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Significant Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), was in kinship care and foster care as a child.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva. His mother, Suzanne Bernard (1673–1712), died shortly after Jean-Jacque’s birth. His father, Isaac Rousseau (1672-1747) – a watchmaker – abandoned the boy when he was ten, leaving Jean-Jacque in kinship care with an uncle who in turn fostered him out to a M. Lambercier for two years.

From about age fourteen Jean-Jacques was on his own. He was often homeless and did a variety of working-class jobs to support himself. 

Rousseau was fortunate at the age of sixteen to meet Francois-Louise de Warens (1690-1762), who took the boy in and supported him financially and emotionally. Francoise-Louise, who lived in the French town of Annecy in 1728, was regarded as an unconventional woman because she had her marriage annulled and lived independently. To the young Jean-Jacque, she became a patron, a maternal figure, a teacher and, eventually, a lover.

While living with Francoise-Louise, Jean-Jacque also had the opportunity to read widely (something he had long enjoyed and was influenced in by his father) and he learned how to live and move in upper-class circles.

At the age of thirty, Rousseau left his comfortable life with Francoise-Louise and made his way and his living in Paris for a number of years. He copied music, made a name for himself by composing operas and, eventually, also by writing essays and books. However, it took until 1755, by which time he was forty-three, before Rousseau could make a living as a freelance writer and so he entered into several patronage arrangements.

Rousseau had a long-term relationship with Thérèse Levasseur, a barely literate working-class woman he met in 1745.

According to Rousseau’s own account, Thérèse bore him five children, all of whom were deposited at the foundling hospital shortly after birth, an almost certain sentence of death in eighteenth-century France (Stanford).

Rousseau claims he had taken on the morals of dinner companions in Paris:

Honest women undone, deceived husbands, seduced wives, secret confinements, these were the most common themes [around the dinner table] and the man who peopled the foundlings’ hospital with the greatest number of children always received the loudest applause. They won me over; I fashioned my way of thinking according to what I saw prevail among these very amiable and fundamentally very decent men, and I said to myself: ‘Since it is the custom of the country, one may, if one lives there, follow it. Here is the way that I have been looking for’ (Rousseau, 335).

About putting the third child into the foundling home he writes:

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 fortuneseekers, I believed that I was acting as a true citizen and father (Rousseau, 348).

Rousseau finally married Therese in 1768 when he was fifty-six and after they had been living together for more than twenty years.

Rousseau’s Confessions is widely acknowledged as the first “modern autobiography” and 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.


Duignan, Brian. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Britannica. 

“Jean Jacques Rousseau.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 26 May 2017. 

Rousseau, Jean. The Confessions. Penguin, 1973.

 Image available here.