Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712July 2, 1778) was a Franco-Swiss philosopher, writer, political theorist, and self-taught composer of The Age of Enlightenment.


Biography of Rousseau

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

Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and died in Ermenonville (28 miles northeast of Paris). His mother, Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, died a week after his birth, and his father Isaac abandoned him in 1722. 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 lived with and was supported by Franoise-Louise de Warens, a French Catholic woman. Although she was twelve years older than him and married, they became lovers, and Rousseau converted to Catholicism. In 1742 he moved to Paris in order to present the Acadmie des Sciences with a new system of musical notation he had invented, which was rejected as useless and unoriginal. While in Paris, he became friends with Diderot and contributed several articles to his Encyclopdie, including an important article on political economy. He also befriended and lived with Thrse 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.

After gaining some fame with his "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" in 1750, Rousseau had a series of fallings-out with his friends and associates in Paris. In 1754, Rousseau returned to Geneva, where he reconverted to Calvinism, but he soon left for Montmorency in 1757. While there he wrote the romantic novel Nouvelle Heloise (The New Heloise) and Emile, or Education. This book criticized religion, causing it to be burned in France. Rousseau was forced to flee the increasingly hostile French government. Geneva had exiled him, so he made a brief stay in Bern. In January of 1766, he took refuge with the philosopher David Hume in Great Britain, but after 18 months he left because he believed Hume was plotting against him[1] (

Rousseau returned to France under the name "Renou," although officially he was not allowed back in until 1770. 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 the book was not published until after his death in 1782. Rousseau continued to write, producing works such as Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and in order to support himself 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, Rousseau suffered a hemorrhage and died on July 2, 1778.

Rousseau was interred in The Panthon 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

The theory of the 'noble savage'

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.

Rousseau's essay, "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" (1750), which won the prize offered by the Academy of Dijon, argued that the advancement of art and science had not been beneficial to humankind. 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. His 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 and condemned by the Parlement of Paris when it appeared, 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 whilst 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. Whilst 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. This restriction means that Rousseau's ideal state could only be realised, if at all, within a very small society. 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.

Effects of Rousseau's thought

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.

Political thinkers across the spectrum of politics, from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson to Benito Mussolini and the Khmer Rouge, have claimed some influence from Rousseau to varying degrees. In particular, 19th century nationalist movements in Europe were heavily inspired by Rousseau's ideas about nations and General Will.

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. 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 earlier writings Rousseau identified nature with the primitive state of savage man. Later, especially under the criticism of Voltaire, Rousseau took nature to mean the spontaneity of the process by which man builds his personality and his world. Nature thus signifies interiority, integrity, spiritual freedom, as opposed to that imprisonment and enslavement which society imposes in the name of civilization.

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 generally regarded as a figure of The Enlightenment.


"Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains." -- Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

"In reality, the difference is, that the savage lives within himself while social man lives outside himself and can only live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the feeling of his own existence only from the judgement of others concerning him. It is not to my present purpose to insist on the indifference to good and evil which arises from this disposition, in spite of our many fine works on morality, or to show how, everything being reduced to appearances, there is but art and mummery in even honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting; to show, in short, how abject we are, and never daring to ask ourselves in the midst of so much philosophy, benevolence, politeness, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness."

"The first man who, having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying, 'This is mine' and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how many miseries and horrors might the human race had been spared by the one who, upon pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellow men: 'Beware of listening to this imposter; you are lost if you forget the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth belongs to no one.'" -- Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1755

"In the strict sense of the term, a true democracy has never existed, and will never exist. It is against natural order that the great number should govern and that the few should be governed." -- Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

"Finally, I remembered the way out suggested by a great princess when told the peasants had no bread: 'Well, let them eat cake'" [qu'ils mangent de la brioche]. (This was falsely attributed to Marie Antoinette, though it was written in 1766, when the ten-year-old princess was still four years away to her marriage with Louis XVI of France).

"When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich." -- Attributed to Rousseau as being from a "Speech at the commune on the 14th of October" in The history of the French revolution. By M. A. Thiers. Translated, with notes and illustrations from the most authentic sources, by Frederick Shoberl., Thiers, Adolphe, 1797-1877., page 359 [2] (;cc=moa;xc=1;xg=1;sid=60a3bc8c6a824fc15ff48b8d920e5ca2;q1=eat%20the%20rich;rgn=full%20text;idno=ACP8713.0001.001;view=image;seq=00000811)

"Taxes are more injurious to liberty than manual labor."

"Finance is a slave's word."

"If I am not better, at least I am different." [3] (

See also

Major works

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

Online texts

External links

Template:Wikiquote Template:Commons

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

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