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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Rousseau escaped imprisonment by flight


In

1749 Diderot was a prisoner at Vincennes. Rousseau, on the road to visit his friend, read in the _Mercure de France_ that the Academy of Dijon had proposed as the subject for a prize to be awarded next year the question, "Has the progress of arts and sciences contributed to purify morals?" Suddenly a tumult of ideas arose in his brain and overwhelmed him; it was an ecstasy of the intellect and the passions. With Diderot's encouragement he undertook his indictment of civilisation; in 1750 the _Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts_ was crowned. In accordance with his theory he proceeded to simplify his own life, intensifying his self-consciousness by singularities of assumed austerity, and playing the part (not wholly a fictitious one) of a moral reformer. Famous as author of the _Discours_ and the opera _Le Devin de Village_, presented before the King, he returned to his native Switzerland, and there re-entered the Protestant communion. In 1754 he again competed for a prize at Dijon, on the question, "What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorised by the law of nature?" Rousseau failed to obtain the prize, but the _Discours sur l'Inegalite_ was published (1755) with a dedication to the Republic of Geneva. He had discovered in private property the source of all the evils of society.

In Switzerland Rousseau prepared a first redaction of his political treatise, the _Contrat Social_, and filled his heart with the beauty of those

prospects which form an environment for the lovers in his Heloise. In 1756 he was established, through the kindness of Madame d'Epinay, in the Hermitage, near the borders of the forest of Montmorency. His delight in the woods and fields was great; his delight in Madame d'Houdetot, kinswoman of his hostess, was a more troubled passion. Quarrels with Madame d'Epinay, quarrels with Grimm and Diderot, estrangement from Madame d'Houdetot, closed the scene at the Hermitage.

Authorship, however, had its joys and consolations. The _Lettre a D'Alembert_, a censure of the theatre (1758), was succeeded by _La Nouvelle Heloise_ (1761), by the _Contrat Social_ (1762), and _Emile_ (1762). The days at Montmorency which followed his departure from the Hermitage passed in calm. With the publication of _Emile_ the storms began again. The book, condemned by the Sorbonne, was ordered by the Parliament to be burnt by the common executioner. Rousseau escaped imprisonment by flight. In Switzerland he could not settle near Voltaire. A champion for the doctrine of a providential order of the world, an enemy of the stage--especially in republican Geneva--Rousseau had flung indignant words against Voltaire, and Voltaire had tossed back words of bitter scorn. Geneva had followed Paris in its hostility towards Rousseau's recent publications; whose doing could it be except Voltaire's? He fled from his persecutors to Motiers, where the King of Prussia's governor afforded him protection. Renewed quarrels with his countrymen, clerical intolerance, mob violence, an envenomed pamphlet from Voltaire, once more drove him forth. He took refuge on an island in the lake of Bienne, only to be expelled by the authorities of Berne. Encouraged by Hume--"le bon David"--he arrived in January 1766 in London.

At Wootton, in the Peak of Derbyshire, Rousseau prepared the first five books of his _Confessions_. Within a little time he had assured himself that Hume was joined with D'Alembert and Voltaire in a triumvirate of persecutors to defame his character and render him an outcast; the whole human race had conspired to destroy him. Again Rousseau fled, sojourned a year at Trye-Chateau under an assumed name, and after wanderings hither and thither, took refuge in Paris, where, living meanly, he completed his _Confessions_, wrote other eloquent pieces of self-vindication, and relieved his morbid cerebral excitement by music and botanising rambles. The hospitality of M. de Girardin at Ermenonville was gladly accepted in May 1778; and there, on July 2, he suddenly died; suicide was surmised; the seizure was probably apoplectic.


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