Jean Jacques Rousseau
An outline biography
Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on June
28th 1712, his mother died a few days after his birth.
Some ten years later his father, a watchmaker by trade, left
Geneva following a quarrel with a member of an influential family
leaving his two sons to be raised by their aunt and uncle.
Rousseau was apprenticed at the age of thirteen firstly to a
notary and then to a coppersmith, but after three years he ran
away. After several days of wanderings he was directed to the
household of the wealthy and charitable Madame Louise de Warens
at Annecy in Savoy who subsequently sent him to a hospice
institution offering accomodation in Turin.
Some two years later and after unsuccessfully embarking on
several employments (including seminarian and music teacher), and
after making a trip to Paris (from which he returned on foot!),
Rousseau became secretary and companion to Madame de Warens at
her new home at Chambéry. He continued in this role for
about eight years and was able to find time to unsystematically
learn much about philosophy, and to regularly attend the theater,
alongside the performance of his duties.
Rousseau left Madame de Warens household in 1740 (she had
taken a new lover) and took on a number of employments as a clerk
or as a tutor. In 1742 he went to Paris, where he earned his
living as a music teacher, music copyist, and political
secretary. He became a close friend of the French philosopher
Denis Diderot, who commissioned him to write articles on music
for the French Encyclopédie .
In 1745 Rousseau became involved with Thérèse
Lavasseur, a chambermaid who worked in the hotel in which he
lodged. Their affair successively generated five children each of
whom were given over to the foundling home at a very early
He lived a life of relative poverty and obscurity until his
later thirties. It was an essay that is usually referred to by
its abbreviated title "Discours sur les sciences et les arts"
(Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts) written in 1750 in
response to a competition announced by the Academy of Dijon that
first brought him to public notice. Not only did it win first
prize but its content won a public celebrity after an edited
version was published towards the end of 1750.
In this essay written on the subject of whether "Progress of
Science and the Arts" had been morally beneficial or not Rousseau
held that people had once lived lives that were simple, virtuous,
and happy, but that Progress in Science and the Arts had tended
to make lives more complex, more corrupt, and unhappy.
Governments were more powerful, individual liberties were
constrained. Rousseau held that Princes welcomed their subjects
involvement with the arts because it helped to "wind garlands of
flowers around the chains that bind them".
In 1752 Rousseau's opera Le devin du village (The Cunning
Man of the Village) was first performed - before the royal court
at Fontainebleu! - with much success.
Rousseau changed his approach to religion several times
during his life. He was brought up within Calvinism in Geneva.
When he fled his apprenticeship in 1728, (and ended up in Turin)
he had adopted Catholicism. In 1754 he returned briefly to Geneva
where he was made welcome. He re-affirmed his adherence to
Calvinism and was recognised as having citizenship rights in
Rousseau had previously joined with French "progressives"
such as the Encyclopédistes and Philosophes in tussles
with the Catholic church and the Paris Parlement but from these
times chose to withdraw from these tussles. He himself maintained
a "theism" of the heart and considered that, as things stood,
poorer people in France derived much consolation from religion.
Unlike the Encyclopédistes and Philosophes Rousseau seems
to have identified with the French people as a whole rather than
just with the more commercially, educationally and technically
progressive elements amongst the commoner "Third Estate". (The
other two "Estates" being the Aristocracy and the Clergy).
In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Mankind
Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de
l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755) Rousseau
again expounded the view that the natural, or primitive, state is
morally superior to the civilized state. The discovery and
utilisation of iron and wheat had given rise to population
increases and wars. Property laws also came into being as the
wealthy felt a need to protect that wealth. The existence of
property, and associated restrictions, tending to undesirably
alter the relations between man and man.
Rousseau's views that human beings had once lived in a
blissfully anarchic "state of nature" the innocence of which we
have since lost through the corruptions of organized society was
far removed from Voltaire's own view that the disciplined
practice of Reason was, or at least could be, gradually
emancipating us from the chains of ancient passions and
superstitions, and he replied with predictable irony:-
"I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human
race, and I thank you. No one has employed so much intelligence
to turn us men into beasts. One starts wanting to walk on all
fours after reading your book. However, in more than sixty years
I have lost the habit."
Subsequently the two philosophers became bitter enemies.
In 1755 an article commissioned by Diderot for the
Encyclopédie was published seperately as Le Citoyen: Ou
Discours sur l'économie politique. In this article
Rousseau outlined three ways in which social inequalities might
Rousseau had, by this time, undergone alterations in his
outlook, as one symptom of this he distanced himself from the
Encyclopédistes and Philosophes, but he also found life in
Paris less relevant and more exasperating. He accepted an offer
of accomodation in the Hermitage at Montmorency from an admirer,
- Rousseau suggested that there should be an equality in
political rights and duties - a "general will" volonté
générale should be respected and this would
limit the tendency of the wealthy to impose on the freedoms and
the lives of others.
- There should be a system of public education for all
children. This education was to instill love of country and
moral-martial austerity such as had been the case in ancient
- Rousseau suggested that taxes on inheritances and luxuries
should enhance the present state income.
On relocating to the Hermitage in 1756 Rousseau seems to
have had several philosophical literary projects in mind but, in
the event, found himself increasingly drawn towards the writing
of a work of romantic fiction. He also met, and became attracted
to, the Comtesse d'Houdetot, a sister-in-law of Madame
d'Épinay. Rousseau's involvement with the Comtesse and
other matters resulted in a breach with Madame d'Épinay
and Rousseau relocated to a nearby house, Montlouis, owned by
another admirer, the immensely rich Maréchal de
Luxembourg, in December 1757.
Rousseau remained at Montlouis for several years during
which time he completed his work of romantic fiction Julie: or,
the New Eloise Julie: ou, la nouvelle Héloïse
(1761) and also, "Emile" a work about education and personal
development Émile: Ou de l'education (1762). In
Emile Rousseau recommended that children be breast-fed by their
mothers, rather than farmed out to professional wet-nurses as was
often the case, and raised in ways that contributed to physical
hardiness. In terms of their intellectual development they should
not have social conventions impressed upon them or a formal
education drummed into them but rather, they should we encouraged
in any area they themselves showed interest in. Teachers should
be friends and encouragers rather than tyrants who sought cram
their charges with knowledge.
Were people to be given a more natural upbringing Rousseau
hoped that the ill-effects that he attributed to civilization
would be lessened and that people would again exhibit the good
effects that arose from innate feelings for justice and
The year 1762 also saw the writing of Rousseau's most famous
work The Social Contract (Du contrat social). The opening
sentence of the Social Contract is:-
"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in
chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still
remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come
about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question
I think I can answer."
Throughout this work Rousseau considers questions of
society, its authority, personal liberty, and obedience to the
authority of society. Rousseau saw society as being, ideally, a
Social Contract freely entered into where the the people were
sovereign and could dismiss unacceptable governments. Consent
based governments would act to abolish practices and institutions
that make men unhappy and to encourage practices and institutions
that made men happy. Rousseau held that Liberty, Equality, and
Fraternity, would obtain where people placed themselves, freely
and on equal terms, at the disposal of the "General Will". In
return people could expect to receive protection for themselves
and their property whilst contributing to the protection of
Rousseau saw "civil religion" as being necessary. There
should be tolerance of all religious opinions and a recognition
that Providence would reward the good citizen and punish the bad.
Such an approach to civil religion would facilitate the
commitment of all to the society.
The citizen surrenders his rights and possessions to the
"general will" which, thus undivided by sectarian and private
interests, must necessarily aim at the impartial good. Thus if a
man acts against the "general will" he must in Rousseau's phrase
"be forced to be free through being brought back to an awareness
of his own true interests". The Social Contract looked to a form
of society that sought to promote, "Liberty, Equality, and
Rousseau's views of monarchy and governmental institutions
outraged the powers that be and his ideas on natural religion
were seen as reprehensible by both Catholics and Protestants.
Rousseau's Emile and Social Contract were condemned by the
Parlement of Paris as being contrary to the government and
religion. Rousseau was effectively forced him to flee and ended
up in Môtiers in Neuchâtel under the protection of
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. Emile and Social Contract
were later symbolically burned on the orders of the executive
council in Geneva.
In 1764 Rousseau was invited by Corsican nationalists, then
seeking independence from the Republic of Genoa, to prepare a
would-be constitution for Corsica. Rousseau began, but did not
finish, this task.
Corsica was actually transferred by Genoa to France. French
control was imposed in 1769. This transfer allowed a young
Corsican named Napoleon Buonaparte, who was born shortly
thereafter, to claim French citizenship!!!
In the same year Rousseau received an anonymous pamphlet that
had, in fact, been written by Voltaire. In this pamphlet Le
Sentiment des citoyens "The Feeling of the Citizens" Rousseau
is characterised as being hypocritical, a heartless father and an
ungrateful friend. Rousseau was shocked by this and began to
produce his "Confessions" - an autobiographical work of
Rousseau had written a tract entitled Lettres
écrites dans la montagne "Letters Written from the
Mountain" (1764) in response to the burning of Emile and the
Social Contract in Geneva. This tract, if anything, further
alienated protestant opinion. In 1765 the house in which Rousseau
was living in Neuchâtel was vandalised and Rousseau decided
He spent some time in Berne and eventually accepted David
Hume's invitation to live in England. It was at Wooten Hall near
Ashbourne (1766-67), where Rousseau continued to prepare his
autobiographical Confessions (1781).
Persecution mania and hypersensitivity, possibly deriving from
Rousseau's many harassments, soured his relations with his
English friends. There was a public quarrel between Rousseau and
Hume that variously entertained much of educated Europe. Rousseau
again decided to relocate he was however at a bit of a loss to
know where he could safely live.
In the event Rousseau returned to France in May 1767 but
assumed the name of Renou. After a brief time enjoying the
hospitality of the Marquis de Mirabeau Rousseau-Renou lived at
the Château de Trye near Gisors lent to his use by
François-Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Conti, who had
earlier helped Rousseau to obtain the special passport that had
allowed him to proceed to England.
Rousseau stayed at the Château de Trye until June
1768. In 1768 Rousseau and Thérèse Lavasseur were
married in a civil ceremony at Bourgoin near Lyons. In 1770
Rousseau moved back to Paris where he reassumed his own name
without, initially, being harassed by the authorities. It was
complaints made by Madame d'Épinay following Rousseau's
reading of extracts of his Confessions in Paris salons that
brought some restriction on Rousseau's activities.
In 1771 Rousseau was approached by Polish nationalists of
the so-called "Confederation of Bar" to advise about Polish
institutions. In 1772 this Confederation was overwhelmed by the
forces of the Tsar.
Rousseau seems to have become increasingly somewhat obsessed
by a need to justify himself in his later life. He lived in
seclusion and accepted few visitors. In May 1778 he moved to a
pavilion on the estate of the Marquis René de Giradin at
Ermenonville 45 Km N.E. of Paris. He died on July 2nd
1778 and was buried on an island in a lake on the estate.
From 1789 there was a revolution in France which, amongst
many other things, unmistakeably upheld "reason" and "virtue".
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
that was issued, amidst revolutionary enthusiasm, in 1789
displays a Rousseauist influence.
The French revolutionaries finished what had been begun as a
church, of St. Genevieve, as the Panthéon which was
dedicated to those the revolution regarded as being "les Grands
Hommes". In October 1794 Jean Jacques Rousseau's remains joined
those of the philosopher René Descartes, the revolutionary
leader Mirabeau, and the writer and agitator for justice
Voltaire, in being accorded a place in the Panthhéon.
Rousseau's "Social Contract" with its desire for a society
dedicated to Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, being a guiding
text of revolutionary policy.
Although Rousseau contributed greatly to the movement in
Western Europe for individual freedom and against the absolutism
of church and state, his conception of the state as the
embodiment of the abstract will of the people is regarded by some
historians as a source of totalitarian ideology.
Rousseau's theory of education as set out in Emile led to
more permissive and more psychologically oriented methods of
child care, and influenced the German educator Friedrich Froebel,
the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and
other pioneers of modern education.
The New Eloise and Confessions introduced a new style of
extreme emotional expression, concern with intense personal
experience, and exploration of the conflicts between moral and
sensual values. In these writings Rousseau profoundly influenced
romanticism in literature and philosophy in the early 19th
century. He also affected the development of the psychological
literature, psychoanalytic theory, and philosophy of
existentialism of the 20th century, particularly in his
insistence on free will, his rejection of the doctrine of
original sin, and his defense of learning through experience
rather than analysis. The spirit and ideas of Rousseau's work
stand midway between the 18th-century Enlightenment, with its
passionate defense of reason and individual rights, and early
19th-century romanticism, which defended intense subjective
experience against rational thought.
All in all Jean Jacques Rousseau author of the Social
Contract, Emile, and Confessions undoubtedly qualifies as one of
the most dramatically influential of modern philosophers or
Popular European History pages
- 1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
- A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.
- 2 The French Revolution of 1848
- A particular focus on France - as an Austrian foreign minister said "When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".
- 3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
- "Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted
to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.
- 4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
- A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.
- 5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
- Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support
the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power
in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European
structure of states and their sovereignty.