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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

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…..”

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691

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 recent past seems to have upset him, to the point where he is unable to recall exactly what happened. While the first book may seem exhibitionist, the second becomes more and more paranoiac. Thus, he explains the unsatisfactory account given of some incidents: “I am surrounded by spies, and I am obliged to accomplish, inefficiently and in haste, a task which would require peace of mind and leisure which I do not enjoy.” Yet the way that the author seems to savor the incidents of his early life gives no impression that he lacks time to tell them.

One interesting element in The Confessions is the way in which Rousseau gives his reader the means of understanding his character without seeming to comprehend what he himself is saying. He does not omit the mention of incidents that explain the part that he played in his own persecutions. The concluding sections of The Confessions relate how Rousseau was hounded for irreligion while under the protection of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, protector of Voltaire and well-known freethinker. Rousseau had chosen to live in the territory of Neufchâtel but never seems to have reflected that the Armenian costume that he had adopted seemed to advertise a connection with the religion of Islam. As he walks about the Swiss countryside dressed in a caftan and fur cap, he is an easy prey for the rabble who have been aroused against him by the clergy. Although he says he was the victim of stoning, he never seems to have attempted to make himself less conspicuous.

Students of psychology can read The Confessions as a case study, all the more revealing for the fact that the speaker does not realize the full impact of his statements. Near the end of his story, Rousseau is a refugee living on a small island and tormented by the idea that he may someday have to leave it. He dreams of being imprisoned there. The desire that had already expressed itself in the pleasure in punishment during early childhood is here clearly apparent: “It is little enough that I am permitted to live here; I could wish to be condemned, to be forced to remain in this island.”

While this work was influential for many aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century thought, it is the one that has most inspired Rousseau’s followers. Memoirs, journals, and autobiographical novels flourished in succeeding generations with The Confessions for a model.

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