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Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) "Citizen Rousseau of Geneva", writer, musician and political theorist, penned the well-known Social Contract in 1762. While his controversial writings contributed to the Romantic Movement and allegedly inspired the French Revolution, he emerged from fairly humble beginnings.
Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, 28 June, 1712, the second son of Isaac Rousseau, descendant of French Huguenots, and Susanne Bernard (who died a week after he was born). Young Jean’s Calvinist father went into exile when he was charged with poaching and tried to slash his accuser.
Sent by his maternal uncle to a parsonage for basic religious schooling, Rousseau endured the severe straits of harsh discipline that would later form his basis of hatred towards authority. With school finished he attempted a few unsuccessful apprenticeships. The practically orphaned Rousseau (who felt he was responsible for his mother’s death) spent much of his spare time alone exploring his first love, nature, which he escaped to in life as a vagabond in 1728. His wanderings led him out of Geneva to Sardinia then France, where he met Madame de Warens, who for the next ten years provided for him an education and much needed moral support and maternal love. At this time Rousseau converted to Catholicism.
1742 and living in Paris, Rousseau hoped to establish himself in a musical career, unsuccessfully proposing a new system of music to the Academy of Sciences. He published musical theory and wrote for the opera, attracted the attentions of King and court, but ended up concentrating on the development of his political theories towards social reform. He also met Therese le Vasseur who became his mistress with whom he had five children. They married near the end of his life.
It was not until 1750 that he won his first prize for an essay A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, its basis being that man (from his naive state of goodness) had become corrupted by society and civilization's progress. In 1755 he published his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, stating that original man was preferable while isolated from the corruption of social institutions; that vices develop out of a society where man starts to compare himself to others and becomes prideful. Catholic theologians concurred that humanity had not sufficiently advanced, yet disagreed that man was innately good. Rousseau eloquently expressed the problems of `law and order’ with greater clarity than most other of his contemporaries like Diderot and Voltaire, whom he eventually parted ways with, but he was heavily criticised for his condemnations as well. He reconverted to Calvinism around this time, causing some conjecture as to his mental health, which however was a legitimate concern for the rest of his life.
Rousseau wrote The New Eloise (1761) next, which escaped censor and was one of the most widely read works of the Romanticism period. He published Èmile in 1762, his `heretical’ education reform treatise. His next and most controversial work, The Social Contract (1762) while starting with the opening line "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains." suggested that there was still hope for mankind’s future, that he is essentially good, a `noble savage’, if only he realised the importance of a state of nature and worked to disarm the constraints of society. The publication of these two works caused uproar among French Catholics and Calvinist censors who were deeply offended and publicly burnt the books. Orders for his arrest were issued. Enduring this persecution but becoming paranoid and insecure, Rousseau lived in exile in Prussia and later England, to live with Scottish philosopher David Hume for a period of time. He returned to France under a false name after accusing Hume of disloyalty.
Rousseau continued to work in secret on his Confessions (1764 – 1778), inspired by St. Augustine’s Confessions as well as the Essays of Montaigne. His last opus proves to be a progressively more and more disquieting assay of self-justification, Rousseau seeming to need to plead his case for posterity, confess his sins. The lyrical Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782), marks a period of inner peace for Rousseau in his declining years. On 2 July, 1778, while staying with the Marquis de Giradin in Ermenonville, just north of Paris, Rousseau, after taking one of his routine morning walks communing with nature, died of apparent apoplexy (or brain hemorrhage as it’s now known). He is buried in The Pantheon in Paris alongside Victor Hugo, Francois Marie Arouet, Voltaire and Emile Zola. As he says at the start of his Confessions, comparing himself to other men, “If I am not better, at least I am different.” His writings to this day are still well-known and widely available.
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.
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