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Author: Jonathan Ree


Updated Monday, 21st November 2005

Jonathan Rée introduces the life and work of the French Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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Rousseau image [copyright Mary Evans Picture Library]

by Jonathan Rée

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was nearly forty when he began to make a name for himself as an opponent of the cynical atheism and materialism that often passed for philosophy in the eighteenth century - particularly in France. He wanted to revive a simple kind of Christianity, a religion of the heart rather than the Church. He also took pride in his citizenship of the Calvinist city state of Geneva, and went out of his way to praise the austere militaristic politics of ancient Greece, Sparta and Rome. He was tolerated by many of the fashionable and successful philosophes, but he was not so lucky with the church and state. His semi-fictionalised educational treatise Émile (1762) suggested that children should not be forced to imbibe Christian doctrine, but should be left to make up their own minds about religion when they were old enough to do so. The book was burned in Paris, and even condemned in his native Geneva. For the next four years, Rousseau was more or less on the run; and he feared, quite rightly, that his complex and highly original ideas about the distinction between the natural state of mankind, and the artificiality of language, society and politics were being caricatured, ridiculed and trivialised (Voltaire was a particularly savage opponent). He was acutely conscious of the shortcomings of politics and civilisation, but – and this was the real novelty of his ideas – he thought there were no remedies except those that derived from within civilisation itself.

In 1765 he accepted an invitation from the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) to seek refuge in England. But the visit, which lasted 16 months, was not a success. He suspected plots against him, even amongst his greatest friends, including Hume himself; and he could not stand the weather. But it was in England, and particularly in the wild beauty of the Peak District, that he worked on the first half of the Confessions – a revolutionary experiment in autobiography, in which he attempted to tell his readers his most intimate secrets, in the hope of justifying not only his existence but his philosophy as well. It is a remarkable that he should have produced such a sunny work during such a bleak period of his existence; but entirely consistent with his complex philosophy of civilisation.



Rousseau [Image: Copyright Mary Evans Picture Library]


1712 28 June - Jean-Jacques Rousseau born in Geneva

1728 fitfully self-educated, and frustrated in his apprenticeship to an engraver, runs away from Geneva. At Annecy he gains the protection of the Baronne de Warens, who sends him to Turin to be officially accepted as a Catholic convert

1731 first visit to Paris, which disgusts him

1740 after eight happy years living with de Warens in Chambéry, and offering music lessons, starts work as a tutor in Lyon

1742 moves to Paris, hoping to make a fortune from a new system of musical notation

1743-4 secretary to French Ambassador to Venice

1745 Rousseau begins his life-long association with Thérèse Levasseur

1746 begins work on the Encyclopedie, edited by Diderot and d’Alembert

1750 publication of prize-winning Discourse on whether the re-establishment of arts and sciences has contributed to the refining of morals (English translation, 1751)

1752 successful performance of his opera, Le Devin du Village, before Louis XV at Fontainebleau

1753 publishes Lettre sur la musique française and embroils himself in controversy over the shortcomings of French music

1755 publication of prize-winning Discourse on the origins of inequality (English translation, 1761); increasing alienation from Voltaire, Diderot, and D’Alembert

1758 Letter to D’Alembert (English translation, 1759)

1761 Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (English translation, 1761)

1762 Social Contract (translation, 1764) and Émile (translations, 1763, 1767); Émile condemned as irreligious by the Parliament and the Archdiocese of Paris, and later by the magistrates of Geneva; Rousseau flees to takes up residence in Neuchâtel

1765 takes refuge on the Ile Saint-Pierre on the Lac de Bienne, and decides to move to England, passing through Paris, where he is lionised

1766 January - accompanied by David Hume, arrives in London, mobbed by crowds; March, moves to Wootton Hall, Staffordshire, works on Confessions; July, denounces Hume as a plotter

1767 May - having completed most of the first volume of the Confessions, flees to Spalding and enters France incognito

1770 returns to Paris under his own name, and gives readings from the Confessions

1776 writes Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, and gives the manuscript to Brooke Boothby, who had been a neighbour in the Peak District (published by Boothby, 1780)

1778 2 July - dies after a stroke

1782 publication of Confessions (part one: I-VI) (English translation, 1783)

1789 publication of Confessions (part two: VII-XII) (English translation, 1790)


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, translated by J.M. Cohen, Penguin paperback


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