Rousseau as "Restless Genius"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is tied to this week through his birth, on June 28, 1712, and his death on this day in 1778. The 2012 birth tercentenary will be marked by symposia around the world, these fueled by Rousseau’s range of work in music, botany, education, and fiction, as well as the more famous and contentious socio-political theories of The Social Contract or, as below, of the Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying “This is mine,” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

More or less on the move from the age of ten, Rousseau was a man emphatically without land, his itinerant life forced upon him by the ebb and flow of his patron support, or of his romantic relationships. If he was a “Restless Genius” (this the subtitle of Leo Damrosch’s 2005 biography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau), he could also be a difficult and declamatory one; the following excerpt begins his Confessions, regarded as a groundbreaking book in the genre of autobiography:

I have begun on a work which is without precedent, whose

accomplishment will have no imitator. I propose to set before my

fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be

myself.

I have studied mankind and know my heart; I am not made like any one

I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if

not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature has acted

rightly or wrongly in destroying the mold in which she cast me, can

only be decided after I have been read.

I will present myself, whenever the last trumpet shall sound, before

the Sovereign Judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim,

“Thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I….”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.