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


It is best to think of biography, with all its utilitarian obligations, as a craft, and autobiography as an art. But this makes difficulty for a biographer of Rousseau. For the main, and often the sole, source of information about his early life is his autobiographical Confessions, which is an incomparable work of art (for me the greatest by far of his books), and there is something repugnant in its being dismantled, interspersed with commentary, and turned into the mere raw material of biography. (One would not treat Wordsworth’s Prelude so.) Perhaps there is no alternative; and up to now biographers of Rousseau have always taken this course. But it might be allowed to the reviewer of Leo Damrosch’s excellent new biography to skirt around the problem.

The dust jacket blurbs of Damrosch’s book, and of its predecessor, Maurice Cranston’s Jean-Jacques (1983), describe them as “definitive”—but that is absurd, and grows the more so as Rousseau scholarship progresses. Cranston, in his introduction, complained of previous biographers of Rousseau “feasting” on his Confessions, to the neglect of his letters and of manuscript sources. No such criticism can be made of Damrosch, who is plainly soaked in Rousseau’s letters, and the letters and documents of his friends and enemies, published in R.A. Leigh’s magnificent fifty-volume edition. His book, and especially the narrative part, is, one might say, in a high state of organization: the narrative has an admirable and flexible rhythm and pace, relevant quotations spring immediately to his hand, and the source referencing is beautifully adapted to the needs of readers. His approach to Rousseau’s life and personality is matter-of-fact, humane, and decently worldly-wise, and he has no obvious axe to grind.

He faults Cranston for not making sufficient use of recent brilliant interpretations of Rousseau’s “motives and conflicts.” His own exegeses of Rousseau’s books and ideas are lucid and sympathetic, though as will be seen I am inclined to quarrel with him over a famous and important passage in On the Social Contract. Occasionally in the narrative part his generalizations seem a little oversimplified. “It was his [Rousseau’s] experience as an apprentice and lackey,” he writes, “that gave him the authority to analyze inequality as he did.” The remark does not get us very far, indeed it borders on fallacy. He is also rather too fond of the threadbare—or as it were work-shy—formula that such-and-such a phenomenon would be of the greatest interest to a psychoanalyst. These are trivial faults.

Rousseau was born in 1712, the son of Isaac Rousseau, a Genevan watchmaker. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, and he was looked after by his father’s youngest sister, of whom he would have the tenderest memories. His father, being pressed for money, had to sell his late wife’s house, and the family moved downhill to the workers’ quarter. Isaac, we are told, was quarrelsome and unreliable but a cultivated man, and Jean-Jacques and he got on reasonably well. They shared a passion for romantic novels, and—Jean-Jacques being then seven or eight—they would stay up all night reading them to each other in turns. But in 1722 Isaac got into a disastrous quarrel with a local landowner and had to decamp from Geneva, leaving Jean-Jacques in the care of his mother’s (socially grander) kin; and they in turn farmed him out to a kindly pastor named Lambercier, who taught him Latin and (in Rousseau’s words) “all the petty jumble that goes with it under the name of education.”

There was an idea that he might study for the ministry, but this was abandoned, and in 1725 he was apprenticed to an engraver. His master, who sometimes caught him pilfering, was a tyrant and a brute, and by 1728 Jean-Jacques was entirely fed up. Happening one evening to get locked out of Geneva, which had a curfew, he took it as an omen that his life there had ended and he set off on a wandering career, oddly confident that once freed from slavery he could “do everything and achieve everything.”

Over the next twenty years he was a clerk, a valet, a candidate for Roman Catholic conversion, a teacher of music, a tutor, secretary to an ambassador, and, for some years, house guest and lover of a minor aristocrat, Mme de Warens (herself a protégée and, on occasion, secret agent of the king of Sardinia). In 1742 he arrived in Paris, dreaming of interesting the Academy of Sciences in a novel system of musical notation. In this he failed, but he was drawn into the circle of freethinkers or philosophes (the word philosophe had a looser meaning than the English “philosopher”), and he contracted an ardent friendship with the encyclopedist Denis Diderot. At much the same time he formed a relationship—which would prove a lifelong one—with the young Thérèse Levasseur, then working as a laundress and scullery maid. Over the next half-dozen years, according to his account, they had five children, all of whom they consigned to the Foundling Hospital.


In the summer of 1749, by which time Rousseau was thirty-seven, his friend Diderot became the proximate cause of a revolution in his life. Diderot had recently published a Letter on the Blind: for the Use of those who can See, a book condemned by the government as dangerously anti-religious, and he had been arrested by royal lettre de cachet and incarcerated in the fortress prison of Vincennes. The news greatly disturbed Rousseau, who pictured his friend languishing there for the rest of his life. Thus he paid him repeated visits, and on one of these he experienced an overwhelming revelation. He had taken with him a copy of the Mercure de France, to read as he walked, and he came upon an announcement by the Academy of Dijon of the subject for their annual prize essay. It was “Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to corrupting morals or to purifying them?”1 At the very instant of reading it, he wrote later, “I saw another universe and became another man.”

Diderot insisted that Rousseau must enter the competition; and when Rousseau asked him which side he should take, he replied, “You will take the side that no one else will.”2 Which is precisely what Rousseau did, and he won the first prize. Diderot found a publisher for Rousseau’s Discourse, and it evidently touched a nerve. Rebellious freethinkers, just as much as the Court and “establishment,” were accustomed to regard France’s cultural progress as one of her great glories (were not other nations envious of it, did they not imitate it?), and the “sciences and arts” debate flourished in the Paris journals for many months. Rousseau found himself famous.

The “side” that Rousseau had taken was that civilized men were slaves, though they did not know it: the sciences and arts were so many flowery garlands concealing the “iron chains” that bound them and stifling “the sense of that original liberty for which they seemed to have been born.” As the arts and sciences progressed, man degenerated. It had been so in ancient Rome. Rome, growing thronged with philosophers and orators, neglected military discipline and agriculture; its citizens embraced sects and forgot their fatherland. “Till then,” wrote Rousseau, in the kind of lapidary epigram he came to favor, “the Romans were content to practice virtue; all was lost when they began to study it.”

The vision vouchsafed to Rousseau on the road to Vincennes was of a whole system, of which the first Discourse was only a small part, and, though half reluctantly, he reorganized his life to deliver more of his revelation. He stopped wearing a sword and gave up his watch, resolving to pass the rest of his life living from one day to the next, with no thought for the future. The subject for the Dijon prize essay for 1754 was “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” and it prompted him to write a second Discourse—disregarding the length limit so outrageously that the judges refused even to read it. It resulted in one of his most significant works.

Was inequality written into the species of mankind, or was it the product of culture and civilization? To answer this, he wrote, one needed to be clear about what natural or primitive man was like; but—a typical Rousseauean paradox, akin to his epigram about Rome and virtue—“It is by dint of studying Man that we are incapacitated from knowing him.”3 To imagine the condition of primitive man, therefore, we must employ the only alternative, pure abstract reasoning—always remembering that that condition is “a state that no longer exists, perhaps never has existed, and probably never will.”

Abstract reasoning tells one that the philosopher Hobbes, who pictured the life of primitive man as an unending and ruthless war, was mistaken. Conflict and competitiveness, writes Rousseau, are, on the contrary, the effect of civilization, and by contrast the life of primitive man is peaceful and idle. He has almost no relationship with his fellow men and lives almost entirely in the moment. Primitive man lives in himself; sociable man only knows how to live in others’ opinion. It might even be that a simple, uniform, and solitary manner of living is the one prescribed by Nature for the human animal, and that a man who meditates is depraved. At all events, as history shows, inequality increases together with civilization: “The status of rich and poor was authorized in the first epoch, that of powerful and weak in the second, and that of master and slave in the third, which is the final degree of inequality and the limit toward which all the others lead in the end.”


Rousseau’s personal life in this period showed a related trajectory. He came to feel he could no longer stand Paris or the arrogance and competitiveness (as he thought) of his philosophe friends. Hearing of this, an aristocratic acquaintance, Mme d’Épinay, offered him the use of a charming little house, the Hermitage, on her country estate near Paris, on the understanding that when her house was not full of guests, Rousseau and she could give each other intellectual company. But his sojourn there worked out badly: he felt entrapped: and moreover he fell in love with a cousin of Mme d’Épinay’s, Sophie d’Houdetot, whose own lover, the poet Saint-Lambert—a friend of Rousseau’s—was away at war.

Matters came to a head when Mme d’Épinay asked Rousseau to accompany her to Geneva, where she wanted to consult a celebrated doctor. His friends, and especially Diderot, insisted that for his own good name, he absolutely must show her this friendliness; but he took the line that this was tyranny, that his friends wanted to take possession of him and master him. Matters developed into a fearful tangle of backbiting, tale-telling, and hypocrisy, and as a result Rousseau and Thérèse moved to a new refuge, a little house in Montmorency offered to him by his new friends, the Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg. The move signified the severing of his relationship with the closest of his earlier companions.


It was during this stressful time that Rousseau wrote a romantic novel-in-letters, Julie: or the New Heloise, which enjoyed a staggering success, confirming and even heightening his contemporary reputation. It is, one has to say, one of the great casualties of literature, for it has lost its magic for the modern reader. Rousseau followed it with a treatise, Émile, depicting an imaginary educational experiment, by which a child (Émile) is put by his wealthy parents entirely into the hands of a tutor, who finds ingenious means to teach him self-sufficiency, both physical and moral. (He is allowed to read no books, with the exception of Robinson Crusoe.) The tutor’s idea is to allow Émile to re-enact the experience of primitive man before confronting modern, and corrupt, society. In a famous passage, where the question arises what Émile shall be taught about religion, the tutor repeats to him a genial and commonsensical “profession of faith of a Savoyard vicar,” which insists that the capacity of a person to believe is limited, as compared with what the Church might ask of him. No one, the vicar suggests, can believe for another, or with the help of another.

Émile was written concurrently with On the Social Contract, Rousseau’s attempt at a rationale for a just society. The question he puts to himself is “how to find a form of association which defends and protects with all the power of the community the person and property of each member of it, and by which each, though uniting with all the rest, is still only giving obedience to himself and remains as free as before.”4 A tall order, you might say; but it follows on logically from the two Discourses. Essential to it is a doctrine of the “General Will,” that is to say the notion that in regard to any political issue, there is a view that has to be assumed to be the General Will, which can never be wrong. Damrosch speaks of “creating a volonté générale, a general will that can transcend individual self-interest,” but “creating” does not seem quite right; it is more that this will must simply be presumed to exist. It is to be noticed moreover that unanimity is not called for: “When a law is proposed in the people’s assembly, what is being asked is not exactly whether they approve or reject the proposal, but whether it is, or is not, in accordance with the general will, which is their own5 (my italics).

A famous passage in On the Social Contract runs:

In order that the social compact should not be an empty formula, it tacitly involves this commitment which alone can give force to the others, that whoever refuses to obey the general will must be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing else than they will force him to be free.

As Damrosch rightly says, this sounds dangerously totalitarian (and it would be invoked in that spirit during the Terror). Damrosch’s own saving gloss is that Rousseau means that “in modern society people no longer know how to be genuinely free. Much of the time they are really injuring themselves as well as their fellows, like drug addicts who stop at nothing to get more drugs.” But this sounds too twentieth or twenty-first century. Damrosch has left off the continuation of Rousseau’s sentence, which runs: “for such is the condition which, giving each citizen to the fatherland, guarantees it from all personal dependence.”6 Rousseau’s meaning, I think, is that no one shall have mastery over, or be mastered by, anyone else within the community: in other words that there shall be no servants, no employees, no apprentices, no subordinates, no deputies. “At the instant that there is a master, there ceases to be a sovereign, and from then on the corps politique is destroyed.”7

Tied in with the General Will is an embargo on political representation. The sovereignty of the people, of the communal “I,” has to be expressed directly. Thus, as Rousseau frankly acknowledges, sovereignty on the General Will principle is only feasible in a very small community and is quite impossible in a country as large and complex as France or Britain. After this, it is no surprise that he does not believe in democracy (i.e., doesn’t believe it to be practicable). “In a strict sense,” he writes, “there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be one.”8

These two works completed Rousseau’s central achievement, and they raised him to new heights of fame and notoriety. But only a few days after they were published his alarmed friends the Luxembourgs warned him that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, on the charge that Émile was impious, and that he must instantly escape from France. He decided to take refuge in Switzerland—not at Geneva, where his two books were burned in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice—but at the house of his friend Daniel Roguin at Yverdon. He soon left there for the little town of Môtiers, where he received many visitors, Boswell among them; but what at first may have seemed a refuge turned out to be a disaster after the villagers, egged on by the local pastor, threw stones at his house. “For Rousseau,” Damrosch writes, “it was a relief to leave. He didn’t know, however, that a new stage of persecution and exile was about to begin.” His new home, for an idyllic six weeks, was a house on the Île de Saint-Pierre on the Lac de Bienne; but then the Bernese authorities ordered him to leave; and by early 1767 he was in England, at the invitation of the philosopher David Hume. It was there that he wrote much of his superlative Confessions and that he and Hume fell into a horrendous and agonizing public quarrel. A detailed and fascinating reexamination of this story, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, has just been published, under the title Rousseau’s Dog.9


It might be reasonable to suppose, and the experience of his friends would have endorsed it, that a more purely selfish person than Rousseau never walked the earth. But in his case selfishness did not blinker his intellect as might have been expected. It is impressive that he should have devised a novel system of society entirely by introspection; and how greatly Rousseau has enlarged our ideas about the self. It was a fundamental disagreement between him and Diderot, and a very enlightening one, that Diderot held that it mattered what other people thought of one, indeed in a sense it was all that mattered, whereas Rousseau contended that the only judgment that mattered was one’s own; and he made a distinction between “love of self,” an innocent tendency, and amour propre, an ignoble desire for the good opinion of others. Diderot loved to discover resplendent qualities in himself, whereas Rousseau took the gloomier view that one simply had to be on good terms with one’s self (“the only man one can never be separated from”).10

In an appealing and complex little poetical drama, Pygmalion, which he wrote in the early 1760s, the sculptor Pygmalion falls intensely in love with the statue of Galatea he is creating, but when she comes to life and steps off her pedestal it becomes clear that there is only enough life between them for one. She touches herself, exclaiming “Me!,” touches one of Pygmalion’s other statues and says, “But this is not me,” then places her hand on Pygmalion, who covers it with kisses, but she declares with a sigh, “Me once again!”11 The solipsism, of which this play shows Rousseau so aware in himself, receives an answer in a strange work written in his last years, Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques, and it takes the form of fission. A “Frenchman” (who only knows Rousseau by reputation) and a character called “Rousseau” discuss an author they refer to as “Jean-Jacques.” “Rousseau” relates how, in a period of solitude and distrust of humanity, he came upon the works of “Jean-Jacques” and they were a revelation to him, pointing out the road to true happiness.

One might think that extreme selfishness would be an obstacle to self-knowledge, but it was not so in Rousseau’s case. He developed a theory about his own belated transmogrification into an author, which strikes me as profound and convincing. He held that he had been designed by nature or providence to enjoy idleness; and indeed we can think of many radiant idylls of idleness—or what Damrosch describes as “purposeless free-associating vacancy”—in his letters and Confessions, so beautifully evoked as to command belief. To emerge as a writer and moralist, however—so his theory ran—he needed a quite different, a stern and “ancient Roman” pose and tone of voice, and, in consequence, he underwent a genuine change in personality. It was in a way painful to him, and he blamed, or half-blamed, Diderot for it. It was Diderot who “gave my writings that grim tone and black air that they did not have when he ceased to direct me.”12 Since Diderot had a fascination with “hardness” in people’s character, though he was incapable of it himself, there may have been some truth in this. After Rousseau’s major works had been completed, however, he had no further need for an “ancient Roman” self, and (so at least he claimed) he regained his talent for idleness and dolce far niente. Here was the true meaning of his passion for botanizing, and here was the message intended by his late Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

W.B. Yeats, in his Autobiographies, expounds a theory, which I have always thought very persuasive: that writers fashion for themselves an anti-self. “When I think of him [the poet W.E. Henley],” he writes, “the antithesis that is the foundation of human nature being ever in my sight, I see his crippled legs as though he were some Vulcan perpetually forging swords for other men to use.” Did not William Morris, “a never idle man of great physical strength and extremely irascible,” fling a badly baked plum pudding through the window on Christmas Day?—though in his writings he “created new forms of melancholy, and faint persons, like the knights and ladies of Burne-Jones, who are never, no, not once in forty volumes, put out of temper.”13 It is striking how exactly Rousseau confirms this law, but even more so, that he found it out unaided.

This Issue

June 8, 2006