Jean-Jacques Rousseau - World Literature

World Literature

Jean-Jacques Rousseau


BORN: June 28, 1712, Geneva, Switzerland

DIED: July 2, 1778, Ermenonville, France

NATIONALITY: Swiss, French

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, philosophy


Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750)

Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men (1755)

Julie; or, The New Heloi'se (1761)

Emile; or, A Treatise on Education (1762)

Confessions (1781-1788)



Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, photograph. AP Images.



Jean-Jacques Rousseau is widely viewed as the greatest social and political philosopher of the French Enlightenment. That his work spans an incredibly wide range of subjects—ethics, religion, sociology, language, fiction, political theory, music, drama, biology, botany, and anthropology—is only part of the problem of trying to summarize his life and contributions. Rousseau has been labeled the ‘‘father’’ of the French Revolution, romanticism, socialism, anarchism, totalitarianism, and even movements for environmental protection. Though his work addressed various issues, Rousseau’s main concern was the question of where ‘‘civilization’’ was leading mankind. His view was that civilization had taken a wrong turn and lost the essence of what really mattered in life. It was still possible to set it right, Rousseau argued, through dedication to the rule of law, individual liberty, and bold innovations in education. In the words of R. A. Leigh, Rousseau ‘‘is not only the most original, the most profound and the most controversial of all the great eighteenth-century writers: he is also the most topical.... He will always remain both the prophet and the critic of modern times.’’


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Poorly Educated, Locked Out, and On the Road. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in the Calvinist stronghold of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1712, the second son of a watchmaker and his wife (who died ten days after Rousseau’s birth). Later he was brought up by a puritanical aunt who (he admitted in the Confessions) did much to warp his sexuality. In 1722, the poorly educated Rousseau had to be apprenticed, first to a notary, then to an engraver.

In March 1728 Rousseau missed the Genevan city curfew, found himself locked outside the gates, and wandered on foot to Annecy in Savoy, where he was taken in by Francoise-Louise de Warens, who became his protector and then (from 1733 to 1740) his lover. Rousseau began to acquire the education he had lacked in Geneva, and the free-minded and controversial works of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Nicholas de Malebranche, Isaac Newton, and John Locke made a particular impression.

Catholicism, Enlightenment, Music, and Writing. Mme de Warens, who specialized in finding Catholic converts, sent the young Rousseau to Turin, Italy, where he renounced Calvinism; he even briefly attended a seminary for priests until a Catholic ecclesiastic attempted to seduce him. Rousseau returned to de Warens and completed his education. In 1740 he moved to Lyon, France, to serve as a tutor for the children of M. de Mably. There he met de Mably’s two elder brothers, Etienne Bonnot and the Abbe de Mably. This was the beginning of Rousseau’s connection to the Paris philosophes, a group of thinkers and writers who were spreading enthusiasm for the new Enlightenment thought that suspected traditional authorities, favored education for all people, and valued reason over superstition or blind allegiance to religious faith.

At this same time Rousseau became a considerable composer and theorist of music; in later years he would represent himself as a simple Swiss musician. In 1742 Rousseau moved to Paris, carrying with him a new system of musical notation, a comedy, an opera, and a collection of poems. Rousseau made a precarious living by tutoring, writing, and copying music; for a brief period (17431744) he served, not very happily, as secretary to the French ambassador in Venice. He also met and befriended Denis Diderot, soon-to-be editor of the philosophes’ monumental undertaking, the first great French Encyclopedia. Diderot commissioned Rousseau’s first great writing on the motives for civic participation, Discourse on Political Economy (1755).

Gaining International Renown as a Philosophe. It was while visiting Diderot in prison (held for alleged impiety) in 1749 that Rousseau decided to write an essay for a prize competition sponsored by the Academy of Dijon, dealing with the question of whether morals had been harmed or advanced by the rebirth of the arts and sciences. Rousseau won the prize with Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, in which he defended Spartan- Roman civics against the Athenian literary ‘‘tyranny’’ of poets and orators. This made his European reputation, even attracting the attention of the king of Poland.

In 1752 his opera, The Village Soothsayer, was performed at the court of Louis XV at Versailles; at roughly the same time his black comedy Narcissus, the Lover of Himself was given in Paris at the Theatre Fran^ais. Still calling himself a citizen of Geneva, Rousseau refused a royal pension, and he offended some establishment figures by publishing his Letter on French Music (1753) where he defended Italian simplicity against French elaboration.

Against Inequality, and a Return to His Roots. Rousseau published the most radical of his works, A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men, in May 1754. It argues that the existing aristocratic government is a kind of trick on the part of the rich, who persuade the poor that it is universally and equally advantageous to be subjected to their laws and priorities. In June 1754 Rousseau left Paris for a visit to his native Geneva, where he reconverted to Calvinism, had his civic rights restored, and where he published his Inequality and the Political Economy (1755). In 1756 he moved to the countryside, taking up residence at l’Hermitage, the country estate of Mme d’Epinay, a move that marked the start of the weakening of Rousseau’s ties to the philosophes.

In 1758, Rousseau began The State of War, his scathing critique of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, accusing Hobbes of making broad generalizations about ‘‘natural’’ men by observing only badly socialized, ill- educated Englishmen. In the late 1750s Rousseau also labored on (but never published) the Moral Letters and then produced his vast epistolary novel, Julie; or, The New Heloise (1761), with its celebrated account of a small ideal society. The novel was a runaway best seller.

Rousseau the Educator Arouses (F)Ire. In May 1762 Rousseau brought out two of his greatest but most ill-fated works: The Social Contract and Emile; or, A Treatise on Education, both focusing on transformative, ‘‘denaturing’’ education. Both were condemned and publicly burned in Paris at the behest of Archbishop Christophe de Beaumont (and with the approval the Parlement of Paris); Rousseau, under order of arrest, fled to Geneva (only to find the same works condemned and burned there). Against charges of impiety leveled by the Genevan public prosecutor—alleging the danger of Rousseau’s ‘‘natural’’ theology—Rousseau composed and published his Letters Written from the Mountain, in which he defended ancient ‘‘civic’’ religion and insisted that Christianity produces good men whose otherworldliness makes them ‘‘bad citizens.’’ This of course only increased the furor against him, and he took refuge in the Prussian enclave of Neuchatel.

Renouncing his Genevan citizenship definitively, Rousseau occupied himself by writing a constitution for recently liberated Corsica; increasingly threatened, his paranoia fueled by genuine danger, Rousseau accepted the offer of British refuge given by the philosopher David Hume, although he soon came to see even him as part of the ‘‘league of malignant enemies’’ bent on his destruction. After an unhappy period in England, Rousseau returned incognito to France, living under the assumed name of Renou. While living under this name, Rousseau finally married his longtime companion, Therese Levasseur, by whom he had fathered—if the Confessions are to be believed—five children, all supposedly abandoned by Rousseau to an orphanage.

Spending His Last Years in Introspection. The Confessions, Rousseau’s scandalously honest and sexually graphic autobiography, occupied much of Rousseau’s time. In 1772 he produced The Government of Poland as part of an effort to avert partition of that country by Prussia, Austria, and Russia; the book combines intelligent constitutional reforms with Rousseau’s most glowing account of Spartan and Roman republican civic virtue. In the same year he wrote (without publishing) the innovative and narratively complex Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques (Dialogues), in which he had one half of himself comment on the other half. The Dialogues portray Rousseau’s broodings and show a distinct touch of madness. He decided to give the manuscript to God by placing it on the high altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where, perhaps, the king might also notice it. He carefully prepared to carry out this task, but when he arrived at the church, a railing with locked gates that he had never seen before surrounded the chancel. Stunned, Rousseau wandered aimlessly all day, now certain that God, too, had joined men against him.

In 1777 Rousseau wrote his last great confessional work, The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, which begins with the celebrated words, ‘‘Here I am, then, alone on the Earth, no longer having any brother, or neighbor, or friend, or society except myself.’’ A year later, while in refuge on an aristocratic estate at Ermenonville (north of Paris) and while engaging in his beloved botanical studies, Rousseau died quite suddenly on July 2, 1778—two years after the beginning of the American Revolution that was in part a response to his writings, and a little more than a decade before the French Revolution founded more directly on his writings. He was originally buried in a quasi-Roman tomb on the Isle of Poplars, but at the height of the French Revolution in 1794 his ashes were relocated, in a dramatic torchlight procession, to the Pantheon in Paris and placed next to the remains of his one-time rival Voltaire.



Rousseau's famous contemporaries include:

Edward Young (1683-1765): An English poet and playwright. Young wrote poetry in defense of Christian orthodoxy and against "free-thinkers" such as Rousseau. As a country clergyman, Young also wrote satires, dramatic tragedies, and essays promoting originality in writing.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762): Montagu was an early patron of her relative, novelist Henry Fielding, and a friend and correspondent of poet Alexander Pope and others. Her lively and sharply intelligent letters and poetry appear in several collections. Her most lasting legacy, however, is her introduction of the smallpox vaccine to England after a trip to Constantinople.

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771): A French philosopher who argued that humans are born with a mental tabula rasa, a ''blank slate" and that, therefore, proper education is crucial. The Catholic Church and the French parliament alike burned his works for the heretical idea that the public interest, not religion, provides the strongest framework for morality.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): A German composer, one of the pillars of Western classical music—on par with Mozart and Beethoven. Bach dominates the baroque movement, a style of music with elaborate counterpoint, multiple musical lines, and highly complex organization. Bach was able to combine all of these with intense spirituality.

Flora Macdonald (1722-1790): Macdonald lived in America with her husband, Allan Macdonald, a general in the British army during the American Revolution. She was nevertheless instrumental in the failed Scottish effort to restore the Catholic line of Scottish rulers to the British throne, helping Prince Charles Edward Stuart (''the Young Pretender'') escape after his defeat in the Battle of Culloden (1746).



Rousseau famously argued that "civilization" as it existed in his time had an adverse effect on humankind. Following are some other works that consider the effects of civilization:

The Tempest (c. 1610), a play by William Shakespeare. In this play, the sorcerer Prospero and his daughter Miranda have been stranded on an island for years. A monstrous character named Caliban, a resident of the island, complains of the unwelcome effects of the civilization Prospero brings.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), a novel by Mark Twain. The young adventurer Huckleberry Finn vigorously resists all attempts by well-meaning adults to ''civilize'' him and pursues his dreams of ''lighting out'' to the untamed territories of the American West.

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), a film directed by Jamie Uys. A Coca-Cola bottle falls from an airplane and is found the Sho people of the Kalahari Desert, who have no familiarity with the world beyond their homeland. They decide that one of the young members of the tribe must take the artifact, presumed to belong to the Gods, to the end of the world to destroy it.


Works in Literary Context

Enlightenment Ideals. Rousseau was profoundly shaped by, and in turn profoundly shaped, an intellectual and cultural movement that began in France and went on to sweep the rest of Europe and the American colonies throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century. Known even then as the Enlightenment, it was in many ways a reaction against an era of civil warfare, religious fanaticism and intolerance, aristocratic decadence, and increasing social inequality that marked the end of the seventeenth century in England and elsewhere. The proponents of Enlightenment thought were not all philosophers, but they called themselves the philosophes, and their leader in France was Denis Diderot. Diderot became an early patron of Rousseau upon the latter’s arrival in Paris, encouraging him to publish his writing and contribute to the massive French Encyclopedia that became a platform for the philosophes’ ideas.

An encyclopedia can be seen as a perfect Enlightenment project. Enlightenment thinkers wished to see the world through the eyes of reason, science, and empirical observation. An encyclopedia organizes all of human knowledge into categories and family trees, then presents in the equalizing and non-prioritized order of alphabetization. It values no reader over another—it is written for general readers, and no one is prevented from accessing any kind of learning (including taboo subjects such as human anatomy or heretical religious thought). The Enlightenment assumption, seen throughout Rousseau’s political works, was that a well-informed public motivated by ‘‘enlightened self-interest’’ could be trusted to run their own government and make the best decisions for the common good.

Republican Politics. Part of Rousseau’s contribution to Enlightenment ideas was his dedication to republican politics. ‘‘Republican’’ in this sense means a government run not by a king or tyrant with a supporting network of hereditary aristocracy (as had been the case in Europe for centuries, since the ancient Greeks), but rather by representatives chosen on the basis of the rule of law, personal liberty, and civic virtue. As the American revolutionary John Adams put it, a republic is to be ‘‘a government of laws, and not of men.’’ Republican values are found throughout Rousseau’s many works, including the overtly political Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men, Discourse on Political Economy, and The Social Contract. In each of these works, Rousseau argues that every man’s highest calling is civic virtue: active participation in the community for the benefit of the common good, based upon individual liberty and the impartial rule of law.

In the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men, for example, Rousseau claims that the rich ruling class has duped the public into thinking that the nobility’s self-interested form of government is best for everyone. So long as there is private property, says Rousseau, there will be inequality masking itself as ‘‘civilized’’ society. ‘‘Don’t listen to that imposture; you are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and the earth to no one,’’ he wrote. Man’s greatest ills, said Rousseau, are not natural but made by man himself; the remedy lies also within man’s power. Words like these helped form the basis for the Declaration of the Rights of Man (liberty, equality, fraternity), which was the rallying cry for the French Revolution (1789-1799).

The ‘‘Noble Savage”. Many philosophers of Rousseau’s day considered intellectual questions about the family and the individuals in it: What was a family like before the advent of ‘‘civilization’’? How were children raised? Deeply critical of his society, Rousseau believed that social and political inequalities corrupted people. As a result, he endorsed a view of mankind that found pockets of popularity throughout the eighteenth century, the idea that primitive man is superior to modern man since he is free of this corruption. Primitive man’s instincts were more accurate, his religion more sincere, his emotions more intense and pure, and his societies more reasonable. As reports came back from voyagers about Native Americans, South Sea Islanders, and Africans, these Europeans often had their opinions validated. Authors such as Voltaire, Franyois Chateaubriand, and James Fenimore Cooper all used Noble Savage characters, but Rousseau was the writer who most systematically wove the ideals through many of his works in multiple genres.

Traditional Gender Roles and Libertine Sexuality. Rousseau’s novel Emile is an excellent example of how Enlightenment philosophers, who were liberal in many regards about questions of human rights and individual liberty, were often conservative in their views about relationships between men and women. While Enlightenment thinkers criticized many other aspects of European culture and society, they tended to consider the traditional gender relations of their time as natural and preferable. In Emile, Sophie, Emile’s future partner, is smart, but not too intelligent for Emile, and her skills lie in the domestic duties for which Rousseau believed women were naturally suited: sewing, cooking, and housekeeping. Rousseau wrote that a woman’s natural sphere of influence was the home, while a man's was the government.

For all his traditionalism in the realm of gender roles, Rousseau was a champion of sexual liberation and experimentation. In an era when the Marquis de Sade was also considered an Enlightenment thinker, sexual freedom was sometimes seen as an expression of radical individual liberties. In his Confessions, Rousseau admitted to, and defended, such publicly shocking but privately common ‘‘peculiarities’’ as exhibitionism, masochism, masturbation, and numerous casual affairs. The Confessions were originally written as an elaborate self-defense against what Rousseau perceived to be his many persecuting enemies, but they set off a fashion for shockingly confessional autobiography throughout the Romantic era in the early nineteenth century, including Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822).


Works in Critical Context

The closest thing to a consensus to be achieved by more than two hundred years of scholarship on Rousseau is that his work must be analyzed as a whole in order to even begin to understand him and that, even then, synthesis is almost impossible. His influence is vast and uneven. Although Rousseau always insisted on the fundamental unity of his thought, he was frequently ambiguous and deliberately cultivated paradox in his writing.

Rousseau's work was predictably controversial at its first appearance; it found the extremes of critical opinion and not much in between. In 1790 Edmund Burke wrote that Rousseau gave rise to ‘‘new and unlooked-for strokes in politics and morals’’ and declared that ‘‘the writings of Rousseau lead directly to shameful evil.’’ Sir James Mackintosh, on the other extreme, saw Rousseau as one ‘‘who unshackled and emancipated the human mind.’’ In France, particularly during and immediately after the French Revolution, Rousseau was extremely popular: ‘‘Him they study, him they meditate; him they turn over in all the time they can spare,’’ wrote Burke. And he goes on: ‘‘Rousseau is their canon of holy writ; in his life he is their canon of Polyclitus.; he is their standard figure of perfection.’’ Rousseau was widely read in England well into the 1800s, but once Napoleon’s power was established, British enthusiasm for all things French diminished dramatically. According to Edmund Gosse, Rousseau’s influence ‘‘was like a snow man in the sun; it melted and dripped from every limb, from all parts of its structure.’’ Rousseau was usually read in secret if he was read at all throughout much of the nineteenth century. John Morley’s appreciative biography Rousseau (1873) was a rare exception.

As the bicentenary of Rousseau’s birth approached and the Napoleonic wars seemed like a distant memory, with World Wars I and II taking shape (where England and France were close allies), English critics began to catch up with other European scholars in their more balanced views of Rousseau. His paradoxes began to seem more of a challenge than a frustration. J. Middleton Murry wrote that Rousseau’s paradoxes are an ‘‘unremitting endeavour to express an intuitive certainty in intellectual terms.... He seems to surge upwards on a passionate waver of revolutionary ideas, only to sink back into the calm of conservative or quietist conclusions.’’

The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. Criticism has often been dominated by studies of how Rousseau ‘‘founded’’ certain movements and events, but more recently, more attention has been paid to the actual content of Rousseau’s writing and ideas. For instance, Sally Campbell and John Scott note that ‘‘Rousseau’s arguments often turn on a correct understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. Cause and effect are easily confounded, and he criticizes his predecessors for their errors in reasoning.’’ Campbell and Scott go on to argue, however, that ‘‘the principal cause-effect argument of the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts is actually the opposite of the one Rousseau initially seems to posit in his work. Whereas he first suggests that the sciences and arts themselves corrupt morals, his ultimate argument is that the corruption of morals is the cause of the advancement of the sciences and arts and of their corrupting effect.’’ Even the most dedicated of Rousseau’s scholars, however, find it difficult or impossible to read everything that Rousseau wrote and to synthesize it all into a single coherent interpretation.


Responses to Literature

1. How do you reconcile the traditional morality and gender relationships found in Rousseau’s novels, Julie; or, The New Heloise and Emile, with the radical politics of individual liberty found in his political writing? Do you find Rousseau to be paradoxical, hypocritical, or flexible? Are these positive or negative qualities?

2. Research the reasons why Rousseau was controversial or offensive to many people in the eighteenth century. Are these the same reasons why Rousseau may be controversial or offensive today? What is mainstream about Enlightenment values today, and what is still problematic?

3. We are surrounded by ‘‘confessions’’ today—on television talk shows, in blogs and social networking sites, best-selling memoirs, and even game shows. How is today’s confessional culture like and unlike what Rousseau was doing in his Confessions? How did Rousseau’s pioneering work help establish the model for later confessional literature?

4. As a social thinker, Rousseau was convinced of the essential innocence of the human being ‘‘in a state of nature.’’ Read several of his writings on this subject and either formulate an attack on his position or defend him from detractors. It may be useful to formulate your thoughts as a sort of debate, in which both sides make specific reference to and offer explanations of Rousseau’s various positions on the subject.




Brooke, Christopher. Rousseau: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Broome, Jack Howard. Rousseau: A Study of His Thought. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Trans. Peter Gay. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Cobban, Alfred B. Rousseau and the Modern State. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964.

Cranston, Maurice. The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754. New York: Norton, 1983.

________. The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1754-1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

________. The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Green, F. C. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Study of His Life and Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

Grimsley, Ronald. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Sussex, U.K.: Harvester, 1983.

Hendels, Charles William. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moralist. London: Oxford University Press, 1934.

Jackson, Susan K. Rousseau’s Occasional Autobiographies. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Morley, John. Rousseau. London: Macmillan, 1896.

Roche, Daniel. France in the Enlightenment. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. Trans. John T. Scott and Robert D. Zaretsky. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Trouille, Mary Seidman. Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Winwar, Frances. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Conscience of an Era. New York: Random House, 1961.

Web Site

The Rousseau Association. Retrieved April 14, 2008, from Last updated on February 12, 2008.