Historical Figures

Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Short biography

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is a writer, philosopher and musician from Geneva and one of the great figures of the Enlightenment . His main works, Discourse on the sciences and the arts , Discourse on Inequality among Men , the New Héloïse , the Social Contract and Emile will be a resounding success. Rousseau rehabilitates there 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. Two of his works, which have as their theme the love of nature (Rêveries du promeneur solitaire ) and amorous passion (Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse ) had a profound influence on romantic literature of the 19th century.

Jean-Jacques 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 watchmaker, at the age of ten, he was entrusted to Madame de Warens in 1728. He formed intimate ties with her and, after a period of wandering in Switzerland and Paris, he returned to Savoy. to find his benefactress (1732) and live there for several happy years. Converted to Catholicism, he could not settle down and traveled through Switzerland until 1732, when he settled in Chambéry. There, in the house of Charmettes, 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”. On entering the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, he was very disappointed and saw only "dirty and stinking little streets, ugly black houses, poverty, beggars, carts, menders, herbal tea criers and old 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 Galant Muses (1745), and collaborated with that of Voltaire and Rameau, Les 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 let him know. This success opens the doors to the "salons", where because of his pride, he never feels at ease. He chooses to live miserably by copying musical scores, while writing a new opera, Le Devin du village (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 was all independence and instability, his relationships were only difficult and his mind 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 implausible, certain lines are coarse, the style often emphatic...but there is eloquence of the heart, the tone of feeling, the exquisite taste of physical nature, he has religion and does not blush to confess 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 a 'Armenian, he showed himself at the opera, in the cafes… but neither his dirty little wig and his Diogenes staff, nor his fur cap attracted passers-by. He needed a bang; the rupture with the Philosophers attracted a crowd of partisans to him; he had well calculated that the priests would be among them”.

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

In addition, J.J. Rousseau would have had a "strange" mind, as Mercier recounts, "he imagined he had around him a league of ingenious enemies who had determined the scrapers to refuse him their services, beggars to reject his alms, invalid soldiers not to salute him. He firmly believed that all his speeches were spied on and that a crowd of emissaries were scattered throughout Europe to denigrate him, either to the King of Prussia or to his neighbor the fruit seller who never let up on the ordinary price. of his salad and pears only to humiliate him!

David Hume, secretary at the French Embassy, ​​met J.J. Rousseau and noted his great sensitivity "all his life he only felt, and in this regard his sensitivity reaches heights going beyond what I have seen elsewhere; but this gives him a more acute feeling of pain than of pleasure. He is like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes, but of 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 go around all of Europe.

His defenders

It is true that when he was sick, many people visited him like a "curious beast". This contributed to annoy him and sometimes he became rude. Among his visitors, we find the Duke of Croÿ, the Prince of Ligne who was happy to spend eight hours with J.J. Rousseau "touched by the effect he produced on me, and convinced of my enthusiasm for him, he showed me more interest and gratitude than he was 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 beautiful dream”.

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

A little man, wearing a frock coat and a white cap, greeted him on the fourth floor of a house and thus presented himself "with the oblique features that fall from the nostrils towards the extremities of the mouth, and which characterize the physiognomy, expressed in his a great simplicity and even something painful. We noticed in his face three or four characteristics of melancholy by the sunken eyes and the drooping of the eyebrows, deep sadness by the wrinkles on the forehead, a very lively and even a little caustic gaiety by a thousand little folds at the corners. exteriors of the eyes. His face therefore offered something lovable, touching, delicate, 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 with Madame la Duchesse de Bourbon; on his return, he had supper and went to bed at nine-thirty:he had simple and natural tastes.

When J.J. Rousseau mentioned his curious visitors, de Saint Pierre pointed out to him that they came because of his celebrity, he became angry and did not accept this word. J.J. Rousseau was subject to certain moods and Bernardin de Saint Pierre had the bad experience of it. One day when he visited her, he was received in an icy manner. J.J. Rousseau busy, from Saint Pierre opens a book while waiting… what was his surprise when he heard in an ironic tone “Monsieur loves reading!”. Bernardin de Saint Pierre gets up, J.J. Rousseau escorts him to the door saying "this is how we should deal with people with whom we do not have a certain familiarity". For two months, they no longer saw each other until the day when J.J. Rousseau, meeting him, asked him the reason for his absences; he then explains to her “there are days when I want to be alone…no matter how hard we try, we almost always leave society, dissatisfied with ourselves or with others. However, I would be sorry to see you too often, but I would be even more sorry if I didn't see you at all... the mood overcomes me and don't you see it well? I contain it for some time; then, I am no longer the master:it bursts in spite of me. I have my flaws. But when you value someone's friendship, you need the profit with the charges "... on this, J.J. Rousseau invites Bernardin de Saint Pierre to dinner!

Great works and controversies

In 1754, a trip took him to his hometown. He became a Protestant again and a "Geneva 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 the myth destined to make the good savage's fortune.

In 1757 it was lodged by Madame d'Epinay at the Hermitage, in the forest of Montmorency. He spent four peaceful and studious years there during which he published three of his most important works. The first, Julie or the New Héloïse (1761), where the author opposes the Parisian life, frivolous and superficial, to the rural 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, brought Rousseau the wrath of the authorities. This work is condemned by the parliament of Paris and he must take refuge in Switzerland, in Môtiers-Travers.

These persecutions accentuate the quirks of his character:thus, to escape prosecution, he says, he decides to disguise himself as an Armenian. Driven out of Môtiers, Jean-Jacques resumes his wandering life. Fleeing from refuge to refuge, notably in England to meet the philosopher David Hume, he composed various writings, including the Letters Written from the Mountain (1764), where he replied to his accusers. The attacks of his detractors and the solitude aggravate in Rousseau an already latent feeling of persecution and gradually persuade him that he is the prey of a plot, in particular on the part of the encyclopaedists with whom he is estranged.

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 , writing projects of political reforms and works testifying to his isolation and his melancholy, committing himself not to publish anything more during his lifetime. The Confessions (1765-1770, posthumous edition 1782-1789), Rousseau judge of Jean-Jacques ou Dialogues (1772-1776, posthumous 1789) and the Reveries of the Solitary 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 a political point of view, his essential work is The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right . 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 the Rights of Man during the Revolution, and many politicians, like Robespierre, a true disciple of the Genevan. Later, he will remember the religious theories of Rousseau for the organization of the cult of the Supreme Being. Before reforming society, however, one must reform individuals. Emile presents what the education of children should be, and will have a considerable influence.

Rousseau championed democratic and egalitarian ideas, asserting his belief in the goodness of the natural man, corrupted by society. If we can reproach him for this simplism, 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

- The Confessions. Folio, 2009.

- The New Heloise. Paperback, 2002.

- Of the Social Contract. Paperback, 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.