Rousseau, Jean Jacques
Rousseau, Jean Jacques, the brilliant genius who divided with Voltaire the rule over the almost boundless republic of French culture in the 18th century. His life was restless and full of contradictions, but it is possible to distinguish in it three periods.
1. The Period of Early Adventure (from his childhood to 1749). — Rousseau was born at Geneva, June 28, 1712. His mother died in giving him birth, and his father early turned him over to the care of an uncle. He became first a copyist to an attorney, and then apprentice to an engraver on copper. He was from early childhood an insatiable reader of romances, and an enthusiastic admirer of nature; nor is it unimportant to notice that at the age of nine years he had already devoured Plutarch. The charms of nature and of a circulating library were too strong for his fidelity to duty. He neglected his business, was punished by his master, and ran away. At this time he first made the acquaintance of Madame de Warens at Annecy (his "mamma," as he was wont to term her), and was by her persuaded to become a Romanist. Compelled to earn his bread, he entered the service of a noble lady, and in that condition committed offenses which he had the baseness to charge on an innocent girl. He soon returned to Madame de Warens, whose favor secured him admission to a seminary for priests, where he renewed the musical studies of his earlier years, but did nothing else. Thence he went to Lyons with a music teacher, and afterwards to Lausanne and Neufchatel, in which places he endeavored to establish himself in the same profession. Various other situations were occupied by him in swift succession, but in the end he is found once more with Madame de Warens, who now lived at Chambery, and permitted Rousseau to lead an idyllic life on her farm at Charmettes, while at the same time sustaining improper relations with him. His growth towards culture had in the meantime been steady. He was acquainted with much of the current literature, even of England, and had given thought to religious questions. He now added the study of Latin and mathematics, and also of philosophy in the works of Locke, Leibnitz, Malebranche, Descartes, etc. His earliest comedies and operas were written in this period, which, however, soon came to an end by reason of the failure of his health. His relation with Madame de Warens was definitely broken off by his removal to Montpellier in 1737. After a brief sojourn in Lyons, he went to Paris, where he arrived in 1741, hoping to make his fortune through a new system of musical notation; but though his treatise was read before the Academy of Sciences, it was not approved. His next venture was an opera entitled Les Muses Galantes, which likewise proved less successful than he expected. In 1743 he was made private secretary to Count de Montaign, whom he accompanied to Venice, returning to Paris after an absence of eighteen months. With his entrance on a lawless relation with Theresa Le Vasseur, a thoroughly uncultivated character of low antecedents and utter ignorance, whom he did not profess to love, but whom he made his wife after years of illicit connection, and whose parents he received into his care, the first division of his life may close.
2. The Period of his Triumphs (1749-62). — The Academy of Dijon in 1749 offered a prize for the best essay on the question, "Whether the reestablishment of the sciences and arts has helped to purify manners?" for which Rousseau competed with success. He assumed that nature must ennoble mind, instead of mind being needed to redeem and improve nature, and argued the pessimist view with such force and brilliancy of style that he was at once assigned a place as a writer of prose by the side of Voltaire. The book was thoroughly adapted to the times, when hearts throbbed with intense yearning for deliverance from the unnatural conditions that prevailed in culture and in practical life, and when longings had been stimulated by the appearance of books like Robinson Crusoe, Thomson's Seasons, etc., in which the bliss of a state of nature was celebrated. The gospel of nature was in vogue, and Rousseau became its leading prophet. Yet it was at this time that he chose to add one more to the many paradoxes of his life, by availing himself of the celebrity he had attained to secure employment in copying music as a means of livelihood. In 1752 he published the opera, Le Devin du Village, by which his musical reputation became established; and in 1753 he discussed a second prize question presented by the Academy of Dijon, and relating to the inequalities existing in the conditions of mankind. His book, the Discours sur l'Origine et les Fondemens de l'Inegalite parmi les Hommes, takes the ground that human society, considered in the abstract, is exclusively natural, and cannot therefore sustain a relation independent of nature, i.e. so as to divide nature and appropriate it to individuals. Rousseau does not place all men on the same level, as if they were merely so many animals. He admits the existence of physical, mental, and spiritual differences. But he declares that the first man to fence off a piece of land and claim that it belonged to him, and find people to concede his claim, was the founder of society. He evidently regards property as an egotistical robbery of the community of men, and has no conception of property as both required and conditioned by morality. This book also was in harmony with the spirit of the time, though its effect was not fully displayed until a later day; and Rousseau himself was so fully in sympathy with its teachings that he felt driven to forsake the gilded and varnished glory of Paris for a season of communion with nature in his native town, though the growing coolness between himself and his friends — to which his letters on French music contributed largely was not without influence in bringing him to that determination. He recovered his forfeited citizenship at Geneva by returning to the Reformed faith, and delighted to call himself "Citoyen de Geneve." He found, however, that he could not remain away from Paris, especially after his adversary Voltaire had established himself at Ferney; and his return was signalized in 1760 by the publication of the romance La Nouvelle Heloise, in which the ideas of his two previous works are combined, and in which great brilliancies of style conceal grave faults of composition. It was also significant because of moral, social, and religious reflections in its pages, which foreshadowed Rousseau's later positions.
The two constructive works from Rousseau's pen, Le Contrat Social and Emile, appeared in close succession in 1762. The latter book was directed against abuses in the training of the young, and effected a complete revolution in European pedagogics; but while it antagonized many real errors, it at the same time assailed the fundamental conditions upon which all youthful training must rest. Nature again is the keynote to which the argument is attuned. Each child, so runs the demand, should develop its own nature from the beginning, without being placed under adult human guidance — that nature being its individualistic qualities. The object is to train the man, who exists for himself, and is contrasted with the training of the citizen, who exists for society, though the contrary object is enforced in the Contrat Social. This egoistic nature is represented as an ideal nature which needs only development, but not redemption and regeneration. Emile finds his religious perfection in deism, not in Christianity. In the Profession de Foi du Vicaire Savoyard, Rousseau nevertheless assails the materialism and atheism of his former friends, and insists on the three fundamental theistic truths — God, liberty, and immortality. He contends against revelation, but yet utters sentiments of reverence for the Gospel on account of its exalted character, and declares that "if Socrates died like a philosopher, Christ died like a God." The effects produced by the Contrat Social in the political world were less rapid, but more profound, than that occasioned by the Emile in pedagogics. The ideas which ripened into the French Revolution were sown in the days of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew and during the reign of Louis XIV; but they found in Rousseau's book a spark which kindled them into a flame, ultimating in that furious blaze. The Contrat Social determined the scope of ideas at the beginning of the Revolution, conducted affairs to more far-reaching consequences, and furnished the watchwords — above all, the cry — of "Liberty and equality." The book has no conception of the historical and rightful relation of the individual citizen to national and political authority, and of the supreme law of right above even such authority. The citizen is taught in it, not to take his place as a person under the divinely instituted order of things in this world, but to cultivate the idea that the state rests simply on an original agreement between individuals, according to which the community stands pledged to protect the person and property of the individual, while the individual has bound himself to live in entire subordination to the community. The citizen is accordingly altogether dependent on the community. He ought therefore to accept the religion appointed by the state or suffer banishment, or, in case of resistance, death. As Rousseau recognizes no representation of the people, nor yet ally form of government that may not at any moment be overturned by the community of citizens, he really passes beyond every limit of a radicalism which yet admits the legal relation of authority and subject, and of political and religious conditions, and draws the first lineaments of socialism. Yet he was too much a dreamer to suspect the consequences that must spring from such ideas. In 1766 he declared to a pseudonymous Cassius who offered to reduce to practice these principles in the liberation of the people, that he abominated every such undertaking; and when disorders broke out on the occasion of the burning of his Emile at Geneva, he pacified the people himself.
Of Rousseau's minor works, the Lettre a M. d'Alembert sur les Spectacles is a determined protest against the establishing of a theater at Geneva; the celebrated Lettre a Christopher de Beaumont was a response to a prohibition of the Emile by the archbishop of Paris, and the Lettres de la Montagne form a similar rejoinder to the magistracy of Geneva. These letters have been compared with those of Junius, or of Lessing against Gotze.
The troubles of Rousseau began to germinate at the time of his highest prosperity. His ardent and sensitive nature was out of place in the circle of cold and cynical mockers by whom he was surrounded, and the frankness with which he uncovered his inmost experiences to their gaze made him an object of their merciless witticisms and sarcasms; and when he proceeded to assail their cherished idols and to contend for God, virtue, and immortality, he brought on himself the full weight of their hatred in the form of incessant malicious sneers. Other matters contributed to fully disgust him with the situation. He burned with illicit love for Madame d'Houdelot, whose relations to her husband were not happy, but who adored the poet Lambert instead of Rousseau. He broke decidedly with Diderot. He participated in false gossip derogatory to Madame d'Epinay, who had been his patroness and had permitted him to occupy her summer house in the forest of Montmorency since 1756. He lived from 1758 to 1762 in another house near Montmorency, and in the latter year encountered the storm which broke out against his Emile. This event forms the proper opening of a new period.
3. The Period of Unsettled Wandering and Morbid Fears. — It is remarkable that a government which tolerated an entire school of atheistical mockers of religion in Paris should have condemned as godless the earnest deist who was alone in daring to contend for God in those circles; and equally strange that the decree of the Parisian Parliament should have condemned the Emile, instead of the far more dangerous Contrat Social. Perhaps the government which had just expelled the Jesuits may have found it convenient to persecute Rousseau, the Swiss, who had gone back to Calvinism, and who had dared to represent a Romish priest as affording a charming illustration of deism. To avoid arrest, he fled to Yverdun, in Switzerland; but the Genevan senate had likewise condemned him before a copy of his book had reached that city. He renounced his citizenship and turned aside to the canton Neufchatel, where he lived from 1762 to 1765 under the protection of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He wrote the Lettres de la Montagne, pursued studies in legislation in behalf of the Corsicans, and botanized — botany and music constituting his favorite employments. The gossiping tongue of his mistress, Theresa, succeeded, however, in rendering him suspected of irreligion by the pastor and peasants of Motiers-Travers, where he resided. He imagined himself no longer safe, and fled the canton. In 1765 he accepted an invitation from Hume to visit England, but even here his mania of suspicion controlled him. He included Hume in the number of his foes, and removed to the house of a new friend, Davenport, whence the objection of individual Englishmen to his relation with Theresa drove him back to France in 1767. He went under the assumed name of Renon to Castle Trye, a possession of prince Conti, and, after further travels, back to Paris in 1770. Seven or eight years more of life remained to him, which he passed in the Rue Platriere (now known by his name), tormented by melancholy fancies, oppressed by poverty, alienated from Theresa, and gradually failing in health. He sustained himself by copying notes, and finished his Confessions, which he had begun at Motiers. He died suddenly at Ermenonville, near Paris, July 2, 1778 whether of disease or of poison administered by himself is not known. He was received into the Pantheon Oct. 11, 1794.
The European and even world-wide reputation which Rousseau had achieved is illustrated by the fact that he was induced in the last period of his life to compose the Lettres sur Legislation des Corses and the Considerations sur le Gouvernenent de Pologne (1772); and his mental force is apparent in the ability to write his Confessiosle at a time when his soul was darkened with the clouds of morbid and imaginary fears. His native frankness is very evident in that book, but faults and errors are so interwoven with virtues and attractive features that the result of the whole is a glorification of himself. The book may be regarded both as a companion picture and a contrast to the Confessions of Augustine. Such contradictions are characteristic of the man in every relation. He was immeasurably vain, selfish, changeful, and ungrateful — easily provoked, always suspicious, and morbidly misanthropic. As a reformer, his merit consists in having opposed to the godless humanism of his day the crying needs of the human heart; but he identified the empirical sinful heart with the ideal heart, individual participation in nature with personal conformity to nature, the beautiful soul with the moral spirit, the utilitarian with the practical, declamation with confession, and he therefore remained involved in contradictions to the end. In contrast with Calvin, he brought out the ideas of individual rights and of the personal dignity of man — elements of Christian truth often violated by Calvin; but he nevertheless gave his ideal state power over the religious worship and profession of its subjects. Compared with Voltaire, the sardonic mocker of all existing things, Rousseau commands respect by the frankness and manliness of his protests, even when they are directed against holy things. He was incapable of comprehending the syntheses nature and culture, liberty and authority, individuality and society, reason and revelation, the human and the divine. In its pedagogical aspects, his work compares with that of Pestalozzi as does the dawn with the noonday sun. In politics he points forward to both Mirabeau and Saint-Simon; and in philosophy, as a preacher of deism, he may be compared with Kant. For both good and evil, Rousseau was a mighty exponent of the spirit of his time, and deserves, in justice, to be studied from both points of view.
Rousseau's works were very numerous, the botanical and musical writings, among others, being especially worthy of recognition. Editions of his writings are likewise numerous (Geneva, 1782-90, 17 vols. 4to, or 35 vols.
8vo; Paris, 1793-1800, 18 vols. 4to, etc. German editions by Cramer, Gleich, and others). Additional matter was furnished by Musset-Pathay, in Oeuvres Inedites de J. J. Rousseau (Paris, 1825), and by Mars Michel Rey, in Lettres Inedites de J. J. Rousseau (Amst. and Paris, 1858). Musset- Pathay also wrote a Histoire de la Vie et des Ouvrages de J. J. Rousseau (ibid. 1821). See also Girardin, Sur la Mort de J. J. Rousseau (ibid. 1824); Villemain, Cours de Litterature Francaise (Vingt deuxieme Lecon); the Works on the history of literature by Vinet, Demogeot, etc.; Schmidt- Weissenfels, Geschichte der franzosischen Revolutions literatur (Prague, 1859), p. 16 sq.