Reading Guide for Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) Confessions (Les Confessions)

J.-J. Rousseau
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, pastels on paper, Musée Antoine Lécuyer, 1753
See 1766 portrait of Rousseau in Armenian costume here

Censorship of Rousseau's Work:


Key words, translations, and locations:

*asterixed words have explanations in the Explanatory Notes at the back of the book, starting p. 650

conchology (365) - study or collection of sea shells

consistory = Church council or court

déshabille (185) = dishabille = state of being partially or carelessly dressed, usually in one's undergarments

fichu = a light triangular scarf ladies wore to cover their bosoms or heads

laudanum (173): morphine diluted with alcohol, used as a mild painkiller in the eighteenth century

Lazarist (115)

lettre de cachet = secret letter, or a secret warrant for arrest that could only be issued by a nobleman for any cause

love of the self = a positive sense of self-love or respect = amour de soi ;

selfish love = amour-propre


M. = Mister = Monsieur

Maman = Mother = what R. calls Mme Warens

Mlle = Miss = Mademoiselle

Mme = Mrs. = Madame

nature signifies an idealized state uncorrupted by society's mores (customs)

parvenu (361) = "A person from a humble background who has rapidly gained wealth or an influential social position; a nouveau riche; an upstart, a social climber." (OED)

opera buffa (374) = comic opera

Phoebus (188) = another word for Apollo, the Classical god of light and sun, poetry and music

plenipotentiary (206) = independent government representative

sensibility = refers to "quickness and acuteness of apprehension or feeling; the quality of being easily and strongly affected by emotional influences; sensitiveness" (OED 5a). The cult of sensibility reversed stereotypical roles normally accorded men and women. Whereas in the Age of Enlightenment, the head and intellect (associated with maleness) superseded emotion and the body (associated with femaleness) in importance, in the late eighteenth century, these priorities changed. Feeling and emotion became more important than reason, but this posed young intellectuals like Rousseau with a problem: how to occupy the space normally accorded women? The solution, as it were, was to suggest that men felt emotions with more true sentiment than women. 

society for Rousseau is the root of evil, especially in its propagation of certain customs or mores

sophism (225) = falacious argument, used to deceive

sympathy = signifies authentic intimacy, and often leads to political action

tête-à-tête = intimate conversation between two people = literally: head-to-head. Perhaps we as readers are engaged with Rousseau in such an intimate exchange ?

transparency = the ideal state for R., b/c it suggests that the invidual is being authentic, and is not distorting his true self in order to cave into the false, deceptive practices of society


Historical Map of Western Europe ca. 1700: Map of Europe in 1700

Colbeck, Ced. The Public Schools Historical Atlas. University of Texas at Austin, 1905. Web.

Outline of Confessions:

Romanticism and Rousseau

- Confessions shares many themes shared by Romantic writers (like Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein):

- Mary Shelley wrote a biographical entry on Rousseau in an encyclopedia. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was influenced by Rousseau's ideas on education, and she read Confessions while writing Frankenstein (O’Rourke 554).

Two sides of Rousseau?

"almost irreconcilable opposites" (Rousseau 110-111)

Essence / Nature
Appearance / Society
philosopher, man of letters footman (80), "a lackey" (90)
loves women "too sincerely" (75)
flasher (86), sadomasochist
skeptical of Church trad., worships nature convert to Catholicism
wanderer clings to people
  believes in honesty thief

Works Cited:

Conroy, Peter V. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. NY: Twayne, 1998. Print

O'Rourke, James. “"Nothing More Unnatural": Mary Shelley's Revision of Rousseau.” ELH 56.3 (1989): 543-569. Print.

See also: Marshall, David. The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Wendy C. Nielsen, Last updated 14 Feb. 2012