Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Mark Cartwright
published on 12 December 2023
Jean-Jacques Rousseau Portrait (by Maurice Quentin de La Tour , Public Domain)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau Portrait
Maurice Quentin de La Tour  (Public Domain)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a Swiss philosopher whose work both praised and criticised the Enlightenment movement. Although a believer in the power of reason, science, and the arts, Rousseau was convinced that a flourishing culture hid a society full of inequalities and injustices. His most noted works include the First and Second Discourse, The Social Contract, and Émile.

Early Life

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on 28 June 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland. Jean-Jacques' father was a watchmaker who was exiled for being involved in a duel, while his mother died a few days after giving birth to her son. Jean-Jacques was looked after by an aunt and cousin, and then, for a time, he was taken in by a pastor called Lambercier. Apart from some instruction in the principles of the Catholic faith, Jean-Jacques had no formal education. From 1724, he worked as an apprentice to a clerk before moving up to work under an engraver. In 1728, Jean-Jacques left his apprenticeship and Geneva, earning small amounts of money doing odd jobs. He ended up in Turin, where he converted to Catholicism.

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Rousseau's luck changed in 1731 when he found work with noblewoman Louise Eléonore de Warens (1699-1762), although the pair had first met in 1728. Rousseau worked as a clerk and taught music in the Warens household. The great advantage of his new position was that he had plenty of time for reading, and Rousseau used this well, making up for lost time on his hitherto neglected education. In 1740, he moved to the household of Abbé de Mably (1709-1785) in Lyon where he again taught music.

In 1742, Rousseau moved to Paris. He continued his interest in music, publishing a pamphlet on musical notation. He presented his theories on music to the prestigious Academy of Sciences. Rousseau's star was certainly rising as he secured a position as secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, a post he held from 1742 to 1743. Alas, he was dismissed from this post for poor conduct, a hint of his difficult character, which became more evident as he grew older.

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Rousseau's problem with developed societies is they tend to include all kinds of injustices & inequalities.

Back in Paris, Rousseau began to cultivate important social connections. He secured a job working for the important financier Dupin, which meant he resided at the handsome Château de Chenonceaux. Another associate was Denis Diderot (1713-1784), who was acting as editor for the mammoth collection of Enlightenment essays that became the multi-volume Encyclopedia, published after four years of work in 1751. Rousseau contributed to the encyclopedia with several essays on music and political economy.

Château de Chenonceaux
Château de Chenonceaux
Yvan Lastes (CC BY-SA)

First Discourse

It was on a visit in 1749 to Diderot when he was confined in the Château de Vincennes after being accused of atheism in one of his books that Rousseau claimed to experience a moment of personal enlightenment, an event which led to wider recognition. The historian H. Chisick summarises the episode as follows:

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The advertisement for an essay contest asking whether the arts and sciences had benefitted humanity led him to consider the moral costs at which the arts had been acquired, and turned him into perhaps the greatest critic, while at the same time remaining one of the greatest exponents, of Enlightenment values. His essay on the arts and sciences, known as the First Discourse, won first prize of the Academy of Dijon for 1750 and gave Rousseau a sudden prominence in French letters.


The First Discourse (alternative title: Discourses on the Sciences and the Arts) argued the opposite of what the Academy of Dijon had, no doubt, hoped their question of "Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts tended to purify morals?" (Chisick, 172) would inspire applicants to rave about, namely the benefits of more culture and enlightenment. Rousseau argued that although the arts and sciences could be good in themselves, they really only flourish in developed societies. The problem with developed societies is they tend to include all kinds of injustices and inequalities. In this sense, Rousseau argued that the moral cost to a prospering arts and sciences was too high to pay. This negative view of progress was against the general view held by most enlightened thinkers. Rousseau, for this reason, was against developments in technology. He once wrote:

In every aspect of human work one should rigorously proscribe every machine and every invention that can reduce human labour, economize manpower and produce the same effect with less effort.

(Cameron, 280)

Rousseau then indulged in a lighter divergence when he wrote Le Devin du village, an opera, in 1752. The work was popular enough for the French king to offer Rousseau a job at his court, but the writer failed to turn up at the interview. In any case, his true passion was philosophy.

Title Page of Second Discourse by Rousseau
Title Page of Second Discourse by Rousseau
Polmars (Public Domain)

Second Discourse

Rousseau wrote his Second Discourse (alternative title: A Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind) in 1755. The work is a key one of the Enlightenment, described by Chisick as "the foundation of modern social criticism" (381). Like the First Discourse, Rousseau was writing his response to a question posed by the Academy of Dijon, this time: "What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?" (ibid). One of Rousseau's answers included the famous line: "The man who first had the idea of enclosing a field and saying this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society" (Hampson, 210).

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The essay won second prize as Rousseau once again turned the competition purpose on its head and completely denounced inequality in society. Rousseau begins by describing his vision of pre-society humans, even going back to humanoid apes and so indirectly suggesting a theory of evolution. Rousseau suggests that humans in a state of nature are free, equal, and have two basic instincts: a sense of self-preservation and a pity for others. He judges that the development of society and its increasing sophistication results in a decline in morality. He suggests that such is the abuse perpetrated by the wealthy and powerful, many individuals would be better off in the situation humanity found itself before such sophisticated societies existed. Civilized humans are unhappy, selfish, and unfree, he said.


Madame Warens, Rousseau's one-time employer, had been the victim of an unsuccessful arranged marriage, and she captivated Rousseau at first sight. The philosopher described his first view of Louise in his Confessions:

A face full of charm, large and blue eyes beaming with such kindness, a dazzling complexion and the outline of an enchanting neck…in a moment I was hers, and certain that a faith preached by such missionaries would not fail to lead to paradise.

(Chisick, 431).

The pair eventually became lovers but then separated as Rousseau moved on through life. Warens died in poverty. Another love interest, from 1756, was a neighbour, Sophie d'Houdetot, who inspired the novel Julie.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1766
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1766
Allan Ramsay (Public Domain)

From 1756, Rousseau lived in relative seclusion on the estate of the noblewoman Madame d'Épinay (1726-1783) who was sympathetic to several French-speaking philosophes. His modest residence was called, appropriately enough, the Ermitage. Rousseau himself acknowledged his distaste for society:

I have never really been suited to civil society, where there is nothing but irritation, obligation, and duty, and…my independent nature always made me incapable of the constraints required of anyone who wants to live with men.

(Gottlieb, 232)

Rousseau later moved to Montmorency, north of Paris. Rousseau settled down to more writing, producing the bestselling romantic novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), a treatise on education Émile (1762) with its influential ideas such as ridding babies of dangerously restrictive swaddling clothes and advocating breastfeeding by the mother, and his most celebrated and influential work on political philosophy, The Social Contract (1762).

Thérèse Le Levasseur was a humble serving girl Rousseau met in Paris; they married in 1768. Rousseau had five children with Levasseur but insisted they were all sent to a Parisian orphanage. Levasseur strongly objected, and with good reason since the baby mortality rate of the orphanage was 70%. The author of Émile had presented reams of advice on how to best look after children but he did not follow any of it himself. These and other negative details of the writer's life were only revealed by fellow philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) after he publicly attacked Rousseau's private life in revenge for Rousseau's literary attacks on the theatre.

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Whatever the general will turns out to be, that is the right one.

The Social Contract

In his work The Social Contract, Rousseau offers the solution to the problems of society he outlined in The Second Discourse. Realising the impossibility of absolute equality, Rousseau proposed to limit the excesses of inequality. For example, in his ideal society, no person should ever have to sell themselves, and no rich person should ever be able to buy another person. Where equality is especially important for Rousseau is the making of a social contract between citizens (but not between citizens and rulers). The people must gather in a community based on consent and with the ultimate objective of that society being the common good. This position differs from many other liberal thinkers during the Enlightenment who stressed that people only ever acted out of self-interest. Rousseau does recognise the need for a system of laws and strong government to guide the general will of the people when it might inadvertently err and to protect property, an unfortunate creation of society.

For Rousseau, the general will is a compromise where individuals sacrifice complete liberty to achieve the next best option: a restriction on liberty in order to avoid a situation of no liberty at all. Whatever the general will turns out to be, that is the right one. He stated: "The sovereign, by the mere fact of existing, is always what it ought to be" (Hampson, 247). In fact, Rousseau hesitated over which was the best sort of political system, a monarchy or a representative (elitist) democracy, but he tasks either scenario with encouraging citizens through education to adopt a less self-interested approach to community life. In other words, the state is forcing people to be free. As critics point out, such a situation that Rousseau suggests is entirely dependent on what history has shown to be a rare species of bird indeed: gifted politicians who act only for the public good. Rousseau covers such a broad landscape of ideas that The Social Contract "can be variously interpreted as the cornerstone of democracy, communism, or even totalitarianism" (Yolton, 465).

An Allegory of the Revolution
An Allegory of the Revolution
Nicolas Henri Jeaurat de Bertry (Public Domain)

It was not his political philosophy but the treatise on education, Émile, that got Rousseau into serious trouble with the French Establishment. Considering his views that religion was a personal matter consisting of an "inner light" (Yolton, 465) dangerous to Catholicism, the Church influenced the Paris Parlement (a court of law) to arrest Rousseau and have the book banned. The writer got wind of the situation and dashed off to Switzerland. Émile, meanwhile, became a bestseller anyway. While attention in the 18th century focussed on Rousseau's discussion of faith, other aspects of the treatise, particularly his largely negative views regarding women and their capabilities compared to men, have earned the author equally determined critics in subsequent centuries.

His forced exile did not help Rousseau's already high sensitivity; some historians have claimed he had a persecution complex. In 1766, Rousseau relocated to England. His reputation was high in that country, despite a public fallout with fellow philosopher David Hume. Rousseau was even offered a pension from George III of Great Britain (r. 1760-1820). His time abroad was spent in consideration of a more practical application for his thoughts on political philosophy, an endeavour that saw him write such works as A Constitutional Project for Corsica and Considerations on the Government of Poland. Rousseau returned to France in 1770.

Rousseau's delicate psychological state perhaps explains his preoccupation in his final years with assessing himself and his life's work. He wrote Confessions in 1770, Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques in 1776, and Reveries of the Solitary Walker, which remained unfinished.

Tomb of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Tomb of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Baptiste Roussel (CC BY-SA)

Major Works by Rousseau

The most important works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau include:

First Discourse (1750)
Dialogues upon Natural Religion (1751)
Second Discourse (1755)
Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761)
Émile (1762)
The Social Contract (1762)
Letters Written from the Mountain (1764)
A Constitutional Project for Corsica (1765)
Considerations on the Government of Poland (1771)
Confessions (1770)
Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques (1776)
Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782)

Death & Legacy

Rousseau spent his final years in Paris before moving northwards to Ermenonville in May 1778. Jean-Jacques Rousseau died on 2 July 1778. Rousseau's suggestions that the general will is infallible and that a politically inactive citizen is no citizen at all were grabbed with both hands by the rebels of the French Revolution; the philosopher's remains were interred in the Pantheon of Paris in 1794. This was rather ironic since Rousseau had never been in favour of revolutions against established institutions.

Rousseau's ideas on politics, in particular, proved attractive to later thinkers. The celebrated political theorist Isaiah Berlin once remarked that "No man has influenced the history of philosophical thought to a deeper and more disturbing degree" (163). Rousseau had a particularly profound influence on the Romantics, as here explained by S. Blackburn:

Rousseau's immense influence arises from him being the first true philosopher of Romanticism. In him many themes that came to dominate intellectual life of the next one hundred years are first found: the lost unity of humankind and nature; the elevation of feeling and innocence and the downgrading of the intellect; a dynamic conception of human history and its different stages; a faith in teleology and in the possibility of recapturing a vanished freedom.


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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time author, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.


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Questions & Answers

What was Jean-Jacques Rousseau known for?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was known for being a Swiss philosopher with an ambiguous attitude to the Enlightenment. Rousseau believed that sophisticated societies created too much inequality and injustice and these needed to be redressed through education and strong government.

What are the 3 main points of Rousseau's Social Contract?

The three main points of Rousseau's Social Contract are: people join together to form a collective will, the collective will is always right (because it is collective), and inequalities in society must be reduced by strong laws and government.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2023, December 12). Jean-Jacques Rousseau. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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Cartwright, Mark. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified December 12, 2023.

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Cartwright, Mark. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 12 Dec 2023. Web. 12 Dec 2023.