Rousseau and The Paris Foundling Hospital

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Born: 28 June 1712 Geneva
Died: 2 July 1778 Ermenonville
Partner: Thérèse Levasseur (1745–1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a philosopher, writer, and composer. He was in kinship and foster care as a child. Rousseau’s mother died shortly after his birth and his father abandoned him when he was 10. Young Jean-Jacques was sent to live with an uncle, who had the child fostered out. From about age 14 Jean-Jacque was on his own. He was often homeless and did a variety of working-class jobs to support himself. Jean-Jacque was fortunate at the age of 16 to meet Francois-Louise de Warens (1690-1762), who took the boy in and supported him financially and emotionally.

His political philosophy – outlined in the Discourse on Inequality (1754) and The Social Contract (1762) – was a key influence during the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries which advanced ideas such as religious tolerance, individual rights and a focus on reason and science rather than religious dogmatism.

The Confessions (1782) published posthumously, is widely regarded as the first modern autobiography. It is an astonishing work of acute psychological insight. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) argued passionately against the inequality he believed to be intrinsic to civilized society. Rousseau believed that society has an enormous influence on human development and behaviour. In Confessions, he wrote a detailed account of his life from the formative experience of his humble childhood in kinship care and then in foster care, through the achievement of international fame as novelist and philosopher in Paris, He explained how his own experiences shaped his personality, views, neuroses, and imperfections.

It took more than 200 years for Rousseau’s basic ideas to be formally adopted by many western education systems, though now they’re accepted in our contemporary culture: children are very different from adults; they need protection from harm; they need love and security; they are full of joy and curiosity and have a natural urge to understand the world.

According to Rousseau, childhood has to be respected and revered. Children should not be subjected to threats, smacks or other punishments.

In modern times we have only recently endorsed the importance of ‘children’s voices’

Rousseau had a long-term relationship with Thérèse Levasseur, a barely literate working-class woman he met in 1745. He was seen as being radical and was anti-verbal lessons and instruction he believed children learnt by experience alone, which encouraged thought. Instruction is bad because it is not natural. Children should be guided how to learn for themselves. He who wrote a long book Emile, Or Treatise on Education (1762) about just the right way to raise children. And yet he sent his own children, five of them to the Paris Foundling Hospital immediately upon birth. He never knew or even saw them.

Édouard Gelhay, Aux enfants-assistés: L’abandon, (1886).

He says that at the time he was not troubled by his conscience and the only reason he did not boast openly of his actions was to save the feelings of his mistress (the mother), who did not agree with the decision.  He claimed abandoning one’s children at the Foundling Hospital was “the custom of the country” as told by the “fundamentally decent” men at the dining establishments he frequented. He regarded children as a considerable inconvenience, abandoning them was a socially acceptable way to relieve oneself of it, problem solved.

Rousseau was eventually troubled by his conscience about the way he had disposed of his children: I will only say that this error was such that in handing over my children to be raised at public expense, since I had not the means to bring them up myself, in ensuring that they became labourers and peasants rather than adventurers and fortune seekers, I believed that I was acting as a true citizen and father (Rousseau, 348).

He considered making a public confession at the start of Emile but thought better of it!

And yet, a baby at the Paris Foundling Hospital had only a two thirds chance of surviving its first year and only a five percent chance of reaching maturity. These are facts which Rousseau could have determined without much difficulty if he had investigated.



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