|June 28, 1712 (Geneva, Switzerland)
|July 2, 1778 (Ermenonville, France)
|Social contract theory
|Political philosophy,music, education, literature, autobiography
|General will, amour-propre
|Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Denis Diderot
|Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Romantic movement
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778) was a Genevan philosopher of the Enlightenment whose political ideas influenced the French Revolution, the development of socialist theory, and the growth of nationalism. Rousseau also made important contributions to music both as a theorist and as a composer. With his Confessions and other writings, he practically invented modern autobiography and encouraged a new focus on the building of subjectivity that would bear fruit in the work of thinkers as diverse as Hegel and Freud. His novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse was one of the best-selling fictional works of the eighteenth century and was important to the development of romanticism.
Rousseau was born in Geneva (then an independent republic, today part of Switzerland) and throughout his life described himself as a citizen of Geneva. His mother, Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, died nine days after his birth due to complications from childbirth, and his father Isaac, a failed watchmaker, abandoned him in 1722 to avoid imprisonment for fighting a duel. His childhood education consisted solely of reading Plutarch's Lives and Calvinist sermons. After his father's departure, Rousseau was placed in the care of a pastor at Bossey, near Geneva. According to Rousseau's own account in Book I of the Confessions, his experience of corporal punishment at the hands of the pastor's sister was important in the formation of his sexuality.
Rousseau left Geneva on March 14, 1728, after several years of apprenticeship to a notary and then an engraver. He then met Françoise-Louise de Warens, a French Catholic baroness twelve years his elder who would later become his lover. Under the protection of de Warens, he converted to Catholicism.
In 1742 Rousseau moved to Paris in order to present the Académie des Sciences with a new system of numbered musical notation he had invented, based on a single line displaying numbers that represented intervals between notes and dots and commas that indicated rhythmic values. The system was intended to be compatible with typography. The Academy rejected it as impractical and unoriginal, but a version of the system remains in use in some parts of the world.
From 1743 to 1744, he was secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, whose republican government Rousseau would refer to often in his later political work. After this, he returned to Paris, where he befriended and lived with Thérèse Levasseur, a semi-literate seamstress who, according to Rousseau, bore him five children, though this number may not be accurate. All the children were deposited at a foundling hospital soon after birth and would most likely have perished soon afterwards, as the mortality rate for such children was very high. Rousseau's abandonment of his children became a source of embarrassment once he became known as a theorist of education and child-rearing, and was used by enemies including Voltaire to attack him. In his defense, Rousseau explained that he would have been a poor father, and, implausibly, that the children would have a better life at the foundling home.
While in Paris, he became friends with Diderot and beginning in 1749 contributed several articles to his Encyclopédie, beginning with some articles on music. His most important contribution was an article on political economy, written in 1755. Soon after, his friendship with Diderot and the Encyclopedists would become strained.
In 1749, as Rousseau walked to Vincennes to visit Diderot in prison, he read in the Mercure de France of an essay competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon, asking whether the development of the arts and sciences had been morally beneficial. Rousseau claimed that this question caused him to have a moment of sudden inspiration by the roadside, during which he perceived the principle of the natural goodness of humanity on which all his later philosophical works were based. As a consequence of this, he answered the competition question in the negative, in his 1750 "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences", which won him first prize in the contest and gained him significant fame.
During this period he continued his interest in music and in 1752 his opera Le Devin du Village was performed for King Louis XV. The same year, the visit of a troupe of Italian musicians to Paris, and their performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, prompted the Querelle des Bouffons, which pitted protagonists of French music against supporters of the Italian style. Rousseau was an enthusiastic supporter of the Italians against Jean-Philippe Rameau and others, making an important contribution with his Letter on French Music.
In 1754, Rousseau returned to Geneva where he reconverted to Calvinism and regained his official Genevan citizenship. In 1755 Rousseau completed his second major work, the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. This began a troubled period in Rousseau's personal relationships in which he gradually became estranged from his former friends such as Diderot and Grimm and from benefactors such as Madame d'Epinay. He also pursued an important but unconsummated romantic attachment with Sophie d'Houdetot. Following his break with the Encyclopedists, he enjoyed the support and patronage of the Duc de Luxembourg, one of the wealthiest nobles in France.
Rousseau, in 1761 published the successful romantic novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (The New Heloise). In 1762 he published two major books, first Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique (in English, literally Of Social Contract, Principles of Political Right) in April and then Émile, or On Education in May. Both books criticized religion and were banned in both France and Geneva. Rousseau was forced to flee arrest and made stops in both Bern and Môtiers in Switzerland, where he enjoyed the protection of Frederick the Great of Prussia and his local representative, Lord Keith. While in Motiers, Rousseau wrote the Constitutional Project for Corsica (Projet de Constitution pour la Corse).
Facing criticism in Switzerland – his house in Motiers was stoned in 1765 – he took refuge with the philosopher David Hume in Great Britain. Isolated at Wootton on the borders of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, Rousseau suffered a serious decline in his mental health and began to experience paranoid fantasies about plots against him involving Hume and others. As a result he fled back to France in 1767 under the name "Renou," although officially he was not allowed to return before 1770. In 1768 he went through a legally invalid marriage to Thérèse, and in 1770 he returned to Paris. As a condition of his return, he was not allowed to publish any books, but after completing his Confessions, Rousseau began private readings in 1771. At the request of Madame d'Epinay the police ordered him to stop, and the Confessions, was only partially published in 1782, four years after his death. All his subsequent works were also only to appear posthumously.
Rousseau continued to write until his death. In 1772, he was invited to present recommendations for a new constitution for Poland, resulting in the Considerations on the Government of Poland, which was to be his last major political work. In 1776 he completed Dialogues: Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques and began work on the Reveries of the Solitary Walker. In order to support himself through this time, he returned to copying music. Because of his prudential suspicion, he did not seek attention or the company of others. While taking a morning walk on the estate of the Marquis de Giradin at Ermenonville (28 miles northeast of Paris), Rousseau suffered a hemorrhage and died on July 2, 1778.
Rousseau was initially buried on the Ile des Peupliers. His remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris in 1794, sixteen years after his death and located directly across from those of his contemporary Voltaire. The tomb was designed to resemble a rustic temple, to recall Rousseau's theories of nature. In 1834, the Genevan government reluctantly erected a statue in his honor on the tiny Ile Rousseau in Lake Geneva. In 2002, the Espace Rousseau was established at 40 Grand-Rue, Geneva, Rousseau's birthplace.
Rousseau saw a fundamental divide between society and human nature. Rousseau contended that man was good by nature, a "noble savage" when in the state of nature (the state of all the "other animals", and the condition humankind was in before the creation of civilization and society), but is corrupted by society. This does not require, however, that humans act civily; in fact, speaking in terms of 'just' or 'wicked' is impossible in Rousseau's pre-political society. Humans may act with all of the ferocity of an animal. They are good because they are self sufficent and thus are not subject to the vices of political society. He viewed society as artificial and held that the development of society, especially the growth of social interdependence, has been inimical to the well-being of human beings. (It should be noted that Rousseau himself never used the phrase "noble savage".)
Society's negative influence on otherwise virtuous men centers, in Rousseau's philosophy, on its transformation of amour de soi, a positive self-love, into amour-propre, or pride. Amour de soi represents the instinctive human desire for self preservation, combined with the human power of reason. In contrast, amour-propre is not natural but artificial and forces man to compare himself to others, thus creating unwarranted fear and allowing men to take pleasure in the pain or weakness of others. Rousseau was not the first to make this distinction; it had been invoked by, among others, Vauvenargues.
In "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" Rousseau argued that the arts and sciences had not been beneficial to humankind because they were not human needs, but rather a result of pride and vanity. Moreover, the opportunities they created for idleness and luxury contributed to the corruption of man. He proposed that the progress of knowledge had made governments more powerful and had crushed individual liberty. He concluded that material progress had actually undermined the possibility of sincere friendship, replacing it with jealousy, fear and suspicion.
His subsequent Discourse on Inequality tracked the progress and degeneration of mankind from a primitive state of nature to modern society. He suggested that the earliest human beings were isolated semi-apes who were differentiated from animals by their capacity for free will and their perfectibility. He also argued that these primitive humans were possessed of a basic drive to care for themselves and a natural disposition to compassion or pity. As humans were forced to associate together more closely, by the pressure of population growth, they underwent a psychological transformation and came to value the good opinion of others as an essential component of their own well being. Rousseau associated this new self-awareness with a golden age of human flourishing. However, the development of agriculture and metallurgy, private property and the division of labor led to humans becoming increasingly dependent on one another and to inequality. The resulting state of conflict led Rousseau to suggest that the first state was invented as a kind of social contract made at the suggestion of the rich and powerful. This original contract was deeply flawed as the wealthiest and most powerful members of society tricked the general population, and thus instituted inequality as a fundamental feature of human society. Rousseau's own conception of the social contract can be understood as an alternative to this fraudulent form of association. At the end of the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau explains how the desire to have value in the eyes of others, which originated in the golden age, comes to undermine personal integrity and authenticity in a society marked by interdependence, hierarchy, and inequality.
Perhaps Rousseau's most important work is The Social Contract, which outlines the basis for a legitimate political order. Published in 1762 it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the Western tradition. It developed some of the ideas mentioned in an earlier work, the article Economie Politique, featured in Diderot's Encyclopédie. Rousseau claimed that the state of nature eventually degenerates into a brutish condition without law or morality, at which point the human race must adopt institutions of law or perish. In the degenerate phase of the state of nature, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. According to Rousseau, by joining together through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law.
While Rousseau argues that sovereignty should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between sovereign and government. The government is charged with implementing and enforcing the general will and is composed of a smaller group of citizens, known as magistrates. Rousseau was bitterly opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly. Rather, they should make the laws directly. It has been argued that this would prevent Rousseau's ideal state being realized in a large society, though in modern times, communication may have advanced to the point where this is no longer the case. Much of the subsequent controversy about Rousseau's work has hinged on disagreements concerning his claims that citizens constrained to obey the general will are thereby rendered free.
Rousseau set out his views on education in Émile, a semi-fictitious work detailing the growth of a young boy of that name, presided over by Rousseau himself. He brings him up in the countryside, where, he believes, humans are most naturally suited, rather than in a city, where we only learn bad habits, both physical and intellectual. The aim of education, Rousseau says, is to learn how to live, and this is accomplished by following a guardian who can point the way to good living.
The growth of a child is divided into three sections, first to the age of about 12, when calculating and complex thinking is not possible, and children, according to his deepest conviction, live like animals. Second, from 12 to about 16, when reason starts to develop, and finally from the age of 16 onwards, when the child develops into an adult. At this point, Emile finds a young woman to complement him.
The book is based on Rousseau's ideals of healthy living. The boy must work out how to follow his social instincts and be protected from the vices of urban individualism and self-consciousness.
Rousseau's account of the education of Emile is, however, not an account of education of a gender-neutral "child." The education he proposes for Sophie, the young woman Emile is destined to marry, is importantly different to that of Emile. Sophie (as a representative of ideal womanhood) is educated to be governed (by her husband) while Emile (as a representative of the ideal man) is educated to be self-governing. This is not an accidental feature of Rousseau's educational and political philosophy, it is essential to his account of the distinction between private, personal relations and the public world of political relations. The private sphere as Rousseau imagines it depends on the (naturalized) subordination of women in order for both it and the public political sphere (upon which it depends) to function as Rousseau imagines it could and should.
The education proposed in Émile has been criticized for being impractical, and the topic itself (the education of children) has led the text to be ignored by many studying Rousseau’s more “political” works. However, of particular interest to anyone interested in Rousseau’s intentions in Émile is a letter he wrote to his friend Cramer on October 13, 1764. In the letter, Rousseau answers the criticism of impracticability: “You say quite correctly that it is impossible to produce an Emile. But I cannot believe that you take the book that carries this name for a true treatise on education. It is rather a philosophical work on this principle advanced by the author in other writings that man is naturally good” (Italics in the original).
Rousseau was most controversial in his own time for his views on religion. His view that man is good by nature conflicts with the doctrine of original sin and his theology of nature expounded by the Savoyard Vicar in Émile led to the condemnation of the book in both Calvinist Geneva and Catholic Paris. In the Social Contract he claims that true followers of Jesus would not make good citizens. This was one of the reasons for the book's condemnation in Geneva. Rousseau attempted to defend himself against critics of his religious views in his Letter to Christophe de Beaumont, the Archbishop of Paris.
Rousseau's ideas were influential at the time of the French Revolution although since popular sovereignty was exercised through representatives rather than directly, it cannot be said that the Revolution was in any sense an implementation of Rousseau's ideas. Subsequently, writers such as Benjamin Constant and Hegel sought to blame the excesses of the Revolution and especially the Reign of Terror on Rousseau, but the justice of their claims is a matter of controversy.
Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, and therefore is sometimes considered a forebear of modern socialism and communism (see Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, though Marx rarely mentions Rousseau in his writings). Rousseau also questioned the assumption that majority will is always correct. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority (see democracy).
One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. When a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. The second important principle is freedom, which the state is created to preserve.
Rousseau's ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern educational theory. In Émile he differentiates between healthy and "useless" crippled children. Only a healthy child can be the rewarding object of any educational work. He minimizes the importance of book-learning, and recommends that a child's emotions should be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience. John Darling's 1994 book Child-Centered Education and its Critics argues that the history of modern educational theory is a series of footnotes to Rousseau.
In his main writings Rousseau identifies nature with the primitive state of savage man. Later he took nature to mean the spontaneity of the process by which man builds his egocentric, instinct based character and his little world. Nature thus signifies interiority and integrity, as opposed to that imprisonment and enslavement which society imposes in the name of progressive emancipation from coldhearted brutality.
Hence, to go back to nature means to restore to man the forces of this natural process, to place him outside every oppressing bond of society and the prejudices of civilization. It is this idea that made his thought particularly important in Romanticism, though Rousseau himself is sometimes regarded as a figure of The Enlightenment.