Publication of Rousseau’s Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rousseau’s Confessions created a new tradition in autobiography, the telling of one’s life from a subjective point of view for the purpose of introspective revelation. It was thus influential on all subsequent works, both of fiction and of nonfiction, in which the main drama occurs in the mind of the storyteller.

Summary of Event

The tradition of autobiography reaches back to the narratives of St. Augustine and St. Teresa of Avila, of Abelard’s Historia calamitatum (c. 1132; The Story of My Misfortune, 1922), Dante’s La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life), and Benvenuto Cellini’s La vita di Benvenuto Cellini (wr. 1558-1562, pb. 1728; The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine Artist, 1771; better known as Autobiography). These works are of two kinds, those that describe the writer’s quest for a spiritual relationship with God and those that explore the self in this world. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne challenged the older tradition in his Essais (1580-1595; The Essays, 1603), injecting subjectivity into personal writing. [kw]Publication of Rousseau’s Confessions (1782-1798) [kw]Confessions, Publication of Rousseau’s (1782-1798) [kw]Rousseau’s Confessions, Publication of (1782-1798) Confessions (Rousseau) Literature;autobiography [g]France;1782-1798: Publication of Rousseau’s Confessions[2470] [c]Literature;1782-1798: Publication of Rousseau’s Confessions[2470] [c]Philosophy;1782-1798: Publication of Rousseau’s Confessions[2470] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

By the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would take a step that would influence the writing of autobiography ever after and would give the Romantic movement its core precept. The publication of Rousseau’s Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau (1782, 1789; The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, 1783-1790; better known as Confessions) was indeed a great event, one that has been seen as promulgating a new era in human consciousness. We might see Rousseau’s life up until 1782 as a preparation for that moment in literary history.

In 1749, on his way to visit Denis Diderot, Diderot, Denis then imprisoned in Vincennes, Rousseau read about a competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon. The subject matter was whether or not progress in the arts and sciences had contributed to progress in morals. Rousseau’s essay, Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; The Discourse Which Carried the Praemium at the Academy of Dijon, 1751; better known as A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, 1913), Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, A (Rousseau) won the competition. Its argument contested the idea that ancient civilization surpassed the contemporary. It was, however, his contribution to the 1753 Dijon prize, Discours sur l’inégalité (1754; A Discourse on Inequality, 1756), Discourse on Inequality, A (Rousseau) that may be seen as the genesis of the Confessions, for in this argument, amid his ideas of the goodness of “natural man,” Rousseau established himself as the locus of truth in the world. Subsequently, in Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763), Emilius and Sophia (Rousseau) Rousseau advocated the individual conscience as the “divine instinct,” the source of moral truth, further elaborating his evolving doctrine of subjectivity. Later, his publisher, Marc-Michel Rey, who had been planning to publish an edition of Rousseau’s works, asked for an autobiographical note for the introduction (for Rousseau had by then become an enigmatic figure).

The first part of the Confessions discusses the first thirty years of his life. The second part, covering the next twenty-four years, was written during the course of his growing persecution mania when he thought he was being defamed by friends and colleagues, by Voltaire, Diderot, Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, and Madame d’Épinay. Believing that his work and reputation would survive his death, he sought to justify his life to posterity. So it was that after November, 1762, when the Parlement of Paris issued a warrant for his arrest for his Émile, that he began the Confessions.

Rousseau wrote part 1 of the Confessions in 1766-1767 and part 2 in 1769-1770. Due to its frank nature, he wished to prohibit its publication until 1800, when all parties mentioned in it would have passed away. Despite his wishes, an abridged part 1 came out with his Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 1783); an abridged part 2 surfaced in 1789, and a complete edition was published in 1798.

Rousseau’s work is an autobiography, like many autobiographies to which we have become accustomed today, a life story, written by the author, telling the readers and posterity what the author wants others to know, in terms not only of what happened but of how the writer felt while events were occurring. It is the latter aspect of the text that in 1782 was novel and distinctively modern. The modern autobiography is, generally speaking, not, as with St. Augustine, about one’s relationship with God, and not, as with Cellini in Renaissance Italy, about one’s daily affairs, but, as with Rousseau, about the relationship of the self with the self. It is an exploration of the interior country of the mind. The mode of introspective revelation led not only to the shift in sensibility of the Romantic era, but eventually, to Sigmund Freud’s exploration of interior mental worlds through depth psychoanalysis.

Rousseau reviewed his life—having taken himself as his subject—and confessed. When, in 1770, he first read the book to an audience of seven for approximately fifteen hours, he was presenting a new genre to his listeners:

I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.

Reactions were mixed, ranging from admiration to outrage: Madame d’Épinay Épinay, Madame d’ received an injunction to restrain him from further performances. The ground that Rousseau broke in Confessions—the focus on the subjective life—helped earn him the title “the Father of Romanticism,” Romanticism;Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influence[Rousseau] influencing autobiographers such as François Auguste René, the vicomte de Chateaubriand, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, and William Wordsworth.

Rousseau editorialized his past, as most autobiographers do—it is in the nature of the project—but his selection of what to represent was different, and the very personal aspects he presented may be seen as making possible such works as Casanova’s Aus den Memoiren de Venetianers Jacob Casanova de Seingalt (1822-1828; The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, 1894), Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, The (Casanova) which provided intimate details of the author’s private life, no matter how depraved those details seemed. Rousseau wrote, for instance, of incidents in his childhood and youth, of belatedly rejecting the advances of a male “Moor” while in a monastery approaching conversion to Catholicism, of having enjoyed corporal punishment at the hands of an attractive thirty-year-old woman, and of thieving and the circumstances under which he began, the theft of a pin which he blamed on a blameless girl, an event he claimed to regret his entire life.

It is the very frankness with which Rousseau discussed issues, both detrimental and beneficial, and their effects on the developing character that make the Confessions, along with Émile, a primer in child Children;in literature[literature] Literature;children psychology. In Émile, Rousseau propounded a philosophy of education founded on principles that the judgment and character of a child could be formed only when he or she is kept from the deleterious influence of jaded civilization, building on primitivist ideas circulating at the time. In the Confessions, Rousseau reflects, in a narrative of causal analysis, one how events affect a child’s psyche and form the character in adulthood. Rousseau has in effect forced into the genre of life-writing not only the serious consideration of, but also intensive reflection on many aspects of childhood events, places, and people; on effective and flawed parents and guardians; on enemies avowed, surreptitious, or accidental; and on social situations, friends, and education..

Rousseau’s focus on the child as an individual worthy of in-depth examination undermined the eighteenth century’s notion of children as miniature adults. It did not take much of a leap from this to the Romantic adulation of the innocence of childhood as a state to be protected. This concept existed in tandem with Rousseau’s notion of the “Noble Savage,” that individuals are innocent and pure when uncontaminated by adult life in the civilized world.

Rousseau’s influence is seen everywhere in Romanticism. In “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" (Wordsworth)[Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey] William Wordsworth Wordsworth, William takes as his starting point his own childhood, reflecting on who he was when he first visited the ruined abbey and its pristine environs on the banks of the river Wye, and the changes wrought in him by time and circumstance. Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up” (1802) and “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” (1807) state “The child is father of the man,” while Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Coleridge, Samuel Taylor “Dejection: An Ode” (1802) addresses a child as “thou best philosopher” and comments with melancholy on the effects that living in society will have on a child’s psyche.

Rousseau’s influence on Romanticism is by no means limited to the concept of childhood. Confessions so influenced the worldview of the educated classes that it contributed to the florescence of Romanticism—imagination and dream, the fascination with the distant and remote past, the Romantic antihero, the flawed Titan, self-authenticating experience, the cult of personality, the revolutionary spirit—these and other qualities of the Romantic worldview were prefigured in the Confessions.

The seeds of other Romantic ideas may be found in the Confessions as well. When Rousseau declaims his preference for sublime forms of Nature, he gives voice to ideas propounded by Edmund Burke Burke, Edmund in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Rousseau writes: “I need torrents, rocks, firs, dark woods, mountains . . . abysses beside me to make me afraid.” The Romantic vision of grand nature runs through all art forms, from Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings to George Gordon, Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc (1817). The antihero Antiheroes emerges nearly contemporary with the first performances of the Confessions, with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779), and continues with Alexander Pushkin’s protagonists and the Byronic hero Byronic heroes and the “superfluous hero” of the great nineteenth century Russian novelists. The subject matter of dream and imagination permeate literature and culture from his time to ours.


Rousseau is widely seen as a progenitor of contemporary educational reform, Education;Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influence[Rousseau] the first person who effected lasting change in our perceptions of childhood, Childhood;concept of bringing into being changes such as the institution of children’s literature as a vehicle for entertainment rather than instruction. His influence on autobiography as a subjective art can be seen from Goethe’s Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-1814, 3 volumes; The Autobiography of Goethe, 1824; better known as Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) to Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (1907) and in the novel as a vehicle for the exploration of psychological realism.

By shifting the locus of truth from the world-out-there, from objective reality, to the world-in-here, or subjective reality, Rousseau provided, in a work of imaginative literature, what theorists had been expostulating: He articulated the paradigm for a new way of seeing.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">France, Peter. Rousseau: “Confessions.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Examines the Confessions in the genre of autobiography, its themes and meaning.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Havens, George R. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Accessible introduction to Rousseau’s life and works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, Christopher. Rousseau’s Exemplary Life: The Confessions as Political Philosophy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987. Discusses the Confessions in the context of Rousseau’s political system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stelzig, Eugene L. The Romantic Subject Autobiography: Rousseau and Goethe. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Comparative study; places the Confessions in literary history.

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