Whatever theoretically the explanations and consequences of Rousseau’s teachings might be, the point of the matter is that the actual experiences underlying Rousseau’s selflessness and Robespierre’s ‘terror of virtue’ cannot be understood without taking into account the crucial role compassion had come to play in the minds and hearts of those who prepared and of those who acted in the course of the French Revolution.
To Robespierre, it was obvious that the one force which could and must unite the different classes of society into one nation was the compassion of those who did not suffer with those who were malheureux, of the higher classes with the low people. The goodness of man in a state of nature had become axiomatic for Rousseau because he found compassion to be the most natural human reaction to the suffering of others, and therefore the very foundation of all authentic ‘natural’ human intercourse. Not that Rousseau, or Robespierre for that matter, had ever experienced the innate goodness of natural man outside society; they deduced his existence from the corruption of society, much as one who has intimate knowledge of rotten apples may account for their rottenness by assuming the original existence of healthy ones. What they knew from inner experience was the eternal play between reason and the passions, on one side, the inner dialogue of thought in which man converses with himself, on the other. And since they identified thought with reason, they concluded that reason interfered with passion and compassion alike, that it ‘turns man’s mind back upon itself, and divides him from everything that could disturb or afflict him’·-Reason makes man selfish; it prevents nature ‘from identifying itself with the unfortunate sufferer’; or, in the words of Saint-Just: ’11 faut ramener toutes les definitions ala conscience; l’esprit est un sophiste qui conduit toutes les vertus al’echafaud’.
(On Revolution, 1963, pp. 79-80)