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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712 - July 2, 1778) was a Swiss-French philosopher, writer, political theorist, and self-taught composer.


Table of contents
1 Biography of Rousseau
2 Philosophy of Rousseau
4 Translation
5 See Also
6 External Links

Biography of Rousseau

The tomb of Rousseau in the crypt of the Panthéon, ParisEnlarge

The tomb of Rousseau in the crypt of the Panthéon, Paris

Born in Geneva, Switzerland, and died in Ermenonville (28 miles northeast of Paris). His mother died at his birth and his father abandoned him as a child.

Rousseau was interred in The Panthéon in Paris in 1794, six years after his death. The tomb was designed to resemble a rustic temple, to recall Rousseau's theories of nature.

Philosophy of Rousseau

The theory of the 'noble savage'

Rousseau contended that man was good by nature, a "noble savage" when in the state of nature (the state of all the "other animals", and the condition humankind was in before the creation of civilization and society), but is corrupted by society. He viewed society as artificial and held that the development of society, especially the growth of social interdependence, has been inimical to the well-being of human beings.

Rousseau's essay, "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" (1750), which won the prize offered by the Academy of Dijon, argued that the advancement of art and science had not been beneficial to humankind. He proposed that the progress of knowledge had made governments more powerfulful and had crushed individual liberty. He concluded that material progress had actually undermined the possibility of sincere friendship, replacing it with jealousy, fear and suspicion.

His subsequent Discourse on Inequality, tracked the progress and degeneration of mankind from a primitive state of nature to modern society. He suggested that the earliest human beings were isolated semi-apes who were differentiated from animals by their capacity for free will and their perfectibility. He also argued that these primitive humans were possessed of a basic drive to care for themselves and a natural disposition to compassion or pity. As humans were forced to associate together more closely, by the pressure of population growth, they underwent a psychological transformation and came to value the good opinion of others as an essential component of their own well being. Rousseau associated this new self-awareness with a golden age of human flourishing. However, the development of agriculture and metallurgy, private property and the division of labour led to increased interdependence and inequality. The resulting state of conflict led Rousseau to suggest that the first state was invented as a kind of social contract made at the suggestion of the rich and powerful. This original contract was deeply flawed as the wealthiest and most powerful members of society tricked the general population, and so cemented inequality as a permanent feature of human society. His Social Contract can be understood as an alternative to this fraudulent form of association. At the end of the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau explains how the desire to have value in the eyes of others, which originated in the golden age, comes to undermine personal integrity and authenticity in a society marked by interdependence, hierarchy, and inequality.

The Social Contract

Perhaps Rousseau's most important work is The Social Contract, which outlines the basis for a legitimate political order. Published in 1762 and condemned by the Parlement of Paris when it appeared, it became one of the most influential works of abstract political thought in the Western tradition. Building on his earlier work, such as the Discourse on Inequality Rousseau claimed that the state of nature eventually degenerates into a brutish condition without law or morality, at which point the human race must adopt institutions of law or perish. In the degenerate phase of the state of nature, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men whilst at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom. According to Rousseau, by joining together through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. Whilst Rousseau argues that sovereignty should thus be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between sovereign and government. The government is charged with implementing and enforcing the general will and is composed of a smaller group of citizens, known as magistrates. Rousseau was bitterly opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly. Rather, they should make the laws directly. This restriction means that Rousseau's ideal state could only be realised, if at all, within a very small society. Much of the subsequent controversy about Rousseau's work has hinged on disagreements concerning his claims that citizens constrained to obey the general will are thereby rendered free.

Effects of Rousseau's thought

Rousseau's ideas were influential at the time of the French Revolution although since popular sovereignty was exercised through representatives rather than directly, it cannot be said that the Revolution was in any sense an implementation of Rousseau's ideas. Subsequently, writers such as Benjamin Constant and Hegel sought to blame the excesses of the Revolution and especially The Terror on Rousseau, but the justice of their claims is a matter of controversy.

Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, and therefore is often considered a forebearer of modern socialism and communism (see Karl Marx, though Marx rarely mentions Rousseau in his writings). Rousseau also questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority (see democracy).

One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. When a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. The second important principle is freedom, which the state is created to preserve.

Rousseau's ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern educational theory. He minimizes the importance of book-learning, and recommends that a child's emotions should be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience.

In his earlier writings Rousseau identified nature with the primitive state of savage man. Later, especially under the criticism of Voltaire, Rousseau took nature to mean the spontaneity of the process by which man builds his personality and his world. Nature thus signifies interiority, integrity, spiritual freedom, as opposed to that imprisonment and enslavement which society imposes in the name of civilization. Hence, to go back to nature means to restore to man the forces of this natural process, to place him outside every oppressing bond of society and the prejudices of civilization.


"Man is born free but everywhere is in chains."

"In reality, the difference is, that the savage lives within himself while social man lives outside himself and can only live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the feeling of his own existence only from the judgement of others concerning him. It is not to my present purpose to insist on the indifference to good and evil which arises from this disposition, in spite of our many fine works on morality, or to show how, everything being reduced to appearances, there is but art and mummery in even honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting; to show, in short, how abject we are, and never daring to ask ourselves in the midst of so much philosophy, benevolence, politeness, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness."

"Let us return to nature."

"The first man who, having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying, 'This is mine' and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how many miseries and horrors might the human race had been spared by the one who, upon pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellow men: 'Beware of listening to this imposter; you are lost if you forget the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth belongs to no one.'" -- Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1755

"Finally, I remembered the way out suggested by a great princess when told the peasants had no bread: 'Well, let them eat cake'" [qu'ils mangent de la brioche]. (This was falsely attributed to Marie Antoinette, though it was written in 1766, when the ten-year-old princess was still four years away to her marriage with Louis XVI of France).


His works were translated by Nakae Chomin to Japanese in Meiji era.

See Also

This article is part of the Influential Western Philosophers series
Socrates | Plato | Aristotle | Thomas Aquinas | Thomas Hobbes | René Descartes | Baruch Spinoza | Gottfried Leibniz | John Locke | George Berkeley | David Hume | Jean-Jacques Rousseau | Immanuel Kant | Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel | Karl Marx | Søren Kierkegaard | John Stuart Mill | Friedrich Nietzsche | Gottlob Frege | Ludwig Wittgenstein | Bertrand Russell | Alfred North Whitehead | Karl Popper | W. V. Quine

External Links