Last reviewed: June 2018
French philosopher, dramatist, and novelist
June 28, 1712
Geneva (now in Switzerland)
July 2, 1778
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (rew-soh), French philosopher, novelist, and essayist, was born June 28, 1712, in Geneva. The fact that his mother died at his birth he referred to as the first of his misfortunes. When he was twelve years old his father, a watchmaker of restless disposition, was forced to leave Geneva for challenging someone of high social standing. Isaac Rousseau sent Jean-Jacques to live with his mother’s brother. Himself a man of many moods and little stability, Rousseau wandered and held positions for very short periods of time until he settled, more or less, upon a life as a writer. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
At thirteen Rousseau was apprenticed to a boorish and cruel engraver who punished him for his adolescent pranks; at sixteen he ran away and contacted a Catholic priest, who sent him to Madame Louise de Warens at Annecy. He lived with de Warens most of the time from 1729 to 1742, first as a guest and then as a lover. She sent him to the seminary of Turin, where it is reported that he was converted to Catholicism in nine days. For brief periods he was a lackey in two aristocratic households but returned eventually to Annecy. His study for the priesthood lasted two months. He also studied music and gave a very unsuccessful concert, but he did obtain a few pupils. Next he tried to find employment in Paris but failed and returned to de Warens. At the age of nineteen, he also turned down the position she obtained for him as clerk in the census bureau. For the next eleven years he lived as de Warens’s protégé, lover, and assistant. At her small farm he began seriously to pursue a musical and literary career. Unlike many intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Rousseau was self-taught and kept journals filled with musings on diverse fields such as science, botany, mathematics, music, astronomy, literature, and philosophy.
In 1742, when he was thirty years old, he left for Paris with a play titled Narcisse and a new system of musical notation to submit to the Academy of Sciences. He met two influential women in Paris and through them many writers, musicians, and scientists. Philosopher and novelist Denis Diderot became an intimate friend. Rousseau became secretary to the comte de Montaigu, French ambassador in Venice, but he was dismissed from his post following a quarrel after one year. This event confirmed Rousseau’s belief that justice could never be realized in a social system based on inequality of status. About 1744 he took as his mistress a servant, Thérèse Levasseur. Reportedly they had five children, whom he consigned to a foundling home. Jean-Jacques and Thérèse were married twenty years later.
Rousseau achieved sudden fame in 1750 with his prize-winning A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, given before the academy of Dijon. To the academy’s contest question, “Have the arts and sciences contributed to improve morals?” he answered firmly in the negative. Quite the contrary, wrote Rousseau, the arts and sciences, the results of institutions and civilization, tended to corrupt humankind’s natural goodness. Furthermore, only countries which are strong and virtuous are able to retain primitive simplicity. His third main point was that the rewards of progress are corruption and military defeat.
Three years later he competed for another prize at Dijon, the subject being the origin of inequality among people and whether it is authorized by natural law. In A Discourse on Inequality, he said that in humankind’s march from the original state of nature to modern society, the tribal state is the happiest one; in this, the natural, primitive state, there are no inequalities of social position, rank, or inherited wealth. All development beyond this tribal period he condemned for the introduction of private property, an inequality resulting in a handful of the mighty and the rich as against millions living in squalor and obscurity. This work won for Rousseau fame throughout Europe and the United States. Rousseau preached that the trouble with the world was that selfish laws and customs and spiritual bigotry—absolutism in state and church—had changed humankind’s natural bent and cut people off from the heritage of equality, reason, and benevolence. This idea is encapsulated in the first line in A Treatise on the Social Contract, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
Although these ideas were not new, nor his alone by any means, their very real significance lay in the fact that Rousseau presented them concretely as a culminating point of history. His ideas became the battle cry of a new age and found powerful expression in the French Revolution, and they permeated nineteenth-century literature. Rousseau has been called the “father of Romanticism” because of the influence he exerted on William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley in England and on Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schiller, and Immanuel Kant in Germany. It is worth noting that many of his works were translated nearly immediately into English following their original publication in French.
Rousseau sought to break the hold of all external sanctions in state, church, literature, and society. Individual freedom he exalted; constituted authority he condemned. By temperament and training he was averse to control and restraint. He believed in natural impulse as opposed to discipline, in emotion as against reason. He established the predominance of feeling and subjectivity over the patient investigation of fact.
His The New Héloïse and Émile further exemplify his chief paradox that a barbarian (the natural man) is superior to a modern European. The New Héloïse is the story of Julie, a baron’s daughter who marries a count after she has had a scandalous affair with a young man of the middle class. The count asks the young man to join them in “a union of hearts.” Noteworthy in the rather tedious work is Rousseau’s interest in the common people, coupled with his glorifications of nature. Émile gave Rousseau the title “father of modern education.” It would seem that his ideal system of education was the one that least hindered the development of the student’s native or natural bent. Also, Émile contains Rousseau’s scandalous digression on the Savoyard vicar, whose Deist views contradicted orthodox Catholic theology.
In A Treatise on the Social Contract, Rousseau developed the theories that all government rests upon the consent of the governed. His ideal government was one that least checks the individual and gives to the individual the maximum of direct control in all state affairs. Rousseau’s writing and reputation made him a public enemy. To avoid arrest he went to Berne and to Prussia. His 1763 reply to the attack made upon Émile by the archbishop of Paris was his famous “Lettre à Christophe de Beaumont.”
Expelled from Geneva, his house stoned, Rousseau went to England at the invitation of David Hume. He later returned to France and finally settled in Paris in 1770. His final years were increasingly filled with paranoid delusions that Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, and others conspired to keep his writings away from the public. In Paris he completed The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, which was published posthumously in 1782, and in 1776 wrote a series of dialogues with himself. The Reveries of the Solitary Walker also belongs to this period. He died at Ermenonville, near Paris, on July 2, 1778. Like many great thinkers, Rousseau's ideas were ahead of their time and gained ground after his death. He is often credited with pioneering concepts that are now integral to Western politics and education.