A man of feeling

It’s hard to believe he lived in the 18th century: the way he feels and reacts seems so contemporary. He is indeed one of the makers of our contemporary world.

1 Jean-Jacques RousseauJean Jacques Rousseau

I’ve been reading the Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau (in the translation by W Conyngham Mallory, Tudor Publishing New York 1933) and discovered what every other reader of Rousseau does, that the two parts of the Confessions, Books I–VI, published 1782, and Books VII–XII, published 1789, are completely different.

The first part presents a very attractive picture of an emotional and responsive young man. The period covered is 1712–1736, from Rousseau’s birth to his age 24. In stark contrast, Part II, which covers the years 1741, 49, 56, 58, 61 and 62, 16 years before his death in 1778 at age 66, is the frenzied record of a paranoid delusional who thought everybody in the world (well, in Western Europe) was in a conspiracy to destroy him. It is full of tediously detailed accounts of trivialities that obsessed him, and copies of letters that replied to imagined slights in such oblique ways they must have puzzled their recipients. Both parts make for compelling reading, though for different reasons.

Throughout, Rousseau succeeds at his aim, to create “a work without precedent…I propose to set before my fellow mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself”. We find it hard to realise, but nobody had done this before. Literature before Rousseau was based on Classical models, and was primarily declamatory and moral in tone; and now came someone who trumpeted his honesty in giving a “warts and all” account of himself. And he does. All through the book I thought, “Yes, I’ve done that!”, or “That’s just what I would have thought”. From little details like looking through a medical textbook and imagining he had all the symptoms of every disease, to the conviction that everybody was out to get him, Rousseau is, despite his distance in time, seemingly authentic. Come on, admit that sometimes you’ve thought that everyone was in a league against you, and that the misfortunes that showered down on you were undeserved, effects of the malignancy of those who should have been your friends. Don’t you dramatise it by saying, “why me!”?



So who was this Rousseau? I wanted to know more. He turns out to have been one of the most influential people in history. I wondered what that meant.

Rousseau came to fame in 1750 with an essay called Discourse on the arts and sciences, which propounded the thesis that the arts and sciences were at the service of an unjust social system. Two years later came another essay, Discourse on the origin and basis of inequality among men, which suggested that men were naturally equal, but that society made them unequal (though it did confer benefits of civilisation). Although he won prizes and acclaim for these works, they were critical of the ancien régime, and eventually caused a reaction against him. It was a time of suppressed hostilities between the classes, and the French Revolution was little more than 30 years away.

Somewhat surprisingly, Rousseau was a best selling opera composer at this stage of his life, and Le devon du village was a runaway hit which made him famous throughout Europe. He was a musician and composer who happened to write influential novels and treatises.

In 1761 Rousseau published Julie or the New Eloise, a sentimental novel in the form of letters, in the manner made popular by the English novelist Samuel Richardson. The next year 1762 saw Emile, or On Education. In the same year came the tract The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right. All immensely popular. And then the persecution began. A similar fate of adulation followed by persecution befell Tom Paine a generation later for much the same reasons.

3 Pamela


Samuel Richardson had written Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded in 1740, and Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady in 1747, and become a megastar. These monumentally long and lachrymose works are now unreadable, but Richardson’s contemporaries cried their eyes out over them. Clarissa had been translated into French by Antoine Prévost (author of Manon Lescaut) in 1751. To Richardson’s contemporaries, his novels were variously moving, psychologically realistic, shocking, sinful, and highly moral. As I am about to look at Rousseau’s influence, perhaps a digression on Richardson’s influence on the English novel will illustrate how diffuse such influence can be.

Somewhere, I think in Michael Hart’s The 100, I read of the distinction between those who are influential by what they do, and those who are influential by whom they are. The latter are original thinkers who conceive unprecedented concepts; the former are of their times, and realise an idea that another may have done in their stead, ideas that were under discussion. Such a one was Rousseau (and Richardson).

One English author who objected to Richardson’s libidinous sentimentality was the dramatist Henry Fielding, who published a novel called Shamela in 1741, a scathing sendup. This led, in 1749, to Fielding’s interest in the novel (he was a big fan of Cervantes) and the publication of A History of Tom Jones a Foundling. The English novel was suddenly a very different work. In 1759, awash in the same mood of sentimentality that engulfed Rousseau, came Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman. But Sterne was a fan of Rabelais and pretty much a loose canon, and he showed that anything at all was possible with the novel: he was too original to be imitated. Then came the sentimental gothic tale of Ann Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794, and Jane Austen’s satire on it, Northanger Abbey, written 1798, published 1816. And there was the novel we all know and read today. These works were influenced indirectly or directly by Richardson, but how responsible is Richardson for Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield?

4 execution of Louis XVIThe execution of Louis XVI


Rousseau was among the first writers to proclaim the importance of the individual. Before he came along, people belonged to a class, and each class of people had a place in society and co-operated to form a polity. Government was by Divine Right, and social mobility was nil. This wasn’t good enough for Rousseau. He was obsessed with his own peculiar nature, and saw the rest of mankind as a collection of individuals like himself. His conclusion was, that in a natural state all are alike in their purity and innocence (as are animals), but in society the poor are exploited by the rich (as he was), so as to give the benefits of civilisation. This lose some, gain some approach didn’t lead to a very coherent philosophy, but it did introduce to Western Europe an important change in sensibility, which we know as the Romantic movement. And Rousseau went further. He applied his focus on the individual to politics.

Because Rousseau introduced ideas that were being widely discussed into his works, he became a best selling author. Eloise, and later Emile and then The Social Contract were all best sellers of the day, and earned Rousseau enormous popularity; then a repressive backlash from the establishment (whom later dismissed the États-Généraux and precipitated the French Revolution). Rousseau’s paranoia was not entirely delusional, by no means. It was as if a wildly popular pop singer had started singing songs with a serious political message. Perhaps not profound, but the message reached a lot of people and alarmed those in power. After Rousseau, and influenced by him, came Byron, Robespierre, Hegel and Marx.

5 18th century gardenAn orderly 18th century garden

Rousseau began writing his Confessions, designed to be published after his death. The word ‘confessions’ meant, not repentance for his sins as it did for Saint Augustine of Hippo, but a revealing of the heart’s feelings, which dominated Rousseau’s behaviour more than it did others, he believed. The 18th century was an epoch when form was highly valued, even over content, where landscape gardeners produced topiary masterpieces and Dryden and Pope poetry of superb construction. What Rousseau did was shocking. It was not what he felt, but that he revealed it (just as the Victorians knew what we all know about sex, but were shocked at any public acknowledgement of it).

This accent on feeling and its open expression was to be influential until our day. For Byron it was the man at war with his society that appealed (he saw Rousseau as someone Byronic, very like Byron). There is a passage about the philosopher whose life was “one long war with self-fought foes, or friends by him self-banished” in Childe Harold that points the similarities.

When Marx and Engels wrote in 1848 “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains” (Communist Manifesto), could they have been referencing the Rousseau of 1762, “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains” (The Social Contract)?

When educationalists proposed the ‘blank slate’ idea of the child’s mind; or the colonial powers celebrated the ‘Noble Savage’, living in a ‘state of nature’, could they have been influenced by Emile? Yes, in all cases.

Yet Rousseau was not a Romantic hero, nor a political agitator, nor a colonial exploiter, just as Henry VIII and Martin Luther were not Protestants. Rousseau is best described as a man of feeling. Later times and people made very different things of his ideas than Rousseau could ever have imagined.

6 Louise de WarensLouise de Warens


I’m quite interested in coincidental detail when I find it in the lives of people. There are some interesting similarities in the lives of Rousseau and of John Lennon, another extremely influential writer and performer.

Rousseau’s mother died when he was a child. He later lived with and became a lover of Louise de Warens, 13 years his senior, when Rousseau was 20. Rousseau always called her Mama, and remained attached to her all their lives. In 1745, separated from de Warens, Rousseau took as a lover and later married Thérèse Levasseur (nine years his junior) whom he always referred to as “auntie”. John Lennon’s mother was killed when he was 18. He later met and married Yoko Ono, seven years his senior, in 1969, whom he always referred to as “mother”.

7 john and yoko lennonMr and Mrs Ono Lennon

Rousseau in his Confessions revealed that he had had four children by his mistress then wife Thérese all of who he had placed in a foundling home as he could not support them. Lennon was obliged as a condition of his marriage to Yoko Ono to sever all connections with his previous wife Cynthia and their son Julian.

In 1749 Rousseau met the writer Denis Diderot in Paris, one of a group  of dissidents to the status quo known as the Encyclopedists for their work on such a publication. Rousseau was put in touch with all the revolutionary thought of his day, and turned from a writer of opera (the pop music of his day) to quasi philosophic works such as his two prize winning Discourses. In 1965 Lennon experienced Beatlemania and LSD and met Bob Dylan (who achieved stardom through a mix of Beat poetry, Woody Guthrie style political protest and melodies from Irish folk music) and his song writing expanded. From the revolutionary but standard pop of “You Can’t Do That” or “If I Fell” of 1964, Lennon began producing songs like “Norwegian Wood” of 1965 or “Tomorrow Never Knows” of 1966 or “Strawberry Fields Forever” of 1967, all of which changed the dimensions of pop music.

In the 1760s Rousseau applied his ideas to the political arena. The Social Contract has been the genesis of dozens of more methodical philosophies since. Under the influence of Yoko Ono, a New York avant-garde performance artist, in 1969 Lennon turned to political comment with “Give Peace a Chance”, which protested at the continuation of the war in Vietnam, and continued with “Imagine” of 1971, and participated in performance art events like the 1969 bed in for peace, and ‘bagism’.

8 Lennon and DylanLennon meets Dylan

Rousseau was self taught (or, as the self taught say, an autodidact) and mistrusted intellectual constructs all his life, which put him at odds with Diderot and Voltaire, who had built their life on ideas. Instead, Rousseau relied on what he felt. Like we all do, he made a virtue of his weakness. Lennon, an unwilling, poor student (through inattention) placed a lifelong focus on what he felt, even undergoing Primal Scream therapy to do so in 1970. He, like Rousseau, wrote material exploring the uncomfortable to others ground of his failings and shortcomings (“Cold Turkey”).

Rousseau, who was far from tactful in his striving to express his real feelings and faults, and who had some uncomfortable ideas to the clergy, both Protestant and Catholic, was eventually declared antichrist by Calvinist opponents. There were attempts on his life, as the once idolised author became a refugee in both France and Geneva. Lennon too was declared antichrist for repeating comments he had read in 1966 about the decline in attendance in English churches, which became, “we’re more popular than Jesus” as it was repeated, a literally true statement (in the UK). In the USA it appeared that the numbers attending divine service was more important than practising the faith, the statement became “controversial”, and the decidedly non Christian KKK thirsted for revenge. Lennon was refused a residence permit in America in the period 1972-76, and became a refugee, then, tragically, in 1980, the victim of a simple minded murderer who knew just enough to pull a trigger (but who had a legal right to carry a gun).

9 libertyLiberty, Equality, Fraternity in action


Could these coincidences be just another way ideas and lifestyles, published ideas and political stances affect us through the centuries? Rousseau was not an original thinker (nor was Lennon) but he influenced a lot of people who were. Environmentalism, modern educational theory, democratic theory, socialism all derived from Rousseau’s publications. It was how he affected others, rather than any book he wrote though, not even the Confessions, which has spawned a thousand imitations since, that became his legacy. Rousseau was a torch bearer, preparing generations since his day for a host of powerful ideas, from the rights of man to the potential of the individual. Much as the Impressionist and Cubist painters prepared the next generation for the ideas of quantum physics. We don’t always act on these ideas, but they form our world nevertheless.

©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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