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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.