Jean Jacques Rousseau
About the Author
French, Swiss-born writer and philosopher, whose historical importance can be compared to that of Marx or Freud. Rousseau's life was full of contradictions: he defended the rights of little children but consigned his five illegitimate offspring to a foundling institution. Although Rousseau gained fame as an educationist, his formal education ended at about the age of twelve. He also was almost certifiably paranoid, an unsociable and quarrelsome human being, but championed man's innate goodness. Until he was 37, Rousseau had written nothing except libretti for his own music. In his later age Rousseau became one of the dominant thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment. The French Nobel writer Romain Rolland once said of Rousseau: "He opened into literature the riches of the subconscious, the secret movements of being, hitherto ignored and repressed."
Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, into a Protestant family of French refugees. His mother died shortly after his birth. Rousseau's father, who was a watchmaker of unstable temperament, fled from Geneva after being involved in a brawl. The young Jean-Jacques was cared for in childhood by an aunt and a maternal uncle. Rousseau received very little regular training, and never adopted ideas of rigorous discipline. He was sent for a while a school in the country, kept by a retired pastor, and later he was apprenticed to an engraver (1725-28).
At the age of 16 Rousseau left Geneva to travel. The next 20 years he spent traveling, studying, and adventuring. Rousseau's upbringing had been Calvinist, but under the influence of his benefactress and eventually his mistress, the Vaudois Madame de Warens, he became a Roman Catholic. From 1731 until 1740 Rousseau lived with or near Madame de Warens. At her country home, Les Charmettes, near Chambery in Savoy, Rousseau began his first serious reading and study.
After moving to Paris Rousseau earned his living with secretarial work and musical copying. In 1741 he met Thérèse Le Vasseur, a dull and unattractive hotel servant girl, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life, never marrying her. They had five children whom Rousseau allegedly consigned to Enfants-Trouvés, a foundling hospital. This was a quite a common practice of the time, but in The Confessions (1782-89) Rousseau expressed his eternal and bitter regret. The celebrated autobiography is actually not a true account of his life, and also this detail has been under debate.
In 1743-44 Rousseau was a secretary to the French Ambassador Comte de Montaignu to Venice, and first came into close contact with political life and institutions. Back in Paris he was introduced through the famous philosopher Denis Diderot to the Encyclopedists. His own contributions to The Encyclopedia were mostly on musical subjects, although he wrote one on political economy. Rousseau's new musical notation had been pronounced by the Academy of Sciences "neither useful nor original," and his opera, Les Muses Galantes, had failed.
Rousseau's life changed on the road to Vincennes when he noticed an announcement in which the Dijon Academy was offering a prize for the best essay on the subject 'Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification or the corruption of morals?" "All at once," Rousseu wrote, "I felt myself dazzled by a thousand sparkling lights; crowds of vivid ideas thronged into my head with a force and confusion that threw me into unspeakable agitation; I felt my head whirling in a giddiness like that of intoxication. Rousseau won at the age of 38 the prize for his essay "Discours sur les sciences et les arts", and gained fame. The development of the arts and sciences, he wrote, did not improve man in habits and moral. Far from improving human behavior, the development had promoted inequality, idleness, and luxury. "If the sciences really better'd manners, if they taught man to spill his blood for his country, if they heighten'd his courage; the inhabitants of China ought to be wise, free, and invincible. - But if they are tainted with every vice, familiar with every crime; if neither the skill of their magistrates, nor the pretended wisdom of their laws, nor the vast multitude of people inhabiting that great extent of empire, could protect or defend them from the yoke of an ignorant Barbarian Tartar, of what use was all their art, all their skill, all their learning?" (from Discourse on Arts and Sciences)
Around 1750 Rousseau began to promulgate the romantic conception of the noble - or innocent - savage. The theme was elaborated in Rousseau's second essay, "Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégualité parmi les hommes" (1755), where he maintained that only the uncorrupted savage is in possession of real virtue. The most famous adaptation of the idea in literature is Edgar Rice Burroughs's hero of the jungle, Tarzan. The cultivation of earth and invention of metallurgy led to the birth of work and property. People were divided into poor and rich, and laws solidified the state of affairs permanently. Despotism is the ultimate end of historical development - we are all equal because we are slaves of one ruler.
In Rousseau the feeling of 'discomfort with culture' became a target of serious study for the first time. The cultured man is degenerate, Rousseau thought, and the whole history of civilization a betrayal. Rousseau's naturalism was in great contrast to all that his great contemporary Voltaire considered the quintessence of civilization. Taking seriously his thesis, Rousseau decided to "reform" and live the simple life. He returned in 1754 to Geneva, reverted to Protestantism, and regained citizenship. In 1756 Rousseau moved to a cottage near the forest of Montmorency.
During the next six years Rousseau wrote The New Heloise (1761), Émile (1762), a treatise on education, eventually turning into a Bildungsroman about the ideal education of the innocent child, and The Social Contract (1762), which starts with the opening declaration, "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they." Its catchphrase 'Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité', inspired the French Revolution. Rousseau argues that only by surrendering to the general will, can an individual find his fullest freedom. The general will, essentially directed toward common good, Rousseau believed, is always right. The citizens of a united community exchanges their natural liberty for something better, moral liberty. In this theory political society is seen as involving the total voluntary subjection of every individual to the collective general will; this being both the sole source of legitimate sovereignty and something that cannot but be directed towards common good.
Rousseau's Julie; ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) was an 18th-century best-seller. It was born of the aging author's dream of finding a perfect love with a kindred soul. The story depicts the passionate love of the tutor Saint Preux and his pupil Julie, their separation, and Julie's marriage to the Baron Wolmar. The theme of sexual passion is in the end transformed into an account of a social utopia on the Baron's country estate.
Èmile paved way for the liberal modern educational experiments. It stated that experience should come not from books but from life. Rousseau's theory of education rests on two assumptions: that man is by nature good and that society and civilization corrupt the native goodness. Only through proper education in youth could the "natural man" come to being. Children should be kept from books until the age of 12 and youth should be taught "natural religion" only. Girls were to be trained solely as wives and mothers.
After its publication, Èmile was banned both in France and Switzerland. The French parliament ordered the book to be burned, and in 1762 Rousseau was condemned for religious unorthodoxy. He fled to Switzerland, first to Neuchâtel (1762-65), then to Bienne (1765). When the government of Berne ordered Rousseau out of its territory, he visited England. Rousseau's misanthropy and growing persecution mania led to quarrels with his new friends, among them David Hume, and he went to France, where he lived for a time in disguise. In 1768 he married Thérèse, and in 1770 he was officially permitted to return to Paris - if he do not write against the government.
Rousseau's later works include The Confessions, the first "romantic" autobiography, which was composed between 1765 and 1770. Rousseau starts with his of uniqueness. "I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different." The book was part of his immersion into self-observation, also exemplified in Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques (1776) and the Reveries (1782). In 1778 Rousseau moved to Ermenonville. He died of apoplexy on July 2, 1778. Rousseau's remains were placed with Voltaire's in the Panthéon in Paris in 1794.
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