Jean-Jacques Rousseau



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Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

David Rau


The turbulent life of Jean-Jacque Rousseau began in 1712. Serving to epitomize his flair for the dramatic (and the tragic) Rousseau writes, “my birth cost my mother her life, and was the first of my misfortunes” (Confessions, 2).1 In fact, he “was an exceptionally vivid and forceful writer” (Dent, 201). Moreover, “Rousseau’s immense influence arises from his being the first true philosopher of Romanticism” (Blackburn, 334). Although “we do not find in him someone with a comprehensive system” (Dent, 204), his ideas had far reaching ramifications in such diverse areas as politics, social theory, education and what was to become psychology. It would be fairly easy to write an extensive account of Rousseau’s idiosyncratic life–in fact he did so himself to the tune of some 457 pages in the Confessions (published posthumously)–however, my purpose here is to outline his main philosophical themes and contributions.

A central tenet of Rousseau’s philosophical perspective is based upon the opposition of society toward nature. “Rousseau’s early works […] developed the fundamental antithesis which he deemed to exist between contemporary society and the nature of man” (Grimsley, 219). His first published work, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (subsequently referred to as the First Discourse), was the prize-winning entry to the Academy of Dijon’s contest regarding the topic of morality and culture. The question was, “Has the restoration of the arts and sciences had a purifying effect upon morals?” (Dent, 202). In what must have been a shocking departure from the general consensus­ of the time–namely, that the progress of humankind was making things

Better–Rousseau argued that so-called progress actually alienated us from nature, and therefore corrupted, rather than purified, moral sentiment. “Although this viewpoint was already familiar

to a certain type of traditional Christian moralist, Rousseau struck a new personal note remarkable for its deeply felt sincerity” (Grimsley, 219). In the First Discourse Rousseau writes:

So long as government and law provide for the security and well-being of men in their common life, the arts, literature, and science, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, fling garlands of flowers over the chains that weigh them down. They stifle in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilized people (Cole, 147).
Thus, in the succinct formulation contained in the Social Contract, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains” (Cole, 3).

Rousseau was deeply concerned with human oppression; he “saw patterns of dominance and subjugation as incarnated in virtually all social structures and processes” (Dent, 204). Rousseau’s Second Discourse, titled Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) is, by some

accounts, “his most substantial and important discourse […] in which central elements in his thinking are fully expounded for the first time” (Dent, 202). Also submitted as an entry into a contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon, which Rousseau did not win, the Second Discourse “argued that the ills of the human condition derive from society, and that in a state of nature life is free and independent, healthy, happy, and innocent” (Blackburn, 333). According to John Dewey in Democracy and Education, Rousseau “identified God with Nature; to him the original powers are wholly good, coming directly from a wise and good creator […] the interference by social arrangements with Nature, God’s work, is the primary source of corruption in individuals” (114).

There are two terms–viz., amour de soi and amour-popre–which are crucial in order to understand Rousseau’s ideas concerning the source of inequality. Amour de soi, which literally means ‘love of self,’ arises from the instinctive need for self-preservation. Amour-popre is a

distortion of values, with regard to others, in terms of oneself; although “There is no precise English equivalent of this term […] often translated as ‘vanity’ or as ‘pride,’ but neither of these quite match the role and significance of amour-popre as Rousseau explains this” (Dent, 207). Whereas amour de soi is a natural and, therefore, healthy attitude toward life, amour-popre is “an artificial reaction originating in an anxious reflection which induces a man to be forever comparing himself to others and even finding his sole pleasure in their misfortune or inferiority” (Grimsley, 220). In a state of nature, “The primordial urge toward self-preservation was effectively counterbalanced by an innate feeling of natural pity which prevented him from inflicting needless pain upon his fellow men” (ibid.). On the other hand, through the distortions of amour-popre, “Man is alienated from his original nature and prevented from being his real self; a perpetual prey to inner contradictions, he vainly grasps at objects outside himself as he neglects the true lessons of nature in order to pursue the illusions of opinion” (Grimsley, 219).

In the Second Discourse Rousseau introduces his hypothetical account of the origin of human culture. With sardonic wit, typical of his writing style, he offers the following curiously compelling suggestion: “Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question” (Cole, 198). Further disassociating himself from the rationalism endemic of his times, Rousseau asserts, “that a state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that a thinking man is a depraved animal” (Cole, 204). He then proceeds to speculate (rather imaginatively) on the

causes and conditions by which human beings threw over an idyllic natural state for the self-inflicted misery of modernity.

In an attempt to identify the root causes of inequality, and thus oppression, Rousseau contends, “Private property quickly follows on the division of labor, and humans find themselves alienated from each other by the class divisions engendered by private property” (Bien, 698). Foreshadowing thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, Rousseau poses the rhetorical question, “what ties of dependence could there be among men without possessions?” (Cole, 232). In effect we have traded our self-sufficiency for the trappings of luxury.

At the same time Rousseau recognizes that “man, having left the primitive state, could never return to it” (Grimsley, 220). Thus the need for education–namely, to integrate man (or woman) and the role of citizen into a unified whole. This is the central premise of Emile, in which Rousseau renders a hypothetical account of the education of a fictional boy, Emile, who is

brought up to embrace virtue and, as a consequence, benefit society. “A brief experience as a private tutor at Lyons in 1740 helped to create a lifelong interest in education and at the same time convinced Rousseau that he had no aptitude for this profession” (Grimsley, 218).

Emile, published in 1762, “is a many-stranded work, and the one which Rousseau regarded as his best achievement” (Dent, 210). Primarily a treatise on education, it contains a plethora of philosophical ideas regarding God, nature, human beings, social institutions, sex and relationships, language, morality, knowledge and psychology. The progressive movement in education has its roots in some of Rousseau’s basic ideas. A principle theme of education, according to Rousseau, is that it should not be coerced. A natural inclination to learn will manifest itself when the child is interested in the subject. In his preface Rousseau writes, “Begin, then, by studying your pupils better” (Bloom, 34).

Rousseau identifies three sources of education: “The internal development of our faculties and our organs is the education of nature. The use we are taught to make of this development is the education of men. And what we acquire from our own experience about objects which affect us is education of things” (Bloom, 38). Of the first source, nature, we have no control, while we have only limited control over things. Only over ourselves do we have any real control, at least hypothetically. One of the recurring themes in Rousseau’s writings is that we are the common denominator of our own problems. Thus, “Our greatest ills come to us from ourselves” (Bloom, 48) and “the greater part of our ills are of our own making, and we might have avoided them nearly all by adhering to that simple, uniform, and solitary manner of life which nature prescribed” (Cole, 204).

Nevertheless, in seeking to make the best of our situation (given that there is no returning to our primitive, if only hypothetical origins) Rousseau is interested in how to structure society with the end in view of securing equality. Although, specifically, his concern seems to be how best to ensure the minimization of inequality. In 1762 Rousseau published The Social Contract, widely regarded as “one of the classic essays in political philosophy” (Dent, 201), in which he advocates “democratic, republican ideals modeled upon ancient Sparta, and centered upon the idea of freedom as active participation in politics and legislation” (Blackburn, 332). Rousseau upholds the ideal of democracy as the most desirable form of government–with the qualification that its full realization is impossible. This is because (as cited in his Third Discourse), “it is unnatural for the many to govern [and] the people cannot devote all their time to public affairs” (Grebanier, 9). In other words, the ideal of true democracy is frustrated by the sheer cumbersomeness of adequately representing the views of all concerned.

Central to Rousseau’s political theory is the notion of the general will. In his Third Discourse he writes, “the most general will is always the most just also, and that the voice of the people is in fact the voice of God” (Cole, 291). As a social contract theorist, Rousseau posits that, “Individuals, freely agreeing to a social pact and giving up their rights to the community, are assured of the liberties and equality of political citizenship” (Bien, 698). The general will is therefore the source of law. Rousseau held that the general will was distinct from the majority opinion–yet how the former is to be recognized over the latter is somewhat unclear. In an interesting passage, relevant to current issues, Rousseau gives an example of the distinction:

It does not follow that the public decisions are always equitable; they may possibly, for reasons which I have not given, not be so when they have to do with foreigners. Thus it is not impossible that a Republic, though in itself well governed, should enter upon an unjust war. Nor is it less possible for the Council of a Democracy to pass unjust decrees, and condemn the innocent; but this never happens unless the people is seduced by private interests, which the credit or eloquence of some clever persons substitutes for

those of the State: in which case the general will will be one thing, and the result of the

public deliberation another (Cole, 291).
Thus we find the root of the problem contained in Rousseau’s notion of amour-propre.

To his credit, Rousseau acted according to his own dictates and “renounced all favor from the Court and salon distinction” (Dent, 202). Nonetheless, he hardly lived a life of privation, and was successively cared for by a number of wealthy friends and mistresses throughout his life. Tragically, Rousseau became increasingly ungrateful and suspicious of his benefactors as his mental state deteriorated. He “suffered intermittent bouts of mental illness from 1765 onwards” (Dent, 203); his infamous falling-out with Hume being the most widely known example. Rousseau died in 1778 of an apparent stroke. Neither time nor illness diminish his message. Compassion is the key to understanding our difficulties, which, to a great extent, are self-created.

Works Cited

Bien, Joseph. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Ed. Robert Audi. Cambridge: University Press, 1995.

Blackburn, Simon. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Bloom, Allan (trans.). Emile, or On Education. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

Cole, G. D. H. (trans.) The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean Jacques Rousseau. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1950.

Dent, N. J. H. Blackwell Guide to the Modern Philosophers: From Descartes to Nietzsche. Ed. Steven M. Emmanuel. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2001.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1916.

Grebanier, Bernard. Barron’s Simplified Approach to Rousseau: Detailed Analyses and Summaries. Great Neck, New York: Barron’s, 1964.

Grimsley, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau. New York: W. J. Black, n.d.




1 with the exception of the Confessions, all citations refer to either translator or the author of commentary.



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