Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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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.


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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.

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 his teens, a series of beatings which in no way altered his recalcitrant behavior but which augmented his hatred of authority. After nearly three years of these confrontations, in March of 1728 he abandoned his apprenticeship and, with it, his native city.

Rousseau was introduced to twenty-nine-year-old Madame de Warens, eventually to be one of the great loves of his life, who sent the destitute and still-directionless teenager to Turin’s monastery of the Spirito Santo, where, within a few days of his arrival, he found it expedient to embrace the Catholic faith. Released into the streets of Turin with little money, Rousseau held several jobs but eventually returned, probably by mid-1729, to Madame de Warens.

Rousseau’s duties as record keeper to Madame de Warens were light enough to allow him ample time for wide reading, but his genius had still not manifested itself, and after his patron had left on a journey to Paris, the aimless youth took the opportunity to add to his ample store of life adventures. At Lausanne, he attempted, despite insufficient knowledge of music, to conduct an orchestral work of his own composition; the performance was a fiasco.

Succeeding months saw Madame de Warens establish herself as Rousseau’s mistress and Rousseau busy himself with the study and teaching of music. Over the next several years, Rousseau also undertook the intensive study of most other branches of human knowledge in an eminently successful effort to overcome the handicap of his earlier haphazard education.

Life’s Work

By 1740, Rousseau had begun serious attempts to write, but he remained essentially unknown. His first minor recognition came in 1742, during his second visit to Paris, when he suggested a new method of musical notation to the Academy of Science. Although the method was judged inadequate, Rousseau’s presentation earned for him the respect of and eventual introduction to several figures of importance in the French intelligentsia, most notably Denis Diderot. In 1743, at the salon of Madame Dupin, Rousseau widened his circle of influential acquaintances, and eventually he became Madame Dupin’s secretary.

Then, while traveling to Vincennes to visit Diderot, who...

(This entire section contains 2028 words.)

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had been imprisoned in 1749, Rousseau happened across an essay competition which would assure his lasting fame. Had the advancement of science and art, the Academy of Dijon wished to know, improved the moral state of mankind? Rousseau argued in the negative, and his essayDiscours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, 1751) was awarded first prize on July 10, 1750. Rousseau’s central contention, that modern advances in the arts and sciences had produced an abandonment of primitive sincerity and simple virtue, inspired a plethora of attacks and defenses and helped prepare the way for the Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationalism.

Rousseau’s next success was the composition of an operetta, Le Devin du village (1752; Cunning-Man, 1766), which gained for him some financial security and was honored with a command performance before the French court on October 18, 1752. By refusing an audience with the king and then entangling himself in a dispute over the relative merits of French and Italian music, however, Rousseau almost immediately lost the regal favor he had just gained.

Following this unpleasant interlude, Rousseau achieved another of his great intellectual triumphs with the publication of Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité (1755; A Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind, 1761), again written in response to a topic proposed by the Academy of Dijon. An analysis of the beginnings of human inequality, this work continues Rousseau’s theme of the relative superiority of primitive to civilized man. Distinguishing the irremediable inequality produced by natural circumstance from the imposed inequality encouraged by artificial social convention, Rousseau attacks many of the assumptions underlying the political and social order of mid-eighteenth century Europe.

With the publication of Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; The New Héloïse, 1761), Rousseau’s career took a new turn. An epistolary novel of sentimental love, The New Héloïse focuses on the passionate relationship of the aristocratic Julie d’Étange and her tutor Saint-Preux, a relationship doomed by the disapproval of Julie’s intolerant father. The novel’s emotional intensity, its portrayal of the corrupting influence of the city, and its association of sublime sentiment with the beauty and grandeur of nature engendered tremendous popularity and established a model for emulation by Romantic writers of the ensuing one hundred years.

More in keeping with his previous publications, Du contrat social: Ou, Principes du droit politique (1762; A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Political Law, 1764) is Rousseau’s fullest statement on the proper relationship between a nation’s government and its people. A Treatise on the Social Contract admits that, in practice, any of the range of governmental structures, from pure democracy through aristocracy to monarchy, may be the most appropriate for a particular state, but he insists that the source of sovereignty is always the people and that the people may not legitimately relinquish sovereignty to despots who would subvert the general will. If a government acts contrary to the will of the people, the people have a right to replace it.

Published in the same year as A Treatise on the Social Contract, Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (Emilius and Sophia: Or, a New System of Education, 1762-1763) contains his most influential statements on education and religion. The book insists that the developing child be allowed adequate physical activity and that the pace of the child’s education be determined by the gradual emergence of the child’s own capacities and interests. A slow and deliberate individualized education is infinitely preferable to an education which rushes the child toward an identity which subverts his natural inclinations. Furthermore, the purpose of education should not simply be the acquisition of knowledge but the formation of the whole human being, whenever possible through life experiences rather than through heavy reliance on books.

From the beginning of his career as a writer and thinker, Rousseau had been the center of perpetual controversy. With his publications of the early 1760’s banned in some areas of Europe and burned in others, he found himself again becoming an exile. He left Paris in June of 1762 to avoid imminent arrest and spent the next eight years living for varying periods in Switzerland, England, and France, sometimes driven by actual persecution and sometimes by a growing paranoia. Much of his literary effort during this period went into the composition of the posthumously published Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau (1782, 1789; The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, 1783-1790), among the most intimately detailed and influential of all autobiographies. A remarkable experiment in self-revelation, his confessions helped to establish the vital relationship between childhood experience and the development of the adult psyche. The work also inspired countless self-analytic memoirs emphasizing their various authors’ growth toward a unique individuality, despite Rousseau’s belief that he would find no imitators.

By 1770, Rousseau was able to return to Paris, where he supported himself largely as a music copyist and wrote two further experiments in self-revelation, the defensive Les Dialogues: Ou, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques (1780, 1782) and the more serene Les Reveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 1967), both published posthumously. On July 2, 1778, Rousseau died at Ermenonville, just outside the French capital. In 1794, his remains were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris in honor of the influence of his ideas on the French Revolution.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of those rare individuals whose life and career epitomize the transition from one historical epoch to another. He was a man perpetually at odds with the world around him, a world dominated by ancient privilege and entrenched power. Through the eloquence of his words, he helped to transform that world. Whatever he might have thought of the various revolutions which swept away the old social order, those revolutions would not have occurred so readily without his ideas to justify them. Nor would the constitutions of the new nations which replaced the old have been framed exactly as they were if he had not written on government and popular sovereignty. His hatred of despotism and of a conformity enforced by authoritarian rule shaped a world in which equality and individuality, if not universally to be encountered, were at least more frequently possible than they once had been. Furthermore, his emphasis on allowing the individual to develop according to his own nature rather than according to some externally imposed standard had a profound effect on how modern societies educate their children.


Copleston, Frederick C. “Rousseau.” In A History of Philosophy. Vol. 6, Wolff to Kant. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1961. A detailed explication of Rousseau’s philosophy by a prominent Jesuit scholar. Copleston places Rousseau against the backdrop of the Enlightenment, suggesting both his affinities and his points of disagreement with his philosophical contemporaries.

Crocker, Lester G. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Quest (1712-1758). New York: Macmillan, 1968. A thoroughly researched biography which places heavy emphasis on Rousseau’s eccentric psychological development. A necessary corrective to the distortions and omissions of the confessions.

Crocker, Lester G. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Prophetic Voice (1758-1778). New York: Macmillan, 1973. This companion volume to Crocker’s earlier study further supplements the confessions, narrating the years of Rousseau’s deepest psychological disturbance, as well as covering the thirteen-year period omitted from the autobiography.

Grimsley, Ronald. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards, vol. 7. New York: Macmillan, 1967. An overview of Rousseau’s life and thought, emphasizing the interrelatedness of his educational, political, and religious theories. Grimsley sees Rousseau’s belief in the need to free mankind’s natural goodness from corrupting restraint as his central philosophical assumption.

Havens, George R. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A concise account of Rousseau’s life and career, with analyses of the major works. Like the other volumes in Twayne’s World Authors series, this book contains the essential facts about its subject without attempting exhaustive detail.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions. Translated and introduced by J. M. Cohen. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1953. A standard translation. Despite its distortions and its incompleteness, ending as it does with the year 1765, Rousseau’s autobiography is indispensable to any understanding of his life and achievement.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Jean Jacques Rousseau: His Educational Theories Selected from “Émile,” “Julie,” and Other Writings. Edited by R. L. Archer with a biographical note by S. E. Frost, Jr. Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1964. A convenient compendium of Rousseau’s statements on education. The introductory material gives a summary of Rousseau’s educational theory, and the concluding subject index and general index provide ready access to the book’s contents.