The Confessions of J. J. Rousseau by Jean Jacques Rousseau
Among the notable books of later times-we may say, without exaggeration,
of all time--must be reckoned The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
It deals with leading personages and transactions of a momentous epoch,
when absolutism and feudalism were rallying for their last struggle
against the modern spirit, chiefly represented by Voltaire, the
Encyclopedists, and Rousseau himself--a struggle to which, after many
fierce intestine quarrels and sanguinary wars throughout Europe and
America, has succeeded the prevalence of those more tolerant and rational
principles by which the statesmen of our own day are actuated.

On these matters, however, it is not our province to enlarge; nor is it
necessary to furnish any detailed account of our author's political,
religious, and philosophic axioms and systems, his paradoxes and his
errors in logic: these have been so long and so exhaustively disputed
over by contending factions that little is left for even the most
assiduous gleaner in the field. The inquirer will find, in Mr. John
Money's excellent work, the opinions of Rousseau reviewed succinctly and
impartially. The 'Contrat Social', the 'Lattres Ecrites de la Montagne',
and other treatises that once aroused fierce controversy, may therefore
be left in the repose to which they have long been consigned, so far as
the mass of mankind is concerned, though they must always form part of
the library of the politician and the historian. One prefers to turn to
the man Rousseau as he paints himself in the remarkable work before us.

That the task which he undertook in offering to show himself--as Persius
puts it--'Intus et in cute', to posterity, exceeded his powers, is a
trite criticism; like all human enterprises, his purpose was only
imperfectly fulfilled; but this circumstance in no way lessens the
attractive qualities of his book, not only for the student of history or
psychology, but for the intelligent man of the world. Its startling
frankness gives it a peculiar interest wanting in most other
autobiographies.

Many censors have elected to sit in judgment on the failings of this
strangely constituted being, and some have pronounced upon him very
severe sentences. Let it be said once for all that his faults and
mistakes were generally due to causes over which he had but little
control, such as a defective education, a too acute sensitiveness, which
engendered suspicion of his fellows, irresolution, an overstrained sense
of honour and independence, and an obstinate refusal to take advice from
those who really wished to befriend him; nor should it be forgotten that
he was afflicted during the greater part of his life with an incurable
disease.

Lord Byron had a soul near akin to Rousseau's, whose writings naturally
made a deep impression on the poet's mind, and probably had an influence
on his conduct and modes of thought: In some stanzas of 'Childe Harold'
this sympathy is expressed with truth and power; especially is the
weakness of the Swiss philosopher's character summed up in the following
admirable lines:

"Here the self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau,
The apostle of affliction, he who threw
Enchantment over passion, and from woe
Wrung overwhelming eloquence, first drew
The breath which made him wretched; yet he knew
How to make madness beautiful, and cast
O'er erring deeds and thoughts a heavenly hue
Of words, like sunbeams, dazzling as they passed
The eyes, which o'er them shed tears feelingly and fast.

"His life was one long war with self-sought foes,
Or friends by him self-banished; for his mind
Had grown Suspicion's sanctuary, and chose,
For its own cruel sacrifice, the kind,
'Gainst whom he raged with fury strange and blind.
But he was frenzied,-wherefore, who may know?
Since cause might be which skill could never find;
But he was frenzied by disease or woe
To that worst pitch of all, which wears a reasoning show."

One would rather, however, dwell on the brighter hues of the picture than
on its shadows and blemishes; let us not, then, seek to "draw his
frailties from their dread abode." His greatest fault was his
renunciation of a father's duty to his offspring; but this crime he
expiated by a long and bitter repentance. We cannot, perhaps, very
readily excuse the way in which he has occasionally treated the memory of
his mistress and benefactress. That he loved Madame de Warens--his
'Mamma'--deeply and sincerely is undeniable, notwithstanding which he now
and then dwells on her improvidence and her feminine indiscretions with
an unnecessary and unbecoming lack of delicacy that has an unpleasant
effect on the reader, almost seeming to justify the remark of one of his
most lenient critics--that, after all, Rousseau had the soul of a lackey.
He possessed, however, many amiable and charming qualities, both as a man
and a writer, which were evident to those amidst whom he lived, and will
be equally so to the unprejudiced reader of the Confessions. He had a
profound sense of justice and a real desire for the improvement and
advancement of the race. Owing to these excellences he was beloved to
the last even by persons whom he tried to repel, looking upon them as
members of a band of conspirators, bent upon destroying his domestic
peace and depriving him of the means of subsistence.

Those of his writings that are most nearly allied in tone and spirit to
the 'Confessions' are the 'Reveries d'un Promeneur Solitaire' and
'La Nouvelle Heloise'. His correspondence throws much light on his life
and character, as do also parts of 'Emile'. It is not easy in our day to
realize the effect wrought upon the public mind by the advent of
'La Nouvelle Heloise'. Julie and Saint-Preux became names to conjure
with; their ill-starred amours were everywhere sighed and wept over by
the tender-hearted fair; indeed, in composing this work, Rousseau may be
said to have done for Switzerland what the author of the Waverly Novels
did for Scotland, turning its mountains, lakes and islands, formerly
regarded with aversion, into a fairyland peopled with creatures whose
joys and sorrows appealed irresistibly to every breast. Shortly after
its publication began to flow that stream of tourists and travellers
which tends to make Switzerland not only more celebrated but more opulent
every year. It, is one of the few romances written in the epistolary
form that do not oppress the reader with a sense of languor and
unreality; for its creator poured into its pages a tide of passion
unknown to his frigid and stilted predecessors, and dared to depict
Nature as she really is, not as she was misrepresented by the modish
authors and artists of the age. Some persons seem shy of owning an
acquaintance with this work; indeed, it has been made the butt of
ridicule by the disciples of a decadent school. Its faults and its
beauties are on the surface; Rousseau's own estimate is freely expressed
at the beginning of the eleventh book of the Confessions and elsewhere.
It might be wished that the preface had been differently conceived and
worded; for the assertion made therein that the book may prove dangerous
has caused it to be inscribed on a sort of Index, and good folk who never
read a line of it blush at its name. Its "sensibility," too, is a little
overdone, and has supplied the wits with opportunities for satire; for
example, Canning, in his 'New Morality':

"Sweet Sensibility, who dwells enshrined
In the fine foldins of the feeling mind....
Sweet child of sickly Fancy!-her of yore
From her loved France Rousseau to exile bore;
And while 'midst lakes and mountains wild he ran,
Full of himself, and shunned the haunts of man,
Taught her o'er each lone vale and Alpine, steep
To lisp the story of his wrongs and weep."

As might be imagined, Voltaire had slight sympathy with our social
reformer's notions and ways of promulgating them, and accordingly took
up his wonted weapons--sarcasm and ridicule--against poor Jean-Jacques.
The quarrels of these two great men cannot be described in this place;
but they constitute an important chapter in the literary and social
history of the time. In the work with which we are immediately
concerned, the author seems to avoid frequent mention of Voltaire, even
where we should most expect it. However, the state of his mind when he
penned this record of his life should be always remembered in relation to
this as well as other occurrences.

Rousseau had intended to bring his autobiography down to a later date,
but obvious causes prevented this: hence it is believed that a summary of
the chief events that marked his closing years will not be out of place
here.

On quitting the Ile de Saint-Pierre he travelled to Strasbourg, where he
was warmly received, and thence to Paris, arriving in that city on
December I6, 1765. The Prince de Conti provided him with a lodging in
the Hotel Saint-Simon, within the precincts of the Temple--a place of
sanctuary for those under the ban of authority. 'Every one was eager to
see the illustrious proscript, who complained of being made a daily show,
"like Sancho Panza in his island of Barataria." During his short stay in
the capital there was circulated an ironical letter purporting to come
from the Great Frederick, but really written by Horace Walpole. This
cruel, clumsy, and ill-timed joke angered Rousseau, who ascribed it to,
Voltaire. A few sentences may be quoted:

"My Dear Jean-Jacques,--You have renounced Geneva, your native
place. You have caused your expulsion from Switzerland, a country
so extolled in your writings; France has issued a warrant against
you: so do you come to me. My states offer you a peaceful retreat.
I wish you well, and will treat you well, if you will let me. But,
if you persist in refusing my help, do not reckon upon my telling
any one that you did so. If you are bent on tormenting your spirit
to find new misfortunes, choose whatever you like best. I am a
king, and can procure them for you at your pleasure; and, what will
certainly never happen to you in respect of your enemies, I will
cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take a pride in being
persecuted. Your good friend,
"FREDERICK."

Early in 1766 David Hume persuaded Rousseau to go with him to England,
where the exile could find a secure shelter. In London his appearance
excited general attention. Edmund Burke had an interview with him and
held that inordinate vanity was the leading trait in his character.
Mr. Davenport, to whom he was introduced by Hume, generously offered
Rousseau a home at Wootton, in Staffordshire, near the, Peak Country; the
latter, however, would only accept the offer on condition that he should
pay a rent of L 30 a year. He was accorded a pension of L 100 by George
III., but declined to draw after the first annual payment. The climate
and scenery of Wootton being similar to those of his native country, he
was at first delighted with his new abode, where he lived with Therese,
and devoted his time to herborising and inditing the first six books of
his Confessions. Soon, however, his old hallucinations acquired
strength, and Rousseau convinced himself that enemies were bent upon his
capture, if not his death. In June, 1766, he wrote a violent letter to
Hume, calling him "one of the worst of men." Literary Paris had combined
with Hume and the English Government to surround him--as he supposed
--with guards and spies; he revolved in his troubled mind all the reports
and rumours he had heard for months and years; Walpole's forged letter
rankled in his bosom; and in the spring of 1767 he fled; first to
Spalding, in Lincolnshire, and subsequently to Calais, where he landed in
May.

On his arrival in France his restless and wandering disposition forced
him continually to change his residence, and acquired for him the title
of "Voyageur Perpetuel." While at Trye, in Gisors, in 1767--8, he wrote
the second part of the Confessions. He had assumed the surname of Renou,
and about this time he declared before two witnesses that Therese was his
wife--a proceeding to which he attached the sanctity of marriage. In
1770 he took up his abode in Paris, where he lived continuously for seven
years, in a street which now bears his name, and gained a living by
copying music. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the author of 'Paul and
Virginia', who became acquainted with him in 1772, has left some
interesting particulars of Rousseau's daily mode of life at this period.
Monsieur de Girardin having offered him an asylum at Ermemonville in the
spring of 1778, he and Therese went thither to reside, but for no long
time. On the 3d of July, in the same year, this perturbed spirit at last
found rest, stricken by apoplexy. A rumor that he had committed suicide
was circulated, but the evidence of trustworthy witnesses, including a
physician, effectually contradicts this accusation. His remains, first
interred in the Ile des Peupliers, were, after the Revolution, removed to
the Pantheon. In later times the Government of Geneva made some
reparation for their harsh treatment of a famous citizen, and erected his
statue, modelled by his compatriot, Pradier, on an island in the Rhone.

"See nations, slowly wise and meanly just,
To buried merit raise the tardy bust."

November, 1896.
S. W. ORSON.

 
 
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