Jean-Jacques Rousseau Biography

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most influential of the Enlightenment philosophers. Born in Geneva in 1712, he spent much of his adult life in Paris, where he became involved with the philosophes of the Enlightenment and began to write his own philosophical works. Rousseau is best known for The Social Contract in which he states that society and government are really a “contract” between men. Thus no government truly has a right to rule without the agreement of those who are ruled. This was a revolutionary thought in an age when kings claimed they ruled by divine right. Rousseau’s writings were quoted by French revolutionaries and greatly influenced the thought of Karl Marx.

Facts and Trivia

  • Rousseau believed in the “noble savage.” He did not think the study of the arts and sciences had been good for mankind because they took us away from our more natural settings.
  • Rousseau also made lasting contributions to educational theory, which he presented in his novel Emile. The book demonstrates three stages of learning and posits that the goal of education should be righteous living.
  • Even though Rousseau wrote about the education of children, he never raised any of his own. Having lost his mother at birth and having been abandoned by his father at the age of ten, Rousseau did not believe he would make a good parent. He and his longtime companion, Therese Levasseur, had five children but abandoned them all to an orphanage.
  • When Rousseau first moved to Paris it was to study music, and for much of his life he actually made his living writing and teaching music. He even developed and published his own style of musical notation.
  • Rousseau decided to write after he saw an essay contest offered on a topic he knew well: the effect of the arts and sciences on the morals of mankind. “All at once,” Rousseau recounted, “I felt myself dazzled by a thousand sparkling lights; crowds of vivid ideas thronged into my head with a force and confusion that threw me into unspeakable agitation; I felt my head whirling in a giddiness like that of intoxication.” Rousseau wrote his essay, won the contest and, at the age of 38, began his writing career in earnest.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2028

Article abstract: Rousseau helped transform the Western world from a rigidly stratified, frequently despotic civilization into a predominantly democratic civilization dedicated to assuring the dignity and fulfillment of the individual.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Jean-Jacques Rousseau Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Early Life

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born of middle-class parents in the fiercely independent Protestant municipality of Geneva. His mother, the former Suzanne Bernard, died within days of his birth, and he was reared until age ten by his watchmaker father, Isaac Rousseau, with whom the precocious boy shared a passion for romantic novels, a passion which helped to shape Jean-Jacques’ emotional and highly imaginative nature. Young Rousseau and the irresponsible Isaac often neglected sleep as they devoured their beloved romances, an escapist reading regimen which Rousseau supplemented with more substantial works by such writers as Plutarch and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.

This earliest phase of Rousseau’s life came to an abrupt end when his father was forced to flee from Geneva to escape imprisonment for wounding a former military officer during a quarrel in the autumn of 1722. Left in the care of a maternal uncle, Rousseau was soon placed, along with his cousin Abraham Bernard, in the home of the Lambercier family, a Protestant minister and his sister, in the village of Bossey, a few miles outside Geneva.

The essentially carefree two years spent with the Lamberciers were followed by a short period of distasteful employment with the district registrar, and a longer apprenticeship to an engraver. Petty thefts and other breaches of discipline earned for Rousseau, now in...

(The entire section contains 2028 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Jean-Jacques Rousseau study guide. You'll get access to all of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Explore Study Guides