Profiles > Philosophy > Jean Jacques Rousseau
Jean Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer from the 18th century. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological, and educational thought. He argued that private property was the start of civilization, inequality, murders and wars.Rousseau was proud that his family, of the moyen order (or middle-class), had voting rights in the city. Throughout his life, he generally signed his books "Jean Jacques Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva"."An interesting madman" in the eyes of contemporary critics, Jean-Jacques Rousseau tested the limits of all that his age considered sane.
Born 28 June 1712
Geneva, Republic of Geneva
Died 2 July 1778 (aged 66)
Ermenonville, France
Nationality Genevan
Era Modern philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Social contract theory Romanticism
Main Interests Political Philosophy, Music, Education, Literature, Autobiography
Notable Ideas General will, amour-prope, moral simplicity of humanity, child-centered learning, civil religion, popular sovereignty
Rousseau was brought up first by his father (Issac) and an aunt (his mother died a few days after his birth), and later by an uncle. He had happy memories of his childhood – although it had some odd features such as not being allowed to play with children his own age. His father taught him to read and helped him to appreciate the countryside. He increasingly turned to the latter for solace. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to an engraver. However, at 16 (in 1728) he left this trade to travel, but quickly became secretary and companion to Madame Louise de Warens. This relationship was unusual. Twelve years his senior she was in turns a mother figure, a friend and a lover. Under her patronage he developed a taste for music. He set himself up as a music teacher in Chambéry (1732) and began a period of intense self-education. In 1740 he worked as a tutor to the two sons of M. de Mably in Lyon. It was not a very successful experience (nor were his other episodes of tutoring). In 1742 he moved to Paris. There he became a close friend of David Diderot, who was to commission him to write articles on music for the French Encyclopédie. Through the sponsorship of a number of society women he became the personal secretary to the French ambassador to Venice – a position from which he was quickly fired for not having the ability to put up with a boss whom he viewed as stupid and arrogant.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau returned to Paris in 1745 and earned a living as a music teacher and copyist. In the hotel where he was living (near Sorbonne) he met Thérèse Lavasseur who worked as a seamstress. She was also, by a number of accounts, an odd figure. She was made fun of by many of those around here, and it was Rousseau's defense of her that led to their friendship. He believed she had a pure and innocent heart. They were soon living together (and they were to stay together, never officially married, until he died). She couldn't read well, nor write, or add up – and Rousseau tried unsuccessfully over the years to teach her. According to his Confessions, Thérèse bore five children – all of whom were given to foundling homes (with the first in 1746). Voltaire later scurrilously claimed that Rousseau had dumped them on the doorstep of the orphanage. In fact the picture was rather more complex. Rousseau had argued the children would get a better upbringing in such an institution than he could offer. They would not have to put up with the deviousness of high society. Furthermore, he claimed he lacked the money to bring them up properly. There was also the question of his and Thérèse's capacity to cope with child-rearing. There is also some question as to whether all or any of the children were his (for example, Thérèse had an affair with James Boswell while he stayed with Rousseau). What we do know is that in later life Rousseau sought to justify his actions concerning the children; declaring his sorrow about the way he had acted.
Diderot encouraged Rousseau to write and in 1750 he won first prize in an essay competition organized by the Académie de Dijon - Discourssur les sciences et les arts. 'Why should we build our own happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?' In this essay we see a familiar theme: that humans are by nature good – and it is society's institutions that corrupt them. The essay earned him considerable fame and he reacted against it. He seems to have fallen out with a number of his friends and the high-society people with whom he was expected to mix. This was a period of reappraisal. On a visit to Geneva, Jean-Jacques Rousseau reconverted to Calvinism (and gained Genevan citizenship). There was also a fairly public infatuation with Mme d'Houderot that with his other erratic behavior, led some of his friends to consider him insane.
Rousseau's mental health was a matter of some concern for the rest of his life. There were significant periods when he found it difficult to be in the company of others, when he believed himself to be the focus of hostility and duplicity (a feeling probably compounded by the fact that there was some truth in this). He frequently acted 'oddly' with sudden changes of mood. These 'oscillations' led to situations where he falsely accused others and behaved with scant respect for their humanity. There was something about what, and the way, he wrote and how he acted with others that contributed to his being on the receiving end of strong, and sometimes malicious, attacks by people like Voltaire. The 'oscillations' could also open up 'another universe' in which he could see the world in a different, and illuminating, way (see Grimsley 1969).At around the time of the publication of his famous and very influential discourses on inequality and political economy in Encyclopedie (1755), Rousseau also began to fall out with Diderot and the Encyclopedists. The Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg offered him (and Thérèse) a house on their estate at Montmorency (to the north of Paris).
During the next four years in the relative seclusion of Montmorency, Rousseau produced three major works: The New Heloise (1761), probably the most widely read novel of his day; The Social Contract (April 1762), one of the most influential books on political theory; and Émile (May 1762), a classic statement of education. The 'heretical' discussion of religion in Émile caused Rousseau problems with the Church in France. The book was burned in a number of places. Within a month, Rousseau had to
leave France for Switzerland – but was unable to go to Geneva after his citizenship was revoked as a result of the furor over the book. He ended up in Berne. In 1766 Jean-Jacques Rousseau went to England (first to Chiswick then Wootton Hall near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, and later to Hume's house on Buckingham Street, London (at the invitation of David Hume). True to form he fell out with Hume, unfairly accusing him of disloyalty and displaying all the symptoms of paranoia. In 1767 he returned to France under a false name (Renou), although he had to wait until 1770 to return officially. A condition of his return was his agreement not to publish his work. He continued writing, completing Confessions and beginning private readings of it in 1770. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was banned from doing this by the police in 1771 following complaints by former friends such as Diderot and Madame d'Epinay – who were featured in the work. The book was eventually published after his death in 1782.
In 1778 he was in Ermenonville, just north of Paris, staying with Marquis de Giradin. On July 2, following his usual early morning walk, Jean-Jacques Rousseau died of apoplexy -- a hemorrhage. Some of his former friends claimed he committed suicide. He was buried on a small picturesque island – Ile des Peupliers. Later, in 1794, his remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris -- formerly the Church of Sainte Geneviève. The Pantheon was used to house the bodies of key figures of the French Revolution. His remains were placed close by those of Voltaire, who had died in the same year as him.
Rousseau believed it was possible to preserve the original nature of the child by careful control of his education and environment -- based on an analysis of the different physical and psychological stages through which he passed from birth to maturity (Stewart and McCann 1967). As we have seen, he thought that momentum for learning was provided by growth of the person (nature).In Émile, Rousseau divides development into five stages (a book is devoted to each). Education in the first two stages seeks to the senses: only when Émile is about 12 does the tutor begin to work to develop his mind. Later, in Book 5, Rousseau examines the education of Sophie (whom Émile is to marry). Here he sets out what he sees as the essential differences that flow from sex.
Stage 1/ Infancy -- birth to two years: The first stage is Infancy, from birth to about two years. (Book I). Infancy finishes with the weaning of the child. He sets a number of maxims, the spirit of which is to give children more real liberty and less power, to let them do more for themselves and demand less of others; so that by teaching them from the first to confine their wishes within the limits of their powers they will scarcely feel the want of whatever is not in their power.
Stage 2/ The Age of Nature -- two to 12: The second stage, from two to twelve, is the Age of Nature. During this time, the child receives only a negative education -- no moral instruction, no verbal learning. He sets out the most important rule of education: Do not save time, but lose it… The mind should be left undisturbed until its faculties have developed. The purpose of education at this stage is to develop physical qualities and particularly senses, but not minds. In the latter part of Book II, Rousseau describes the cultivation of each of Émile's five senses in turn.
Stage 3 / Pre-adolescence – 12 to 15: Émile in Stage 3 is like the 'noble savage' Rousseau describes in The Social Contract. About twelve or thirteen the child's strength increases far more rapidly than his needs. The urge for activity now takes a mental form; there is greater capacity for sustained attention. The educator has to respond accordingly.
Stage 4 / Puberty - 15 to 20: Rousseau believes that by the time Émile is fifteen, his reason will be well-developed,and he will then be able to deal with what he sees as the dangerous emotions of adolescence, and with moral issues and religion. The second paragraph of the book contains the famous lines: 'We are born, so to speak, twice over; born into existence, and born into life; born a human being, and born a man'. As before, he is still wanting to hold back societal pressures and influences so that the 'natural inclinations' of the person may emerge without undue corruption.
Stage 5 / Adulthood – 20 to 25: In Book V, the adult Émile is introduced to his ideal partner, Sophie. He learns about love, and is ready to return to society, proof, Rousseau hopes, after such a lengthy preparation, against its corrupting influences. The final task of the tutor is to instruct the the young couple in their marital rights and duties.