(Jean-Jacques Rousseau)


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a major philosopher during the eighteenth century, and his work inspired both the American and the French Revolutions. A brilliant writer, part-time composer, and member of the powerful Jacobin Club, Rousseau was considered extremely influential, and his published works are still highly regarded today.

Rousseau was born to a middle-class family in Geneva. His mother died in childbirth, and he was instead raised by his uncle, who sent him to live with a Calvinist preacher. Here Rousseau became immersed in mathematics and drawing, and he even for a time considered becoming a preacher himself, so moved was he by religious services. At 15, he ran away from Geneva and found refuge with a Catholic priest, who introduced him to Françoise-Louise de Warens, a woman hired to bring Protestants to Catholicism. Following her lead, Rousseau converted.. As a young man, he was forced to support himself—his father and uncle had little concern for his well-being—and he spent a time serving as a secretary and tutor. During this period, he lived part-time with de Warens, whom he considered a maternal figure as well as a lover. At 25, he came into a small inheritance from his deceased mother, which he used to repay his betrothed for her hospitality before moving to Lyon. He took up a post as secretary to the French ambassador to Venice but soon quit and returned to Paris, where he took a new lover, Therese Levasseur. He later brought her and her mother into his home, where he took upon himself the task of caring for her large, ne'er-do-well family. Therese bore him several children, through he convinced her to give them up to an orphanage to avoid the inconvenience of raising a child. (Later, when his writings made him a regarded expert on child-rearing, his critics used the abandonment of his own children to attack his teachings). While in Paris, he became a close friend of Diderot, even contributing to his famous Encyclopedia. He later went on to win an essay contest and significant fame with a thesis describing the corruption of man by science and the arts.

Rather than remain in Paris, however, Rousseau returned to Geneva, where he reconverted to Calvinism and regained citizenship. He rented a home but resented the landlady, whom he saw as shallow and atheistic. Their quarrel soon came to blows, with their mutual friend Diderot siding against Rousseau. The philosopher moved away and wrote three of his best works in rapid succession, arguing against the materialism of his former companions. His third work, Emile, caused an uproar because of its indifference toward religious matters and refutation of both Catholic and Protestant doctrine. His books were burned, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He took refuge in Great Britain, staying in the home of David Hume. There, Rousseau’s sanity began to slip, and he suffered from extreme paranoia, believing Hume to be plotting against him. Although barred from France, he returned to the country in 1767 under a different name. He “married” Therese—Catholic-Protestant unions were illegal at the time—and stayed with her until his death. He remained withdrawn during the later years of his life, a victim to his insanity, until he passed away after suffering a hemorrhage. Despite his eccentricities, he remained widely respected after his death, and he was later interred as a national hero in the Pantheon.

Key events during the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

Born; mother died in childbirth
Father moved away from Geneva, remarried
Was apprenticed as a notary
Ran away from Geneva and converted to Catholicism
Received a small inheritance from his mother
Presented a new system of musical notation, but it was rejected
Met Therese Levasseur
Won a contest with his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
Published Julie, or the new Heloise and Emile: or, On Education
Took refuge in Great Britain
Returned to France under a false name and married Therese
Interred as a ntional hero in the Pantheon

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