ROUSSEAU had moved into Mme. d’Épinay’s cottage on April 9, 1756, along with his common-law wife Thérèse Levasseur and her mother. For a while he was happy, loving the song and chatter of the birds, the rustling and fragrance of the trees, the peace of solitary walks in the woods. On his walks he carried pencil and notebook to catch ideas in their flight.
But he was not made for peace. His sensitivity doubled every trouble, and invented more. Thérèse was a faithful housewife, but she could not be a companion for his mind. “The man who thinks,” he wrote in Émile, “should not ally himself with a wife who cannot share his thoughts.”1 Poor Thérèse had small use for ideas, and little for written words. She gave him her body and soul; she bore with his tantrums, and probably replied in kind; she allowed him to skirt the edge of adultery with Mme. d’Houdetot, and was herself, so far as we know, humbly faithful except for an episode vouched for only by Boswell. But how could this simple woman respond to the range and wild diversity of a mind that was to unsettle half the Continent? Hear Rousseau’s own explanation:
What will the reader think when I tell him … that from the first moment in which I saw her, until that wherein I write, I have never felt the least love for her, that I never desired to possess her, … and that the physical wants which were satisfied with her person were to me solely those of the sex, and by no means proceeded from the individual? … The first of my wants, the greatest, strongest, and most insatiable, was wholly in my heart: the want of an intimate [spiritual] connection, as intimate as it could possibly be. This singular want was such that the closest corporal union was not sufficient; two souls would have been necessary.2
Thérèse might have made countercomplaints, for Rousseau had by this time ceased to perform his conjugal duties. In 1754 he had stated to a Geneva physician: “I have been subject for a long time to the crudest sufferings, owing to the incurable disorder of retention of the urine, caused by a congestion in the urethra, which blocks the canal to such an extent that even the catheters of the famed Dr. Daran cannot be introduced there.”3 He claimed to have ceased all sexual intercourse with Thérèse after 1755.4 “Until then,” he added, “I had been good; from that moment I became virtuous, or at least infatuated with virtue.”
The presence of his mother-in-law made the triangle painfully acute. He maintained her and his wife as well as he could with the income from his copying of music and the sale of his writings. However, Mme. Levasseur had other daughters, who required marriage portions, and were always in need. Grimm, Diderot, and d’Holbach made up, for the two women, an annuity of four hundred livres, pledging them to hide this from Rousseau lest his pride be hurt. The mother (according to Rousseau5) kept most of the money for herself and her other daughters, and contracted debts in Thérèse’s name. Thérèse paid these debts, and long concealed the annuity; finally Rousseau found it out, and flared into anger at his friends for so humiliating him. They fed his wrath by urging him to move from the Hermitage before the winter set in; the cottage (they argued) was not adapted for cold weather; and even if his wife could bear it, would the mother survive? Diderot, in his play Le Fils naturel,6 had written: “The good man lives in society; only the bad man lives alone.” Rousseau took this as applying to himself; now began a long quarrel in which reconciliations were only armistices. Rousseau felt that Grimm and Diderot, envious of the peace he had found in the woods, were trying to lure him back to a corrupt city. In a letter to his benefactress, Mme. d’Épinay (then in Paris), he revealed his character with candor and insight:
I want my friends to be my friends and not my masters; to advise me but not to try to rule me; to have every claim upon my heart but none upon my liberty. I consider it extraordinary the way people interfere, in friendship’s name, in my affairs, without telling me of theirs. … Their great eagerness to do me a thousand services wearies me; there is a touch of patronage about it that wearies me; besides, anyone else could do as much. . . .
As a recluse, I am more sensitive than other men. Suppose I fall out with one who lives amid the throng; he thinks of the matter for a moment, then a hundred and one distractions will make him forget it for the rest of the day. But nothing takes my thoughts off it. Sleepless, I think of it all night long; walking by myself, I think of it from sunrise to sunset. My heart has not an instant’s respite, and a friend’s unkindness will cause me to suffer, in a single day, years of grief. As an invalid I have a right to the indulgence due from his fellow men to the little weaknesses and temper of a sick man.... I am poor, and my poverty (or so it seems to me) entitles me to some consideration. ...
So do not be surprised if I hate Paris yet more and more. Nothing for me, from Paris, except your letters. Never shall I be seen there again. If you care to state your views on this subject, and as vigorously as you like, you have a right to do so. They will be taken in good part, and will be—useless.7
She answered him vigorously enough: “Oh, leave these petty complaints to the empty-hearted and empty-headed!”8 Meanwhile she made frequent inquiries about his health and comfort, shopped for him, and sent him small gifts.
One day, when it froze to an extreme degree, in opening a packet of several things I had asked her to buy for me, I found a little under-petticoat of English flannel, which she told me she had worn, and desired I should make of it an under-waistcoat. This more than friendly care appeared to me so tender—as if she had stripped herself to clothe me—that in my emotion I repeatedly kissed both the note and the petticoat, while shedding tears. Thérèse thought me mad.9
During his first year at the Hermitage he compiled a Dictionnaire de musique, and summarized in his own language the twenty-three volumes of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre on war and peace, education, and political reform. In the summer of 1756 he received from the author a copy of Voltaire’s poem on the earthquake that had killed fifteen thousand persons, and wounded fifteen thousand more, at Lisbon on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755. Voltaire, like half the world, wondered why a presumably beneficent Providence had chosen for this indiscriminate slaughter the capital of a country completely Catholic, and an hour—9:40 A.M.—when all pious people were worshiping in church. In a mood of utter pessimism Voltaire painted a picture of life and nature as being heartlessly neutral between evil and good. A passage in the Confessions gives us Rousseau’s reaction to this powerful poem.
Struck by seeing this poor man, overwhelmed (if I may so speak) with prosperity and honor, bitterly exclaiming against the miseries of this life, and finding everything to be wrong, I formed the mad project of making him turn his attention to himself, and of proving to him that everything was right. Voltaire, while he appeared to believe in God, never really believed in anything but the Devil, since his pretended deity is a malicious being who, according to him, has no pleasure but in evil. The glaring absurdity of this doctrine is particularly disgusting from a man enjoying the greatest prosperity, who, from the bosom of happiness, endeavors, by the frightful and cruel image of all the calamities from which he is exempt, to reduce his fellow creatures to despair. I, who had a better right than he to calculate and weigh all the evils of human life, impartially examined them, and proved to him that of all possible evils there was not one to be attributed to Providence, and which had [not] its source rather in the abusive use man made of his faculties than in nature.10
So, on August 18, 1756, Rousseau sent to Voltaire a twenty-five-page “Lettre sur la Providence.” It began with a handsome acknowledgment:
Your latest poems, monsieur, have come to me in my solitude; and though all my friends know the love I have for your writings, I do not know who could have sent me this book unless it be yourself. I have found in it both pleasure and instruction, and have recognized the hand of the master; … I am bound to thank you at once for the volume and for your work.11
He urged Voltaire not to blame Providence for the misfortunes of mankind. Most evils are due to our own folly, sin, or crime.
Note that Nature did not assemble twenty thousand houses of six or seven stories, and that if the inhabitants of that great city had been more evenly dispersed and more lightly lodged, the damage would have been much less, perhaps nothing. All would have fled at the first tremor, and we should have seen them, on the morrow, twenty leagues away, as gay as if nothing had happened.12
Voltaire had written that few persons would want to be reborn to the same conditions; Rousseau replied that this is true only of rich people surfeited with pleasures, bored with life, and shorn of faith; or of literary men sedentary, unhealthy, reflective, and discontent; it is not true of simple people like the French middle class or the Swiss villagers. It is only an abuse of life that makes life a problem to us.13 Moreover, the evil of the part may be the good of the whole; the death of the individual makes possible the rejuvenated life of the species. Providence is universal, not particular: it watches over the whole, but leaves specific events to secondary causes and natural laws.14 Early death, such as came to Lisbon’s children, may be a boon; in any case it is unimportant if there is a God, since He will recompense all for unmerited suffering.15 And the question of God’s existence is beyond solution by reason. We may choose between belief and unbelief; and why reject an inspiring and consolatory faith? As for himself, “I have suffered too much in this life not to hope for another. All the subtleties of metaphysics will not make me doubt for a moment a beneficent Providence and the immortality of the soul. I feel this, I believe it, I wish it; … I will defend these beliefs to my last breath.”16
The letter ended amiably: Rousseau expressed his agreement with Voltaire on religious toleration, and assured him, “I would rather be a Christian after your fashion than in the style of the Sorbonne.”17 He begged Voltaire to compose, with all the force and charm of his verse, a ‘catechism for the citizen,” which would inculcate a code of morals to guide men through the confusion of the age.—Voltaire wrote a polite acknowledgment, and invited Rousseau to be his guest at Les Délices.18 He made no formal attempt to refute Rousseau’s arguments, but replied to them indirectly with Candide (1759).