Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch

Houghton Mifflin November 2005  592 pp. $30.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Author of works on politics, education, music, and anthropology, responsible for the best selling novel of the eighteenth century and a notorious autobiography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the most important thinkers the West has produced.  A sexual masochist, exhibitionist, and paranoiac who gave his five children away at birth, who paraded around town in a caftan and a fur cap, he is also one of the strangest.  Leo Damrosch’s excellent, readable new biography, the first one-volume account in English, tells the story of this odd genius.

Son of a watchmaker, Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712 and died in Paris in 1778, world famous, soon after being knocked to the ground by a galloping Great Dane. 

His beginnings were less than auspicious.  A feckless petty thief, he left Geneva at fifteen to wander the French countryside, pragmatically converted to Catholicism and, in 1728, moved into the Annecy house of twenty-nine-year-old Mme de Warens, “a patron who would eventually become his friend, surrogate mother, and even lover, and under her influence his talents would flourish and his ambitions grow.”  He boomeranged from Mme de Warens house to various unsuccessful jobs in the surrounding area as “an engraver’s apprentice, domestic servant, seminarian, music teacher, interpreter for an itinerant monk, land office clerk, tutor, and unsuccessful composer of music.”

By thirty he still “had not written anything of the slightest significance.” But in 1750 he submitted a prize-winning essay to the Academy of Dijon, answering the question “whether the restoration of the sciences and arts has contributed to purify morals.”  He followed this essay with a 1754 response to the question of the origin of inequality among men and became a celebrated figure among the salons of Paris.  His “insight that human goodness had been corrupted by civilization became the foundation of his entire life’s work.”

Rousseau’s reputation stemmed not from being part of the French Enlightenment (despite eventually contributing over 400 articles to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie), but rather a critic of Voltaire and others’ faith in progress and the power of human reason. 

His belief in the power of emotion and the corrupting influence of civilization was expressed thematically throughout his work.  In 1760 he published the novel Julie, and its incredible success made him one of the first modern celebrities.  Within the next sixteen months he published the most widely read work on education, Émile, and a profoundly influential theoretical work on politics, The Social Contract.  Late in life he completed his autobiography, The Confessions, a daring, salacious, and influential work.

Despite his enormous influence as a thinker, Rousseau’s private life was a succession of excessively emotional attachments to others, followed by angry separations.  The only lasting relationship he maintained (other than the youthful connection with Mme de Warens) was with a near-illiterate laundress, Thérése Lavasseur, nine years his junior.  With Rousseau, Thérése produced a succession of children and, from approximately 1746 to 1752, Rousseau sent five infants to the charitable Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés, an orphanage.  The shocking irony that this man also wrote the most influential book on childhood education, Émile, was not lost on his contemporaries, nor his subsequent critics.

Subject to arrest by the French authorities for the contents of his books, Rousseau bounced around Switzerland and eventually made his way to England as the guest of David Hume, whom he quickly alienated.  Unlike the celebrated intellectual denizens of Paris salons, “Rousseau was the only important writer in Europe who had been systematically expelled from one country after another and denounced by former friends and associates as well as by governments and churches.”

His radical thought was largely unappreciated in his era.  The Discourse on Inequality, The Social Contract, and Émile were widely dismissed as provocative but absurd, describing a state of nature that never existed, a political system that could never exist, and an educational scheme that never should exist.  Gradually, however, thoughtful people began to understand the radical implications of Rousseau’s analysis of social inequality, and of governments that failed to embody the will of the people.”

Damrosch’s book manages to present Rousseau, both his life and work, to a popular audience in clear and compelling prose.  Both students of the period and those lacking in knowledge of the eighteenth century will find this book absorbing and Rousseau’s ideas provocative.