Emile

By Jean Jacques Rousseau; Barbara Foxley | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

'Émile' in the Life of Rousseau

Émile was written between 1757 and 1760, partly at the Hermitage and partly at the Château de Montmorency (both at that time country places among the hills north of Paris), where the author found a welcome when he decided to retire from the contemporary scene. The work was published in 1762, the fiftieth anniversary of Rousseau's birth. He came to Paris in 1742 at the age of thirty, after an adventurous youth, and spent almost ten years in a vain search for renown as playwright and musical composer. But after 1750 his reputation was established by two treatises, Sur les sciences et les arts and Sur l'inégalité which expounded his fundamental thesis: the natural goodness of man and the social origin of evil. Although French society at that period was in love with itself and its own culture, it hastened nevertheless to hail its indictor. Rousseau, however, far from profiting by his advent to fame, aspired to practise what he preached; and it was in a spirit of genuine renunciation that he withdrew to the Hermitage in 1756, hoping to rediscover in solitude the 'Natural Man.'

Those years of retirement were among the most fruitful of his creative life; they saw the birth, immediately before Émile, of La Nouvelle Héloïse and Le Contrat social. Héloïse marks the summit of Rousseau's reputation. The success of Émile was very nearly as great, but it recoiled on its author and turned his retirement into exile. The fact was that his religious thought, as delineated in the fourth book of the Profession de Foi du Vicaire savoyard, caused the powers that be to intervene: the book was banned and consigned to the flames, a warrant was issued for the author's arrest, and he was obliged to flee. For the next eight years Rousseau led the life of a fugitive. The target of bitter animosity on the part of both officialdom and of numerous private enemies, animosity whose effects on him were aggravated by growing persecution-mania, he was hounded from pillar to post through Switzerland and France, and eventually took refuge in England for a few months in 1766. It was during these years of suffering, between 1765 and 1770, that he wrote his Confessions. He returned to Paris in the latter year, and once more found peace of mind. Here he lived for the next eight years in poverty and virtual seclusion, absorbed in the composition of his Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, until death overtook him on 2nd July 1778 at the Château d'Ermenonville, where he was enjoying the hospitality of an admirer.

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