Rousseau’s children

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a seminal text on education and raising children. He also abandoned five of his own children soon after their births.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rousseau’s book Emile, or On Education, is a notable proto-modern take on education. It was one of the first to move the focus of schooling away from teacher-centred instruction and towards child-centred curiosity and discovery. It also included a take on religion that led to the book being banned and burned. And it also included a take on female education (they shouldn’t be educated, lest they take over!) that received a lot of well-deserved criticism from early feminist writers. Many people were not fans of Rousseau.

The elder statesperson of French philosophy and letters at the time, Voltaire, was one notable critic. Rousseau, funnily enough, was an admirer of Voltaire. but he received mostly condemnation and bad reviews from Voltaire in return. Voltaire despised Emile, except for the anti-religious bit, which he called “among the boldest ever known.” Voltaire had written his own religious treatise – The Sermon of the Fifty – under a pseudonym. Rousseau outed him as the author, to Voltaire’s dismay. Time for some revenge!

Voltaire dug up a dirty secret of Rousseau’s, one that had been doing the rounds but had never been made public. Rousseau, that paragon of educational theory, was in fact the father of five children. And all five of those children had been abandoned at a foundling hospital at Rousseau’s urging. Voltaire published an anonymous pamphlet bringing this awful secret to light.

Rousseau’s partner, Marie-Thérèse Levasseur, was from a formerly prominent family that had fallen on hard times, and when she gave birth Rousseau (and Levasseur’s own mother) urged her to send their son to an orphanage. He claimed it was to preserve her honour (ew), but Rousseau later claimed it was because he was worried that the child would be better educated there (ew ew). Four more children followed, each following their elder sibling to the foundling hospital (ew ew ew). Rousseau later tried to track them down, but by that time they were probably all dead (ew ew ew ew).

This is what Rousseau had to say about the whole ugly affair:

Five children were born of [our] liaison, and all were placed in the Foundling’s Hospital, and with so little thought of the possibility of their identification that I did not even keep a record of their dates of birth [or of their gender]. For several years now, the self-reproach which my neglectful behavior has aroused in me has disturbed my peace of mind and I am about to die [a frequent condition in Rousseau’s life] without being able to remedy it, much to the mother’s and my own regret.

Rousseau’s Children

[Thanks to In Our Time for drawing my attention to this topic.]

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