Social Contract, Emile, Confessions
[Rousseau, biography]

Home > Philosophy Index > Rousseau

  Age of the Sage ~ Home   |   Explore our site   |   Download Wisdoms  

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 age. 

  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 Geneva.

  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 be lessened:- 

  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 Sparta. 
  Rousseau suggested that taxes on inheritances and luxuries should enhance the present state income. 
  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, Madame d'Épinay. 

  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 virtue.

  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 others.

  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 Fraternity".

  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 self-justification.

  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 to relocate.

  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 philosophic writers.

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

Italian Unification - Cavour, Garibaldi and
the Unification of Risorgimento Italy
Otto von Bismarck &
The wars of German unification
Italian unification map
Risorgimento Italy
Map of German unification
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.
Introductory quotations
Rousseau biography
Adam Smith
Spirituality & the wider world


Start of
Jean Jacques Rousseau
biography page