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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

(b. June 28, 1712, Geneva, Switzerland – d. July 8, 1778, Ermenonville, Oise, France )

Gender: M

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was the son of a watchmaker and was born in Geneva, then a Protestant city-state. As a young man, he was secretary and tutor in various families in France and Italy and then settled in Paris, where he became a friend of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, contributing articles on music to their Encyclopédie. He came to public notice in 1750 when he won an essay prize for his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, which argued that culture tended to deprave rather than improve humanity. This was followed in 1754 by his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men, which argued that humans in their natural state were virtuous and it was the institution of private property that corrupted them, leading to the rule of the strong over the weak. In 1759 he published Lettre à D’Alembert sur les Spectacles, in which he objected to D’Alembert’s suggestion in the Encyclopédie that the city of Geneva should establish a theatre: in Rousseau’s view, this would encourage the people (and particularly women) to exchange their domestic tranquillity for promiscuous socialising, resulting in a loss of civic virtue. Rousseau’s most influential political work was The Social Contract (1762), which opened with the stirring declaration that “Man was born free, and is everywhere in chains”; it became a favourite text of the Jacobin wing of the French revolutionaries. In the same year he published Émile, or Education, a semi-fictional narrative advocating a “natural” form of education that would enable a young man to develop personal virtue away from the corrupting influence of society. The book also sets out Rousseau’s view of women as creatures whose sole purpose in life is to please men and raise their children, and therefore do not deserve or require anything other than the most basic education. Émile also included a section on natural religion (“The Creed of the Savoyard Vicar”) which was sufficient to have the book banned in both Geneva and Paris. In 1761, Rousseau published Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, a sentimental novel which became enormously popular across Europe, especially with women. Printers could not keep up with the demand, and booksellers resorted to renting out copies. Julie is Rousseau’s ideal heroine, who devotes herself to her husband and children in an idyllic country estate, together with the tutor with whom she had a youthful affair; their refusal to consummate their continuing love for each other is presented as the height of personal virtue. The novel demonstrated a way for women to be idolised by restricting themselves to the role of wife and mother, but it was regarded with disapproval by conservative readers (including Elizabeth Carter) for making a heroine out of a woman who had “sinned”. In 1766 David Hume offered a refuge in England to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he had met in Paris when he was secretary to Lord Hertford, the British ambassador. Hume had been warned against Rousseau by a number of his French friends, and the two soon quarrelled. Rousseau accused Hume of conspiring with his enemies, and wrote a lengthy indictment of his behaviour. Rousseau enjoyed spending time with the Duchess of Portland, but within a year he returned to France. In 1782, Rousseau published the first part of his Confessions, which represented the first true autobiography of the modern era; it purported to be an absolutely truthful description of his experiences and feelings from his earliest youth, and included episodes that could be regarded as shameful, such as his disposal of his five children to a foundling hospital. Elizabeth Carter refused to read it. Rousseau died of a stroke at the age of 66. In 1794 his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris and interred opposite his great rival Voltaire.

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Please note that all dates and location information are provisional, initially taken from the library and archive catalogues. As our section editors continue to work through the material we will update our database and the changes will be reflected across the edition.