Rousseau was a Franco-Swiss philosopher of the Enlightenment whose
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 The Social Contract: "Man is born free, and
everywhere he is in chains
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
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.
spent a few weeks in a seminary and beginning in 1729, six months
at the Annecy Cathedral choir school. He also 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
1742 Rousseau moved to Paris in order to present the Académie
des Sciences with a new system of musical notation he had invented,
based on a single line displaying numbers that represented intervals
between notes and dots and commas that indicated rhythmic values.
The system was intended to be compatible with typography. The
Academy rejected it as useless and unoriginal.
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.
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. Such eccentricities were later used by critics
to vilify Rousseau as socially dysfunctional in an attempt to
discredit his theoretical work.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Émile, 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
criticism in Switzerland – his house in Motiers was stoned
in 1765 – Rousseau in January of 1766 took refuge with the
philosopher David Hume in Great Britain, but after 18 months he
left because he believed Hume was plotting against him.
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 1782, four years
after his death.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 instinctive 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.
"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.
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.
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.
original contract was deeply flawed as the wealthiest and most
powerful members of society tricked the general population, and
thus instituted inequality as a fundamental 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.
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. It continued some
ideas mentioned in an earlier work, the article Economie Politique,
contributed to Diderot's Encyclopédie. 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.
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.
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
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.
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 Émile, 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.
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.
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 doctrine of original sin and his theology of nature expounded
by the Savoyard Vicar in Émile 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.
was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution
of private property, and therefore is sometimes 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 majority will 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).
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.
ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern educational
theory. In Émile 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.
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.
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.