Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau; drawing by David Levine

“All men of obscure birth feel an instinctive kinship with him.” They feel it, says Mr. Guéhenno, if they have felt the least urge to break free from the limitations of their station, for this urge will have involved them in adventures and indignities similar to his. But most men feeling this urge are not men of genius: They are either more adroit and enterprising than Rousseau was or, if they lack the skill or energy or boldness that bring success, they are more easily resigned to their lot. The man of genius, especially if he is a man of letters or an artist, is possessed by the need to be himself, and seeks to impose himself on others, to exist for them, on his own terms. He does not impose himself by getting power or wealth, or by conventional success of some other kind; he does not seek an exalted place in the world as they see it but a place of his own which requires him to disturb that world. He is, as M. Guéhenno puts it, a monster, and never more so than when his genius is introspective. For then he torments himself and all who come near to him. Close to, he is insufferable, though at a distance—such is the power of his words—he can fascinate. The intensity of his feelings and the subtlety and urgency of arguments aimed, consciously or unconsciously, at justifying or condemning himself, ensure that he seems always to be speaking from the heart. But who speaks from the heart speaks sincerely; or so we often say.

The story of Rousseau’s life, we are told, is “a drama of sincerity.” And it is above all this story that M. Guéhenno seeks to tell, for he has little to say about Rousseau’s social or political theory, and says that little only to help him make some point about the man. He discusses his novel La Nouvelle Héloise 1761) at considerably greater length than any other of Rousseau’s works, though it contains much less of his philosophy of man and society than does the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1754) or Emile (1762) or The Social Contract (1762). Or at least it is a less systematic exposition of that philosophy, for the characters in the novel moralize and philosophize incessantly. They dissect minutely their own and one another’s actions and motives, and pass easily from talking of themselves to talking of mankind. The novel is a story of love and friendship, and M. Guéhenno treats it as a fantasy in which the writer revels in what life has denied him. In the midst of writing it, excited by his own dreams, he fell in love for the first and only time, and unhappily. For M. Guéhenno’s purpose, which is to reveal what sort of man Rousseau was, this long novel is, together with the Confessions, the most important of his works.

THE STORY HE TELLS could be described as an attempt to resolve a paradox: Rousseau thought himself the most sincere of men, though some who knew him well denounced him for a hypocrite and a liar. M. Guéhenno does not deny that Rousseau did tell lies and also quite often deceived himself, and yet accepts his claim that he was unusually sincere. Though M. Guéhenno calls Rousseau’s lies “petty falsehoods,” his account of them makes it clear that they were not petty. Rousseau, who was subtle and sly, often contrived to suggest what was false without actually saying it; if he told only petty lies, he conveyed some gross falsehoods. For example, when in 1764 he was accused in an anonymous pamphlet, Le Sentiment des Citoyens (actually written by Voltaire, though Rousseau did not know it), of having abandoned his children, he denied the charge obliquely in such a way as to suggest that he had had no children to abandon, though in fact he had allowed them to be taken to an orphanage. In several of his books he had spoken with great feeling of the proper care and education of children, and so, when this accusation took him by surprise, he could not bring himself to admit that he had altogether renounced the care of his own children. Only later, in his Confessions, which were published posthumously (1782-9), though he read a part of them to select audiences in various salons in the winter of 1770-1, did he admit what he had done, by which time he had persuaded himself that he had done it for his children’s good.

How then was he sincere? He believed passionately in his own sincerity, just as he believed passionately in his own innocence. But it was an odd belief to which he clung, sometimes almost hysterically, against the evidence. Writing to Madame de Berthier he said: “When you have been given a full recital of my crimes, and have been shown striking evidence, and irrefutable proof of them…remember these three words with which I end my farewell: I am innocent.” Did he mean that he had not done what he was accused of doing, despite the evidence against him? Or did he mean that, though he had done it, he was somehow not guilty because his heart was pure? Almost certainly the latter.


No, he was not sincere. At least, it is misleading to say that he was. The most that can be said for him is that he passionately wanted to be what he persuaded himself that he was. If he had been less a master of self-persuasion, he might have come closer to becoming what he wanted to be; he might have behaved better if he had found it less easy to believe in his own innocence, no matter what he did. But he was not a hypocrite in the manner of Tartuffe; he did not seek to gain his end by pretending to be what he knew he was not. He did not want to appear good to his own profit; it was simply more than he could bear to see himself as he really was. And yet, for all his sophistries and self-deceptions, for all the ingenuity he displayed in his own defense, he repeatedly gave himself away; and he did so precisely because he so passionately wanted to believe in his own innocence. He came closer to knowing himself than most men are capable of doing, for he was wonderfully perceptive. Emile, the Confessions, and La Nouvelle Héloise reveal how much this most self-absorbed of men knew about human nature. But the self-knowledge which he could not help but come close to, he also anxiously evaded. He imputed the faults he dared not see in himself to man corrupted by society, and described them to such effect that he deeply impressed men whose understanding of human nature was also deep, not least among them Stendhal and Tolstoy.

M. GUEHENNO SAYS that whereas Augustine, when he told of his sins, was speaking against himself and against man, Rousseau was less severe and spoke for himself and mankind. But Rousseau was not blind to what Augustine saw; he denied it far too elaborately, in far too much detail, for that to be possible. He washed himself, and mankind in his image, with the most tenderly probing hands. He had a sharp eye for vanity, its many disguises and destructive effects. But he spoke of it as a disease which could be prevented by a suitable education. He said nothing to suggest that the sufferer from it could surmount it in himself, and a great deal to suggest that he was merely the victim of a bad education and environment and could be made free of it only if his circumstances were changed. Emile, whose education is described in the book which bears his name, grows up to be incorruptible (almost) even in a corrupt society; but his tutor keeps him out of that society until he has formed his character, and he forms it by seeing to it that the boy is faced with no problems, intellectual or moral, which he cannot solve easily. Emile, without painful endeavor or suffering, grows into a man uniquely equipped to face life as it should be faced.

If we look at whatever in his life most distressed him, we see how he came to look upon himself as a victim of circumstances. An imaginative and highly sensitive man, though he appreciates better than other men what he has felt and done, is not better placed than they are to decide what to do; he is not more prudent or resourceful or resolute, but less so. His subtlety, his insight, his fine discrimination are revealed, not in action, but in his reflections upon it when it is over, in his explanations and excuses. Even more than other men, he sees himself as a fool in action and as wise only after the event, and he sees his actions as betrayals of himself. No doubt, this sense of betrayal rests on illusion; for his actions are as much his own as are his explanations and excuses. But he does not put himself as deliberately into them, and they somehow escape from him. Nevertheless, if he is to be truly sincere, he must impute them to himself. Otherwise, his explanations betray him, and he appears to be a hypocrite. The perceptive reader who knows from other sources what he has done reads much more into the explanations than the writer of them intended that he should. Qui s’excuse, s’accuse. This is the more true, the more imaginative and subtle and moody the maker of the excuses, and the more he piles excuse upon excuse. His excuses then contradict one another, revealing the anxieties and the remorse which gave birth to them. Rousseau was less sincere than Proust was, who also had much to say about how society corrupts man. But then Proust, by the time he wrote the great novel in which he reveals so much of himself, was much nearer being reconciled to himself as he really was than Rousseau ever came to be.


ROUSSEAU was what Mr. Guéhenno calls him, a “humiliated genius.” If he had not been of obscure birth, if his mother had not died soon after he was born, if his father had been able to look after him, he would not have been so deeply humiliated, and would not have felt the need to put himself forward so insistently as a good man. But in 1772, when Rousseau was only ten, his feckless and quarrelsome father fled from Geneva, leaving him in the care of a brother-in-law; and Rousseau himself ran away from his native city and his first apprenticeship when he was not yet sixteen. He was sent to Turin to a hostel where Protestant children were instructed in the Catholic faith. In his Confessions, written at a time when he set great store by patriotism and respect for the faith of his ancestors, he insisted that his conversion was a long and arduous business, but the records show that he abjured Protestantism only nine days after entering the hostel, an unusually short time. For several years he lived in or near Annecy under the protection of Madame de Warens, considerably older than himself, whom he called “mother,” and who “to protect him from vice” took him for a time for her bed-fellow until she found another young man needing the same protection. For years he led a restless and wandering life, and after his return to Paris in 1745 lived for several years, awkward and clumsy, on the fringes of the literary world. Not till 1750, at the age of thirty-eight, did he achieve success with his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he denounced society for corrupting man.

Before he attacked the world as a source of corruption, he longed ardently to be a man of the world. But his every attempt to act like one failed miserably. When he declared his love for Madame Dupin, the rich woman whose patronage he needed, she fled from him in disgust, but he still needed her and had to crawl back into her favor. No doubt, he was not so much in love with her as keen to be her lover; but many a penniless man has wanted what he did and has contrived to flatter where he could not win. He was ashamed of the servant who in 1745 became his mistress and eventually his wife, and was ashamed of his shame, and imposed her on his friends, and defended her in ways which revealed that he was ashamed of her. Yet he never deserted her, and seems never to have contemplated doing so. In La Nouvelle Héloise, he described love as he had not yet felt it for anyone, love as he deserved it; and he then fell in love with the mistress of an absent friend. He spoke to her of his novel, and therefore of love, and she was fascinated by what he said to her. Though she did not return his love, she let him come closer to her than she might otherwise have done because he spoke to her so often of his friend, her lover, and by these reminders of the barrier between them made their intimacy seem innocent. He wanted her love, and wanted also to be the true friend of her lover, and in this way both deceived himself and helped her to deceive herself. He also made it easier for her to discard him when at last her lover’s suspicions were aroused. What to her was a passing amusement was to him an exciting fantasy which almost came true, and he was deeply hurt and she scarcely at all. As soon as her lover was reassured, her conscience was at rest, whereas he was driven by the need to justify himself to such lengths that he lost his closest friends. It was then that he showed the first signs of the persecution mania from which he suffered for the rest of his life, a mania later aggravated by remorse for having put his children away from him.

M. GUEHENNO describes this episode and many others with great skill and much sympathy; he comes closer to explaining what sort of man Rousseau was than any of his other biographers. He presents him to us as a man ridden by guilt but incapable of contrition, and shows how he came to be so. He was a victim of pride who in the end found in pride his only refuge, for he drove all his friends away from him. He could be admired at a distance but not loved close to, though there were many who tried to love him and a few who almost succeeded. He was not so much unlovable as doomed to poison the love he inspired. In the end he was left alone with the woman who had always been more his nurse and servant than his mistress, who could understand his physical needs and his habits but not his feelings and his thoughts, and so could not intrude upon him spiritually. He became at last more comfortable in his self esteem, having cut himself off from whatever could disturb it. Apart from his servant, now also his wife, he was left with his God, whom he had fashioned to meet his need for an undemanding Father to comfort him, and with Christ, who like himself was without sin and had suffered greatly.

It is odd that M. Guéhenno should claim for Rousseau that he became at last the man he aspired to be. Surely he did not. He merely withdrew from the world, from every contact that could betray him into the sort of action which plunged him into an agony of self-justification in the attempt to preserve his faith in his own innocence. He never learned to face himself as he really was; he never achieved the sincerity he so intensely desired. He merely tried to put himself out of reach of temptation. He ceased to want to impress others but continued to deceive himself, and the sins he would not admit to never left him completely at peace. He was, in some ways, an admirable moralist, but he never learned to practice what he preached.

This Issue

December 29, 1966