History of Literature

Jean Jacques Rousseau


Jean Jacques Rousseau


Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Swiss-born French philosopher

born June 28, 1712, Geneva, Switz.
died July 2, 1778, Ermenonville, France

Swiss-born philosopher, writer, and political theorist whose treatises and novels inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and the Romantic generation.

Rousseau was the least academic of modern philosophers and in many ways was the most influential. His thought marked the end of the Age of Reason. He propelled political and ethical thinking into new channels. His reforms revolutionized taste, first in music, then in the other arts. He had a profound impact on people’s way of life; he taught parents to take a new interest in their children and to educate them differently; he furthered the expression of emotion rather than polite restraint in friendship and love. He introduced the cult of religious sentiment among people who had discarded religious dogma. He opened men’s eyes to the beauties of nature, and he made liberty an object of almost universal aspiration.

Formative years
Rousseau’s mother died in childbirth and he was brought up by his father, who taught him to believe that the city of his birth was a republic as splendid as Sparta or ancient Rome. Rousseau senior had an equally glorious image of his own importance; after marrying above his modest station as a watchmaker, he got into trouble with the civil authorities by brandishing the sword that his upper-class pretentions prompted him to wear, and he had to leave Geneva to avoid imprisonment. Rousseau, the son, then lived for six years as a poor relation in his mother’s family, patronized and humiliated, until he, too, at the age of 16, fled from Geneva to live the life of an adventurer and a Roman Catholic convert in the kingdoms of Sardinia and France.

Rousseau was fortunate in finding in the province of Savoy a benefactress named the Baronne de Warens, who provided him with a refuge in her home and employed him as her steward. She also furthered his education to such a degree that the boy who had arrived on her doorstep as a stammering apprentice who had never been to school developed into a philosopher, a man of letters, and a musician.

Mme de Warens, who thus transformed the adventurer into a philosopher, was herself an adventuress—a Swiss convert to Catholicism who had stripped her husband of his money before fleeing to Savoy with the gardener’s son to set herself up as a Catholic missionary specializing in the conversion of young male Protestants. Her morals distressed Rousseau, even when he became her lover. But she was a woman of taste, intelligence, and energy, who brought out in Rousseau just the talents that were needed to conquer Paris at a time when Voltaire had made radical ideas fashionable.

Rousseau reached Paris when he was 30 and was lucky enough to meet another young man from the provinces seeking literary fame in the capital, Denis Diderot. The two soon became immensely successful as the centre of a group of intellectuals—or “Philosophes”—who gathered round the great French Encyclopédie, of which Diderot was appointed editor. The Encyclopédie was an important organ of radical and anticlerical opinion, and its contributors were as much reforming and even iconoclastic pamphleteers as they were philosophers. Rousseau, the most original of them all in his thinking and the most forceful and eloquent in his style of writing, was soon the most conspicuous. He wrote music as well as prose, and one of his operas, Le Devin du village (1752; The Cunning-Man), attracted so much admiration from the king and the court that he might have enjoyed an easy life as a fashionable composer, but something in his Calvinist blood rejected this type of worldly glory. Indeed, at the age of 37 Rousseau had what he called an “illumination” while walking to Vincennes to visit Diderot, who had been imprisoned there because of his irreligious writings. In the Confessions, which he wrote late in life, Rousseau says that it came to him then in a “terrible flash” that modern progress had corrupted instead of improved men. He went on to write his first important work, a prize essay for the Academy of Dijon entitled Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts), in which he argues that the history of man’s life on earth has been a history of decay.

This Discourse is by no means Rousseau’s best piece of writing, but its central theme was to inform almost everything else he wrote. Throughout his life he kept returning to the thought that man is good by nature but has been corrupted by society and civilization. He did not mean to suggest that society and civilization were inherently bad but rather that both had taken a wrong direction and become more harmful as they had become more sophisticated. This idea in itself was not unfamiliar when Rousseau published his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. Many Roman Catholic writers deplored the direction that European culture had taken since the Middle Ages. They shared the hostility toward progress that Rousseau had expressed. What they did not share was his belief that man was naturally good. It was, however, just this belief in man’s natural goodness that Rousseau made the cornerstone of his argument.

Rousseau may well have received the inspiration for this belief from Mme de Warens; for although that unusual woman had become a communicant of the Roman Catholic Church, she retained—and transmitted to Rousseau—much of the sentimental optimism about human purity that she had herself absorbed as a child from the mystical Protestant Pietists who were her teachers in the canton of Bern. At all events, the idea of man’s natural goodness, as Rousseau developed it, set him apart from both conservatives and radicals. Even so, for several years after the publication of his first Discourse, he remained a close collaborator in Diderot’s essentially progressive enterprise, the Encyclopédie, and an active contributor to its pages. His speciality there was music, and it was in this sphere that he first established his influence as reformer.

Controversy with Rameau
The arrival of an Italian opera company in Paris in 1752 to perform works of opera buffa by Pergolesi, Scarlatti, Vinci, Leo, and other such composers suddenly divided the French music-loving public into two excited camps, supporters of the new Italian opera and supporters of the traditional French opera. The Philosophes of the Encyclopédie—d’Alembert, Diderot, and d’Holbach among them—entered the fray as champions of Italian music, but Rousseau, who had arranged for the publication of Pergolesi’s music in Paris and who knew more about the subject than most Frenchmen after the months he had spent visiting the opera houses of Venice during his time as secretary to the French ambassador to the doge in 1743–44, emerged as the most forceful and effective combatant. He was the only one to direct his fire squarely at the leading living exponent of French operatic music, Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Rousseau and Rameau must at that time have seemed unevenly matched in a controversy about music. Rameau, already in his 70th year, was not only a prolific and successful composer but was also, as the author of the celebrated Traité de l’harmonie (1722; Treatise on Harmony) and other technical works, Europe’s leading musicologist. Rousseau, by contrast, was 30 years younger, a newcomer to music, with no professional training and only one successful opera to his credit. His scheme for a new notation for music had been rejected by the Academy of Sciences, and most of his musical entries for Diderot’s Encyclopédie were as yet unpublished. Yet the dispute was not only musical but also philosophical, and Rameau was confronted with a more formidable adversary than he had realized. Rousseau built his case for the superiority of Italian music over French on the principle that melody must have priority over harmony, whereas Rameau based his on the assertion that harmony must have priority over melody. By pleading for melody, Rousseau introduced what later came to be recognized as a characteristic idea of Romanticism, namely, that in art the free expression of the creative spirit is more important than strict adhesion to formal rules and traditional procedures. By pleading for harmony, Rameau reaffirmed the first principle of French Classicism, namely, that conformity to rationally intelligible rules is a necessary condition of art, the aim of which is to impose order on the chaos of human experience.

In music, Rousseau was a liberator. He argued for freedom in music, and he pointed to the Italian composers as models to be followed. In doing so he had more success than Rameau; he changed people’s attitudes. Gluck, who succeeded Rameau as the most important operatic composer in France, acknowledged his debt to Rousseau’s teaching, and Mozart based the text for his one-act operetta Bastien und Bastienne on Rousseau’s Devin du village. European music had taken a new direction. But Rousseau himself composed no more operas. Despite the success of Le Devin du village, or rather because of its success, Rousseau felt that, as a moralist who had decided to make a break with worldly values, he could not allow himself to go on working for the theatre. He decided to devote his energies henceforth to literature and philosophy.

Major works of political philosophy
As part of what Rousseau called his “reform,” or improvement of his own character, he began to look back at some of the austere principles that he had learned as a child in the Calvinist republic of Geneva. Indeed he decided to return to that city, repudiate his Catholicism, and seek readmission to the Protestant church. He had in the meantime acquired a mistress, an illiterate laundry maid named Thérèse Levasseur. To the surprise of his friends, he took her with him to Geneva, presenting her as a nurse. Although her presence caused some murmurings, Rousseau was readmitted easily to the Calvinist communion, his literary fame having made him very welcome to a city that prided itself as much on its culture as on its morals.

Rousseau had by this time completed a second Discourse in response to a question set by the Academy of Dijon: “What is the origin of the inequality among men and is it justified by natural law?” In response to this challenge he produced a masterpiece of speculative anthropology. The argument follows on that of his first Discourse by developing the proposition that natural man is good and then tracing the successive stages by which man has descended from primitive innocence to corrupt sophistication.

Rousseau begins his Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité (1755; Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) by distinguishing two kinds of inequality, natural and artificial, the first arising from differences in strength, intelligence, and so forth, the second from the conventions that govern societies. It is the inequalities of the latter sort that he sets out to explain. Adopting what he thought the properly “scientific” method of investigating origins, he attempts to reconstruct the earliest phases of man’s experience of life on earth. He suggests that original man was not a social being but entirely solitary, and to this extent he agrees with Hobbes’s account of the state of nature. But in contrast to the English pessimist’s view that the life of man in such a condition must have been “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Rousseau claims that original man, while admittedly solitary, was healthy, happy, good, and free. The vices of men, he argues, date from the time when men formed societies.

Rousseau thus exonerates nature and blames society for the emergence of vices. He says that passions that generate vices hardly exist in the state of nature but begin to develop as soon as men form societies. Rousseau goes on to suggest that societies started when men built their first huts, a development that facilitated cohabitation of males and females; this in turn produced the habit of living as a family and associating with neighbours. This “nascent society,” as Rousseau calls it, was good while it lasted; it was indeed the “golden age” of human history. Only it did not endure. With the tender passion of love there was also born the destructive passion of jealousy. Neighbours started to compare their abilities and achievements with one another, and this “marked the first step towards inequality and at the same time towards vice.” Men started to demand consideration and respect; their innocent self-love turned into culpable pride, as each man wanted to be better than everyone else.

The introduction of property marked a further step toward inequality since it made it necessary for men to institute law and government in order to protect property. Rousseau laments the “fatal” concept of property in one of his more eloquent passages, describing the “horrors” that have resulted from men’s departure from a condition in which the earth belonged to no one. These passages in his second Discourse excited later revolutionaries such as Marx and Lenin, but Rousseau himself did not think that the past could be undone in any way; there was no point in men dreaming of a return to the golden age.

Civil society, as Rousseau describes it, comes into being to serve two purposes: to provide peace for everyone and to ensure the right to property for anyone lucky enough to have possessions. It is thus of some advantage to everyone, but mostly to the advantage of the rich, since it transforms their de facto ownership into rightful ownership and keeps the poor dispossessed. It is a somewhat fraudulent social contract that introduces government since the poor get so much less out of it than do the rich. Even so, the rich are no happier in civil society than are the poor because social man is never satisfied. Society leads men to hate one another to the extent that their interests conflict, and the best they are able to do is to hide their hostility behind a mask of courtesy. Thus Rousseau regards the inequality between men not as a separate problem but as one of the features of the long process by which men become alienated from nature and from innocence.

In the dedication Rousseau wrote for the Discourse, in order to present it to the republic of Geneva, he nevertheless praises that city-state for having achieved the ideal balance between “the equality which nature established among men and the inequality which they have instituted among themselves.” The arrangement he discerned in Geneva was one in which the best men were chosen by the citizens and put in the highest positions of authority. Like Plato, Rousseau always believed that a just society was one in which everyone was in his right place. And having written the Discourse to explain how men had lost their liberty in the past, he went on to write another book, Du Contrat social (1762; The Social Contract), to suggest how they might recover their liberty in the future. Again Geneva was the model; not Geneva as it had become in 1754 when Rousseau returned there to recover his rights as a citizen, but Geneva as it had once been; i.e., Geneva as Calvin had designed it.

The Social Contract begins with the sensational opening sentence: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” and proceeds to argue that men need not be in chains. If a civil society, or state, could be based on a genuine social contract, as opposed to the fraudulent social contract depicted in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, men would receive in exchange for their independence a better kind of freedom, namely true political, or republican, liberty. Such liberty is to be found in obedience to a self-imposed law.

Rousseau’s definition of political liberty raises an obvious problem. For while it can be readily agreed that an individual is free if he obeys only rules he prescribes for himself, this is so because an individual is a person with a single will. A society, by contrast, is a set of persons with a set of individual wills, and conflict between separate wills is a fact of universal experience. Rousseau’s response to the problem is to define his civil society as an artificial person united by a general will, or volonté générale. The social contract that brings society into being is a pledge, and the society remains in being as a pledged group. Rousseau’s republic is a creation of the general will—of a will that never falters in each and every member to further the public, common, or national interest—even though it may conflict at times with personal interest.

Rousseau sounds very much like Hobbes when he says that under the pact by which men enter civil society everyone totally alienates himself and all his rights to the whole community. Rousseau, however, represents this act as a form of exchange of rights whereby men give up natural rights in return for civil rights. The bargain is a good one because what men surrender are rights of dubious value, whose realization depends solely on an individual man’s own might, and what they obtain in return are rights that are both legitimate and enforced by the collective force of the community.

There is no more haunting paragraph in The Social Contract than that in which Rousseau speaks of “forcing a man to be free.” But it would be wrong to interpret these words in the manner of those critics who see Rousseau as a prophet of modern totalitarianism. He does not claim that a whole society can be forced to be free but only that an occasional individual, who is enslaved by his passions to the extent of disobeying the law, can be restored by force to obedience to the voice of the general will that exists inside of him. The man who is coerced by society for a breach of the law is, in Rousseau’s view, being brought back to an awareness of his own true interests.

For Rousseau there is a radical dichotomy between true law and actual law. Actual law, which he describes in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, simply protects the status quo. True law, as described in The Social Contract, is just law, and what ensures its being just is that it is made by the people in its collective capacity as sovereign and obeyed by the same people in their individual capacities as subjects. Rousseau is confident that such laws could not be unjust because it is inconceivable that any people would make unjust laws for itself.

Rousseau is, however, troubled by the fact that the majority of a people does not necessarily represent its most intelligent citizens. Indeed, he agrees with Plato that most people are stupid. Thus the general will, while always morally sound, is sometimes mistaken. Hence Rousseau suggests the people need a lawgiver—a great mind like Solon or Lycurgus or Calvin—to draw up a constitution and system of laws. He even suggests that such lawgivers need to claim divine inspiration in order to persuade the dim-witted multitude to accept and endorse the laws it is offered.

This suggestion echoes a similar proposal by Machiavelli, a political theorist Rousseau greatly admired and whose love of republican government he shared. An even more conspicuously Machiavellian influence can be discerned in Rousseau’s chapter on civil religion, where he argues that Christianity, despite its truth, is useless as a republican religion on the grounds that it is directed to the unseen world and does nothing to teach citizens the virtues that are needed in the service of the state, namely, courage, virility, and patriotism. Rousseau does not go so far as Machiavelli in proposing a revival of pagan cults, but he does propose a civil religion with minimal theological content designed to fortify and not impede (as Christianity impedes) the cultivation of martial virtues. It is understandable that the authorities of Geneva, profoundly convinced that the national church of their little republic was at the same time a truly Christian church and a nursery of patriotism, reacted angrily against this chapter in Rousseau’s Social Contract.

By the year 1762, however, when The Social Contract was published, Rousseau had given up any thought of settling in Geneva. After recovering his citizen’s rights in 1754, he had returned to Paris and the company of his friends around the Encyclopédie. But he became increasingly ill at ease in such worldly society and began to quarrel with his fellow Philosophes. An article for the Encyclopédie on the subject of Geneva, written by d’Alembert at Voltaire’s instigation, upset Rousseau partly by suggesting that the pastors of the city had lapsed from Calvinist severity into unitarian laxity and partly by proposing that a theatre should be erected there. Rousseau hastened into print with a defense of the Calvinist orthodoxy of the pastors and with an elaborate attack on the theatre as an institution that could only do harm to an innocent community such as Geneva.

Years of seclusion and exile
By the time his Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758; Letter to Monsieur d’Alembert on the Theatre) appeared in print, Rousseau had already left Paris to pursue a life closer to nature on the country estate of his friend Mme d’Épinay near Montmorency. When the hospitality of Mme d’Épinay proved to entail much the same social round as that of Paris, Rousseau retreated to a nearby cottage, called Montlouis, under the protection of the Maréchal de Luxembourg. But even this highly placed friend could not save him in 1762 when his treatise on education, Émile, was published and scandalized the pious Jansenists of the French Parlements even as The Social Contract scandalized the Calvinists of Geneva. In Paris, as in Geneva, they ordered the book to be burned and the author arrested; all the Maréchal de Luxembourg could do was to provide a carriage for Rousseau to escape from France. After formally renouncing his Genevan citizenship in 1763, Rousseau became a fugitive, spending the rest of his life moving from one refuge to another.

The years at Montmorency had been the most productive of his literary career; besides The Social Contract and Émile, Julie: ou, la nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Julie: or, The New Eloise) came out within 12 months, all three works of seminal importance. The New Eloise, being a novel, escaped the censorship to which the other two works were subject; indeed of all his books it proved to be the most widely read and the most universally praised in his lifetime. It develops the Romanticism that had already informed his writings on music and perhaps did more than any other single work of literature to influence the spirit of its age. It made the author at least as many friends among the reading public—and especially among educated women—as The Social Contract and Émile made enemies among magistrates and priests. If it did not exempt him from persecution, at least it ensured that his persecution was observed, and admiring femmes du monde intervened from time to time to help him so that Rousseau was never, unlike Voltaire and Diderot, actually imprisoned.

The theme of The New Eloise provides a striking contrast to that of The Social Contract. It is about people finding happiness in domestic as distinct from public life, in the family as opposed to the state. The central character, Saint-Preux, is a middle-class preceptor who falls in love with his upper-class pupil, Julie. She returns his love and yields to his advances, but the difference between their classes makes marriage between them impossible. Baron d’Étange, Julie’s father, has indeed promised her to a fellow nobleman named Wolmar. As a dutiful daughter, Julie marries Wolmar and Saint-Preux goes off on a voyage around the world with an English aristocrat, Bomston, from whom he acquires a certain stoicism. Julie succeeds in forgetting her feelings for Saint-Preux and finds happiness as wife, mother, and chatelaine. Some six years later Saint-Preux returns from his travels and is engaged as tutor to the Wolmar children. All live together in harmony, and there are only faint echoes of the old affair between Saint-Preux and Julie. The little community, dominated by Julie, illustrates one of Rousseau’s political principles: that while men should rule the world in public life, women should rule men in private life. At the end of The New Eloise, when Julie has made herself ill in an attempt to rescue one of her children from drowning, she comes face-to-face with a truth about herself: that her love for Saint-Preux has never died.

The novel was clearly inspired by Rousseau’s own curious relationship—at once passionate and platonic—with Sophie d’Houdetot, a noblewoman who lived near him at Montmorency. He himself asserted in the Confessions (1781–88) that he was led to write the book by “a desire for loving, which I had never been able to satisfy and by which I felt myself devoured.” Saint-Preux’s experience of love forbidden by the laws of class reflects Rousseau’s own experience; and yet it cannot be said that The New Eloise is an attack on those laws, which seem, on the contrary, to be given the status almost of laws of nature. The members of the Wolmar household are depicted as finding happiness in living according to an aristocratic ideal. They appreciate the routines of country life and enjoy the beauties of the Swiss and Savoyard Alps. But despite such an endorsement of the social order, the novel was revolutionary; its very free expression of emotions and its extreme sensibility deeply moved its large readership and profoundly influenced literary developments.

Émile is a book that seems to appeal alternately to the republican ethic of The Social Contract and the aristocratic ethic of The New Eloise. It is also halfway between a novel and a didactic essay. Described by the author as a treatise on education, it is not about schooling but about the upbringing of a rich man’s son by a tutor who is given unlimited authority over him. At the same time the book sets out to explore the possibilities of an education for republican citizenship. The basic argument of the book, as Rousseau himself expressed it, is that vice and error, which are alien to a child’s original nature, are introduced by external agencies, so that the work of a tutor must always be directed to counteracting those forces by manipulating pressures that will work with nature and not against it. Rousseau devotes many pages to explaining the methods the tutor must use. These methods involve a noticeable measure of deceit, and although corporal punishment is forbidden, mental cruelty is not.

Whereas The Social Contract is concerned with the problems of achieving freedom, Émile is concerned with achieving happiness and wisdom. In this different context religion plays a different role. Instead of a civil religion, Rousseau here outlines a personal religion, which proves to be a kind of simplified Christianity, involving neither revelation nor the familiar dogmas of the church. In the guise of La Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard (1765; The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar) Rousseau sets out what may fairly be regarded as his own religious views, since that book confirms what he says on the subject in his private correspondence. Rousseau could never entertain doubts about God’s existence or about the immortality of the soul. He felt, moreover, a strong emotional drive toward the worship of God, whose presence he felt most forcefully in nature, especially in mountains and forests untouched by the hand of man. He also attached great importance to conscience, the “divine voice of the soul in man,” opposing this both to the bloodless categories of rationalistic ethics and to the cold tablets of biblical authority.

This minimal creed put Rousseau at odds with the orthodox adherents of the churches and with the openly atheistic Philosophes of Paris, so that despite the enthusiasm that some of his writings, and especially The New Eloise, excited in the reading public, he felt himself increasingly isolated, tormented, and pursued. After he had been expelled from France, he was chased from canton to canton in Switzerland. He reacted to the suppression of The Social Contract in Geneva by indicting the regime of that city-state in a pamphlet entitled Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764; Letters Written from the Mountain). No longer, as in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, was Geneva depicted as a model republic but as one that had been taken over by “twenty-five despots”; the subjects of the king of England were said to be free men by comparison with the victims of Genevan tryranny.

It was in England that Rousseau found refuge after he had been banished from the canton of Bern. The Scottish philosopher David Hume took him there and secured the offer of a pension from King George III; but once in England, Rousseau became aware that certain British intellectuals were making fun of him, and he suspected Hume of participating in the mockery. Various symptoms of paranoia began to manifest themselves in Rousseau, and he returned to France incognito. Believing that Thérèse was the only person he could rely on, he finally married her in 1768, when he was 56 years old.

The last decade
In the remaining 10 years of his life Rousseau produced primarily autobiographical writings, mostly intended to justify himself against the accusations of his adversaries. The most important was his Confessions, modeled on the work of the same title by St. Augustine and achieving something of the same classic status. He also wrote Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques (1780; “Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques”) to reply to specific charges by his enemies and Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; Reveries of the Solitary Walker), one of the most moving of his books, in which the intense passion of his earlier writings gives way to a gentle lyricism and serenity. And indeed, Rousseau does seem to have recovered his peace of mind in his last years, when he was once again afforded refuge on the estates of great French noblemen, first the Prince de Conti and then the Marquis de Girardin, in whose park at Ermenonville he died.

Maurice Cranston



Julie; or, the New Eloise

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Julie, Rousseau's only novel, is modeled on the medieval story of Eloise, and the forbidden love between herself and her tutor, Abelard. Yet in Julie, Rousseau transforms secrecy and sinfulness into renunciation and redemption, in which it is the pupil and not the master who makes the central claim on our attention. Julie's relationship with her teacher, Saint-Preux, reformulates the twelfth-century conflict between bodily desire and religious purpose into a characteristically eighteenth-century study of right behavior. In this epistolary novel, Rousseau links the classical tradition of civic virtue with its Enlightenment counterpart of domestic order and the new birth of individual feeling which was to eventually culminate in the Romantic movement.
As befits this apparently paradoxical transition, the thematic structure of Julie is both rigorous and odd. In the first half, Julie alternately resists and is consumed by Saint-Preux's passion, which leads to his banishment from her father's house. By the second, he has returned to the new estate formed by Julie and her husband, Wolmar, where all three happily co-exist in the cultivation of both mind and landscape. In this static Elysium, the dangerous desires of the novel's first part are ethically recapitulated. For readers, this allegorical mirroring of virtue and desire makes Julie's triumph somewhat suspect. However, the irreducibility of the problem makes the difficulty of Rousseau's novel a persistently contemporary one.


Reveries of a Solitary Walker

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau—philosopher, social and political theorist, novelist, and proto-Romantic—was one of the eighteenth century's leading intellectuals. Reveries of the Solitary Walker, the last book he wrote, is a wonderfully lyrical, heartfelt, and somewhat obsessive account of an aging man's reckoning with his past. Rousseau achieved a great deal of notoriety during his lifetime from a succession of popular and hugely important works. By attacking the state religion and denouncing contemporary society as morally corrupt, he not only challenged the establishment but also the Enlightenment thought that prevailed in the Parisian salons. Rousseau became the subject of a long-lasting campaign of derision and humiliation,and eventually went into exile.
The Reveries of the Solitary Walker finds Rousseau, "alone and neglected," torn between his love of solitude and his yearning for company, trying to assuage his crippling self-doubt and irrepressible need to address his persecutors. The novel's lasting appeal stems from this compelling tension between his sober, meditative philosophizing and his impassioned rage against the ills of society. Rousseau wants to show that he is at peace with himself, blissfully disengaged from society, and yet he is also constantly betrayed by his sense of injustice and pride. The combination of his circumstances and his inner turmoil make him one of the first—and most fascinating—modern examples of the prototype of the literary outsider.
Reveries is therefore a vital precursor to the great novels of isolation and despair by writers such as Dostoevsky, Beckett, and Salinger that have had such an enormous impact on the development of the novel.


Emile; or, On Education

Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Rousseau's philosophical novel charts the ideal education of an imaginary pupil, Emile, from birth to adulthood. Emile is not taught to read until he himself thirsts for the knowledge, and his experience of literature is deliberately limited. According to Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe supplies the best treatise on an education according to nature, and it is the first book Emile will read.
Rousseau's educational philosophy regarding religion was also radical. He advocates delaying a child's religious education to prevent indoctrination or ill-conceived notions about divinity. Emile is thus not taught according to one doctrine but is equipped with the knowledge and reason to choose for himself. Early adolescence is a time which demands learning by experience rather than academic study. Emile is seen to pose and answer his own questions based on his observations of nature. During the transition between adolescence and adulthood Rousseau begins to focus on Emile's socialization and his sexuality.
In the final book, "Sophie: or Woman," Rousseau turns his attention toward the education of girls and young women. In this book, he disapproves of serious learning for girls on the basis that men and women have different virtues. Men should study truth; women should aim for flattery and tact. Rousseau's novel concludes with the marriage of Emile and 5ophie,who intend to live a secluded but fruitful life together in the country.




Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Unpublished until after his death, Rousseau's Confessions are a landmark of European literature, and perhaps the most influential autobiography ever written. This is a work that had a defining impact not only on the novel, but on the development of the autobiography as a literary genre. Although Rousseau predicts having no imitators in this vein, he was seriously mistaken. Goethe, Tolstoy, and Proust all acknowledged their debt to Rousseau's pioneering attempt to represent his life truthfully—warts and all.
Rousseau famously argued that man's innate good nature was corrupted by society. Yet in the Confessions Rousseau acknowledges that he often behaved appallingly. One incident in particular stands out. When working as a young servant in the household of a wealthy Geneva aristocrat, Rousseau describes how he stole valuable old ribbon and then blamed the theft on a servant girl, Marion. Rousseau comments that he was "the victim of that malicious play of intrigue that has thwarted me all my life," simultaneously accepting responsibility for his actions and denying it.
Rousseau freely admits the contradictory nature of his character, one he felt was forced on him by circumstances beyond his control. Indeed, in line with his desire not to mislead the reader, he undoubtedly exaggerates his own sins and misdemeanors just to prove his point, which serves as yet another paradox of this compelling, frustrating, and vitally important work.


Type of work: Autobiography
Author: Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
Time: 1712-1765
Locale: Switzerland, France, England
First published: 1784


Rousseau's Confessions, one of the most widely read autobiographies in world literature, is the result of the writer's self-avowed determination to speak fully and honestly of his own life. As a remembrance of things past, it is more revealing through its signs of passion and prejudice than through its recording of the facts of his experience; it must be checked against other, more objective, reports. Whatever its bias, however, the Confessions reflects Rousseau as he was at the time of its writing. With its emphasis on self-realization and its rejection of conventional society in favor of nature and natural man, Rousseau's Confessions became one of the seminal works of the Romantic movement in France.
To some extent Rousseau undoubtedly succeeded in his effort to write an autobiography of such character that he could present himself before "the sovereign Judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, Thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues." Only a person attempting to tell all would have revealed so frankly the sensual satisfaction he received from the spankings administered by Mile. Lambercier, the sister of the pastor at Bossey, who was his tutor. Only a writer finding satisfaction either in truth or self-abasement would have gone on to tell that his passion for being overpowered by women continued throughout his adult life: "To fall at the feet of an imperious mistress, obey an imperious mistress, obey her mandates, or implore pardon, were for me the most exquisite enjoyments; and the more my blood was inflamed by the efforts of a lively imagination, the more I acquired the appearance of a whining lover." Having made this confession, Rousseau probably found it easier to tell of his extended affair with Madame de Warens at Annecy and of his experiences with his mistress and common-law wife, Therese Levasseur.
Rousseau records that he was born at Geneva in 1712, the son of Isaac Rousseau, a watchmaker, and Suzanne Bernard. His mother died at his birth, "the first of my misfortunes." According to the son's account of his father's grief, Isaac Rousseau had mixed feelings toward his son, seeing in him an image of Suzanne and, at the same time, the cause of her death. Rousseau writes, "Nor did he ever embrace me, but his sighs, the convulsive pressure of his arms, witnessed that a bitter regret mingled itself with his caresses. . . . When he said to me, 'Jean Jacques, let us talk of your mother,' my usual reply was, 'Yes, father, but then you know we shall cry,' and immediately the tears started from his eyes."
Rousseau describes his first experiences with reading. He turns to the romances that his mother had loved, and he and his father sometimes spent the entire night reading aloud alternately. His response to these books was almost entirely emotional, but he finally discovered other books in his grandfather's library, works which demanded something from the intellect: Plutarch, Ovid, Moliere, and others.
He describes with great affection how his Aunt Suzanne, his father's sister, moved him with her singing; and he attributes his interest in music to her influence.
After his stay at Bossey with Pastor Lambercier, Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver, Abel Ducommun, in the hope that he would succeed better in the engraver's workshop than he had with City Registrar Masseron, who had fired him after a brief trial. Ducommun is described as "a young man of a very violent and boorish character," who was something of a tyrant, punishing Rousseau if he failed to return to the city before the gates were closed. Rousseau was by this time, according to his account, a liar and a petty thief.
Returning from a Sunday walk with some companions, Rousseau found the city gates closing an hour before time. He ran to reach the bridge, but he was too late. Reluctant to be punished by the engraver, he suddenly decided to give up his apprenticeship.
Having left Geneva, Rousseau wandered aimlessly in the environs of the city, finally arriving at Confignon. There he was welcomed by the village curate, M. de Pontverre, who gave him a good meal and sent him on to Madame Louise de Warens at Annecy. Rousseau expected to find "a devout, forbidding old woman"; instead, he discovered "a face beaming with charms, fine blue eyes full of sweetness, a complexion whose whiteness dazzled the sight, the form of an enchanting neck." He was sixteen, she was twenty-eight. She became something of a mother to him (he called her "Maman") and something of a goddess, but within five years he was her lover, at her instigation. Her motive was to protect him and to initiate him into the mysteries of love. She explained what she intended and gave him eight days to think it over; her proposal was intellectually cool and morally motivated. Since Rousseau had long imagined the delights of making love to her, he spent the eight days enjoying thoughts more lively than ever; but when he finally found himself in her arms, he was miserable: "Was I happy? No; I felt I know not what invincible sadness which empoisoned my happiness; it seemed that I had committed an incest, and two or three times, pressing her eagerly in my arms, I deluged her bosom with my tears."
Madame de Warens was at the same time involved with Claude Anet, a young peasant with a knowledge of herbs who had become one of her domestics. Before becoming intimate with Rousseau she had confessed to him that Anet was her lover, having been upset by Anet's attempt to poison himself after a quarrel with her. Despite her generosity to the two young men, she was no wanton; her behavior was more a sign of friendship than of passion, and she was busy being an intelligent and gracious woman of the world.
Through her efforts Rousseau had secured a position registering land for the king in the office at Chambery. His interest in music, however, led him to give more and more time to arranging concerts and giving music lessons; he gave up his job in the survey office.
This was the turning point of his life, the decision which threw him into the society of his times and made possible his growing familiarity with the world of music and letters. His friendship with Madame de Warens continued, but the alliance was no longer of an intimate sort, for he had been supplanted by Winzenreid de Courtilles during their stay at Les Charmettes. Winzenreid came on the scene after the first idyllic summer, a period in his life which Rousseau describes as "the short happiness of my life." He tells of rising with the sun, walking through the woods, over the hills, and along the valley; his delight in nature is evident, and his theories concerning natural man become comprehensible. On his arrival Winzenreid took over physical chores and was forever walking about with a hatchet or a pickax; for all practical purposes Rousseau's close relationship with Madame de Warens was finished, even if a kind of filial affection on his part survived. He describes other adventures in love, although some of them gave him extreme pleasure, he never found another "Maman."
Rousseau, having invented a new musical notation, went to Paris hoping to convince others of its value. The system was dismissed as unoriginal and too difficult, but Rousseau had by that time been introduced to Parisian society and was known as a young philosopher as well as a writer of poetry and operas. He received an appointment as secretary to the French ambassador at Venice, but he and M. de Montaigu irritated each other and he left his post about a year later.
Returning to Paris, Rousseau became involved with the illustrious circle containing the encyclopedist Diderot, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, and Mme. Louise d'Epinay. He later became involved in a bitter quarrel with all three, stemming from a remark in Diderot's Le Fils nature!, but he was reconciled with Diderot and continued the novel he was writing at the time, La Nouvelle Heloise. His account of the quarrel together with the letters that marked its progress is one of the liveliest parts of the Confessions.
As important an event as any in Rousseau's life was his meeting with Therese Levasseur, a needlewoman between twenty-two and twenty-three years of age, with a "lively yet charming look." Rousseau reports that "At first, amusement was my only object," but in making love to her he found that he was happy and that she was a suitable successor to "Maman." Despite the difficulties put in his way by her mother, and despite the fact that his attempts to improve her mind were useless, he was satisfied with her as his companion. She bore him five children, all of whom were sent to the foundling hospital, against Therese's will and to Rousseau's subsequent regret.
Rousseau describes the moment on the road to Vincennes when the question proposed by the Academy of Dijon—"Has the progress of sciences and arts contributed to corrupt or purify morals?"—so struck him that he "seemed to behold another world." The discourse that resulted from his inspired moment won him the prize and brought him fame. However, it may be that here, as elsewhere in the Confessions, the actual circumstances have been considerably altered in the act of recollection.
The Confessions carries the account of Rousseau's life to the point when, having been asked to leave Bern by the ecclesiastical authorities as a result of the uproar over Emile, he set off for England, where David Hume had offered him asylum.
Rousseau's Confessions offers a personal account of the experiences of a great writer. Here the events which history notes are mentioned—his literary triumphs, his early conversion, his reconversion, his romance with Madame d'Houdetot, his quarrels with Voltaire, Diderot, and churchmen, his musical successes—but they are all transformed by the passionate perspective from which Rousseau, writing years after most of the events he describes, imagines his own past. The result is that the Confessions leaves the reader with the intimate knowledge of a human being, full of faults and passions, but driven by ambition and ability to a significant position in the history of literature.



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