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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712–78)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB060-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Rousseau was born in Geneva, the second son of Isaac Rousseau, watchmaker. His mother died a few days after his birth. From this obscure beginning he rose to become one of the best known intellectual figures of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment, taking his place alongside Diderot, Voltaire and others as one of the emblematic figures of this period, for all that he came to differ violently in view from them. He died in 1778 and in 1794 his body was transferred to the Panthéon in Paris.

Rousseau always maintained that he regretted taking up a career of letters. His first love was music and he composed a number of operas in the 1740s with some success. The turning point in his life occurred in July 1749. He was on his way to see his then friend Diderot who was imprisoned at Vincennes. He read in the newspaper a prize essay question, asking whether advances in the sciences and arts had improved morals. So overcome was he by the flood of ideas that this question aroused in him the realization that he had to break his journey. The rest of his life’s work was, he claimed, determined for him at that moment. Rousseau’s primary claim to fame depends on his ideas about morals, politics and society. Perhaps his best-known remark is ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains’; this reveals his preoccupation with issues of freedom in the state.

In answer to the prize essay question Rousseau argued that men and morals were corrupted and debilitated by advances in higher learning. The goal of prestigious distinction is substituted for that of doing useful work for the good of all. This theme, of people seeking invidious ascendancy by doing others down – the effect of exacerbated amour-propre – pervades Rousseau’s social theorizing generally. His essay, Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750), won the prize; related concerns shape the more profound Discourse on the Origin of Inequality of 1755. In his most famous work of political theory, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau presents an alternative approach to how we might achieve a just and legitimate civil order. All members of society should take an equal place as members of the sovereign authority and societal laws should come from the general will by which a people gives rules to itself. Only under such a system, Rousseau argues, will humankind live on equal terms bound by fraternal ties, enjoying as much freedom and rights of self-determination as is possible in a stable community. Speaking up in this way for the equal political standing of all, regardless of birth or wealth, Rousseau points the way towards the dissolution of the ancien régime and the emergence of more democratically based polities. Precisely what influence his ideas had on the French Revolution is impossible to determine, although his name was often invoked.

Rousseau also wrote extensively on education. In his Émile (subtitled On Education, 1762) he tries to show how a child could be brought up free of the aggressive desire to dominate others. Instead that child can be caused to want to cooperate with others on a footing of mutual respect. He hopes by this to show that his social proposals are not an unrealizable dream. In this work there are also criticisms of religious dogma and church practices which brought severe condemnation onto Rousseau. He had to flee Paris in 1762 to avoid imprisonment. This, and other related experiences, plunged him into a protracted period of mental distress in which he feared he was the object of the plotting of others. These others came to include David Hume, with whom Rousseau had hoped to find refuge in England in 1766.

Still troubled in mind, Rousseau returned to France the next year, and during the last decade of his life he wrote several works of self-explanation and self-justification. The greatest of these is his autobiography, Confessions (written between 1764 and 1775, published posthumously), but there are other more prolix writings. After an accident in 1776, the worst of Rousseau’s mental disturbance seems to have cleared and his last substantive work, an album of miscellaneous reflections on his life, ideas and experiences (Reveries of the Solitary Walker, written 1776–8), has a clarity and balance which had been absent for so long.

Citing this article:
Dent, Nicholas. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712–78), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB060-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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