Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions”

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"I have stepped into an industry that is unprecedented and would have no imitator. I propose to show my fellow human beings that nature has created him, and this man is to be himself. (Rosseau, 23)

Whenever the last trumpet sounds, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and declare loudly that I have behaved in this way; these have been my thoughts; these have I been." (Rousseau, n. 25)

"Confessions," written by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, is generally regarded as one of the first autobiographies in the history of literature. In this most important work Rousseau explored, explained, and discussed his life from early childhood and to the beginning of his old age. Rousseau’s “Confessions” provide a huge material of philosophical, artistic, and aesthetical value. Being a revolutionary philosopher whose ideas and opinions shaped culture and history a glimpse into the mind of a genius that Rousseau gives can also be called a major exploration of human psychology. With his autobiography Rousseau expressed humanistic ideas and thoughts of moral character in order to inspire others. In “Confessions” Rousseau investigates how great ideas came into his head and why they were so important. Rousseau’s narrative contains stories of personal struggle and sometimes stressful conditions through which he lived. Most importantly Rousseau connects his personal experience to his philosophical revelations of universal importance. Rousseau’s work is beyond being just a significant piece of literature as it is an autobiography which depicts character development and the establishment of an identity whose ideas changed the history of human kind and helped move civilization towards progressive development in all spheres of knowledge and being. Without any doubt Rousseau’s autobiographical literature masterpiece contains numerous different important ideas regarding philosophy, psychology, ethics, sociology, politics, history, and art. Because Rousseau was a very talented thinker the investigation of the establishment of his ideas presented in “Confessions” is not any less important than his ideas itself as this investigation contains and explores universal human values regarding philosophy and psychology.

To understand why Rousseau’s autobiography is a work of literature important for both philosophy and psychology it is crucial to discuss Rousseau himself as a philosopher and a talented researcher of human psyche. Rousseau was not born rich, and his establishment as a prominent thinker became possible due to his hard work. Rousseau’s life itself has a lot of philosophy because each true philosopher is only as great as much his/her life reflects his or her philosophy. Rousseau’s work “Confessions” does exactly just that. It represented the man behind the great ideas. Rousseau shows how his life, sometimes happy and sometimes harsh, gave him reasons to become a philosopher and caused to thoroughly investigate human psychology (Swenson, 29). Rousseau did all that with a true and deep intention to make people’s life better. Rousseau’s critically important explorations, ideas, and philosophical endeavors like, for example, social contract theory, became a product of his experience as a citizen and a person living his life in France under Absolutism. Seeing injustice and poverty all around him his personal experience became a reason for him to seek ideas that could change the world for the better. In his “Confessions” Rousseau tracks down the evolution of his ideas and by evaluating his life shows the readers how he came to think the theories he invented.

Jean Jacques Rousseau is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern democracy. Alongside with his colleagues Voltaire and Diderot he invented principles of modern democracy (Wain, 92). The work done by Rousseau simply cannot be overrated. Rousseau has started the processes which eventually led to a wider recognition of working class and the establishment of free elections alongside with gender, national, ethnical, and racial equality. Rousseau did all this because he lived the life he describes in his “Confessions.” This literature work helps to understand the nature of Rousseau’s philosophical breakthroughs and the origins of his intelligent approach to human psychology.

“Confessions” is a philosophical work even though it is an autobiography because it is an autobiography of a philosopher. “Confessions” contain numerous different thoughts about the nature of human psyche, its abilities, qualities, and the role it plays in development of society. In times Rousseau lived psychology did not exist as a separate academic discipline. Therefore, Rousseau’s philosophy and his comment on human psyche are, in fact, the same. That is because psychology itself appeared from nothing else like from philosophy. Rousseau saw troubles of poor working class people all around him (Riley, 61). France under absolute monarchy in the middle of 18th century was a place where 10% of population owned 90% of everything while the rest 90% of population survived with only 10% of commonwealth. This unfair division of general welfare caused French Revolution and Rousseau is credited as one of the ideologists who directly caused this massive civilization event.

Rousseau contributed a lot to making a human person free. In one of his works of political philosophy Rousseau stated that “man is born free but live in chains” (Rousseau, 175). In his “Confessions” it becomes possible to trace how and why Rousseau came to be what he eventually became – a radical revolutionist whose political philosophy moved humanity towards progress and prosperity. Rousseau tells in his autobiography that poverty is a condition that makes people into slaves while income and wealth are able to free humans from the boundaries of slavery. During Rousseau’s lifetime France under the rule of absolute monarchy was divided into 3 estates – aristocracy, clergy, and peasantry (Sieyes, 78). Most of the France’s population and even most of the European population belonged to the so-called third estate – peasantry. These people were very poor and spent their entire lives surviving and not really living. Rousseau considered such state of affairs totally unfair. To fight this injustice he worked in the spheres of political philosophy, sociology, and psychology. Alongside with other members of French Enlightenment (Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert) he claimed that tyranny of aristocracy and clergy over the majority of population should be battled so people could prosper and live as humans should live. Rousseau explained that economic oppression became an instrument of slavery and the dominance of the first two classes of society over the third estate was a condition of inequality.

In his “Confessions” Rousseau claims that he was honored to be a member of middle class. At that time such thing as middle had barely existed and was still in the early stages of development. Rousseau’s mother died a week after his birth; his father has cared for him well until he remarried when Rousseau was around 12 years old leaving his still young son with his uncle. Rousseau lived among watchmakers and other craftsmen while being with his father who was also a watchmaker (Rousseau, 36). Upper working class always inspired Rousseau and he preferred working people such as watchmakers to artists because their products were used by all men while artists entertained only rich members of aristocracy. After his father went away Rousseau was an apprentice to another watchmaker and then to an engraver. The engraver beat Rousseau and he ran away.

“My new master, M. Ducommun, was a rough and violent young man, who in a short time succeeded in tarnishing all the brightness of my childhood, stupefying my loving and lively nature, and reducing me, in mind as well as in position, to a real state of apprenticeship” (Rousseau, 72)

It is exactly this incident that made Rousseau wrote about system of education claiming among other things that children cannot be beaten. At those times children were beaten quite often for a variety of different reasons. By experiencing such complexities as lack of mother and family that was not solid Rousseau’s coming-of-age was diverse and fruitful. He traveled a lot, thought about being a Protestant priest, became involved in sexual relationship with an older woman who became his mentor and whose husband he admired. Rousseau lived his first 15 years in a relatively liberal city of Geneva (Rousseau, 94). All these childhood episodes made Rousseau a profound observer of human psychology.

Rousseau’s ancestors were merchants. He was never either rich or poor which allowed him to see the both sides of human society. In his “Confessions” he claims that the difference he saw between the life of his native city of Geneva and other places exposed a striking contradiction which he did not approve (Orwin, 112). Moving to France in the middle of his twenties with an interest in music and mathematics he saw inequality in class division which was largely ignored by everybody except a small bunch of intellectuals who would later constitute a so-called encyclopedists’ club.

Through the whole body of “Confessions” Rousseau again and again points out his enormous dedication to the ideas of justice, truth, liberty, and independence. Among other things he writes: “I renounced forever all plans of fortune and promotion. Resolved to pass my few remaining days in poverty and independence, I employed all my strength of mind in breaking away from the bonds of the opinion of the world, and in courageously carrying out everything which appeared to me to be right, without troubling myself about what the world might think of it.” (Rousseau, 167) And also: “All my petty passions were stifled by the enthusiasm of truth, liberty and virtue;” (Rousseau, 146). Rousseau described how imaginary ideas, concepts, thoughts, and opinions, including those from the literature works of the past, had even a greater effect on him than his own experiences in life. He describes his admiration of Plutarch and because Rousseau lived a private life even in his relationship with many women his ideas always prevailed to his worldly interests.

From his childhood Rousseau desired to be like the heroes described by Plutarch in his “The Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans”. This book is a profound observation of human psychology and behavior that can be called being close to perfect. By taking heroes and men of honor as his examples Rousseau wanted to obtain virtues himself. He wanted to live a private life and stay himself disallowing anybody or anything besides ideas to affect him. After creating the opera and presenting it to King Louis XVI who liked it a lot he was proposed a lifelong pension. Rousseau rejected it for the same reason he rejected a lot of other grants and stipendiums. The reason was that he desired to be dependent only on himself and never be in debt to anyone (Orwin, 128). For this same reason Rousseau paid a considerable sum of money to the family he lived with during his teenage years even though he was not asked to do it. He also sponsored a family of one of his lovers and made other such altruistic endeavors that can be credited as deeds of a good man.

Rousseau describes how he came to understanding that the way he saw people lived contradicted the way they ought to live naturally. This idea became known as a concept of “noble savage”. Rousseau tells about it the following: “The remainder of the day, I buried myself in the forest, where I sought and found the picture of those primitive times, of which I boldly sketched the history. I demolished the pitiful lies of mankind; I dared to expose their nature in all its nakedness, to follow the progress of time and of the things which have disfigured this nature; and, comparing the man, as man has made him, with the natural man, I showed him, in his pretended perfection, the true source of his misery.” (Rousseau, 186) Rousseau considered the way of things around him incorrect. Due to that the works he created contributed a lot to making things better. Rousseau’s famous “Discourse on Inequality” discussed the nature and origins of oppression in human society as he himself observed it during his lifetime while living in Paris and Geneva.

The nature of Rousseau’s “Confessions” is complex even though it is an autobiography. That is due to the fact that he concentrates more on the history of his ideas than on the actual events that happened to him and people close to him. From this point of view “Confessions” cannot be called an ordinary autobiography because it is just as much a philosophical treatise and a collection of psychological observations. More than anything Rousseau’s “Confessions” is a psychological portrait of a philosopher and his life (Huliung, 37). It was mentioned earlier and above that Rousseau valued privacy and lived his life philosophically observing it instead of participating in it fully. Famous French philosopher Albert Camus once said that “you will never live if you are looking for a sense of life” (Camus, 47). This statement means that often a person cannot live his/her life fully and understand it at the same time. Considering this it is not surprising that Rousseau did not want to have kids or rejected easily obtained financial prosperity preferring his privacy to anything and anyone. Somehow Rousseau observed life more than participated in it. These observations masterfully collected in “Confessions” provided a deep psychological insight into the nature of human existence and its social strains (MacLean, 80).

In some ways Rousseau followed the example of another great French thinker and by coincidence an inventor of another literature genre – Michele Montaigne who made an essay into a fully recognized form of literature. Montaigne was also a philosopher and a psychologist who by examining thoroughly his own thoughts, observations, and ideas became a prominent writer in the history of French thought. By describing his own philosophical observations and by researching his own psychological portrait Montaigne provided an incredible account regarding the nature of human existence (Baker, 142). In “Confessions” Rousseau does exactly the same and writes about his strive for knowledge, his desire for truth and meaning. In one particular passage he states: “A man who, at the age of five-and-twenty, knows nothing and wishes to learn everything, is bound to make the best use of his time. Not knowing at what point destiny or death might arrest my zeal, I desired, in any case, to get an idea of everything, in order to discover the special bent of my natural abilities, and also to judge for myself what was worthy of cultivation.” (Rousseau, 114) Thus, by researching his own life and examining his own psychology Rousseau was able to make statements regarding the nature of humanity in general. This is true because his observations were proved to be correct as they were recognized as fruitful, useful, and meaningful for the societies in Europe in America. By examining his own thoughts Rousseau examined the nature of thinking itself.

The following extract is one of the most famous quotes from Rousseau’s “Confessions”: Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.” This statement explains clearly and precisely why what the Rousseau’s work meant for him. “The Confessions” presented a man who analyzed and documented his personality in order to prove and justify that his way of thinking, ideas, thoughts, and opinion were different from those of others. In such a way Rousseau manifested the originality of his unique identity. He told how he came to be what he become and by that proved everybody, most of all to himself, that he lived a live rightly. Rousseau was not just a clever philosopher and a profound examiner of human psyche but a human being who tried to live his life as best as he could. Rousseau’s autobiography portrays him as a man of justice and honor who cared most about liberty and equality of all people. By making an account of his life he shown an example of self-evaluation so needed to anybody who desires to be psychologically healthy and philosophically enlightened.

All in all, Rousseau’s “Confessions” can without any doubt be considered an exemplary work of philosophical and psychological value. By drawing a portrait of a man of ideas it presented people with a chance to follow his example. Rousseau helped mankind greatly battling inequality, injustice, and class slavery. His vision of reality proved to be way more correct than those of people around him as it moved humanity towards progressive development. Being a man of unique talent with his autobiography Rousseau provided people with a valuable opportunity to look at the man behind great ideas. “The Confessions” shows that Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself was not any less great than his ideas.

Works Cited

Baker, K. Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: CUP, 2010

MacLean, L. The Free Animal: Rousseau on Free Will and Human Nature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013

Huliung, M. Rousseau and the Dilemmas of Modernity. Boston: Transaction Publishers, 2015

O’Hagan, T. Rousseau. Psychology Press, 2003

Orwin, C., Tarkov, N. The Legacy of Rousseau. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007

Riley, P. The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001

Rousseau, J. Discourse on Inequality. Chicago: Open Road Media, 2016

Rousseau, J. Basic Political Writings. Boston: Hackett Publishing, 2012

Rousseau, J. The Confessions. New York: Wordsworth Editions, 2007

Sieyes, E. What is the third estate? New York: Pal Mall Press, 2013

Swenson, J. On Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010

Wain, K. On Rousseau: An Introduction to his Radical Thinking on Education and Politics. New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2011

October 12, 2022
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