Who was he: Rousseau gave a detailed account of his life in his work Confessions, which was the same autobiographical title that Saint Augustine used over a thousand years earlier. Published posthumously, Rousseau wrote Confessions late in his life; he describes a life filled with conflict that had started when he was an apprentice and continued as he interacted with other 18th century Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot. Rousseau had problems with Swiss and Parisian authorities and even had issues with David Hume.
Rousseau discusses these conflicts in the work but it was not his intent to justify his actions. He took responsibility and even chastised himself for many of the issues that developed throughout his life such as his extra-martial affairs and some of his intense feuds with friends and contemporaries. But his paranoia is present as he relives other battles. On one hand he tries to justify his actions to the public and get their approval, and on the other hand is confirming his disdain for that same public.
Background: Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1712 and described himself as a citizen of Geneva throughout his life. At age 13 Rousseau was an apprentice to a notary and then to an engraver who physically beat him. At 15 he ran away and found shelter with a priest who tried to convert him from Calvinism to Catholicism. The priest sent him to Turin to complete the conversion. Rousseau gave up his Genevan citizenship in order to convert but later in life reverted back to his home city religion, Calvinism.
As a teenager, Rousseau supported himself as a tutor, servant and secretary in France and Italy. During those years he lived with Francoise-Louise De Warrens, a noblewoman with a Protestant background. She arranged music lessons for him and when he was 20 she began an affair with him. He later wrote she was the love of his life.
During his twenties Rousseau applied himself to the study of music, mathematics and philosophy, and at 27 took a job as a tutor in Lyon. In 1742 he moved to Paris so he could present the Academie des Sciences with a new system of numbered musical notations. The academy rejected it but urged him to keep trying since he showed great potential in music composition.
In 1743 Rousseau took a job as the secretary for the French ambassador to Venice, which opened his eyes and ears to the Italian opera. Rousseau left his position after 11 months because the ambassador did not pay regularly. He returned to Paris and met Therese Levasseur, with whom he began a love affair that resulted in a son and four other children. Rousseau persuaded Therese to give the children to a foundling hospital to protect her honor.
When Rousseau became a theorist of child-rearing and education several years later, critics like Burke and Voltaire used his indifference for his own children against him. He became close friends with French philosopher Diderot during those years and contributed numerous articles to Diderot and D'Alembert's encyclopedia. The most famous article in that group was the one written in 1755 on political economy.
Rousseau read about an essay competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon, which was going to be published in the Mercure de France; the theme was "How the development of the sciences and arts is morally beneficial." Rousseau had a revelation that the arts and sciences were responsible for the moral degeneration of mankind and believed that mankind was basically good by nature. Rousseau's 1750 Discourse on the Arts and Sciences won first prize and catapulted him into the public eye.
Rousseau continued to write music and his opera, "Le Devin du Village," was performed for King Louis XV in 1752. The king loved it and offered Rousseau a lifelong pension, but he turned it down. Rousseau returned to Geneva in 1754, regained his citizenship and wrote Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, which elaborated on the arguments in Discourse on the Arts and Sciences that year as well.
His 800-page novel, Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, was published in 1761 and became a huge success. In 1762, he published Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique. His friend Antoine-Jacques Roustan took issue with the chapter on civil religion, which implied that the concept of a Christian republic was paradoxical. Rousseau wrote that Christianity taught submission rather than participation in public affairs. Rousseau actually helped Roustan find a publisher for his rebuttal.
Rousseau's book rejected original sin and divine revelation, which upset Catholics and Protestants. Rousseau's suggestion that all religions were worthy was enough religious indifferentism to cause the books to be banned in France and Geneva. Rousseau was condemned by the Archbishop of Paris, his books were burned and warrants were issued for his arrest.
When his house was stoned in 1765, he took refuge in Great Britain with David Hume. He suffered a serious decline in his mental health and began experiencing paranoia. He was able to return to Paris in 1772 and published two more books. The last one was Dialogues: Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques, which he finished in 1776. Although he became a celebrity, his mental health made it difficult for him to enjoy his fame. At the age of 66 he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died while taking a morning walk on the estate of marquis René Louis de Girardin. In 1794, 16 years after his death, he was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris.