Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Born June 28, 1712
Geneva, Switzerland
Died July 2, 1778
Ermenonville, France
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712July 2, 1778) was a Swiss philosopher, writer, political theorist, and self-taught composer of The Age of Enlightenment. Rousseau's political ideas influenced the French Revolution, the development of socialist theory, and the growth of nationalism. His legacy as a radical and revolutionary is perhaps best demonstrated by his most famous line, from his most important work, The Social Contract: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."[1]


Biography of Rousseau

Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and throughout his life described himself as a citizen of Geneva. His mother, Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, died a week later due to complications from childbirth, and his father Isaac, a failed watchmaker, abandoned him in 1722 to avoid imprisonment for fighting a duel. His childhood education consisted solely of reading Plutarch's Lives and Calvinist sermons.

Rousseau left Geneva on March 14, 1728, after several years of apprenticeship to a notary and then an engraver. He then met Françoise-Louise de Warens, a French Catholic baroness who would later became Rousseau's lover, even though she was twelve years his elder. Under the protection of de Warens, he converted to Catholicism.

Rousseau spent a few weeks in seminary and beginning in 1729 six months at the Annecy Cathedral choir school. As well, he spent much time travelling and engaging in a variety of professions; for instance, in the early 1730s he worked as a music teacher in Chambéry. In 1736 he enjoyed a last stay with de Warens near Chambéry, which he found idyllic, but by 1740 he had departed again, this time to Lyon to tutor the young children of Gabriel Bonnet de Mably.

In 1742 Rousseau moved to Paris in order to present the Académie des Sciences with a new system of musical notation he had invented, which was rejected as useless and unoriginal. From 1743 to 1744, he was secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, whose republican government Rousseau would refer to often in his later political work. After this, he returned to Paris, where he befriended and lived with Thérèse Lavasseur, an illiterate seamstress who bore him five children. As a result of his theories on education and child-rearing, Rousseau has often been criticized by Voltaire and modern commentators for putting his children in an orphanage as soon as they were weaned. In his defense, Rousseau explained that he would have been a poor father, and that the children would have a better life at the foundling home.

The tomb of Rousseau in the crypt of the Panthéon, Paris
The tomb of Rousseau in the crypt of the Panthéon, Paris

While in Paris, he became friends with Diderot and beginning in 1749 contributed several articles to his Encyclopédie, beginning with some articles on music. His most important contribution was an article on political economy, written in 1755. Soon after, his friendship with Diderot and the Encyclopedists would become strained.

In 1749, on his way to Vincennes to visit Diderot in prison, Rousseau heard of an essay competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon, asking the question whether the development of the arts and sciences has been morally beneficial. Rousseau's response to this prompt, answering in the negative, was his 1750 "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences", which won him first prize in the contest and gained him significant fame.

Rousseau claimed that during the carriage ride to visit Diderot, he had experienced a sudden inspiration on which all his later philosophical works were based. This inspiration, however, did not cease his interest in music and in 1752 his opera Le Devin du village was performed for King Louis XV.

In 1754, Rousseau returned to Geneva, where he reconverted to Calvinism and regained his official Genevan citizenship. In 1755 Rousseau completed his second major work, the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. Beginning with this piece, Rousseau's work found him increasingly in disfavor with the French government.

Rousseau in 1761 published the successful romantic novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (The New Heloise). In 1762 he published two major books, first The Social Contract (Du Contrat Social) in April and then Emile, or On Education in May. Both books criticized religion and were banned in both France and Geneva. Rousseau was forced to flee arrest and made stops in both Bern and Motiers in Switzerland. While in Motiers, Rousseau wrote the Constitutional Project for Corsica (Projet de Constitution pour la Corse).

Facing criticism in Switzerland – his house in Motiers was stoned in 1765 – Rousseau in January of 1766 took refuge in with the philosopher David Hume in Great Britain, but after 18 months he left because he believed Hume was plotting against him[2].

Rousseau returned to France under the name "Renou," although officially he was not allowed back in until 1770. In 1768 he married Thérèse, and in 1770 he returned to Paris. As a condition of his return, he was not allowed to publish any books, but after completing his Confessions, Rousseau began private readings. In 1771 he was forced to stop this, and this book, along with all subsequent ones, was not published until after his death in 1782.

Rousseau continued to write until his death. In 1772, he was invited to present recommendations for a new constitution for Poland, resulting in the Considerations on the Government of Poland, which was to be his last major political work. In 1776 he completed Dialogues: Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques and began work on the Reveries of the Solitary Walker. In order to support himself through this time, he returned to copying music. Because of his partially-justified paranoia, he did not seek attention or the company of others. While taking a morning walk on the estate of the Marquis de Giradin at Ermenonville (28 miles northeast of Paris), Rousseau suffered a hemorrhage and died on July 2, 1778.

Rousseau was initially buried on the Ile des Peupliers. His remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris in 1794, sixteen years after his death. The tomb was designed to resemble a rustic temple, to recall Rousseau's theories of nature. In 1834, the Genevan government reluctantly erected a statue in his honor on the tiny Ile Rousseau in Lake Geneva. In 2002, the Espace Rousseau was established at 40 Grand-Rue, Geneva, Rousseau's birthplace.

Philosophy of Rousseau

Nature vs. society

Rousseau saw a fundamental divide between society and human nature. Rousseau contended that man was good by nature, a "noble savage" when in the state of nature (the state of all the "other animals", and the condition humankind was in before the creation of civilization and society), but is corrupted by society. He viewed society as artificial and held that the development of society, especially the growth of social interdependence, has been inimical to the well-being of human beings.

Society's negative influence on otherwise virtuous men centers, in Rousseau's philosophy, on its transformation of amour de soi, a positive self-love, into amour-propre, or pride. Amour de soi represents the instictive human desire for self-preservation, combined with the human power of reason. In contrast, amour-propre is not natural but artificial and forces man to compare himself to others, thus creating unwarranted fear and allowing men to take pleasure in the pain or weakness of others. Rousseau was not the first to make this distinction; it had been invoked by, among others, Vauvenargues.

In "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" Rousseau argued that the arts and sciences had not been beneficial to humankind, because they were advanced not in response to human needs but as the result of pride and vanity. Moreover, the opportunities they created for idleness and luxury contributed to the corruption of man. He proposed that the progress of knowledge had made governments more powerful and had crushed individual liberty. He concluded that material progress had actually undermined the possibility of sincere friendship, replacing it with jealousy, fear and suspicion.

His subsequent Discourse on Inequality tracked the progress and degeneration of mankind from a primitive state of nature to modern society. He suggested that the earliest human beings were isolated semi-apes who were differentiated from animals by their capacity for free will and their perfectibility. He also argued that these primitive humans were possessed of a basic drive to care for themselves and a natural disposition to compassion or pity. As humans were forced to associate together more closely, by the pressure of population growth, they underwent a psychological transformation and came to value the good opinion of others as an essential component of their own well being. Rousseau associated this new self-awareness with a golden age of human flourishing. However, the development of agriculture and metallurgy, private property and the division of labour led to increased interdependence and inequality. The resulting state of conflict led Rousseau to suggest that the first state was invented as a kind of social contract made at the suggestion of the rich and powerful. This original contract was deeply flawed as the wealthiest and most powerful members of society tricked the general population, and so cemented inequality as a permanent feature of human society. Rousseau's own conception of the social contract can be understood as an alternative to this fraudulent form of association. At the end of the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau explains how the desire to have value in the eyes of others, which originated in the golden age, comes to undermine personal integrity and authenticity in a society marked by interdependence, hierarchy, and inequality.

Political theory

A 1766 portrait of Rousseau by Allan Ramsay
A 1766 portrait of Rousseau by Allan Ramsay

The Social Contract

Perhaps Rousseau's most important work is The Social Contract, which outlines the basis for a legitimate political order. Published in 1762 it became one of the most influential works of abstract political thought in the Western tradition. Building on his earlier work, such as the Discourse on Inequality Rousseau claimed that the state of nature eventually degenerates into a brutish condition without law or morality, at which point the human race must adopt institutions of law or perish. In the degenerate phase of the state of nature, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. According to Rousseau, by joining together through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. While Rousseau argues that sovereignty should thus be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between sovereign and government. The government is charged with implementing and enforcing the general will and is composed of a smaller group of citizens, known as magistrates. Rousseau was bitterly opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly. Rather, they should make the laws directly. It has been argued that this would prevent Rousseau's ideal state being realized in a large society, though in modern times, communication may have advanced to the point where this is no longer the case. Much of the subsequent controversy about Rousseau's work has hinged on disagreements concerning his claims that citizens constrained to obey the general will are thereby rendered free.


Rousseau set out his views on education in Emile, a semi-fictitious work detailing the growth of a young boy of that name, presided over by Rousseau himself. He brings him up in the countryside, where, he believes, humans are most naturally suited, rather than in a city, where we only learn bad habits, both physical and intellectual. The aim of education, Rousseau says, is to learn how to live, and this is accomplished by following a guardian who can point the way to good living.

The growth of a child is divided into three sections, first to the age of about 12, when calculating and complex thinking is not possible, and children according to his deepest conviction live like animals. Second, from 10 or 12 to about 15, when reason starts to develop, and finally from the age of 15 onwards, when the child develops into an adult. At this point, Emile finds a young woman to complement him.

The book is based on Rousseau's ideals of healthy living. The boy must work out how to follow his social instincts and be protected from the vices of urban individualism and self-consciousness.


Rousseau was most controversial in his own time for his views on religion. His view that man is good by nature conflicts with the original sin doctrine by Paul of Tarsus and his theology of nature expounded by the Savoyard Vicar in Emile led to the condemnation of the book in both Calvinist Geneva and Catholic Paris. In the Social Contract he claims that true followers of Jesus would not make good citizens. This was one of the reasons for the book's condemnation in Geneva. Rousseau attempted to defend himself against critics of his religious views in his Letter to Christophe de Beaumont (the Archbishop of Paris).


Rousseau's ideas were influential at the time of the French Revolution although since popular sovereignty was exercised through representatives rather than directly, it cannot be said that the Revolution was in any sense an implementation of Rousseau's ideas. Subsequently, writers such as Benjamin Constant and Hegel sought to blame the excesses of the Revolution and especially the Reign of Terror on Rousseau, but the justice of their claims is a matter of controversy.

Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, and therefore is often considered a forebearer of modern socialism and communism (see Karl Marx, though Marx rarely mentions Rousseau in his writings). Rousseau also questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority (see democracy).

One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. When a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. The second important principle is freedom, which the state is created to preserve.

Rousseau's ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern educational theory. In Emile he differentiates between healthy and "useless" crippled children. Only a healthy child can be the rewarding object of any educational work. He minimizes the importance of book-learning, and recommends that a child's emotions should be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience. John Darling's 1994 book Child-Centred Education and its Critics argues that the history of modern educational theory is a series of footnotes to Rousseau.

In his main writings Rousseau identifies nature with the primitive state of savage man. Later he took nature to mean the spontaneity of the process by which man builds his egocentric, instinct based character and his little world. Nature thus signifies interiority and integrity, as opposed to that imprisonment and enslavement which society imposes in the name of progressive emancipation from coldhearted brutality.

Hence, to go back to nature means to restore to man the forces of this natural process, to place him outside every oppressing bond of society and the prejudices of civilization. It is this idea that made his thought particularly important in Romanticism, though Rousseau himself is sometimes regarded as a figure of The Enlightenment.


  1. ^  Interestingly, though all scholars of note consider this to be Rousseau's epigramatic statement, there is less than universal agreement as to its translation. Because of a particular ambiguity in French, the line ("L'homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers." can just as accurately be translated into English as "Man was born free but everywhere he is in chains." Though subtle, the change in translation can yield an immense difference in the significance of Rousseau's basic thesis. Is he positing that each individual who comes into the world every day is born free, but then society enslaves him? Or is he rather saying that Man was once a free creature who--as a body politic and social--has been enslaved by a corrupting society? Many scholars argue that the latter better reflects the analysis that follows later in the book. Yet a third perspective is that Rousseau, who was certainly aware of the ambiguity of the usage, did so intentionally. It was simply an application of the concept of double-entendre, one which would be seen by any educated reader of French. If this interpretation is correct, then, some linguists note, English translations would be better served by printing this line as "Man is/was born free. . ."

See also

Major works

Wikisource has original works written by or about:

His works were translated by Nakae Chomin to Japanese in the Meiji Era.

Online texts

External links

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  • Espace Rousseau, a museum located at 40 Rue Grand-Rue, Geneva, Rousseau's birthplace
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