"No man has any natural authority over his fellow men." -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 2 July 1778) was a major Genevois philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy heavily influenced the French Revolution, as well as the American Revolution and the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.
His novel, or, On Education, which he considered his most important work, is a seminal treatise on the education of the whole person for citizenship. His sentimental novel, Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, was of great importance to the development of pre-romanticism and romanticism in fiction. Rousseau's autobiographical writings: his Confessions, which initiated the modern autobiography, and his Reveries of a Solitary Walker were among the pre-eminent examples of the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, featuring an increasing focus on subjectivity and introspection that has characterized the modern age.
Rousseau also made important contributions to music as a theorist. During the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophes among members of the Jacobin Club. He was interred as a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death.
"Do I dare set forth here the most important, the most useful rule of all education? It is not to save time, but to squander it.""Every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it. Has it ever been said that a man who throws himself out the window to escape from a fire is guilty of suicide?""God made me and broke the mold.""Happiness: a good bank account, a good cook, and a good digestion.""He who is most slow in making a promise is the most faithful in performance of it.""I hate books; they only teach us to talk about what we don't know.""I have resolved on an enterprise that has no precedent and will have no imitator. I want to set before my fellow human beings a man in every way true to nature; and that man will be myself.""I long remained a child, and I am still one in many respects.""I may be no better, but at least I am different.""I may not be better than other people, but at least I'm different.""I only see clearly what I remember.""I undertake the same project as Montaigne, but with an aim contrary to his own: for he wrote his Essays only for others, and I write my reveries only for myself.""Insults are the arguments employed by those who are in the wrong.""It is a mania shared by philosophers of all ages to deny what exists and to explain what does not exist.""Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.""Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.""No true believer could be intolerant or a persecutor. If I were a magistrate and the law carried the death penalty against atheists, I would begin by sending to the stake whoever denounced another.""O love, if I regret the age when one savors you, it is not for the hour of pleasure, but for the one that follows it.""Ordinary readers, forgive my paradoxes: one must make them when one reflects; and whatever you may say, I prefer being a man with paradoxes than a man with prejudices.""Religious persecutors are not believers, they are rascals.""Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to combat with ourselves.""We are born, so to speak, twice over; born into existence, and born into life; born a human being, and born a man.""What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?""Whoever blushes is already guilty; true innocence is ashamed of nothing."
Rousseau was born in Geneva, which, since 1536, had been a Huguenot republic and the seat of Calvinism. (Geneva is now in Switzerland.) Rousseau was proud that his family, of the moyen order (or middle-class), had voting rights in the city. Throughout his life, he described himself as a citizen of Geneva.
In theory, Geneva was governed democratically by its male voting citizens, a minority of the population. In fact, the city was ruled by a secretive executive committee, called the "Little Council," which was made up of 25 members of its wealthiest families. In 1707, a patriot called Pierre Fatio protested at this situation, and the Little Council had him shot. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's father Isaac was not in the city at this time, but Jean-Jacques's grandfather supported Fatio and was penalized for it.
Rousseau's father, Isaac Rousseau, was a watchmaker who, notwithstanding his artisan status, was well educated and a lover of music. "A Genevan watchmaker," Rousseau wrote, "is a man who can be introduced anywhere; a Parisian watchmaker is only fit to talk about watches."
Rousseau's mother, Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, the daughter of a Calvinist preacher, died of puerperal fever nine days after his birth. He and his older brother François were brought up by their father and a paternal aunt, also named Suzanne.
Rousseau had no recollection of learning to read, but he remembered how when he was 5 or 6 his father encouraged his love of reading:
Every night, after supper, we read some part of a small collection of romances [i.e., adventure stories], which had been my mother's. My father's design was only to improve me in reading, and he thought these entertaining works were calculated to give me a fondness for it; but we soon found ourselves so interested in the adventures they contained, that we alternately read whole nights together and could not bear to give over until at the conclusion of a volume. Sometimes, in the morning, on hearing the swallows at our window, my father, quite ashamed of this weakness, would cry, "Come, come, let us go to bed; I am more a child than thou art." ...Confessions, Book 1
Not long afterward, Rousseau abandoned his taste for escapist stories in favor of the antiquity of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, which he would read to his father while he made watches.
When Rousseau was 10, his father, an avid hunter, got into a legal quarrel with a wealthy landowner on whose lands he had been caught trespassing. To avoid certain defeat in the courts, he moved away to Nyon in the territory of Bern, taking Rousseau's aunt Suzanne with him. He remarried, and from that point Jean-Jacques saw little of him. Jean-Jacques was left with his maternal uncle, who packed him, along with his own son, Abraham Bernard, away to board for two years with a Calvinist minister in a hamlet outside Geneva. Here the boys picked up the elements of mathematics and drawing. Rousseau, who was always deeply moved by religious services, for a time even dreamed of becoming a Protestant minister.
Virtually all our information about Rousseau's youth has come from his posthumously published Confessions, in which the chronology is somewhat confused, though recent scholars have combed the archives for confirming evidence to fill in the blanks. At age 13, Rousseau was apprenticed first to a notary and then to an engraver who beat him. At 15, he ran away from Geneva (on 14 March 1728) after returning to the city and finding the city gates locked due to the curfew. In adjoining Savoy he took shelter with a Roman Catholic priest, who introduced him to Françoise-Louise de Warens, age 29. She was a noblewoman of Protestant background who was separated from her husband. As professional lay proselytizer, she was paid by the King of Piedmont to help bring Protestants to Catholicism. They sent the boy to Turin, the capital of Savoy (which included Piedmont, in what is now Italy), to complete his conversion. This resulted in his having to give up his Genevan citizenship, although he would later revert to Calvinism in order to regain it.
In converting to Catholicism, both De Warens and Rousseau were likely reacting to the severity of Calvinism's insistence on the total depravity of man. Leo Damrosch writes, "an eighteenth-century Genevan liturgy still required believers to declare ‘that we are miserable sinners, born in corruption, inclined to evil, incapable by ourselves of doing good'." De Warens, a deist by inclination, was attracted to Catholicism's doctrine of forgiveness of sins.
Finding himself on his own, since his father and uncle had more or less disowned him, the teenage Rousseau supported himself for a time as a servant, secretary, and tutor, wandering in Italy (Piedmont and Savoy) and France. During this time, he lived on and off with De Warens, whom he idolized and called his "maman". Flattered by his devotion, De Warens tried to get him started in a profession, and arranged formal music lessons for him. At one point, he briefly attended a seminary with the idea of becoming a priest. When Rousseau reached 20, De Warens took him as her lover, while intimate also with the steward of her house. The sexual aspect of their relationship (in fact a ménage à trois) confused Rousseau and made him uncomfortable, but he always considered De Warens the greatest love of his life. A rather profligate spender, she had a large library and loved to entertain and listen to music. She and her circle, comprising educated members of the Catholic clergy, introduced Rousseau to the world of letters and ideas. Rousseau had been an indifferent student, but during his 20s, which were marked by long bouts of hypochondria, he applied himself in earnest to the study of philosophy, mathematics, and music. At 25, he came into a small inheritance from his mother and used a portion of it to repay De Warens for her financial support of him. At 27, he took a job as a tutor in Lyon.
In 1742, Rousseau moved to Paris in order to present the Académie des Sciences with a new system of numbered musical notation he believed would make his fortune. His system, intended to be compatible with typography, is based on a single line, displaying numbers representing intervals between notes and dots and commas indicating rhythmic values. Believing the system was impractical, the Academy rejected it, though they praised his mastery of the subject, and urged him to try again.
From 1743 to 1744, Rousseau had an honorable but ill-paying post as a secretary to the Comte de Montaigue, the French ambassador to Venice. This awoke in him a lifelong love for Italian music, particularly opera:
I had brought with me from Paris the prejudice of that city against Italian music; but I had also received from nature a sensibility and niceness of distinction which prejudice cannot withstand. I soon contracted that passion for Italian music with which it inspires all those who are capable of feeling its excellence. In listening to barcaroles, I found I had not yet known what singing was... ...Confessions
Rousseau's employer routinely received his stipend as much as a year late and paid his staff irregularly. After 11 months, Rousseau quit, taking from the experience a profound distrust of government bureaucracy.
Returning to Paris, the penniless Rousseau befriended and became the lover of Thérèse Levasseur, a pretty seamstress who was the sole support of her termagant mother and numerous ne'er-do-well siblings. At first, they did not live together, though later Rousseau took Thérèse and her mother in to live with him as his servants, and himself assumed the burden of supporting her large family. According to his Confessions, before she moved in with him, Thérèse bore him a son and as many as four other children (there is no independent verification for this number). Rousseau wrote that he persuaded Thérèse to give each of the newborns up to a foundling hospital, for the sake of her "honor". "Her mother, who feared the inconvenience of a brat, came to my aid, and she [Thérèse] allowed herself to be overcome" (Confessions). The foundling hospitals had been started as a reform to save the numerous infants who were being abandoned in the streets of Paris. Infant mortality at that date was extremely high ... about 50 percent, in large part because families sent their infants to be wet nursed. The mortality rate in the foundling hospitals, which also sent the babies out to be wet nursed, proved worse, however, and most of the infants sent there likely perished. Ten years later, Rousseau made inquiries about the fate of his son, but no record could be found. When Rousseau subsequently became celebrated as a theorist of education and child-rearing, his abandonment of his children was used by his critics, including Voltaire and Edmund Burke, as the basis for ad hominem attacks. In an irony of fate, Rousseau's later injunction to women to breastfeed their own babies (as had previously been recommended by the French natural scientist Buffon), probably saved the lives of thousands of infants.
While in Paris, Rousseau became a close friend of French philosopher Diderot and, beginning with some articles on music in 1749, contributed numerous articles to Diderot and D'Alembert's great Encyclopédie, the most famous of which was an article on political economy written in 1755.
Rousseau's ideas were the result of an almost obsessive dialogue with writers of the past, filtered in many cases through conversations with Diderot. His genius lay in his strikingly original way of putting things rather than in the originality, per se, of his thinking. In 1749, Rousseau was paying daily visits to Diderot, who had been thrown into the fortress of Vincennes under a lettre de cachet for opinions in his "Lettre sur les aveugles," that hinted at materialism, a belief in atoms, and natural selection. Rousseau had read about an essay competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon to be published in the Mercure de France on the theme of whether the development of the arts and sciences had been morally beneficial. He wrote that while walking to Vincennes (about three miles from Paris), he had a revelation that the arts and sciences were responsible for the moral degeneration of mankind, who were basically good by nature. According to Diderot, writing much later, Rousseau had originally intended to answer this in the conventional way, but his discussions with Diderot convinced him to propose the paradoxical negative answer that catapulted him into the public eye. Whatever the case, it was the great French naturalist Buffon who had previously suggested that man's moral decline arose from his acquisition of property and culture. Both Rousseau and Diderot would have been aware of Buffon's speculations. Rousseau's 1750 "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences", in which he made that argument, was awarded the first prize and gained him significant fame.
Rousseau continued his interest in music, and his opera Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer) was performed for King Louis XV in 1752. The king was so pleased by the work that he offered Rousseau a lifelong pension. To the exasperation of his friends, Rousseau turned down the great honor, bringing him notoriety as "the man who had refused a king's pension." He also turned down several other advantageous offers, sometimes with a brusqueness bordering on truculence that gave offense and caused him problems. The same year, the visit of a troupe of Italian musicians to Paris, and their performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, prompted the Querelle des Bouffons, which pitted protagonists of French music against supporters of the Italian style. Rousseau as noted above, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Italians against Jean-Philippe Rameau and others, making an important contribution with his Letter on French Music.
On returning to Geneva in 1754, Rousseau reconverted to Calvinism and regained his official Genevan citizenship. In 1755, Rousseau completed his second major work, the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (the Discourse on Inequality), which elaborated on the arguments of the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.
He also pursued an unconsummated romantic attachment with the 25-year-old Sophie d'Houdetot, which partly inspired his epistolary novel, Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (also based on memories of his idyllic youthful relationship with Mme de Warens). Sophie was the cousin and houseguest of Rousseau's patroness and landlady Madame d'Epinay, whom he treated rather highhandedly. He resented being at Mme d'Epinay's beck and call and detested the insincere conversation and shallow atheism of the Encyclopedistes whom he met at her table. Wounded feelings gave rise to a bitter three-way quarrel between Rousseau and Madame d'Epinay; her lover, the philologist Grimm; and their mutual friend, Diderot, who took their side against Rousseau. Diderot later described Rousseau as being, "false, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical, and wicked ... He sucked ideas from me, used them himself, and then affected to despise me".
Rousseau's break with the Encyclopedistes coincided with the composition of his three major works, in all of which he emphasized his fervent belief in a spiritual origin of man's soul and the universe, in contradistinction to the materialism of Diderot, La Mettrie, and d'Holbach. During this period Rousseau enjoyed the support and patronage of the Duc de Luxembourg, and the Prince de Conti, two of the richest and most powerful nobles in France. These men truly liked Rousseau and enjoyed his ability to converse on any subject, but they also used him as a way of getting back at Louis XV and the political faction surrounding his mistress, Mme de Pompadour. Even with them, however, Rousseau went too far, courting rejection when he criticized the practice of tax farming, in which some of them engaged.
Rousseau's 800-page novel of sentiment, Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, was published in 1761 to immense success. The book's rhapsodic descriptions of the natural beauty of the Swiss countryside struck a chord in the public and may have helped spark the subsequent nineteenth century craze for Alpine scenery. In 1762, Rousseau published Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique (in English, literally Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right) in April and then or, On Education in May. The final section of Émile, "The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar," was intended to be a defense of religious belief. Rousseau's choice of a Catholic vicar of humble peasant background (plausibly based on a kindly prelate he had met as a teenager) as a spokesman for the defense of religion was in itself a daring innovation for the time. The vicar's creed was that of Socinianism (or Unitarianism as it is called today). Because it rejected original sin and divine Revelation, both Protestant and Catholic authorities took offense. Moreover, Rousseau advocated the opinion that, insofar as they lead people to virtue, all religions are equally worthy, and that people should therefore conform to the religion in which they have been brought up. This religious indifferentism caused Rousseau and his books to be banned from France and Geneva. He was condemned from the pulpit by the Archbishop of Paris, his books were burned, and warrants were issued for his arrest.
A sympathetic observer, British philosopher David Hume, "professed no surprise when he learned that Rousseau's books were banned in Geneva and elsewhere." Rousseau, he wrote, "has not had the precaution to throw any veil over his sentiments; and, as he scorns to dissemble his contempt for established opinions, he could not wonder that all the zealots were in arms against him. The liberty of the press is not so secured in any country as not to render such an open attack on popular prejudice somewhat dangerous.'" Rousseau, who thought he had been defending religion, was crushed. Forced to flee arrest he made his way, with the help of the Duc of Luxembourg and Prince de Conti, to Neuchâtel, a Canton of the Swiss Confederation that was a protectorate of the Prussian crown. His powerful protectors discreetly assisted him in his flight and they helped to get his banned books (published in Holland) distributed in France disguised as other works using false covers and title pages. In the town of Môtiers, he sought and found protection under Lord Keith, who was the local representative of the free-thinking Frederick the Great of Prussia. While in Môtiers, Rousseau wrote the Constitutional Project for Corsica (Projet de Constitution pour la Corse, 1765).
After his house in Môtiers was stoned on the night of 6 September 1765, Rousseau took refuge in Great Britain with Hume, who found lodgings for him at a friend's country estate in Wootton in Staffordshire. Neither Thérèse nor Rousseau was able to learn English or make friends. Isolated, Rousseau, never emotionally very stable, suffered a serious decline in his mental health and began to experience paranoid fantasies about plots against him involving Hume and others. “He is plainly mad, after having long been maddish”, Hume wrote to a friend. Rousseau's letter to Hume, in which he articulates the perceived misconduct, sparked an exchange which was published in Paris and received with great interest at the time.
Although officially barred from entering France before 1770, Rousseau returned in 1767 under a false name. In 1768 he went through a marriage of sorts to Thérèse (marriages between Catholics and Protestants were illegal), whom he had always hitherto referred to as his "housekeeper". Though she was illiterate, she had become a remarkably good cook, a hobby her husband shared. In 1770 they were allowed to return to Paris. As a condition of his return he was not allowed to publish any books, but after completing his Confessions, Rousseau began private readings in 1771. At the request of Madame d'Epinay, who was anxious to protect her privacy, however, the police ordered him to stop, and the Confessions was only partially published in 1782, four years after his death. All his subsequent works were to appear posthumously.
In 1772, Rousseau was invited to present recommendations for a new constitution for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, resulting in the Considerations on the Government of Poland, which was to be his last major political work. In 1776, he completed Dialogues: Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques and began work on the Reveries of the Solitary Walker. In order to support himself, he returned to copying music, spending his leisure time in the study of botany.
Although a celebrity, Rousseau's mental health did not permit him to enjoy his fame. His final years were largely spent in deliberate withdrawal. However, he did respond favorably to an approach from the composer Gluck, whom he met in 1774. One of Rousseau's last pieces of writing was a critical yet enthusiastic analysis of Gluck's opera Alceste. While taking a morning walk on the estate of the marquis René Louis de Girardin at Ermenonville (28 miles northeast of Paris), Rousseau suffered a hemorrhage and died, aged 66.
Rousseau was initially buried at Ermenonville on the Ile des Peupliers, which became a place of pilgrimage for his many admirers. Sixteen years after his death, his remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris in 1794, where they are located directly across from those of his contemporary, Voltaire. His tomb, in the shape of a rustic temple, on which, in bas relief an arm reaches out, bearing the torch of liberty, evokes Rousseau's deep love of nature and of classical antiquity. In 1834, the Genevan government somewhat reluctantly erected a statue in his honor on the tiny Île Rousseau in Lake Geneva. Today he is proudly claimed as their most celebrated native son. In 2002, the Espace Rousseau was established at 40 Grand-Rue, Geneva, Rousseau's birthplace.
In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical State of Nature as a normative guide.
Rousseau criticized Hobbes for asserting that since man in the "state of nature . . . has no idea of goodness he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue". On the contrary, Rousseau holds that "uncorrupted morals" prevail in the "state of nature" and he especially praised the admirable moderation of the Caribbeans in expressing the sexual urge despite the fact that they live in a hot climate, which "always seems to inflame the passions". This has led Anglophone critics to erroneously attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, an oxymoronic expression that was never used in France and which grossly misrepresents Rousseau's thought. The expression, "the noble savage" was first used in 1672 by British poet John Dryden in his play The Conquest of Granada.
Rousseau wrote that morality was not a societal construct, but rather "natural" in the sense of "innate", an outgrowth from man's instinctive disinclination to witness suffering, from which arise the emotions of compassion or empathy. These were sentiments shared with animals, and whose existence even Hobbes acknowledged.
Contrary to what his many detractors have claimed, Rousseau never suggests that humans in the state of nature act morally; in fact, terms such as "justice" or "wickedness" are inapplicable to prepolitical society as Rousseau understands it. Morality proper, i.e., self restraint, can only develop through careful education in a civil state. Humans "in a state of Nature" may act with all of the ferocity of an animal. They are good only in a negative sense, insofar as they are self-sufficient and thus not subject to the vices of political society. In fact, Rousseau's natural man is virtually identical to a solitary chimpanzee or other ape, such as the orangutan as described by Buffon; and the "natural" goodness of humanity is thus the goodness of an animal, which is neither good nor bad. Rousseau, a deteriorationist, proposed that, except perhaps for brief moments of balance, at or near its inception, when a relative equality among men prevailed, human civilization has always been artificial, creating inequality, envy, and unnatural desires.
In Rousseau's philosophy, society's negative influence on men centers on its transformation of amour de soi, a positive self-love, into amour-propre, or pride. Amour de soi represents the instinctive human desire for self-preservation, combined with the human power of reason. In contrast, amour-propre is artificial and encourages man to compare himself to others, thus creating unwarranted fear and allowing men to take pleasure in the pain or weakness of others. Rousseau was not the first to make this distinction. It had been invoked by Vauvenargues, among others.
In Discourse on the Arts and Sciences Rousseau argues that the arts and sciences have not been beneficial to humankind, because they arose not from authentic human needs but rather as a result of pride and vanity. Moreover, the opportunities they create for idleness and luxury have contributed to the corruption of man. He proposed that the progress of knowledge had made governments more power and had crushed individual liberty; and he concluded that material progress had actually undermined the possibility of true friendship by replacing it with jealousy, fear, and suspicion.
In contrast to the optimistic view of other Enlightenment figures, for Rousseau, progress has been inimical to the well-being of humanity, that is, unless it can be counteracted by the cultivation of civic morality and duty.
Only in civil society, can man be ennobled...through the use of reason:
The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.
Society corrupts men only insofar as the Social Contract has not de facto succeeded, as we see in contemporary society as described in the Discourse on Inequality (1754).
In this essay, which elaborates on the ideas introduced in the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau traces man's social evolution from a primitive state of nature to modern society. The earliest solitary humans possessed a basic drive for self preservation and a natural disposition to compassion or pity. They differed from animals, however, in their capacity for free will and their potential perfectibility. As they began to live in groups and form clans they also began to experience family love, which Rousseau saw as the source of the greatest happiness known to humanity. As long as differences in wealth and status among families were minimal, the first coming together in groups was accompanied by a fleeting golden age of human flourishing. The development of agriculture, metallurgy, private property, and the division of labour and resulting dependency on one another, however, led to economic inequality and conflict. As population pressures forced them to associate more and more closely, they underwent a psychological transformation: They began to see themselves through the eyes of others and came to value the good opinion of others as essential to their self esteem. Rousseau posits that the original, deeply flawed Social Contract (i.e., that of Hobbes), which led to the modern state, was made at the suggestion of the rich and powerful, who tricked the general population into surrendering their liberties to them and instituted inequality as a fundamental feature of human society. Rousseau's own conception of the Social Contract can be understood as an alternative to this fraudulent form of association. At the end of the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau explains how the desire to have value in the eyes of others comes to undermine personal integrity and authenticity in a society marked by interdependence, and hierarchy. In the last chapter of the Social Contract, Rousseau would ask "What is to be done?" He answers that now all men can do is to cultivate virtue in themselves and submit to their lawful rulers. To his readers, however, the inescapable conclusion was that a new and more equitable Social Contract was needed.
Perhaps Rousseau's most important work is The Social Contract, which outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the Western tradition. It developed some of the ideas mentioned in an earlier work, the article Economie Politique (Discourse on Political Economy), featured in Diderot's Encyclopédie. The treatise begins with the dramatic opening lines, "Man is or was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they."
Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. As society developed, division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. In the degenerate phase of society, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while also becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law.
Although Rousseau argues that sovereignty (or the power to make the laws) should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. The government is composed of magistrates, charged with implementing and enforcing the general will. The "sovereign" is the rule of law, ideally decided on by direct democracy in an assembly. Under a monarchy, however, the real sovereign is still the law. Rousseau was opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly (Book III, Chapter XV). The kind of republican government of which Rousseau approved was that of the city state, of which Geneva, was a model, or would have been, if renewed on Rousseau's principles. France could not meet Rousseau's criterion of an ideal state because it was too big. Much subsequent controversy about Rousseau's work has hinged on disagreements concerning his claims that citizens constrained to obey the general will are thereby rendered free:
The notion of the general will is wholly central to Rousseau's theory of political legitimacy. ... It is, however, an unfortunately obscure and controversial notion. Some commentators see it as no more than the dictatorship of the proletariat or the tyranny of the urban poor (such as may perhaps be seen in the French Revolution). Such was not Rousseau's meaning. This is clear from the Discourse on Political Economy, where Rousseau emphasizes that the general will exists to protect individuals against the mass, not to require them to be sacrificed to it. He is, of course, sharply aware that men have selfish and sectional interests which will lead them to try to oppress others. It is for this reason that loyalty to the good of all alike must be a supreme (although not exclusive) commitment by everyone, not only if a truly general will is to be heeded but also if it is to be formulated successfully in the first place".
Education and child rearing
Rousseau’s philosophy of education is not concerned with particular techniques of imparting information and concepts, but rather with developing the pupil’s character and moral sense, so that he may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which he will have to live. The hypothetical boy, Émile, is to be raised in the countryside, which, Rousseau believes, is a more natural and healthy environment than the city, under the guardianship of a tutor who will guide him through various learning experiences arranged by the tutor. Today we would call this the disciplinary method of "natural consequences" since, like modern psychologists, Rousseau felt that children learn right and wrong through experiencing the consequences of their acts rather than through physical punishment. The tutor will make sure that no harm results to Émile through his learning experiences.
Rousseau was one of the first to advocate developmentally appropriate education; and his description of the stages of child development mirrors his conception of the evolution of culture. He divides childhood into stages: the first is to the age of about 12, when children are guided by their emotions and impulses. During the second stage, from 12 to about 16, reason starts to develop; and finally the third stage, from the age of 16 onwards, when the child develops into an adult. Rousseau recommends that the young adult learn a manual skill such as carpentry, which requires creativity and thought, will keep him out of trouble, and will supply a fallback means of making a living in the event of a change of fortune. (The most illustrious aristocratic youth to have been educated this way may have been Louis XVI, whose parents had him learn the skill of locksmithing.) The sixteen-year old is also ready to have a companion of the opposite sex.
Although his ideas foreshadowed modern ones in many ways, in one way they do not: Rousseau was a believer in the moral superiority of the patriarchal family on the antique Roman model. Sophie, the young woman Émile is destined to marry, as a representative of ideal womanhood, is educated to be governed by her husband while Émile, as representative of the ideal man, is educated to be self-governing. This is not an accidental feature of Rousseau's educational and political philosophy; it is essential to his account of the distinction between private, personal relations and the public world of political relations. The private sphere as Rousseau imagines it depends on the subordination of women, in order for both it and the public political sphere (upon which it depends) to function as Rousseau imagines it could and should. Rousseau anticipated the modern idea of the bourgeois nuclear family, with the mother at home taking responsibility for the household and for childcare and early education.
Feminists, beginning in the late 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 have criticized Rousseau for his confinement of women to the domestic sphere...unless women were domesticated and constrained by modesty and shame, he feared "men would be tyrannized by women... For, given the ease with which women arouse men's senses... men would finally be their victims...." His contemporaries saw it differently because Rousseau thought that mothers should breastfeed their children. Marmontel wrote that his wife thought, "One must forgive something," she said, "in one who has taught us to be mothers."
Rousseau's detractors have blamed him for everything they do not like in what they call modern "child-centered" education. John Darling's 1994 book Child-Centered Education and its Critics argues that the history of modern educational theory is a series of footnotes to Rousseau, a development he regards as bad. Good or bad, the theories of educators such as Rousseau's near contemporaries Pestalozzi, Mme de Genlis, and later, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey, which have directly influenced modern educational practices do have significant points in common with those of Rousseau.
Having converted to Roman Catholicism early in life and returned to the austere Calvinism of his native Geneva as part of his period of moral reform, Rousseau maintained a profession of that religious philosophy and of John Calvin as a modern lawgiver throughout the remainder of his life. His views on religion presented in his works of philosophy, however, may strike some as discordant with the doctrines of both Catholicism and Calvinism.
At the time, however, Rousseau's strong endorsement of religious toleration, as expounded by the Savoyard vicar in Émile, was interpreted as advocating indifferentism, a heresy, and led to the condemnation of the book in both Calvinist Geneva and Catholic Paris. His assertion in the Social Contract that true followers of Jesus would not make good citizens may have been another reason for Rousseau's condemnation in Geneva.
Unlike many of the more radical Enlightenment philosophers, Rousseau affirmed the necessity of religion. But he repudiated the doctrine of original sin, which plays so large a part in Calvinism (in Émile, Rousseau writes "there is no original perversity in the human heart").
In the 18th century, many deists viewed God merely as an abstract and impersonal creator of the universe, which they likened to a giant machine. Rousseau's deism differed from the usual kind in its intense emotionality. He saw the presence of God in his creation, including mankind, which, apart from the harmful influence of society, is good, because God is good. Rousseau's attribution of a spiritual value to the beauty of nature anticipates the attitudes of 19th-century Romanticism towards nature and religion.
Rousseau was upset that his deistic views were so forcefully condemned, while those of the more atheistic philosophes were ignored. He defended himself against critics of his religious views in his "Letter to Christophe de Beaumont, the Archbishop of Paris in which he insists that freedom of discussion in religious matters is essentially more religious than the attempt to impose belief by force."
Rousseau's idea of the volonté générale ("general will") was not original with him but rather belonged to a well-established technical vocabulary of juridical and theological writings in use at the time. The phrase was used by Diderot and also by Montesquieu (and by his teacher, the Oratorian friar Nicolas Malebranche). It served to designate the common interest embodied in legal tradition, as distinct from and transcending people's private and particular interests at any particular time. The concept was also an important aspect of the more radical 17th-century republican tradition of Spinoza, from whom Rousseau differed in important respects, but not in his insistence on the importance of equality. This emphasis on equality is Rousseau's most important and consequential legacy, causing him to be both reviled and applauded:
While Rousseau's notion of the progressive moral degeneration of mankind from the moment civil society established itself diverges markedly from Spinoza's claim that human nature is always and everywhere the same ... for both philosophers the pristine equality of the state of nature is our ultimate goal and criterion ... in shaping the "common good", volonté générale, or Spinoza's mens una, which alone can ensure stability and political salvation. Without the supreme criterion of equality, the general will would indeed be meaningless. ... When in the depths of the French Revolution the Jacobin clubs all over France regularly deployed Rousseau when demanding radical reforms. and especially anything -- such as land redistribution -- designed to enhance equality, they were at the same time, albeit unconsciously, invoking a radical tradition which reached back to the late seventeenth century.
The cult that grew up around Rousseau after his death, and particularly the radicalized versions of Rousseau's ideas that were adopted by Robespierre and Saint-Just during the Reign of Terror, caused him to become identified with the most extreme aspects of the French Revolution. The revolutionaries were also inspired by Rousseau to introduce Deism as the new official civil religion of France, scandalizing traditionalists:
Ceremonial and symbolic occurrences of the more radical phases of the Revolution invoked Rousseau and his core ideas.
Thus the ceremony held at the site of the demolished Bastille, organized by the foremost artistic director of the Revolution, Jacques-Louis David, in August 1793 to mark the inauguration of the new republican constitution, an event coming shortly after the final abolition of all forms of feudal privilege, featured a cantata based on Rousseau's democratic pantheistic deism as expounded in the celebrated "Profession de foi d'un vicaire savoyard" in Book Four of Émile.
Opponents of the Revolution and defenders of religion, most influentially the Irish essayist Edmund Burke, therefore placed the blame for the excesses of the French Revolution directly on the revolutionaries' misplaced (as he considered it) adulation of Rousseau. Burke's "Letter to a Member of the National Assembly", published in February 1791, was a diatribe against Rousseau, whom he considered the paramount influence on the French Revolution (his ad hominem attack did not really engage with Rousseau's political writings). Burke maintained that the excesses of the Revolution were not accidents but were designed from the beginning and were rooted in Rousseau's personal vanity, arrogance, and other moral failings. He recalled Rousseau's visit to Britain in 1766, saying: "I had good opportunities of knowing his proceedings almost from day to day and he left no doubt in my mind that he entertained no principle either to influence his heart or to guide his understanding, but vanity". Conceding his gift of eloquence, Burke deplored Rousseau's lack of the good taste and finer feelings that would have been imparted by the education of a gentleman:
Taste and elegance ... are of no mean importance in the regulation of life. A moral taste ... infinitely abates the evils of vice. Rousseau, a writer of great force and vivacity, is totally destitute of taste in any sense of the word. Your masters [i.e., the leaders of the Revolution], who are his scholars, conceive that all refinement has an aristocratic character. The last age had exhausted all its powers in giving a grace and nobleness to our mutual appetites, and in raising them into a higher class and order than seemed justly to belong to them. Through Rousseau, your masters are resolved to destroy these aristocratic prejudices.
In America, where there was no such cult, the direct influence of Rousseau was arguably less. The American founders did share Rousseau's enthusiastic admiration for the austere virtues described by Livy and in Plutarch's portrayals of the great men of ancient Sparta and the classical republicanism of early Rome, but so did most other enlightenment figures. Rousseau’s praise of Switzerland and Corsica’s economies of isolated and self-sufficient independent homesteads, and his endorsement of a well-regulated citizen militia, such as Switzerland’s, recall the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy. To Rousseau we owe the invention of the concept of a "civil religion", one of whose key tenets is religious toleration. Yet despite their mutual insistence on the self evidence that "all men are created equal", their insistence that the citizens of a republic be educated at public expense, and the evident parallel between the concepts of the "general welfare" and Rousseau's "general will", some scholars maintain there is little to suggest that Rousseau had that much effect on Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers. They argue that the American constitution owes as much or more to the English Liberal philosopher John Locke's emphasis on the rights of property and to Montesquieu's theories of the separation of powers. Rousseau's writings had an indirect influence on American literature through the writings of Wordsworth and Kant, whose works were important to the New England Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his disciple Henry David Thoreau, as well as on such Unitarians as theologian William Ellery Channing. American novelist James Fennimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and other novels reflect republican and egalitarian ideals present alike in Rousseau, Thomas Paine, and also in English Romantic primitivism. Another American admirer was lexicographer Noah Webster.
Criticisms of Rousseau
The first to criticize Rousseau were his fellow Philosophes, above all, Voltaire. According to Jacques Barzun:
Voltaire, who had felt annoyed by the first essay [On the Arts and Sciences], was outraged by the second, [Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men], declaring that Rousseau wanted us to “walk on all fours” like animals and behave like savages, believing them creatures of perfection. From these interpretations, plausible but inexact, spring the clichés Noble Savage and Back to Nature.
Barzun states that, contrary to myth, Rousseau was no primitivist, for him:
The model man is the independent farmer, free of superiors and self-governing. This was cause enough for the philosophes' hatred of their former friend. Rousseau’s unforgivable crime was his rejection of the graces and luxuries of civilized existence. Voltaire had sung “The superfluous, that most necessary thing." For the high bourgeois standard of living Rousseau would substitute the middling peasant’s. It was the country versus the city — an exasperating idea for them, as was the amazing fact that every new work of Rousseau’s was a huge success, whether the subject was politics, theater, education, religion, or a novel about love.”
Following the French Revolution, other commentators fingered a potential danger of Rousseau’s project of realizing an “antique” conception of virtue amongst the citizenry in a modern world (e.g. through education, physical exercise, a citizen militia, public holidays, and the like). Taken too far, as under the Jacobin, such social engineering could result in tyranny.As early as 1819, in his famous speech “On Ancient and Modern Liberty,” the political philosopher Benjamin Constant, a proponent of constitutional monarchy and representative democracy, criticized Rousseau, or rather his more radical followers (specifically the Abbé de Mably), for allegedly believing that "everything should give way to collective will, and that all restrictions on individual rights would be amply compensated by participation in social power.”
Common also were attacks by defenders of social hierarchy on Rousseau's "romantic" belief in equality. In 1860, shortly after the Sepoy Rebellion in India, two British white supremacists, John Crawfurd and James Hunt, mounted a defense of British imperialism based on “scientific racism". Crawfurd, in alliance with Hunt, took over the presidency of the British Anthropological Society, which had been founded with the mission to defend indigenous peoples against slavery and colonial exploitation. Invoking "science" and "realism", the two men derided their "philanthropic" predecessors for believing in human equality and for not recognizing that mankind was divided into superior and inferior races. Crawfurd, who opposed Darwinian evolution, "denied any unity to mankind, insisting on immutable, hereditary, and timeless differences in racial character, principal amongst which was the 'very great' difference in 'intellectual capacity.'" For Crawfurd, the races had been created separately and were different species. Since Crawfurd was Scottish, he thought the Scottish "race" superior and all others inferior; whilst Hunt, on the other hand, believed in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon "race". Crawfurd and Hunt routinely accused those who disagreed with them of believing in "Rousseau’s Noble Savage". (The pair ultimately quarreled because Hunt believed in slavery and Crawfurd did not). "As Ter Ellinson demonstrates, Crawfurd was responsible for re-introducing the Pre-Rousseauian concept of 'the Noble Savage' to modern anthropology, attributing it wrongly and quite deliberately to Rousseau.”
In 1919 Irving Babbitt, founder of a movement called the "New Humanism", wrote a critique of what he called "sentimental humanitarianism", for which he blamed Rousseau. Babbitt's depiction of Rousseau was countered in a celebrated and much reprinted essay by A. O. Lovejoy in 1923. In France, fascist theorist and anti-Semite Charles Maurras, founder of Action Française, “had no compunctions in laying the blame for both Romantisme et Révolution firmly on Rousseau in 1922."
During the Cold War, some liberals, among them Karl Popper, criticized Rousseau for his association with nationalism and its attendant abuses. This came to be known among scholars as the "totalitarian thesis". An example is J. L. Talmon's, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952). Political scientist J. S. Maloy states that “the twentieth century added Nazism and Stalinism to Jacobinism on the list of horrors for which Rousseau could be blamed. ... Rousseau was considered to have advocated just the sort of invasive tampering with human nature which the totalitarian regimes of mid-century had tried to instantiate." But Maloy adds that "The totalitarian thesis in Rousseau studies has, by now, been discredited as an attribution of real historical influence.” Arthur Melzer, however, while conceding that Rousseau would not have approved of modern nationalism, observes that his theories do contain the "seeds of nationalism", insofar as they set forth the "politics of identification", which are rooted in sympathetic emotion. Melzer also believes that in admitting that people's talents are unequal, Rousseau therefore tacitly condones the tyranny of the few over the many. For Stephen T. Engel, on the other hand, Rousseau's nationalism anticipated modern theories of "imagined communities" that transcend social and religious divisions within states.
American conservative author Jonah Goldberg of National Review echoed Talmon's thesis in his book Liberal Fascism, calling Rousseau the "father of modern fascism".
On similar grounds, one of Rousseau's strongest critics during the second half of the 20th century was political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Using Rousseau's thought as an example, Arendt identified the notion of sovereignty with that of the general will. According to her, it was this desire to establish a single, unified will based on the stifling of opinion in favor of public passion that contributed to the excesses of the French Revolution.
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Collected Writings, ed. Roger Masters and Christopher Kelly, Dartmouth: University Press of New England, 1990—2010, 13 vols.
The Confessions, trans. Angela Scholar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Emile, or On Education, trans. with an introd. by Allan Bloom, New York: Basic Books, 1979.
"On the Origin of Language," trans. John H. Moran. In On the Origin of Language: Two Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Reveries of a Solitary Walker, trans. Peter France. London: Penguin Books, 1980.
'The Discourses' and Other Early Political Writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
'The Social Contract' and Other Later Political Writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
'The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston. Penguin: Penguin Classics Various Editions, 1968-2007.
The Political writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, edited from the original MCS and authentic editions with introduction and notes by C.E.Vaughan, Blackwell, Oxford, 1962. (In French but the introduction and notes are in English).