Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712–1778)

views updated May 14 2018


ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES (17121778), French philosopher and writer. Rousseau is widely viewed as the greatest social, political, and pedagogical philosopher of the French Enlightenment. He gives education the task of transforming naturally self-loving egoists animated only by their own "particular wills" into polis-loving citizens with a civic "general will" ("the will one has as a citizen"). For Rousseau, the "Great Legislator" (more accurately the great civic educator) must "change the nature of man" by turning self-lovers into "Spartan mothers" (who ask not whether their own sons have survived battles but whether the "general good" of the city still lives). Rousseau also insists that education, however "denaturing," must finally produce autonomous adults who can ultimately say to their teachers (with Émile), "I have decided to be what you made me" (Foxley translation, p. 435).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in the Calvinist stronghold of Geneva on 28 June 1712, the second son of the watchmaker Isaac Rousseau and his wife Susan; both were "citizens" of Geneva, and Rousseau styled himself citoyen de Genève until his final renunciation of citizenship in 1764. Rousseau's mother died ten days after his birth. With his father the child read (and then perpetually cherished) Plutarch's Lives of the greatest Greeks and Romans. Later he was brought up by a puritanical aunt who (he admitted in the Confessions ) did much to warp his sexuality. In 1722 Isaac Rousseau fled Geneva after a quarrel, and the ill-educated Jean-Jacques had to be apprenticed, first to a notary, then to an engraver.

In March 1728 Rousseau missed the Genevan city curfew, found himself locked outside the gates, and wandered on foot to Annecy in Savoy, where he was taken in by Mme de Warens, who became his protector and then (17331740) his lover. In the provincial salon of Mme de Warens ("Les Charmettes"), Rousseau acquired the education he had lacked in Geneva (Plutarch apart). One gets some sense of his autodidactic passion from his poem, "Le Verger des Charmettes," in which he declares his debt to Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Nicholas de Malebranche, Isaac Newton, and John Locke.

Mme de Warens, who specialized in finding Catholic converts, sent the young Rousseau to Turin, where he renounced his inherited Calvinism and converted to the Roman Church; he even briefly attended a seminary for priests, until a Catholic ecclesiastic attempted to seduce him. Returning to Les Charmettes, he lived with de Warens ("Maman"), completed his education, and undertook his earliest writings, including the remarkable Chronologie universelle (c. 1737), with its eloquent praise of Fénelon's charitable moral universalism.

In 1740 Rousseau began to serve as a tutor, moving north to Lyon and living in the house of M. de Mably, whose children he instructed. However, in Lyon he met M. de Mably's two elder brothers, Étienne Bonnot (later the Abbé de Condillac, with Voltaire the greatest "Lockean" in post-Regency France) and the Abbé de Mably. This was the beginning of Rousseau's connection to the Paris philosophes, with whom he would later have a love-hate relationship. At this same time Rousseau became a considerable composer, music theorist, and copyist; in later years he would represent himself as a simple Swiss republican who earned a living as a musical craftsman.

In 1742 Rousseau moved definitively northward to Paris, carrying with him a new system of musical notation, a comedy, an opera, and a collection of poems. In Paris Rousseau eked out a precarious living by tutoring, writing, and copying music; for a brief period (17431744) he served, not very happily, as secretary to the French ambassador in Venicean interlude that he described in his later Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764). He also met and befriended Denis Diderot, soon-to-be editor of the great Encyclopédie, who would ultimately commission Rousseau's first great writing on civic "general will," the Économie politique of 1755.

It was while visiting Diderot in prison (for alleged impiety) in 1749 that Rousseau decided to write an essay for a prize competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon, dealing with the question whether morals had been harmed or advanced by the rebirth (renaissance) of the arts and sciences. Rousseau won the prize with Discours sur les sciences et les arts (Discourse on the arts and sciences), the so-called First Discourse, in which he defended Spartan-Roman civic généralité against the Athenian literary "tyranny" of poets and orators. The Discourse made his European reputation, even attracting the criticism of the king of Poland, and from this period forward Rousseau was a leading citizen, however reluctantly, of the République des lettres (as Voltaire maliciously reminded him).

In 1752 his opera, Le devin du village (The village soothsayer), was performed at the court of Louis XV at Versailles; at roughly the same time his black comedy Narcissus, the Lover of Himself was given in Paris at the Theatre français. As a good citoyen de Genève, Rousseau refused a royal pension, continuing his republican self-support as a musician by publishing La lettre sur la musique française (Letter on French music) in 1753, which, with its strong defense of Italian simplicity against French elaborateness, led to a collision with Jean-Baptiste Rameau, the greatest French composer of the day.

Rousseau's Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse on the origins of inequality among men) was completed in May 1754. The most radical of his works, this so-called Second Discourse urges that existing government is a kind of confidence trick on the part of the rich, who persuade the poor that it is universally and equally advantageous to be subjected to law and to political order. In June 1754 Rousseau left Paris for a visit to his native Geneva, where he reconverted to Calvinism and had his civic rights restored and where, in 1755, he published his Inégalité and the Économie politique (the Third Discourse). In 1756 he moved to the countryside, taking up residence at l'Hermitage, the country seat of Mme d'Epinay (inspiring Diderot's sarcastic epigram, "a fine citizen a hermit is"), a move that marked the start of the weakening of Rousseau's ties to the philosophesa process accelerated by his 1758 Lettre à d'Alembert, which opposed the latter's scheme to found a theater in Geneva. (Platolike, Rousseau urged that such a theater would be inimical to civic virtue and good morals and that Molière's Misanthrope would have a deleterious effect.)

In 1758, too, Rousseau began L'état de guerre (The state of war), his most brilliant and scathing critique of Thomas Hobbes and Hobbism. Taking over observations first made by René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (Essais de théodicée, 1710), Rousseau insists that Hobbes has simply mistaken badly socialized, ill-educated Englishmen for "natural" men, leading to Hobbesian unquestionable "sovereignty" as the only antidote to rapacious appetite: Looking out his London window, Hobbes "thinks that he has seen the natural man," but he has really only viewed "a bourgeois of London or Paris." Hobbes, for Rousseau, has simply inverted cause and effect, mistaking a bad effect for "natural" depravity.

In the late 1750s Rousseau labored on (but never published) the Lettres morales (for Sophie d'Houdetot) and then produced his vast epistolary novel, Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (published 1761), with its celebrated account of a small ideal society, Clarens, superintended by the godlike, all-seeing M. de Wolmar. The novel was a runaway best-seller, the greatest literary success since Fénelon's Telemachus, Son of Ulysses in 1699.

In May 1762 Rousseau brought out two of his greatest but most ill-fated works: Du contrat social (The social contract) and Émile, ou Traitéde l'éducation (both focusing on transformative, "denaturing" education). Both were condemned and publicly burned in Paris at the behest of Archbishop Christophe de Beaumont (and with the acquiesence of the Parlement of Paris); Rousseau, under order of arrest, fled to Geneva (only to find the same works condemned and burned there). Against charges of impiety leveled by the Genevan public prosecutoralleging the danger of Rousseau's "natural" theology in Émile's "Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar"Rousseau composed and published his trenchant Lettres de montagne (Letters written from the mountain), in which he defended ancient "civic" religion and insisted that Christianity produces good men whose other-worldliness makes them "bad citizens." This of course only increased the furor against him, and he took refuge in the Prussian enclave of Neuchâtel (Switzerland). Renouncing his Genevan citizenship definitively, Rousseau occupied himself by writing a constitution for recently liberated Corsica; increasingly threatened, his paranoia aggravated by genuine danger, Rousseau accepted the offer of British refuge from David Hume, although he soon came to see the benevolent Scot as part of the "league of malignant enemies" bent on his destruction. After an unhappy period in England, Rousseau returned incognito to France, living under the assumed name of Renou. While living under this name, Rousseau finally married his longtime companion, Thérèse Levasseur, by whom he had fatheredif the Confessions are to be believedfive children, all supposedly abandoned in a foundling hospital.

The Confessions themselves increasingly occupied Rousseau's time, and he often read substantial fragments of this work in progress in sympathetic aristocratic salons. In 1772 he produced the remarkable Gouvernement de Pologne as part of an effort to avert partition by Prussia, Austria, and Russia; the book combines intelligent constitutional reforms with Rousseau's most glowing account of Spartan and Roman-republican civic virtue. In the same year he wrote (without publishing) the brilliantly innovative Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, in which he bifurcated himself and had one half comment on the other halfschizophrenia turned into a literary genre.

In 1777 Rousseau wrote his last great confessional work, Rêveries d'un promeneur solitaire (The reveries of a solitary walker), which begins with the celebrated words, "Here I am, then, alone on the Earth, no longer having any brother, or neighbor, or friend, or society except myself." A year later, while in refuge on an aristocratic estate at Ermenonville (north of Paris) and while engaging in his beloved botanical studies, Rousseau died quite suddenly on 2 July 1778. He was originally buried in a quasi-Roman sarcophagus on the Isle of Poplars at Ermenonville, but at the height of the French Revolution his ashes were translated, in a dramatic torchlight procession, to the Pantheon in Paris and placed next to the remains of his nemesis Voltaire (1794).

See also Diderot, Denis ; Encyclopédie ; French Literature and Language ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Philosophes .


Primary Sources

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Collected Writings of Rousseau. Edited by Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly. 9 vols. to date. Hanover, N.H., and London, 1990.

. Confessions. Translated by J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1954.

. Correspondance complète de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Edited by R. A. Leigh. 51 vols. Geneva and Banbury, U.K., 19651995.

. The Discourses and Other Early Political Writing s. Translated and edited by Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

. Émile; or, On Education. Translated by A. Bloom. New York, 1979. Reprint, London, 1991.

. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Bernard Gagnébin, Marcel Raymond, et al. 5 vols. Paris, 19591995. The "standard" edition.

Secondary Sources

Charvet, John. The Social Problem in the Philosophy of Rousseau. Cambridge, U.K., 1974.

Hendel, Charles William. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moralist. 2 vols. London, 1934.

Riley, Patrick. "General Will." In Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Philosophy. Edited by A. Ryan, et al. Oxford, 1988.

. The General Will before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic. Princeton, 1986.

Shklar, Judith N. Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau's Social Theory. Cambridge, U.K., 1969. Reprint, 1985.

Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l'obstacle. Paris, 1971. Translated into English as Transparency and Obstruction by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, 1988.

Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. Oxford, 1995.

Patrick Riley

Rousseau, Jean Jacques

views updated May 11 2018

Rousseau, Jean Jacques

Early life


Early success

Early writings about society


Thoughts on childhood

The “Social Contract.”

Last years



In most of his writings, not merely in the Contrat social, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was obsessed by the demands of life in society, by the relationships of dependence and subordination which it creates among men, and by the rivalries and enmities which it engenders. Society, which should bring men together, in fact sets them apart and makes them enemies to their fellow men. Rousseau first became aware of this paradox not in terms of clearly conceived ideas but of deeply felt experience. In the course of a tormented and eventful life, he felt poignantly the injustice of a social order founded on the inequality of status and the impossibility of achieving happiness in such a society. To an unusual extent it is necessary to know about Rousseau’s life in order to understand his work.

Early life

Rousseau was born in Geneva; although he spent the greater part of his life in France, he always felt himself to be a stranger there and made a great point of indicating his attachment for his “fatherland” by adding to his name the title “Citizen of Geneva.”

It was in Geneva and in the surrounding countryside that his childhood years were spent. He never knew his mother, who died shortly after his birth, and, as he often noted, the education he received from his father was an unusual one. Isaac Rousseau was a capable watchmaker but an odd and temperamental man, and he all too early inculcated in his son a taste for reading by having him read novels and Plutarch’s Lives. “When I was six,” Rousseau wrote in a letter to Malesherbes, dated January 12, 1762, “I happened upon Plutarch; at eight I knew him by heart. I had read all the available novels, which had made me shed buckets of tears before the age when the heart usually takes an interest in such works. From them was formed in me that heroic and romantic taste which up to the present time has continued to grow, and which made me disgusted with everything except what resembled my follies” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 1134 in the Gallimard edition). Alluding to this reading, as well as to his precocious sensibility and troubling sensuality, Rousseau later wrote in the Confessions: “My childhood was not that of a child; my feelings and thoughts were always those of a man” (ibid., p. 62).

At the age of 13, Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver, who punished him harshly for petty thefts and pranks. After three years, a chance event, in which later he was to see a sign of destiny, put an end to this apprenticeship and led to his departure from his native city. One Sunday in March 1728, he returned from a country walk too late to enter the city gates, and rather than return to Geneva the next morning, he chose to try his fortune. This adventure led him eventually to Turin, to the Hospice of the Holy Ghost, where, abjuring “the religion of my fathers,” he became a Roman Catholic, apparently without serious awareness of what such a conversion meant for him. “I became a Catholic,” he was to say at the end of his life, “but I always remained a Christian” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 1013).


Unable to find a means of livelihood in Turin, Rousseau went in 1729 to Annecy in Savoy, to live with Mme. de Warens, “the good woman” who had received him hospitably when he first fled from Geneva. The time he spent in Savoy, from 1729 to 1742, was a decisive period for his formation as a writer.

About thirty years old, Mme. de Warens was herself a new convert to Catholicism and something of an adventuress. She encouraged Rousseau’s affection for her, and he lived with her until he finally resolved to seek his fortune in Paris. At first she treated him as a son, but after a time he became her lover. Rousseau’s life in Savoy was both happy and free; according to the Confessions, those 12 years were “the one short period of happiness of my entire life.”

The years he spent with Mme. de Warens, not only at Annecy but also at Chambery and Les Charmettes, were chiefly years of study. Whereas the other great writers of the eighteenth century, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and even Diderot, were formally educated, Rousseau taught himself. Everything he learned, as he said in the Confessions with all the pride of an autodidact, he learned by himself. At Les Charmettes, his passion for reading was reawakened, and he ranged over all domains of learning, carefully jotting down excerpts from his readings in notebooks that became veritable “storehouses of ideas.” When he began studying the sciences, he did geometry exercises, performed chemistry experiments, and even made astronomical observations. Finally he learned music. Although “born for this art,” he had received no musical instruction, and at the time of his arrival at Annecy, he could hardly read a musical score. Ten years later, he was to be able both to compose music and to direct an orchestra; by a “determined study of the obscure books of Rameau” and other scholarly works, he had acquired a profound knowledge of musical composition and theory.

It was with this baggage of knowledge that he left Savoy in 1742. Like his departure from Geneva in 1728, this was also a flight. Rousseau felt that he no longer occupied the same place in Mme. de Warens’ life. But this time he left with a specific goal—that of submitting to the Academy of Sciences the system of musical notation he had invented.

Early success

Rousseau arrived in Paris during the summer of 1742, equipped with only a few letters of recommendation and his system of musical notation. He had come to the city in quest of fame, but for ten years he was obliged, as Jean Guehenno put it, to “mark time in the crowd of men of letters” (1948–1952).

He succeeded in interesting various ladies of Parisian society in his fate, and one of them obtained employment for him as secretary to the new French ambassador in Venice. The stay in Venice was important because it was there that he first conceived the ideas that were fully developed in his Contrat social (1762a). His conflicts with the ambassador, however, were such that after a year he was dismissed. Naively, he expected that the ambassador would be blamed and the secretary vindicated, but he was quickly disillusioned. From then on, he was convinced that there was no reason to expect any kind of justice from a social order founded on inequality of status.

Upon his return to Paris, he began a liaison with an uneducated young domestic servant, Therese Levasseur, who became his lifetime companion and who served him both as housekeeper and as nurse. According to the Confessions, several children were born from this liaison; all of them were placed in the Foundlings’ Home. Although Rousseau later felt that it had been a “mistake” to abandon his children, he nevertheless did so, according to the Confessions, “without the slightest scruple.” He could not afford to rear a family on his earnings as a writer; besides, he was only following “local custom,” since in 1745 almost a third of all the infants born in Paris were abandoned to institutional care.

Two successes, one literary, the other musical, lifted Rousseau out of obscurity. In 1749, the Academy of Dijon, which was then one of the flourishing provincial academies, announced an essay contest dealing with the following question: “Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the purification of morals?” Rousseau entered the contest and won the prize by replying “No.” In his Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750) he first developed a theme to which he reverted constantly in his later work: the contrast between ancient and modern peoples. He found the former to be virtuous, by reason of their ignorance, their simplicity, and even their coarseness of manner, whereas the latter are too subtly refined not to be corrupt. Yet had historians paid closer attention to the Discours, they would have avoided the mistake of reducing Rousseau’s thought to a simple antithesis between man’s natural goodness and his corruption by society. This antithesis is doubtless of great importance, but it should not obscure his more basic premise that all peoples are precisely what their social institutions make them. Rousseau’s essay provoked various polemics, including a refutation by the Polish king Stanislas, and these polemics undoubtedly gave Rousseau very useful publicity.

A short time later, Rousseau the musician was to have the same success as Rousseau the writer. In 1752 he devin du village was played twice at Fontainebleau for Louis xv, and the following year several times at the Opéra. “Le devin du village,” Rousseau said in the Confessions, “added the finishing touch to my popularity, and I became the most sought after man in Paris” (Oeuvres completes, vol. 1, p. 369 in the Gallimard edition). Indeed, at this period he was known primarily as a musician, but he had the wisdom to give up music in order to devote himself entirely to literature.

Early writings about society

It was in the ten years of intense literary production from 1752 to 1762 that Rousseau composed his most important writings. The first of these was the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité (1755). It was a work of circumstance, since Rousseau was again answering a question proposed by the Academy of Dijon. However, the subject was so close to his own concerns that he could not have chosen a more appropriate one himself. For Rousseau, inequality is the original evil, the one that engenders all others. Thus, by opposing “the equality which nature established among men,” to “the inequality which men have instituted,” Rousseau, in this second Discours, made a case against life in society similar to the case against civilization that he had made in the first.

His article “Economie politique,” published in 1755 in the fifth volume of the Encyclope’die, was written in the same period as the second Discours. The article is a short political treatise in which the author expounded his ideas on government, public education, and state finances. While the second Discours is essentially a work of criticism, intended to underline all the evils created for man by life in society, by private property, and by social inequality, “ficonomie politique” shows the positive, constructive side of Rousseau’s thought.


Rousseau had completed the writing of the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité in 1754 and had it printed in Holland in 1755. He dedicated it to the Republic of Geneva, and in the dedication he praised his native city, its government, and its magistrates, giving himself up completely to his republican enthusiasm and patriotic zeal. Upon his return to his native land in June 1754, he decided to become a Protestant again in order to resume his rights as a Genevan citizen. He attached so little importance to matters of cult and to those questions which divided the Christian confessions that he failed for the second time to attribute religious significance to the change. “Believing that there were not two ways for a reasonable man to be a Christian, I believed also,” he wrote in the Confessions, “that all matters of formality and discipline in any state fall within the purview of the laws” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 392 in the Gallimard edition). Thus, his return to the religion of his fathers was, in effect, a civic act rather than a religious one.

In the patriotic joy of his homecoming, Rousseau may have intended to settle in Geneva. If such was indeed his intention, it was an idea which he quickly abandoned. Voltaire had just moved into Les Délices, quite near Geneva, and Rousseau knew well enough that there was not room for both of them in his native city. He also knew that he would be less free in Geneva than in France to publish his writings under his own name. This consideration weighed heavily in his decision to accept the invitation of Mme. d’Épinay to move to L’Ermitage, a summer house which she had prepared for him on her estate on the edge of the Montmorency forest. After so many years spent in Paris, “city of noise, smoke, and mud,” Rousseau was delighted to return to country life. However, he stayed there less than two years; he moved in during April 1756 and left in December 1757, after a memorable quarrel with Mme. d’Épinay, with Grimm, and even with Diderot. The origins of the quarrel lay in Rousseau’s infatuation with Sophie d’Houdetot, a sister-in-law of Mme. d’fipinay. The young countess encouraged his passion, if she did not share it; it was the great passion of Rousseau’s mature life. The novel he was writing, La nouvelle He’loise (1760), was one source of his involvement: he fell in love with Mme. d’Houdetot, seeing in her his own heroine Julie—a case of literary creation giving rise to events in real life.

The amorous involvement at L’Ermitage lasted barely four months. Mme. d’Houdetot ended all communication with Rousseau as soon as she saw herself compromised by his indiscretions. Rousseau suspected Diderot of having divulged the secret and, feeling himself betrayed, decided not merely to break with Diderot but to break with him publicly, which he did in the Preface to his Lettre à M. d’Alembert (1758).

Despite the break with Diderot and Mme. d’Épinay, Rousseau refused either to return to Paris or to leave the Montmorency forest, which he had made his “study.” He stayed on at Montmorency for more than four years, first in a house he rented in the Mont-Louis park, and then in the Petit Chateau of the marshal of Luxembourg.

While at L’Ermitage, Rousseau abandoned once and for all the idea of writing a work entitled “La morale sensitive ou le matérialisme du sage.” He postponed the final version of his Dictionnaire de musique (which was not finished until 1764 in Môtiers and not published until 1768 in Paris). He tried to finish a work on the abbé de Saint-Pierre as quickly as possible, and therefore he unfortunately gave up his original plan to analyze all the abbé’s projets and to write his biography, for which, he felt, he “had collected some rather good materials.” Instead, he dealt only with the Projet de paix perpétuelle and the Polysynodie (a proposal for multiple advisory councils), presenting a “critique” after each.

Shortly after moving to Mont-Louis, in February 1758, Rousseau wrote the Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles. This was again a work prompted by circumstance. D’Alembert had written the article “Genève,” published in the fall of 1757 in the seventh volume of the Encyclopédic Two passages in the article, both inspired by Voltaire, caught Rousseau’s attention—a malicious praise of the Genevan clergy (”a number of Genevan pastors have no other religion than pure socinianism“) and a plea for the establishment of a theater in the city. Preferring to let the pastors defend themselves, Rousseau passed rapidly over the religious question, and he devoted the greater part of the work to public entertainment generally, not simply to the theater, as is often supposed. Indeed, the Lettre a M. d’Alembert contains, in addition to Rousseau’s criticism of the theater and of actors, a rough outline of a sociology of entertainment, considering entertainment in relation to the society for which it is intended. Thus, monarchies can support the luxury of a theater, but republics, and particularly small cities, require forms of entertainment more appropriate to them, such as festivals, public balls, games, dances, concerts, gymnastic competitions, and military parades; in short, free entertainment held in the open air.

According to the Confessions, Rousseau wrote the Lettre à M. d’Alembert in only three weeks and then devoted his time to the completion of his novel, which was printed in Holland by Marc-Michel Rey. La nouvelle Héloïse appeared in the beginning of 1761, under the title Lettres de deux amans, habitans d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes, recueillies et publiées par J.-J. Rousseau. It enjoyed an immediate and huge success with the public and ever since has been counted among the masterpieces of European literature.

Thoughts on childhood

With La nouvelle Héloïse finished, Rousseau returned to two other major projects: Émile (1762b), which was to present his system of education, and the “Institutions politiques.” He did finish a full-scale version of the first; the second was reduced to a short treatise, to which he gave the title Du contrat social, ou prin-cipes du droit politique (1762a). Both works have become classics, in pedagogy and political science, respectively.

An innovator in almost all domains, Rousseau gave proof of his originality especially in his treatise on education, which has so much in common with the pedagogy of our own time. His object in Émile was not to make a craftsman or a gentleman of his pupil; his aim was to “educate him to be a man,” for, as he said, “a natural education should fit him for any human vocation.” Instead of letting himself become imprisoned within the narrow framework of pedagogy, Rousseau conceived of his book as a reflection upon man and man’s estate. “It matters little to me,” he said further, “that I have written a novel. Human nature itself makes a rather fine novel” (Oeuvres complétes, vol. 2, p. 387 in the Hachette edition). But while the object of education is to form a man, its subject is the child. Rousseau reproached his predecessors for having forgotten this fact, and he blamed adults in general for being unable to imagine any mentality other than their own. “Childhood,” he said, “has its own ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling; nothing is more foolish than to try to replace them with ours” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 37). There is, then, a mentality peculiar to the child, and the first aim must be to understand it. Rousseau is probably the first to have linked the science of education to the scientific understanding of the child, and for this reason he is rightfully recognized today as the precursor and even the founder of child psychology.

Nevertheless, his conception of childhood remained theoretical rather than experimental, for it rested almost entirely on an analogy drawn between the state of childhood and the state of nature. The child is as alone in human society as the savage in the thick of his woods. It is because of the child’s natural solitude that Rousseau warned against premature socialization. “Parents who live in civilized society bring their children into it too young” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 51). The second mistake to avoid is that of reasoning with children, since the other characteristic common to both childhood and the state of nature is a life governed by pure instinct; reason awakens and develops only with age and through social relationships. This is why Rousseau divided education into two distinct phases: the first, education concerned with the world of things, occupies the period of childhood; the second, moral education, must be put off until the beginning of adolescence, when the young man, having become involved in social relationships, develops his reason naturally, rather than prematurely, because he needs it to control his awakening passions. “The proper study of man is the study of his relationships. As long as he knows himself only through his physical being, he must study himself in relation to things; this is the program of his childhood: when he begins to sense his moral being, he must study himself in relation to men; this is the program of his entire life …” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 184).

The “Social Contract.”

While Émile is a treatise on man, the Contrat social is a treatise on the citizen, but both are inspired by the same ideal—they are intended to safeguard liberty, which is constantly threatened by social relationships and social institutions. “The greatest good,” said Rousseau in Émile, “is not authority, but liberty.” Relationships of authority are almost always arbitrary or tend to become so. “Dependence among men being without order or rule,” authority gradually transforms itself into domination and obedience into servitude. If, therefore, liberty is to be preserved, this dependence among men must be eliminated or at least subjected to regulation. From this point of view, the requirements of liberty create the same task for the legislator as for the educator. Natural education, we have seen, consists in withdrawing the child from dependence upon adults in order to subject him to dependence upon things. Similarly, the art of politics consists in making each citizen extremely dependent upon the polis in order to free him from dependence upon other citizens (Contrat social, book 2, chapter 12 in Oeuvres completes, vol. 3, p. 394 in the Gallimard edition).

Not only are the various clauses of the Contratsocial finally reducible to a single stipulation—”the total surrender of each individual with all his rights to the whole community” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 360)— but the contract or pact correspondingly establishes the absolute supremacy of the state over all its members. Unlike Locke or Montesquieu, Rousseau asserted no fundamental law, nor did he place constitutional limitations on sovereignty. “It is the essence of Sovereign Power,” Rousseau said in 1764, in his Lettres écrites de la montagne, “to be illimitable; it is omnipotent or it is nothing” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 826). Rousseau’s political doctrine excludes any balance or equilibrium of powers; there is in the state only one supreme power, to which all others are subordinated. The sovereign people can at any time change its rulers and its laws or modify the form of its governmental administration and the constitution of the state. In principle there is nothing it cannot do.

It is understandable, therefore, that a considerable number of historians have reproached Rousseau for having paid only lip service to the cause of liberty and for having in fact opened the gates to despotism, collectivism, and totalitarianism. In France, he has been blamed for having sacrificed, through his theory of sovereignty, the rights of the individual to the omnipotence of the state. This error, said Benjamin Constant in 1815, made his Contrat social, “which is often invoked in behalf of liberty, the most terrible weapon of all types of despotism” ([1815] 1957, p. 1105). A century later, the jurist Léon Duguit called Rousseau the “source of all the doctrines of dictatorship and tyranny, from the doctrines of the Jacobins in 1793 to the Bolshevist doctrines of 1920” (1922, p. 135). In England, and elsewhere, the Contrat social did not arouse such impassioned discussion as in France. Nevertheless, it is significant that the scholarly editor of The Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, C. E. Vaughan, considered it anti-Lockean: “…while the Contract of Locke,” he says, “is expressly devised to preserve and confirm the rights of the individual, that of Rousseau ends, and is intended to end, in their destruction…. One is a charter of individualism. The other, with certain crucial qualifications to be noted shortly, is an extreme form of collectivism” ([1915] 1962, p. 48). More recently, J. L. Talmon stated that Rousseau’s ideas were to blame for the “rise of totalitarian democracy” (1952).

These interpretations, based on the concepts of the “total surrender” of individual rights (“l’aliéna-tion totale”) and of the absolute sovereignty of the state over all its members, draw conclusions from the Contrat social that are fundamentally opposed to the intentions of its author. Indeed, for Rousseau, liberty was the most precious of possessions, a gift which nature has made to men. They can no more be deprived of it rightfully than they can be deprived of life itself; nor can they be permitted to divest themselves of it for any price whatsoever. The social pact should not be interpreted as abrogating, in effect, a right which Rousseau declared inalienable and inseparable from the essential character of man. Rousseau affirmed that the surrender of rights is only apparent and that in the end individuals regain the rights which they appear to have given up. “Instead of a surrender,” he said, “they have only made a profitable exchange” (Contrat social, book 2, chapter 4 in Oeuvres complètes, vol. 3, p. 375 in the Gallimard edition). In effect, the social contract is designed to secure or to restore to individuals in the state of civilization the equivalent of the rights they enjoyed in the state of nature.

The best interpreters of Rousseau, including Vaughan, have asserted that the theory of the general will constitutes a guarantee of individual rights, rather than their sacrifice. By the social pact individuals place themselves under “the supreme direction of the general will,” and, in Rousseau’s definition, it is “the exercise of the general will” that is sovereignty. Rousseau replaced the sovereignty of kings with the sovereignty of the people. But even this is not the essential safeguard to liberty. While the sovereign people cannot harm all its members—for this would be to harm itself— nonetheless this scarcely constitutes assurance that it cannot harm a single individual or that it cannot sacrifice the minority to the interests of the majority. This is why Montesquieu, for example, spoke of the “despotism of all.” But such an eventuality is rendered impossible in Rousseau’s system by the fact that the general will can never rule on individual cases or issues, but imposes the same sacrifices and confers the same advantages upon all citizens. If one individual is wronged, all are thereby wronged. The equality established among all citizens by the general will is their protection against any abuse of power by the sovereign. Since, in Rousseau’s system, the sovereign authority cannot exceed “the limits of the general covenants,” it follows that sovereignty, although absolute in principle, is always limited in practice.

Rousseau presented still another argument: that the citizen, by subjecting himself to the general will and to the laws which it prescribes, obeys no one but himself and, therefore, “remains as free as he was before.” This reasoning is not entirely without difficulties, however, for in point of fact the “general will” is not the “will of all.” The general will is a corporate will, the will of the corporate people. But this body is made up of citizens, and their general will as citizens may well be different from the particular wills they have as individuals. The general will cannot finally prevail in the individual heart unless the man disappears behind the citizen and changes his “nature,” so to speak, in order to identify himself with the polis. To make a man a citizen, it is thus indispensable to transform the human mentality. In the Contrat social, Rousseau entrusted this task to the legislator, but according to Émile, it is the proper goal of public education, without which there can be no citizens.

Although Rousseau affirmed in Book 4 of the Contrat social that “since man is born free and his own master, no one can govern him without his consent” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 3, p. 440 in the Gallimard edition), it is doubtful whether the “consent” of the governed in his system has the same importance as in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government: the ideal of “government by consent” remains closer to liberal theories of the state than to the equalitarian conception of Rousseau.

By the logic of Rousseau’s doctrine, it is precisely because the general will maintains equality among citizens that its exercise is not susceptible to abuse. Abuses of power and risks of oppression can come only from the intermediate body which is responsible for the enforcement of the laws or the administration of the state. (According to the terminology created by Rousseau, which subsequently became common, this intermediate body is called the government, as distinguished from the sovereign.) Sovereignty being nothing else than the exercise of the general will, the sovereign can act only by means of laws and consequently must entrust the executive power to a subordinate body. But this body, like all collective bodies, tends to place its own corporate interest before the common interest and to substitute itself for the sovereign. The true political problem for Rousseau consisted, thus, in keeping the government within the limits of its power and in preventing it from becoming master of the state by usurping that sovereignty, or legislative power, which can belong only to the people.

The great distance that separates Rousseau’s political doctrine from Montesquieu’s emerges clearly. Not only is Rousseau’s doctrine equalitarian and antihierarchical; it is at the same time republican and antimonarchist. To be sure, he retained monarchy among the forms of government, but he saw kings simply as magistrates or officers responsible for the enforcement of the laws. This qualification in effect withdraws from kings the rights of sovereignty and confers these rights solely upon the people. As Rousseau’s contemporaries observed, and as the Jesuit G. F. Berthier in particular noted in his Observations sur le Contrat social (1789), it was tantamount to granting recognition neither to monarchy nor to aristocracy, but only to democracy.

Last years

Rousseau was clearly running great risks by publishing such a book as the Contrat social under his own name. It was published in Amsterdam by Marc-Michel Rey and distributed in the spring of 1762. Its circulation was forbidden in France, but no further measures were taken against it. Émile, however, unleashed a storm. It had been printed in Paris by Duchesne (under the fictitious editorship of Jean Neaulme of Amsterdam) and was offered for sale in May 1762. Rousseau had inserted in the work a section which had originally been separate and in which he presented his religious ideas, Profession de foi du vicaire Savoyard. This was the pretext seized upon by the Parlement of Paris to condemn the work and to issue a writ for Rousseau’s arrest on June 9, 1762. (The Parlement proceeded against him with such severity because it was about to expel the Society of Jesus from France and wished to strike at unbelievers at the same time.) However, the writ of arrest was not enforced with much haste, and Rousseau was able to leave France without being harassed.

Where was he to go? Even had he wished, he could not have gone to Geneva, for on June 19, ten days after the writ of the Parlement, the Genevan Advisory Council condemned both Émile and the Contrat social, charging that both works were “destructive of the Christian religion and of all governments.” During his years of exile Rousseau constantly sought a suitable place to stay, an agonizing problem for a man 50 years old and afflicted with a painful infirmity. Switzerland was the country he preferred, but where in Switzerland? First Rousseau resided for three years—July 1762-Septem-ber 1765—at Môtiers in the principality of Neu-chatel, which then belonged to the king of Prussia. There he prepared two polemical writings in defense of his work, an open letter addressed to the archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, which he composed during the winter of 1762 and published the following year, and the Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764), an answer to the Lettres écrites de la camvagne, written by the prosecuting attorney, J.-R. Tronchin. He declined responsibility, however, for the agitation on his behalf by his Genevan friends and preferred to renounce his Genevan citizenship in 1763, rather than involve himself in a political quarrel. His vocation was to write, not to become a party leader.

Rousseau was driven from Metiers by a popular demonstration, the importance of which he exaggerated, and subsequently he was expelled from the lie Saint-Pierre by the Bernese authorities. He returned to Paris without being harassed, but only for a temporary stay. Then, at the invitation of David Hume, he agreed to go to Scotland, but quarreled with his host. Rousseau stayed almost a year and a half in England, first on the outskirts of London, then at Wootton in Derbyshire, and finally returned to France in May 1767. Here, for three years, he lived the life of a hunted man, first at Trye-le-Château in the Oise region, then at Bourgoin and at Monquin in the province of Dauphiné. During this time he changed not only his residence but also his name, signing his letters as “Renou.”

In 1770 Rousseau received assurance that he could reside in Paris without being disturbed and thereupon moved into small quarters on the rue Platriere. For several years he was obsessed to the point of madness by the idea that there was a plot or a kind of universal conspiracy against his person and his writings. He never did wholly shake off this obsession, although toward the end of his life he succeeded in regaining a certain peace of mind. In Paris he spent his time copying music (which was his livelihood), gathering herbs, and writing.

He did not stop writing after the publication of his three great works. During his stay in Môtiers in 1765, he drafted the Projet de constitution pour la Corse, which was never finished, and in Paris in 1772, Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne. In the first of these two works, the author of the Contrat social applied his “principles” to the problems of legislating for a newly independent people and in the second he proposed reforms to a proud nation threatened by powerful neighbors.

His primary concern was a vast project which he had been contemplating for a long time, his autobiography. It was an undertaking which would require several years of unceasing work. Rousseau knew this and, despairing of bringing the project to completion, wrote in 1762 the four autobiographical Lettres à M. de Malesherbes. Later, however, he succeeded in drafting his Confessions, which were composed in two different periods, from 1765 to 1767 and in the winter of 1769/1770. The Confessions were written largely for the pleasure of knowing himself and reliving his past, but the three dialogues, written in the period 1772–1775 and entitled Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques, were composed while he was haunted by fears of persecution. He wrote this strange book to vindicate himself: “I should willingly consent,” he said, “to not existing at all in the memory of men, but I cannot consent to remain there forever dishonored by calumny” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 953 in the Gallimard edition). His obsession with a conspiracy, which dominated the dialogues, persisted to some extent in his Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782), but Rousseau had largely regained his serenity when he wrote these reflections. None of his autobiographical writings was published until after his death, which came suddenly on July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville. He was buried at Ermenon-ville, and pilgrimages were made to his tomb there until the Convention ordered his remains transferred to the Panthéon.

In our day, sociologists and ethnologists have recognized Rousseau, the self-styled “apologist of nature,” as a forerunner of the social sciences and perhaps, even, as their founder. Émile Durk-heim said succinctly of the Discours sur I’origine de l’inégalité: “Rousseau demonstrated a long time ago that if all that comes to man from society were peeled off, there would remain nothing but a creature reduced to sense experience and more or less undifferentiated from the animal” (1906, p. 132). To rise above the animal stage, men must become sociable and therefore must relinquish the state of nature. Such appears to be the teaching of the second Discours. According to Rousseau, what distinguishes man from the animal is his perfectibility. But perfectibility is closely connected with sociability, which permits it to develop, whereas in the state of nature it is only a “potential faculty.” Rousseau held that “Man in a state of isolation always remains the same; only in society does he progress” (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 3, p. 533 in the Gallimard edition). So long as he lives in the isolation of the state of nature, he exists only as a physical being. As a moral being he is formed in society, for his passions, his reason, and even his conscience become active and develop only in social relationships. It is true that perfectibility brings in its wake a multitude of evils from which man in the state of nature was exempt, but “nature does not retrogress.” From this it follows that human history begins with life in society.

Such considerations as these anticipated later developments in social science. Claude Lévi-Strauss has recently shown that ethnology is indebted to Rousseau and that it has borrowed from him the methodological rule he stated in the Essai sur I’origine des langues: “To study men, we must look close by; to study man, we must learn to look afar; if we are to discover essential characteristics, we must first observe differences” (Oeuvres complétes, vol. 1, p. 384 in the Hachette edition). This passage shows clearly what kind of research Rousseau thought necessary for the understanding of man; sociology had its objective fixed in advance, so to speak, by the precept of Émile: “We must study society by studying men, and men by studying society. Those who expect to treat political and moral philosophy as separate entities will never understand anything about either” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 206).

Robert DerathÉ

[See alsoConsensus; Constitutions and constitutionalism; General will; Majority rule; Natural law; Social contract; Sovereignty; State; Utopianism, article onutopias and utopianism.Other relevant material may be found inPolitical theoryand in the biography ofDurkheim.]


(1750) 1946 Discours sur les sciences et les arts. Critical edition. The Modern Language Association of America, Monograph Series, No. 15. New York: The Association; London: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published as Discours qui a remporte le prix a I’Academie de Dijon.

(1750–1755) 1964 The First and Second Discourses. Edited with an introduction and notes by Roger D. Masters. New York: St. Martins. → Contains Discourse on the Sciences and Arts and Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality. First published in French.

(1752) 1964 Le devin du village. Volume 2, pages 1093–1114 in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres complétes. Paris: Gallimard.

(1755) 1941 Discours sur I’origine et les fondements de Xine’galite’ parmi les hommes. Cambridge Univ. Press.

(1758) 1948 Lettre a M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles. Critical edition, by M. Fuchs. Lille: Giard. → Translated into English as Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre and published by the Free Press in 1960.

(1761) 1964 La nouvelle Helo’ise. Volume 2, pages 5–796 in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres complétes. Paris: Gallimard.

(1762a) 1961 The Social Contract. London: Dent. → First published in French.

(1762b) 1963 Émile. London: Dent; New York: Dutton. → First published in French.

(1762c) 1873 Profession de foi du vicaire Savoyard. Volume 2, pages 236–327 in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres complétes. Paris: Hachette.

(1762d) 1928 Lettres à M. de Malesherbes. London: Scho-lartis Press.

1763 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, citoyen de Genève, à Chris-tophe de Beaumont, archêvique de Paris. Amsterdam: Rey.

(1764) 1962 Lettres éorites de la montagne. Neuchatel (Switzerland): Ides et Calendes.

(1765–1770) 1960 The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau. 2 vols. New York: Dutton; London: Dent. → Written between 1765 and 1770; first published between 1782 and 1789 in French.

(1772) 1873 Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne. Volume 5, pages 237–302 in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres complétes. Paris: Hachette.

(1772–1775) 1959 Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques. Volume 1, pages 657–992 in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres complétes. Paris: Gallimard.

(1781) 1877 Essai sur I’origine des langues. Volume 1, pages 370–408 in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres complétes. Paris: Hachette.

(1782) 1948 Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire. Critical edition by John S. Spink. Paris: Didier. → An English translation, The Reveries of a Solitary, was published by Routledge in 1927.

Correspondance complete. Édition critique, établie et an-notée par R. A. Leigh. Vols. 1—. Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, Les Délices, 1965—. → Volume 1 contains letters 1–97, dating from 1730 to 1744.

Correspondance générale de J.-J. Rousseau. 20 vols. Annotated by Théophile Dufour. Paris: Colin, 1924–1934. → Letters dated 1728–1778.

Oeuvres complétes. 12 vols. Paris: Hachette, 1871–1877. → Customarily designated the “vulgate” edition of Rousseau’s works. See especially Volumes 1 and 2: Discours and Émile. Translations have been provided by the editors.

Oeuvres complétes. 3 vols. Edited by Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond. Bibliotheque de la Plélade. Paris: Gallimard, 1959–1964. → Volumes published as of 1964 are the following: Volume 1: Les confessions; Autres textes autobiographiques. Volume 2: La nouvelle Héloïse; Théâtre; Poesies; Essais littéraires. Volume 3: Du contrat social; Écrits politiques. Translations have been provided by the editors.

Political Writings. 2 vols. Edited from the original manuscripts and authentic editions, with an introduction and notes by C. E. Vaughan. New York: Wiley, 1962. → This edition was first published in 1915.


Berthier, Guillaume F. 1789 Observations sur le Contrat social de J.-J. Rousseau. Paris: Mérigot le jeune.

Burgelin, Pierre 1952 La philosophie de Vexistence de J.-J. Rousseau. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Cassirer, Ernst (1932) 1954 The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated and edited by Peter Gay. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Indiana University Press.

Chapman, John W. 1956 Rousseau: Totalitarian or Liberal? New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Cobban, Alfred (1934) 1964 Rousseau and the Modern State. 2d ed. London: Allen & Unwin.

Constant de Rebecque, Henri Benjamin (1815) 1957 Principes de politique. Pages 1097–1249 in Henri Benjamin Constant de Rebecque, Oeuvres. Bibliotheque de la Pléiade, No. 123. Paris: Gallimard.

Courtois, Louis J. 1923 Chronologie critique de la vie et des oeuvres de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Société Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Annales 15:1–364.

DerathÉ, Robert 1948 Le rationalisme de J.-J. Rousseau. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

DerathÉ, Robert 1950 Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la science politique de son temps. Paris: Presses Univer-sitaires de France.

Duguit, LÉon 1922 Souveraineté et liberté. Paris: Alcan.

Durkheim, Émile 1906 Détermination du fait moral. Société Française de Philosophie, Bulletin 6:113–138. → Letters and discussions of Durkheim’s article appear on pages 169–212. The article and discussions were partially translated and published in 1953 in Durkheim’s Sociology and Philosophy.

Durkheim, Émile (1918) 1960 Rousseau’s Social Contract. Pages 65–138 in Émile Durkheim, Montesquieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan. → First published in French.

Fetscher, Iring 1960 Rousseaus politische Philosophie. Neuwied (Germany): Luchterhand.

Guehenno, Jean (1948–1952)1966 Jean-Jacques Rousseau. New ed. 2 vols. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → Volume 1: 1712–1758. Volume 2: 1758–1788. First published in French. An excellent biography.

Hendel, Charles W. (1934) 1962 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moralist. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.

Hubert, RenÉ 1928 Rousseau et l’Encyclopédie: Essai sur la formation des idées politiques de Rousseau (1742–1756). Paris: Gamber.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by Samuel Baud-Bovy et al. 1962 Neuchâtel (Switzerland): La Baconnière.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau et son oeuvre: Problemes et re-cherches. 1964 Paris: Klincksieck. → Commemorative work published on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Rousseau. Colloquy of the College de France, October 16–20, 1962.

LacharriÈre, RenÉ De 1963 Études sur la théorie démocratique: Spinoza-Rousseau-Hegel-Marx. Paris: Payot.

Masson. Pierre M. 1916 La religion de J.-J. Rousseau. 3 vols. Paris: Hachette.

Plan, Pierre P. 1953 Table de la Correspondance générale de J.-J. Rousseau. With an introduction by Bernard Gagnebin and some unpubUshed letters by Rousseau. Geneva: Droz.

Rang, Martin 1959 Rousseaus Lehre vom Menschen. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Ravier, AndrÉ 1941 L’éducatiora de Vhomme nouveau: Essai historique et critique sur le livre de l’Émile de J.-J. Rousseau. 2 vols. Lyon: Riou.

Raymond, Marcel 1962 Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La quête de soi et la riverie. Paris: Corti.

Rousseau et la philosophie politique. Annales de philosophie politique, No. 5. 1965 Paris: Presses Uni-versitaires de France.

SÉnelier, Jean 1950 Bibliographic générale des oeuvres de J.-J. Rousseau. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

SociÉtÉ Jean-jacques Rousseau, GenevaAnnales. → Published since 1905. Contains original studies, bibliographical news, and reviews.

Starobinski, Jean 1957 Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et Vobstacle. Paris: Plon.

Talmon, Jacob L. (1952) 1965 The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. 2d ed. New York: Praeger.

Vaughan, C. E. (1915) 1962 Introduction. Volume 1, pages 1–117 in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Political Writings. New York: Wiley.

Vossler, Otto 1963 Rousseaus Freiheitslehre. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

views updated May 14 2018

Jean Jacques Rousseau

The Swiss-born philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) ranks as one of the greatest figures of the French Enlightenment.

Both Jean Jacques Rousseau the man and his writings constitute a problem for anyone who wants to grasp his thought and to understand his life. He claimed that his work presented a coherent outlook; yet many critics have found only contradictions and passionate outbursts of rhetoric. One interpreter has called Rousseau "an irresponsible writer with a fatal gift for epigram." In the eyes of others Rousseau was not a "serious thinker" but only a mere feeler who occasionally had a great thought. Still others have found Rousseau a mere juggler of words and definitions. Even those who turn to him as an innovating genius have been at odds concerning what he advocated. Rousseau has been variously applauded or denounced as the founder of the romantic movement in literature, as the intellectual father of the French Revolution, as a passionate defender of individual freedom and private property, as a socialist, as a collectivist totalitarian, as a superb critic of the social order, and as a silly and pernicious utopian. Some few critics notably Gustave Lanson and E. H. Wright—have taken Rousseau at his word and believe that he attempted to answer only one question: how can civilized man recapture the benefits of "natural man" and yet neither return to the state of nature nor renounce the advantages of the social state?

For Rousseau's biographers the man himself has been as puzzling as his work—a severe moralist who lived a dangerously "relaxed" life, a misanthrope who loved humanity, a cosmopolitan who prided himself on being a "citizen of Geneva," a writer for the stage who condemned the theater, and a man who became famous by writing essays that denounced culture. In addition to these anomalies, his biographers have had to consider his confessed sexual "peculiarities"—his lifelong habit of masturbation, his exhibitionism, his youthful pleasure in being beaten, his 33-year liaison with a virtual illiterate, and his numerous affairs—and, characteristic of his later years, his persecution suspicions that reached neurotic intensity.

Three major periods characterize Rousseau's life. The first (1712-1750) culminated in the succe‧s de scandale of his Discours sur les sciences et les arts. The second (1750-1762) saw the publication of his closely related major works: La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), L'Émile (1762), and Du contrat social (1762). The last period (1762-1778) found Rousseau an outcast, hounded from country to country, his books condemned and burned, and a personnage, respected and with influential friends. The Confessions, Dialogues, and Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire date from this period.

Youth, 1712-1750

Rousseau was the second child of a strange marriage. His mother, Suzanne Bernard, had at the age of 33 married Isaac Rousseau, a man less wellborn than she. Isaac, exhausted perhaps by his frequent quarrels over money with his mother-in-law, left his wife in 1705 for Constantinople. He returned to Suzanne in September 1711. Jean Jacques was born on June 28, 1712, at Geneva, Switzerland. Nine days later his mother died.

At the age of 3, Jean Jacques was reading and weeping over French novels with his father. From Isaac's sister the boy acquired his passion for music. His father fled Geneva to avoid imprisonment when Jean Jacques was 10. By the time he was 13, his formal education had ended. Apprenticed to a notary public, he was soon dismissed as fit only for watchmaking. Apprenticed again, this time to an engraver, Rousseau spent 3 wretched years in hateful servitude, which he abandoned when he found himself unexpectedly locked out of the city by its closed gates. He faced the world with no visible assets and no obvious talents.

Rousseau found himself on Palm Sunday, 1728, in Annecy at the house of Louise Eleonore, Baronne de Warens. She sent him to a hospice for catechumens in Turin, where among "the biggest sluts and the most disgusting trollops who ever defiled the fold of the Lord," he embraced the Roman Catholic faith. His return to Madame de Warens in 1729 initiated a strange alliance between a 29-year-old woman of the world and a sensitive 17-year-old youth.

Rousseau lived under her roof off and on for 13 years and was dominated by her influence. He became her Petit; she was his Maman. Charming and clever, a born speculator, Madame de Warens was a woman who lived by her wits. She supported him; she found him jobs, most of which he regarded as uncongenial. A friend, after examining the lad, informed her that he might aspire to become a village curé but nothing more. Still Rousseau read, studied, and reflected. He pursued music and gave lessons. For a time he was a not too successful tutor.

First Publications and Operas

In 1733, disturbed by the advances made to Rousseau by the mother of one of his music pupils, Madame de Warens offered herself to him. Rousseau became her lover: "I felt as if I had been guilty of incest." The sojourn with Madame de Warens was over by 1742. Though she had taken other lovers and he had enjoyed other escapades, Rousseau was still devoted to her. He thought that the scheme of musical notation he had developed would make his fortune in Paris and thus enable him to save her from financial ruin. But his journey to Paris took Rousseau out of her life. He saw her only once again, in 1754. Reduced to begging and the charity of her neighbors, Madame de Warens died destitute in 1762.

Rousseau's scheme for musical notation, published in 1743 as Dissertation sur la musique moderne, brought him neither fame nor fortune—only a letter of commendation from the Académie des Sciences. But his interest in music spurred him to write two operas—Les Muses galantes (1742) and Le Devin du village (1752)—and permitted him to write articles on music for Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie; the Lettre sur la musique française, which embroiled him in a quarrel with the Paris Opéra (1753); and the Dictionnaire de musique, published in 1767.

From September 1743 until August 1744 Rousseau served as secretary to the French ambassador to Venice. He experienced at firsthand the stupidity of officialdom and began to see how institutions lend their authority to injustice and oppression in the name of peace and order. Rousseau spent the remaining years before his success with his first Discours in Paris, where he lived from hand to mouth the life of a struggling intellectual.

In March 1745 Rousseau began a liaison with Thére‧se Le Vasseur. She was 24 years old, a maid at Rousseau's lodgings. She remained with him for the rest of his life—as mistress, housekeeper, mother of his children, and finally, in 1768, as his wife. He portrayed her as devoted and unselfish, although many of his friends saw her as a malevolent gossip and troublemaker who exercised a baleful influence on his suspicions and dislikes. Not an educated woman— Rousseau himself cataloged her malapropisms—she nonetheless possessed the uncommon quality of being able to offer stability to a man of volatile intensity. They had five children—though some biographers have questioned whether any of them were Rousseau's. Apparently he regarded them as his own even though he abandoned them to the foundling hospital. Rousseau had no means to educate them, and he reasoned that they would be better raised as workmen and peasants by the state.

By 1749 Diderot had become a sympathetic friend, and Rousseau regarded him as a kindred spirit. The publication of Diderot's Lettre sur les aveugles had resulted in his imprisonment at Vincennes. While walking to Vincennes to visit Diderot, Rousseau read an announcement of a prize being offered by the Dijon Academy for the best essay on the question: has progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption or to the purification of morals?

Years of Fruition, 1750-1762

Rousseau won the prize of the Dijon Academy with his Discours sur les sciences et les arts and became "l'homme du jour." His famous rhetorical "attack" on civilization called forth 68 articles defending the arts and sciences. Though he himself regarded this essay as "the weakest in argument and the poorest in harmony and proportion" of all his works, he nonetheless believed that it sounded one of his essential themes; the arts and sciences, instead of liberating men and increasing their happiness, have for the most part shackled men further. "Necessity erected thrones; the arts and sciences consolidated them," he wrote.

The Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité des hommes, written in response to the essay competition proposed by the Dijon Academy in 1753 (but which did not win the prize), elaborated this theme still further. The social order of civilized society, wrote Rousseau, introduced inequality and unhappiness. This social order rests upon private property. The man who first enclosed a tract of land and called it his own was the true founder of civilized society. "Don't listen to that imposture; you are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and the earth to no one," he wrote. Man's greatest ills, said Rousseau, are not natural but made by man himself; the remedy lies also within man's power. Heretofore, man has used his wit and art not to alter his wretchedness but only to intensify it.

Three Major Works

Rousseau's novel La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) attempted to portray in fiction the sufferings and tragedy that foolish education and arbitrary social conventions work among sensitive creatures. Rousseau's two other major treatises—L'Émile ou de l'éducation (1762) and Du contrat social (1762)—undertook the more difficult task of constructing an education and a social order that would enable men to be natural and free; that is, that would enable men to recognize no bondage except the bondage of natural necessity. To be free in this sense, said Rousseau, was to be happy.

Rousseau brought these three works to completion in somewhat trying circumstances. After having returned to the Protestant fold in 1755 and having regained his citizenship of Geneva that same year, Rousseau accepted the rather insistent offer of Madame Louise d'Épinay to install Thére‧se and himself in the Hermitage, a small cottage on thÉpinay estate at Montmorency. While Rousseau was working on his novel there, its heroine materialized in the person of Sophie, Comtesse d'Houdetot; and he fell passionately in love with her. He was 44 years old; Sophie was 27, married to a dullard, the mistress of the talented and dashing Marquis Saint-Lambert, and the sister-in-law of Rousseau's hostess. Rousseau was swept off his feet. Their relationship apparently was never consummated; Sophie pitied Rousseau and loved Saint-Lambert. But Madame d'Épinay and her paramour, Melchior Grimm, meddled in the affair; Diderot was drawn into the business. Rousseau felt that his reputation had been blackened, and a bitter estrangement resulted. Madame d'Épinay insulted Rousseau until he left the Hermitage in December 1757. However, he remained in Montmorency until 1762, when the condemnation of L'Émile forced him to flee from France.

La Nouvelle Héloïse appeared in Paris in January 1761. Originally entitled Lettres de deux amants, habitants d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes, the work was structurally a novel in letters, after the fashion of the English author Samuel Richardson. The originality of the novel won it hostile reviews, but its romantic eroticism made it immensely popular with the public. It remained a best seller until the French Revolution.

The notoriety of La Nouvelle Héloïse was nothing compared to the storm produced by L'Émile and Du contrat social. Even today the ideas promulgated in these works are revolutionary. Their expression, especially in L'Émile, in a style both readable and alluring made them dangerous. L'Émile was condemned by the Paris Parlement and denounced by the archbishop of Paris. Both of the books were burned by the authorities in Geneva.

L'Émile and Du contrat social

L'EL'É mile ou de l'éducation remains one of the world's greatest speculative treatises on education. However, Rousseau wrote to a correspondent who tried to follow L'Émile literally, "so much the worse for you!" The work was intended as illustrative of an educational program rather than prescriptive of every practical detail of a proper education. Its overarching spirit is best sensed in opposition to John Locke's essay on education. Locke taught that man should be educated to the station for which he is intended. There should be one education for a prince, another for a physician, and still another for a farmer. Rousseau advocated one education for all. Man should be educated to be a man, not to be a doctor, lawyer, or priest. Nor is a child merely a little man; he is, rather, a developing creature, with passions and powers that vary according to his stage of development. What must be avoided at all costs is the master-slave mode of instruction, with the pupil as either master or slave, for the medium of instruction is far more influential than any doctrine taught through that medium. Hence, an education resting merely on a play of wills—as when the child learns only to please the instructor or when the teacher "teaches" by threatening the pupil with a future misfortune—produces creatures fit to be only masters or slaves, not free men. Only free men can realize a "natural social order," wherein men can live happily.

A few of the striking doctrines set forth in L'Émile are: the importance of training the body before the mind, learning first through "things" and later through words, teaching first only that for which a child feels a need so as to impress upon him that thought is a tool whereby he can effectively manage things, motivating a child by catering to his ruling passion of greed, refraining from moral instruction until the awakening of the sexual urge, and raising the child outside the doctrines of any church until late adolescence and then instructing him in the religion of conscience. Although Rousseau's principles have never been fully put into practice, his influence on educational reformers has been tremendous.

L'Émile's companion master work, Du contrat social, attempted to spell out the social relation that a properly educated man—a free man—bears to other free men. This treatise is a difficult and subtle work of a penetrating intellect fired by a great passion for humanity. The liberating fervor of the work, however, is easily caught in the key notions of popular sovereignty and general will. Government is not to be confused with sovereignty of the people or with the social order that is created by the social contract. The government is an intermediary set up between the people as law followers and the people as law creators, the sovereignty. Furthermore, the government is an instrument created by the citizens through their collective action expressed in the general will. The purpose of this instrument is to serve the people by seeing to it that laws expressive of the general will of the citizens are in fact executed. In short, the government is the servant of the people, not their master. And further, the sovereignty of the people—the general will of the people—is to be found not merely in the will of the majority or in the will of all but rather in the will as enlightened by right judgment.

As with L'Émile, Du contrat socialis a work best understood as elaborating the principles of the social order rather than schematizing the mechanism for those general principles. Rousseau's political writings more concerned with immediate application include his Considérations sur le gouvernement de la Pologne (1772) and his incomplete Projet de constitution pour la Corse, published posthumously in 1862.

Other writings from Rousseau's middle period include the Encyclopédie article Économie politique (1755); Lettre sur la Providence (1756), a reply to Voltaire's poem on the Lisbon earthquake; Lettre a‧ d'Alembert sur les spectacles (1758); Essai sur l'origine des langues (1761); and four autobiographical Lettres a‧ Malesherbes (1762).

Exile and Apologetics, 1762-1778

Forced to flee from France, Rousseau sought refuge at Yverdon in the territory of Bern. Expelled by the Bernese authorities, he found asylum in Môtiers, a village in the Prussian principality of Neuchâtel. Here in 1763 he renounced his Genevan citizenship. The publication of his Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764), in which he defended L'Émile and criticized "established" reformed churches, aroused the wrath of the Neuchâtel clergy. His house was stoned, and Rousseau fled to the isle of St. Pierre in the Lake of Biel, but he was again expelled by the Bernese. Finally, through the good offices of the British philosopher David Hume, he settled at Wotton, Derbyshire, England, in 1766. Hume managed to obtain from George III a yearly pension for Rousseau. But Rousseau, falsely believing Hume to be in league with his Parisian and Genevan enemies, not only refused the pension but also openly broke with the philosopher. Henceforth, Rousseau's sense of persecution became ever more intense, even at times hysterical.

Rousseau returned to France in June 1767 under the protection of the Prince de Conti. Wandering from place to place, he at last settled in 1770 in Paris. There he made a living, as he often had in the past, by copying music. By December 1770 the Confessions, upon which he had been working since 1766, was completed, and he gave readings from this work at various private homes. Madame d'Épinay, fearing an unflattering picture of herself and her friends, intervened; the readings were forbidden by the police. Disturbed by the reaction to his readings and determined to justify himself before the world, Rousseau wrote Dialogues ou Rousseau, Juge de Jean-Jacques (1772-1776). Fearful lest the manuscript fall into the hands of his enemies, he attempted to place it on the high altar of Notre Dame. Thwarted in this attempt, he left a copy with the philosopher Étienne Condillac and, not wholly trusting him, with an English acquaintance, Brooke Boothby. Finally, in 1778 Rousseau entrusted copies of both the Confessions and the Dialogues to his friend Paul Moultou. His last work, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, begun in 1776 and unfinished at his death, records how Rousseau, an outcast from society, recaptured "serenity, tranquility, peace, even happiness."

In May 1778 Rousseau accepted Marquis de Giradin's hospitality at Ermenonville near Paris. There, with Thére‧se at his bedside, he died on July 2, 1778, probably from uremia. From birth he had suffered from a bladder deformation. From 1748 onward his condition had grown worse. His adoption of the Armenian mode of dress was due to the embarrassment caused by this affliction, and it is not unlikely that much of his suspicious irritability can be traced to the same malady. Rousseau was buried on the île des Peupliers at Ermenonville. In October 1794 his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris. Thére‧se, surviving him by 22 years, died in 1801 at the age of 80.

Further Reading

Rousseau himself is the best introduction to his own thought. Everyman's Library offers translations of Emile and a volume containing The Social Contract and the two Discourses. The Confessions is available in a Modern Library edition. The most accessible English version of Rousseau's novel is Julie, or the New Eloise, translated and abridged by J. H. McDowell (1968). A sampling of Rousseau's letters appears in Citizen of Geneva: Selections from the Letters of J.-J. Rousseau, edited by C. W. Hendel (1937). Useful biographies include Matthew Josephson, J. J. Rousseau (1931); R. B. Mowat, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1938); and Lester G. Crocker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Quest, 1712-1758 (1968).

The literature on Rousseau is vast. An excellent introduction to his thought as a whole is E. H. Wright, The Meaning of Rousseau (1929). A critical study of Rousseau's life and writings is Frederick C. Green, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1955), valuable for his life but less illuminating on the works. Ronald Grimsley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Study in Self-awareness (1961), focuses on Rousseau's attempts to answer the riddle of his personal existence. See also Grimsley's Rousseau and the Religious Quest (1968). Ernst Cassirer, The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1932), presents Rousseau as offering a non-Christian interpretation of the universe; and in his Kant, Rousseau, Goethe (1945), Cassirer suggests that Rousseau was a profound influence on Kantian thought. Roger Masters, Political Philosophy of Rousseau (1967), examines an important aspect of Rousseau's work. Frederika Macdonald, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A New Criticism (2 vols., 1906), presents Rousseau as a victim of Madame d'Épinay's vilification. For a helpful review of fairly recent Rousseau literature see Peter Gay's chapter on Rousseau in his The Party of Humanity (1964). □

Rousseau, Jean Jacques

views updated May 21 2018


French writer and philosopher; b. Geneva, Switzerland, June 28, 1712; d. Ermenonville, near Paris, July 2,1778. His mother died nine days after his birth, and he received a haphazard education from his father, a watchmaker. He left Geneva and his work as an apprentice engraver (1728), and was given hospitality in Annecy, France, by Mme. de Warens, a convert to Catholicism, whose influence was decisive on his life and thought. The same year Rousseau adjured Protestantism after a short stay in the Hospice of the Holy Spirit in Turin.

During the winter of 1738, spent at Les Charmettes, near Chambéry, Rousseau read widely in the French creative writers and philosophers. In 1742 he set out for Paris, hoping to win fame with a new system of musical notation. He was rejected by the Academy of Sciences, but he was received into the circle of the philosophers Diderot, Friedrich Grimm, and D' Alembert; he wrote an opera, Les Muses Galantes, and several articles on music for the Encyclopédie (see encyclopedists). Around 1744 he took an ignorant servant girl, Thérèse Levasseur, as his common-law wife. They had five children whom they abandoned at a foundling asylum.

Literary Debut. In 1749 Rousseau decided to compete in the prize essay contest proposed by the Academy of Dijon on the subject "Whether the Sciences and the Arts have contributed to improve or to corrupt public morality." Rousseau opted for corruption, and his paper won the prize. He was thus projected into the limelight and was already a personage in the world of letters when,

in 1754, he competed in another contest organized by the same academy on the subject "The origin of inequality among men." Rousseau's essay did not win because his ideas were too bold. At that time he took the title "Citizen of Geneva" and returned to Protestantism, the religion of his country. In 1756 he accepted the hospitality of Mme. d'Epinay at L'Ermitage. There he met Mme. d'Houdetot, sister-in-law of Mme. d'Epinay, and conceived for her a passionate if hopeless love that was to be reflected in many pages of La Nouvelle Héloïse.

Increasing Activity. During this period of intense activity, Rousseau worked on La Nouvelle Héloïse, Émile, and Du Contrat Social; but troubles with Mme. d'Epinay, Diderot, and Grimm forced him to move to Montmorency. In 1762, when Émile was condemned on publication by the French parliament, Rousseau fled to avoid arrest. Geneva, where Émile had also been condemned, offered him no asylum, and he traveled throughout Switzerland until David hume invited him to England. He arrived there in January 1776, but his suspicious nature soon led him to believe that Hume was plotting against him. He left London secretly on May 22, 1777, and lived for a time in Grenoble before returning to Paris. He died on the estate of M. de Girardin at Ermenonville and was buried on an island in a lake on the the property. On Oct. 11, 1794, leaders of the Revolution paid solemn homage to Rousseau by transferring his ashes to the Panthéon.

The Two Discourses. Though badly composed, frequently rhetorical, and of a dubious logic, the Discours sur les sciences et les arts, his prize-winning essay of 1749 (known as the First Discourse ), was published in 1750 and was immensely successful. Its fame was kept alive in part by the many refutations it evoked. By historical and philosophical arguments, Rousseau attempted to demonstrate that whenever sciences and arts flourish, public morals decline. Virtue resides essentially in simplicity of life and can be found only when man lives close to nature.

This idea of the natural goodness of man is presented more clearly and with more cogency in the Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755), known as the Second Discourse. Originally, and by their very nature, runs the thesis, all men are equal, as are animals, and inequality is the result of the establishment of organized society. The natural man was more robust, more agile; his senses were more acute; he had fewer, more easily satisfied needs and was therefore happy. But when such a man decided to appropriate a piece of land to cultivate, society began with all its consequent evils. Laws were created to protect private property, and magistrates were appointed to enforce the laws. Thus was born despotism and the division of classes between rich and poor.

Castigation of the Theater. In 1758 Rousseau composed the Lettre à d'Alembert sur les Spectacles as an answer to the article "Genève," which had just appeared in the seventh volume of the Encyclopédie. Its author, D'Alembert, back from a visit to Voltaire at Ferney and to Geneva, expressed regrets that the Protestant city forbade all theatrical performances. Rousseau, greatly perturbed, assembled all the arguments implicit in his two Discourses, adding others advanced by opponents of the theater, notably bossuet, to prove that the theater, as the highest expression of social organization, is also a result and a source of social corruption. In order to succeed, it must flatter the public and excite its passions. If a theater were installed in Geneva, it would surely result in laziness, new taxes, a love of luxury, and a weakening of civic virtue.

Solutions of the Social Problems. The three preceding works present the negative aspects of Rousseau's thought in regard to society; La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Émile (1762), and Du Contrat Social (1762) offer solutions to the problem raised; namely, since man cannot return to the state of nature and has to live in society, how can he correct the vices of society and be restored to his pristine virtue?

La Nouvelle Héloïse. Appearing under the guise of letters written by two lovers, La Nouvelle Héloïse relates the story of a love, which, though naturally good, is thwarted by social conventions and prejudices; Saint-Preux, the tutor, and Julie d'Etanges, his pupil, cannot marry because Saint-Preux is not of noble birth. To obey her parents, Julie then accepts as her husband the much older M. de Wolmar, whom she respects but does not love. In her household of Clarens she is the ideal wife and mother, living in the simplicity that Rousseau preached. Many letters in this novel express also Rousseau's ideas on other topicsthe theater, education, the opera, religion, social life, fidelity in marriage, virtue triumphant over passion.

This sentimental, subjective work, in which Saint-Preux is an obvious personification of Rousseau, is the first manifestation of romanticism in France. It popularized the concept of a fatal, irresistible love, and of the beauty of nature as the consoler of man's afflictions. These new and bold ideas, couched in a lyrical style; these magnificent descriptions of nature; these appeals to virtue joined to voluptuous raptures: all explain the tremendous success of La Nouvelle Héloïse, the wide interest the work created and the many imitations it inspired.

Émile. In Émile, a treatise on education written also in the form of a novel, Rousseau proposes a system whereby man can be rehabilitated even in the social status to which he is condemned. Since society is evil and man is good, the sole aim of a carefully chosen tutor will be to preserve his charge from any contact with society. The child will be an orphan so that the tutor may assume full authority as early as possible. He will then merely assist Émile in developing his natural qualities, strengthening his body, educating his senses. Following montaigne and locke, Rousseau advocates a system that will form the child's judgment rather than his intellect and will not load his memory with useless knowledge. Even at the age of 12, when Émile's formal education begins, he has read no book and knows nothing by rote. He possesses only those notions than can be acquired by sense experience: geography, astronomy, chemistry, physics, and agriculture. Aware of the instability of French society in the second half of the 18th century, and recognizing that today's rich may be tomorrow's poor, Rousseau insists that Émile learn a trade.

Not until Émile reaches the age of 15, when he is able to choose his own religion, will this subject be brought before him by an exponent, the vicar from Savoy, selected by the tutor. This unfrocked priest, addressing Émile in a scene of striking natural beauty destined to impart to the boy the idea of God's goodness, presents to him a natural religion, based on sentiment rather than on reason, and excluding all revealed dogmas. Its precepts are few: belief in God, whose essence remains unknowable; in His law, which is written in one's conscience; in an immortal soul; in eternal life that rewards virtue but does not admit eternal punishment. All religions, except the Catholic religion, are good. In the fifth book of Émile, Rousseau writes an abridged tract on feminine education, for Émile must have a wife endowed like himself with all natural virtues. Sophie's education will not form a learned woman but a good wife and mother.

Du Contrat Social. Finally, in this, probably his best known work (1762), which was originally part of a never-published extensive treatise, Institutions Politiques, Rousseau undertakes to explain and to resolve his apparent contradiction: Man is born free, yet is everywhere a slave. Rousseau postulates a contract, either tacit or explicit, whereby man has voluntarily surrendered his liberty for the good of the community. He agrees to submit to the rules laid down by the general will that now regulates his actions as a member of society. Rousseau examines the various types of government and declares his preference for the republican regime, thus producing the first formal declaration of the new dogma of the sovereignty of the people to replace the divine rights of the king. In matters of religion, although he repeats that they are all good, Rousseau favors a state religion as more suitable to the stability and order of the government. But he specifically excludes the Catholic religion under the pretext that its members obey a foreign prince, and he banishes from his state all atheists, who may even be condemned to death. Five of Rousseau's works, including Émile, Du Contrat Social, and La Nouvelle Héloïse, are on the Index.

The Confessions. These were begun in 1765 and are an indispensable document on Rousseau's life and even on his thought, but they must be followed with utmost caution. Rousseau, often victim of delusions about himself, poses as a lover of virtue and of humanity who is persecuted for his very attachment to virtue. He boasts of his absolute sincerity and of having revealed in his Confessions dishonorable secrets unknown to his contemporaries. Yet many of his statements and even more of his judgments have been found erroneous.

The Confessions must be supplemented, for the years after 1765, by the Dialogues: Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, the ravings of a mind troubled by persecution mania, and by the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire. The latter are the soliloquies of an old and sick man, finding satisfaction in his walks through the countryside around Paris, reminiscing about his youth, his loves, at times almost delirious and on the verge of insanity, at other times seemingly resigned and at peace with the world. In the fifth Rêverie the word "romantic" is used for the first time in French literature, in a description of the shores of the Lake of Bienne in Switzerland, where Rousseau had spent some peaceful weeks in the difficult year of 1768.

His Influence. The lively and often bitter controversies Rousseau stirred up during his lifetime have not completely abated. He still has his fervent admirers and resolute opponents. Some of the latter are prone to make him responsible for most of the evils of the 19th and 20th centuries because he encouraged subjectivism, sentimentality, and sensualism, and he raised the individual above society and made him the sole judge of his actions. It cannot be denied that Rousseau's impact on literature and philosophy has been deep and lasting, notably in education, and in the fields of social and political ideas; but for the ideal of reason that had governed the classical age he substituted the reign of the heart and the autonomy of passion.

Bibliography: i. babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (Boston 1919). j. maritain, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (New York 1942). p. m. masson, La Religion de Jean Jacques Rousseau (Paris 1916). d. mornet, Rousseau: L'Homme et l'oeuvre (Paris 1950). l. j. proal, La Psychologie de Jean Jacques Rousseau (Paris 1930). c. e. vaughan, Studies in the History of Political Philosophy before and after Rousseau, ed. a. g. little, 2 v. (New York 1925). f. vial, La Doctrine d'education de J. J. Rousseau (Paris 1920).

[f. vial]

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712–1778)

views updated May 21 2018


A political and moral philosopher during the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed provocative ideas about human nature, education, and the desired relationship between individuals and the ideal society.

Born in the city of Geneva, Switzerland, Jean-Jacques Rousseau lost his mother hours after his birth and was abandoned by his father at the age of seven. After many years of failed apprenticeships and employments, Rousseau rose to intellectual prominence in 1750 upon winning first prize in an essay contest in France. This marked the beginning of a long period of scholarly production in which he authored a number of philosophical treatises that addressed the problem of individual and collective freedomand how education might help to resolve the dilemma by producing enlightened citizens who would uphold an ideal state. Forced to flee France and Switzerland as a result of the social criticisms inherent in his work, Rousseau found temporary refuge in England and then surreptitiously returned to France where he remained until his death.

Social Inequalities

Rousseau's discontent with contemporary society became evident in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750). Addressing the question of whether progress in the arts and sciences had abetted or detracted from morals, Rousseau portrayed civilization as evil, and he chastised scholars for pursuing knowledge for fame instead of social progress. Similarly, in his Discourse on Inequality and his article on political economy written for Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie (both published in 1755), Rousseau lamented man's departure from the state of nature and his consequent preoccupation with artificial social customs and institutionsall derived from vain and illusory desires to dominate others. Although he accepted individual or innate differences among human beings, Rousseau attacked the existence of social and civil inequalities in which people crushed the spirits of others in attempting to control them.

In the wake of these social criticisms, Rousseau sketched his vision for an ideal society. Particularly in The Social Contract and Émile, both published in 1762, Rousseau delineated a society without artificial social constraints or civil inequality. Ruled by a "general will" that encapsulated the essential commonality of all men, citizens would utilize reason to reconcile their individual interests with the laws of the state. Educated to be self-interested and self-reliant, a citizen would not measure himself against other people nor seek to control them. He would eschew selfish inclinations in favor of social equality. How, then, could such an ideal state emerge? For Rousseau, it required the complete education of a child.


Echoing his disdain for contemporary culture and politics in The Social Contract, Rousseau begins Émile by declaring: "God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil." Society held man hostage in artificial institutions and traditions, thereby corrupting the natural goodness of human nature. This proclamation contradicted the notion of original sin, widely accepted in eighteenth-century Europe. It implied that a complete social revolutionnot mere pedagogical reformwas necessary to replace the artificial social mores of the bourgeoisie with a new class of natural, self-reliant citizens. In accordance with John Locke's empirical epistemology, moreover, Rousseau believed that children were born ignorant, dependent, impressionable, without rational thought, and gained all knowledge through direct contact with the physical world.

As a result, Rousseau removed his fictional pupil, Émile, from his family and placed him in rural isolation. The first three stages of a child's development (infancy, boyhood, and pre-adolescence) required a kind of "negative" education. Protected from the artificial and pernicious influences of contemporary society, Émile would not develop unrealistic ambitions and feelings of jealousy or superiority with regard to other men (amour propre ). In such a way, the tutor would encourage the child's physical development, shield him from social and religious institutions, prevent the formation of bad habits and prejudices, and preserve his natural inclination of self-interest (amour de soi ).

Educated free from the manipulations and desires of others up to this point, Rousseau wanted Émile to remain ignorant of social duty and only to understand what was possible or impossible in the physical world. In such a way, his student would learn to obey the immutable laws of nature. For instance, if Émile were to break the window to his room, he would face the consequences of sleeping with a cold draft. If Émile were to ignore his astronomy lesson, he would endure the panic of losing his way in the woods at night. Through this kind of trial and error, the child would gradually develop reason, adapt to different situations, and become an autonomous man.

The only appropriate book for Rousseau's future citizen was Robinson Crusoe, as it depicted the independent activities of a man isolated in a natural setting. And to abet Émile's self-reliance, Rousseau exposed his student to a variety of artisan trades. Thus, the child would not crave things he could not get, nor would he engage in a vain desire to control other people. An independent and rational young man, Émile learned to accept what was available to him. It is important to note, however, that although the tutor was always behind the scenes, he constantly manipulated conditions to give Émile the illusion of freedom.

Having developed the power to reason by the age of fifteen, the child then needed to develop his morality by understanding society and God. Through the safe and detached medium of historical study, Rousseau wanted his pupil to construct his understanding of human character. Detailed historical accounts of men's spoken words and actions would allow Émile to recognize the universality of natural human passion. As a self-confident and rational adolescent, he would neither envy nor disdain those in the past, but would feel compassion towards them.

This was also the time to cultivate Émile's religious faith. Rousseau did not want his pupil to become an anthropomorphic atheist. Nor did he want his pupil to fall under the authority of a specific religious denomination, with its formal rituals and doctrines. Such trappings smacked of the very artificial social institutions from which Émile was to be freed. Instead, Émile was to recognize the limitations of his senses and to have faith that Godthe supreme intelligent will that created the universe and put it into motionmust in fact exist. In this respect, Rousseau deviated from the Enlightenment faith in man's reason as the sole vehicle for understanding God. Rousseau also alienated himself from formal religious institutions in demeaning their authority and asserting the original goodness of human nature. The corrupt codes and institutions of society had tarnished the purity of human nature, fueled a quest to rule over others, and made man a tyrant over nature and himself. The only salvation, however, rested not with God but society itself. A better society, with civil equality and social harmony, would restore human nature to its original and natural state and thereby serve the intent of God. In this way, Rousseau's brand of religious education attempted to teach the child that social reform was both necessary and consistent with God's will.

In Rousseau's final stage of education, his pupil needed to travel throughout the capitals of Europe to learn directly how different societies functioned. Émile also needed to find an appropriate mate, Sophie, who would support him emotionally and raise his children. Assuming that women possessed affectionate natures and inferior intellectual capacities, Rousseau relegated Sophie to the role of wife and mother. In direct contrast to Émile's isolated upbringing for developing his reason and preparing him as a citizen, Sophie's education immersed her in social and religious circles from the outset, thereby ensuring that she would not become a citizen. Despite this inequality, Rousseau believed that Émile and Sophie would comprise a harmonious and moral unit in the ideal state and produce future generations who would uphold it.

Gender Considerations

Some scholars have explored the implications of Rousseau's gender-distinct education and have suggested that Émile's societal isolation rendered him inadequate as a husband and citizen. Raised in social isolation and without family, Émile developed the capacity to think rationally, but at the expense of affectionate and empathetic feelings necessary to sustain a relationship with his future wife or with the ideal state. As delineated in The Social Contract, Rousseau's ideal state required not merely rational thinkers, but citizens who empathized with one another and the state. Thus, according to this view, Rousseau's gender-distinct assumptions produced an inadequate education for Sophie (whose reason had not developed) and Émile (emotionally cold and prey to his wife's manipulations). The family, fragmented and incomplete, could not sustain the ideal state.

A number of scholars have doubted whether Émile's isolation in the countryside could necessarily be free of social forces and whether the tutor could exemplify abstract principles without alluding to examples from conventional society. On the other hand, generations since Rousseau have altered their child-rearing practices and adopted his developmental view of childhood as a period of innocence. Some have accused Rousseau, in his manipulation of Émile and stress on the general will, of advocating a proto-totalitarian state. On the other hand, many scholars have identified Rousseau's faith in the agency of individuals to make rational and enlightened decisions both for themselves and their society as a precursor to democracy. Indeed, this lack of consensus about Rousseau's legacy speaks less to his inadequacies than to his profound contributions to the fundamental, enduring, and controversial questions about human nature, self, society, and education.

See also: Philosophy of Education.


Bloom, Allan. 1978. "The Education of Democratic Man: Émile. " Daedalus 107:135153.

Boyd, William. 1963. The Educational Theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau. New York: Russell and Russell.

Cassirer, Ernst. 1954. The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. and ed. Peter Gay. New York: Columbia University Press.

Martin, Jane Roland. 1985. Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Owen, David B. 1982. "History and the Curriculum in Rousseau's Émile. " Educational Theory 32:117129.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1964. The First and Second Discourses (1750, 1755), ed. Roger D. Masters and trans. Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martins.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1993. Émile (1762), trans. Barbara Foxley. London: Dent.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1988. The Social Contract (1762), trans. George Douglas Howard Cole. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

Sevan G. Terzian

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

views updated May 11 2018

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 1712-1778


Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent much of his life in and around Paris acting as the gadfly of the philosophes, leaders of the French Enlightenment. He championed equality and popular sovereignty on the eve of the French Revolution, encouraged the birth of nationalism, historicism, and romanticism, and provided prescient critiques of the bourgeois, the quintessential figure of the democratic age he helped launch.

In On the Social Contract (1762), Rousseau denied the existence of any natural hierarchy or divine right that could legitimize political inequality, arguing that natural inequalities between human beings were politically irrelevant. The social contract substituted a moral and legitimate equality for whatever inequality nature may have placed between men, and while they may be unequal in force or genius, they all become equal by convention and right ( On the Social Contract, I.ix). While he believed every legitimate government was republican, he understood by this only that the executive power should be beholden to the sovereign people ( His preferred regime was an aristocratic government, or executive, responsible to the people ( Ironically, while he was one of the first political thinkers to champion popular sovereignty, he maintained that a democratic government was suited only to a people of gods (Iii.iv).

Central to his political thought was the general will: the will of the political community as a whole, manifest in laws to which all citizens had consented and by which all were bound (II.iv). Rousseau held that what generalizes the will is not so much the number of votes, as it is the common interest which unites them (II.iv), and he wrote extensively, in Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772) and the Letter to M. dAlembert on the Theatre (1758), on the need to encourage community spirit through civic education and the promotion of virtue. His emphasis on the particular character of political communities inspired the rise of nationalism, influencing the German philosophers Johann Gottfried Herder (17441803) and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (17621814).

The argument of The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1754) helped give birth to historicism: the idea that human ideas and actions are better explained by history rather than by nature or divine will. History, not nature, nor God, was responsible for the great paradox that: Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains ( On the Social Contract, I.i). Free, contented, but asocial by nature, humans could hope only to legitimate rather than remove the chains brought by political life.

Rousseaus autobiographical work, especially The Confessions (1782), his praise of nature, particularly in The Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), and his argument in the Discourse on the Sciences ands Arts (1751) that the popularization of science diverted people from the practice of moral duties, all contributed to the romantic movement.

Rousseau also offered one of the first critiques of the bourgeois. Alienated from nature, without being committed to political life, the bourgeois were torn between private interests and public duties. Materialistic and inauthentic, they were enslaved by the opinions of others and strangers to themselves.

SEE ALSO Enlightenment; Hobbes, Thomas; Locke, John; Naturalism; Social Contract; State of Nature


OHagan, Timothy. 1999. Rousseau. London and New York: Routledge.

Wokler, Robert. 1995. Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fiona Miller

Rousseau, Jean Jacques

views updated May 21 2018


Jean Jacques Rousseau achieved prominence as a philosopher and political theorist in eighteenth-century France. A talented musical composer and botanist, Rousseau's ideas on the nature of society made him an influential figure in Western thought. His belief that civilization had corrupted humankind was a central part of his philosophy. His work elevated the importance of the individual and personal liberty, providing support for U.S. revolutionary ideology.

Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712, in Geneva, Switzerland. By the age of sixteen, he had left home. In Savoy he met Baronne Louise De Warens, a wealthy woman who took Rousseau into her home and transformed him into a philosopher through a rigorous course of study. Rousseau also studied music during his time with De Warens. In 1742 he moved to Paris, where he became associated with Denis Diderot, a philosopher who was editor of the French Encyclopédie, a monumental work of scholarship about the arts and society. Diderot commissioned Rousseau to write articles about music for the work.

In 1750 Rousseau won a prize for his essay Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. The essay announced one of Rousseau's life-long tenets: human beings are inherently good but have been corrupted by society and civilization. In 1752 he won fame as a composer for his opera The Village Sage. Despite the accolades, Rousseau abandoned his musical career, believing it was morally unworthy to work in the theater. Instead he pursued his investigation of society, writing Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Mankind in 1752. He enlarged on his first work, criticizing civilization for its corrupting influence and praising the natural, or primitive, state as morally superior to the civilized state.

Rousseau left Paris in 1756 and secluded himself at Montmorency, so as to be closer to nature. He did not return to writing until 1761, when he wrote the romance Julie, or the New Eloise. The following year he wrote one of his

most enduring and influential works, The Social Contract. The book opens with the famous sentence, "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains." Rousseau believed that society and government created a social contract when their goals were freedom and the benefit of the public. Government became the supreme ruler, but its existence depended on the will of the people. The social order was based on the general will, a shared belief in a common set of interests, which he believed was the natural choice of rational people. The general will was also a form of freedom, and the purpose of law was to combine the general will with the desires of the people.

Rousseau was convinced that laws could not be unjust if the general will of the people was followed. The Social Contract was suffused with

the belief that freedom and civil liberty are essential to a just society. Society should not be ruled by elites but by the general will of all people. Rousseau, like the English philosopher john locke (1632–1704), provided justification for the idea of a liberal society based on popular will that would be embraced by the American colonists in the years leading up to the U.S. Revolution. The American colonists believed that the social contract with England had been broken. Rousseau's belief in the primacy of the individual, however, has proved to be an idea that found its greatest acceptance in the United States.

Rousseau wrote the novel Émile in 1762, which was a platform for his ideas on education. He believed that the purpose of education is not to impart new information but to bring out what is inherently within each person and to encourage the full development of the human being. Children should be allowed self-expression and the opportunity to develop their own views about the world, rather than to submit to repression and conformity. Rousseau's ideas were radical for the time but have proved enduring.

The political climate was hostile to Rousseau following the publication of The Social Contract and Émile. The French Catholic Church banned both books, and Rousseau was forced to begin a period in exile. Driven from Switzerland for his ideas, he eventually arrived in England, where he was befriended by the philosopher david hume. While in England he prepared a treatise on botany.

"As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State, 'What does it matter to me?,' the State may be given up for lost."
Jean Jacques Rousseau

In 1768 he returned to France under an assumed name. In 1770 he completed his Confessions, an autobiography of relentless self-examination in which he documented the emotional and moral conflicts of his life. He died on July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville, France.

further readings

Galanter, Marc. 1999. "Farther Along." Law & Society Review 33 (December).

O'Hagan, Timothy. 1999. Rousseau. London, New York: Routledge.

Wintgens, Luc J. 2001. "Sovereignty and Representation." Ratio Juris 14 (September).

Rousseau, Jean Jacques

views updated May 23 2018

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1712–78) French philosopher of the Age of Reason, whose ideas about society helped to shape the political events that resulted in the French Revolution. Rousseau was born a Protestant in Geneva, Switzerland, and became a Roman Catholic in the 1730s, but later in his life he reconverted to Protestantism in order to regain his citizenship rights in Geneva. In 1740, Rousseau moved to Paris and soon devoted himself to a career as a writer and composer. He contributed articles on music to the Encyclopédie of Diderot in the 1740s, and finally won fame for his essay, Discourses on Science and the Arts (1750). In The Social Contract (1762), he argued that man had been corrupted by civilization. His ideas on individual liberation from the constraints of society were developed in the novel Émile (1762). He described his early, wandering life in an autobiography, Confessions, published posthumously in 1782.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

views updated May 11 2018

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (b Geneva, 1712; d Ermenonville, 1778). Swiss philosopher, composer, and writer on music. While working as copyist, devised new system of mus. notation which he published in Dissertation sur la musique moderne (Paris, 1743). Wrote opéra-ballet, Les muses galantes (1747), and very successful pastoral opera Le Devin du village (Fontainebleau 1752). Took It. side in Querelle des Bouffons and attacked Fr. mus. in his Lettre sur la musique française (1753). Pubd. Dictionnaire de Musique (1768). Left unfinished opera Daphnis et Chloé and wrote about 100 songs.