Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Born: 1712. Died: 1778.


- Man is by nature good; society is the cause of corruption and vice.

- In a state of nature, the individual is characterized by healthy self-love; self-love is accompanied by a natural compassion.

- In society, natural self-love becomes corrupted into a venal pride, which seeks only the good opinion of others and, in so doing, causes the individual to lose touch with his or her true nature; the loss of one's true nature ends in a loss of freedom.

- While society corrupts human nature, it also represents the possibility of its perfection in morality.

- Human interaction requires the transformation of natural freedom into moral freedom; this transformation is based on reason and provides the foundation for a theory of political right.

- A just society replaces the individual's natural freedom of will with the general will; such a society is based on a social contract by which each individual alienates all of his or her natural rights to create a new corporate person, the sovereign, the repository of the general will.

- The individual never loses freedom, but rediscovers it in the general will; the general will acts always for the good of society as a whole.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva but became famous as a 'French' political philosopher and educationalist. Rousseau was brought up first by his father (Issac) and an aunt (his mother died a few days after his birth), and later and by an uncle. He had happy memories of his childhood - although it had some odd features such as not being allowed to play with children his own age. His father taught him to read and helped him to appreciate the countryside. He increasingly turned to the latter for solace.

At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to an engraver. However, at 16 (in 1728) he left this trade to travel, but quickly become secretary and companion to Madame Louise de Warens. This relationship was unusual. Twelve years his senior she was in turns a mother figure, a friend and a lover. Under her patronage he developed a taste for music. He set himself up as a music teacher in Chambery (1732) and began a period of intense self education. In 1740 he worked as a tutor to the two sons of M. de Mably in Lyon. It was not a very successful experience (nor were his other episodes of tutoring).

In 1742 he moved to Paris. There he became a close friend of David Diderot, who was to commission him to write articles on music for the French Encyclopedie. Through the sponsorship of a number of society women he became the personal secretary to the French ambassador to Venice - a position from which he was quickly fired for not having the ability to put up with a boss whom he viewed as stupid and arrogant.

He returned to Paris in 1745 and earned a living as a music teacher and copyist. In the hotel where he was living (near the Sorbonne) he met Therese Lavasseur who worked as a seamstress. She was also, by a number of accounts, an odd figure. She was made fun of by many of those around here, and it was Rousseau's defence of her that led to friendship. He believed she had a 'pure and innocent heart'. They were soon living together (and they were to stay together, never officially married, until he died). She couldn't read well, nor write, or add up - and Rousseau tried unsuccessfully over the years to teach her. According to his Confessions, Therese bore five children - all of whom were given to foundling homes (the first in 1746). Voltaire later scurrilously claimed that Rousseau had dumped them on the doorstep of the orphanage. In fact the picture was rather more complex. Rousseau had argued the children would get a better upbringing in such an institution than he could offer. They would not have to put up with the deviousness of 'high society'. Furthermore, he claimed he lacked the money to bring them up properly. There was also the question of his and Therèse's capacity to cope with child-rearing. Last, there is also some question as to whether all or any of the children were his (for example, Therèse had an affair with James Boswell whilst he stayed with Rousseau). What we do know is that in later life Rousseau sought to justify his actions concerning the children; declaring his sorrow about the way he had acted.

Diderot encouraged Rousseau to write and in 1750 he won first prize in an essay competition organized by the Academie de Dijon - Discours sur les sciences et les arts. 'Why should we build our own happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?' (1750: 29). In this essay we see a familiar theme: that humans are by nature good - and it is society's institutions that corrupt them (Smith and Smith 1994: 184). The essay earned him considerable fame and he reacted against it. He seems to have fallen out with a number of his friends and the (high-society) people with whom he was expected to mix. This was a period of reappraisal. On a visit to Geneva reconverted to Calvinism (and gained Genevan citizenship). There was also a fairly public infatuation with Mme d'Houderot that with his other erratic behaviour, led some of his friends to consider him insane.

Rousseau's mental health was a matter of some concern for the rest of his life. There were significant periods when he found it difficult to be in the company of others, when he believed himself to be the focus of hostility and duplicity (a feeling probably compounded by the fact that there was some truth in this). He frequently acted 'oddly' with sudden changes of mood. These 'oscillations' led to situations where he falsely accused others and behaved with scant respect for their humanity. There was something about what, and the way, he wrote and how he acted with others that contributed to his being on the receiving end of strong, and sometimes malicious, attacks by people like Voltaire. The 'oscillations' could also open up 'another universe' in which he could see the world in a different, and illuminating, way (see Grimsley 1969).

At around the time of the publication of his famous very influential discourses on inequality and political economy in Encyclopedie (1755), Rousseau also began to fall out with Diderot and the Encyclopedists. The Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg offered him (and Therèse) a house on their estate at Montmorency (to the north of Paris).

During the next four years in the relative seclusion of Montmorency, Rousseau produced three major works: The New Heloise (1761), probably the most widely read novel of his day); The Social Contract (April 1762), one of the most influential books on political theory; and Émile (May 1762), a classic statement of education. The 'heretical' discussion of religion in Émile caused Rousseau problems with the Church in France. The book was burned in a number of places. Within a month Rousseau had to leave France for Switzerland - but was unable to go to Geneva after his citizenship was revoked as a result of the furore over the book. He ended up in Berne. In 1766 he went to England (first to Chiswick then Wootton Hall near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, and later to Hume's house in Buckingham Street, London) at the invitation of David Hume.

True to form he fell out with Hume, accusing him of disloyalty and displaying all the symptoms of paranoia. In 1767 he returned to France under a false name (Renou), although he had to wait until to 1770 to return officially. A condition of his return was his agreement not to publish his work. He continued writing, completing his Confessions and beginning private readings of it in 1770. He was banned from doing this by the police in 1771 following complaints by former friends such as Diderot and Madame d'Epinay - who featured in the work. The book was eventually published after his death in 1782.

Rousseau returned to copying music to make a living, working in the morning and walking and 'botanizing' in the afternoon. He continued to have mental health problems. His next major work was Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, Dialogues, completed in 1776. In the next two years, before his death in 1778, Rousseau wrote the ten, classic, meditations of Reveries of the Solitary Walker. The book opens: 'So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbour or friend, nor any company left me but my own. The most sociable and loving of men has with unanimous accord been cast out by all the rest'. He appears to have come upon a period of some calm and serenity (France 1979: 9). At this time 'he found respite only in solitude, the study of botany, and a romantically lyrical communion with nature'.

In 1778 he was in Ermenonville, just north of Paris, staying with the Marquis de Giradin.

On July 2, following his usual early morning walk he died of apoplexy (a haemorrhage - some of his former friends claimed he committed suicide).

Major Works of Jean Jacques Rousseau

- Les Confessions (Confessions), 1770
- Considerations on the Government of Poland, 1772
- Constitutional Project for Corsica, 1772
- The Creed of a Savoyard Priest, 1762
- Le Devin du Village: an opera, 1752
- Dialogues: Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques, 1782
- Discourse on Political Economy, 1755
- Discours Sur Les Sciences et Les Arts (Discourse on Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences), 1750
- Discours Sur L'Origine Et Les Fondements De L'Inegalite Parmi Les Hommes (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality), 1755
- Dissertation sur la musique moderne, 1736
- Du Contrat Social (The Social Contract), 1762
- Emile ou de L'education (Emile or, on Education), 1762
- Essai sur l'origine des langues (Essay on the Origin of Languages), 1781
- Four Letters to M. de Malesherbes, 1762
- Julie, or the New Heloise, 1761
- Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles (Letter to M. D'Alembert on Theatre), 1758
- Lettres de la Montagne (Letters Written from the Mountain), 1764
- Narcissus, or The Self-Admirer: A Comedy, 1752
- Pygmalion: a Lyric Scene, 1762
- Reveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker), incomplete, published 1782

Quotes from Jean Jacques Rousseau

- "A woman's thoughts, beyond the range of her immediate duties, should be directed to the study of men, or the acquirement of that agreeable learning whose sole end is the formation of taste; for the works of genius are beyond her reach, and she has neither the accuracy nor the attention for success in the exact sciences." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Agriculture is the earliest and most honorable of arts." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "All my assertions are but reasons to doubt me. Seek truth for yourself; for my own part I only promise you sincerity." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "As soon as he begins to reason let there be no comparison with other children, no rivalry, no competition, not even in running races. I would far rather he did not learn anything than, have him learn it through jealousy or self-conceit. Year by year I shall just note the progress he had made, I shall compare the results with those of the [previous] year, I shall say, "You have grown so much; that is the ditch you jumped, the weight you carried ... etc.; let us see what you can do now."." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "By doing good we become good." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Conscience is the voice of the soul; the passions are the voice of the body." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Do not merely exercise the strength, exercise all the senses by which it is guided; make the best use of every one of them, and check the results of one by the other. Measure, count, weigh, compare. Do not use force till you have estimated the resistance; let the estimation of the effect always precede the application of the means. Get the child interested in avoiding insufficient or superfluous efforts. If in this way you train him to calculate the effects of all his movements, and to correct his mistakes by experience, is it not clear that the more he does the wiser he will become?" (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Do not read my book if you expect me to tell you everything." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Farewell Paris, far-famed Paris, with all your noise and smoke and dirt, where the women have ceased to believe in honor and the men in virtue. We are in search of love, happiness, innocence; the further we go from Paris the better." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "The first reward of justice is the consciousness that we are acting justly." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "The God whom I adore is not the God of darkness. He has not given me understanding in order to forbid me to use it; to tell me to [surrender] my reason is to insult the giver of reason." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "I would have the first words he hears few in number, distinctly and often repeated, while the words themselves should be related to things which can first be shown to the child." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "It is not [a child's] hearing of the word, but its accompanying intonation that is understood." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Keep your pupil busy with the good deeds that are within his power, let the cause of the poor be his own, let him help them not merely with his money, but with his service; let him work for them, protect them, let his person and his time be at their disposal; let him be their agent; he will never all his life long have a more honorable office. How many of the oppressed, who have never got a hearing, will obtain justice when he demands it for them with that courage and firmness which the practice of virtue inspires." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Man is by nature good. ... Men are depraved and perverted by society." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "The man should be strong and active; the woman should be weak and passive; the one must have both the power and the will; it is enough that the other should offer little resistance." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "The risk is not in what he does not know, but in what he thinks he knows." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Since everything that comes into the human mind enters through the gates of sense, man's first reason is a reason of sense-experience. It is this that serves as a foundation for the reason of the intelligence; our first teachers in natural philosophy are our feet, hands, and eyes. To substitute books for them does not teach us to reason, it teaches us to use the reason of others rather than our own; it teaches us to believe much and know little." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Teach by doing whenever you can, and only fall back upon words when doing it is out of the question." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Teach your scholar to observe the phenomena of nature; you will soon rouse his curiosity, but if you would have it grow, do not be in too great a hurry to satisfy this curiosity. Put the problems before him and let him solve them himself. Let him know nothing because you have told him, but because he has learned it for himself. Let him not be taught science, let him discover it. If ever you substitute authority for reason, he will cease to reason; he will be a mere plaything of other people's thoughts." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "The teacher's art consists in this: To turn the child's attention from trivial details and to guide his thoughts continually towards relations of importance which he will one day need to know, that he may judge rightly of good and evil in society." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "There is no subjection so complete as that which preserves the forms of freedom; it is thus that the will itself is taken captive." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "Those who desire to treat politics and morals apart from one another will never understand either." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "To conquer Fortune and everything else, begin by independence." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "The visible order of the universe proclaims a supreme intelligence." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "We will not attach him to any sect, but we will give him the means to choose for himself according to the right use of his own reason." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "The world of reality has its bounds, the world of imagination is boundless." (from "Emile; or, Treatise on Education", 1762)

- "As soon as [the] multitude is ... united in one body, it is impossible to offend against one of the members without attacking the body, and still more, to offend against the body without the members resenting it." (from "The Social Contract", 1762)

- "Luxury either comes of riches or makes them necessary; it corrupts at once rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness; it sells the country to softness and vanity, and takes away from the State all its citizens, to make them slaves one to another, and one and all to public opinion." (from "The Social Contract", 1762)

- "Man was born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they." (from "The Social Contract", 1762)

- "The people, being subject to the laws, ought to be their author: the conditions of the society ought to be regulated solely by those who come together to form it." (from "The Social Contract", 1762)

- "To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man." (from "The Social Contract", 1762)

- "Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping them: they love their servitude." (from "The Social Contract", 1762)

- "Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic." (from "The Social Contract", 1762)

- "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself." (from "Confessions (1712-1719)", 1781)

- "A succession of small duties always faithfully done demands no less than do heroic actions." (from "Confessions (1712-1778)", 1781)

- "Hard to rouse and hard to restrain: that had been a constant trait in my character." (from "Confessions (1723-1728)", 1781)

- "Remorse sleeps while fate is kind but grows sharp in adversity." (from "Confessions (1728-1731)", 1781)

- "One advantage resulting from virtuous actions is that they elevate the mind and dispose it to attempt others more virtuous still." (from "Confessions (1731-1732)", 1781)

- "She had some experience of the world, and the capacity for reflection that makes such experience profitable." (from "Confessions (1731-1732)", 1781)

- "I remembered the way out suggested by a great princess when told that the peasants had no bread: "Well, let them eat cake."" (from "Confessions (1737-1741)", 1781)

- "The true object of my confessions is to reveal my inner thoughts exactly in all the situations of my life. It is the history of my soul that I have promised to recount." (from "Confessions (1741)", 1781)

- "I know of nothing so potent in its effect on my feelings as an act of courage performed at the right moment on behalf of the weak, unjustly oppressed." (from "Confessions (1765)", 1781)

- "That spirit of justice in every heart." (from "Confessions (1765)", 1781)

- "The tears that are shed for fictitious sorrow are admirably adapted to make us proud of all the virtues which we do not possess." (from "A Vindication of the Rights of Men" by Mary Wollstonecraft)

- "My enemies employ more ingenuity in persecuting me than would be required for governing Europe." (from "The Insanity of Genius" by J. F. Nisbet)

- "The only moral lesson which is suited for a child-the most important lesson for every time of life-is this, "Never hurt anybody.""


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