The son of a poor Swiss watchmaker, Rousseau spent his youth in various apprenticeships and minor occupations and did not gain any notice he was thirty-seven. That year he won a prize for an essay on science, the arts, and social morality, awarded by the provincial academy at Dijon. Six years later he won wider attention with the publication of Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755), in which he contrasted the corruption of his contemporary society with the simplicity and goodness of humanity in a natural state.
Rousseau’s highly popular La Nouvelle Héloise (1761) was published with the tacit consent, rather than formal permission, of the royal censor. Rousseau’s next work, Emile (1762), which develops a concept of progressive education, was less fortunate. The book’s pantheistic stress on education through communion with nature moved the archbishop of Paris to censor it and the parliament of Paris to burn it. Soon anathema to both Protestants and Roman Catholics, Emma was burned in Rousseau’s native Switzerland, as well as in Rome.
Emile’s banning caused Rousseau considerable anxiety. Indeed, the whole issue of censorship threatened the security of Enlightenment philosophers. French censorship laws were tightened after 1757, with the possibility of a death sentence for works published without official approval. More usual punishments, however, were prison time in the Bastille or...
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