Five Fascinating Facts about Rousseau

Fun facts about the life and work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of Confessions

1. His Confessions effectively invented modern autobiography. Before Rousseau, not many public figures were prepared to spill the beans about the intimate details of their private lives – their regrets, their desires, their deepest and darkest secrets – but Rousseau bared all, or very nearly all, in his Confessions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau2. Rousseau is also famous for his Social Contract, and its famous opening – but misunderstood – lines. The Social Contract (1762) begins with the well-known words, ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ But contrary to popular understanding, Rousseau is not arguing that the chains are necessarily bad. Indeed, in a paradox that Rousseau never fully explained, man’s chains actually guarantee his freedom. This is because Rousseau saw the metaphorical ‘chains’ which bind us all as part of the general will.

3. Rousseau contributed to the Encyclopédie, writing several entries on musical subjects. A young Rousseau wrote articles for Denis Diderot’s great work of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie.

4. In 1750, Rousseau came to public attention for an essay arguing that the arts and sciences didn’t make people more morally upright. Ironically – given that he had written entries for Diderot’s Encyclopédie on music and had even written an opera, Le Devin du village (1745) – Rousseau argued, in the first Discourse of 1750, for the banning of music and theatre, and thought that the arts damaged people’s morality! Rousseau mostly had the contemporary theatre in mind here, where luxury had replaced the primal purity that Rousseau held so dear.

5. Indeed, this primal purity led to Rousseau’s concept of the ‘noble savage’ – and made him a proto-Romantic figure. Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ – an idea central to his Social Contract – is purer than modern man because he is uncorrupted by modern civilisation and by the notion of property. This view not only looks forward to the Romantics’ dream of childhood as a purer time of life because it is untainted by the more materialist realities of existence, but also helps to ‘square the circle’ and explain Rousseau’s argument in the first Discourse that the arts and sciences were corrupting influences, because they took man further away from this purer state.

Image: Portrait of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 18th century, Wikimedia Commons.

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