For most of his life he remained in poverty, surviving by dint of his ingenuity and benevolence of women. For temporary material advantages he even changed his religion and accepted charity from people he detested. In 1744, he went to Paris; tried his hand at various schemes the theatre, opera, music, poetry, without making much success of anything.
Yet, his personality opened for him the doors of the best salons in Paris, where he met leading encyclopedists as well as influential, charming women, with several of whom he maintained close liaison. But he shunned the exalted society, never shedding his plebian, puritanical background of a low- middle class family.
Rousseau lived at a time when the absolutist feudal order presided over by Louis XV who reigned France. Political power, privilege and social prestige was the monopoly of the king, clergy and the nobility, who lived extravagantly at the expense of the masses engaged in a grim battle of survival.
Having been denied even the minimum required of decent living by the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy of the King, discontent was rampant and the desire for change had created a climate of defiance. Sharing the discontent and the desire for change was a new emergent class of the French bourgeoisie, which found the extant order too restrictive for its own development and had joined hands with the peasantry.
In shaping the climate of opinion and the spirit of dissent against the ancient regime the French played a major role. Enlightenment judged everything based on reason and experience alone. Inevitably it brought under attack many things that had hitherto been taken for granted, including the church and the traditional political institutions of France. Rousseau shared some of the enlightenment ideas, but not wholly.
In so far as the philosophers desired change, pinned their faith in man as agent, Rousseau was with them, but he did not share their idea of progress implied in their modernity and had greater regard for feeling than respect for rationality. Rousseau believed that the part of what was wrong with modern man is that he had lost touch with his feelings. Philosophers’ insensitivity towards feelings and emption led to revolt against ‘reason’.