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We'll just say it: The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the O.G. autobiography. Long before every famous person from Dolly Parton to Malcolm X released page-turners about their personal lives, Rousseau set the standard for autobiographical writing.
And it's not like our guy dwells on the boring stuff, like what he ate for lunch. Nope, Rousseau shares every steamy detail of his sex life and every sinful thought. His goal is to give his reader a glimpse at the real Rousseau, flaws and all.
Shmoopers, that's a pretty revolutionary idea. Sure, it's easy to flick on the television today and see something similar, but Rousseau is basically belting "Take me or leave me!" to the buttoned-up eighteenth century. Picking up a copy of The Confessions back then was kind of like slyly sneaking a peek at a tabloid in the grocery store line.
Plus, Rousseau's not just ruminating on one tiny part of his life. The Confessions was completed in 1770, but he's pretty set on chronicling every one of his fifty-three years on Planet Earth. That's a lot of material to get through, but it means that we get a complete picture (or "portrait," as he'd like to say) of one of the most prominent eighteenth-century thinkers (1.1.1).
Although Rousseau's our go-to guy for autobiographical writing, he's got some big shoes to fill. St. Augustine's Confessions (397 CE) set the standard way before Rousseau's granddaddy's granddaddy was around. But Rousseau sets himself apart from the pack by giving us a taste of everything: scandal, repentance, religion, and nostalgia. It also doesn't hurt that Rousseau is writing during the Enlightenment, a time particularly famous for its razor-sharp philosophers. Maybe that's why Rousseau covers so much ground: he's trying to figure out how the autobiography genre fits into a time in history when everything is being questioned.
Ever heard of the Information Age, Shmoopers? Let's just call it the time when computers and new-fangled stuff started to change the way we take in information. Okay, how about the Too Much Information (TMI) Age? Now we're talking. When your cousin posts her grocery list on Facebook, you know you're deep into the time of TMI.
Our guy Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a forward thinker when it came to TMI. See, he figured he could publish the most intimate details of his life and readers would come running. We know, we know—it's only the idea behind every reality television series ever created. But before The Real Housewives franchise made it big, it wasn't quite so common to assume folks were interested in what you had for lunch.
We're not saying that it's always so trivial, though. Rousseau takes TMI to a whole new level by paying special attention to memories of all kinds. After all, how does anyone know the difference between an important memory and one that fades into the background of life? Rousseau figures it out by writing it out, so to speak. Sometimes, that means that we get some pretty inconsequential details. But other times—like when he talks about his favorite walnut tree—we get a glimpse of his most formative experiences.
So does that mean that your cousin's grocery list on Facebook is secretly some kind of manifesto? Probably not, but even the tiniest details about humanity have some value—even if they just tell you that your cousin's into Trader Joe's french fries at the moment.
Rousseau keeps the philosophical stuff at a minimum in The Confessions, although it definitely creeps in there at times. Brush up on his most important concepts at this site.
One Popular Guy
Rousseau name-drops so many eighteenth-century heavy-hitters, he might as well be called Mr. Popularity. Check out his network of friends here.
BBC on JJR
Rousseau talks an awful lot about The Social Contract, one of his most famous philosophical works. Check out BBC's in-depth analysis to get more dirt on his writing approach.
Together at Last
Voltaire and Rousseau don't exactly have a bromance, but they sure loved to spar. This French made-for-television movie reunites them on the small screen.
See Where it All Started
You're definitely going to want to catch up on Pamela, the book that inspired Joseph Andrews. Where better to do that than in a 1970s remake of the book that Fielding loved to hate?
Overall, our guy Rousseau has a pretty optimistic life view. According to TV Tropes, Rousseau is Always Right.
Let's Hear it From the Man
While we can't interview Rousseau from the grave, our guy has plenty of autobiographical material floating around the Internet. Check out this "interview" for more.
How did Rousseau's philosophical ideas influence his music? Take it away, NPR.
Rousseau Hates Books
Why does Rousseau hate books? The BBC has the answer to that question and more.
Look at that Smirk
Rousseau's signature mischievous smile is in full effect here.
Check out that hat. No wonder he was such a hit with the ladies.