When Jean Jacques Rousseau came to Paris, he was called ‘the little Rousseau’. The great Rousseau’s name was Jean Baptiste and he was considered an important author. Today, we hardly know anything about him. He became a victim of the highly competitive literary market at the time of the Enlightenment.
Histoire satyrique de la vie et des ouvrages de M. Rousseau, en vers ainsi qu’en prose
Printed by Pierre Ribou.
When Gacon published his satirical work on the great Rousseau – the author Jean Baptiste Rousseau, mind you; the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who is much better-known today, was referred to as the ‘little’ Rousseau by his contemporaries – well, when Gacon published his book, every second author was a man of the Church; nobility made up another quarter of all writers. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, hardly played a role in the literary world. The reason was simple: you didn’t get paid for writing books.
When Voltaire died in 1778, things had changed completely. Writing books had become a profitable business. Therefore, the middle class constituted the lion’s share of all writers at the time. The proportion of clerics, on the other hand, had fallen to a third, and that of the nobility to 15%. A pioneer of middle-class writers, who paved the way for the profession of the “author”, was Jean Baptiste Rousseau.
A World of Patrons and Dependencies
Jean Baptiste Rousseau was born in 1671 as the son of a middle-class but wealthy shoemaker. The father hoped that his intelligent son would have a successful career. Therefore, he entrusted the Jesuits with his education. Thus the talented young man learned how to write verses, in French and in Latin. Rousseau was gifted, and that made it possible for him to go wherever he pleased. He was a welcome guest at the palaces of the nobility. After all, there was a great demand for writers at the time.
We have to keep in mind that all these noblemen and -women in Paris and Versailles had no other business than to fight for their rank at court. This required intelligence, a penchant for intrigue and intellectuals with sharp tongues and sharp words that exposed their rivals to the laughter of the public. And Jean Baptiste Rousseau had a very sharp sense of humour. That opened the door of every salon to him: he entertained bored aristocrats with his malicious bon mots. He earned money because noble patrons gave him gifts to make sure that it wasn’t them but their opponents who were mocked by his daring jokes.
But Rousseau wasn’t the only one who made a living like that. There were other intellectuals who knew to fight with words just as sarcastically as Rousseau. Rousseau had to outdo them – and just like that, witty jokes turned into insults. And that was dangerous, especially if the person you insulted was a member of the nobility.
The Big Mistake
The ultimate goal of every serious poet was to become a member of the Académie française. The task of this institution was to uphold the purity of the French language. That wasn’t a lot of work. But in practice, being a member of the Académie meant that you would never have to worry about money ever again. Royal pensions and other privileges made it incredibly attractive to achieve this honour.
Of course, Rousseau too dreamed of becoming a member of the Académie française. So when a seat at the Académie became available, he applied for it. He was obviously not the only one to do so. Another candidate was chosen over him: Antoine Houdar de La Motte.
Rousseau was furious. Soon after, epigrams in the style of Rousseau circulated denigrating all supporters of La Motte. The writings weren’t funny but offensive, even blasphemous. One of them attacked La Motte’s patron, the aristocratic captain La Faye. La Faye summoned Jean Baptiste Rousseau to the Palais Royal and gave him a good beating. That wasn’t unusual, by the way. Voltaire was also to be beaten up in 1726 for one of his jokes.
Rousseau did not put up with this. He filed a complaint of bodily harm against the captain. La Faye’s in turn sued him for libel. That was a serious accusation. The reputation of a nobleman was more valuable than the bruised back of a common citizen. Therefore, Rousseau immediately withdrew his complaint and accused Joseph Saurin, a well-known mathematician at the time, of having written the epigrams. The matter was taken to court and Jean Baptiste Rousseau found guilty of insult and libel. He had to pay 4,000 livres in damages and was sentenced to lifelong banishment.
A Scandal Is Always Good Business
Of course, everyone in Paris was talking about nothing but the fall of the author, who had been so famous before. And, of course, his dear colleagues took advantage of this opportunity. In 1712 François Gacon, who made a living by mocking everything and everyone in his satirical writings, published his Anti-Rousseau, a work full of funny poems in the style of the banished writer that ridiculed his fate. And as this was a very profitable business, he wrote a second book in 1716, which we recently purchased for the library of the MoneyMuseum. The work contains both the successful poems of the Anti-Rousseau and documents addressing the trial.
Just imagine how this booklet was now read aloud to general laughter in the very same salons in which, not long ago, Rousseau had been admired for his masterful puns.
A Victim of Voltaire
Today, hardly anyone knows about the unfortunate Jean Baptiste Rousseau. Experts dismiss him as a mediocre author of occasional poetry. His contemporaries were of a different opinion. After he escaped, the French ambassador in Switzerland supported him at first. He accommodated him in Solothurn. There he met Prince Eugene, the great victor over the Turkish army, who was to cover Rousseau’s expenses in Vienna over the following years. After that, Rousseau was sponsored by the Duc d’Arenberg, who was a great supporter of the Enlightenment at the time and also corresponded with Voltaire.
And at the palace of the Duc d’Arenberg, Rousseau met the rising star Voltaire. We will never know what exactly happened between the two, but Rousseau and Voltaire became bitter enemies after that encounter. For Jean Baptiste, this animosity had historical consequences: our image of Rousseau being a quarrelsome loudmouth who constantly overestimates himself was inspired by a biography written by Voltaire.
But like I said, Rousseau lived to see how Voltaire himself was beaten up and humiliated in public, and how Voltaire – when he just wouldn’t stop trying to hold his aristocratic tormentor accountable – was also forced to go into exile. Well, being born with a sharp with but without a title to your name to back you up was, after all, quite risky at the time.