Jean-Jacques Rousseau Rousseau, Jean-Jacques - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712–1778

Swiss-born French essayist, autobiographer, novelist, dramatist, and poet.

The following entry provides critical discussion of Rousseau's writing on political theory.

Rousseau was a French philosopher and political theorist who is recognized as one of the greatest thinkers of the French Enlightenment. A prolific writer on many subjects, he has been variously cited as the intellectual father of the French Revolution, founder of the Romantic movement in literature, and engenderer of many modern pedagogical movements. The broad influence of his thought originates not only from his best-known political and philosophical treatises—Du contrat social; ou principes du droit politique (The Social Contract; 1762), Discours sur les sciences et les arts (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts; 1750), and Discours sur l'origine et les fondaments de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind; 1755)—but also from his eloquent novels and autobiographical writings—La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), Émile, ou de l'éducation (Émile; 1762), and Les Confessions de J. J. Rousseau (The Confessions of J. J. Rousseau; 1782-89). Rousseau's attempts to reconcile individual freedom with political unity gives his political writings an enigmatic quality that often leaves his readers questioning the degree of coherence between his ideas. Despite this, however, Rousseau's political writings have made a tremendous impact on Western thought.

Biographical Information

Rousseau was born in 1712 to Isaac Rousseau, a Genevese watchmaker, and Suzanne Bernard, the daughter of an upper-middle-class Genevese family. Rousseau's mother died a few days after his birth, and until age ten he lived with his father, who educated him by reading Calvinist sermons and seventeenth-century romance novels aloud to him. Rousseau's father subsequently abandoned him to the tutelage of an uncle, who apprenticed him at age thirteen to an abusive engraver. Having endured three miserable years of apprenticeship, Rousseau fled Geneva in 1728, and advised by a Roman Catholic Priest, went to the town of

Annecy. There, Rousseau met 29-year old Mme. de Warens, who supported herself by taking in and encouraging Catholic converts. Under her protection, Rousseau was sent to a hospice in Turin, where he converted to Catholicism, and thereby forfeitted his Genevese citizenship. Rousseau returned to Annecy the following spring intending to enter the priesthood, but instead he taught music to girls from the wealthiest families in the neighborhood. In 1731, after an unsuccessful search for employment in Paris, he once again returned to Mme. de Warens, who now lived near Chambéry, where Rousseau claimed he passed the happiest years of his life. He became her lover and stayed with her until 1740. During that time he studied music, read philosophy, science, and literature, and began to compose and write. Rousseau returned once more to Paris in late 1742, when he presented (without success) a new system of musical notation to the Académie des Sciences. In 1743, with the publication of his Dissertation de la musique moderne, together with the compositions of an opera and a comedy, Rousseau was appointed private secretary to the French ambassador in Venice; he lost the position the following year. In 1745, he met Thérèse Levasseur, a chambermaid who became his lifelong companion, and with whom he reputedly had five children. In Paris, Rousseau came to know prominent Encyclopedists and philosophers, including Voltaire and Denis Diderot. Rousseau's career as an essayist began in 1749 when, on the way to visit Diderot in prison, he saw an announcement for an essay contest sponsored by the Dijon Academy. In his winning essay, the Discourse upon the Sciences and the Arts, Rousseau argued that culture had ruined morality. The essay brought him immediate fame and provoked a number of literary disputes. During the following decade, Rousseau wrote most of his other important works, including the Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind, La Nouvelle Héloïse, the Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles (Letter to d'Alembert on the Theater, 1758), Émile, and The Social Contract. In 1756 he briefly returned to Geneva to re-embrace Calvinism and recover his citizenship. He then returned to France and settled at the "Hermitage," a house at Montmorency, offered to him by Mme. d'Épinay, a friend of the Encyclopedists. He was forced to flee France in 1762, when the Parliament of Paris condemned both Émile and The Social Contract. He went back to Geneva, only to find that there, too, his works were banned and he was banished. He defended his writings in the Lettre à Christophe de Beaumont (1763), which attacked the archbishop of Paris who had condemned Émile, and Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764), which responded to the Council of Geneva's decree that Émile and The Social Contract be burned. In 1766, and under considerable mental distress, Rousseau fled to England and was offered refuge by David Hume. Rousseau soon grew paranoid and suspected Hume of collusion with his perceived enemies. Paranoid and panicked, Rousseau returned to France in 1767 under an assumed name: Renou. He wandered about France, never remaining anywhere for long, married Thérèse, and wrote his Confessions. In 1770 he returned to Paris and re sumed hisreal identity unmolested. Determined to de-fend himself against the "conspirators," Rousseau publicly read excerpts from his Confessions. He was forced to stop the readings when Mme. d'Épinay requested police intervention. Rousseau's madness lessened during the last two years of his life, and he lived in seclusion with Thérèse. He wrote Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (The Reveries of a Solitary Walker). Rousseau continued to write until his death on July 2, 1778.

Major Works

From 1751 to 1759 Rousseau worked on a large project that was to be called Institutions politiques. Though he never finished the project as such, several essays within the Institutions were among his most famous. The first of these was his follow-up to the First Discourse, the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. This Second Discourse, a second essay for the Dijon Academy, was essentially a diatribe against despotism and private property. He sought to expose and denounce artificially instituted social inequality by describing a hypothetical state of natural man. He believed that human beings are essentially good and potentially perfect. Human faults arise from the corrupting influences of conventional society—inequality, despotism, and privately-owned property—which, he claimed, progressively restrict freedom and lessen moral virtue. In order to restore humanity to its natural goodness, Rousseau called for a return to nature so far as is possible, but he also stressed that individual freedom can be reconciled with political unity. Rousseau's novels also expressed and elaborated on his ideas about the state of nature. La Nouvelle Héloïse demonstrated the triumph of a primitive family unit over the corruption of modern society, while Émile explicated his scheme for "natural" education in which man would preserve his fundamentally good instincts. Much of his subsequent political writing, notably The Social Contract, was an attempt to resolve the problem of freedom by reconciling the ideal freedom in the state of nature with the freedom possible in a civil society. Beginning with the famous phrase, "Man is born free and everywhere in chains," The Social Contract outlined the social order that would enable human beings to be natural and free—acknowledging no other bondage save that of natural necessity. While much of his writing was abstract and theoretical, Rousseau was keenly aware of current political events, especially in his native Geneva. Despite his twenty-year loss of citizenship and persecution by the Genevan authorities, Rousseau always considered himself a Genevan. The dedication of the Second Discourse was addressed to his fellow Genevans, and his Discours sur l'oeconomie politique (Discourse on Political Economy; 1758), written for the Encyclopédie, explicitly took the Genevan Republic as an example. Other concrete political treatises were the Projet de constitution pour la Corse (Project for a Constitution for Corsica; 1765) and Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne et sur sa réformation projetté (Considerations on the Government of Poland; 1782), which was requested by the Polish Confederation of the Bar, a group of noble Polish nationalists.

Critical Reception

Critics have long considered much of Rousseau's work extremely controversial, if not decidedly revolutionary. Moreover, Rousseau's works have been subject to various and contradictory interpretations. Rousseau himself maintained in his Confessions, however, that his oeuvre was consistent and coherent, and that any apparent inconsistencies were superficial. In the years after Rousseau's death, he was seen as a champion of individualism by both counter-revolutionaries and radicals. Conversely, Hippolyte Taine wrote in his Ancien Régime that Rousseau's collectivism led inevitably to tyranny and despotism. In general, Rousseau's writings were widely read and critically acclaimed throughout Europe well into the nineteenth century, after which point interest waned until the early twentieth century. As the bicentenary of Rousseau's birth approached, English commentators began to reassess the import of the writer's life and ideology and critics focused on the contradictory nature of much of his thought. There have been periodic attempts, such as Ernst Cassirer's 1932 essay The Problem of Rousseau, to extract from the variety of his writings the fundamental unity of thought that Rousseau himself claimed existed. Rousseau continued (and continues) to be read as providing a foundation for a range of political ideologies, including modern democracy, socialist collectivism, totalitarianism, and individualist anarchy. In recent years, critical attention has shifted from a "paternity" approach—study of Rousseau's "formative influence" on modern society as the father of certain ideas, movements, and events—to attempts at lucid interpretation of the actual meaning of his thought, but he remains a complex or contradictory figure whose ideas and eloquence continue to resonate powerfully with those reading him from the economic and social vantage point of the late twentieth century.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Dissertation sur la musique moderne (essay) 1743

Discours qui a remporté le prix à l'Académie de Dijon. En l'année 1750. Sur cette Question proposée par la même Académie: Si le rétablissment des Sciences et des Arts a contribué à épurer les moeurs [Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts; also called First Discourse] (essay) 1750

Le Devin du village [The Cunning Man] (operetta) 1752

Lettre sur la musique français (criticism) 1753

Discours sur l'origine et les fondaments de l'inégalité parmi les hommes [A Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind; also...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Maurice Cranston (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An introduction to The Social Contract, by Jean Jacques Rousseau, translated by Maurice Cranston Penguin Books, 1968, pp. 9-43.

[In the following excerpt, Cranston discusses Rousseau's Social Contract in the context of Rousseau's other works and in the works of his contemporaries.]

The political views of the philosophes were as dis-tasteful to Rousseau as were most of their opinions. Like their master, Francis Bacon, they believed in strong government; the doctrine of planning called for a ruler with enough power to put plans into effect; and just as Bacon himself once dreamed of converting James I to his way of thinking and then using magnified...

(The entire section is 6588 words.)

Judith N. Shklar (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "'One Nation, Indivisible …'," in Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau's Social Theory, Cambridge at the University Press, 1969, pp. 165-214.

[In the following excerpt, Shklar discusses Rousseau 's idea of the body politic, one of his political personifications.]


The Great Legislator practices preventive politics in much the same way as the tutor gives Emile a negative education. Both create an external environment that will forestall the moral deformation that has been the lot of 'man in general'. Both also manage to create a deep attachment to themselves in their respective charges. Their influence is...

(The entire section is 20108 words.)

Vincente Medina (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Rousseau," in Social Contract Theories: Political Obligation or Anarchy?, Rowman & Little-field Publishers, Inc., 1990, pp. 43-61.

[In the following excerpt, Medina discusses Rousseau as an advocate of contractarianism.]

(The entire section is 8152 words.)

Daniel E. Cullen (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Achievement of Democratic Freedom," in Freedom in Rousseau's Political Philosophy, Northern Illinois University Press, 1993, pp. 70-116.

[In the following excerpt, Cullen analyzes Rousseau's concept of "negative " (in the state of Nature) liberty and its relationship to democracy.]

Are free relations possible? Can the avoidance of personal dependence characteristic of solitude somehow be imported into community? Rousseau's political thought is devoted to finding a form of association that avoids the inherent tendency of social relations toward domination and submission; its project is negative in that political relations are regarded as defensive relations...

(The entire section is 21218 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, 464 p.

A psychological and philosophical study of Rousseau's life and works.


Bloom, Allan. "Jean Jacques Rousseau: 1712–1778." In History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, second edition, pp. 532-53. The University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Discusses Rousseau's political and social theory, focusing on the tension between the individual within a...

(The entire section is 884 words.)