Jean-Jacques Rousseau (UK: //, US: //; French: [ʒɑ̃ ʒak ʁuso]; 28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic, and educational thought.
His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones in modern political and social thought. Rousseau’s sentimental novelJulie, or the New Heloise (1761) was important to the development of preromanticism and romanticism in fiction. His Emile, or On Education (1762) is an educational treatise on the place of the individual in society. Rousseau’s autobiographical writings—the posthumously published Confessions (composed in 1769), which initiated the modern autobiography, and the unfinished Reveries of the Solitary Walker (composed 1776–1778)—exemplified the late-18th-century “Age of Sensibility“, and featured an increased focus on subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing.
Rousseau befriended fellow philosopher Denis Diderot in 1742, and would later write about Diderot’s romantic troubles in his Confessions. During the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophers among members of the Jacobin Club. He was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death.
Rousseau was born in Geneva, which was at the time a city-state and a Protestant associate of the Swiss Confederacy (now a canton of Switzerland). Since 1536, Geneva had been a Huguenot republic and the seat of Calvinism. Five generations before Rousseau, his ancestor Didier, a bookseller who may have published Protestant tracts, had escaped persecution from French Catholics by fleeing to Geneva in 1549, where he became a wine merchant.
Rousseau was proud that his family, of the moyen order (or middle-class), had voting rights in the city. Throughout his life, he generally signed his books “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva”.
Geneva, in theory, was governed “democratically” by its male voting “citizens”. The citizens were a minority of the population when compared to the immigrants, referred to as “inhabitants”, whose descendants were called “natives” and continued to lack suffrage. In fact, rather than being run by vote of the “citizens”, the city was ruled by a small number of wealthy families that made up the “Council of Two Hundred”; these delegated their power to a 25-member executive group from among them called the “Little Council”.
There was much political debate within Geneva, extending down to the tradespeople. Much discussion was over the idea of the sovereignty of the people, of which the ruling class oligarchy was making a mockery. In 1707, a democratic reformer named Pierre Fatio protested this situation, saying “a sovereign that never performs an act of sovereignty is an imaginary being”. He was shot by order of the Little Council. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s father, Isaac, was not in the city at this time, but Jean-Jacques’s grandfather supported Fatio and was penalized for it.
Rousseau’s father, Isaac Rousseau, followed his grandfather, father and brothers into the watchmaking business. He also taught dance for a short period.[page needed] Isaac, notwithstanding his artisan status, was well educated and a lover of music. Rousseau wrote that “A Genevan watchmaker is a man who can be introduced anywhere; a Parisian watchmaker is only fit to talk about watches”.[note 1]
In 1699, Isaac ran into political difficulty by entering a quarrel with visiting English officers, who in response drew their swords and threatened him. After local officials stepped in, it was Isaac who was punished, as Geneva was concerned with maintaining its ties to foreign powers.
Rousseau’s mother, Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, was from an upper-class family. She was raised by her uncle Samuel Bernard, a Calvinist preacher. He cared for Suzanne after her father, Jacques, who had run into trouble with the legal and religious authorities for fornication and having a mistress, died in his early 30s. In 1695, Suzanne had to answer charges that she had attended a street theater disguised as a peasant woman so she could gaze upon M. Vincent Sarrasin, whom she fancied despite his continuing marriage. After a hearing, she was ordered by the Genevan Consistory to never interact with him again. She married Rousseau’s father at the age of 31. Isaac’s sister had married Suzanne’s brother eight years earlier, after she had become pregnant and they had been chastised by the Consistory. The child died at birth. The young Rousseau was told a fabricated story about the situation in which young love had been denied by a disapproving patriarch but later prevailed, resulting in two marriages uniting the families on the same day. Rousseau never learnt the truth.
Rousseau was born on 28 June 1712, and he would later relate: “I was born almost dying, they had little hope of saving me”. He was baptized on 4 July 1712, in the great cathedral. His mother died of puerperal fever nine days after his birth, which he later described as “the first of my misfortunes”.
He and his older brother François were brought up by their father and a paternal aunt, also named Suzanne. When Rousseau was five, his father sold the house that the family had received from his mother’s relatives. While the idea was that his sons would inherit the principal when grown up and he would live off the interest in the meantime, in the end the father took most of the substantial proceeds.[page needed] With the selling of the house, the Rousseau family moved out of the upper-class neighborhood and moved into an apartment house in a neighborhood of craftsmen—silversmiths, engravers, and other watchmakers.[page needed] Growing up around craftsmen, Rousseau would later contrast them favorably to those who produced more aesthetic works, writing “those important persons who are called artists rather than artisans, work solely for the idle and rich, and put an arbitrary price on their baubles”. Rousseau was also exposed to class politics in this environment, as the artisans often agitated in a campaign of resistance against the privileged class running Geneva.[page needed]
Rousseau had no recollection of learning to read, but he remembered how when he was five or six his father encouraged his love of reading:
Every night, after supper, we read some part of a small collection of romances [adventure stories], which had been my mother’s. My father’s design was only to improve me in reading, and he thought these entertaining works were calculated to give me a fondness for it; but we soon found ourselves so interested in the adventures they contained, that we alternately read whole nights together and could not bear to give over until at the conclusion of a volume. Sometimes, in the morning, on hearing the swallows at our window, my father, quite ashamed of this weakness, would cry, “Come, come, let us go to bed; I am more a child than thou art.” (Confessions, Book 1)
Rousseau’s reading of escapist stories (such as L’Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé) had an effect on him; he later wrote that they “gave me bizarre and romantic notions of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to cure me of”.[page needed] After they had finished reading the novels, they began to read a collection of ancient and modern classics left by his mother’s uncle. Of these, his favorite was Plutarch‘s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, which he would read to his father while he made watches. Rousseau saw Plutarch’s work as another kind of novel—the noble actions of heroes—and he would act out the deeds of the characters he was reading about.[page needed] In his Confessions, Rousseau stated that the reading of Plutarch’s works and “the conversations between my father and myself to which it gave rise, formed in me the free and republican spirit”.
Witnessing the local townsfolk participate in militias made a big impression on Rousseau. Throughout his life, he would recall one scene where, after the volunteer militia had finished its manoeuvres, they began to dance around a fountain and most of the people from neighboring buildings came out to join them, including him and his father. Rousseau would always see militias as the embodiment of popular spirit in opposition to the armies of the rulers, whom he saw as disgraceful mercenaries.
When Rousseau was ten, his father, an avid hunter, got into a legal quarrel with a wealthy landowner on whose lands he had been caught trespassing. To avoid certain defeat in the courts, he moved away to Nyon in the territory of Bern, taking Rousseau’s aunt Suzanne with him. He remarried, and from that point Jean-Jacques saw little of him. Jean-Jacques was left with his maternal uncle, who packed him, along with his own son, Abraham Bernard, away to board for two years with a Calvinist minister in a hamlet outside Geneva. Here, the boys picked up the elements of mathematics and drawing. Rousseau, who was always deeply moved by religious services, for a time even dreamed of becoming a Protestant minister.
Virtually all our information about Rousseau’s youth has come from his posthumously published Confessions, in which the chronology is somewhat confused, though recent scholars have combed the archives for confirming evidence to fill in the blanks. At age 13, Rousseau was apprenticed first to a notary and then to an engraver who beat him. At 15, he ran away from Geneva (on 14 March 1728) after returning to the city and finding the city gates locked due to the curfew.
In adjoining Savoy he took shelter with a Roman Catholic priest, who introduced him to Françoise-Louise de Warens, age 29. She was a noblewoman of Protestant background who was separated from her husband. As professional lay proselytizer, she was paid by the King of Piedmont to help bring Protestants to Catholicism. They sent the boy to Turin, the capital of Savoy (which included Piedmont, in what is now Italy), to complete his conversion. This resulted in his having to give up his Genevan citizenship, although he would later revert to Calvinism to regain it.
In converting to Catholicism, both de Warens and Rousseau were likely reacting to Calvinism’s insistence on the total depravity of man. Leo Damrosch writes: “An eighteenth-century Genevan liturgy still required believers to declare ‘that we are miserable sinners, born in corruption, inclined to evil, incapable by ourselves of doing good'”. De Warens, a deist by inclination, was attracted to Catholicism’s doctrine of forgiveness of sins.
Finding himself on his own, since his father and uncle had more or less disowned him, the teenage Rousseau supported himself for a time as a servant, secretary, and tutor, wandering in Italy (Piedmont and Savoy) and France. During this time, he lived on and off with de Warens, whom he idolized and called his maman. Flattered by his devotion, de Warens tried to get him started in a profession, and arranged formal music lessons for him. At one point, he briefly attended a seminary with the idea of becoming a priest.