Power eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.Jean-Jaques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions are perhaps the least influential of his works, but they offer us in the 21st century the most valuable insight out of all his other writings because of their detail in showing how a neurodivergent man coped with society. Three details stand out: his missing brother, his failed family life, and the amount of detail he included in recounting his escapades. .
None of these paint a very good overall picture. If the spirituality of Margery Kempe or Catherine of Siena is off-putting to some, Rousseau’s callousness and preoccupation with himself is similarly annoying.
Confessions appears a narcissistic exercise at times, but if this article is correct, then it perhaps gives us the ability to have a little compassion on him.
1. His older brother disappeared.
Rousseau had an older brother—a brother seven years older than he. This older brother disappears early in the Confessions and we know nothing more of him. He goes to Germany and never contacts his younger brother again. Why he does this isn’t very clear, aside from Rousseau’s own observations.
Successive absentee caregivers characterized Rousseau’s family life as a child. His mother passing away shortly after the birth isn’t a new story—nor is it all that uncommon.
His father tried to raise both boys on his own, but by Rousseau’s own admission, he was the “darling” of the family. Rousseau credits this emotional abandonment by their father as a contributing factor to his brother’s disappearance. He also claims his brother was a profligate and resisted discipline.
That last point is almost certainly inaccurate. Besides, Rousseau was in no place to call anyone a profligate: he sexually harassed women frequently as this article by Geri Walton covers in some detail. I doubt the older brother did anything that was really that terrible. Except perhaps wish for a different life. Or that his mother was still alive.
Speaking as the older sibling of someone who is special needs, I can’t exactly blame the older brother for running away and never coming back. Everyone has a breaking point, and he had obviously reached his.
2. The challenge of convention.
His mother died, his father gave him into the care of an aunt and uncle in Geneva to be raised. He continued the cycle by living with a woman he considered his educational and social inferior and gave up all his children to a foundling hospital.
Oh, and he went through a boy toy period where he had a sugar momma who found him work and expected sexual favors from him. Guess which of these scenarios he thought was one of the best times of his life?
If you guessed his boy toy period, you would be correct. But, if you think about it, it makes sense. He lost his mother early on and he developed a fixation with women reprimanding and commanding him when he went away to school. While he didn’t enjoy any of the jobs his sugar momma found for him, he credited her with helping him to improve himself.
Conventional family life and relationships were not for Rousseau. This article by David Potts presents a compelling viewpoint on Rousseau’s philosophy and how it may have contributed to his decision.
Was this his moral philosophy or was this a symptom of something else? That is something we’ll never know.
Abandoning his own children to a state orphanage is still distasteful to us 250+ years later, particularly knowing that most of the children in foundling hospitals died before ever reaching adulthood. His Confessions make it seem like he thought it was the lesser of two evils and it may have been. Today, we’d probably say he failed to break the cycle of trauma from his own childhood.
Setting that aside in favor of some compassion, however, Rosseau was abandoned as a child himself. Several times. If this article, detailing how he had ADHD, is true, then Rousseau was really between a rock and a hard place in one sense. Abandonment trauma on the one hand and ADHD with no diagnosis, therapy, or help on the other and late-onset bipolar?
Recipe for disaster.
He had choices, yes, but as anyone who suffers from mental illness or is neurodivergent knows, choices are not always so clear cut and dry.
3. Devil in the details.
For all the personal failing Rousseau presents to us in glaring color, the detail with which he presents them is truly astonishing. If ever a work gave a clear picture of the inner workings of a person’s thought process, then Rosseau’s Confessions are in a class of their own.
There is remarkable self-awareness not only of his symptoms, but of his own thoughts at the time and the clarity which only hindsight can provide.
Do these details detract from his brilliance elsewhere? There are arguments for and against. How can a man who argued for equality treat his own children with such contempt? Or refer to the ill breeding of his long-time wife and partner?
The details are not there for us to condemn him. They are there so we may better understand him and find compassion for him. Perhaps, too, they may even allow us to see a bit of ourselves in him.
Passing Judgment and Choosing Compassion
Whatever the faults we may find in Rousseau himself, his Confessions should at least move us to compassion. We have the advantage of psychology. He did not. We have modern medicine and therapy. He didn’t even have the steadying influence of parents in his life.
It’s easy to judge him. It’s easy to judge Catherine of Siena or Margery Kempe, too. But if we set aside our own objections, the Confessions provide us with some very rich rewards and some encouragement.
If Rousseau, despite all his failings, still provided as much useful content as he did, then how much more can any of us, living in the 21st century with similar issues do with our own lives?
That, at least, should be encouraging.
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