Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, political theorist, novelist, and musician active in 18th century Europe. Often grouped together with his Enlightenment contemporaries, Rousseau was in fact suspicious of the notion of progress, drawing attention to the ways in which modern society corrupts the natural goodness of humanity. His writings contrast life in a hypothetical state of nature to “civilized” life and investigate whether it is possible to preserve individual liberty and morality in a social context often inimical to both.
Rousseau was born June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland, which in his time was an independent city state. His father was an eclectic man who came from a lineage of watchmakers, taught dance, enjoyed music, and was well-educated. His mother, who belonged to a wealthy Calvinist family, died nine days after delivering Rousseau from a postpartum infection.
In his first years, Rousseau was raised by his father, who instilled in him a love of books by reading him his mother’s adventure novels and, later, Greek and Roman literature and history, often from dusk to dawn. In his autobiography Confessions, Rousseau wrote that the former “gave me bizarre and romantic notions of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to cure me of,” while the latter “formed in me the free and republican spirit.”
At a young age, Rousseau’s father sold the family home and moved Rousseau to a working-class apartment complex. This instilled working-class values in Rousseau, who later wrote that he preferred the practical goods of artisans to the “baubles” produced for the “idle and rich” by artists. Rousseau also witnessed his neighbors demonstrate against the Genevan elites, nurturing in him a sense of class consciousness and solidarity.
At the age of 10, Rousseau’s father was forced to flee Geneva due to his involvement in a trespassing dispute with a wealthy landowner. Put in the care of his uncle, Rousseau spent the next two years with a Calvinist minister. At 13, he was briefly apprenticed to a notary and an engraver, getting beaten by the latter. Detesting his master’s violent disposition, Rousseau decamped to Annecy, where he met Louise de Warens, a noblewoman employed by the King of Piedmont to convert Protestants to Catholicism. She…