Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau, Jean Jacques

Jean Jacques Rousseau (zhäN zhäk rōōsō´), 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer.

Life and Works

Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker. His mother died shortly after his birth, his father abandoned him about a decade later, and his upbringing was haphazard. At 16 he set out on a wandering, irregular life that brought him into contact (c.1728) with Louise de Warens, who became his patron and later his lover. It was she who introduced him to books and music. She also arranged for his trip to Turin, where he became an unenthusiastic Roman Catholic convert. After serving as a footman in a powerful family, he left Turin and spent most of the next dozen years at Chambéry, Savoy, with his patron. In 1742 he went to Paris to make his fortune with a new system of musical notation, but the venture failed. Once in Paris, however, he became an intimate of the circle of Denis Diderot (to whose Encyclopédie Rousseau contributed nearly 400 articles on music, politics, and other subjects), Melchior Grimm, and Mme d'Épinay. At this time also began his liaison with Thérèse Le Vasseur, a semiliterate servant who became his common-law wife.

In 1749, Rousseau won first prize in a contest, held by the Academy of Dijon, on the question: "Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the corruption or to the improvement of human conduct?" Rousseau took the negative stand, contending that humanity was good by nature and had been fully corrupted by civilization. His essay made him both famous and controversial. Although it is still widely believed that all of Rousseau's philosophy was based on his call for a return to nature, this view is an oversimplification, caused by the excessive importance attached to this first essay. A second philosophical essay, Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité des hommes (1754), is one of Rousseau's most mature and daring productions. After its publication, Rousseau returned to Geneva, reverted to Protestantism in order to regain his citizenship, and returned to Paris with the title "citizen of Geneva."

Mme d'Épinay lent him a cottage, the Hermitage, on her estate at Montmorency. But Rousseau began to quarrel with Mme d'Épinay, Diderot, and Grimm, all of whom he accused of complicity in a sordid plot against him, and left the Hermitage to become the guest of the tolerant duc de Luxembourg, whose château was also at Montmorency. There he finished his novel, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), written in part under the influence of his love for Mme d'Houdetot, the sister-in-law of Mme d'Épinay. The story of the love of a nobleman's daughter for her poor tutor was the best-selling novel of the 18th cent. He also wrote Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), a diatribe against the suggestion that Geneva would be better off for having a theater; Du contrat social (1762); and Émile (1762), which offended both the French and Genevan ecclesiastic authorities and was burned at Paris and at Geneva.

Rousseau, with the connivance of highly placed friends, escaped, however, to the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, then a Prussian possession. His house was stoned, and Rousseau fled once more, this time to the canton of Bern, settling on the small island of Saint-Pierre, in the Lake of Biel. In 1765 he was expelled from Bern and accepted the invitation of David Hume to live at his house in England; there he began to write the first part of his Confessions, but after a year he quarreled violently with Hume, whom he believed to be in league with Diderot and Grimm, and returned to France (1767). His suspicion of people deepened and became a persecution mania.

After wandering through the provinces, he finally settled (1770) at Paris, where he lived in a garret and copied music. The French authorities left him undisturbed, while curious foreigners flocked to see the famous man and be insulted by him. At the same time he went from salon to salon, reading his Confessions aloud. In his last years he began Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, descriptions of nature and his feeling about it, which was unfinished at the time of his death. Shortly before his death Rousseau moved to the house of a protector at Ermenonville, near Paris, where he died. In 1794 his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris.

Rousseau's Thought

Few people have equaled Rousseau's influence in politics, literature, and education. His political thought is contained in Du contrat social, but it must be supplemented by other works, notably the Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité and his drafts of constitutions for Corsica and for Poland. Rousseau is fundamentally a moralist rather than a metaphysician. As a moralist, he is also, unavoidably, a political theorist. His thought begins with the assumption that we are by nature good, and with the observation that in society we are not good. The fall of humanity was, for Rousseau, a social occurrence. "But human nature does not go backward, and we never return to the times of innocence and equality, when we have once departed from them."

Although he locates the cause of our deformity in society, Rousseau is not a primitivist. In Émile and Du contrat social, he proposed, on an individual and a social level, what might be done. What was new and important about his educational philosophy, as outlined in Émile, was its rejection of the traditional ideal: education was not seen to be the imparting of all things to be known to the uncouth child; rather it was seen as the "drawing out" of what is already there, the fostering of what is native. Rousseau's educational proposal is highly artificial, the process is carefully timed and controlled, but with the end of allowing the free development of human potential.

Similarly, with regard to the social order, Rousseau's aim is freedom, which again does not involve a retreat to primitivism but perfect submission of the individual to what he termed the general will. The general will is what rational people would choose for the common good. Freedom, then, is obedience to a self-imposed law of reason, self-imposed because imposed by the natural laws of humanity's being. The purpose of civil law and government, of whatever form, is to bring about a coincidence of the general will and the wishes of the people. Society gives government its sovereignty when it forms the social contract to achieve liberty and well-being as a group. While this sovereignty may be delegated in various ways (as in a monarchy, a republic, or a democracy) it cannot be transferred and resides ultimately with society as a whole, with the people, who can withdraw it when necessary.

Rousseau's political philosophy assumes that there really is a common good, and that the general will is not merely an ideal, but can, under the right conditions, be actual. And it is under such conditions, with the rule of the general will, that Rousseau sees our full development taking place, when "the advantages of a state of nature would be combined with the advantages of social life." Because he had such faith in the existence of the common good and the rightness of the general will, Rousseau was extreme in the sanctions he was willing to allow for its achievement: "If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: He has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law." Finally, Rousseau advocates a civil religion. Rousseau's thought sometimes rings of Calvinist Geneva, even though he reacted against its vision of humanity and had his books burned by its ecclesiastic authorities.

In its time his epistolary novel Héloïse was immensely popular, but it is scarcely read today, while the Confessions remains widely read. Proposing to describe not only his life, but also his innermost thought and feelings, hiding nothing be it ever so shameful, Rousseau followed the model of St. Augustine's Confession, but he created a new, intensely personal style of autobiography. The Héloïse,Émile, the Confessions, and the Rêveries all transfer to the domain of literature Rousseau's longing for a closeness with nature.

His sensitive awareness apprehended the subtle influences of landscape, trees, water, birds, and other aspects of nature on the shifting state of the human soul. Rousseau was the father of Romantic sensibility; the trend existed before him, but he was the first to give it full expression. Rousseau's style, in all his writings, is always personal, sometimes bizarre, sometimes rhetorical, sometimes bitterly sarcastic, sometimes deliberately plebeian, and often animated by a tender and musical quality unequaled in French prose. Although self-taught, he possessed a thorough knowledge of musical theory, but his compositions exerted no direct influence on music.


Rousseau's influence on posterity has been equaled by only a few, and it is by no means spent. His influence on German and English romanticism—and thus, indirectly, on romanticism in general—is difficult to overestimate. In addition, men as diverse as Immanuel Kant, Johann Goethe, Maximilien de Robespierre, Johann Pestalozzi, and Leo Tolstoy have been his disciples. His doctrine of popular sovereignty had a profound impact on French revolutionary thought. Although he did not advocate collective ownership, his ideas also had their effect on socialist thought. It is probably more correct to say that he anticipated rather than influenced many insights of modern social psychology.


See biographies by F. C. Green (1955, repr. 1970), J. Guéhenno (2 vol., tr. 1966), L. G. Crocker (2 vol., 1968–73), and L. Damrosch (2005); I. Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (2d ed. 1947, repr. 1965); E. Cassirer, The Question of Jean Jacques Rousseau (tr. 1963); A. Cobban, Rousseau and the Modern State (2d ed. 1964); J. MacDonald, Rousseau and the French Revolution, 1762–1791 (1965); W. Blanchard, Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt (1967); R. D. Masters, Political Philosophy of Rousseau (1968); J. Maritain, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (1970); R. Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau (1973); I. Hunt, Politics in Commercial Society (2015); H. Meier, On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life (2016).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Selected full-text books and articles

Rousseau By Nicholas Dent Routledge, 2005
The Social Contract and Discourses By Jean-Jacques Rousseau; G. D. H. Cole E. P. Dutton, 1950
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality By Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Franklin Philip; Patrick Coleman Oxford University Press, 1999
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Rousseau on International Relations By Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Stanley Hoffmann; David P. Fidler Clarendon Press, 1991
Jean Jacques Rousseau and His Philosophy By Harald Höfding; William Richards; Leo E. Saidla Yale University Press, 1930
Rousseau: A Study of His Thought By J. H. Broome Edward Arnold, 1963
Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau By Thomas McFarland Clarendon Press, 1995
Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism By Gregory Dart Cambridge University Press, 1999
Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling By Alan Jacobs William B. Eerdmans, 2004
Librarian's tip: "The Only Honest Man"
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