Jean-Jacques Rousseau
French philosopher and writer

1712 - 1778

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a French philosopher. He was the most important writer of the Age of Reason, a period of European history that extended from the late 1600's to the late 1700's. Rousseau's philosophy helped shape the political events that led to the French Revolution. His works have influenced education, literature, and politics.

Rousseau was born in Geneva, in what is now Switzerland. The Rousseau family was of French Protestant origin and had been living in Geneva for nearly 200 years. Rousseau's mother died as a result of giving birth to him, leaving the infant to be raised by his quarrelsome father. As the result of a fight in 1722, Rousseau's father was forced to flee Geneva. The boy's uncle then took responsibility for his upbringing.

In 1728, Rousseau ran away from Geneva and began a life of wandering, trying and failing at many jobs. He was continually attracted to music. For years, Rousseau was undecided between careers in literature or music.

Shortly after leaving Geneva, at the age of 15, Rousseau met Louise de Warens, a well-to-do widow. Under her influence, Rousseau joined the Roman Catholic Church. Although he was 12 or 13 years younger than Madame de Warens, Rousseau settled down with her near Chambery in the Duchy of Savoy. He described the happiness of their relationship in his famous autobiography, Confessions (written 1765 or 1766-1770, published in 1782, 1788). However, the relationship did not last and Rousseau eventually left in 1740.

In 1741 or 1742, Rousseau was in Paris seeking fame and fortune and hoping to establish himself in a musical career. His hope lay in a new system of musical notation that he had invented. He presented the project to the Academy of Sciences, but it aroused little interest.

In Paris, Rousseau became friends with the philosophes, a group of famous writers and philosophers of the time. He gained the patronage of well-known financiers. Through their sponsorship, he served in Venice as secretary to the French ambassador in 1743 and 1744.

The turning point in Rousseau's life came in 1749, when he read about a contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. The academy was offering a prize for the best essay on the question: Whether the revival of activity in the sciences and arts was contributing to moral purification. As he read about the contest, Rousseau realized the course his life would take. He would oppose the existing social structure, spending the rest of his life indicating new directions for social development. Rousseau submitted an essay to the academy. His Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750 or 1751) attacked the arts and sciences for corrupting humanity. He won the prize and the fame he had so long desired.

When Rousseau converted to Catholicism, he lost his citizenship in Geneva. To regain his citizenship, he reconverted to Protestantism in 1754. In 1757, he quarreled with the philosophes, feeling they were persecuting him. Rousseau's last works are marked by emotional distress and guilt. They reflect his attempt to overcome a deep sense of inadequacy and to find an identity in a world that seemed to have rejected him.

In three Dialogues, also called Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques (written 1772-1776, published 1782), Rousseau tried to answer charges by his critics and those he believed were persecuting him. His final work was the beautiful and serene Reveries of the Solitary Stroller (written 1776-1778, published 1782). Rousseau also wrote poetry and plays in both verse and prose. His musical works include many essays on music, an influential opera called The Village Soothsayer (1752), a highly respected Dictionary of Music (1767), and a collection of folk songs entitled The Consolation of My Life's Miseries (1781). In addition, he wrote on botany, an interest he cherished, especially during the last years of his life.

Rousseau criticized society in several essays. For example, in Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality (1755), he attacked society and private property as causes of inequality and oppression. The New Heloise (1761) is both a romantic novel and a work that strongly criticizes the false codes of morality Rousseau saw in society. In The Social Contract (1762), a landmark in the history of political science, Rousseau gave his views concerning government and the rights of citizens. In the novel Emile (1762), Rousseau stated that children should be taught with patience and understanding. Rousseau recommended that the teacher appeal to the child's interests, and discouraged strict discipline and tiresome lessons. However, he also felt that children's thoughts and behavior should be controlled.

Rousseau believed that people are not social beings by nature. He stated that people, living in a natural condition, isolated and without language, are kind and without motive or impulse to hurt one another. However, once they live together in society, people become evil. Society corrupts individuals by bringing out their inclination toward aggression and selfishness.

Rousseau did not advise people to return to a natural condition. He thought that people could come closest to the advantages of that condition in a simple agricultural society in which desires could be limited, sexual and egotistical drives controlled, and energies directed toward community life. In his writings, he outlined institutions he believed were necessary to establish a democracy in which all citizens would participate.

Rousseau believed that laws should express the general will of the people. Any kind of government could be considered legitimate, provided that social organization was by common consent. According to Rousseau, all forms of government would eventually tend to decline. The degeneration could be restrained only through the control of moral standards and the elimination of special interest groups. Robespierre and other leaders of the French Revolution were influenced by Rousseau's ideas on the state. Also, many Socialists and some Communists have found inspiration in Rousseau's ideas.

Rousseau foreshadowed romanticism, a movement that dominated the arts from the late 1700's to the mid-1800's. In both his writings and his personal life, Rousseau exemplified the spirit of romanticism by valuing feeling more than reason, impulse and spontaneity more than self-discipline. Rousseau introduced true and passionate love to the French novel, popularized descriptions of nature, and created a lyrical and eloquent prose style. His Confessions created a fashion for intimate autobiographies.

Contributor: Jean Terrasse, Ph.D., Prof. of French Language and Literature, McGill Univ.

Additional resources

Cranston, Maurice W. Jean-Jacques. Norton, 1983. The Noble Savage. Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1991. Multivolume work, publication in progress.

Crocker, Lester G. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 2 vols. Macmillan, 1968-1973.

Melzer, Arthur M. The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau's Thought. Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1990.


Use Browser « Back Button To Return To Last Page Visited
Copyright (1998 - 2000): Concord Learning Systems, Concord, NC.
All rights reserved. For details and contact information:
See License Agreement, Copyright Notice.