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Civic Virtue and Modernity: Debates on Rousseau in German-Speaking

5–6 June 2009

Venues: German Historical Institute London and University College London

Conveners: Avi Lifschitz (Centre for Transnational History, University College London) and Andreas Gestrich (GHIL)

“The sovereign authority being everywhere the same, the same principle should be found in every well-constituted state” (On the Social Contract, III.4). The principle underpinning all forms of sovereignty was, according to Rousseau, virtue; this was his response to Montesquieu’s characterisation of virtue as the foundational tenet of democratic republics alone. Civic virtue maintained a central position in Rousseau’s philosophy, from the early Discourses on the arts and sciences and on the origins of inequality to works on theatre, language, education, and politics. Accompanied by a harsh critique of commercial society and the denial of natural human sociability, Rousseau’s notion of civic virtue challenged contemporary views in various domains (as manifest in his proposal for a civic religion in the Social Contract, or in his opinions on women’s social roles in Émile).

This emphatic focus on virtue – either as it had allegedly been exercised in antiquity or as a blueprint for the regeneration of European society – exerted significant influence on philosophy and political praxis across Europe. The impact of Rousseau’s notion of civic virtue has been widely observed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France and in Rousseau’s native republic, Geneva; it has frequently been invoked in relation to the American and French Revolutions. German-speaking Europe has been less intensively studied, perhaps due to the broad variety of political and cultural outlooks within the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg territories alongside Swiss cantons, Hanseatic towns, and other areas in Central Europe. The conference aims to examine the reception and transformation of Rousseau’s notion of civic virtue in these different political, social, and religious contexts, while comparing them to English, Scottish and Irish responses. Contributors will analyse German and British reactions to the ancient and early modern sources of Rousseau’s concept of civic virtue; attempts at its practical application in education, philanthropy, and religious or political reform; and its repercussions not only in contemporary philosophy but in a wide range of cultural and literary practices. The geographical focus and comparative nature of the conference should highlight the diverse roles played by civic virtue east and west of France in the late eighteenth century.

Conference programme (PDF file)

Avi Lifschitz
UCL Department of History
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
Email: avi.lifschitz[at]