Thoroughgoing life of the often disagreeable, uncharismatic and world-transformative philosopher, he of “Mankind is born free and is everywhere in chains” renown.
The French edition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s complete published works runs to 10,000 pages, though Rousseau, characteristically, wished late in life that he had not written a word. As Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.) shows, anyone who had known young Rousseau would not have bet on his becoming world-famous in his own lifetime. Rousseau, Damrosch writes, was the motherless son of a Geneva watchmaker—no disqualification, for, as an 18th-century thinker noted, the artisans of the city “were fond of reading the works of Locke and Montesquieu” and were in many instances thoroughly radicalized. Rousseau’s father spirited away a good bit of the inheritance that was supposed to one day be the son’s, and when he remarried, Jean-Jacques presciently went out the door to seek his fortune on his own. He proved a poor apprentice though a sometimes helpful servant, and he insinuated himself in a few noble households while pondering what to do next, one observer volunteering that the best he could aspire to was “becoming a village priest.” Rousseau chose another path, devouring a few libraries with the hungriness and half-method of an autodidact, then unleashing a torrent of words on the world of the dawning Enlightenment. One of the chief virtues of Damrosch’s always virtuous biography—apart from accounting for Rousseau’s late, little-studied years—is his close reading of Rousseau’s oeuvre, from minor prose poems to major treatises such as Èmile and The Social Contract, which reconciles the events of his subject’s never easy life with the often contradictory ideas he came to espouse about such things as the noble savage and social equality, for which he is still remembered.
A vigorous, lucid biography of perhaps the most influential thinker of his day, with plenty of juicy gossip about his extracurricular life.