Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

Like many of the great figures of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (rew-SOH) wrote on a wide variety of topics and explored both literary and nonliterary forms. His first serious effort at writing—the one with which he hoped to launch his career upon his arrival in Paris in 1742—was a proposal for a new system of musical notation that he presented to the Académie des Sciences. Although his proposal did not win an overly enthusiastic reception, Rousseau was recognized as knowledgeable in music. Cardinal Richelieu asked him to adapt the verses and the music of a ballet by Voltaire and Jean-Philippe Rameau titled Les Fêtes de Ramire (1745). Rousseau’s interlude Le Devin du village (pr. 1752; The Cunning-Man, 1766) met with much success at its first performance before King Louis XV at Fontainebleau. When the editors of L’Encyclopédie (1751-1780) were later soliciting authors for the various sections of this voluminous work, Rousseau was engaged to write the articles on music along with the article “Économie politique” (“Political Economy”). He also dabbled in theater, writing, among other plays, Narcisse: Ou, L’Amant de lui-même (1752). It was, however, particularly with his two anthropological essays, or discourses—Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; The Discourse Which Carried the Praemium at the Academy of Dijon, 1751; better known as A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, 1913) and Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755; A Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, 1761)—that Rousseau established himself as an original writer of profound insight. The discourses set the stage for much of Rousseau’s subsequent work: his epistolary novel, The New Héloïse; a retort to Jean d’Alembert’s L’Encyclopédie article on Geneva, Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758; A Letter to M. d’Alembert Concerning the Effects of Theatrical Entertainments, 1759); a treatise on education, Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763); a work of political theory, Du contrat social: Ou, Principes du droit politique (1762; A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Political Law, 1764; commonly known as The Social Contract); and a short interpretive piece on language, Essai sur l’origine des langues (1781; On the Origin of Languages, 1967). In his later years, Rousseau turned to autobiographical writing and composed Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau (part 1, 1782; part 2, 1789; The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, 1783-1790), Les Dialogues: Ou, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques (first dialogue, 1780; complete edition, 1782), and, finally, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 1783).


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With the publication of his first discourse, for which he won a prize at the Académie de Dijon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau vaulted to fame in the European world of letters. Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau rank as the seminal thinkers of the French Enlightenment. No one could ignore Rousseau’s claim that civilization had corrupted humankind. The assertion gave new life to the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.

As the debate over the contributions of the sciences and the arts raged on, Rousseau found himself increasingly isolated. His friends among the philosophes, who had championed the advancement of reason against intolerance and fanaticism, found themselves reluctant to accept the full implications of Rousseau’s thesis once it was more amply elaborated in his second discourse. Ultimately, Rousseau was proposing a theory that would ensure human freedom from the undue constraints of society. As he wrote in The Social Contract, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

In giving primacy to the individual’s legitimate wants and needs, Rousseau came to promote sensibility rather than reason as the characteristic feature of humankind. According to Rousseau, nowhere are human beings more capable of remaining in touch with themselves and their world than in nature, which provides a reflecting mirror for the human état d’âme (state of soul). By calling renewed attention to human sensibility and humankind’s close ties with nature, Rousseau and his disciple Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre were to influence profoundly the work of Romantic writers such as François-René de Chateaubriand and Alphonse de Lamartine.

Repercussions from Rousseau’s oeuvre did not cease, however, in the early nineteenth century. The “Citizen of Geneva,” as he was fond of calling himself, considerably reworked the tradition of confessional writing begun by Saint Augustine and continued by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. His very self constituted the subject of The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, and he rightly concluded, in the opening lines of that work, that it was unique: “I am forming a project that has never had a precedent.” As he composed his autobiographical pieces, Rousseau integrated his life’s story by using sensation and feeling in a novel way to reinforce his memory. The modern reader finds in Rousseau’s work not only many passages prefiguring Marcel Proust but also a generous introduction to the literature of the self.

Foundations of Rousseau’s Ethics

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Rousseau’s ethics were rooted in his moral and religious perceptions about human nature, human behavior, and human society. In Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), and Social Contract (1762), he systematically traced his thoughts on each of these subjects. Humanity, Rousseau believed, was fundamentally good. Originally living alone, simply, and in a state of nature, humanity was free, healthy, and happy. As a result of living in society, however, humanity acquired property along with the aggressiveness required for securing and defending that property. Depraved conditions, ignoble passions, and vices soon were rampant: pride in possessions, false inequalities, affectations, greed, envy, lust, and jealousy, which were attended by insecurity, personal violence, and war. Thus, although humanity was by nature good, society itself was innately corrupt. Humanity, Rousseau concluded, had been corrupted by society. What most educated eighteenth century observers viewed as the rise of civilization, Rousseau viewed as its decline.

Rousseau’s own experiences were responsible for this assessment of society, even though the assessment itself was laced with idealism. He had begun life orphaned, poor, and vagrant. Unhappily struggling through menial posts and an apprenticeship, he subsequently rose to notoriety, thanks to the help of generous and sensitive patrons, many of them women. He became familiar with sophisticated intellectuals and with the rich, yet eventually he abandoned this level of society for a life of simplicity and honest, if irrational, emotions. His style and philosophy repudiated society’s standards, its affectations, its belief in the indefinite improvement of humanity, and its philosophical addiction to stark reason and utilitarianism.

Rousseau’s Social Contract

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Rousseau believed that humanity had descended from a natural state of innocence to an artificial state of corruption—a state made worse by what he regarded as the stupidity and self-delusion of most of his contemporaries. He fully understood that any hopes of returning to humanity’s ancient innocence were chimerical. Nevertheless, the values that he cherished—freedom, simplicity, honestly expressed emotions, and individualism—were still in some measure attainable as the best of a poor bargain. In his Social Contract, he indicated how the liberty that humanity had lost in the descent to “civilization” could be recovered in the future.

Recovery could be achieved by means of humanity’s acceptance of a new and genuine social contract that would replace the false one to which Rousseau believed humanity was chained. Thus, while humanity was born free and was possessed of individual will, its freedom and will had become victims of a fraudulent society. People could, however, surrender their independent wills to a “general will”; that is, to Rousseau’s abstract conception of society as an artificial person. In doing so, people could exchange their natural independence for a new form of liberty that would be expressed through liberal, republican political institutions. The general will, a composite of individual wills, pledged people to devote themselves to advancing the common good. The integrity of their new social contract and new society would depend upon their individual self-discipline, their self-sacrifice, and an obedience imposed on them by fear of the general will.

Religious and Educational Ethics

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The history of republican Geneva, Rousseau’s birthplace, imbued him with a lifelong admiration of republican virtues, but neither the eighteenth century Calvinism of Geneva nor Catholicism, Rousseau believed, fostered the kind of character that would be required for the republican life that he imagined under the “Social Contract.” In his view, Catholicism, for example, directed people’s attention to otherworldly goals, while Calvinism had succumbed to a soft and passive Christianity that was devoid of the puritanical rigor and innocence that had once characterized it and that Rousseau admired. Rousseau, on the contrary, advocated the cultivation of this-worldly civil values that were appropriate for a vigorous republican society: self-discipline, simplicity, honesty, courage, and virility. His proposed civic religion, stripped of much theological content, was intended to fortify these values as well as to enhance patriotism and a martial spirit.

Rousseau’s educational ideas, like his religious proposals, sought to inculcate republican civic virtues by directing people toward freedom, nature, and God. Small children were to be unsaddled and given physical freedom. Children from five to twelve were to be taught more by direct experience and by exposure to nature than by books. Adolescents should learn to work and should study morality and religion. Education, Rousseau argued in his classic Émile, should teach people about the good in themselves and nature, and should prepare them to live simple, republican lives.

Discussion Topics

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In Émile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes that in school “the master should intervene as little as possible.” Is this principle commonly observed in elementary education today? Should it be observed more or less than it is now?

The Social Contract begins with an assertion much like that at the beginning of Émile. Humanity, Rousseau says, is in chains. Is Rousseau antiauthoritarian, or can authority and liberty proceed together?

What is the basis of law as Rousseau sees it in The Social Contract?

Rousseau maintains that The Confessions was unprecedented and inimitable. What seem to be earlier works that might be called models for The Confessions?

How well does The Confessions exemplify Rousseau’s principle that autobiography should not hesitate to portray a person’s vices?

Of all the advice that Rousseau gives, which seems most impractical?

Rousseau tended to distrust books as sources, but he wrote a great deal. Would a modern Rousseau have found a nonliterary way of expressing his thoughts?


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Cranston, Maurice William. The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Explores Rousseau’s views on individual experience with special references to solitude, exile, and adversity. For further information on this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Crocker, Lester G. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Quest (1712-1758). New York: Macmillan, 1968. The first volume of a two-part biography. Places heavy emphasis on Rousseau’s eccentric psychological development.

Cullen, Daniel E. Freedom in Rousseau’s Political Philosophy. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993. An assessment of Rousseau’s philosophy of freedom and its impact on his broader moral and political views.

Damrosch, Leo. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. This one volume biography is a useful addition to Rousseau scholarship. Illustrated and indexed.

Dent, N. J. H. Rousseau: An Introduction to His Psychological, Social, and Political Theory. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988. A helpful analysis of Rousseau’s views about education, rights, community, and other social and political issues.

Friedlander, Eli. J. J. Rousseau: An Afterlife of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. An examination of the forms and focus philosophy itself viewed particularly through the analysis of Rousseau’s work Reveries of the Solitary Walker. A challenging, but important reference work.

Grant, Ruth H. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. An instructive comparative analysis of two important figures in political philosophy.

Grimsley, Ronald. The Philosophy of Rousseau. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1973. A reliable survey of Rousseau’s ideas with an emphasis on his social thought.

Havens, George R. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A concise introductory account of Rousseau’s life and career with analyses of his major works.

Hulliung, Mark. The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Shows how Rousseau both reflected and departed from main currents in Enlightenment philosophy.

Morgenstern, Mira. Rousseau and the Politics of Ambiguity: Self, Culture, and Society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Analyzes Rousseau’s political theory and its historical context, showing how his thought introduced notes of ambiguity that remain in contemporary political life.

Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A concise and lucid introduction to Rousseau’s life and thought.

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