Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (completed 1770, pub. 1781), p. 388

Early in Book Nine, Rousseau describes a sudden change in his character. A variety of new intellectual stimuli bring him "into a different intellectual world," and lead him to question conventional wisdom and criticize the foundations of the social order:

Until then I had been good; from that moment I became virtuous, or at least intoxicated with virtue. This intoxication had begun in my head, but it had passed to my heart. The noblest pride sprang up there on the ruins of uprooted vanity. I played no part; I became indeed what I appeared; and for the four years at least that this exhilaration lasted in its full strength there was nothing great or beautiful that can enter into the heart of man, between earth and heaven, of which I was not capable. This was the origin of my sudden eloquence, and of the truly celestial fire which burned in me and spread to my early books, a fire which had not emitted the tiniest spark in forty years, because it was not yet kindled.

I was truly transformed; my friends and acquaintances no longer recognized me. I had ceased to be that shy creature, who was shamefaced rather than modest and who had not the courage to show himself or even to speak. I had ceased to be a man who was put out by a joking word and blushed at a woman's glance. Bold, proud, and fearless, I now carried with me wherever I went a self-assurance which owed its firmness to its simplicity and which dwelt in my soul rather than in my outward bearing. The contempt which my deep reflections had inspired in me for the customs, the principles, and the prejudices of my age made me insensible to the mockery of those who followed them; and I crushed their little witticisms with my observations, as I might crush an insect between my fingers. What a change!

Intoxicated virtue militant! Throughout The Confessions, Rousseau persistently depicts his imperfections--both social and moral--in detail. At this moment, however, he is suddenly transformed, inspired with the powerful spirit of virtue. For Rousseau, then, virtue is not necessarily an innate quality; indeed, he says "No state of being could be found on earth more contrary to my true nature than this one." Moreover, his virtuous state (the truth of which is unquestioned) is not a permanent one: it is "in its full strength" for only four years. In fact, after ten years, Rousseau will have returned completely to his previous condition, in which he "could never find the right thing to say or the right word to use."

Related terms:

dictionary of sensibility
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source bibliography
critical bibliography