Great Writers

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Himself a genuine and passionate lover of Nature; recognizing in his principles of conduct no duties that could conflict with personal inclinations; born in democratic and freedom-loving Switzerland, and early imbued through his reading of German and English writers with ideas of liberty,--which in those conservative lands were wholesome,--he distilled these ideas into charming literary creations that were eagerly read by the restless minds of France and wrought in them political frenzy. The reforms he projected grew out of his theories of the "rights" of man, without reference to the duties that limit those rights; and his appeal for their support to men's passions and selfish instincts and to a sentimental philosophy, in an age of irreligion and immorality, aroused a political tempest which he little contemplated.

In an age so infidel and brilliant as that which preceded the French Revolution, the writings of Rousseau had a peculiar charm, and produced a great effect even on men who despised his character and ignored his mission. He engendered the Robespierres and Condorcets of the Revolution,--those sentimental murderers, who under the guise of philosophy attacked the fundamental principles of justice and destroyed the very rights which they invoked.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born at Geneva in the year 1712, when Voltaire was first rising into notice. He belonged to the plebeian ranks, being the son of a watchmaker; was sickly, miserable, and morbid from a child; was poorly educated, but a great devourer of novels (which his father--sentimental as he--read with him), poetry, and gushing biographies; although a little later he became, with impartial facility, equally delighted with the sturdy Plutarch. His nature was passionate and inconstant, his sensibilities morbidly acute, and his imagination lively. He hated all rules, precedents, and authority. He was lazy, listless, deceitful, and had a great craving for novelties and excitement,--as he himself says, "feeling everything and knowing nothing." At an early age, without money or friends, he ran away from the engraver to whom he had been apprenticed, and after various adventures was first kindly received by a Catholic priest in Savoy; then by a generous and erring woman of wealth lately converted to Catholicism; and again by the priests of a Catholic Seminary in Sardinia, under whose tuition, and in order to advance his personal fortunes, he abjured the religion in which he had been brought up, and professed Catholicism. This, however, cost him no conscientious scruples, for his religious training had been of the slimmest, and principles he had none.

We next see Rousseau as a footman in the service of an Italian Countess, where he was mean enough to accuse a servant girl of a theft he had himself committed, thereby causing her ruin. Again, employed as a footman in the service of another noble family, his extraordinary talents were detected, and he was made secretary. But all this kindness he returned with insolence, and again became a wanderer. In his isolation he sought the protection of the Swiss lady who had before befriended him, Madame de Warens. He began as her secretary, and ended in becoming her lover. In her house he saw society and learned music.

A fit of caprice induced Rousseau to throw up this situation, and he then taught music in Chambery for a living, studied hard, read Voltaire, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Leibnitz, and Puffendorf, and evinced an uncommon vivacity and talent for conversation, which made him a favorite in social circles. His chief labor, however, for five years was in inventing a system of musical notation, which led him to Lyons, and then, in 1741, to Paris.

He was now twenty-nine years old,--a visionary man, full of schemes, with crude opinions and unbounded self-conceit, but poor and unknown,--a true adventurer, with many agreeable qualities, irregular habits, and not very scrupulous morals. Favored by letters of introduction to ladies of distinction,--for he was a favorite with ladies, who liked his enthusiasm, freshness, elegant talk, and grand sentiments,--he succeeded in getting his system of musical notation examined, although not accepted, by the French Academy, and secured an appointment as secretary in the suite of the Ambassador to Venice.

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