Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778) was born to Isaac Rousseau and Suzanne Bernard in Geneva on June 28, 1712. His mother died only a few days later on July 7, and his only sibling, an older brother, ran away from home when Rousseau was still a child. Rousseau was therefore brought up mainly by his father, a clockmaker, with whom at an early age he read ancient Greek and Roman literature such as the Lives of Plutarch. His father got into a quarrel with a French captain, and at the risk of imprisonment, left Geneva for the rest of his life. Rousseau stayed behind and was cared for by an uncle who sent him along with his cousin to study in the village of Bosey. In 1725, Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver and began to learn the trade. Although he did not detest the work, he thought his master to be violent and tyrannical. He therefore left Geneva in 1728, and fled to Annecy. Here he met Louise de Warens, who was instrumental in his conversion to Catholicism, which forced him to forfeit his Genevan citizenship (in 1754 he would make a return to Geneva and publicly convert back to Calvanism). Rousseau’s relationship to Mme. de Warens lasted for several years and eventually became romantic. During this time he earned money through secretarial, teaching, and musical jobs.
In 1742 Rousseau went to Paris to become a musician and composer. After two years spent serving a post at the French Embassy in Venice, he returned in 1745 and met a linen-maid named Therese Levasseur, who would become his lifelong companion (they eventually married in 1768). They had five children together, all of whom were left at the Paris orphanage. It was also during this time that Rousseau became friendly with the philosophers Condillac and Diderot. He worked on several articles on music for Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie. In 1750 he published the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, a response to the Academy of Dijon’s essay contest on the question, “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?” This discourse is what originally made Rousseau famous as it won the Academy’s prize. The work was widely read and was controversial. To some, Rousseau’s condemnation of the arts and sciences in the First Discoursemade him an enemy of progress altogether, a view quite at odds with that of the Enlightenment project. Music was still a major part of Rousseau’s life at this point, and several years later, his opera, Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer) was a great success and earned him even more recognition. But Rousseau attempted to live a modest life despite his fame, and after the success of his opera, he promptly gave up composing music.
In the autumn of 1753, Rousseau submitted an entry to another essay contest announced by the Academy of Dijon. This time, the question posed was, “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by the natural law?” Rousseau’s response would become the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men. Rousseau himself thought this work to be superior to the First Discourse because the Second Discourse was significantly longer and more philosophically daring. The judges were irritated by its length as well its bold and unorthodox philosophical claims; they never finished reading it. However, Rousseau had already arranged to have it published elsewhere and like the First Discourse, it also was also widely read and discussed.
In 1756, a year after the publication of the Second Discourse, Rousseau and Therese Levasseur left Paris after being invited to a house in the country by Mme. D’Epinay, a friend to the philosophes. His stay here lasted only a year and involved an affair with a woman named Sophie d’Houdetot, the mistress of his friend Saint-Lambert. In 1757, after repeated quarrels with Mme. D’Epinay and her other guests including Diderot, Rousseau moved to lodgings near the country home of the Duke of Luxemburg at Montmorency.
It was during this time that Rousseau wrote some of his most important works. In 1761 he published a novel, Julie or the New Heloise, which was one of the best selling of the century. Then, just a year later in 1762, he published two major philosophical treatises: in April his definitive work on political philosophy, The Social Contract, and in May a book detailing his views on education,Emile. Paris authorities condemned both of these books, primarily for claims Rousseau made in them about religion, which forced him to flee France. He settled in Switzerland and in 1764 he began writing his autobiography, his Confessions. A year later, after encountering difficulties with Swiss authorities, he spent time in Berlin and Paris, and eventually moved to England at the invitation of David Hume. However, due to quarrels with Hume, his stay in England lasted only a year, and in 1767 he returned to the southeast of France incognito.
After spending three years in the southeast, Rousseau returned to Paris in 1770 and copied music for a living. It was during this time that he wrote Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques and theReveries of the Solitary Walker, which would turn out to be his final works. He died on July 3, 1778. His Confessions were published several years after his death; and his later political writings, in the nineteenth century.