observing every rubric of the prescribed rituals of his office, believing "all that are established to be good when God is served in sincerity of heart." As for any doubts he may have about his own integrity, the Vicar endeavors "to silence on this occasion the voice of reason before the Supreme Intelligence."

What are we to make of such an attitude today? If our own pastor were to confess that he really didn't believe most of what he preaches, but only that the observance of religious customs is probably good for most people, would we not deem him a hypocriteespecially if his position guaranteed him a good living and public respect? On the other hand, knowing how much people need a sense of meaning or purpose in their lives, would it not be a special form of heroism for a person to dedicate his or her life to helping people find the sense of security that faith alone affords, even while he or she secretly believes very little of it or even suffers agonies of doubt?


What do you think? Was Rousseau's hero a hypocrite?


R W Kropf 9/9/06


Savicar.mss (615 words) 06-09-09