The most popular book of 18th century (Europe) was “Julie, or The New Heloise,” by Jean-Jacques Rosseau. By “New Heloise,” reference is made to the story of Abelard and Heloise, which I read some time ago. Peter Abelard (1079 – 21 April 1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician. His affair with and love for Héloïse has become legendary. Heloise’s father had him castrated. She soon entered a convent and Abelard continued on in his philosophical/theological work, gaining fame and following.
Abelard and Heloise continued to correspond for the rest of their lives, the letters of which have been published. They are buried together, and the site has become an obligatory place for lovers to visit, always adorned by fresh flowers that they bring. Quite the story.
According to Wikipedia, “what was truly astonishing regarding Julie‘s popularity was not just its sales statistics, but the emotions it brought out in its readers. Readers were so overcome that they wrote to Rousseau in droves, creating the first celebrity author. One reader claimed that the novel nearly drove him mad from excess of feeling while another claimed that the violent sobbing he underwent cured his cold. Reader after reader describes their “tears”, “sighs”, “torments” and “ecstasies” to Rousseau. One wrote in a letter to Rousseau after finishing the novel:
I dare not tell you the effect it made on me. No, I was past weeping. A sharp pain convulsed me. My heart was crushed. Julie dying was no longer an unknown person. I believed I was her sister, her friend, her Claire. My seizure became so strong that if I had not put the book away I would have been as ill as all those who attended that virtuous woman in her last moments.
Rosseau believed that the artifices of society corrupted the natural goodness of human nature and that an authentic life flowed out of the well-springs of sentiment and affection. He rejected the Enlightenment project of reason, science and technology as paving the way to human flourishing. What they did, in fact, was alienate man from himself.
While Augustine’s Confessions was the first autobiography, as we know it, Rosseau’s Confessions was the first in line of the modern biography. It gave Freud plenty of fuel for his theories of the inner life, the conflict of the ego, id and superego. Rosseau sought a unity of the person-not standing over against oneself but actually being oneself. Apparently the time was ripe in Europe for just this sort of exploration of the human person.