Censoring Rousseau?

It is the subject that no one wants to discuss. We all have our points of view, and some of them we may dislike or even find dangerous, but talk of censorship is avoided as improper to polite society. Samuel Johnson lived in a somewhat different age in which the potential advantages and disadvantages of censorship could be discussed more freely.

Boswell: “Do you really think him [Rousseau] a bad man?” Johnson: “Sir, if you are talking jestingly of this, I don’t talk with you. If you mean to be serious, I think him one of the worst of men; a rascal, who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three or four nations have expelled him: and it is a shame that he is protected in this country.” Boswell: “I don’t deny, Sir, but that his novel may, perhaps, do harm; but I cannot think his intention was bad.” Johnson: “Sir, that will not do. We cannot prove any man’s intention to be bad. You may shoot a man through the head, and say you intended to miss him; but the Judge will order you to be hanged. An alleged want of intention, when evil is committed, will not be allowed in a court of justice. Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in the plantations” (Boswell, Life of Johnson).

If we step back and examine Johnson’s attitude historically, I would argue that there are essentially three positions on censorship: naivete, hypocrisy and realism.

The first view maintains that any ideas on politics and morality can be espoused in public, no matter how discordant, and that society can nevertheless be “inclusive” of these views (i.e., essentially neutral) and continue to function normally.

The second view advances “tolerance” for its own beliefs in opposition to the prevailing ethos. It takes the “high moral ground” against those deemed “intolerant,” but once in the ascendant it is happy to deny – whether overtly or indirectly – the right of others to voice contrary beliefs.

The last view, that of Johnson, recognizes that while there is a certain middle ground of ethical disagreement within a broad moral consensus, such openness can only be maintained if we admit the limits of “tolerance.” The English writer was in this regard far more prescient than the admirers of radical social theories. As it turned out, the French Revolutionaries espoused Rousseau’s views with tremendous intolerance toward their enemies. Where there are two diametrically opposed philosophies in a community, no matter how civil and respectful we are in advancing them, one must of necessity win out over the other.

I refer readers to related comments: The Politics of Insincerity, Protests About Nothing: “Banned Books Week”, and When Privacy Goes Public.

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