Great Writers

Play Audio | Get the Book |

In this city Rousseau remained but a short time, being disgusted with what he called "official insolence," which did not properly recognize native genius. He returned to Paris as poor as when he left it, and lived in a cheap restaurant. There he made the acquaintance of his Therese, a healthy, amiable woman, but low, illiterate, unappreciative, and coarse, the author of many of his subsequent miseries. She lived with him till he died,--at first as his mistress and housekeeper, although later in life he married her. She was the mother of his five children, every one of whom he sent to a foundling hospital, justifying his inhumanity by those sophistries and paradoxes with which his writings abound,--even in one of his letters appealing for pity because he "had never known the sweetness of a father's embrace." With extraordinary self-conceit, too, he looked upon himself, all the while, in his numerous illicit loves, as a paragon of virtue, being apparently without any moral sense or perception of moral distinctions.

It was not till Rousseau was thirty-nine years of age that he attracted public attention by his writings, although earlier known in literary circles,--especially in that infidel Parisian _coterie_, where Diderot, Grimm, D'Holbach, D'Alembert, David Hume, the Marquis de Mirabeau, Helvetius, and other wits shined, in which circle no genius was acknowledged and no profundity of thought was deemed possible unless allied with those pagan ideas which Saint Augustine had exploded and Pascal had ridiculed. Even while living among these people, Rousseau had all the while a kind of sentimental religiosity which revolted at their ribald scoffing, although he never protested.

He had written some fugitive pieces of music, and had attempted and failed in several slight operettas, composing both music and words; but the work which made Rousseau famous was his essay on a subject propounded in 1749 by the Academy of Dijon: "Has the Progress of Science and the Arts Contributed to Corrupt or to Purify Morals?" This was a strange subject for a literary institution to propound, but one which exactly fitted the genius of Rousseau. The boldness of his paradox--for he maintained the evil effects of science and art--and the brilliancy of his style secured readers, although the essay was crude in argument and false in logic. In his "Confessions" he himself condemns it as the weakest of all his works, although "full of force and fire;" and he adds: "With whatever talent a man may be born, the art of writing is not easily learned." It has been said that Rousseau got the idea of taking the "off side" of this question from his literary friend Diderot, and that his unexpected success with it was the secret of his life-long career of opposition to all established institutions. This is interesting, but not very authentic.

The next year, his irregular activity having been again stimulated by learning that his essay had gained the premium at Dijon, and by the fact of its great vogue as a published pamphlet, another performance fairly raised Rousseau to the pinnacle of fashion; and this was an opera which he composed, "Le Devin du Village" (The Village Sorcerer), which was performed at Fontainebleau before the Court, and received with unexampled enthusiasm. His profession, so far as he had any, was that of a copyist of music, and his musical taste and facile talents had at last brought him an uncritical recognition.

But Rousseau soon abandoned music for literature. In 1753 he wrote another essay for the Academy of Dijon, on the "Origin of the Inequality of Man," full of still more startling paradoxes than his first, in which he attempted to show, with great felicity of language, the superiority of savage life over civilization.

Next Page