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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Era 18th-century philosophy
(Modern Philosophy)
Region Western Philosophers
School Social contract theory
Main interests Political philosophy,music, education, literature, autobiography
Notable ideas General will, amour-propre, natural goodness of humanity

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ( June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778) was a major philosopher, literary figure, and composer of the Enlightenment whose political philosophy influenced the French Revolution and the development of liberal, conservative and socialist theory. With his Confessions, Reveries of a Solitary Walker and other writings, he invented modern autobiography and encouraged a new focus on the building of subjectivity that bore fruit in the work of thinkers as diverse as Hegel and Freud. His novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse was one of the best-selling fictional works of the eighteenth century and was important to the development of romanticism. Rousseau made important contributions to music as a theorist and a composer. He was buried in Paris Pantheon in 1794.


Rousseau was born in Geneva (an associated member of the Old Confederation, known today as the Helvetian Confederation or Switzerland) and throughout his life described himself as a citizen of Geneva. Nine days after his birth, his mother Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, died of birth complications. To avoid imprisonment, his father Isaac, a failed watchmaker, abandoned him in 1722. His childhood education consisted solely of reading Plutarch's Lives and Calvinist sermons. He often read in a public garden – which he later described as the most serene part of growing up. According to Rousseau's account in Book I of the Confessions, his experience of corporal punishment at the hands of the pastor's sister was important in the formation of his sexuality. So important in fact that he admits in a description of his masochism of deliberately being disobedient in order to provoke punishment. Like most submissive sexual fetishists, he was also an exhibitionist. He prowled the backstreets of Turin, and exposed himself to unsuspecting women. Of this he admitted enjoying a "foolish pleasure" of displaying himself before their eyes.

After several years of apprenticeship to a notary and then an engraver, Rousseau left Geneva at age 16 on March 14, 1728. He then met a French Catholic baroness named Françoise-Louise de Warens. She was thirteen years older and later became his lover. Rousseau's sex life was largely unsatisfying due to suffering from a birth defect called hypospadias. The Baroness provided Rousseau the education of a nobleman by sending him to Catholic school. Apart from studying Aristotle, Rousseau also became familiar with Latin and the dramatic arts.

Les Charmettes: the house where Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived with Mme de Warens in 1735-6. Now a museum dedicated to Rousseau.

In order to present the Académie des Sciences with a new system of numbered musical notation, he moved to Paris in 1742. His system is based on a single line displaying numbers representing intervals between notes and dots and commas indicating rhythmic values. The system was intended to be compatible with typography. Believing the system was impractical and unoriginal, the Academy rejected it. However, in some parts of the world, a version of the system remains in use.

Palazzo belonging to Tommaso Querini at 968 Cannaregio Venice that served as the French Embassy during Rousseau's period as Secretary to the Ambassador

He was secretary to the French ambassador in Venice from 1743 to 1744, whose republican government Rousseau often referred to in his later political work. After eleven months in this position, he was dismissed and fled to Paris to avoid prosecution by the Venetian Senate. There he befriended and lived with Thérèse Levasseur, a semi-literate seamstress who, according to Rousseau, bore him five children, though this number may not be accurate. Soon after birth, the children were deposited at an orphanage. As the mortality rate for orphanage children was very high, most of them likely perished. When Rousseau became known as a theorist of education and child-rearing, his abandonment of his children was used by enemies, including Voltaire, to attack him. In his defense, Rousseau explained 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

While in Paris, he became friends with French philosopher Diderot and beginning with some articles on music in 1749, he contributed several articles to the latter's Encyclopédie. His most noted work was an article on political economy written in 1755. Soon after, his friendship with Diderot and the Encyclopedists became strained. Diderot later described Rousseau as being,"deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical, and full of malice."

In 1749, as Rousseau was walking to visit Diderot in a Vincennes prison, he read an essay competition entry sponsored by the Académie de Dijon, named the Mercure de France. The work asked whether the development of the arts and sciences had been morally beneficial. Rousseau said this question caused him to immediately perceive the principle of the natural goodness of humanity on which all his later philosophical works were based. He answered the competition question in the negative, in his 1750 " Discourse on the Arts and Sciences", which won him first prize and gained him significant fame.

He continued his interest in music and his opera Le Devin du Village was performed for King Louis XV in 1752. The same year, the visit of a troupe of Italian musicians to Paris, and their performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, prompted the Querelle des Bouffons, which pitted protagonists of French music against supporters of the Italian style. Rousseau was an enthusiastic supporter of the Italians against Jean-Philippe Rameau and others, making an important contribution with his Letter on French Music.

Rousseau returned to Geneva where he reconverted to Calvinism and regained his official Genevan citizenship in 1754. In 1755, Rousseau completed his second major work, the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (the Discourse on Inequality). This caused him to gradually become estranged from his former friends such as Diderot and Grimm and from benefactors such as Madame d'Epinay. He pursued an important but unconsummated romantic attachment with Sophie d'Houdetot. Following his break with the Encyclopedists, he enjoyed the support and patronage of one of the wealthiest nobles in France, Duc de Luxembourg.

In 1761, Rousseau published the successful romantic novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (The New Heloise). In 1762, he published two major books, Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique (in English, literally Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right) in April and then Émile, or On Education in May. The books criticized religion and were banned in France and Geneva. Rousseau was forced to flee arrest and made stops in Bern and Môtiers in Switzerland, where he enjoyed the protection of Frederick the Great of Prussia and his local representative, Lord Keith. While in Môtiers, Rousseau wrote the Constitutional Project for Corsica (Projet de Constitution pour la Corse).

A plaque commemorating the bicentenary of Rousseau's birth. Issued by the city of Geneva on 28 June 1912. The legend at the bottom says "Jean-Jacques, aime ton pays", and shows Rousseau's father gesturing towards the window. The scene is drawn from a footnote to the Letter to d'Alembert where Rousseau recalls witnessing the popular celebrations following the exercises of the St Gervais regiment.

His house in Motiers was stoned on the night of September 6 1765 – he took refuge with the philosopher David Hume in Great Britain. Isolated at Wootton on the borders of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, Rousseau suffered a serious decline in his mental health and began to experience paranoid fantasies about plots against him involving Hume and others. Rousseau's letter to Hume, in which he articulates the perceived misconduct, sparked an exchange which was published in and received with great interest in contemporary Paris.

While he was not allowed to return to France before 1770, Rousseau returned under the name "Renou," in 1767. In 1768 he went through a legally invalid marriage to 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. At the request of Madame d'Epinay the police ordered him to stop, and the Confessions was only partially published in 1782, four years after his death. All his subsequent works were only to appear posthumously.

In 1772, he was invited to present recommendations for a new constitution for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 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, he returned to copying music. Rousseau's final years were largely spent in deliberate withdrawal, however he did respond favourably to an approach from the composer Gluck, whom he met in 1774. One of Rousseau's last pieces of writing was a critical yet enthusiastic analysis of Gluck's opera Alceste. 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 and located directly across from those of his contemporary Voltaire. 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 honour on the tiny Ile Rousseau in Lake Geneva. In 2002, the Espace Rousseau was established at 40 Grand-Rue, Geneva, Rousseau's birthplace.


Theory of Natural Man

Rousseau saw a fundamental divide between society and human nature. Rousseau believed that man was good when in the state of nature (the state of all other animals, and the condition humankind was in before the creation of civilization and society), but is corrupted by society. This idea has often led to attributing the idea of the noble savage to Rousseau, an expression first used by John Dryden in The Conquest of Granada (1672). Rousseau, however, never used the expression himself and it does not adequately render his idea of the natural goodness of humanity. Rousseau's idea of natural goodness is complex and easy to misunderstand. Contrary to what might be suggested by a casual reading, the idea does not imply that humans in the state of nature act morally; in fact, terms such as 'justice' or 'wickedness' are simply inapplicable to pre-political society as Rousseau understands it. Humans there may act with all of the ferocity of an animal. They are good because they are self-sufficient and thus not subject to the vices of political 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.

In Rousseau's philosophy, society's negative influence on men centers 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 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 not human needs, but rather a 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 true friendship by 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 solitary and 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, metallurgy, private property, and the division of labour led to humans becoming increasingly dependent on one another, and led to 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 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.

Political theory

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 within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the Western tradition. It developed some of the ideas mentioned in an earlier work, the article Economie Politique, featured in Diderot's Encyclopédie. The treatise begins with the dramatic opening lines, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they." Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. As society developed, division of labour and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. In the degenerate phase of society, 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 into civil society 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 be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between sovereignty 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 was argued that this would prevent Rousseau's ideal state from being realized in a large society, such as France was at the time. 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 righteously. This is accomplished by following a guardian who can guide his pupil through various contrived learning experiences.

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 12 to about 16, when reason starts to develop, and finally from the age of 16 onwards, when the child develops into an adult. During this stage, the young adult should learn a skill, such as carpentry. This trade is offered because it requires creativity and thought, but would not compromise one's morals. It is at this age that 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's account of the education of Emile is, however, not an account of education of a gender-neutral "child." The education he proposes for Sophie, the young woman Emile is destined to marry, is importantly different to that of Emile. Sophie (as a representative of ideal womanhood) is educated to be governed (by her husband) while Emile (as a representative of the ideal man) is educated to be self-governing. This is not an accidental feature of Rousseau's educational and political philosophy; it is essential to his account of the distinction between private, personal relations and the public world of political relations. The private sphere as Rousseau imagines it depends on the (naturalized) subordination of women in order for both it and the public political sphere (upon which it depends) to function as Rousseau imagines it could and should.

The education proposed in Émile has been criticized for being impractical, and the topic itself (the education of children) has led the text to be ignored by many studying Rousseau’s more “political” works. However, of particular interest to anyone interested in Rousseau’s intentions in Émile is a letter he wrote to his friend Cramer on October 13, 1764. In the letter, Rousseau answers the criticism of impracticability: “You say quite correctly that it is impossible to produce an Emile. But I cannot believe that you take the book that carries this name for a true treatise on education. It is rather a philosophical work on this principle advanced by the author in other writings that man is naturally good”( sic).


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.


At the time of the French Revolution, Rousseau's ideas were influential. Writers such as Benjamin Constant and Hegel sought to blame the excesses of the Revolution's Reign of Terror on Rousseau, but since popular sovereignty was exercised through representatives rather than directly, it cannot be said the Revolution was an implementation of Rousseau's ideas. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, a result of the Revolution, has its philosophical foundation in the assumption that humans are born with inherent and inalienable rights, a notion Rousseau rejects.

Rousseau's 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. John Darling's 1994 book Child-Centered 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 cold-hearted 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.

Despite some similarities in thought, there is little evidence that Rousseau had an impact on Thomas Jefferson and, indeed, he seems to have had little impact on 18th century political thought in the United States, which was dominated by Republicanism and Liberalism. However he did have some influence on several later Transcendentalists such as theologian William Ellery Channing and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

Major works

  • Dissertation sur la musique moderne 1736
  • Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (Discours sur les sciences et les arts), 1750
  • Narcissus, or The Self-Admirer: A Comedy, 1752
  • Le Devin du Village: an opera, 1752, score PDF (21.7  MiB)
  • Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes), 1754
  • Discourse on Political Economy, 1755
  • Letter to M. D'Alembert on Spectacles, 1758 (Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles)
  • Julie, or the New Heloise (Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse), 1761
  • Émile: or, on Education (Émile ou de l'éducation), 1762
  • The Creed of a Savoyard Priest, 1762 (in Émile)
  • The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social), 1762
  • Four Letters to M. de Malesherbes, 1762
  • Pygmalion: a Lyric Scene, 1762
  • Letters Written from the Mountain, 1764 (Lettres de la montagne)
  • Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Les Confessions), 1770, published 1782
  • Constitutional Project for Corsica, 1772
  • Considerations on the Government of Poland, 1772
  • Essay on the origin of language, published 1781 (Essai sur l'origine des langues)
  • Reveries of a Solitary Walker, incomplete, published 1782 (Rêveries du promeneur solitaire)
  • Dialogues: Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques, published 1782

Editions in English

  • Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987.
  • Collected Writings, ed. Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly, Dartmouth: University Press of New England, 1990-2005, 11 vols. (Does not as yet include Émile.)
  • The Confessions, trans. Angela Scholar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Emile, or On Education, trans. with an introd. by Allan Bloom, New York: Basic Books, 1979.
  • "On the Origin of Language," trans. John H. Moran. In On the Origin of Language: Two Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Reveries of a Solitary Walker, trans. Peter France. London: Penguin Books, 1980.
  • 'The Discourses' and Other Early Political Writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • 'The Social Contract' and Other Later Political Writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • 'The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston. Penguin: Penguin Classics Various Editions, 1968-2007.

Online texts

  • Emile French text and English translation (Grace G. Roosevelt's revision and correction of Barbara Foxley's Everyman translation, at Columbia)
  • Mondo Politico Library's presentation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's book, The Social Contract (G.D.H. Cole translation; full text)
  • 'Elementary Letters on Botany', 1771-3 PDF (4.23  MiB) English translation
  • A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences English translation
  • Narcissus, or The Self-Admirer: A Comedy English translation
  • Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men English translation
  • Discourse on Political Economy English translation
  • The Creed of a Savoyard Priest English translation
  • The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right English translation
  • Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau English translation, as published by Project Gutenberg, 2004 [EBook #3913]
  • Constitutional Project for Corsica English translation
  • Considerations on the Government of Poland English translation
  • Project Concerning New Symbols for Music French text and English translation
  • Works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau at Project Gutenberg
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