Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

He Wants No Less than to Confess

At first, it might be a little hard to believe that Rousseau wants to parade his deepest, darkest secrets around for every Bill, Bob, and Mary to peruse. What's the ulterior motive? Before marriage proposals on television were a thing, Rousseau just wants to dedicate his life to his art. In other words, his purpose is "to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself" (1.1.1).

The thing is, Rousseau has made up plenty of fictional characters. Now, he wants to turn his attentions to creating the ultimate self-portrait: a guy who's selfish, vain, and lustful, but totally human. He's expecting his readers to recognize some parts of themselves in his confessions, but it's all about putting down a true account of his sins.

Of course, it's not like Rousseau was always so forthcoming. As a kid, his guardians are "unable to force from me the confession they required (1.1.25). Confession requires self-awareness, which Rousseau feels he developed over the course of his life (along with all those other nasty traits he plans to describe in detail). Ask him anything, and he'll answer.

Morally Flexible

Rousseau may be totally transparent, but that doesn't mean his conscience is totally pure. Don't call him a hypocrite though. When he changes religion at the drop of a hat, "there was no motive of hypocrisy behind my conduct" (2.1.3). Since Rousseau is always honest to himself about trying to advance his fortunes, he doesn't feel that what he's doing is wrong.

When Rousseau pins a petty theft on an innocent servant girl, he definitely feels guilt: "This cruel memory troubles me at times and so disturbs me that in my sleepless hours I see this poor girl coming to reproach me for my crime, as if I had only committed it yesterday" (2.1.91). But he doesn't feel particularly driven to clear the girl of the crime, even though he could save her some considerable trouble. Our guy Rousseau draws a pretty clear distinction between confessing for the sake of art (yay) and confessing in order to save someone else's hide (boo).

1-800-GET-ROUSSEAU-A-JOB

Rousseau certainly doesn't have a problem stooping low to get work. But he goes through an impressive range of jobs over the course of his life: engraver, translator, teacher, musician, opera-writer, and, of course, writer. To tell the truth, Rousseau doesn't exactly take the typical career path. Most of his contemporaries would be more likely to stick with the engraving gig after getting an apprenticeship.

Rousseau's completely aware that he needs an "accomplishment by which to live" (5.1.18). But he's also curious enough about the world that he's not content with just one job choice. Working abroad for a distrustful Count who accuses him of stealing is one way of getting the life experience he craves. Rousseau's not even content writing full-time, even when he figures out that he's really good at it. He's constantly reinventing himself.

Where are the Kids?

If there's one role Rousseau doesn't embrace, it's being a dad. As soon as Therese gives birth, Rousseau cheerfully hands them over to the nearest orphanage. It all has to do with his philosophy on parenting: "I have often blessed Heaven for having thus safeguarded them from their father's fate, and from that which would have overtaken them at the moment when I should have been compelled to abandon them" (8.2.3). In other words, Rousseau wants to shield his offspring from their father's sinfulness.

Based on the rest of his confessions, Rousseau doesn't exactly seem like the type of dude who would want to hide his sinful nature. But he thinks that any children he has would be better off being raised as wards of the state then be subject to his personality quirks. He might not write the next hit-parenting book, but at least he's secure in his decision.

Quite the Lustful Lad

One thing is clear from all of Rousseau's confessions: his capital crime, so to speak, is lustfulness. Although he's frequently lusting after attached ladies, he often lusts after no one in particular and everyone at the same time: "So I was burning with love for no object, and it is perhaps love of this sort that is the most exhausting" (5.1.69). You can say that again. Rousseau is completely aware that keeping up his lustful pursuits takes time away from his professional life and his wife.

Rousseau is pretty precise about distinguishing love from lust. During his brief affair with Mme de Larnage, he declares "I have only felt true love once in my life, and that was not for her" (6.1.13). Who, pray tell, is the lucky lady? Even though Mama has the privilege of being his one true lady love, their relationship is also marred by secret liaisons and lustful moments. Rousseau sees his lust as a character flaw to be documented in detail, in every single period of his life.

Rousseau Revolutionizes Reason

Of course, Rousseau doesn't spend all of his time gallivanting around with his mistresses. After all, he has a bone to pick with buttoned-up eighteenth-century social norms. Being honest about his feelings is just one way that Rousseau advances his philosophical agenda. In fact, Rousseau is pretty clear about his strategy. He tells us that, "whilst I was philosophizing on the duties of man an event occurred which made me reflect more deeply upon my own" (8.2.2). In other words, Rousseau wants his extreme honesty to set off a chain reaction among his readers. If he can inspire one person to reveal their shortcomings, he might just start a revolution in the Age of Reason.

We're not using the word "revolution" lightly, either. Guess what major event comes down the pipeline only years after The Confessions are published? No biggie—it's just the French Revolution. Rousseau's radical ideas about ethics and politics got big-time intellectuals thinking about the kind of legacy they'd leave in history books.