Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Political Philosophy: JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712-1778)


Biographical Data

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born June 28, 1712 in Geneva and died July 2, 1778 in Ermenonville, France. His father was Isaac Rousseau, a clock maker; his mother —Suzanne Bernard— who died only a few days after his birth.

When he was 13 years old Jean-Jacques Rousseau began an apprenticeship as an engraver, which he abandoned three years later when he moved to Annecy; there he held several jobs as a teacher and secretary. Footloose and inconstant, he eventually moved to Paris, in 1742.

Befriended by Denis Diderot, he was engaged as a contributor to Diderot’s project: Encyclopédie, a radical magazine at the time. Besides having a natural instinct for writing, Rousseau also had a natural bent for music. Not only did he compose music, but he also invented an original notation musical system. Attached to the French embassy in Venice, he studied Italian opera, which motivated him to write two operas: Les Muses galantes (1742) and Le Devin du village (1752).

As if literary studies and music weren’t challenging enough, Jean-Jacques Rousseau involved himself in speculative philosophy, earning in 1750 a prize from the Academy of Dijon for his Discours sur les sciences et les arts. In 1754, Jean-Jacques Rousseau returned to Geneva and (re)converted to Calvinism. One year later he published the Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men).

Unable to cope with opposition and criticism for his radical ideas, he went to the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, then, by invitation from David Hume, he traveled to England. In 1767 he returned to the south of France and eventually back to Paris.

In 1772, Jean-Jacques Rousseau finished his last political work, Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne (Considerations on the Government of Poland, published 1782), in which he sketches out a new constitution for Poland. And just before his death, Jean-Jacques Rousseau finished the additional autobiographical works Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacque; Dialogue (Dialogues: Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques); and Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of the Solitary Walker).

Literary Output

Political Writings

The Social Contract of Rousseau is an original work which focuses on the sources of political injustice in France in the eighteenth cen­tury. Despite its abstract and at times confusing prose, the books’ impact was enormous. In some parts, however, the writing is not only clear, but also accessible to a wide range of readers.

He takes pains, emotionally and intellectually, to explain that the people owns the absolute and inalienable right of sovereignty; and that the roles of all government —hereditary as well as elective— were subordinate to the people. So appealing was his phrasing that it was used to support the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man."  

In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau shows that political organization was introduced as a means of conserving rights which originate in the state of nature.

In the Contrat Social he deviates from both Hobbes and Locke by maintaining that men abandon the state of nature simply because they have agreed to signing a social contract.

Other Writings

In 1762 he published his Emile, a revolutionary work on education. This gained him the enmity of the church leaders who viewed his ideas as an advocacy of "natural religion" in place of the dogmas of revealed religion. In the throes of prosecution he fled to Switzerland,

He was able to return to France in 1767 and spent the last ten years of his life in retirement, completing his Confessions.

Rousseau's Bridge to Immortality

Rousseau’s fame is fed by major accomplishments in three different fields: Political thought, education, and literature.

Political thought: In the Social Contract, Rousseau posited the thesis that man is by nature good; that the arts and institutions of civilization dilute and pervert man’s true nature; that the basic goodness can be restored by creating institutions which foster man’s natural human desires. Therefore, organized social restraint may be justified if all men consent to be governed by those institutions.

The most quoted phrase today is a mixture of literary antithesis and the rhetorical oxymoron: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”

Education: Shortly after the publication of the Contrat, Rousseau publishes his next book: Émile ou De l'éducation (Èmile, or on education), to great success. Following his critique of civilization (“Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man”), Jean-Jacques Rousseau prescribes his principles of how children should be raised in order to become good citizens: kindness. Love, sports, laughter, peace, and innocence

 criticized in his second Discourse by proposing a form of contract that should grant people And it is thus subjected to the general will: “Each of us puts in common his person and his whole power under the supreme direction of the general will, and in return we receive every member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

Literature: In 1761, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published the novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Julie or the New Heloise), which turned out to be an immediate success.

Although he had finished his autobiography Confessions, it wasn’t published until just after his death. And with this text —much like Augustine— he pioneered what has become known as the autobiographical genre: “I have entered on an enterprise which is without precedent, and will have no imitator. I propose to show my fellows a man as nature made him, and this man shall be myself.”


He died in 1778 in the throes of the French Revolution. Not only did the agents of the Reign of Terror appropriate his ideas, but also American philosophers and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. 

The most quoted phrase today is a mixture of literary antithesis and the rhetorical oxymoron: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”

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