L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
This quotation from the beginning of The Social Contract, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), is one of those that used to be on display in the town of Montmorency, a northern suburb of Paris, where Rousseau lived for six years while he was in his forties. This is where he wrote The Social Contract and several other important works.
Twenty of these quotations from the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were strung up on the streets of Montmorency in 2012, to commemorate Rousseau’s three hundredth birthday. A year later, some of these quotations were still (or again) on display.
Les hommes ne sont naturellement ni rois, ni grands, ni courtisans, ni riches. Tous sont nés nus et pauvres, tous sont sujets aux misères de la vie, aux chagrins, aux maux, aux besoins, aux douleurs de toute espèce…
This is the beginning of a paragraph in book 4 of Rousseau’s Émile, ou de l’éducation (1762): “By nature men are neither kings, nor nobles, nor courtiers, nor millionaires. All men are born poor and naked, all are liable to the sorrows of life, its disappointments, its ills, its needs, its suffering of every kind; and all are condemned at length to die. This is what it really means to be a man; this is what no mortal can escape. Begin then with the study of the essentials of humanity, that which really constitutes mankind.”
These are both quotations from the same paragraph of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (1754): “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many miseries and horrors might mankind have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled up the ditch and cried to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
This is a quotation from book 9 of Rousseau’s Confessions: “I saw that everything was radically connected with politics, and that, upon whatever principles these were founded, a people would never be more than that which the nature of their government made them; therefore the great question of the best government possible appeared to me to be reduced to this: What is the nature of a government the most proper to form the most virtuous and enlightened, the wisest and best people, taking the last epithet in its most extensive meaning?”
“As long as luxury reigns among the great, cupidity will reign in all hearts. If it is necessary to be rich in order to shine, the dominant passion will be to be rich.” From Rousseau’s Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772).
For most of his life, Rousseau always seemed to have a rich benefactor or two. Usually these were elegant aristocratic ladies who were glad to spend their money supporting a charming young philosopher. (When he became old and paranoid he again had a generous benefactor, but it was a man this time, René Louis de Girardin, Marquis of Vauvray.)
In 1756, when Rousseau was a charming middle-aged philosopher, his benefactor was a lady named Louise Florence Pétronille Lalive, marquise d’Épinay, or Madame d’Épinay for short. In addition to her city residence in Paris, Madame d’Èpinay had a palace near Montmorency, the Château de la Chevrette in the adjacent town of Deuil-la-Barre. When Rousseau expressed a desire to get out of Paris, the “city of noise, smoke and mud”, so he could be closer to Nature, Madame d’Épinay let him live in l’Ermitage (the Hermitage), a small house that she owned in Montmorency.
Unfortunately Rousseau soon had a falling out with Madame d’Épinay because he fell in love with her beautiful young sister-in-law, Sophie de Lalive de Bellegarde, the Countess of Houdetot, so he had to move out of the Hermitage and instead rented a small house called Mont-Louis, which is now the Rousseau Museum on the street that is now called Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Here is where he wrote some of his most successful and influential books, including the novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), in which he expressed and sublimated (and agonized over) his attraction to Sophie de Lalive de Bellegarde.
This novel appealed directly to the sensuous-but-moralistic spirit of the times and turned out to be the absolutely best-selling novel of the entire eighteenth century. Contemporary readers loved it, though modern-day readers tend to agree with Madame Pompadour, the official chief mistress (maîtresse-en-titre) of King Louis XV. In a letter to a friend, Madame Pompadour wrote: “Yes, I have seen something of the Nouvelle Héloïse but I did not have the patience to read it to the end. What a sulky creature this Julie d’Étange is! So much reasoning and virtuous babbling just to finally sleep with a man.”
Rousseau’s novel inspired countless imitations, including (a generation later) Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, which was also a bestseller and the inspiration for the opera Werther (pronounced the French way) by Jules Massenet (1842-1912).
At the foot of the garden was Rousseau’s dungeon, the little house where he went to write and write and write without being disturbed by anyone or anything.
The word donjon in French can also mean the fortified main tower of a castle, a.k.a. the ‘keep’. (When I was a child I kept hearing a poem about a “castle keep” and never did figure out what it meant, until about forty years later.)
The audio guide of the Rousseau museum said Rousseau used the word donjon ironically to mean his castle, but I still think he meant it as his dungeon.
At first the windows were broken and it didn’t even have a fireplace, which made it very cold in the winter (sans abri contre le vent et la neige, et sans autre feu que celui de mon cœur = “without shelter from the wind and snow, and without any other fire but the fire in my heart”), but then one of his benefactors had it fixed up a bit so he at least wouldn’t catch pneumonia while he was writing.
Rousseau himself later claimed that he was in poor health during his entire stay in Montmorency:
“I lived in Montmorency for over four years without ever having had a single day of good health. Although the air is excellent, the water is bad, and it may very well be one of the causes that contributed to worsen my usual ailments. In the late autumn of 1761 I fell quite ill, and I spent the entire winter in pain almost constantly. The physical pain, augmented by a thousand forms of anxiety, made me all the more sensitive to my suffering. For some time, vague and sad forebodings troubled me without my knowing the cause. I received anonymous letters which were very peculiar and even signed letters that were hardly less so.” (Confessions, XI)
Nonetheless, he completed several important books during these years, including The Social Contract and Émile ou de l’éducation.
I was sitting in Rousseau’s garden listening to the audio guide when one of the curators came looking for me and asked if I would like to join a guided tour of the house. It was a small group of five or six people, and she gave us an informative and enthusiastic tour.
She said the house had been smaller when Rousseau lived there. The house was expanded in the nineteenth century, and these additional rooms are now used for temporary exhibits and audio-visual displays, and for the museum entrance hall.
Rousseau’s original furniture has been lost (except for one fireplace grate) but since Rousseau himself had made a detailed inventory of everything in the house, the museum curators were able to acquire antique furniture from the eighteenth century that exactly matched his descriptions.
He lived here with his ‘housekeeper’ Thérèse Levasseur, whom he had met years before when she was a waitress in a pub. In this phase of his life she really was only his housekeeper, though they had been lovers for many years. She had even borne him several children, all of which they had given away to orphanages — a fact that caused great damage to Rousseau’s reputation when it was publicly revealed by his arch-enemy Voltaire in 1764.
In contrast to the well-educated aristocratic ladies who idolized Rousseau, read his books and sought his company, Thérèse Levasseur was barely literate and apparently had no idea what he was writing about. But she was totally devoted to him and was also a good cook, which he much appreciated.
When I heard about Rousseau’s relationship with Thérèse Levasseur I was reminded of the nineteenth century German poet Heinrich Heine, who by coincidence also spent some time in Montmorency long after Rousseau’s death. During Heine’s long years of exile in France he had an illiterate French mistress (later his wife) who understood no German and had no idea what he was writing about or how important he was in German literature. Heine’s wife was once quoted as saying that he wrote poems, but they were obviously not very good because he was always dissatisfied with them.
On the tour we were told that Rousseau’s stay in Montmorency came to an abrupt end in 1762, when the Parliament of Paris ordered his book Émile ou de l’éducation to be banned and publicly burned, for religious reasons, and issued an arrest warrant for its author. With the help of an influential friend, Rousseau left Montmorency on the afternoon of June 9, 1762, and fled to Yverdon, Switzerland — but not to his native city of Geneva, because his books had been banned there as well.
Paris was Catholic and Geneva was Protestant, by the way, so Rousseau was banned by both sides, for similar reasons.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Rousseau in Geneva