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.
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,...
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