Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

"Never exceed your rights, and they will soon become unlimited."


I. Biography
II. Ideas and Philosophies
III. Writings
a. Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
b. Discourse on Inequality
IV. Sources


Rousseau.jpg Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher of the Enlightenment. He was born on June 28th 1712. His mother died a few days after his birth so he was mainly brought up by his father, with whom he read ancient Greek and Roman literature. His father, an eccentric but failed watchmaker, fled Geneva when Rousseau was ten to escape imprisonment for a minor charge; the boy then went to Bossey for school. Rousseau left Geneva in 1728 for Annecy, France. There he met Louise de Warens, one of the most influential people in his conversion to Catholicism. In 1747 Rousseau settled down in Paris. By the time the late 1740's rolled around, he had met the philosophers Condillac and Diderot and also worked on articles for Diderot and d' Alembert's Encyclopedia. In 1750 he published the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in response to the Academy of Dijon's question “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?” This discourse is originally what made Rousseau famous by winning the Academy's prize. His views that condemned the arts and sciences contradicted those of the Enlightenment project; he wrote that in all ages the arts and sciences had caused the downfall of morals. "Why should we build our own happiness on the opinions of others when we can find it in our own hearts?" Rousseau was greatly interested in music but after his opera Le Devin du Village, which was a great success and earned him even more recognition, he gave up composing music. In 1753 Rousseau answered another of the Academy's questions: "What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by the natural law?” in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men which was later published in 1755 and widely read. In 1761 he published a novel, Julie or the New Heloise and a year later published The Social Contract, his work on political philosophy, and Emile, a book about his views on education. His two later books were condemned primarily because of claims he made about religion. In 1764 he began writing his autobiography, Confessions, and in the early 1770's, Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques and the Reveries of the Solitary Walker, his last book before his death in 1778. His death was caused by a hemorrhage during one of his frequent morning walks, however many of his friends claim that he committed suicide, for reasons unkown. He was buried on his estate but in 1794 his remains were moved to the Pantheon in Paris where all of the catalysts of the French Revolution were buried. His remains were close to those of Voltaire who died the same year.

Ideas and Philosophies

One of Rousseau's most famous philosophies is his Social Contract, which is essentially a basis for a legitimate, working political order. The basis of this is simply that men are "born free, and everywhere he is in chains." this is why he is considered a forebear of Modern Socialism and Communism. He is vehemently opposed to governing by general assembly, but instead that the people themselves should be directly involved in making the laws. He also states that "no man has a natural authority over his fellow", and is staunchly opposed to slavery. "They (children) are born men and free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to dispose of it." He advocates that nobody should be controlled by others, in any way shape or form. Most of his writings deal with the freedom of man, and how it should not be taken away for any reason whatsoever.
Rousseau also had many influential political and social theories. His theory of social development has four main points: Natural Man, Savage Man, Civilized Man, and the Way to Happiness. In Natural Man, Rousseau gives his impression of man's society at the beginning of its development; man is simply an animal. Man is driven by his basic needs, Rousseau writes, and self-preservation is the most important goal; the only goods he recognizes in the universe are food, a female, and sleep. Also, Rousseau's natural man is not in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Man is separated from animals because of his compassion, which motivates him to interact, and perfectibility, which allows him to improve his surroundings. Man additionally has the ability to refuse instinct, which pushes him along the path out of his natural state. Finally, man's contact with other men leads him to develop a concern for what others think of him. The consequences of this are competition, self-comparison with others, hatred, and urge for power. All of these things push man towards Rousseau's civil society.
The next stage, Savage Man, illustrates that reason now makes men more than animals. Men develops speech and art and educates others as well as himself; he begins to become selfless. In Civilized Man Rousseau believes that men take a step backward. His writings focus on inequality and a loss of innocence due to man's new desires and the love of himself. Thus, imagination has led man to create civilization, and in doing so, man has created all the evils that go along with civilization. Finally, in the Way to Happiness, Rousseau shows what he believes is the way to correct all problems. In short, he writes that reforms are necessary in nearly all fields of science as well as religion, and calls for government. Direct democracy, he writes, is the best form of government to secure liberty and other natural rights that men should have as fundamentals, else society should deny them these original freedoms. Rousseau firmly rejected the doctrine of Original Sin because he believed that all that came from the hand of God was good; his writings revealed his beliefs that men have created all evil, with Civilized Man being an example.
Rousseau's take on civilization and the way men should govern themselves greatly shaped the enlightenment period, as well as the modern era. Some see him as a predecessor to Karl Marx, because of his opposition of the private sector and his verbal attacks on the concept of private property. He also questioned the idea that the will of the majority is always correct, which indeed is a good thing to question. There are times when a great many are confused and only a select few see clearly. His argument was that the government should secure freedom, justice, and equality for everybody, regardless of their position in either the majority or the minority. Rousseau also had the idea that one should not rely on books for education. He states that a child's emotions should be cultivated first, and then their reason. He was a strong proponent of learning by experience, not by reading.
Rousseau's philosophies and ideas did a great deal to shape the way we think today. Although many of his ideas, such as direct democracy, were not adopted, the message he conveyed is still important today. Rousseau was a driving force behind many reforms of the Enlightenment period, and the world would most certainly not be the same place if he had not decided to become an advocate for change.


Discourse on the Arts and Sciences

In this discourse Rousseau argued that the arts and sciences corrupted human morality. This was his first successful published work and also won him a prize from the Academy of Dijon. Upon reading the question the Academy presented, “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?” Rousseau decided that he would dedicate the rest of his life to the destructive influence of civilization on human beings, believing that man was by nature good and then later corrupted.

Discourse on Inequality

In this discourse Rousseau is presented with the question, "What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?" and answers with his own question, "For how shall we know the source of inequality between men, if we do not begin by knowing mankind?" He then begins to write about the history of mankind beginning with his condition in a state of nature and working stage by stage through man's development towards civil society. In writing this discourse Rousseau ignores the Biblical account of human history and instead sets out to develop his own understanding of man's origins.
Rousseau discusses two types of inequality, natural or physical and moral or political. Natural inequality involves the difference between two men's intelligence; however Rousseau was more concerned with moral inequality. He argues that moral inequality is indigenous to a civil society and causes differences in power and wealth. Rousseau believes that man was happier before the current state of civil society when man was closer to his natural state. To Rousseau, "civil society is a trick perpetrated by the powerful on the weak in order to maintain their power or wealth."


Delaney, James. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. Niagara University. 10 Sept. 2007 <>.

Hooker, Richard. "The European Enlightenment; Jean-Jacques Rousseau." Washington State University. 6 June 1999. WSU. 11 Sept. 2007 <>.

"Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Discourse on the Arts and Sciences." Malaspina University-College. 13 Sept. 2007 <>.

Johnston, Ian. "On Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality." Malaspina University-College. Aug. 2000. 13 Sept. 2007 <>.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Du Contrat Social, Principes Du Droit Politique. Amsterdam, 1762. 13 Sept. 2007 <>.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. Trans. R L. Archer. Woodbury, New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1964.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Politics and the Arts. Trans. Allan Boom. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1960.