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Rousseau finally becomes Swiss

St Pierre Island on Lake Biel was one of Rousseau's favourite places © Musée Rousseau Môtier / Agence Martienne

June 28 marks the high point of the commemorations of the 300th birthday of the Geneva writer and philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is also a belated official recognition of the role he played in developing Switzerland’s image abroad.

“Who else could have been celebrated by so many different events? It shows people are still interested,” Yvette Jaggi, former president of the Swiss Arts Council told

“The individual and his writings still speak to us today.”

The official recognition of Rousseau came as a welcome surprise to some, such as Guillaume Chenevière, former head of Switzerland’s French-language public television.

“It’s the first time that Switzerland has officially claimed Rousseau as part of its heritage,” he said. “Our embassies have even organised Rousseau events around the world.”

Even the French, who often like to claim the Geneva philosopher as their own, are pleased the Swiss have decided to celebrate Rousseau.

“It’s a Swiss product,” points out Tanguy L’Aminot, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. “In 2007, Geneva said it wanted to coordinate all the celebrations, a proposal that suited everyone, including France.”

The Swiss foreign ministry has also published a brochure about Rousseau and Switzerland.

“Pestered during his lifetime by the same Swiss and French who claim his heritage today, Rousseau has shown, 300 years after his birth, that he was a precursor of modern Switzerland, recognised for its creativity and innovative spirit,” Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter wrote in the preface.

Swiss image

This official recognition may seem to arrive somewhat late given Rousseau’s role in spreading Switzerland’s image across Europe in the 18th century, particularly with his bestselling novel Julie, or the New Héloïse, published in 1761.

In the 23rd letter of this epistolary novel, Rousseau describes the idyllic lifestyle of canton Valais’ mountain folk.

“He writes that money is scarce in Valais, but life is good because food is plentiful and working in the fields is a pleasure,” says historian and journalist Gerard Delaloye, who adds that the reality was far from a bed of roses.

“At that time, peasant families were sending their sons to be killed all over Europe’s battlefields to put some money in their pockets,” he points out.

Rousseau’s vision of Switzerland was laid out in a letter to one of his patrons, Charles de Montmorency.

“Switzerland’s is like a big town with 13 neighbourhoods, some in valleys, others on hillsides, others on mountains. […] You can hardly call it deserted when there are bell towers in forests, flocks on outcrops, factories in abysses and workshops sitting beside a torrent.”

His description of the 13-canton confederation, which lasted until 1789, reflected and reinforced a growing passion for Switzerland among Europeans.

From the second half of the 18th century, Switzerland became a frequent destination for travellers.

“From 1740 to around 1840, it was a craze,” writes historian Claude Reichler in his book, Travel in Switzerland. “Writers, painters, musicians, nobility with newfound wealth, rich burghers, they all came to Switzerland.”

This attraction for the alpine summits helped create a tourism industry and allowed it to develop all through the 19th century.

Even as the country became more industrialised, it disguised itself as ‘eternal Switzerland’, reinventing its folklore to serve up a traditional and idyllic image to tourists. Part of this, says Delaloye, involved technical feats to build hotels and railways in the mountains.

Yet Switzerland took little from Rousseau. “It even ignored him for a long time,” Chenevière points out. “It’s Rousseau who took a lot from Switzerland and considered it a model for others.”

“Jean-Jacques had this vision of Switzerland as the place in the world where nature and human activities had the best relationship.”

Swiss politics

Nature was not the only reason Rousseau was enthusiastic about Switzerland.

He spent part of his childhood in Geneva’s working-class St Gervais neighbourhood where his father worked. “A place where people believed it was their right to challenge the status quo,” writes L’Aminot. “That had a decisive influence on his writing.”

“Rousseau has particularly influenced by Geneva’s political organisation and its town assembly, based on the Swiss cantons’ Landesgemeinde, a system that made the citizen the most important actor,” Chenevière points out .

Which explains why the most quoted author in Karl Marx and Friederich Engel’s Communist Manifesto, according to Jaggi, is also claimed by the rightwing figurehead in Swiss politics, Christoph Blocher.

In 2001, the Zurich billionaire paid for the staging of Rousseau’s Le devin du village (The Village Soothsayer) on St Peter’s Island, where the author wrote his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. The play involving shepherds and shepherdesses celebrates a Swiss political utopia.

But has Rousseau’s heritage been frozen by the homages and the claims on it? Certainly not, according to Christian Delécraz, curator of the Rousseau exhibition at Geneva’s  ethnographic museum.

“What speaks more to us at a time when inequalities are growing again, when the mighty are cornering land and natural resources than Rousseau’s sentence: ‘You forget that the fruits belong to all and that the land belongs to no one.'”

June 28, 1712: Rousseau is born in Geneva. His father and grandfather are watchmakers. His mother dies in childbirth and his father puts him in boarding school for ten years. At the age of 16, he leaves Geneva and begins a life of wandering.

1739: Publishes his first book, Le Verger de Madame de la baronne de Warens.

1745: Meets Thérèse Levasseur, with whom he has five children who he later abandons.

1752: The Village Soothsayer, an opera in one act, is performed before Louis XV in Fontainebleau.

1755: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

1761: The New Heloise, book of letters, the plot of which is based in Clarens, canton Vaud.

1762: Emile and The Social Contract are burned in Paris and Geneva. Exiled, he moves to Môtiers in canton Neuchâtel and takes up botany. His Lettre au Maréchal de Luxembourg contains numerous details of his time there and his musings about the Swiss.

1764: Letters Written from the Mountain. Voltaire publishes a pamphlet against him, Le Sentiment des citoyens, and reveals how Rousseau abandoned his children.

1765:  After the stoning of his house he flees to St Pierre island in Lake Biel and then heads to England.

1767: Returns to France and publishes the Dictionary of Music.

1770-1771: Public readings of the Confessions in Paris.

1778: Writes the Tenth Walk of Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Dies on July 2 in Ermenonville.

2011: The collection of Rousseau’s work in Geneva and Neuchâtel are entered into the Unesco Memory of the World register.


The foreign ministry has published a 48-page pamphlet on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Switzerland to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth.

The publication, written by Geneva historian Stéphane Garcia, notes that Rousseau’s thinking rings true and marks out what Switzerland owes him today, such as principles of direct democracy and respect for nature and the environment. It is published by Slatkine.

Various anniversary events have also been organised, mainly in Geneva and in spots where the author stayed.

(Adapted from French by Scott Capper)

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