Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who advocated back to basics was a contradiction in his life. Imagine the concept of ‘noble savage’ coming from the pen of a tormented soul like Dosteovsky? Rousseau unlike the eponymous hero of ‘The Idiot’ was a man of flesh and blood and one, notwithstanding his own case, conceived an ideal for man who had sold his birthright for a make-believe article called progress. Here was one who turned his back on the march of events in full flow in France – and Encyclopaedia movement was as harbinger of progress, and felt in his bones that it was leading nowhere. In one sense he was right. Enlightenment of the skeptics was as misplaced as salvation promised by the Church. France was limping from long fought religious wars that had undeniably damaged man’s faith and liberal ideas of man as reaction to his lost innocence were gathering momentum. In Rousseau’s mind men, who placed premium on civilization without being really civilized were straws in wind. It shall indeed be proven in the needless blood that flowed during the reign of terror, l’affaire Dreyfus, debacle of the two wars that liberal mind superficially cobbled up was as just as bad as religion. Unfortunately the voice of a near mad man was lost in the confusion and his already overwrought mind would be for the rest of his life fighting on two fronts for his own sanity and for recognition of his ideas.
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. The practically orphaned Rousseau would be saddled with a sense of guilt he was responsible for his mother’s death. He resisted authority and 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. Later he would become a Calvinist. His nature was quick to take offence and he would fall out with most of his friends as in the case of David Hume for example.
In 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 basically is good but became corrupted by society in his view civilization merely debased him. 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 pride takes over his drive. In these time we know it as greed. 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.
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, he was felled by a stoke and is buried in The Pantheon in Paris alongside Victor Hugo, Voltaire(Francois Marie Arouet), and Emile Zola.
Les DELICES, August 30, 1755.
I have received, sir, your new book against the human species, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society–from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations–have never been painted in more striking colours: no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go on all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I. Nor can I set sail to discover the aborigines of Canada, in the first place because my ill-health ties me to the side of the greatest doctor in Europe, and I should not find the same professional assistance among the Missouris: and secondly because war is going on in that country, and the example of the civilised nations has made the barbarians almost as wicked as we are ourselves. I must confine myself to being a peaceful savage in the retreat I have chosen–close to your country, where you yourself should be…’
A fearful earthquake of Lisbon prompted Jean Jacques Rousseau to say it vindicated his theories arguing that houses could not have fallen if there had been no houses to fall, and that if men lived like beasts in the open, earthquakes would be robbed of nearly all their terrors.’