|(1712 – 1778)|
Virtually all the information that we have about Rousseau’s youth comes from his posthumously published book, Confessions. He was 13 years old, when he became apprenticed to an engraver and began to learn the trade. Although he did not detest the work, he was beaten up few times by his master, whom he considered to be violent and tyrannical. He was 16 when he left Geneva and reached the province of Savoy. Here he was fortunate enough to meet Louise de Warens, a noblewoman of Protestant background who was separated from her husband and had become a catholic. As professional lay proselytiser, she was paid by the King of Piedmont to help bring Protestants to Catholicism. She became instrumental in Rousseau’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, but the new faith came at the cost of his Geneva citizenship. Many years later, he would return to Geneva and publicly convert back to his original faith, Calvinism.
When Rousseau had arrived at her doorstep he was a stammering young man with hardly any formal education. She provided him with refuge in her home and employed him as her steward. She also furthered his education to such an extent that within few years he be became an accomplished man of letters, musician and a philosopher.
Rousseau was 30 years old when he arrived in Paris with the aim of becoming a musician and composer. After a brief stay, he left for Venice, where he had a honourable but ill-paying post as a secretary in the French Embassy. This period imbued him with love for Italian music, especially the Opera. After his return to Paris in 1745, the penniless Rousseau met the pretty seamstress named Thérèse Le Vasseur, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life, even though they never got married. According to his book, Confessions, Thérèse bore him five children. He is said to have consigned his five offsprings to a foundling institution in Paris. Later on when he would gain fame as a theorist of education, and as a defender of the rights of little children, many critics would use his abandonment of his own children as a pretext for ad hominem attacks.
During this period, Rousseau came in contact with a philosopher called Denis Diderot, who was the editor of a French publication called Encyclopédie. Rousseau started contributing articles to the magazine on music. The Encyclopédie was an important organ of radical and anticlerical opinion, and its contributors were as much reforming and even iconoclastic pamphleteers, as they were philosophers.
In 1749, Denis Diderot was jailed in the fortress of Vincennes for certain views that he had expressed in his Encyclopédie. Rousseau visited him daily. One day, when he was on his way to Vincennes for a meeting with Diderot, he had a flash of insight that modern progress had corrupted men instead of improving them. This thought then became an inspiration for the discourse that he wrote a year later, the A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (Discours sur les sciences et les arts), in which he argued that the history of man on earth was a history of decay. This discourse was written in response to the Academy of Dijon’s essay contest and as it won the prize, it was widely read and there was a certain amount of controversy. All of a sudden Rousseau found himself becoming famous. To many readers, this discourse made Rousseau seem like an enemy of progress. However, he was not the only one to have espoused such views. Many Catholic writers of that era had also expressed their apprehension about the direction in which the Enlightenment project had pushed European culture. The crucial difference between these writers and Rousseau was that he of of the view that man was by nature was a noble being, he had been corrupted by civilisation.
In the year 1750, the conception of the noble - or innocent - savage had taken hold of Rousseau’s mind and he would develop the concept further in his subsequent works. He also started feeling that he should return to Geneva. Finally he repudiate his Catholicism, and took readmission to the Protestant church. He took his mistress Thérèse Levasseur along and tried to present her as a nurse. Her presence caused murmurings in the conservative Geneva society, but Rousseau’s literary fame insured that he was easily readmitted into the Calvinist communion. By the autumn of 1753, Rousseau completed a second discourse for submission in the contest announced by the Academy of Dijon. This time, the question posed was, “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorised by the natural law?” Titled Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité), this second discourse was significantly longer. This time Rousseau did not win the Academy’s award, but this work widely read and discussed.
In the second discourse Rousseau makes the declaration that society was an invention; he has attempted to explain the nature of human beings by stripping them of all of the accidental qualities brought about by socialisation. The discourse begins with the argument that there exist two types of inequalities, natural and artificial. The first arose from differences in natural attributes, such as strength, intelligence, and so forth, while the second type of inequality was the result of conventions that govern societies. He goes on to say that the earliest man was not a social being; he was entirely solitary. But this state of solitariness led to his being happy, virtuous and free. All the vices that men are plagued with, Rousseau argues, date from the time when the natural state of life ended, and societies came into being. Even though he seems to be exonerating human nature, and laying the blame squarely on societies for corrupting men, Rousseau is not simply saying that humans living in natural state are good and humans in civil society are bad. He is only making the point that human beings in the state of nature are amoral creatures, neither virtuous nor vicious, and once societies get formed, passions that generate vices begin to develop.
He holds the concept of property as being responsible for the regime of inequality that exists in modern societies. He argues that the departure from the ideal condition where the earth belonged to no one had made it necessary for men to come up with institutions of law and government, which are dedicated to protecting property. Marx and Lenin have used such passages from the second discourse in making a case for communist society. Rousseau was of the opinion that the past could not be undone, and there was no point in dreaming about a return to the golden age, when man lived like a noble savage. A year after the publication of the Second Discourse, Rousseau and Thérèse Levasseur, with the intention of pursuing a life closer to nature, became guests at the country estate of Mme. D’Epinay, who was well known in France’s literary circles. During his year long stay here, Rousseau became involved in an affair with a 25-year-old woman named Sophie d’Houdetot, who was a cousin of Mme. D’Epinay. After repeated quarrels with Mme. D’Epinay and her other guests including Denis Diderot, Rousseau shifted to a new lodgings situated close to the country home of the Duke of Luxemburg at Montmorency.
During this period when Rousseau published many books and papers. In 1761, his novel Julie: or, The New Eloise (Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse) was published to immense success. The book was inspired by the author’s relationship with Sophie d’Houdetot. Its central character, Saint-Preux, is a middle-class preceptor who falls in love with his upper-class pupil, Julie. In 1762, Rousseau published A Social Contract (Du Contrat social), in which he has attempted to chart out the path through which men might recover their freedom in future. A Social Contract begins with the sensational opening sentence, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” From this point, the book proceeds to argue that men need not be in chains. The text is quite systematic, as it outlines how a government can exist in such a way that it protects the equality and character of its citizens. He argues that liberty can only be fostered through a system of obedience to a self-imposed law. However, such a definition of political liberty gives rise to an obvious problem. It can be argued that an individual is free if he obeys only the laws that he prescribes to himself, but this is only because an individual has only one will. In contrast, a society can be seen as being the amalgamation of many different wills.
Rousseau tried to solve this problem by attempting to define society, as an artificial person united by a general will. But such a concept becomes the breeding ground for a new tension between liberalism and communitarianism. Rousseau has attempted to present the case that the concept of “general will” fosters individual diversity and freedom, but it is obvious that “general will” is also symptomatic of a state, whose main mission is to encourage the well-being of the whole, and this can put it in conflict with the particular interests of individuals. Such contradictions in his reasoning have led many to believe that Rousseau’s philosophy is inconsistent. In one haunting paragraph, he talks about “forcing men to be free.” The line seems absurd if you believe that wherever there is coercion or force, freedom cannot exist. Many critics have used these lines as a basis of the claim that Rousseau was a prophet of modern totalitarianism.
His work detailing his philosophy of education entitled, On Education (Emile) was published during the same period. The unique thing about Emile was that it was written as a part novel and part philosophical treatise.
The authorities condemned both the books, A Social Contract and Emile, primarily because of the views that Rousseau had expressed on the subject of religion. In Paris, as well as in Geneva, they ordered the books to be burned and the author arrested. With the help of some friends, Rousseau managed to escape. He formally renounced his Genevan citizenship in 1763, and became a fugitive, spending the rest of his life moving from one refuge to another. Eventually he moved to England at the invitation of David Hume. However, soon he had a quarrel with Hume, and after a stay of only one year in the English soil, he secretly made his way back to France. By now various symptoms of paranoia had started manifesting in him, and he was filled with the belief that his mistress for many years, Thérèse was the only person he could rely on; he finally married her in 1768, when he was 56 years old.