Friday, November 5, 2010
Rousseau on the Horatii
"It is not even true that murder and parricide are always hateful in the theater. It is hard not to excuse Phaedra, who is incestuous and spills innocent blood. Syphaz poisoning his wife, the young Horatius stabbing his sister...do not fail to be figures who arouse sympathy." - Letter to M. D'Alembert, p. 33, Cornell University Press
The painting depicted above, "The Oath of the Horatii," though completed in 1784, has been described as iconic of the French Revolution, and a manifestation of Rousseauvian ideals in art. The painter, Jacques-Louis David, was celebrated by Marat as the "painter of the [French] revolution." He even went on to serve a term as president of the National Assembly.
David depicts the three Horatii brothers making an oath to engage in 3-on-3 combat with three brothers from an enemy army (the Curatii brothers), thereby resolving the conflict between Romans and Albans with a minimal amount of bloodshed. The story resonates with Rousseauvian ideals in its elevation of classical heroism - self-sacrifice for the sate.
According to Livy, the elder brother Horatius(the front-most of the three in this painting), came home victorious after the battle only to find his sister weeping at the death of her betrothed (one of the enemy brothers). Enraged that she wept over the death of his enemy, Horatius stabbed her in the stomach, killing her.
It seems that Rousseau would condemn such an act as hateful, as implied in the above quote from his letter to M. D'alembert. In criticizing the theater for making murder not seem hateful, and providing "young Horatius" as an example, he implicitly calls Horatius' actions hateful.
And yet David, in attempting to create a virtuous image (and it would seem he was heavily influence by Rousseau's philosophy) clearly exalts Horatius as a hero in his painting.
In Rousseau's eyes, would Horatius be a hero or a criminal?