Skip Nav

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778)

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

❶Political Obligation or Anarchy? If human beings are not social by nature, how can one properly speak of more or less natural ways of socializing with others?

Navigation menu

Introduction
Essay title: Jean - Jacques Rousseau
Navigate Guide

It was also during this time that Rousseau became friendly with the philosophers Condillac and Diderot. The work was widely read and was controversial. But Rousseau attempted to live a modest life despite his fame, and after the success of his opera, he promptly gave up composing music. In the autumn of , Rousseau submitted an entry to another essay contest announced by the Academy of Dijon.

Rousseau himself thought this work to be superior to the First Discourse because the Second Discourse was significantly longer and more philosophically daring. The judges were irritated by its length as well its bold and unorthodox philosophical claims; they never finished reading it. However, Rousseau had already arranged to have it published elsewhere and like the First Discourse , it also was also widely read and discussed. In , a year after the publication of the Second Discourse , Rousseau and Therese Levasseur left Paris after being invited to a house in the country by Mme.

In , after repeated quarrels with Mme. It was during this time that Rousseau wrote some of his most important works. In he published a novel, Julie or the New Heloise , which was one of the best selling of the century. Then, just a year later in , he published two major philosophical treatises: Paris authorities condemned both of these books, primarily for claims Rousseau made in them about religion, which forced him to flee France.

He settled in Switzerland and in he began writing his autobiography, his Confessions. A year later, after encountering difficulties with Swiss authorities, he spent time in Berlin and Paris, and eventually moved to England at the invitation of David Hume.

However, due to quarrels with Hume, his stay in England lasted only a year, and in he returned to the southeast of France incognito. After spending three years in the southeast, Rousseau returned to Paris in and copied music for a living. It was during this time that he wrote Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques and the Reveries of the Solitary Walker , which would turn out to be his final works.

He died on July 3, His Confessions were published several years after his death; and his later political writings, in the nineteenth century. Rousseau wrote the Confessions late in his career, and it was not published until after his death.

What is particularly striking about the Confessions is the almost apologetic tone that Rousseau takes at certain points to explain the various public as well as private events in his life, many of which caused great controversy. It is clear from this book that Rousseau saw the Confessions as an opportunity to justify himself against what he perceived as unfair attacks on his character and misunderstandings of his philosophical thought. His life was filled with conflict, first when he was apprenticed, later in academic circles with other Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot and Voltaire, with Parisian and Swiss authorities and even with David Hume.

Although Rousseau discusses these conflicts, and tries to explain his perspective on them, it is not his exclusive goal to justify all of his actions. He chastises himself and takes responsibility for many of these events, such as his extra-marital affairs.

At other times, however, his paranoia is clearly evident as he discusses his intense feuds with friends and contemporaries. And herein lays the fundamental tension in the Confessions. Rousseau is at the same time trying both to justify his actions to the public so that he might gain its approval, but also to affirm his own uniqueness as a critic of that same public. As such, it is appropriate to consider Rousseau, at least chronologically, as an Enlightenment thinker.

Descartes was very skeptical about the possibility of discovering final causes, or purposes, in nature. Yet this teleological understanding of the world was the very cornerstone of Aristotelian metaphysics, which was the established philosophy of the time. In the Meditations , Descartes claims that the material world is made up of extension in space, and this extension is governed by mechanical laws that can be understood in terms of pure mathematics.

The scope of modern philosophy was not limited only to issues concerning science and metaphysics. Philosophers of this period also attempted to apply the same type of reasoning to ethics and politics. In doing so, they hoped to uncover certain characteristics of human nature that were universal and unchanging. If this could be done, one could then determine the most effective and legitimate forms of government.

Hobbes contends that human beings are motivated purely by self-interest, and that the state of nature, which is the state of human beings without civil society, is the war of every person against every other. Hobbes does say that while the state of nature may not have existed all over the world at one particular time, it is the condition in which humans would be if there were no sovereign. These obligations are articulated in terms of natural rights, including rights to life, liberty and property.

Rousseau was also influenced by the modern natural law tradition, which attempted to answer the challenge of skepticism through a systematic approach to human nature that, like Hobbes, emphasized self-interest.

Rousseau would give his own account of the state of nature in the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men , which will be examined below. Also influential were the ideals of classical republicanism, which Rousseau took to be illustrative of virtues. These virtues allow people to escape vanity and an emphasis on superficial values that he thought to be so prevalent in modern society. This is a major theme of the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. This is the work that originally won Rousseau fame and recognition.

For the Enlightenment project was based on the idea that progress in fields like the arts and sciences do indeed contribute to the purification of morals on individual, social, and political levels.

The First Discourse begins with a brief introduction addressing the academy to which the work was submitted. In addition to this introduction, the First Discourse is comprised of two main parts.

The first part is largely an historical survey. Using specific examples, Rousseau shows how societies in which the arts and sciences flourished more often than not saw the decline of morality and virtue. He notes that it was after philosophy and the arts flourished that ancient Egypt fell. Similarly, ancient Greece was once founded on notions of heroic virtue, but after the arts and sciences progressed, it became a society based on luxury and leisure.

The one exception to this, according to Rousseau, was Sparta, which he praises for pushing the artists and scientists from its walls. Sparta is in stark contrast to Athens, which was the heart of good taste, elegance, and philosophy. Interestingly, Rousseau here discusses Socrates, as one of the few wise Athenians who recognized the corruption that the arts and sciences were bringing about. In his address to the court, Socrates says that the artists and philosophers of his day claim to have knowledge of piety, goodness, and virtue, yet they do not really understand anything.

The second part of the First Discourse is an examination of the arts and sciences themselves, and the dangers they bring. First, Rousseau claims that the arts and sciences are born from our vices: The attack on sciences continues as Rousseau articulates how they fail to contribute anything positive to morality.

They take time from the activities that are truly important, such as love of country, friends, and the unfortunate. Philosophical and scientific knowledge of subjects such as the relationship of the mind to the body, the orbit of the planets, and physical laws that govern particles fail to genuinely provide any guidance for making people more virtuous citizens.

Rather, Rousseau argues that they create a false sense of need for luxury, so that science becomes simply a means for making our lives easier and more pleasurable, but not morally better.

The arts are the subject of similar attacks in the second part of the First Discourse. Artists, Rousseau says, wish first and foremost to be applauded. Their work comes from a sense of wanting to be praised as superior to others. Society begins to emphasize specialized talents rather than virtues such as courage, generosity, and temperance.

This leads to yet another danger: And yet, after all of these attacks, the First Discourse ends with the praise of some very wise thinkers, among them, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton. These men were carried by their vast genius and were able to avoid corruption. However, Rousseau says, they are exceptions; and the great majority of people ought to focus their energies on improving their characters, rather than advancing the ideals of the Enlightenment in the arts and sciences.

The Second Discourse , like the first, was a response to a question put forth by the academy of Dijon: It exceeded the desired length, it was four times the length of the first, and made very bold philosophical claims; unlike the First Discourse , it did not win the prize.

However, as Rousseau was now a well-known and respected author, he was able to have it published independently. This is primarily because Rousseau, like Hobbes, attacks the classical notion of human beings as naturally social.

In the Confessions , Rousseau writes that he himself sees the Second Discourse as far superior to the first.

The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is divided into four main parts: Like them, Rousseau understands society to be an invention, and he attempts to explain the nature of human beings by stripping them of all of the accidental qualities brought about by socialization. Thus, understanding human nature amounts to understanding what humans are like in a pure state of nature. This is in stark contrast to the classical view, most notably that of Aristotle, which claims that the state of civil society is the natural human state.

Like Hobbes and Locke, however, it is doubtful that Rousseau meant his readers to understand the pure state of nature that he describes in the Second Discourse as a literal historical account.

In its opening, he says that it must be denied that men were ever in the pure state of nature, citing revelation as a source which tells us that God directly endowed the first man with understanding a capacity that he will later say is completely undeveloped in natural man. However, it seems in other parts of the Second Discourse that Rousseau is positing an actual historical account. Some of the stages in the progression from nature to civil society, Rousseau will argue, are empirically observable in so-called primitive tribes.

Hobbes describes each human in the state of nature as being in a constant state of war against all others; hence life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Instead, they have taken civilized human beings and simply removed laws, government, and technology.

For humans to be in a constant state of war with one another, they would need to have complex thought processes involving notions of property, calculations about the future, immediate recognition of all other humans as potential threats, and possibly even minimal language skills. These faculties, according to Rousseau, are not natural, but rather, they develop historically.

In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau describes natural man as isolated, timid, peaceful, mute, and without the foresight to worry about what the future will bring. Purely natural human beings are fundamentally different from the egoistic Hobbesian view in another sense as well. Rousseau acknowledges that self-preservation is one principle of motivation for human actions, but unlike Hobbes, it is not the only principle.

If it were, Rousseau claims that humans would be nothing more than monsters. Therefore, Rousseau concludes that self-preservation, or more generally self-interest, is only one of two principles of the human soul. However, Rousseau says that unlike all other creatures, humans are free agents. They have reason, although in the state of nature it is not yet developed. But it is this faculty that makes the long transition from the state of nature to the state of civilized society possible.

He claims that if one examines any other species over the course of a thousand years, they will not have advanced significantly. Humans can develop when circumstances arise that trigger the use of reason.

Furthermore, he is not advocating a return to the state of nature, though some commentators, even his contemporaries such as Voltaire, have attributed such a view to him. Human beings in the state of nature are amoral creatures, neither virtuous nor vicious. After humans leave the state of nature, they can enjoy a higher form of goodness, moral goodness, which Rousseau articulates most explicitly in the Social Contract.

Although they are not stated explicitly, Rousseau sees this development as occurring in a series of stages. From the pure state of nature, humans begin to organize into temporary groups for the purposes of specific tasks like hunting an animal. Very basic language in the form of grunts and gestures comes to be used in these groups. However, the groups last only as long as the task takes to be completed, and then they dissolve as quickly as they came together.

The next stage involves more permanent social relationships including the traditional family, from which arises conjugal and paternal love.

Basic conceptions of property and feelings of pride and competition develop in this stage as well. However, at this stage they are not developed to the point that they cause the pain and inequality that they do in present day society.

If humans could have remained in this state, they would have been happy for the most part, primarily because the various tasks that they engaged in could all be done by each individual. The next stage in the historical development occurs when the arts of agriculture and metallurgy are discovered. Because these tasks required a division of labor, some people were better suited to certain types of physical labor, others to making tools, and still others to governing and organizing workers.

Soon, there become distinct social classes and strict notions of property, creating conflict and ultimately a state of war not unlike the one that Hobbes describes.

Those who have the most to lose call on the others to come together under a social contract for the protection of all. But Rousseau claims that the contract is specious, and that it was no more than a way for those in power to keep their power by convincing those with less that it was in their interest to accept the situation. Ultimately, the work is based on the idea that by nature, humans are essentially peaceful, content, and equal. It is the socialization process that has produced inequality, competition, and the egoistic mentality.

In terms of its content the work seems to be, in many ways, a precursor to the Social Contract , which would appear in And whereas the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts and the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality look back on history and condemn what Rousseau sees as the lack of morality and justice in his own present day society, this work is much more constructive.

That is, the Discourse on Political Economy explains what he takes to be a legitimate political regime. There is debate among scholars about how exactly one ought to interpret this concept, but essentially, one can understand the general will in terms of an analogy. A political society is like a human body. A body is a unified entity though it has various parts that have particular functions. And just as the body has a will that looks after the well-being of the whole, a political state also has a will which looks to its general well-being.

The major conflict in political philosophy occurs when the general will is at odds with one or more of the individual wills of its citizens. With the conflict between the general and individual wills in mind, Rousseau articulates three maxims which supply the basis for a politically virtuous state: Citizens follow these maxims when there is a sense of equality among them, and when they develop a genuine respect for law. This again is in contrast to Hobbes, who says that laws are only followed when people fear punishment.

That is, the state must make the penalty for breaking the law so severe that people do not see breaking the law to be of any advantage to them. Rousseau claims, instead, that when laws are in accordance with the general will, good citizens will respect and love both the state and their fellow citizens.

Therefore, citizens will see the intrinsic value in the law, even in cases in which it may conflict with their individual wills. The Social Contract is, like the Discourse on Political Economy , a work that is more philosophically constructive than either of the first two Discourses. Furthermore, the language used in the first and second Discourses is crafted in such a way as to make them appealing to the public, whereas the tone of the Social Contract is not nearly as eloquent and romantic.

Another more obvious difference is that the Social Contract was not nearly as well-received; it was immediately banned by Paris authorities. And although the first two Discourses were, at the time of their publication, very popular, they are not philosophically systematic. The Social Contract , by contrast, is quite systematic and outlines how a government could exist in such a way that it protects the equality and character of its citizens.

For the earlier works discuss the problems in civil society as well as the historical progression that has led to them. The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts claims that society has become such that no emphasis is put on the importance of virtue and morality. The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality traces the history of human beings from the pure state of nature through the institution of a specious social contract that results in present day civil society. The Social Contract does not deny any of these criticisms.

But unlike the first two Discourses , the Social Contract looks forward, and explores the potential for moving from the specious social contract to a legitimate one. The concept of the general will, first introduced in the Discourse on Political Economy , is further developed in the Social Contract although it remains ambiguous and difficult to interpret. The most pressing difficulty that arises is in the tension that seems to exist between liberalism and communitarianism.

On one hand, Rousseau argues that following the general will allows for individual diversity and freedom. But at the same time, the general will also encourages the well-being of the whole, and therefore can conflict with the particular interests of individuals.

Despite these difficulties, however, there are some aspects of the general will that Rousseau clearly articulates. First, the general will is directly tied to Sovereignty: It was during this European age of reason that people were groomed into model citizens, high education, fashion, politics, etc. Rousseau did not fit, or even desired to fit, the mold. Rousseau was an idealist. He imagined people free in the state of nature.

He painted a hypothetical scene of natural man who was not bound by the rules of society. Unlike his contemporaries, Rousseau considered the transition from natural man to civilized man a regression. Rousseau did not hold civil society in high regard along with the noble class of France. Actually, the poor of France, to Rousseau, were possibly the closest to the state of nature because they were more concerned with surviving than maintaining an image imposed by society.

They did not waste time concerning themselves with the artificial; however, they labored in order to stay alive. Rousseau compared the natural state to childhood. It is during childhood that one does not associate himself with anyone or anything around him.

He is totally absorbed in himself and is guilt- free because other people are of no consequence. Just like childhood, the state of nature is pure and simple. The only thing that matters to a child is fulfilling his needs. In the state of nature, man's only concern is to himself.

On the other hand, civil society is compared to adulthood. In adulthood and civil society, life is about work, attempting to conform with others, and guilt runs ramped.

This is why Rousseau dreamed of a return to the state of nature, a return to the Garden of Eden namely Genesis. He associated natural with the divine.

Rousseau is considered the father of romanticism. He believed that humans feel more than think so therefore feelings should dominate. Romanticism placed a large emphasis on feelings and Rousseau was integral to its development. Man is completely unaware of his origin and how he was derived from nature.

Rousseau questioned how man could even attempt to comprehend the inequality among his peers if he did not even understand his succession from a primitive state. If man does not understand himself, his origins and how he has derived from nature then how can he perceive any other branch of knowledge.


Main Topics

Privacy Policy

- 9/11 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau L'Etat C'est Moi: Absolutism in the Age of Reason By analyzing the Taliban regime and their motives, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas, and by comparing the two, it will be made evident that Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas of government rule .

Privacy FAQs

- 9/11 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau L'Etat C'est Moi: Absolutism in the Age of Reason By analyzing the Taliban regime and their motives, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas, and by comparing the two, it will .

About Our Ads

Rousseaus principal aim in writing The Social Contract is to determine how freedom may be possible in civil society. In the state of nature we enjoy the physical freedom of having no restraints on our behavior. By entering into the social contract, we place restraints . Rousseau’s most noted work was an article he wrote on political economy in As Rousseau was walking to visit Diderot in a Vincennes prison in , he read an essay competition entry “Mercure de France” sponsored by the Academie de Dijon.

Cookie Info

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Swiss-born French essayist, autobiographer, novelist, dramatist, and poet. The following entry provides critical discussion of Rousseau's writing on political theory. . Rousseau and the Common Will Making some sense of Rousseau: Jean Jacques Rousseau () was born in Geneva. His mother died in childbirth. He was an engraver’s apprentice when he migrated to Paris. There he met Madame De Warrens, who became his lover and who converted him to Roman Catholicism. His lifelong mistress bore him.