French writers, part 3. Rousseau. Famous Frenchmen.
We tend to think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1844-1910) as French, but he was Swiss. Indeed, he signed his books “Jean Jacques Rousseau of Geneva”. However, it was in France that he became a writer and thence became famous.
Rousseau’s early years.
His mother died a few days after his birth and the first ten years of his life were spent with his father and his brother, both of whom were avid readers, and this is where Rousseau’s love of literature started. Between them, often late in to the night, they would read adventure stories and romances, and the colourful and entertaining style of these works influenced Rousseau’s own writing in later years. It has to be said his thoughts as a philosopher and his plots as a writer were not original – but they were hugely readable.
Rousseau was born in to a “middle-class” family of Swiss watch makers, but his happy childhood ended when his father re-married and, one assumes compliments of the bride, Rousseau was sent to live with an uncle and he virtually never saw his father again.
Rousseau moved to France (to Lyon) when he was 27.
Age of the Enlightenment
This was what in England we called “The Age of the Enlightenment” – an era when new scientific discoveries were being made, new worlds explored, new writers and composers making break-throughs. In France this is referred to as the Age of Sensibility, and intellectuals all over Europe were exploring not only their physical world but also the moral and social one. This was likewise the time of the great French Philosophes – Descartes, Robespierre, Voltaire, Diderot – and Rousseau became apart of this thinking cult. They considered themselves a kind of “republic of letters” aimed at other intellectuals, and they discussed every conceivable subject and wrote in every conceivable format. Rousseau himself wrote novels (it was his novels that made him famous, rather than his dissertations), letters, articles, philosophy books and everything in-between.
I think what makes Rousseau more interesting than the other philosophes is that he was shocking – sometimes very shocking – for his time. Indeed, he was banned from Geneva and spent the rest of his life in France, though he did travel a great deal. Rousseau questioned everything in the social and moral sense. He believed that man was born good and that society made him bad. He believed that any religion was fine, regardless of its creed, because religion encouraged a virtuous life whether Protestant or Catholic or anything else. He said that if children could simply understand how to reason they would not need to be educated. Best of all, he said that women must never be allowed any power because they would rapidly become tyrants – he he!
His thinking and his writing, whether we agree with him or not, marked a turning-point in the stages of human development. It makes, even today, excellent reading but, as is so often the way, there was an utterly hypocritical side to Rousseau. He had five children by his mistress and had them all dumped, as newborns, in an orphanage. Along with the likes of Voltaire he paved the way to the thinking that brought about the French Revolution which, although it may have set out with the right ideas, did not take in to consideration the power of the masses which turned a supposedly worthy cause in to one of the worst blood baths the world has ever seen.
Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist. Her books are on Amazon and Kindle. More about Catherine Broughton on http://turquoisemoon.co.uk