Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778
God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.
The most enigmatic of all the philosophes of the 18th century Enlightenment, the political philosopher, educationist and essayist, Jean Jacques Rousseau, was born at Geneva on June 28th, 1712. His mother died in childbirth. In 1722 his father, involved in a brawl, left him to the care of his relations. Without any formal education except his own reading of Plutarch's Lives and a collection of Calvinist sermons, he was employed first by a notary who found him incompetent and then by an engraver who treated him so poorly that in 1728 he ran away. Feigning enthusiasm for Catholicism, he was sent to Madame de Warens who, separated from her husband, became a convert to Catholicism and assisted other converts. She sent Rousseau to Turin to be baptized and there he eventually found employment with a shopkeeper's wife whose lover he became until her husband's return. After short spells as footman and secretary, he returned to Annecy and to Madame de Warens. He became her general factotum and lover, joined the local choir school to complete his education and picked up a fair knowledge of Italian music.
On an unauthorized visit to Lyons with the music master, he meanly deserted the latter during an epileptic fit. Eventually supplanted in his mistress's affections by a wigmaker, he made for Paris in 1741 with a new musical notation, which the Academy of Sciences pronounced "neither useful nor original." With secretarial work and musical copying as a livelihood, Rousseau began his association with a maid at his hostelry, Th�r�se Le Vasseur, who was neither attractive nor literate and by whom he boasted he had five children. Despite his much vaunted sensibility and regard for the general innocence of children, Rousseau consigned all five children to the foundling hospital.
Rousseau composed an opera Les Muses galantes which led to a correspondence with Voltaire and eventually acquaintance with Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and the encyclopedistes. On a visit to Diderot in prison, he discovered in a periodical the prize essay competition by the academy of Dijon on whether the arts and sciences had improved or corrupted the morals of mankind. This he won with his essay Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in 1750 by maintaining that they did not, having seduced man from his natural and noble estate, decreasing his freedom.
In 1754 he wrote the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality, which re-emphasized the natural goodness of man and the corrupting influences of institutionalized life. He returned to Geneva and Calvinism, where he began his epistolary novel, La Nouvelle H�loise (1761). In Lettre sur les spectacles (1758), he argued against the establishment of a theatre at Geneva on puritan grounds. Back in Paris, a reformed man, who was trying his best to live up to his newly-found natural estate, he accepted a cottage for himself, Th�r�se and her mother at Montmorency from an admirer, Madame d'�pinay, but quarreling with her over her sister, he set up in 1757 in Luxembourg.
The year 1762 saw his masterpiece, The Social Contract which attempted to solve the problem posed by its opening sentence: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains," by postulating a social contract by which the citizen surrenders his rights and possessions to the "general will" which, thus undivided by sectarian and private interests, must necessarily aim at the impartial good. Thus if a man acts against the "general will" he must in Rousseau's phrase "be forced to be free." With its slogan, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," it became the bible of the French revolutionaries. The political philosophy of The Social Contract was much admired by Kant and Hegel incorporated them into his Philosophy of Right, which helped give birth to modern theories of the totalitarian state.
Rousseau's great work on education, �mile, was published in 1762 as well. Rousseau's views of monarchy and governmental institutions outraged the powers that be and his ideas on natural religion, unorthodox to both Catholics and Protestants, forced him to flee to M�tiers in Neuch�tel under the protection of Frederick the Great. There Rousseau studied botany and eventually accepted David Hume's invitation to settle in England, at Wooten Hall near Ashbourne (1766-67), where he wrote most of his autobiographical Confessions (1781).
Persecution mania and hypersensitivity soured his relations with his English friends and a cruel practical joke by Horace Walpole who published a forged letter, convinced Rousseau that the British government, through Hume, were seeking his life. He fled, unjustly accusing Hume, and took shelter with the Marquis de Mirabeau and the Prince de Conti. In 1770 he was back in Paris, eking out a living as a copyist, and wrote the half-insane dialogues, justifying to himself his past actions, Rousseau, juge de Jean Jacques, followed by the calm and most sane, R�veries (1782), composed as a continuation to the Confessions.
Seeking shelter in a hospital, Rousseau eventually died insane in a cottage at Ermenonville, July 2, 1778, from a sudden attack of thrombosis, which aroused suspicions of suicide. He was buried there until 1794 when his remains were placed with Voltaire's in the Panth�on in Paris.
Rousseau's powerful influence on the European Romantic movement and after was due to his vision of a regenerated human nature. Unlike utopian thinkers he seemed to promise a transfiguration of everyday existence, not the pursuit of a rather hopeless chimera. His philosophy revealed a striking, if often elusive, combination of idealistic and realistic elements which constantly seemed to open the possibility of a better world. This optimistic outlook was transmitted through a particularly eloquent and persuasive style, rich in emotional and musical overtones, giving the impression of intense sincerity. Rousseau's great challenge was to convince the humblest of men that they should never feel ashamed to call themselves human beings.
[Note: At present there are very few Internet sites dedicated to this important 18th century thinker. This is indeed unfortunate since Jean Jacques seems to have suffered a fate not unlike the one that befell him during his own stormy career. A text-only version of his Confessions is available as well as a lengthy selection from his Second Discourse (HTML). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at Stanford also has a short biographical entry. See also the Rousseau Association page.]
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copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis