Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the greatest thinkers of the 18th century. His writings inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and influenced the Romanticism movement. As a philosopher, he tried to accommodate Christianity and the rationalist and materialist thought of his time. He named this synthesis, ‘materialism of the wise’ or ‘civil religion’. In politics, his theory of Social contract went beyond the economic Liberalism of English thinkers and the Positivist attitude of Montesquieu. His efforts towards ‘natural education’ and his search for a freely accepted contract between teachers and pupils have left an immovable legacy in the realm of education. His thought had a broad influence not only in political or philosophical circles, but to the general educated public, as he also wrote novels and autobiographical works.

Early years

Jean-Jacques was born on June 28, 1712, the son of a Genevan watchmaker and the niece of a Calvinist minister. His education began early at the age of six and he had a great appetite for reading. He began with novels and comedies but gradually made his way to the study of the great historians, such as Plutarch and some of the great moralists. He was influenced by his father’s Republican circles and his puritanical interpretation of the Bible. His Confessions (1782)[1] and the Lettre á d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758) are the most precise documents on his life in Geneva during the 18th century and on his self education.

Rousseau was forced to leave Geneva following his father’s exile[2] and his subsequent housing saw him treated badly. He fled from Geneva in March, 1728, shedding his father’s Calvinism and Republicanism as he went.

He worked as a common lackey and engraver in Turin, and while in a hospice there he converted to Roman Catholicism.[3] He took the Mme de Warens as his mistress in 1733, and stayed with her until 1740. He worked for a short time as tutor to a wealthy family in Lyons before setting out to Paris in 1741 or 1742. Rousseau had a scheme for a new system of musical notation, a draft of a comedy (Narcisse), and two letters in verse dedicated to friends in Lyons. He failed to get the success he hoped for in Paris, but the publication in 1743 of his Dissertation sur la musique moderne and his Építre á Bordes together with the composition of an opera, Les Muses galantes (1745), a comedy, Les Prisonniers de guerre, and some works on chemistry opened the door for him to the wealthy family of Claude Dupin. Dupin was a former banker and counsellor to the King. Rousseau attempted to court the Madame Dupin and failed. He then left Paris for Venice and became the private secretary to the French ambassador there, with whom he quarrelled frequently. As a result, he lost his post and returned to Paris in the fall of 1744.

Living in Paris

Early in 1745 he took up met Thérése Levasseur, a chambermaid at the hotel in which he was staying. He had several children with her who were all sent to an orphanage. Eventually he married her in 1768.

Shortly after returning to Paris he met and befriended Denis Diderot, a young philosopher who was to have a major influence on Rousseau. He gained employment with the Dupin family, who employed him as secretary from 1745 to 1752. Rousseau was working for himself at the same time however. Encouraged on by Diderot, he competed for the prize offered by the Dijon Academy in 1750 for an essay on the question of whether the restoration of the sciences and the arts had purified morals. His essay won first prize; its publication at the end of the year had made him famous.

Most of his most stinging criticism had been censored, but in his essay he had attacked the arts and sciences for enslaving and corrupting and acting as sources of propaganda, that only further made the rich richer. His attacks contained the seeds of criticism that would rain down on all of monarchic Europe.

The work provoked a series of violent disputes that continued for three years following its publication. Rousseau took advantage of this continuing debate to reveal progressively his ideas. He criticised the system of a mercenary army and advocated the organisation of a people’s militia. Also during this time he pursued his interest in music. He wrote all of the articles connected to music in the Encyclopédie, edited by Jean d’Alembert and Diderot and later published them in his Dictionnaire de musique. In 1752 he composed an opera, Le Devin du village which was first performed before the royal court. It was a great success, Rousseau was to be presented to Louis XV the next day for a pension, but refused to go. He criticised French music, much preferring Italian music which he regarded as more natural in style. Defending himself against accusations of hypocrisy, he sold all his valuables, stepped down as his position as cashier at Dupin’s bank, and from then on earned his livelihood from copying music. As a result of his criticism of French music and tyranny, he came under police surveillance in 1753.

Also, in that year, he revealed his position on the origin of inequality between men and whether it was organised by natural law. In his discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755), he gave a hypothetical description of man’s natural state, proposing that, although unequally gifted by nature, men were at one time or another equal. According to Rousseau, geological cataclysms brought men together for the ‘golden age’ described in myth, an age of primitive communal living in which men learned good together. The discovery of iron and wheat necessitated the third stage of human development by creating the need for private property. He further proposed that this warring state forced wealthy landowners to resort to a system of laws that they imposed to protect their property.

In an article commissioned by Diderot for the Encyclopédie and published separately in 1755 as Le Citoyen: Ou Discours sur l’économie politiqu, Rousseau sought ways to minimize the injustices caused by inequality.[4] He recommended three ways: first, equality in political rights and duties, or the respect for a general will according to which the private will of the wealthy would not impinge upon the freedom or life of anyone else; second, public education for all children grounded in devotion and reverence for their country and a moral austerity reminiscent of Ancient Sparta; third, an economic system combining the resources of public property with taxes on inheritance and luxuries.[5]

In the summer of 1754, Rousseau made a short visit to Geneva, where he was well received. He reconverted to Calvinism and recovered his citizen rights. In Paris he continued to support the Philosophes struggle against the forces of the church and parlement. He gradually detached himself from them, however. Though he did not wish to return to Catholicism, he didn’t want to join his friends in their criticism of all religions. According to Rousseau, only the wealthy could afford the luxury of atheism, whereas the poor needed the solace and comfort their faith brought them.


Rousseau grew weary of life in Paris and so went to a country house near Montmorency. He moved there in 1756 to devote himself to longer works, especially in the treatise he planned to call Institutions politiques and another to be called Matérialisme du sag, in which he hoped to insert a spiritual goal into the materialistic methods of education. His projects were sidetracked. In the forest of Montmorency, Rousseau became inspired by the heart, and so prepared a novel based on the correspondence between two young lovers. By accident he met the Comtesse d’Houdetot. Their relationship went no further than a romance-filled kiss under moonlight but his passion changed the novel somewhat, which eventually became Julie: Ou La Nouvelle Héloise and had a broader moral, political and economic theme.

He left the house he was staying in due to a misunderstanding between him and the owner. He settled in another house in Montmorency, which belonged to the Maréchal de Luxembourg, one of the most devoted of his powerful friends. He stayed there until June 1762; it was there he completed his novel which was published in 1761.

Meanwhile, Rousseau was gradually moving further away from his Philosophe friends. Jean D’Alembert had written the article Géneve for the Encyclopédie, in which he asserted that the clergymen of Geneva were anti-trinitarian followers of two 16th century Italians (known as Socinus, hence the nickname ‘Socinians’) and that they no longer believed in Christ’s resurrection. Furthermore, he proposed that a theatre be set up in Geneva to serve as a propaganda centre for philosophical ideas. Rousseau prepared a reply to this in secret, the Lettre á d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758). In it, Rousseau showed that the French classical theatre from Moliére to Voltaire had been the prisoner of the aristocratic conception of social and cultural life. It did not purge evil passions or chasten morals; to the contrary, it led to idleness and corruption, and that the people of Geneva should reject it in the interests of preserving their liberty. In the preface of the letter, Rousseau responded to Diderot, who had written that ‘only the wicked one lives alone’, alluding to Rousseau’s seclusion at Montmorency. Rousseau rebutted by saying that social and worldly life was the personification of wickedness. Diderot considered the letter to be a desertion at a time when Rousseau should have, in Diderot’s mind, being defending the Encyclopédie.

Émile and the Social Contract

At Montlouis, Rousseau began working on his two major works, both of which appeared in 1762. The Matérialisme du sage became a long work about education and soon acquired the title of Émile: Ou de l’éducatio.[6] Many argued that Rousseau was trying to make amends for abandoning his children to an orphanage some years earlier by trying to help other parents raise their children properly. He advised parents to rid themselves of social prejudices and to ‘follow nature’. Mothers should breast feed and should strengthen the bodies of their children by severe tests of physical strength and endurance. His method of education was slow down intellectual growth: It required a child to demonstrate his own interest in a subject and ask his own questions. At the age of puberty, the child’s sensitivity should be educated. The adolescent would then hopefully accept a free and reciprocal contract of friendship between student and teacher, who would then teach him of life itself and religion. Émile, who acquired a sense of property while cultivating his garden, discovered the hard life of a worker when he became an apprentice to a carpenter. Then, through Sophie, Émile discovered the nature of love. He had to leave her however to pursue his political education.

In Du Contract Social[7] Rousseau developed the political principles that are summarized at the conclusion of Émile. Starting with inequality as an irreversible fact, Rousseau tried to answer the question of what compels one man to obey another man or by what right one man has authority over another. He concludes that only a contract freely accepted by all allows each to bind himself to all while retaining his free will. Freedom is inherent in freely accepted law: To follow one’s impulse is slavery but to obey the self-prescribed law is liberty. In order to prevent this law from profiting solely the wealthy, the condition in which each one has something and no one has too much must exist.[8] The conclusion derived from all of this was that the people alone are sovereign and that they exercise their sovereignty through a government that they may exclude themselves from at any time; In other words, The legislative power belongs to the people, and can belong to it alone. He stressed the necessity of adapting forms of government to existing historical and geographic conditions. After analyzing the inner workings of the Roman Republic, the concluded that “Civil Religion” is a political necessity. Such a religion consists of two dogmas: first, religious tolerance and second, recognition that good citizens will be rewarded by providence and bad citizens would be punished. This religion thus laid a firm foundation for total commitment to the collectively.

Exile in Switzerland and England

“Émile” and “Du contract social” were condemned by the Parlement of Paris in June 1762 as contrary to the government and religion. Rousseau was forced to flee to Switzerland, but there too he found that his works were also banned. He defended himself in his “Lettre á Christophe de Beaumont” (1763), an attack on the Archbishop of Paris, who had condemned “Émile”, and in his “Lettres écrites de la montagne” (1764) he replied to J.B. Tronchin, prosecutor general of the Genevan Republic, who had written in defence to the executive council of Geneva for having ordered the burning of “Émile” and of “Du Contract Social”. In September 1764 Rousseau was asked by Matteo Buttafoco, leader of the Corsican Nationalists to prepare a Corsican constitution. He never completed the document, but did make a rough draft. On the last day of 1764 he received an anonymous pamphlet, “Le sentiment des citoyens” which attacked him savagely as a hypocrite, a heartless father, and an ungrateful friend. It was written by Voltaire, and it had a profound effect on Rousseau. It was when he recovered from the shock that he wrote his autobiography, the “Confessions”.

The “Lettres écrites de la montagne” had turned the Protestant ministers against him, and in September 1765, after his house had been vandalised, he decided to leave Switzerland. He obtained a special passport to go to England (Due to the help of the Prince of Conti) where he arrived in January 1766. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, took him under his wing. Rousseau however began to believe that Hume had been won over by the Parisian Philosophes in an attempt to further ruin his name. This belief and Hume’s zeal at justifying himself publically at Rousseau’s expense led to an open quarrel between them, which excited and amused educated Europe. In May 1767, Rousseau returned once again to France.

Final Years

Rousseau took the name ‘Renou’ and moved near Gisors, lent to him by his friend, the Prince of Conti. While he was at Trye his “Dictionairre de musique”, which he had been working on for years, was finally published. He left abruptly in June 1768, going first to Lyons to marry Thérése Levasseur and then to Monquin. During this period he wrote his “Confessions”. In 1770 he moved to Paris again to defend himself against the “Conspirators”. There he resumed his own name and was left unmolested. To justify himself to the world, he read aloud extracts of his confessions in several French Salons until he was ordered to stop by the Police Lieutenant of Paris.

In 1771 he was asked by noble Polish nationalists to advise them how the Poles should reform their institutions, and he wrote “Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne”. Still eager to justify himself, he wrote the “Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques: Dialogues”. He tried in December 1775 to place his work on the high altar of Notre Dame Cathedral but was prevented in doing so by the iron grille surrounding the choir. This added to his despair, as it seemed that God himself had joined his persecutors. During the last two years of his life his despair weighed heavily on him, he led a secluded life with his wife, accepted a few visitors and wrote the most serene and delicate of his works, “Les Reveries du promeneur solitaire”, which contains descriptions of nature and mans feelings for it. In May 1778 he moved to Ermenonville, to a pavilion on the estate of the Marquis Réne de Girardin, where he died about six weeks later, on July 2. His remnants were moved to the Panthéon during the French Revolution.


F.C Green, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A critical study of his life and writings (1955)
Roger D. Masters, The Political Philosophy of Rousseau (1968)


  1. English translation of Rousseau's Confessions Retrieved: 8 May, 2008
  2. His father, Isaac Rousseau, had to flee the city due to getting into conflict with an influential local family.
  3. Mainly due to coercian
  4. He did not pretend that mankind should attempt to recapture her primitive, natural state.
  5. Rousseau disliked both extremes of wealth and poverty.
  6. English version, full text. Retrieved: 18 May 2008.
  7. English version, extended extracts only. Retrieved: 18 May 2008
  8. ie, preventing extremes of wealth and poverty