Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator.”

Have you every felt so completely sorry for someone that that emotion eclipses any others that he might stir up inside you?  Have you ever encountered someone who simply is a unique soul, a person who, no matter what they do, does not fit in easily with society?  Have you ever been charmed by someone and then repelled at the same time?  All these thoughts and emotions were boiling up, mixing together, as I read Rousseau’s Confessions, the autobiography of his life.

Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva in the Republic of Geneva, a city-state in the Protestant Swiss Confederacy.  He was born to a watchmaker named Isaac Rousseau and his wife, Suzanne Bernard, his mother dying tragically mere days following Rousseau’s birth.  He described her death as, “the first of my misfortunes.”  

Reading his mother’s romance books at such a young age, with his father, appeared to shape Rousseau’s character in an unusual way:

“By this dangerous method I acquired in a short time not only a marked facility for reading and comprehension, but also an understanding, unique in one of my years, of the passions.  I had as yet no ideas about things, but already I knew every feeling.  I had conceived nothing; I had felt everything.  This rapid succession of confused emotions did not damage my reason, since as yet I had none; but it provided me with one of a different temper; and left me with some bizarre and romantic notions about human life, of which experience and reflection have never quite managed to cure me.”

Curiously, Rousseau’s experience with books and their  affect on human character are echoed by themes in other classics including, Madame Bovary, Eugene Onegin, and Anna Karenina.
Les Charmettes where Rousseau lived
with Mme Warens
source Wikipedia

From the age of 10 on, Rousseau saw little of his father, who had moved away to avoid prosecution by a wealthy land owner. The boy was eventually apprenticed to an engraver, but at 15 ran away and began a rather nomadic lifestyle.  In Savoy, he would be introduced to Madame Francoise-Louise de Warens, a woman 13 years his senior, whom he would forever call “Maman.”  She would be his Muse and surrogate mother for the greater part of Rousseau’s life, as well his lover for a short period of time.  Later, his obsessive interest in music would be used to earn money as a teacher, as well as gain him subsequent notoriety as a writer of opera and various other articles and works on the subject.  

In 1742, Rousseau moved to Paris and became close friends with Denis Diderot, another enlightenment thinker, and his renown as a philosopher was born.  His first major-philosophical work, Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts was presented to the Academy of Dijon in response to the question, “…whether the Restoration of the arts and sciences has had the effect of purifying or corrupting morals.”  In it, Rousseau offered a thorough critique of civilization, seeing it not as a chronicle of progress, but instead as a history of decay.  For Rousseau, no one is innately good, but instead must cultivate a rational knowledge to gain control of nature and therefore, self.  
Denis Diderot (1767)
par Louis-Michel van Loo

Upon returning to Paris, after a posting in Venice as a secretary to the Comte de Montaigue, Rousseau took Thérèse Levasseur as a lover, eventually having 5 children with her, all of whom he placed in a foundling hospital, being unwilling to bring them up due to the lack of education and undesirable social class of his in-laws whom he was supporting.  With his later books on education and child-rearing, these callous actions made him the target of vicious ad hominem attacks from some contemporaries, in particular Voltaire and Edmund Burke.  

Through most of his life, Rousseau dealt with various health issues including being unable to urinate without the use of a probe, odd romantic attachments, including a passionate unconsummated obsession with Sophie d’Houdetot, who inspired his novel, Julie, breaks with various friends and acquaintances upon his retirement to the country, and various and numerous attacks of persecution and threats.  When Rousseau wrote that all religions had value, in that they all encouraged men to virtue, an intense uproar exploded against him, and he was finally forced to flee to England with the help of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume.  In 1767, he returned to France under an assumed name and finally in 1770, he was officially allowed to return.  
While the tone of Confessions often oozed of lament and discontent, especially during the latter half, Rousseau also showed a rather mischievous sense of humour:

“As we became better acquainted, we were, of course, obliged to talk about ourselves, to say where we came from and who we were.  This threw me into confusion; for I was very well aware that in polite society and among ladies of fashion I had only to describe myself as a new convert and that would be the end of me.  I decided to pass myself off as English:  I presented myself as a Jacobite, which seemed to satisfy them, called myself Dudding and was known to the company as M. Dudding.  One of their number, the Marquis de Taulignan, a confounded fellow, ill like me, old into the bargain, and rather bad-tempered, took it into his head to engage M. Dudding in conversation.  He spoke of King James, of the Pretender, and of the court of Saint Germain in the old days.  I was on tenderhooks.  I knew about all of this  only of what little I had read in Count Hamilton and in the gazettes; however I made such good use of this little knowledge that I managed to get away with it, relieved that no one had thought to question me about the English language, of which I did not know one single word.” 

One cannot talk about Rousseau’s life without mentioning his passion for nature.  Once removed to the country, he was in his element, his retirement not only giving him an escape from the petty intriguing of Parisian society, but also gratifying his love of long rambles in the woods, his eventual interest in botany and his joy of solitutde.

“Two or three times a week when the weather was fine we would take coffee in a cool and leafy little summer-house behind the house, over which I had trained hops, and which was a great pleasure to us when it was hot; there we would spend an hour or so inspecting our vegetable plot and our flowers, and discussing our life together in ways that led us to savour more fully its sweetness.  At the end of the garden I had another little family:  these were my bees.  I rarely missed going to visit them, often accompanied by Maman; I was very interest in the arrangements, and found it endlessly entertaining to watch them come home from their marauding with their little thighs sometimes so laden that they could hardly walk.”

Rousseau méditant dans un parc (1769)
par Alexandre Hyacinthe Dunouy
source Wikipedia

Rousseau was a man of numerous contradictions.  On one hand, he was self-absorbed, petty-minded, overly sensitive, idealistic, peculiar, selfish, out of touch with reality, yet on the other, he was also rather lonely, at times generous, unique, creative, self-aware, and inquisitive.  He is a puzzling conundrum bottled up in one person.  Yes, he would have been hard to bear at times.  He is one of those people with whom one could never be comfortable, as you would always be wondering if you were living up to his standards.  He had a short fuse, yet also a generous heart. 

How did I come to these conclusions?  Well, you certainly get a sense of Rousseau’s perceived persecution that appeared expanded to gigantic proportions in his mind.  Many reviewers call this obsession his “paranoia,” an imagined grand plot with machinations designed by numerous former friends, ready to invest years of their lives to bring about his downfall.  Yet perhaps this behaviour is not so surprising in a man who had been raised mostly without family, obviously needing the intimacy of human companionship, yet who had never really learned or accepted the proper manners to fit easily in society; French society, in particular, follows certain constructs that do not allow for individuality.  

In spite of Rousseau’s various eccentricities, I couldn’t help feel profound sympathy for him.  With no one to shape his character and with his unwillingness to temper his idiosyncrasies and become homogeneous with his surroundings, Rousseau became a victim of himself, a plight for me that only excites pity.

12 thoughts on “Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  1. Another great review!

    It's a relief to know that I wasn't the only one who found him full of contradictions, self-absorbed, and selfish, yet still managed to feel pity for him. But, yes, he probably was paranoid.

    If there was one topic I did agree with him on, it was his ideas about nature – even if some of them were unrealistic. But that is how a romantic-minded individual sees the world: unrealistically, in many cases.

  2. I loved his ideas about nature too. Perhaps romantic but better than living in the city, I think.

    I know some people thought that he was paranoid, but I'm not so sure. I think people made assumptions about him when he was away in the country without having contact with him, and then formed judgements. With Rousseau's sensitive character, I could imagine that he would feel somewhat persecuted, as he wouldn't have the means to contradict their assumptions. For him, I think his reaction was normal …. intense, but normal.

    Like you, I can't wait to read more of his works and figure out a little bit more of how his mind worked.

  3. What an interesting review! I've never read anything by Rousseau but I had read about him and the fact that he gave his children up which I think was monstrous. I actually am going to try to read some of the "Enlightenment" writers in the near future. Thanks for the impetus.

  4. I felt Rousseau actually convinced himself that his children would be better off. He seemed to feel very convicted about his actions later, because he often mentioned them, and he even tried to trace one of them later on but with no results. Given Rousseau's rather odd outlook on life, his actions don't surprise me. While he craved relationships, I don't believe that he ever developed the skills to understand how they were formed and nurtured.

    As for enlightenment thinkers, I certainly liked Rousseau better than Voltaire. Diderot, I haven't read yet but given his vicious invectives against Rousseau, I'm already prejudiced against him. Rousseau seemed to give both the good and bad qualities of both his friends and enemies and I appreciated the balance, but Diderot was all black imprecations. Not cool.

  5. I am currently on a book buying fast for Lent which has proven to be rather a trial in self control for me (one more week to go!) but after Easter I plan on buying a book that has an anthology of the great thinkers of the western world. It has a good sampling of many 18th and 19th century philosophers. I look forward to reading Rousseau, Diderot and the others. I know that many of them are secularists but I still like to know their arguments so I can think through why I disagree with them.

  6. This is a long review full of reflections. Your thought give me a balanced look at the man, the good anf the ' less good' . I did discover that this book reminds me of Le Noeud de Vipères by Nobel prize winner F. Mauriac. Mauriac followed St Augstine's and Rousseau's example and laid his life in front ot the reader.

  7. A book buying fast! Now there's an idea. I struggle with ideas of what to give up for Lent. What's the title of the book that you're planning to buy, Sharon? It sounds fascinating. I have a book on general philosophy but it would be nice to add one that covers the particular philosophers.

    I just borrowed a biography from the library about Rousseau …. now I just have to carve some time out of my busy schedule to read it!

  8. Rousseau was a very "human" person who did very little to curb his passions, which was really why he always found his life in such a turmoil. I liked him for this humanness though.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Nancy. Is the book translated into English yet? The Augustine/Rousseau pairing is very intriguing.

  9. Library. Now there's a novel idea. I wouldn't be breaking my fast because I wouldn't be buying books. I just looked and there's a few biographies on Rousseau there. I'll have to check them out.
    I was at Barnes and Noble yesterday and I'm trying to remember the name of the title of the book on philosophers. I'll know it when I see it which will be right after Easter. I'll let you know then. 🙂

  10. I haven't read a lot of biographies but this one sounds fascinating. I really should have read this instead of Kant for the Enlightenment literary movement challenge. When studying the French Revolution, his name often came up along with some of his social contract theories but that is far as I ever delved into Rousseau. Seems like I need to check him out now.

  11. Rousseau was lots of fun! While I'm not sure if you would have liked him personally, I think you would have liked reading about him. Quite a character!

    Yikes! Kant?! You really jumped into the deep end!

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