VII. FUGITIVE

For two years Rousseau lived modestly and quietly at Môtiers, reading, writing, treating his ailment, suffering an attack of sciatica (October, 1764), and receiving courteously the visitors who passed Thérèse’s scrutiny. One of these described him gratefully:

You have no idea how charming his society is, what true politeness there is in his manners, what a depth of serenity and cheerfulness in his talk. Did you not expect quite a different picture, and figure to yourself an eccentric creature, always grave and sometimes even abrupt? Ah, what a mistake! To an expression of great mildness he unites a glance of fire, and eyes the vivacity of which was never seen. When you handle any matter in which he has taken an interest, then his eyes, his lips, his hands—everything about him—speak. You would be quite wrong to picture in him an everlasting grumbler. Not at all; he laughs with those who laugh, he chats and jokes with children, he rallies his housekeeper.82

But the local ministers had discovered the heresies in Émile and the Letters from the Mountain, and it seemed to them a scandal that such a monster should further contaminate Switzerland with his presence. To appease them he offered (March 10, 1765) to bind himself, by a formal document, “never to publish any new work on any topic of religion, never even to deal with it incidentally in any other new work; … and, further, I shall continue to testify, through my feelings and my conduct, to the great store I set on the happiness of being united with the church.”83 The Neuchâtel Consistory summoned him to appear and answer charges of heresy; he begged to be excused: “It would be impossible for me, in spite of all my good will, to suffer a long sitting”84—which was painfully true. His own pastor turned against him, and denounced him in public sermons as Antichrist.85 The attacks of the clergy inflamed their parishioners; some villagers took to stoning Rousseau when he went out for a walk. About midnight of September 6-7 he and Thérèse were awakened by stones pelting their walls and breaking the windows; one large rock came through the glass and fell at his feet. A neighbor—a village official—summoned some guards to his rescue; the crowd dispersed; but Rousseau’s remaining friends in Môtiers advised him to leave the town.

He had several offers of asylum, “but I was so attached to Switzerland that I could not resolve to quit it as long as it was possible for me to live there.”86 He had visited, a year before, the tiny Île de St.-Pierre, in the middle of the Lake of Bienne; there was but one house on the island—the home of the caretaker; here, thought Rousseau, was an ideal spot for an unpopular lover of solitude. It was in the canton of Bern, which had ejected him two years before, but he received informal assurances that he might move to the island without fear of arrest.87

And so, about the middle of September, 1765, after twenty-six months in Môtiers, he and Thérèse left the home that had become dear to them, and went to board with the caretaker’s family in a place so isolated that “neither the populace nor the churchmen can trouble it.”88 “I thought I should in that island be more separated from men … and sooner forgotten by mankind.”89 To meet his expenses he gave the printer Du Peyrou the right to publish all his works, “and made him the depositary of all my papers, under the express condition of making no use of them until after my death, having it at heart to end my days quietly, without doing anything which would again bring me back to the recollection of the public.”90 He was offered an annuity of twelve hundred livres by Marischal Keith; he agreed to take half. He arranged another annuity for Thérèse. He settled down with her on the island, expecting nothing further of life. He was now fifty-three years old.

Thirteen years later—in the final year of his life—he composed one of his finest books, Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire. It described with subdued eloquence his existence on the Island of St. Peter. “A delicious idleness was the first and principal enjoyment that I wished to taste in all its sweetness.”91 We have seen elsewhere how he admired Linnaeus; now, with one of the Swedish botanist’s books in his hand, he began to list and study the plants on his little domain. Or on fair days, like Thoreau on Walden Pond,

I threw myself alone into a boat which I rowed out to the middle of the lake when the water was calm. There, stretching myself out at full length in the boat, my eyes toward heaven, I let myself go and wander about slowly at the will of the water, sometimes for several hours, plunged into a thousand delightful reveries.92

Even on these waters he could not long rest. On October 17, 1765, the Senate of Bern ordered him to leave the island and the canton within fifteen days. He was bewildered and overwhelmed. “The measures I had taken to secure the tacit consent of the government, the tranquillity with which I had been left to make my establishment, the visits of several people from Bern,” had led him to believe that he was now safe from molestation and pursuit. He begged the Senate for some explanation and delay, and suggested a desperate alternative to banishment:

I see but one resource for me, and however frightful it may appear, I will adopt it not only without repugnance, but with eagerness, if their Excellencies will be good enough to consent. It is that it should please them for me to pass the rest of my days in prison in one of their castles, or such other place in their estates as they may think fit to select. I will live there at my own expense, and I will give security never to put them to any cost. I submit to be without paper or pen, or any communication from without. … Only let me keep, with a few books, the liberty to walk occasionally in a garden, and I am content.

Was his mind beginning to break down? He assures us to the contrary:

Do not suppose that an expedient so violent in appearance is the fruit of despair. My mind is perfectly calm at this moment. I have taken time to deliberate, and it is only after profound consideration that I have brought myself to this decision. Mark, I pray you, that if this seems an extraordinary resolution, my situation is still more so. The distracted life I have been made to lead for several years without intermission would be terrible for a man in full health; judge what it must be for a miserable invalid worn down with weariness and misfortune, and who has now no wish but to die in peace.93

The answer from Bern was an order to leave the island, and all Bernese territory, within twenty-four hours.94

Where should he go? He had invitations to Potsdam from Frederick, to Corsica from Paoli, to Lorraine from Saint-Lambert, to Amsterdam from Rey the publisher, and to England from David Hume. On October 22 Hume, then secretary to the British embassy in Paris, wrote to Rousseau:

Your singular and unheard-of misfortunes, independent of your virtue and genius, must interest the sentiments of every human creature in your favor; but I flatter myself that in England you could find an absolute security against all persecution, not only from the tolerating spirit of our laws, but from the respect which everyone there bears to your character.95

On October 29 Rousseau left the Île de St.-Pierre. He arranged for Thérèse to remain for the time being in Switzerland; he himself moved on to Strasbourg. There he stayed a full month, hesitating. Finally he decided to accept Hume’s invitation to England. The French government gave him a passport to come to Paris. There Hume met him for the first time, and soon became fond of him. All Paris talked about the exile’s return. “It is impossible,” wrote Hume, “to express or imagine the enthusiasm of this nation in Rousseau’s favor. … No person ever so much enjoyed their attention.... Voltaire and everybody else are quite eclipsed.”96

The new friendship was flawed at its birth. It is difficult here to determine the facts with accuracy, or to report them impartially. On January 1, 1766, Grimm sent to his clientele the following report:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau made his entry into Paris on the 17th of December. The following day he promenaded in the Luxembourg Gardens in his Armenian costume; as no one had been warned, no one profited by the spectacle. M. le Prince de Conti has lodged him in the Temple, where the said Armenian holds his court daily. He also promenades daily at an appointed hour on the boulevards near his residence.* … Here is a letter that went the rounds of Paris during his stay here, and which has had a great success.98

At this point Grimm transcribed a letter purporting to have come to Rousseau from Frederick the Great. It had been composed as a hoax on Rousseau by Horace Walpole. Let Walpole himself tell of it in his letter to H. S. Conway, January i2, 1766:

My present fame is owing to a very trifling composition, but which has made incredible noise. I was one evening at Mme. Geoffrin’s joking on Rousseau’s affectations and contradictions, and said some things that diverted them. When I came home I put them in a letter, and showed it next day to Helvétius and the Due de Nivernois; who were so pleased with it that, after telling me some faults in the language, … they encouraged me to let it be seen. As you know, I willingly laugh at mountebanks, political or literary, let their talents be ever so great; I was not averse. The copies have spread like wildfire, et me voici à la mode [and behold, I am in fashion] … Here is the letter [literally translated from Walpole’s French]:

“THE KING OF PRUSSIA TO M. ROUSSEAU: My dear Jean-Jacques:

You have renounced Geneva, your fatherland; you have had yourself chased from Switzerland, a country so much praised in your writings; France has issued a warrant against you. Come, then, to me; I admire your talents; I am amused by your dreams, which (be it said in passing) occupy you too much and too long. You must at last be wise and happy. You have had yourself talked of enough for peculiarities hardly fitting to a truly great man. Show your enemies that you can sometimes have common sense; this will annoy them without doing you harm. My states offer you a peaceful retreat; I wish you well, and would like to help you if you can find it good. But if you continue to reject my aid, be assured that I shall tell no one. If you persist in racking your brains to find new misfortunes, choose such as you may desire; I am king, and can procure any to suit your wishes; and—what surely will never happen to you among your enemies—I shall cease to persecute you when you cease to find your glory in being persecuted.

Your good friend,
FREDERICK.”99

Walpole had never met Rousseau. His sophisticated intellect and inherited fortune found no sense in Jean-Jacques’ writings. He knew of Rousseau’s faults and follies from the dinners at Mme. Geoffrin’s, where he met Diderot and Grimm. He probably did not realize that Rousseau, sensitive to the point of neurosis, had been brought near to mental collapse by a succession of controversies and tribulations. If Walpole knew this, his jeu d’esprit was disgracefully cruel. We should add, however, that when Hume asked for his advice in finding a retreat for Rousseau in England, Walpole undertook to provide the exile with every assistance.100

Did Hume know of this letter? Apparently he had been present at Mme. Geoffrin’s when it was first concocted; he has been accused of “taking part” in its composition.101 He wrote to the Marquise de Brabantane on February 16, 1766: “The only pleasantry I permitted myself in connection with the pretended letter of the King of Prussia was made by me at the dinner table of Lord Ossory.”102 On January 3, 1766, Hume made a farewell visit to the diners at Baron d’Holbach’s. He told them of his hopes to free “the little man” from persecution, and to make him happy in England. D’Holbach was skeptical. “I am sorry,” he said, “to dispel the hopes and illusions that flatter you, but I tell you it will not be long before you are grievously undeceived. You don’t know your man. I tell you plainly, you’re warming a viper in your bosom.”103

The next morning Hume and Rousseau, with Jean-Jacques de Luze and Rousseau’s dog Sultan, left Paris in two post chaises for Calais. Rousseau paid his own expenses, having refused offers by Hume, Mme. de Boufflers, and Mme. de Verdelin to supply him with funds. When they reached Dover (January 10), Rousseau embraced Hume, and thanked him for bringing him to a land of freedom.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!