Rousseau begins his Confessions by claiming that he is about to embark on an enterprise never before attempted: to present a self-portrait that is “in every way true to nature” and that hides nothing. He begins his tale by describing his family, including his mother’s death at his birth. He ruminates on his earliest memories, which begin when he was five, a dawning of consciousness that he traces to his learning to read. He discusses his childhood in the years before his father left him and his own decision to run away to see the world at the age of sixteen. He often dwells for many pages on seemingly minor events that hold great importance for him.
Throughout the Confessions, Rousseau frequently discusses the more unsavory or embarrassing experiences of his life, and he devotes much of the early section to these types of episodes. In one section, he describes urinating in a neighbor’s cooking pot as a mischievous child. He also discusses the revelatory experience he had at age eleven of being beaten by an adored female nanny twice his age—and desiring to be beaten again, which he analyzes as being his entry into the world of adult sexuality.
Rousseau continues to describe his life and eventually reaches adulthood. The narrative continues in a similar vein in the later sections, with Rousseau focusing less on places traveled and jobs held than on his personal trials, unrequited loves, and sexual frustrations. He speaks at length of his significant relations with women, including his rather unremarkable longtime companion Thérése le Vasseur and the older matron Madame de Warens, at whose home he often stayed as a young man.
In the last of the twelve books that make up the work, Rousseau speaks about his intellectual work, his writing, and his relations to contemporary philosophers. Rousseau concludes the Confessions in 1765, when he is fifty-three. At this point, all his major philosophical works have been published, and his fears of persecution are growing.
A few notable autobiographies existed in Europe before Rousseau published the Confessions, but his work in many ways represented an entirely new literary form. Although works such as St. Augustine’s own Confessions (a.d.397) had previously been widely read and celebrated, religious works of that kind differed greatly from Rousseau’s own, since they sought to convey an inspirational story of religious virtuosity. By contrast, Rousseau’s Confessions sought to bare the entire life of its author subject, detailing all his imperfections, virtues, individual neuroses, and formative childhood experiences as a means of explaining and justifying the views and personality of his adult self.
Although Rousseau states that The Confessions should not be read as an unerring account of dates and events and admits that most likely he often gets such factual data wrong when his memory fails him, dates and exact events are not the point of the work. He says that though he may mix up the dates of certain happenings, he will never get wrong his feelings about them, and his feelings—and what his feelings have led him to do—are the subject of his story. He does not engage in the comprehensive unburdening of his whole self, with all its frailties, prurient desires, and natural failings, as an act of pure humility and self-deprecation. Rather, he does it as a way of saying that even with all his weaknesses, he is, as we all are, fundamentally a good and honest being. This principle is at the heart of Rousseau’s entire philosophy, and it connects The Confessions to the rest of his work. The Confessions is key to understanding Rousseau’s work as a whole.