In this unfinished book, written in the late 1770s, the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau finds joy in idleness and solitary walks
Of all the places I have inhabited (and I have been in some that were delightful) none ever rendered me so truly happy, or left such pleasing impressions on my memory, as the Island of Saint Pierre, in the Lake of Bienne. This little island, which is called at Neufchâtel the Isle of La Motte, is little known, even in Switzerland, no traveller, that I recollect, having mentioned it; notwithstanding it is very agreeable, and peculiarly calculated for the happiness of a man who loves to circumscribe his steps: for though I am, perhaps, the only one in the world to whom Fate has given law in that particular, I cannot believe I am the only person who possesses so natural a taste, though, to the present moment, I have never happened to meet with anyone of that disposition.
The banks of the Lake of Bienne are more wild and romantic even than those of the Lake of Geneva, since the rocks and woods approach nearer to the edge of the water, and in other respects are no less delightful. If well cultivated meadows and vineyards are not so numerous; if there are fewer towns and houses, there is more natural verdure, fields, study retreats and groves; in a word, agreeable and well-contrasted objects more frequently present themselves. As there is no commodious road on these smiling banks for carriages, the country is little frequented by travellers; but is highly interesting to the contemplative philosopher, who loves to ruminate at leisure on the charms of Nature, while retiring into a silence broken only by the cry of eagles, the mingled warbling of various song-birds, or the rustling of torrents which precipitate themselves from the surrounding mountains. This beautiful basin, which is almost round, contains near its centre, two small islands; one, cultivated and inhabited, which is about half a league in circumference; the other, smaller, desert and wild, which will in time be totally destroyed, from the transportation of earth, which is continually being removed to repair the devastation made by the waves and storms on the larger one. Thus, in every instance, the substance of the weak; is employed to give additional strength to the powerful. There is but one house at this place, which is large, agreeable, and commodious, this belongs to the hospital of Berne, as does the whole island, and is inhabited by the Steward of this estate, his family and domestics; who has poultry in abundance, a dove house, fish-ponds, lie. The island, though small, is so diversified by its various products and aspect, that it presents a variety of prospects; being proper for every kind of culture, you see alternately, fields, vineyards, orchards, and rich pastures, shaded by groves of trees, and intermingled with shrubs of all kinds, which, from the vicinity of the water are kept perpetually fresh. A high terrace, planted with two rows of trees, runs the whole length of the island, and in the middle of this terrace a pretty saloon is erected, where the inhabitants from the neighbouring shores meet and dance on Sundays, during the vintage. In this island I took refuge, after the lapidation of Motiers, and found its situation so delightful, and the life I led there so conformable to my humour, that I resolved to end my days in this place, and had no inquietude, except a doubt, whether I should be permitted to execute this project, which did not accord with that which carried me to England, for I already began to feel that inclination, and those presentiments of future suffering which yet pursued me. I wished this asylum had been made my perpetual prison, that I had been confined there for life, and deprived of the power or hope of quitting it; cut off from all communication with the rest of the world, ignorant of what passed there, that I might forget its existence, and that mine also be forgotten.
I was permitted to pass only two months in this island, but I could have passed two years, a whole eternity there, without one moment’s weariness, though I had, except Teresa, no other company than the above mentioned Steward and his family, who were all very good sort of people, and nothing further; but that was precisely what was necessary for me. I reckon these two months as the most pleasing part of my life; I was so truly happy, that I could have been satisfied with it during my whole existence, without a single wish arising in my soul to exchange that felicity for another kind of enjoyment.
What did this happiness consist of, and what was it I so particularly enjoyed? I leave that to be guessed by the present generation, from the description I shall give of it. The precious far niente was the first and principal of these enjoyments, which I indulged unto the utmost extent, and all I did during my residence there, was but the pleasing and necessary occupation of a man devoted to indolence.
There are a number of good translations of this text. We recommend picking a copy of the Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics editions.