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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It's not often that a writer inspires national revolt.  But that's exactly what author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau did.  Born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1712, his writing fired the hearts and the spirits of the leaders of the French Revolution.  His Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), The Social Contract (1762), and several novels, including Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), acted as a catalyst to change world history.  He coined the phrase that electrified the Revolution: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."  He also wrote, "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains."

Rousseau's mother died giving birth.  His father was a dissipated and violent-tempered man who paid little mind to his son's training and eventually deserted him.  Rousseau responded by burying himself in reading.  He showed a special love for Plutarch's Lives.

When he was old enough to begin work, he was apprenticed first to a notary and then to a coppersmith, but he enjoyed neither profession and ran away in 1728.  After wandering about France for several days, he fell in with Roman Catholic priests at Consignon in Savoy.  They introduced him to Madame de Warens at Annecy, and she sent him to an educational institution in Turin.  There, he served in several households until he was charged with theft, after which he once again took to the road. 

In 1730, he found himself in Chambery, where Madame de Warens had recently moved.  He spent his next eight years in her household, studying nature, music, philosophy, mathematics, and Latin.  He also developed a fondness for opera.

In 1744, he moved to Venice, where for the next eighteen months he served as secretary to the French ambassador, Comte de Montaignu.  After that, he returned to Paris where he served as personal secretary for Madame Dupin, who introduced him to Diderot, Grimm, D'Alembert, Holbach, and Madame d'Epinay, who admired his flamboyant energy and his infinite knowledge. 

With the Discours sur les sciences et les arts (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, Paris, 1750), a prize essay in which he set forth the paradox of the superiority of the savage state, Rousseau proclaimed his gospel of "back to nature."  His operetta, Devin du village (The Village Soothsayer, 1752), met with great success.  He followed it with his second major writing, Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse upon the Origin and Foundations of the Inequality among Men, 1753), in which he railed against the inequalities of French society. 

By 1754, with his fame secured, he returned to Geneva and Madame d'Epinay.  He retired to a cottage, later named "The Hermitage," in the woods of Montmorency, where in the quiet of nature he expected to spend the rest of his life; but domestic troubles, his violent passion for Countess d'Houdetot, and a morbid distrust and nervous excitability--which ultimately cost him most of his friends--induced him to change his residence to a chateau in the park of the duke of Luxembourg, Montmorency (1758-62). 

There, he wrote some of his most famous works: Lettre à d'Alembert (Letter to M. d'Alembert, Amsterdam, 1758), a blistering attack on arts and the theater; Julie ou la nouvelle Heloise (Julie, or the New Heloise, 1761); Du Contrat social (The Social Contract, Amsterdam, 1762); and Emile ou de 1'education (Emile, or On Education, Amsterdam, 1762).  The last work was ordered to be burned by the French parliament, and Rousseau was to be arrested, but he learned of the plan and fled to Neuchatel, then within the jurisdiction of Prussia.  He wrote his Lettres ecrites de la Montagne (Letters of the Mountains, Amsterdam, 1762), in which, with reference to the Geneva constitution, he advocated freedom of religion as taking precedence over both the state Church and the police. 

Driven by attacks from the local peasants in September, 1765, he fled once again--this time back to the Isle St. Pierre in the Lake of Bienne region.  The Berne government ordered him out of its territory, and he accepted the asylum offered to him by David Hume in England in January, 1766. 

But Rousseau's morbid misanthropy and severe persecution complex made him suspicious of plots and led him to quarrel with his friends for not making his opponents their own enemies.  In 1767, he fled again to France.

After wandering about for some time, he enlisted some friends to intercede for him with the authorities, and he was eventually allowed to return to Paris, where he finished the Confessions that he had begun in England.  He produced many of his best stories there.  He also copied notes and studied music and botany; but his fear of secret enemies grew within his own imagination until he was glad to accept an invitation to retire to Ermenonville in 1778 where he died suddenly.

His death remains a mystery to this day.

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