Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the two volumes of his Confessions from 1765–1769. Rousseau’s liberal ideas were controversial to say the least, and his criticism of religion had drawn the wrath of the Church establishment in France and Switzerland. During the writing period, he moved frequently, living in various locations in Neuchâtel Principality, Switzerland (for a while on a tiny island), England, and France. Apparently unable to modulate his opinions, he incurred widespread enmity of religious and intellectual opponents, alienated his friends, and was even attacked on the street. These experiences in part fueled his decision to write a memoir that would expose the persecution he was experiencing. Some episodes he presents may well be the exaggerated products of paranoia, for he wrote: “I am surrounded by spies…..”
Rousseau intended to write an entirely true account. His efforts were unusual in their day, if not, as he claimed in the opening, entirely unique:
I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator.
Certainly the last part of the line was proved untrue, as memoir and autobiography have since become popular genres.
Rousseau presents his difficult, motherless childhood—as his mother died in childbirth—raised by an emotionally distant father. One positive kind of attention his father bestowed, however, was reading aloud with him, helping establish his lifelong love of books and tendency to find solace in them. Throughout, he mentions his submissive attitudes toward women. Summoning up remarkably vivid memories, he admits to misbehaving, such as stealing fruit, and includes the punishments justly meted out. As a teenager, leaving his apprenticeship with an engraver, he tells of becoming the lover of an older woman. With Madame de Warens’ assistance, he gained employment in high society in their rural city, which he later parlayed into employment first in Venice and then in Paris.
Rousseau’s involvement in a Parisian intellectual circle including Denis Diderot marked the turning point of his vocation, as he realized his place was among thinkers and writers. The Confessions includes his connections with other thinkers, as well as more amorous affairs. He developed his lifelong interest in the transformative power and severe limitations of science—the explorations of which would later prompt the accusations of heresy. Emile, which featured his reflections on the Church, including the questions raised by a country curate, was the work that prompted the condemnations and censure from which he was compelled to flee. The Confessions, although written several years later, take him through the publication of Emile and his departure from Bern.