A Tale of Two Genevans: Calvin and Rousseau

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Sorry, that’s someone else’s line. But those words from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, also apply to the tale we are about to tell. While John Calvin wasn’t born in Geneva, he did spend many years of his life there. When he first went there, the city wasn’t so sure about him. The town council referred to him as “that Frenchman,” as the council’s records have it. And as the story goes, the city did kick him out, but they also invited him back. Over the years, the city of Geneva grew to love Calvin. His legacy made a lasting impression. Long after Calvin died the city revered him.

In 1712, along came one who was born in Geneva, the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In one of his books, Emile, he makes the argument that human beings are inherently good—society constrains them, and leads them into darker environs. In another book, The Social Contract, Rousseau has this as his opening line: “Man is born free,” he declares, “and everywhere he is in chains.”

Rousseau promoted a philosophy and an ethic that would break the chains. Rousseau had an influence on nineteenth-century painter Paul Gauguin, who had spent time in Tahiti and painted many depictions of what he called “the noble savage.” The noble savage idea means human beings are made to live entirely libertine lives, free of any institutions like that of the state, or of school, or even the institution of marriage. But alas, the noble savage does not exist. Read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and you’ll see how quickly the “free ones” fail to set up a utopian society, and instead plunge themselves into chaos and destruction.

So now we have our two tales. Rousseau teaches we are inherently good. Calvin taught us that human beings are inherently sinful. The term he used here is ‘total depravity.’ Total depravity means that all of us, as in all of humanity, are fallen. And it also means that we in our entire being are fallen. Not just some part of us, not just our soul, but all of us.

Rousseau denies this, and tries to build a social philosophy and a philosophy of education on a naïve and faulty premise—the premise that human beings are inherently good. Now Calvin does have more to contribute to our understanding of human nature than the doctrine of total depravity. Calvin actually starts his discussion of human beings with the notion of human dignity. Based on the image of God, every human being has worth, value, and dignity.

These two notions of human dignity and total depravity are a rather tricky pair. Keeping them balanced, or better to say, keeping them in the right tension is difficult, but this is the best way to think about being human. We were created by God, in His image. That means every human being, every human life, is of value and has dignity. And we are also fallen, sinful creatures. The fall is not an isolated event quarantined off in some corner. Neither is the fall of humanity in sin a relic from some mythological past, some outdated concept no longer of use in the modern world. Both of these concepts—dignity stemming from the image, and the fall and total depravity—both of these concepts are necessary.

Well, back to Rousseau. Rousseau had no capacity for such thinking, of either total depravity or for the true basis of human dignity. For Rousseau, it’s us—and it’s all up to us. In far too many ways, Rousseau’s ideas have won out over Calvin’s in the modern world.

If you were to visit the city of Geneva, as you cross the bridge from the new city to that of the old, there on a small island on the tip of Lake Geneva you’ll see a rather impressive statue. It’s not the statue of Calvin, it’s the statue of Rousseau.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

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