Birthplace: Geneva, Switzerland
Location of death: Ermenonville, France
Cause of death: Stroke
Remains: Buried, Panthéon, Paris, France
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Conceptualized the Social Contract
French philosopher, born at Geneva on the 28th June 1712. His family had established themselves in that city at the time of the religious wars, but they were of pure French origin. Rousseau's father Isaac was a watchmaker; his mother, Suzanne Bernard, was the daughter of a minister; she died in childbirth, and Rousseau, who was the second son, was brought up in a haphazard fashion, his father being dissipated, violent tempered and foolish. But he early taught his son to read, and seems to have laid the foundation of the flighty sentimentalism in morals and politics which Rousseau afterwards illustrated with his genius. When the boy was ten years old his father got entangled in a dispute with a fellow citizen, and being condemned to a short term of imprisonment abandoned Geneva and took refuge at Lyons. From that point the father and son rarely met. Rousseau was taken charge of by his mother's relations and was committed to the tutorship of Lambercier, pastor at Boissy. In 1724 he was removed from this school and taken into the house of his uncle Bernard, by whom he was shortly afterwards apprenticed to a notary. His master, however, found or thought him incapable and sent him back. After a short time (April 25, 1725) he was apprenticed afresh, this time to an engraver. He did not dislike the work, but was or thought himself cruelly treated. In 1728 he ran away, the truancy being by his own account unintentional in the first instance, and due to the fact of the city gates being shut earlier than usual. Then began an extraordinary series of wanderings and adventures, for much of which there is no authority but his own Confessions. He first fell in with some proselytizers of the Roman faith at Confignon in Savoy, and by them he was sent to Madame de Warens at Annecy, a young and pretty widow who was herself a convert. Her influence, however, which was to be so great, was not immediately exercised, and he was passed on to Turin, where there was an institution specially devoted to the reception of neophytes. His experiences here were unsatisfactory, but he abjured duly and was rewarded by being presented with twenty francs and sent about his business. He wandered about in Turin for some time, and at last established himself as footman to a Madame de Vercellis. Here occurred the famous incident of the theft of a ribbon, of which he accused a girl fellow servant. But, though he kept his place by this piece of cowardice, Madame de Vercellis died not long afterwards and he was turned away. He found another place with the Comte de Gouvon, but lost this also through coxcombry. Then he resolved to return to Madame de Warens at Annecy. The chronology of all these events, as narrated by himself, is somewhat obscure, but they seem to have occupied about three years.
Even then Rousseau did not settle at once in the anomalous but to him charming position of domestic lover to this lady, who, nominally a converted Protestant, was in reality, as many women of her time were, a kind of deist, with a theory of noble sentiment and a practice of libertinism tempered by good nature. It used to be held that in her conjugal relations she was more sinned against than sinning. But modern investigations seem to show that M. de Vuarrens (which is said to be the correct spelling of the name) was an unfortunate husband, and was deserted and robbed by his wife. However, she welcomed Rousseau kindly, thought it necessary to complete his education, and he was sent to the seminarists of St. Lazare to be improved in classics, and also to a music master. In one of his incomprehensible freaks he set off for Lyons, and, after abandoning his companion in an epileptic fit, returned to Annecy to find Madame de Warens gone. Then for some months he relapsed into the life of vagabondage, varied by improbable adventures, which (according to his own statement) he so often pursued. Hardly knowing anything of music, he attempted to give lessons and a concert at Lausanne; and he actually taught at Neuchâtel. Then he became, or says he became, secretary to a Greek archimandrite who was travelling in Switzerland to collect subscriptions for the rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre; then he went to Paris, and, with recommendations from the French ambassador at Soleure, saw something of good society; then he returned on foot through Lyons to Savoy, hearing that Madame de Warens was at Chambéry. This was in 1732, and Rousseau, who for a time had unimportant employments in the service of the Sardinian crown, was shortly installed by Madame de Warens, whom he still called Maman, as amant en titre in her singular household, wherein she diverted herself with him, with music and with chemistry. In 1736 Madame de Warens, partly for Rousseau's health, took a country house, Les Charmettes, a short distance from Chambéry. Here in summer, and in the town during winter, Rousseau led a delightful life, which he has delightfully described. In a desultory way he did a good deal of reading, but in 1738 his health again became bad, and he was recommended to go to Montpellier. By his own account this journey to Montpellier was in reality a voyage à Cythère in company with a certain Madame de Larnage. This being so, be could hardly complain when on returning he found that his official position in Madame de Warens' household had been taken by a person named Vintzenried. He was, however, less likely than most men to endure the position of second in command, and in 1740 he became tutor at Lyons to the children of M. de Mably, not the well-known writer of that name, but his and Condillac's elder brother. But Rousseau did not like teaching and was a bad teacher, and after a visit to Les Charmettes, finding that his place there was finally occupied, he once more went to Paris in 1741. He was not without recommendations. But a new system of musical notation which he thought he had discovered was unfavorably received by the Académie des sciences, where it was read in August 1742, and he was unable to obtain pupils. Madame Dupin, however, to whose house he had obtained the entry, procured him the honorable if not very lucrative post of secretary to M. de Montaigu, ambassador at Venice. With him he stayed for about eighteen months, and has as usual infinite complaints to make of his employer and some strange stories to tell. At length he threw up his situation and returned to Paris (1745).
Up to this time -- that is to say, until his thirty-third year -- Rousseau's life, though continuously described by himself, was of the kind called subterranean, and the account of it must be taken with considerable allowances. From this time, however, he is more or less in view; and, though at least two events of his life -- his quarrel with Denis Diderot and his death -- are subjects of dispute, its general history can be checked and followed with reasonable confidence. On his return to Paris he renewed his relations with the Dupin family and with the literary group of Diderot, to which he had already been introduced by M. de Mably's letters. He had an opera, Les Muses galantes, privately represented; he copied music for money, and received from Madame Dupin and her son-in-law M. de Francueil a small but regular salary as scretry. He lived at the Hôtel St. Queritin for a time, and once more arranged for himself an equivocal domestic establishment. His mistress, whom towards the close of his life he married after a fashion, was Thérèse le Vasseur, a servant at the inn, whom he first met in 1743. She had little beauty, no education or understanding, and few charms that his friends could discover, besides which she had a detestable mother, who was the bane of Rousseau's life. But he made himself happy with her, and (according to Rousseau's account, the accuracy of which has been questioned) five children were born to them, who were all consigned to the foundling hospital. This disregard of responsibility was partly punished by the use his critics made of it when he became celebrated as a writer on education and a preacher of the domestic affections. Diderot, with whom from 1741 onwards he became more and more familiar, admitted him as a contributor to the Encyclopédie. He formed new musical projects, and he was introduced by degrees to many people of rank and influence, among them Madame d'Épinay, to whom in 1747 he was introduced by her lover M. de Francueil. It was not, however, until 1749 that Rousseau made his mark as a writer. The academy of Dijon offered a prize for an essay on the effect of the progress of civilization on morals. Rousseau took up the subject, developed his famous paradox of the superiority of the savage state, won the prize, and, publishing his essay (Discours sur les arts et sciences) next year, became famous. The anecdotage as to the origin of this famous essay is voluminous. It is agreed that the idea was suggested when Rousseau went to pay a visit to Diderot, who was in prison at Vincennes for his Lettre sur les aveugles. Rousseau says he thought of the paradox on his way down; Morellet and others say that he thought of treating the subject in the ordinary fashion and was laughed at by Diderot, who showed him the advantages of the less obvious treatment. Diderot himself, who in such matters is almost absolutely trustworthy, does not claim the suggestion, but uses words which imply that it was at least partly his. It is very like him. The essay, however, took the artificial and crotchety society of the day by storm. Francueil gave Rousseau a valuable post as cashier in the receiver-general's office. But he resigned it either from conscientiousness, or crotchet, or nervousness at responsibility, or indolence, or more probably from a mixture of all four. He went back to his music-copying, but the salons of the day were determined to have his society, and for a time they had it. In 1752 he brought out at Fontainebleau an operetta, the Devin du village, which was successful. He received a hundred louis for it, and he was ordered to come to court next day. This meant the certainty of a pension. But Rousseau's shyness or his perversity (as before, probably both) made him disobey the command. His comedy Narcisse, written long before, was also acted, but unsuccessfully. In the same year, however, a letter Sur la musique française again had a great vogue. Finally, for this was an important year with him, the Dijon academy, which had founded his fame, announced the subject of "The Origin of Inequality", on which he wrote a discourse which was unsuccessful, but at least equal to the former in merit. During a visit to Geneva in 1754 Rousseau saw his old friend and love Madame de Warens (now reduced in circumstances and having lost all her charms), while after abjuring his abjuration of Protestantism he was enabled to take up his freedom as citizen of Geneva, to which his birth entitled him and of which he was proud. Shortly afterwards, returning to Paris, he accepted a cottage near Montmorency (the celebrated Hermitage) which Madame d'Épinay had fitted up for him, and established himself there in April 1756. He spent little more than a year there, but it was an important year. Here he wrote La Nouvelle Héloïse; here he indulged in the passion which that novel partly represents, his love for Madame d'Huodetot, sister-in-law of Madame d'Épinay, a lady young and amiable, but plain, who had a husband and a lover (St. Lambert), and whom Rousseau's devotion seems to have partly pleased and partly annoyed. Here too arose the obscure triangular quarrel between Diderot, Rousseau and Frederick Melchior Grimm, which ended Rousseau's sojourn at the Hermitage. The supposition least favorable to Rousseau is that it was due to one of his numerous fits of half-insane petulance and indignation at the obligations which he was nevertheless always ready to incur. That most favorable to him is that he was expected to lend himself in a more or less complaisant manner to assist and cover Madame d'Épinay's adulterous affection for Grimm. At any rate, Rousseau quitted the Hermitage in the winter of 1757-58, and established himself at Montlouis in the neighborhood.
To this point Rousseau's behaviour had frequently made him enemies, but his writings had for the most part made him friends. The quarrel with Madame d'Épinay, with Diderot, and through them with the philosophe party reversed this. In 1758 appeared his Lettre à d'Alembert contre les spectacles, written in the winter of the previous year at Montlouis. This was at once an attack on Voltaire, who was giving theatrical representations at Les Délices, on D'Alembert, who had condemned the prejudice against the stage in the Encyclopédie, and on one of the favorite amusements of the society of the day. Voltaire's strong point was not forgiveness, and, though Rousseau no doubt exaggerated the efforts of his "enemies", he was certainly henceforward as obnoxious to the philosophe coterie as to the orthodox party. He still, however, had no lack of patrons -- he never had -- though his perversity made him quarrel with all in turn. The amiable duke and duchess of Luxembourg, who were his neighbors at Montlouis, made his acquaintance, or rather forced theirs upon him, and he was industrious in his literary work -- indeed, most of his best books were produced during his stay in the neighborhood of Montmorency. A letter to Voltaire on his poem about the Lisbon earthquake embittered the dislike between the two, being surreptitiously published. La Nouvelle Héloïse appeared in the same year (1760), and it was immensely popular. In 1762 appeared the Contrat social at Amsterdam, and Émile, which was published both in the Low Countries and at Paris. For the latter the author received 6000 livres, for the Contrat 1000.
Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, is a novel written in letters describing the loves of a man of low position and a girl of rank, her subsequent marriage to a respectable freethinker of her own station, the mental agonies of her lover, and the partial appeasing of the distresses of the lovers by the influence of noble sentiment and the good offices of a philanthropic Englishman. It is too long, the sentiment is overstrained, and severe moralists have accused it of a certain complaisance in dealing with amatory errors; but it is full of pathos and knowledge of the human heart. The Contrat social, as its title implies, endeavors to base all government on the consent, direct or implied, of the governed, and indulges in much ingenious argument to get rid of the practical inconveniences of such a suggestion. Émile, the second title of which is De l'Éducation, is much more of a treatise than of a novel, though a certain amount of narrative interest is kept up throughout.
Rousseau's reputation was now higher than ever, but the term of the comparative prosperity which he had enjoyed for nearly ten years was at hand. The Contrat social was obviously anti-monarchic; the Nouvelle Héloïse was said to be immoral; the sentimental deism of the "Profession du vicaire Savoyard" in Émile irritated equally the philosophe party and the church. On June 11, 1762, Émile was condemned by the parlement of Paris, and two days previously Madame de Luxembourg and the prince de Conti gave the author information that he would be arrested if he did not fly. They also furnished him with means of flight, and he made for Yverdun in the territory of Bern, from where he transferred himself to Motiers in Neuchâtel, which then belonged to Prussia. Frederick II was not indisposed to protect the persecuted when it cost him nothing and might bring him fame, and in Marshal Keith, the governor of Neuchâtel, Rousseau found a true and firm friend. He was, however, unable to be quiet or to practice any of those more or less pious frauds which were customary at the time with the unorthodox. The archbishop of Paris had published a pastoral against him, and Rousseau did not let the year pass without a Lettre à M. de Beaumont. The council of Geneva had joined in the condemnation of Émile, and Rousseau first solemnly renounced his citizenship, and then, in the Lettres de la Montagne (1763), attacked the council and the Genevan constitution unsparingly. All this excited public opinion against him, and gradually he grew unpopular in his own neighborhood. This unpopularity is said on uncertain authority to have culminated in a nocturnal attack on his house. At any rate he thought he was menaced if he was not, and migrated to the Île St. Pierre in the Lake of Bienne, where he once more for a short, and the last, time enjoyed that idyllic existence which he loved. But the Bernese government ordered him to quit its territory. He was for some time uncertain where to go, and thought of Corsica (to join Pasquale Paoli) and Berlin. But finally David Hume offered him, late in 1765, an asylum in England, and he accepted. He passed through Paris, where his presence was tolerated for a time, and landed in England on January 13, 1766. Thérèse travelled separately, and was entrusted to the charge of James Boswell, who had already made Rousseau's acquaintance. Here he had once more a chance of settling peaceably. Severe English moralists like Samuel Johnson thought but ill of him, but the public generally was not unwilling to testify against French intolerance, and regarded his sentimentalism with favor. He was lionized in London to his heart's content and discontent, for it may truly be said of Rousseau that he was equally indignant at neglect and intolerant of attention. When, after not a few displays of his strange humor, he professed himself tired of the capital, Hume procured him a country abode in the house of Mr. Davenport at Wootton in Derbyshire. Here, though the place was bleak and lonely, he might have been happy enough, and he actually employed himself in writing the greater part of his Confessions. But his habit of self-tormenting and tormenting others never left him. His own caprices interposed some delay in the conferring of a pension which George III was induced to grant him, and he took this as a crime of Hume's. The publication of a spiteful letter (really by Horace Walpole, one of whose worst deeds it was) in the name of the king of Prussia made Rousseau believe that plots of the most terrible kind were on foot against him. Finally he quarreled with Hume because the latter would not acknowledge all his own friends and Rousseau's supposed enemies of the philosophe circle to be rascals. He remained, however, at Wootton during the year and through the winter. In May 1767 he fled to France, addressing letters to the lord chancellor and to General Conway, which can only be described as the letters of a lunatic. He was received in France by the marquis de Mirabeau (father of the great Mirabeau), of whom he soon had enough, then by the prince de Conti at Trye. From this place he again fled and wandered about for some time in a wretched fashion, still writing the Confessions, constantly receiving generous help, and always quarreling with, or at least suspecting, the helpers. In the summer of 1770 he returned to Paris, resumed music-copying, and was on the whole happier than he had been since he had to leave Montlouis. He had by this time married Thérèse le Vasseur, or had at least gone through some form of marriage with her.
Many of the best-known stories of Rousseau's life date from this last time, when he was tolerably accessible to visitors, though clearly half-insane. He finished his Confessions, wrote his Dialogues (the interest of which is not quite equal to the promise of their curious sub-title, Rousseau juge de Jean Jacques), and began his Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, intended as a sequel and complement to the Confessions, and one of the best of all his books. It should be said that besides these, which complete the list of his principal works, he has left a very large number of minor works and a considerable correspondence. During this time he lived in the Rue Platière, which is now named after him. But his suspicions of secret enemies grew stronger rather than weaker, and at the beginning of 1778 he was glad to accept the offer of M. de Girardin, a rich financier, and occupy a cottage at Ermenonville. The country was beautiful; but his old terrors revived, and his woes were complicated by the alleged inclination of Thérèse for one of M. de Girardin's stable-boys. On July 2nd he died in a manner which has been much discussed, suspicions of suicide being circulated at the time by Grimm and others.
There is little doubt that for the last ten or fifteen years of his life, if not from the time of his quarrel with Diderot and Madame d'Épinay, Rousseau was not wholly sane -- the combined influence of late and unexpected literary fame and of constant solitude and discomfort acting upon his excitable temperament so as to overthrow the balance, never very stable, of his fine and acute but unrobust intellect. He was by no means the only man of letters of his time who had to submit to something like persecution. Fréron on the orthodox side had his share of it, as well as Voltaire, Helvétius, Diderot and Montesquieu on that of the innovators. But Rousseau had not, like Montesquieu, a position which guaranteed him from serious danger; he was not wealthy like Helvétius; he had not the wonderful suppleness and trickiness which even without his wealth would probably have defended Voltaire himself; and he lacked entirely the "bottom" of Fréron and Diderot. When he was molested he could only shriek at his enemies and suspect his friends. His moral character was undoubtedly weak in other ways than this, but it is fair to remember that but for his astounding Confessions the more disgusting parts of it would not have been known, and that these Confessions were written, if not under hallucination, at any rate in circumstances entitling the self-condemned criminal to the benefit of considerable doubt. If Rousseau had held his tongue, he might have stood lower as a man of letters; he would pretty certainly have stood higher as a man. He was, moreover, really sinned against, if still more sinning. The conduct of Grimm to him was certainly bad; and, though Walpole was not his personal friend, a worse action than his famous letter, considering the well-known idiosyncrasy of the subject, would be difficult to find. It was his own fault that he saddled himself with the Le Vasseurs, but their conduct was probably, if not certainly, ungrateful in the extreme. Only excuses can be made for him; but the excuses for a man born, as Hume after the quarrel said of him, "without a skin" are numerous and strong.
His peculiar reputation increased after his death. During his life his personal peculiarities and the fact that his opinions were nearly as obnoxious to the one party as to the other worked against him, but it was not so after his death. The men of the Revolution regarded him with something like idolatry, and his literary merits conciliated many who were far from idolizing him as a revolutionist. His style was taken up by Bernardin de Saint Pierre and by Chateaubriand. It was employed for purposes quite different from those to which he had himself applied it, and the reaction triumphed by the very arms which had been most powerful in the hands of the Revolution. Byron's fervid panegyric enlisted on his side all who admired Byron -- that is to say, the majority of the younger men and women of Europe between 1820 and 1850 -- and thus different sides of his tradition were continued for a full century after the publication of his chief books. His religious unorthodoxy was condoned because he never scoffed; his political heresies, after their first effect was over, seemed harmless from the very want of logic and practical spirit in them, while part at least of his literary secret was the common property of almost every one who attempted literature.
In religion Rousseau was undoubtedly what he has been called above -- a sentimental deist; but no one who reads him with the smallest attention can fail to see that sentimentalism was the essence, deism the accident of his creed. In his time orthodoxy at once generous and intelligent hardly existed in France. There were ignorant persons who were sincerely orthodox; there were intelligent persons who pretended to be so. But between the time of Massillon and D'Aguesseau and the time of Lamennais and Joseph de Maistre the class of men of whom in England Berkeley, Butler and Johnson were representatives did not exist in France. Little inclined by nature to any but the emotional side of religion, and utterly undisciplined in any other by education, course of life, or the general tendency of public opinion, Rousseau naturally took refuge in the nebulous kind of natural religion which was at once fashionable and convenient. If his practice fell far short even of his own arbitrary standard of morality, as much may be said of persons far more dogniatically orthodox.
In politics, on the other hand, Rousseau was a sincere and, as far as in him lay, a convinced republican. He had no great tincture of learning, he was by no means a profound logician, and he was impulsive and emotional in the extreme -- characteristics which in political matters predispose the subject to the preference of equality above all political requisites. He saw that under the French monarchy the actual result was the greatest misery of the greatest number, and he did not look much further. The Contrat social is for the political student one of the most curious and interesting books existing. Historically it is null; logically it is full of gaping flaws, practically its manipulations of the volonté de tous and the volonté générale are clearly insufficient to obviate anarchy. But its mixture of real eloquence and apparent cogency is exactly such as always carries a multitude with it, if only for a time. Moreover, in some minor branches of politics and economics Rousseau was a real reformer. Visionary as his educational schemes (chiefly promulgated in Émile) are in parts, they are admirable in others, and his protest against mothers refusing to nurse their children hit a blot in French life which is not removed yet, and has always been a source of weakness to the nation.
But it is as a literary man pure and simple -- that is to say, as an exponent rather than as an originator of ideas -- that Rousseau is most noteworthy, and that he has exercised most influence. The first thing noticeable about him is that he defies all customary and mechanical classification. He is not a dramatist -- his work as such is insignificant -- nor a novelist, for, though his two chief works except the Confessions are called novels, Émile is one only in name, and La Nouvelle Héloïse is as a story diffuse, prosy and awkward to a degree. He was without command of poetic form, and he could only be called a philosopher in an age when the term was used with such meaningless laxity as was customary in the 18th century. If he must be classed, he was before all things a describer -- a describer of the passions of the human heart and of the beauties of nature. In the first part of his vocation the novelists of his own youth, such as Marivaux, Samuel Richardson and Prévost, may be said to have shown him the way, though he improved greatly upon them; in the second he was almost a creator. In combining the two and expressing the effect of nature on the feelings and of the feelings on the aspect of nature he was absolutely without a forerunner or a model. And, as literature since his time has been chiefly differentiated from literature before it by the color and tone resulting from this combination, Rousseau may be said to hold, as an influence, a place almost unrivalled in literary history. The defects of all sentimental writing are noticeable in him, but they are palliated by his wonderful feeling, and by the passionate sincerity even of his insincere passages. Some cavils have been made against his French, but none of much weight or importance. And in such passages as the famous "Voilà de la pervenche" of the Confessions, as the description of the isle of St. Pierre in the Rêveries, as some of the letters in the Nouvelle Héloïse and others, he had achieved absolute perfection in doing what he intended to do. The reader, as it has been said, may think he might have done something else with advantage, but he can hardly think that he could have done this thing better.
Father: Isaac Rousseau (watchmaker, abandoned him, 1722)
Mother: Suzanne Bernard Rousseau (d. Jul-1712)
Girlfriend: Madame Louise de Warens
Girlfriend: Madame de Larange
Girlfriend: Thérèse Lavasseur (seamstress, five children)
Ran Away From Home 1728
Converted to Catholicism
Citizenship Revoked Switzerland
Exhumed Ermenonville, France (1794)
Author of books:
Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750, essay)
The Social Contract (1762)
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