Bust of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Salle Neuchâtel

Jean-Jacques was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712. His mother died a week after his birth. His father, who got into some trouble with local authorities, left little Jean-Jacques to the care of others, and left town. This was 1722. As was common in those days young Jean-Jacques became an apprentice. His apprenticeship, it was hoped, would give him the skills that would earn him a living when he grew into adulthood. Jean-Jacques first became an apprentice to a notary. Later he was apprenticed to a coppersmith.

Besides his apprenticeships Jean-Jacques' sole education during his early years was the the reading of Plutarch's Lives and John Calvin's sermons. His apprenticeship with the coppersmith was exceedingly strict and to Jean-Jacques, unbearable. Around the age of sixteen he ran away. After wandering for some days he came across Roman Catholic priests at Consignon in Savoy who handed him over to the care of Madame de Warens at Annecy who of course was also catholic. She sent him to Turin for his education where he gave up his protestant faith, and became a Catholic.

He later worked for several households, one of which accused him of stealing. He set off again in his wanderings and after some time met up again Madame Warrens who was now living in Chambery. The year was 1730. He spent the next several years in her household where he enjoyed nature, studied music, read English, German and French philosophers, studied mathematics and Latin and enjoyed opera and theatre.

From 1744 to 1745 he spent eighteen months in Venice as the secretary of the French ambassador. Afterwards he returned to Paris. His penchant for writing and music bore fruit in an opera, but it failed critical acclaim. To support himself he copied music by hand and was a secretary to a Madame Dupin.
He associated with some of the notables of the day, and his intellectual attainments were appreciated enough for him to be granted the honor of being a contributor to the famous Encyclopedia.

He continued in his writings and was encouraged to enter an essay contest. In his essay espoused a 'back to nature' philosophy suggesting that individuals and society would be better of if they both got closer to the natural state from whence they came. For his essay he won the prize.

In 1752 another operetta met with success. In 1753 his work, Disc ours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inĂgalitĂ parmi les hommes was published in which he wrote against the inequalities of society. His fame as a writer and a thinker was now established though it cannot be said that everyone agreed with what he wrote and thought.
In 1754 he returned to Geneva for a visit where he was warmly welcomed by the city. From then on he called himself a "citizen of Geneva." He, also, re-converted to Protestantism.

A previous friend, Madam d'Epinay, invited him to retire to a cottage in the woods of Montmorency. In this calm setting of nature and quiet he expected to spend the rest of his life. However this was not to be. Because of domestic troubles, his strong passion for Countess d'Houdetot, his distrust of others and his excitability, which lost him some friends, he moved to a chateau on the grounds of the duke of Luxembourg, Montmorency where he lived from 1758-62.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau Figurine, Salle Neuchâtel

He continued his writing and in 1758 appeared in print his Lettre ¦ d'Alembert, Julie ou la nouvelle Heloise in 1761, and Emile ou de 1'education in 1762. In Emile Jean-Jacques presents both his views of the ideal citizen and how a child should be trained according to nature to meet that ideal. All were published in Amsterdam where his often controversial views could not be easily controlled by the authorities. And, it was good that he chose a publisher in Amsterdam because in France the French parliament ordered his last work to be burned, and an order went out for his arrest.

Village of Môtiers Today

He fled south to the village of Môtiers in the Canton of Neuchâtel, in present day Switzerland, which was then under Prussian jurisdiction, and so out of the reach of French law. Here he wrote his Lettres ecrites de la Montagne, published again in Amsterdam. In this work he advocated the freedom of religion against civil authorities, and the established church. Of course this did not sit well with the civil and religious authorities.

A group of Môtiers townspeople drove Jean-Jacques out of town in September 1765. He fled to the Island of St. Pierre in the Lake of Bienne, which was in the territory of the city of Bern. His troubles did not end. The Bern civil authorities ordered him out of their territory. Again he had to find a refuge, and he found it with was a Scottish philosopher, economist and historian David Hume in England by January 1766.
Due in large part to government authorities threatening him during previous years, and his own sensitive and excitable nature he developed a prosecution complex. He became suspicious of plots against him, which led him to quarrels with friends who did not chose to make his enemies their enemies. In 1767 he fled to France of all places - after all he was not a favorite of the authorities when he had left the country previously - where he wandered about and lived off the kindness of other friends.

Wood Planks and Tar Paper, Foundation of New Roof Tiles

Rousseau's House in Môtiers

Original manuscript of Confessions, Salle Rousseau, Neuchâtel. Enlarge In 1770 he was permitted to return to Paris where he published his Confessions, which he started writing in England. His fear of real or imagined enemies did not subside. He was only too happy to accept an invitation to retire to Ermenonville near Paris in 1778 where he died of hemorrhage six weeks after his arrival.
An iconoclastic thinker, an eloquent writer, and an individualist with a sharp mind Jean-Jacques was not afraid to put into print his ideas even though they would not be appreciated by civil or religious authorities. Because he also had a sensitive nature he was all the more vulnerable to the criticisms and houndings of the authorities.

Though Jean-Jacques was a peaceful man his ideas contributed to the bloody orgies of the French Revolution. They, also, influenced the intellectual, social and political course of the western world.