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Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Biography

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born June 28, 1712 in Geneva and died July 2, 1778 in Ermenonville, France. He was one of the most important philosophers of the French enlightenment.

He was born to Isaac Rousseau, a clock maker, and Suzanne Bernard, who tragically died only a few days after his birth. By the year 1725, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had begun an apprenticeship as an engraver. Three years later he left Geneva for Annecy, where he held several jobs as a teacher and secretary.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau eventually moved to Paris, in 1742. There he met Denis Diderot and served as a contributor for his Encyclopédie, a radical magazine at the time. However, that had not been his actual intention; Jean-Jacques Rousseau planned to become a composer. He had introduced a new system of numbered notation (Dissertation sur la musique moderne), which he presented at the Académie des Sciences. Though it was rejected, Jean-Jacques Rousseau continued to compose none the less.

The following two years, Jean-Jacques Rousseau worked for the French embassy in Venice. During this time he gained a great interest in Italian opera and had already written an opera himself entitled, Les Muses galantes (1742). In 1752, he then composed Le Devin du village, which earned him much praise and fame.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also involved philosophically and wrote his first major philosophical work in 1750. From this work he earned a prize from the Academy of Dijon. The text, Discours sur les sciences et les arts, begins with a question, “The question before me is: 'Whether the Restoration of the arts and sciences has had the effect of purifying or corrupting morals.” This first discourse represents a radical critique of civilization. According to Rousseau, civilization is to be seen as a history of decay instead of progress. He does not conceive of the world as necessarily “good” per se, but rather argues for a sense of rationalism—one must attain rational knowledge in order to be able to control nature.

In 1754, Jean-Jacques Rousseau returned to Geneva and (re)converted to Calvinism. One year later he published the Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men). Infamously he writes:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

He compares the “savages,” who live within themselves, with “social men,” who live outside themselves, and therefore, lives in and through the opinion of others. Thus, and in contrast to the first Discourse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau here considers reason to be the root of all problems, for it is precisely through reason that people are led to compare with each other.

In 1761, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published the novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Julie or the New Heloise), which turned out to be an immediate bestseller. In the following year, he finished Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique (Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right), one of the most influential books of republican thought. Departing with his perhaps most famous lines “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau challenges the “actual law” criticized in his second Discourse by proposing a form of contract that should grant people liberty, namely “To find a form of association which may defend and protect with the whole force of the community the person and property of every associate, and by means of which each, coalescing with all, may nevertheless obey only himself, and remain as free as before.” Yet, in order to gain civil rights, people are to abandon their “natural” rights. The government of this state (ideally a small city-state such as Geneva) is to be an “intermediate body established between the subjects and the sovereign for their mutual correspondence, charged with the execution of the laws and with the maintenance of liberty both civil and political.” And it is thus subjected to the general will: “Each of us puts in common his person and his whole power under the supreme direction of the general will, and in return we receive every member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

Though Jean-Jacques Rousseau never condemned religion per se, in the Contrait he argues in favour of a “civil religion,” which should support the unification of the state. After dividing religion into three forms, the “religion of man,” which is personal, the “religion of the citizen,” which is public, and the third, including Christianity, which he criticizes, has two competing systems of laws, namely state and religion. He then continues to outline the “dogmas of civil religion,” which “ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.”

Only one month after the publication of the Contrat, Rousseau’s next book appeared, Émile ou De l'éducation (Èmile, or on education). It was again a bestseller. In compliance with his critique of civilization (“Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man”), Jean-Jacques Rousseau elaborates on the principles of how children should be raised in order to become good citizens:

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness? Love childhood, indulge its sports, its pleasures, its delightful instincts. Who has not sometimes regretted that age when laughter was ever on the lips, and when the heart was ever at peace? Why rob these innocents of the joys which pass so quickly, of that precious gift which they cannot abuse? Why fill with bitterness the fleeting days of early childhood, days which will no more return for them than for you? Fathers, can you tell when death will call your children to him? Do not lay up sorrow for yourselves by robbing them of the short span which nature has allotted to them. As soon as they are aware of the joy of life, let them rejoice in it, go that whenever God calls them they may not die without having tasted the joy of life.

Given their radical and innovative nature, both the Contrat and Èmile caused major scandals and were burned in public. As a result, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had to flee. At first he went to the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, then, by invitation from David Hume, he proceeded to England. Although he was still banned from France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau returned to the south of France in 1767 and was eventually, in 1770, allowed to settle in Paris. By this time, he had finished his autobiography Confessions, which wasn’t published until just after his death. And with this text he pioneered again developing what has become know as the autobiographical genre: “I have entered on an enterprise which is without precedent, and will have no imitator. I propose to show my fellows a man as nature made him, and this man shall be myself.”

In 1772, Jean-Jacques Rousseau finished his last political work, Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne (Considerations on the Government of Poland, published 1782). In this text he sketches out a new constitution for Poland. Just before his death, Jean-Jacques Rousseau finished the additional autobiographical works Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacque; Dialogue (Dialogues: Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques); and Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of the Solitary Walker). He died in 1778 just as the turmoil in France was erupting. After his death, his ideas were taken up by proponents of the Reign of Terror, but were also employed by the later American philosophers/poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Among his most ardent critics were Voltaire and, much later, Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt.



Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most important philosophers of the French Enlightenment. (June 28, 1712 - July 2, 1778