Jean Jacques Rousseau was born at Geneva, June 28, 1712, the son of a
watchmaker of French origin. His education was irregular, and though
he tried many professions--including engraving, music, and
teaching--he found it difficult to support himself in any of them. The
discovery of his talent as a writer came with the winning of a prize
offered by the Academy of Dijon for a discourse on the question,
"Whether the progress of the sciences and of letters has tended to
corrupt or to elevate morals." He argued so brilliantly that the
tendency of civilization was degrading that he became at once famous.
The discourse here printed on the causes of inequality among men was
written in a similar competition.
He now concentrated his powers upon literature, producing two novels,
"La Nouvelle Heloise," the forerunner and parent of endless
sentimental and picturesque fictions; and "Emile, ou l'Education," a
work which has had enormous influence on the theory and practise of
pedagogy down to our own time and in which the Savoyard Vicar appears,
who is used as the mouthpiece for Rousseau's own religious ideas. "Le
Contrat Social" (1762) elaborated the doctrine of the discourse on
inequality. Both historically and philosophically it is unsound; but
it was the chief literary source of the enthusiasm for liberty,
fraternity, and equality, which inspired the leaders of the French
Revolution, and its effects passed far beyond France.
His most famous work, the "Confessions," was published after his
death. This book is a mine of information as to his life, but it is
far from trustworthy; and the picture it gives of the author's
personality and conduct, though painted in such a way as to make it
absorbingly interesting, is often unpleasing in the highest degree.
But it is one of the great autobiographies of the world.
During Rousseau's later years he was the victim of the delusion of
persecution; and although he was protected by a succession of good
friends, he came to distrust and quarrel with each in turn. He died at
Ermenonville, near Paris, July 2, 1778, the most widely influential
French writer of his age.
The Savoyard Vicar and his "Profession of Faith" are introduced into
"Emile" not, according to the author, because he wishes to exhibit his
principles as those which should be taught, but to give an example of
the way in which religious matters should be discussed with the young.
Nevertheless, it is universally recognized that these opinions are
Rousseau's own, and represent in short form his characteristic
attitude toward religious belief. The Vicar himself is believed to
combine the traits of two Savoyard priests whom Rousseau knew in his
youth. The more important was the Abbe Gaime, whom he had known at
Turin; the other, the Abbe Gatier, who had taught him at Annecy.