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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Squashed down to read in about 30 minutes

"The man whom I shall reveal is myself."

Wikipedia - Full Text - Print Edition: ISBN 1853267813


The Confessions is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's autobiography, written in England at Wootton in Staffordshire, where he had taken refuge after his revolutionary ideas incurred the displeasure of the authorities in France, and covering the first fifty-three years of his life. It was published only after Rousseau's death.

It is not generally considered accurate, some of Rousseau's dates are definitely out and many facts are disputed, but it does give some sort of account of the experiences that shaped his influential philosophy, and may well have inspired Goethe, Wordsworth and De Quincey to write similarly-styled autobiographies.


This is the condensed version first published by Sir John Hammerton in 1919. It misses out a lot of important bits, including most of Rousseau's more humiliating and shameful moments. It doesn't properly expalin how he covered up his theft of a ribbon by framing a young girl and how he disposed of his five illegitimate children with Thérèse Levasseur. It ignores his spanking fetish. Amazingly, it misses, too, Rousseau's anecdote about a "great princess" saying "let them eat cake", the oldest source for the saying.

A generally second-rate abridgement, which serves to just give a bit of a flavour of the original, but which will have to do, until I get round to editing a better one.


Have a look at another Squashed bit of Rousseau: On the Social Contract
Or compare this with some other famous sets of 'Confessions' by Saint Augustine, or Kierkegaard


Not done this bit yet - You can e-prod me if you really need it - glynhughes@btinternet.com

The Squashed Philosophers Edition of...

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes © 2012

I am undertaking a task for which there is no example, and one which will find no imitator. It is to exhibit a man in the whole truth of nature; and the man whom I shall reveal is myself. Myself alone; for I verily believe I am like no other living man. In this book I have hidden nothing evil and added nothing good; and I challenge any man to say, having unveiled his heart with equal sincerity, "I am better than he."

I was born at Geneva in 1712, son of Isaac Rousseau, watchmaker, and of Susanne, his wife. My birth, the first of my misfortunes, cost my mother her life, and I came into the world so weakly that I was not expected to live. My father's sister lavished on me the tenderest care, and he, disconsolate, loved me with extreme affection.

Like all children, but even more than others, I felt before I thought; and my consciousness was first awakened by reading stories with my father. Sometimes we read together until the birds were singing in the morning light. These tales gave me a most precocious insight into human passions, and the confused emotions which swept through me brought with them the queerest and most romantic views of life. But when I was seven we came to the end of my mother's old stock of romances, and we fell back on Bossuet, Molière, Plutarch, Ovid, and the like. Plutarch went far to cure me of novels; indeed, his "Lives" were the means of forming that free and republican spirit, intolerant of servitude, which has been my torment. To my aunt, who knew endless songs, and used to chant them with a sweet, tiny thread of a voice, I owe my passion for music.

These, then, were my first affections. These formed that heart of mine, so proud yet so tender; they fashioned that effeminate yet untamable character, which has ever drifted between weakness and virtue. For I have been in contradiction with myself, in such a way that abstinence and fruition, pleasure and wisdom, have escaped me equally.

My father having left Geneva, I remained under the care of my uncle Bernard, and was placed, with his son of my own age, in the house of M. Lambercier, protestant minister at Bossey, to learn all the trivialities that are called education. Here I gained my keen love of country pleasures, and tasted, with my cousin, the delights of simple friendship. But a cruel punishment for a fault which I had not committed, put an end to my childish simplicity, and soon I left Bossey without regret. There followed two or three years of indolence at Geneva.

After a brief and luckless trial of a notary's office I was apprenticed to an engraver, a petty tyrant, whose injustice taught me to lie and to steal. Restless, dissatisfied, and in perpetual terror of my master's savagery, I here reached my sixteenth year. But one day, finding the city gates closed on my return from a country excursion, I determined, rather than face the inevitable thrashing, to seek my fortune in the unknown world.

Madame de Warens
How fair were the illusions of freedom and of the future! I asked little - only a manor where I should be the favourite of the lord of the land, his daughter's lover, her brother's friend, and protector of the neighbourhood. I roamed the countryside, sleeping at nights in hospitable cottages, and on arriving at Confignon I called, out of curiosity, on M. de Ponteverre, the parish priest. He gave me a dinner which convinced me, even more than his arguments, of the advantages of the catholic faith; and I was willing enough to set off, with his introduction, to Annecy. Here I was to seek Mme. de Warens, a recent convert, who was in receipt of a pension from the King of Sardinia. I was assured that her benevolence would support me for the present. Three days later I was at Annecy.

This introduction fixed my character and destiny. I was now in my sixteenth year, doubtless of engaging though not striking appearance; I had the timidity of a loving nature, always afraid of giving offence; and I was quite without knowledge of the world or of manners. I arrived on Palm Sunday, 1728. Mme. de Warens had left the house for church; I ran after her, saw her, spoke to her - how well do I remember the place, so often in later days wet with my tears and covered with kisses!

I saw an enchanting form, a countenance full of graciousness, a dazzling colour, blue eyes beaming kindness; you may imagine that my conversion was from that moment decided. Smiling, she read the good priest's letter, and sent me back to the house for breakfast.

Louise éléonore de Warens, daughter of a noble family of Vevai, in the Vaud country, had early married M. de Warens, of Lausanne. The marriage was childless and otherwise unfortunate; and the young wife, exasperated by some domestic difficulty, had abandoned her husband and her country, and crossing the lake, had thrown herself at the feet of the king. He took her under his protection, gave her a moderate pension, and for fear of scandal sent her to Annecy, where she renounced her errors at the Convent of the Visitation.

She had been six years at Annecy when I met her, and was now twenty-eight years of age. Her beauty was still in its first radiance, and her smile was angelic. She was short of stature, but it was impossible to imagine more beautiful features or hands. Her education had been very desultory; she had learned more from lovers than from teachers. She had a strong taste for empirical medicine and for alchemy, and was always compounding elixirs, tinctures and balms, some of which she regarded as valuable secrets. So it was that charlatans, trading on her weakness, made her consume, amid drugs and furnaces, a talent and a spirit which might have distinguished her in the highest societies. Yet her loving and sweet character, her compassion for the unhappy, her inexhaustible goodness and her open and gay humour never changed; and even when old age was coming on, in the midst of poverty and varied misfortunes, her inward serenity preserved to the end the charming gaiety of her youth. All her mistakes arose from a restless activity which demanded incessant occupation. She thirsted, not for intrigues, but for enterprises.

Well, the first sight of Mme. de Warens inspired me not only with the liveliest attachment, but with an entire trust which was never disappointed. Her presence filled my whole being with peace and confidence.

Three Years in Turin
My situation was discussed with the Bishop, and it was decided that I should go to Turin and remain for a time at an institution devoted to the instruction of catechumens. Thither I went, regarding myself as the pupil, the friend, and almost the lover, of Mme. de Warens. The great doors closed upon me, and here I was instructed for several weeks in very indifferent company. At length, having been received into the church, I found myself in the street with twenty francs in my pocket, and the counsel that I should be a good Christian.

I took a lodging in Turin, and was presently introduced, by the kindness of my hostess, to the service of a countess. But this lady died shortly afterwards, and I left her house bearing with me lasting remorse for an atrocious action: I had accused a fellow-servant of a theft which I had myself committed, and thus may very well have caused the poor child's ruin.

Returning to my old lodging, I spent my days in wandering about town, often offending the public by my depravities. But I had kept certain acquaintances made during my situation with the countess, and one of these, a M. Gaime, whom I sometimes visited, gave me most valuable instructions in the principles of morals. He was a priest, and one of the most honest men I have known. I had cherished false ideas of life; he gave me a true picture of it, and showed me that happiness depends only on wisdom, and that wisdom is to be found in every rank. He used to say that if everyone could read the hearts of others, most would wish to descend in the social scale. This M. Gaime is the original, in large part, of my vicar of Savoy.

Then followed a new situation in the house of the Count de Gouvon, where, nominally a footman, I was soon treated more as a pupil or even as a favourite. His son, a priest, did his best to teach me Latin, and I have since realised that it was the purpose of this noble family, who had considerable political ambition, to train a talented dependent who might serve them in offices of great responsibility. But my fatal inconstancy frustrated this good fortune, my flagrant disobediences led to my dismissal, and presently I was on the road to Geneva with a gay lad from thence who had found me out in Turin.

I happened to own a mechanical toy, a little fountain, and our mad project was nothing less than to pay our way throughout the world by showing its performances in every village. We started in the highest spirits, but the fountain was never remunerative, and soon its works went wrong. This threw no gloom over our merry, fantastic journey, and it was only when Annecy was near that I became a little thoughtful, for my benefactress supposed that my last place had established me for life.

We entered the little town and parted, and I came trembling to her door. The adorable woman showed little surprise, and no sorrow. I told her my story, and was forgiven. Henceforth her home was mine.

Seeking a Career
The house was an old one, but spacious and comfortable, and the window of my room looked out, over garden and stream, to the open country. The ménage was by no means magnificent, but was abundant in a patriarchal way; Madame de Warens had no idea of economy, and with her hospitalities and speculations was ever running more deeply into debt. The household, besides herself and me, consisted of housemaid, cook, and a footman named Claude Anet.

From the first day, the sweetest familiarity reigned our intercourse. She called me "Little one," I called her my little mother, and these names express the relation of our hearts. She sought always my good, never her own pleasure; she was deeply attached to me, and lavished on me her maternal caresses. I was now about nineteen years old, but was only occupied about the house in writing for her, or in helping her in her pharmaceutical experiments.

But madame was thinking of my future, and sent me on some pretext to see M. d'Aubonne, a relative of hers, to find out what might be made of me. His report of me was, that I was a poor-spirited creature, narrow, ignorant, and clownish, and that the career of village priest was the best that could be hoped for. Once more, therefore, I was set to Latin at the seminary; but after some months I was returned by the bishop and the rector as incapable of learning, though a passably well-conducted youth. In the meantime I had been taken with a strong taste for music, and it was arranged that I should spend the winter at the house of M. le Maitre, director of music at the cathedral; he was a young man of great talent and of high spirits, and lived only twenty paces from my little mother. There I spent one of the most pleasant times of my life. But it was cut short by a quarrel between Le Maitre and the cathedral chapter, who had, as he thought, put a slight upon him. His revenge was to desert his post on the eve of the elaborate Easter services, and madame desired me to assist him in his flight. I was to attend him to Lyons, and remain with him as long as he should need me. Her purpose was, as I have since learned, to detach me from a plausible adventurer, M. Venture, a man of great musical talent who had turned up at Annecy, and had engaged my fancy. Our flight was successful. But on the second day after our arrival at Lyons Le Maitre fell ill with a sudden seizure in the street, and I, after telling the bystanders the name of his inn, and begging them to carry him thither, slipped round the nearest corner and disappeared. Le Maitre was deserted at his worst need by the only friend on whom he had to count. I returned at once to Annecy, only to find that madame had left for Paris.

M. Venture, however, was still there, and had turned the heads of all the ladies in the place, and for a time I shared his lodging. Then, after travelling with Merceret, the housemaid, as far as her home at Fribourg-for she had to return thither and could find no other attendant - I turned aside to Lausanne, with the idea of seeing the lake. I arrived here without a penny, and it occurred to me to play Venture's game on my own account. I took a false name, called myself a Parisian, and having secured a lodging, set up as a teacher of music, though I knew next to nothing of the art. There was a professor of law in the town who was an amateur of music, and held concert parties in his house; to this man I had the effrontry to propose a symphony of my own. I worked a fortnight at this production, wrote out the instrumental parts, and on the appointed evening stood up before the orchestra and audience, tapped my desk, raised by baton, and - never since music began has there been such an orgy of discords. The musicians could hardly sit in their chairs for laughing, yet played even louder and louder as the fun took hold of them; the audience sought to stop their ears; and I, sweat pouring down my face, conducted this atrocity to the end. But the end was a little minuet which Venture had taught me; I had appended it to my symphony, calling it my own work. Its magic put the whole room in good humour, and I was feliciated on my taste in melody. Next day one of my orchestra came to see me, and in my despair and broken spirit I told him my whole story. By nightfall it was known to all Lausanne. But at Neufchâtel, through the next winter, I gradually learned music by teaching it.

My next occupation was that of interpreter to a Greek prelate and archimandrite of Jerusalem, whom I met when dining in a little restaurant. He was collecting money throughout Europe for the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre; and accompanying him from city to city, I was of much service to him, even addressing the Senate at Berne on behalf of his project. Unfortunately for my employer, he addressed himself to the Marquis de Bonac, who had been ambassador to the Porte, and knew all about the Holy Sepulchre. I don't know what passed at their interview, but the archimandrite disappeared and I was detained. In my desolation I told the marquis the history of my life, and by him was sent to Paris, with plenty of money in my pocket, to enter the service of a young friend of his in the army. My first sight of the city was a disappointment which I have never got over, and the proposed engagement fell through. Coming to the end of my resources, I set out by way of Lyons, where I suffered the extremity of poverty, to find Mme. de Warens, who was now, as I learned, at Chambéri. I came to her house and found the intendant-general with her. Without addressing me, she said, "Here, sir, he is; protect him as long as he deserves it, and his future is assured." And to me, "My child, you belong to the king." And thus I became a secretary in the ordnance survey. After five years of follies and sufferings since I had left Geneva, I began to earn an honest living.

Our Little Circle
It was in 1732, and I was nearly twenty-one years old, when I began the life of the office. I lived with the little mother in a dismal house, which she rented because it belonged to the financial secretary who controlled her pension. The faithful Claude Anet was still with her, and shortly after my return I learned accidentally that their relation was closer than I had ever dreamed of. In a fit of temper his mistress had taunted him outrageously. The poor fellow, in despair, had taken laudanum; and madame, in her terror and distress, told me the whole story. We brought him round, and things went on as before, but it was hard to me to know that anyone was more intimate with her than myself.

My passion for music increased this year until I could hardly take interest in anything else, and at last the work at the office grew so intolerable to me that I determined to resign my place. I extorted an unwilling permission from madame, said good-bye to my chief, and threw myself into the teaching of music.

I soon had as many pupils as I needed, and the constant intercourse with these ladies was very pleasant to me. But from the stories which I carried home of our interviews the little mother apprehended dangers of which I was not at that time conscious. The course which she took was a singular one. She had rented a little garden outside the town, and here she invited me to spend the day with her. Thither we went, and from the drift of her conversation, which was full of good sense and kindliest warnings, I gradually perceived the degree of her goodness towards me. The compact involved conditions, and my answer was to be given on that day week.

Thus was established among the three of us a society to which there is perhaps no parallel. All our wishes, our cares, our interests were in common. If one of us was missing from the dinner-table, or a fourth was present, all seemed out of order. But our little circle was broken all too soon. Claude Anet, on a botanical excursion, fell a victim to pleurisy, and died, notwithstanding all her care. He had been a most watchful economist of her pension and a restraint on her enterprises, and his loss was felt not only in our diminished party, but also in the wasting of her resources. For the next three years these went from bad to worse. Unfortunately, the life to which I had taken, of drifting from one interest to another - now literature, now chess, now a journey, now music - brought in nothing and cost a good deal; and to complete our anxieties, I fell ill nearly to death. Her care and utter devotion saved me, and from that time our very existence was in common.

Les Charmettes
I was ordered to the country. We found near Chambéri a little house, Les Charmettes, set in a garden among trees, as retired and solitary a home as if it had been a hundred miles from the town. There we took up a new life towards the autumn of 1736; there began the brief happiness of my existence. We were all in all to one another; together we roamed the country, worked in the garden, gathered fruit and flowers, lay under the trees and listened to the birds. Golden hours, your memory is my only treasure!

Even a sudden illness, which affected my heart so that its pulse has from that time incessantly throbbed like a drum in my ears, and has made me a constant sufferer from insomnia, turned out to be a heavenly blessing. Thinking myself a dead man, I only then began to live, and applied myself very eagerly to learning. With my little mother as my teacher, I turned to the study of religion. I sought books, and philosophy, the sciences, and Latin followed in their turn. Nature, learning, leisure, and our ineffably sweet companionship - I thought, poor fool, that these joys would be with me to the end. It was otherwise decreed.

My bodily condition has become pitiable, and it was determined that I should go to Montpellier to consult a physician. I fell in, on the way thither, with the Marquis de Torignan and his party, who were travelling in the same direction. We struck up acquaintance, and I joined them, taking an assumed name, and giving myself out for an Englishman. Becoming intimate with a Madame de Larnage, who was among them, I continued to travel with her day by day, after the others had reached their destination. She was a woman of infinite charm. Mme. de Warens was forgotten utterly, and I willingly agreed to settle down in her vicinity, after fulfilling the purpose of my journey to Montpellier. However, after two pleasurable months in that city, when I found myself at the stage where the road divided - one road going to Mme. de Larnage, the other to Les Charmettes - I balanced love against pleasure, and finding an equipoise, I decided by reason.
The little mother knew by my letter at what hour I should arrive. I came to the garden; no one came out to meet me. I entered; the servants seemed surprised to see me. I ran upstairs and found her; her welcome was restrained and cold. The truth burst upon me. My place was taken!

Darkness flooded my soul, and from that moment onward my sensibilities have been but half-alive. I took a situation as tutor in a private family, but all my thoughts were of Charmettes and of our innocent life together, now gone for ever. O dreadful illusion of human destiny!

The Gathering Gloom
I take up my pen again, after an interval of two years, to add a sequel to my confessions. How different is the picture now! For thirty years fate had favoured my inclinations, but for the second thirty, which I must try to sketch, she has ground me in the mortar of the most appalling afflictions.

This second part must inevitably be inferior, in every respect, to the first. For I wrote, before, with pleasure and at ease; but now my decaying memory and enfeebled brain have made me almost incapable of work, and I have nothing to tell of but treacheries, perfidies, and torturing memories. The walls around me have ears; I am encompassed by spies and vigilant enemies. Racked with anxiety and fear, I scribble page after page without revising them. An immense conspiracy surrounds me....

[Concluding note by the original abridging editor: "These delusions of suspicion are perhaps the most characteristic symptoms of insanity. They colour so deeply the entire texture of Rousseau's prolix second part as to make it not only unreliable, but almost unreadable. Only its human interest gives value to the first part; from the second part human interest is totally absent. The unhappy creature, besotted with intellectual pride, was already insane, inhuman; and this morbid condition had been aggravated by years of brooding rancour before he wrote this miserable indictment of men who had done their best to befriend him."]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseau's Tomb in the Panthéon, Paris

ISBN 9781326806781
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