What did Jean-Jacques Rousseau believe in?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Contrary to popular belief, Rousseau did not advocate turning back the clock to some primitive golden age. At no point in his voluminous writings does he argue that men and women should leave behind their modern towns and cities and adopt the kind of simple lifestyles associated with our distant ancestors. However, he did believe that a more natural existence, one shorn of the trappings of an increasingly corrupt modern society, could act as a moral ideal to which we should aspire.

Rousseau (in)famously believed in man's innate moral goodness which was corrupted by his entry into society. In a sweeping indictment of man's social life, Rousseau argued that society was the source of all evil as it tore man away from his natural condition, forcing him to be selfish, competitive, and envious of others' property.

In his critique of modern society, Rousseau is especially scathing of the notion of private property, which he sees as the source of so many of humankind's ills. Once we start dividing the natural world into "mine and thine" (i.e., this piece of land is mine, and that's yours) then we no longer see nature as a dwelling place but as an object to be possessed, a source of exploitation, which in turn leads to the exploitation of man in the pursuit of more property and the power that it brings.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on November 14, 2019
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that man is innately good but corrupted by the prevailing conditions within a civil society. He suggested that the "savage" stage of human development was the optimal stage of development present between brute animals and corrupt individuals within the civil society. Thus, Rousseau explained that society has a corrupting effect on people and changes their positive attributes such as self-love into pride, which is negative. Additionally, he suggests that it is the development of the negative attribute that worsens the conditions for the civil society, because pride causes people to compare themselves to others and provides an avenue for individuals to take pleasure in others' pain or failures.

Rousseau was also of the opinion that the earth belonged to no one. However, the introduction of rightful ownership of property changed the situation and further advanced the need for laws and government. Laws and government sought to protect individual property, but to achieve this, man had to cede some of his rights for the collective good and to enjoy the protection of the public institution. Thus, Rousseau concedes that since not everyone will have access to a piece of property, then the benefits of the government are enjoyed by the rich. The situation guarantees a never-ending state of competition between the different groups within a society, which entrenches inequality as a norm.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau strongly believed in the innate goodness of man and in basic human rights founded upon universal natural law; in addition, he believed that both rulers and the citizens have natural human rights as well as obligations to each other which should be bound in a social contract. Further, Rousseau felt that society corrupted man.

In Emile, a treatise on education, Rousseau suggests ways that children can be raised in order to avoid the corruption of society. While "[T]he natural man is interested in all new things," he must still be exposed to various things, but kept from the limitations often enforced by society; instead the "natural tendencies" are encouraged. Later, when the child reaches adulthood without corruption, he can enter into the Social Contract:

First, there must be a sovereign consisting of the whole population, women included, that represents the general will and is the legislative power within the state. The second division is that of the government, being distinct from the sovereign. 

Rousseau's was a new idea that the people are as important as the ruler. Also, if the ruler should become abusive, then the people have the right to dissolve the government and form a new Social Contract. The general will, a composite of the wills of the individual, should devote themselves to advancing the common good.This concept of the Social Contract strongly influenced the Founders of the United States Constitution.

Truly, Rousseau valued freedom, liberty, individualism, natural expression of emotion, and unaffected simplicity. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial