Moving Hearts: Civic Ritual and Republican Citizenship in Rousseau’s Thought

Posted: 6 Mar 2017

Date Written: 2014


The history of republican thought and the history of the passions are two threads of intellectual history that rarely find themselves intertwined. Republicanism typically concerns itself with civic virtue rather than a full range of emotions, rendering what I call an affective deficit. The language of civic virtue abounds – but that of the passions remains undeveloped. Whereas liberalism will come to replace the burden of virtue with the burden of dispassionate judgment, classical republicanism clings to the potential of its citizenry’s virtuosity and the idea that politics requires something akin to character to participate in politics. Yet civic virtue, as it is treated in contemporary discourses, is something of an animated corpse, going through the motions but rather detached from the proceedings. This, in spite of the fact that civic virtue’s claim on republican practices derives not from juridical principles but from ethical and, I argue, emotional commitments. By accounting for the emotions’ ability to motivate, a developed theory of the passions offers a means to bridge these somewhat ephemeral ideas surrounding virtue to everyday republican practices.

The long eighteenth century is ideal conceptual territory for considering the intersection of passions and republicanism, given the period’s deserved reputation as the age of sentiment, its burgeoning romanticism, and its entanglements with republican politics. In this paper, I suggest that the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau provides a crucial exception to the general claim about republicanism’s affective deficit. As such, it offers a critical point of entry for developing just such a theory of affective practices capable of integrating republican practices and civic virtue. In pursuing this argument, I examine the emergence of what comes to be called romantic nationalism in Rousseau’s ‘Du contrat social’ (1762). I give texture to the claim that Rousseau should be regarded as the father of modern nationalism, arguing that eighteenth century understandings of love and sympathy as individual sentiments are extended to public, ritualized practices of politics central to the French Revolution and Republic that Rousseau theorizes in the ‘Contrat.’ The civic virtue characteristic of republicanism thus demands a particular kind of affective attachment based in love, not of an abstract notion of the nation, but of one’s fellow citizens.

Keywords: Rousseau, Political Theory, History of Political Thought, French Enlightenment, Republicanism

Suggested Citation

Gallagher, Megan, Moving Hearts: Civic Ritual and Republican Citizenship in Rousseau’s Thought (2014). APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Megan Gallagher (Contact Author)

The University of Alabama ( email )

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Tuscaloosa, AL

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