Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

17 February 2008
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous philosopher, was born in Geneva on 28 June 1712. His mother died shortly after giving birth. His father Isaac was a watchmaker and for a time Jean-Jacques lived with his father and brother Fran?ois in rue de Coutance (where the Manor shop is now located). However, in 1722, following a quarrel, his father fled to Nyon. Jean-Jacques continued his education at the pastor’s house in Bossey, at the foot of the Sal?ve.

At the age of 15, he ran away from Geneva and found refuge with a Mme de Warens in Annecy. She sent him to Turin where he became a Roman Catholic. Throughout his life Rousseau alternated between Protestantism and Catholicism, and also between accepting and rejecting various citizenships, particularly that of Geneva. He was an orderly man with a fierce resentment of injustice: he was always well-groomed and tidy; even his handwriting was neat. From his thirties onward he suffered from a severe problem concerning the retention of urine.

In 1729 aged 17 he returned to Mme de Warens and learned music at the choir school of Annecy. Subsequently, Rousseau made a number of wandering journeys, earning his living by giving music lessons and always returning to Mme de Warens, whom he called ‘Mama’. Despite this label, he eventually became her lover, and throughout the 1730s Rousseau lived with her at Les Charmettes near Chamb?ry. As a young man Rousseau became a diligent reader and thus completed his education. At one time he became a not-very-successful tutor.

Rousseau was one of the most eloquent authors of his age. His writing style is incredibly frank and fresh. He was the first to write about our modern conceptions of human liberty and to attack the concepts of kingship and feudalism. He expressed the more tolerant and rational principles that govern the way we live today and was also one of the first to draw attention about the need to respect nature. Lord Byron said of Rousseau’s writing that his words were “like sunbeams, dazzling as they pass.”

In 1742 at the age of 30 Rousseau set off for Paris to seek fame and fortune. Over the next twenty years he wrote plays, ballets, operas and poetry which were received with varying levels of success. He proposed a new system of musical notation which caused a furore. His play Le Devin du Village was presented before Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, who offered Rousseau a pension. He declined saying that he did not wish to owe allegiance to anyone. During this period he published essays on music, education and inequality in society. Particularly, he collaborated with or corresponded with the intelligentsia of France and was patronized by the aristocracy.
Rousseau’s opinion was that eighteenth-century society set people against each other, the lives of the passive majority being ruled by an elite. No community, thought Rousseau, can be strong unless the laws are the same for everybody—accepting the law gives you membership of that society. Even though his ideas set in motion a fierce controversy, Rousseau did not recommend revolution or the violent overthrow of existing regimes.

While living in Paris he met Th?r?se Levasseur, a semi-literate servant who would be his faithful companion for the rest of his life and eventually become his wife. She bore him five children—all of whom were consigned to an orphanage at birth. Although at that time this was not a particularly unusual practice, Voltaire was to taunt him for being a heartless father—with some justification.

From about 1757 Rousseau began to display signs of a persecution mania that, while remaining a prolific and successful author, would eventually derange his mind. He began to make enemies, and rather distressingly fell out with his rich and well-meaning friends. From now on, his ridiculous behaviour and the ground-breaking content of his books were to make him notorious throughout Europe—though never rich.

In 1761 he published La nouvelle H?lo?se and in 1762, at the age of 50, Du contrat sociale and ?mile. Together with his biographical Confessions, these books would guarantee his everlasting fame. But the authorities found his writings offensive, burned the books and issued a warrant for his arrest. He fled to Neuch?tel, and then to England where King George III offered him a pension (which he badly needed, but refused). He could not find peace of mind and returned to France, where he led a semi-nomadic existence before settling in Paris in 1770.

For the last eight years of his life he scratched a living by copying music and giving public readings of his Confessions—until forbidden to do so.

Rousseau died on 2 July 1778 at Ermenonville, north of Paris. During the French Revolution his body was moved to the Panth?on in Paris, while a statue of him can be found on the Isle Rousseau in Geneva.

Despite his poor record as a tutor, Rousseau was revered by eminent educators of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of whom were inspired by his writings—the great Swiss educator Pestalozzi for one. Rousseau said that society would be more coherent if children were taught to be morally and intellectually self-sufficient. The child—not the teacher—should be the focus of education. Textbook knowledge may only lead to mental compliance, while a child may be incapable of understanding dry moral principles. Rather, children should discover knowledge for themselves; they should acquire morality and justice through their own experience.
A man who wished to have no obligations to anybody, but who existed for many years on the patronage of rich friends. One of the most successful authors of his age, who earned his living by copying music. The philosopher who dreamed of making the child the focus of education, but who disowned his own children. These are some of the paradoxes in his life.

A popular definition of genius is: “To see what everyone else has seen, and to think what no-one else has thought”—and this is most certainly true of Rousseau.