Jean Jacques Rousseau

On this date in 1712, Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, of French Huguenot parents. His mother died giving birth to him. Jean Jacques, as a young lad, was apprenticed to an engraver, but ran away at age 16 and went into domestic service. His Roman Catholic employer, Mme. De Warens, took him as her lover and allowed him to study literature and philosophy. In 1741, he moved to Paris. He met freethinkers Diderot and D'Holbach, and was asked to write about music for the Dictionnaire Encyclopedique. Rousseau promulgated his famous idea of the "noble savage" living in a "state of nature." While living with wealthy patrons, Rousseau worked for eight years writing Julie, ou la nouvelle New Heloise (1760), a novel; The Social Contract (1762), and Emile (1762), a treatise on education. The Social Contract introduced the motto, "Liberte, egalite, fraternite." As a Deist with kind words for the gospels, Rousseau was less radical about religion than his friends, perhaps more interested in pursuing his romantic vision of human nature: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." (The Social Contract) He believed in a "religion of man."

Despite Emile's sympathetic words for the rights of children, Rousseau gave the five illegitimate children he fathered with a hotel maid to foundling homes. His Letters Written to Montaigne (1762) promoted freedom from the Church. His books catapulted Rousseau into fame, influence, and notoriety. The parliament in Paris ordered his arrest after condemning Emile. Rousseau fled to Switzerland, where officials, in addition to condemning Emile, also condemned The Social Contract, and expelled him. Rousseau took refuge in Neuchatel under the King of Prussia, but was eventually driven out for his "irreligion." He wrote Confessions in England, and resettled in Paris in 1770. Wrote freethought biographer Joseph McCabe: "His character was far inferior to that of the 'irreligious' Deists of Paris. He was, in fact, the most religious and least virtuous of 'the philosophers'; far inferior in nobility of character to the Agnostics Diderot and D'Alembert, and more faulty than Voltaire. We must, however, not forget his unhappy circumstances and temperament. He rendered monumental service to his fellows." (A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists) D. 1778.

“Whoever dares to say: 'Outside the Church is no salvation,' ought to be driven from the State.

But I am mistaken in speaking of a Christian republic; the terms are mutually exclusive. Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favorable to tyranny that it always profits by such a regime. True Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and do not much mind: this short life counts for too little in their eyes.”

—Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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