The sources of Rousseau’s success are instructive. His was, and remains, the earliest and the greatest of all tales of self-consecration. The idea of the writer immortalizing himself through his work is as old as Horace. The idea of the writer immortalizing his work through his life is entirely modern. It is tempting to wax paradoxical in discussing this course of creation. In cultivating his paranoia by eliciting quarrels from his best friends, Jean-Jacques never ceased to extol his virtues as the finest example of man’s innate goodness. While defending the rights of children, he caused his five illegitimate offspring to be abandoned at the door of a foundling hospital, without so much as looking at them. After ending his formal education before entering his teens, he fashioned himself into an oracular educationist. Through pretending to eschew judgment in his accounts of himself, he relentlessly indicted individuals along with their institutions. Widely acknowledged as the heroic progenitor of the French Revolution, and thence of modernity as such, he opens himself up to plaudits and anathemas as an implacable terrorist or self-righteous totalitarian. In avoiding this embarrassment of epithets, the best approach is through plain facts. 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.
The next year, Rousseau won the Dijon prize for his essay denying any improvement in human habits and morals, and decrying the promotion of inequality, idleness, and luxury, through the development of the arts and sciences. He hit on his master idea. In anticipation of Romantic self-regard, he extolled the nobility and innocence of savages. All inequalities between men, all their social ills were due to their labor and the ensuing property claims in the cultivation of land and fabrication of goods. Civilization was a sham, a conspiracy of the rich against the poor. Human institutions betrayed their subjects. Not one to belie his teachings with his actions, Rousseau sought to reform his ways and regain the simple life. He returned to Geneva in 1754, renouncing his Catholicism and reclaiming his citizenship. Two years later he moved to a cottage near the forest of Montmorency. There he wrote the works that vouchsafed his popular acclaim in his lifetime. Published in 1761, Julie, or the New Heloise submitted the fever of illicit love of a youthful student for her worldly tutor, to chaste censure by smallpox. The next year Émile established the ideal upbringing of the child through nurturing his inner integrity and preserving his heart from vice and his mind from error. The Social Contract consecrated his mature submission to General Will in the service of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity and bequeathed to Marxism the concept of man’s alienation from his natural self to the social body. The books earned readerly plaudits and official condemnation. In 1762 Rousseau fled to Switzerland. He settled in Neuchâtel till 1765, then moved to Berne. Expelled the government of Berne, he visited England as a public intellectual promoted by David Hume and other luminaries. After falling out with his English friends, he returned to France in 1767. In 1768 he married Theresa. In 1770 they returned to Paris. Rousseau resumed his work as a music copyist. Thenceforth, his writing was dedicated to relentless self-regard. He composed The Confessions, followed by Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques and the Daydreams of a Solitary Stroller. These works remained unpublished in his lifetime. Rousseau allowed his contemporaries their glimpses through exclusive readings. His fame grew. In 1778 he accepted the hospitality of the marquis de Girardin by moving into his cottage at Ermenonville. He died there of apoplexy on the 2nd of July, 1778. Within two years, the marquis erected a monument to Jean-Jacques, while his 34 year-old valet married his widow. Rousseau’s posthumous acclaim crested in 1794, when the Revolutionary government moved his remains to the Panthéon in Paris.
He indicted himself, and this indictment extended to mankind in its entirety. In opposing Augustine, Rousseau sought to acquit mankind through excusing himself. He sided with Augustine’s great adversary Pelagius. David Hume had pointed out that an “is” could never imply an “ought”. (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III: Of Morals, Part I: Of Virtue and Vice in General, Section I: Moral Distinctions Not Deriv’d From Reason.) In its attribution of impossibility, the slogan already betrayed its empiricist roots. The master insight of Pelagian heresy was “If I ought, I can.” But Godlike perfection was mandated by the teachings of Jesus at Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” If perfection is possible, the obligation to attain follows from God’s demand of unquestioning obedience. It remains to argue for the possibility. Pelagius appealed to the individual’s need to define himself and his personal values amidst the society ruled by mediocrity and convention. He held out absolute certainty of salvation, available at the cost of absolute obedience to the Divine Law. Man cannot find any excuse for his own sins, either by appealing to the sins of his fathers, or to the corrupting influences of the world. Man alone is responsible for his own shortcomings. Every one of his sins is therefore a deliberate act of contempt against God. (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, pp. 340-352; John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man, pp. 94-115.) Augustine argued to the contrary. He pleaded on behalf of the causa gratiae, or “the case for grace”, ruling out the possibility of attaining perfection by mundane means. Originally created good by God, man’s soul was corrupted by the Fall. In this corrupted state, even the sacrament of baptism offered only a precarious promise of salvation. The Christian was condemned to pass his life in perpetual convalescence, uncertain of his ultimate fate. There was no complete cure of his spiritual ailment, outside of the promise of a Second Coming. In this way, the Augustinian man was doomed to a life of solidarity with his fellow sinners. They shared the burden of his hereditary corruption, along with the hope of common deliverance. But the Pelaginian man was blessed in a way that forced him to stand or fall alone. Augustine’s victory over Pelagius became evident in the wake of a series of rulings by the Council of Carthage in 418. They anathemized the proposition that men can, without special grace from God, fulfill His commands solely through the exercize of their free will. They declared that human perfection was unattainable even by the saints. Over a century later, the Council of Orange in 529 lent its authority to Augustine’s claim that original sin corrupted the whole human race. It anathemized the Pelaginian teaching that by the force of nature man can rightly think or choose anything that is good. Even so, it rejected his doctrine of “dual predestination”, that some men are predestined to be saved, and others to be damned. Thus the view of natural perfectibility of man came to be known within the Catholic orthodoxy as the Pelaginian heresy. (Augustine of Hippo, pp. 353-75; The Perfectibility of Man, pp. 86-115.) 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.