Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-1778): Genevan political theorist.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the foremost political theorist of the eighteenth-century, who exerted a profound influence on the revolutionaries of France and the romantic movement.

Born in Geneva as the son of a clockmaker, who was proud of his status as a burgher, Rousseau left the city as the age of sixteen. For the next decade and a half, Rousseau pursued work in a variety of fields, including music. A convert to Catholicism, he became the lover of Madame de Warren, who encouraged him to pursue his studies. At the age of 30, he set out to make his name in Paris. After briefly serving as the secretary to the French Ambassador in Venice, Rousseau settled in Paris, where he made the acquaintance of the philosophes as a regular in their salons. During this time, his focus was on a career in music, and his short opera The Village Soothsayer was actually performed at Court before the King in 1752, where it was reasonably well-received.

In 1751, Rousseau wrote The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he challenged the basic assumptions of the Enlightenment. Written in response to the Academy of Dijon’s prize essay question – Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts helped to purify morals?” – Rousseau argued that rather than promoting morality, the advance of the arts and sciences had actually had the opposite effect and led to the decline of virtue. Increasing intellectual and cultural refinement proceeded hand in hand with the degeneration of moral character.

Rousseau continued to pursue this line of thought in 1755 with The Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men. In the second Discourse, he maintained that the improvement of reason weakened the natural sentiment of pity. In this story of decline and corruption, the development of reason and artificial passions and needs reduce humans from independence to mutual dependence. In the natural condition, human beings are solitary, nomadic, and innocent, being motivated by a desire for self-preservation and pity. But humans also possess a faculty of self-improvement, or perfectibility, which enables the species to develop all of its other capabilities and drives it out of this original condition into the settled life of families in small communities united by custom, which is humanity’s golden age. Division of land and labor, however, transformed natural inequality into inequality of rank, thereby ending the golden age. The establishment of the state and the resulting system of law, then, serves merely to protect the propertied wealth of the rich and enables them to reduce to servitude those who are poor.

Published in 1761, his novel Julie, or the New Heloise was his most popular work during his life, though it has receded in importance since then. An alpine romance written in the form of an exchange of letter, the novel relates the love between Julie, the daughter of a nobleman, and Saint-Preux, her tutor. Through the story of their love, Rousseau explores the conflict of passion with virtue and filial duty. Julie forsakes Saint-Preux for Wolmar, her father’s choice, but the story ends with her death and recognition of her continuing love for Saint-Preux.

Rousseau reached the peak of his authorial career in 1762 with the publication of Emile and The Social Contract. Both works were condemned in France and Geneva, and warrants were issued for his arrest. Despite his literary success, Rousseau then faced a period of dangerous insecurity as he sought refuge from legal persecution.

In Emile, a treatise on education, Rousseau scandalized the religious establishment by rejecting the doctrine of original sin with his declaration of the innate goodness of human beings. The corruption of humanity is due to pernicious influence of society through the generation of artificial desires and passions, which are so intense that they in effect enslave their possessors. Rousseau’s solution is a system of education in which the pupil, Emile, is reared in such a way as to restrict the development of his desires so that they fall within the range of his own abilities.

The Social Contract is one of the great masterworks of western political thought, a celebration of democracy and equality. Rousseau begins with the current state of human beings, living in a condition of slavery even though they were born free. While its functioning has proven problematic, human reason is capable of formulating ideals that extend beyond present reality, and the social contract presents just such a construction.

Life is untenable in the state of nature, a condition without government and law, life, and so the demands of self-preservation require that humans find some mechanism to continue their existence. Incapable of creating new powers but only combining existing ones, individuals can create this mechanism by uniting together in civil society and employing the power of all to defend the life and property of each. But, for Rousseau, this raises the problem of how humans can do this and yet still remain free, the solution to which is the social contract. By entering into the social contract, humans exchange their natural lawless freedom for moral freedom under the general will. One unconditionally and absolutely alienates one’s person, possessions, and rights to the whole community, so that the mutual dependence of persons is replaced by the dependence of each upon all. One’s person and possessions are placed under the control of the general will directing the legislative activity of the community towards the common good. All law is a democratic declaration of the general will, and the essence of human freedom lies in the legislative exercise of popular sovereignty and obedience to it.

Unfortunately, actual persons did not possess a general will. This created a problem for Rousseau since if a community is free, its political institutions must be the product of its free consent. The general will itself is produced by correct political institutions, but correct political institutions presuppose the existence of a general individual. Rousseau’s solution was to call upon an uncorrupted, enlightened lawgiver who can emancipate the people by crafting appropriate legislation and eliciting popular consent. Contrary to Rousseau’s intent, this line of thought was later used to justify revolutionary dictatorship, most notably by Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de.

For the rest of his life, Rousseau wrote primarily autobiographical works, such as his Confessions, though he did publish a few minor political works, Plan for the Constitution of Corsica and Considerations on the Government of Poland. Increasingly paranoid, he fell out with the philosophes, as well as having an ugly episode in Britain with Hume, David.

Further Reading:

Peter Ellenburg, Rousseau’s Political Philosophy, 1976.

James Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy, 1984.

Judith Shklar, Men and Citizens: Rousseau’s Social Theory, 1969

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University