Confessions of J. J. Rousseau HTML version

Among the notable books of later times-we may say, without exaggeration, of all time—
must be reckoned The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It deals with leading
personages and transactions of a momentous epoch, when absolutism and feudalism were
rallying for their last struggle against the modern spirit, chiefly represented by Voltaire,
the Encyclopedists, and Rousseau himself—a struggle to which, after many fierce
intestine quarrels and sanguinary wars throughout Europe and America, has succeeded
the prevalence of those more tolerant and rational principles by which the statesmen of
our own day are actuated.
On these matters, however, it is not our province to enlarge; nor is it necessary to furnish
any detailed account of our author's political, religious, and philosophic axioms and
systems, his paradoxes and his errors in logic: these have been so long and so
exhaustively disputed over by contending factions that little is left for even the most
assiduous gleaner in the field. The inquirer will find, in Mr. John Money's excellent
work, the opinions of Rousseau reviewed succinctly and impartially. The 'Contrat Social',
the 'Lattres Ecrites de la Montagne', and other treatises that once aroused fierce
controversy, may therefore be left in the repose to which they have long been consigned,
so far as the mass of mankind is concerned, though they must always form part of the
library of the politician and the historian. One prefers to turn to the man Rousseau as he
paints himself in the remarkable work before us.
That the task which he undertook in offering to show himself—as Persius puts it—'Intus
et in cute', to posterity, exceeded his powers, is a trite criticism; like all human
enterprises, his purpose was only imperfectly fulfilled; but this circumstance in no way
lessens the attractive qualities of his book, not only for the student of history or
psychology, but for the intelligent man of the world. Its startling frankness gives it a
peculiar interest wanting in most other autobiographies.
Many censors have elected to sit in judgment on the failings of this strangely constituted
being, and some have pronounced upon him very severe sentences. Let it be said once for
all that his faults and mistakes were generally due to causes over which he had but little
control, such as a defective education, a too acute sensitiveness, which engendered
suspicion of his fellows, irresolution, an overstrained sense of honour and independence,
and an obstinate refusal to take advice from those who really wished to befriend him; nor
should it be forgotten that he was afflicted during the greater part of his life with an
incurable disease.