Rousseau, Jean Jacques

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Rousseau, Jean Jacques

Jean Jacques Rousseau achieved prominence as a philosopher and political theorist in eighteenth-century France. A talented musical composer and botanist, Rousseau's ideas on the nature of society made him an influential figure in Western thought. His belief that civilization had corrupted humankind was a central part of his philosophy. His work elevated the importance of the individual and personal liberty, providing support for U.S. revolutionary ideology.

Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712, in Geneva, Switzerland. By the age of sixteen, he had left home. In Savoy he met Baronne Louise De Warens, a wealthy woman who took Rousseau into her home and transformed him into a philosopher through a rigorous course of study. Rousseau also studied music during his time with De Warens. In 1742 he moved to Paris, where he became associated with Denis Diderot, a philosopher who was editor of the French Encyclopédie, a monumental work of scholarship about the arts and society. Diderot commissioned Rousseau to write articles about music for the work.

In 1750 Rousseau won a prize for his essay Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. The essay announced one of Rousseau's life-long tenets: human beings are inherently good but have been corrupted by society and civilization. In 1752 he won fame as a composer for his opera The Village Sage. Despite the accolades, Rousseau abandoned his musical career, believing it was morally unworthy to work in the theater. Instead he pursued his investigation of society, writing Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Mankind in 1752. He enlarged on his first work, criticizing civilization for its corrupting influence and praising the natural, or primitive, state as morally superior to the civilized state.

Rousseau left Paris in 1756 and secluded himself at Montmorency, so as to be closer to nature. He did not return to writing until 1761, when he wrote the romance Julie, or the New Eloise. The following year he wrote one of his most enduring and influential works, The Social Contract. The book opens with the famous sentence, "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains." Rousseau believed that society and government created a social contract when their goals were freedom and the benefit of the public. Government became the supreme ruler, but its existence depended on the will of the people. The social order was based on the general will, a shared belief in a common set of interests, which he believed was the natural choice of rational people. The general will was also a form of freedom, and the purpose of law was to combine the general will with the desires of the people.

Rousseau was convinced that laws could not be unjust if the general will of the people was followed. The Social Contract was suffused with the belief that freedom and civil liberty are essential to a just society. Society should not be ruled by elites but by the general will of all people. Rousseau, like the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), provided justification for the idea of a liberal society based on popular will that would be embraced by the American colonists in the years leading up to the U.S. Revolution. The American colonists believed that the social contract with England had been broken. Rousseau's belief in the primacy of the individual, however, has proved to be an idea that found its greatest acceptance in the United States.

Rousseau wrote the novel Émile in 1762, which was a platform for his ideas on education. He believed that the purpose of education is not to impart new information but to bring out what is inherently within each person and to encourage the full development of the human being. Children should be allowed self-expression and the opportunity to develop their own views about the world, rather than to submit to repression and conformity. Rousseau's ideas were radical for the time but have proved enduring.

The political climate was hostile to Rousseau following the publication of The Social Contract and Émile. The French Catholic Church banned both books, and Rousseau was forced to begin a period in exile. Driven from Switzerland for his ideas, he eventually arrived in England, where he was befriended by the philosopher David Hume. While in England he prepared a treatise on botany.

"As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State, 'What does it matter to me?,' the State may be given up for lost."
—Jean Jacques Rousseau

In 1768 he returned to France under an assumed name. In 1770 he completed his Confessions, an autobiography of relentless self-examination in which he documented the emotional and moral conflicts of his life. He died on July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville, France.

Further readings

Galanter, Marc. 1999. "Farther Along." Law & Society Review 33 (December).

O'Hagan, Timothy. 1999. Rousseau. London, New York: Routledge.

Wintgens, Luc J. 2001. "Sovereignty and Representation." Ratio Juris 14 (September).

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