Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss Anti-hero?
The anti-hero is that character who lacks the conventional qualities of heroism yet manages to transform human frailties into heroic results. This concept supports an entire genre of popular movies which I first discovered in 1979 with the dystopian Mad Max, but has roots in ancient Greek dramas.
Rousseau was a contemporary of Jean-Marc Vacheron, less than twenty years his senior, and they undoubtedly crossed paths for Rousseau was descended from three generations of watchmakers.
So why associate the name of Rousseau with this subject? He is, after all, a symbol of the Enlightenment in Switzerland and France; venerated through statues, streets, and parks. Let us leave that for later while I describe the object that stimulates my discourse.
This ingot of purest aluminium measures 35 x 45 mm and was struck in 1912 to celebrate the bicentennial of Citizen Rousseau’s birth on 23 June, 1712. On the obverse it bears the crest of his birthplace, Geneva. But most interesting is the reverse, where a charming scene is depicted.
Impressed into the metal is an image of a young Jean-Jacques in the cabinet of his watchmaker father, Isaac Rousseau. The senior Rousseau is seated at his bench, tools briefly laid aside while he gestures out the window towards the Genevois cityscape.
I do not profess to be a scholar on Rousseau; in fact it was the medallion’s connection to watchmaking in Geneva that first attracted my interest along with the unusual metal it was made from. Nevertheless, some time spent with Mr. Google revealed a far more interesting story than I anticipated.
Returning to the scene; is the father offering the life of a cabinotier to his son, in the embrace of La Fabrique, or is he encouraging Jean-Jacques to travel beyond the city’s palisades and experience the outside world? We know Jean-Jacques attempted to please his father, although he struggled as a watchmaker. After spending three years in training, he left Geneva at the young age of sixteen and headed for France.
With the death of his mother when an infant, perhaps Rousseau found maternal comfort with his first sponsor; Louise Eleonore, Baronne de Warens. With her support he pursued life as a music scholar and tutor; eventually publishing a dissertation on the topic of modern music in 1743 followed by a pair of operas and copious articles for Diderot’s Encyclopédie sur la musique française and Dictionnaire de musique.
Rousseau’s first major work, Discours sur les sciences et les arts, was submitted in 1750 in response to a newspaper contest and earned a prize from the Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres de Dijon while igniting a scandal for its contrarian view that the arts and sciences corrupted human morals.
I most identify with his second major work; Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité, coincidentally published in that famous year of 1755. In this he sought to address the origin of inequality among men and whether it was justified under natural law. His conclusion earned him great enmity amongst powerful people.
What offended was his assertion that property, and the oppression employed to protect it, was the chief source of human inequality. This concept greatly excited Marx and Lenin in future years. Although he praised Geneva for having come closest to the ideal, this did not stop his subsequent persecution.
Rousseau’s first full novel was published in 1761. Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse was a fictional potboiler with enough sexual innuendo to guarantee popularity and make Rousseau a minor celebrity. He followed a year later with two works which were far more dangerous; political treatises on the nature of man and corrupting influence of civilization titled L'émile ou de l'éducation and Du contrat social. In Émile he writes; “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of God; everything degenerates in the hands of man”.
With another famous quote from The Social Contract; “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, Rousseau advocated moving beyond the status quo to enforce liberty even upon the unwilling; a strain of thought that inspired all manner of good and evil, and most proximally the French Revolution. The result was that both works were banned in Paris and Geneva, with copies burned in the public square. Exiled, Rousseau found himself on the road again.
After renouncing his Genevan citizenship in 1763 and publishing the pamphlet; Lettres écrites de la montagne, repudiating the city’s ruling regime, Rousseau attempted to settle in Bern but was ejected and so spent a couple of years moving from place to place, even finding refuge in England until 1767, when he was allowed to return to France. At the age of 56, he finally married his long-time mistress, an illiterate laundry maid who had borne his five children, all of whom were abandoned to the public orphanage. He returned to Paris in 1770.
With this peace he finished his autobiographical Confessions, although sadly it would not be published until after his death. This work would reveal an increasingly erratic personality which his friends and associates were already well aware of.
Allegedly insane, Rousseau died at a rural cottage on July 2, 1778, from a sudden illness which aroused suspicions of suicide. In 1794, his remains were reinterred to the Panthéon in Paris.
Returning once again to the precious aluminum medallion, with this history I now find the scene to be exceedingly poignant, with more than a touch of pathos. The watch alongside embodies a spiritual connection with the medallion. It too was constructed from featherweight aluminium, and bears the name of Rousseau's Genevan compatriot, Vacheron. I think they make a fitting pair.