HOW did it come about that a man born poor, losing his mother at birth and soon deserted by his father, afflicted with a painful and humiliating disease, left to wander for twelve years among alien cities and conflicting faiths, repudiated by society and civilization, repudiating Voltaire, Diderot, the Encyclopédie, and the Age of Reason, driven from place to place as a dangerous rebel, suspected of crime and insanity, and seeing, in his last months, the apotheosis of his greatest enemy—how did it come about that this man, after his death, triumphed over Voltaire, revived religion, transformed education, elevated the morals of France, inspired the Romantic movement and the French Revolution, influenced the philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer, the plays of Schiller, the novels of Goethe, the poems of Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, the socialism of Marx, the ethics of Tolstoi, and, altogether, had more effect upon posterity than any other writer or thinker of that eighteenth century in which writers were more influential than they had ever been before? Here, if anywhere, the problem faces us: what is the role of genius in history, of man versus the mass and the state?
Europe was ready for a gospel that would exalt feeling above thought. It was tired of the restraints of customs, conventions, manners, and laws. It had heard enough of reason, argument, and philosophy; all this riot of unmoored minds seemed to have left the world devoid of meaning, the soul empty of imagination and hope; secretly men and women were longing to believe again. Paris was weary of Paris, of the turmoil and hurry, the confinement and mad competition of city life; now it idealized the slower pace of the countryside, where a simple routine might bring health to the body and peace to the mind, where one might see modest women again, where all the village would meet in weekly armistice at the parish church. And this proud “progress,” this vaunted “emancipation of the mind”—had they put anything in place of what they had destroyed? Had they given man a more intelligible or inspiring picture of the world and human destiny? Had they improved the lot of the poor, or brought consolation to bereavement or pain? Rousseau asked these questions, gave form and feeling to these doubts; and after his voice was stilled all Europe listened to him. While Voltaire was being idolized on the stage and at the Academy (1778), and while Rousseau, berated and despised, hid in the obscurity of a Paris room, the age of Rousseau began.
In the decline of his life he composed the most famous of autobiographies, the Confessions. Sensitive to every criticism, suspecting Grimm, Diderot, and others of a conspiracy to blacken him in Paris salons and in the Mémoires of Mme. d’Épinay, he began in 1762, on the urging of a publisher, to write his own account of his history and character. All autobiography, of course, is vanity, but Rousseau, condemned by the Church, outlawed by three states, and deserted by his closest friends, had the right to defend himself, even at great length. When he read some passages of this defense to gatherings in Paris, his foes secured a government ban on further public readings of his manuscript. Discouraged, he left it at his death with a passionate plea to posterity:
Here is the sole human portrait—painted exactly after nature in all truth—that now exists or that will probably ever exist. Whoever you are, whom my fate and confidence have made the arbiter of this record, I beg you, by my misfortunes and by your fellow feeling, and in the name of all mankind, not to destroy a work useful and unique, which can serve as a first piece of comparison for the study of man, … and not to take from the honor of my memory the only sure monument of my character that has not been disfigured by my enemies.1
His extreme sensitivity, subjectivity, and sentiment made the virtues and the faults of his book. “A feeling heart,” he said, “. . . was the foundation of all my misfortunes”;2 but it gave a warm intimacy to his style, a tenderness to his recollections, often a generosity to his judgments, that melt our antipathy as we read. Here everything abstract becomes personal and alive; every line is a feeling; this book is the fountainhead of the Mississippi of introspective self-revelations that watered the literature of the nineteenth century. Not that the Confessions had no forebears; but even St. Augustine could not match the fullness of this self-denudation, or its claim to truth. It begins with a burst of challenging eloquence:
I am forming an enterprise which has had no example, and whose execution will have no imitator. I wish to show my fellow men a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself.
Myself alone. I know my heart, and I am acquainted with men. I am not made like any one of those who exist. If I am not better, at least I am different. If nature has done well or ill in breaking the mold in which I was cast, this is something of which no one can judge except after having read me.
Let the trumpet of the Last Judgment sound when it will, I shall come, this book in hand, to present myself before the Sovereign Judge. I shall say loudly: “This is how I have acted, how I have thought, what I have been. I have told the good and the bad with the same candor. I have concealed nothing of evil, added nothing of good. … I have shown myself as I was: despicable and vile when I was so, good, generous, sublime, when I was these; and I have unveiled my inmost soul . . .3
This claim to complete sincerity is repeated again and again. But Rousseau admits that his remembrance of things fifty years past is often fragmentary and unreliable. In general Part I has an air of candor that is disarming; Part II is disfigured by wearisome complaints of persecution and conspiracy. Whatever else the book is, it is one of the most revealing psychological studies known to us, the story of a sensitive and poetic spirit in painful conflict with a hard and prosaic century. In any case, “the Confessions, if it were not an autobiography, would be one of the great novels of the world.”4*