Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Biography

Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Biography

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Short biography ofJean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)- Geneva writer, philosopher and musician, Rousseau is one of the great figures of Age of Enlightenment. His main works,Discourse on the sciences and the arts, Discourse on Inequality among Men, the New Heloise, the Social Contract and Emile will be a resounding success. Rousseau rehabilitates the virtues of nature, generosity and simplicity, in the face of well-meaning worldly circles and the apostles of progress. He will become a source of inspiration for many actors of the French Revolution.


Rousseau, from Geneva to Paris

Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712, into a Protestant family of French origin. He will never know his mother, who died in childbirth. Abandoned by his father, a clockmaker, at the age of ten, he was entrusted to Mme de Warens in 1728. He formed close ties with her and, after a period of wandering in Switzerland and Paris, he returned to Savoy. to find her benefactress (1732) and live there for several happy years. Converted to Catholicism, he could not settle and traveled through Switzerland until 1732, when he settled in Chambéry. There, in the Charmettes' house, Rousseau completed his education, studying Latin, history, geography, science, philosophy and music.

When he arrived in Paris in 1743, he expected to see this great city as "the ancient Babylon where one saw only superb palaces of marble and gold". Entering from the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, he is very disappointed and sees only "dirty and stinking little streets, ugly black houses, poverty, beggars, carts, rascals, herbal tea criers and old people. hats ”. On the banks of the Seine, everything is different: he discovers buildings, six-storey houses, rich shops, an impressive number of cars.

He writes an opera, the Gallant muses (1745), and collaborates with that of Voltaire and Rameau, the Fêtes de Ramise. Frequenting Parisian salons, he met Denis Diderot, for whom he wrote about music in the Encyclopédie. In 1750, his Discourse on the sciences and the arts makes it known. This success opened the doors to "salons" for him, where, because of his pride, he never felt at ease. He chooses to live miserably by copying musical scores, while writing a new opera, the village diviner (1752), and a comedy, Narcissus (1753). During this period, he met a servant, Thérèse Levasseur, with whom he had five children, whom he abandoned.

His life is one of independence and instability, his relationships are only difficult and his spirit suspicious as we notice in the testimonies of his detractors. In comparison, he will have had friends and defenders.

Rousseau's detractors

Certainly he had a resounding success for these writings, but he was criticized by Fréron “the characters are improbable, certain features are crude, the style often emphatic… but there is the eloquence of the heart, the tone of feeling, the exquisite taste of physical nature, he has religion and does not blush to admit it ”.

Marmontel is not to be outdone "he had tried, to attract the crowd, to give himself the air of an ancient philosopher: first in an old frock coat, then in an Armenian coat, he appeared at the opera, in the cafes… but neither his dirty little wig and his staff of Diogenes, nor his stuffed cap attracted passers-by. He needed a splash; the break with the Philosophers attracted him a crowd of supporters; he had correctly calculated that the priests would be among the number ”.

Grimm, who called himself his friend, is not tender "until then, he had complimented, had been gallant, of a honeyed business and tiring by dint of turns; suddenly, he took the mantle of the cynic… he made himself a music copyist… I advised him at that time to become a lemonade and to run a coffee shop on the Place du Palais-Royal… ”

In addition, JJ Rousseau would have had a "bizarre" mind as Mercier tells it "he imagined having around him a league of ingenious enemies who had determined the scavengers to refuse him their services, the beggars to reject his alms, the disabled soldiers not to greet him. He firmly believed that all his speeches were being watched and that a host of emissaries were spread throughout Europe to denigrate him, either to the King of Prussia, or to his neighbor the fruit farmer who did not slacken the ordinary price. of his salad and pears only to humiliate him ”!

David Hume, secretary at the French embassy, ​​meets JJ Rousseau and notes his great sensitivity “all his life he has only felt, and in this regard his sensitivity reaches heights going beyond what I 've seen elsewhere; but it gives him a more acute feeling of pain than pleasure. He is like a man who was stripped of not only his clothes, but his skin, and found himself in this state to fight with the coarse and tumultuous elements ”. They will manage to fall out and this quarrel will spread all over Europe.

Its defenders

It is true that when he was ill, many people would visit him like a "curious beast". It got on his nerves and sometimes he got rude. Among his visitors, we find the Duc de Croÿ, the Prince de Ligne who was happy to spend eight hours with JJ Rousseau “touched by the effect he had on me, and convinced of my enthusiasm for him, he testified more interest and gratitude that he was not accustomed to showing towards anyone, and he left me, when he left me, the same emptiness that one feels when he wakes up after having made a sweet dream ".

We can only end with the Memoirs of his friend Bernardin de Saint Pierre, who visited him for the first time, rue de la Plâtrière in July 1771. The two men love nature and both have a little resentment against it. humanity. Rousseau tells him certain anecdotes. But let's start with their first interview.

A little man, covered in a frock coat and a white cap welcomed him to the fourth floor of a house and thus presented himself with "the oblique features which fall from the nostrils towards the ends of the mouth, and which characterize the physiognomy, expressed in his a great simplicity and even something painful. One noticed in his face three or four characters of melancholy by the sunken eyes and by the drooping of the eyebrows, of the deep sadness by the wrinkles of the forehead, a very lively and even a little caustic mirth by a thousand small folds at the angles. outer eyes ”. There was therefore something lovable, touching, refined in his face, worthy of piety and respect.

Installed in the main room, the visitor found himself in a calm and clean house facing a couple at peace, serene and full of simplicity. Happy, J.J. Rousseau shows him a series of pots filled with plants as well as a collection of small boxes filled with seeds of all kinds. A friendship was born.

The daily life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

J.J. Rousseau leading a simple life was still fresh and vigorous until the end of his life. Up at five-thirty, he copied a few pieces of music, then left all afternoon to pick plants in the full sun, after having had a coffee at Madame la Duchesse de Bourbon's; on his return he had supper and went to bed at half past nine: he had simple and natural tastes.

When J.J. Rousseau spoke of his curious visitors, de Saint Pierre pointed out to him that they came because of his fame, he got angry and did not accept the word. J.J. Rousseau was subject to certain moods and Bernardin de Saint Pierre had a bad experience. One day when he was visiting her, he was received in a cold manner. Busy Rousseau, de Saint Pierre opens a book while he waits… what was his surprise when he heard in an ironic tone "Monsieur loves reading!". Bernardin de Saint Pierre gets up, J.J. Rousseau leads him back to the door, saying "this is how it is to be used with people with whom we have no certain familiarity". For two months, they did not see each other until the day when J.J. Rousseau met him, asked him the reason for his absences; he explains to her then “there are days when I want to be alone… no matter what, one almost always leaves society, dissatisfied with oneself or with others. Still, I would be sorry to see you too often, but I would be even more sorry if I did not see you at all… the mood gets over me and don't you notice it well? I contain it for some time; then, I am no longer the master: it breaks out in spite of myself. I have my faults. But when we consider someone's friendship, we need the benefit with the charges "... with that, J.J. Rousseau invites Bernardin de Saint Pierre to dinner!

Great works and controversies

In 1754, a trip took him to his hometown. He once again became a Protestant and a “Genevan citizen. Rousseau then seeks to prove that civilization covers only a deep corruption. The progress of knowledge, which he does not deny, has only resulted in the decadence of man. He then begins his Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, one of his essential works. Rousseau presents there the myth intended to make fortune of the good savage.

In 1757 he was lodged by Madame d'Epinay at the Hermitage, in the Montmorency forest. He spent four peaceful and studious years there during which he published three of his most important works. The first one, Julie or the New Heloise (1761), where the author opposes Parisian life, frivolous and superficial, to country life, ideal according to him. In the social contract (1762), Rousseau presents the ideal government, a "natural" government, based on the sovereignty of the people and equality. Emile, the same year, is an educational novel, a pedagogy based of course on nature. The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard vicar advocates a naturist religion whose influence will be considerable in the second half of the 18th century. Emile's religious theories, however, drew the wrath of the authorities on Rousseau. This work was condemned by the Parliament of Paris and he had to take refuge in Switzerland, in Môtiers-Travers.

These persecutions accentuate the quirks of his character: this is how, in order to escape prosecution, he says, he decides to disguise himself as an Armenian. Driven from Môtiers, Jean-Jacques resumes his wandering life. Fleeing from refuge to refuge, especially in England to meet the philosopher David Hume, he composed various writings, including the Letters written from the mountains (1764), in which he responded to his accusers. The attacks of his detractors and the loneliness aggravate in Rousseau an already latent feeling of persecution and persuade him little by little that he is the prey of a conspiracy, in particular on the part of the encyclopedists with whom he is at odds. He returned to France in 1767. There, pursued by a mania for persecution, he wandered under a false name, before returning to Paris in 1770. He lived there again in poverty, drafting political reform projects and works testifying to his isolation and melancholy, committing not to publish anything during his lifetime. Confessions (1765-1770, posthumous edition 1782-1789), Rousseau judge of Jean-Jacques or Dialogues (1772-1776, posthumous 1789) and the Musings of the lonely walker (1776-1778, posthumous 1782) will not appear until after his death, which occurred in Ermenonville in 1778. His ashes were transferred to the Panthéon by the Convention in 1794.

Rousseau's posthumous influence

From the political point of view, his essential work is Social Contract or Principles of Political Law. Society, to find happiness, must reject the authority of the prince and establish the sovereignty of the people. Going much further in the field of freedom and equality than political thinkers like Montesquieu, Rousseau will inspire the Declaration of Human Rights under the Revolution, and many politicians, like Robespierre, a true disciple of the Genevan. Later, he will remember Rousseau's religious theories for the organization of the cult of the Supreme Being. Before reforming society, however, individuals must be reformed. Emile presents what should be the education of children, and will have a considerable influence.

Rousseau had championed democratic and egalitarian ideas, asserting his belief in the goodness of the natural man, corrupted by society. If he can be blamed for this simplicity, the fact remains that his writings on inequality and the conditions of happiness on earth will influence the revolutions to come.

Main works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

- Confessions. Folio, 2009.

- The New Heloise. Pocket Book, 2002.

- Of the social contract. Pocket Book, 1996.

- Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men. Flammarion, 2011.


- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, biography of Raymond Trousson. Folio, 2011.

- Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his time, biography of Bernard Cottret and Monique Cottret. Tempus, 2011.

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