(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, commonly known as The Confessions, opens with a proclamation of originality: “I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator.” The reasons for the singularity of this undertaking are twofold. First, Rousseau claims to be absolutely honest, to hold back nothing of the “truth of nature.” Second, he feels he is different from all other people, and it is the value of this difference that he desires his reader to judge.

The Confessions were written between 1765 and 1769 in an effort to react to the persecutions that Rousseau suffered even at the hands of former friends. They are divided chronologically into two parts. The first, which follows the formative years of the philosopher, is the most accessible and most often studied. Although much of what he has to tell is embarrassing, Rousseau seems to delight in dwelling on the pleasure that he felt in being spanked by the Mlle Lambercier, the sister of the pastor to whom his early education had been confided. He is willing to indulge his reader in scenes of food stealing while he is serving his apprenticeship and to reveal the humiliation of being replaced by another young man in the affections of Mme de Warens.

There is, in fact, a great difference between the two books, and Rousseau was well aware of this difference. While the first book reveals his confidence in recounting the details of his early life, the second book is full of hesitation. The closer Rousseau gets to the time of the writing, the more he claims to be uncertain about chronology. The emotional impact of the persecutions endured in the...

(The entire section is 691 words.)