His life may be sketched as follows. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on the 28th of June, 1712 in Geneva. His family was descended from Protestants who sought refuge from the French religious wars in Switzerland. In spite of their humble social standing, they enjoyed full political rights to vote and appointment to public office. This privilege elevated Genevan citizens above mere residents. Rousseau’s father Isaac was a watchmaker whose violent temper complemented his small accomplishment. He left his only son in the care of his brother-in-law upon fleeing from Geneva in the wake of a quarrel with an armed patrician. In his teens Jean-Jacques failed his apprenticeship to a notary, then another to an engraver. At sixteen, he found himself locked out of the Geneva city walls. He took this momentary exclusion as his cue to set upon a quest for fortune. He sought and received the maternal support and sexual favors of a wealthy older woman, Madame de Warens. Securing these benefits required him to convert to Catholicism. He worked as a servant and a tutor. He briefly advanced to a personal secretary to a diplomat. The engagement wound up in a spasm of class resentment. He went on to earn his living as a music copyist. His first compositions met with neglect, and the modest popularity of his subsequent efforts in their time has failed to secure their lasting acclaim. In 1741 Rousseau mated with Theresa Le Vasseur, a homely servant girl ten years his junior. He lived with her for the rest of his life. At his insistence, they consigned their five children to Enfants-Trouvés, a foundling hospital. Drifting to Paris, Rousseau befriended the most influential thinkers of his time. He contributed articles on music to the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, the great encyclopedia edited by Diderot and d’Alembert into the compendium of all progressive knowledge. He staked his career on his invention of a new musical notation. The French Academy of the Arts and Sciences judged it to be neither useful nor original. Time and again he quarreled with fashionable intellectuals. He took to the road. His fortunes were poised for a dramatic reversal.
On his way to Vincennes in 1749 he noticed a bill. The Dijon Academy was offering a prize for the best speculative essay. Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification or the corruption of morals? The question evinced an epiphany.
Rousseau’s writing endures. Its morals withstand the torments of guilt unmitigated by contrition. In confessing his sins, Augustine of Hippo set himself in the framework of the original sin.
As upheld by Rousseau, the Pelaginian axiom anticipated by contraposition the refutation of Humean moral nihilism: my inability to fulfill a task exempts me from the duty to do so. But Pelagius declined to contrapose. Man was obliged to perfect himself; and none more so than Jean-Jacques, the most human of us all.