Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques


Born June 28, 1712, in Geneva; died July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville, near Paris. French Enlightenment philosopher, writer, and composer.

The son of a watchmaker, Rousseau worked as a lackey, a clerk, a tutor, and a music teacher. He lived in Switzerland until 1741, when he went to Paris. From 1743 to 1744 he was secretary to the French ambassador in Venice. In Paris he became acquainted with Diderot and other Enlightenment thinkers and collaborated on the Encyclopedia, writing articles primarily on music. Rousseau left France in 1762, fearing arrest after the publication of the pedagogical novel Emile and the political treatise On the Social Contract. He was persecuted by the French Catholics and the Swiss Protestants. In 1770 he returned to Paris, where he took a job copying music. He spent the last months of his life in Ermenonville, at the estate of the Marquis de Girardin. During the Jacobin dictatorship, Rousseau’s remains were moved to the Panthéon.

Rousseau was the most influential representative of French sentimentalism, the last and most revolutionary phase of the Enlightenment. Rousseau’s social and philosophical views were reflected in his treatises. In his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750) he criticized contemporary civilization, arguing that it was based on inequality and cruel exploitation of the people and contrasting it to the “state of nature,” in which people were equal and free because they did not know the authority of society, with its system of coercive laws. Rousseau noted the pernicious influence of the arts and sciences, which “cover with garlands of flowers the iron chains in which people … are shackled” (Rousseau, Traktaty, Moscow, 1969, p. 12), stifle the natural voice of liberty, and cause the decline of morals.

These ideas were further developed in A Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind (1755), which F. Engels included among “the best models of dialectics” (Anti-Dühring, 1966, p. 16). Rousseau asserted that the foundation of inequality was private property, and that inequality in property gave rise to political inequality, which was reinforced by the establishment of the state. The tragic contradictions of progress constitute the leitmotiv of the treatise: as civilization develops, inequality deepens, reaching its peak under despotism, which transforms everyone into nonpersons. Rousseau substantiated the people’s right to revolution. Because a modern state is based on force, it can only be overthrown by force.

Rousseau realized that a return to the lost paradise of the “state of nature” was impossible and that man was doomed to live in society. In his Social Contract (1762) he sketched an ideal society, as close as possible to nature. In society, sovereign freedom belongs not to the individual but to the state, which emerges on the basis of a voluntary agreement, or contract. People enjoy freedom only as full-fledged members of the state. In Rousseau’s work the theory of the social contract takes on a radical democratic character. The condition for freedom is equality in both politics and property. The state is obligated to protect equality and prevent the polarization of wealth and poverty.

Rousseau regarded small-scale property based on personal labor as a stable foundation of society, no less sacred than liberty. He criticized the British parliamentary system and upheld the idea of popular sovereignty. Drawing on the experience of the classical polis and the Swiss cantons, he advocated the principle of direct democracy, under which laws are adopted directly by a meeting of all citizens. Rousseau’s orientation toward the establishment of tiny state formations, like his idea of the equality of small-scale peasant and artisan property, was Utopian and contradictory to the objective tendencies of historical development, but his dream of equality expressed the social aspirations of the popular masses, especially the peasantry, and inspired the Jacobins during the French Revolution.

Rousseau’s pedagogical views were expressed in Emile: Or, on Education (1762), which may be classified as intermediate between a pedagogical treatise and a work of fiction. At the beginning of the book Rousseau declared: “Everything is beautiful when it emerges from the hands of the Maker, everything is spoiled in the hands of man.” Thus, he endeavored to isolate his imaginary pupil Emile from the noxious influence of society, in order to develop his natural instincts and individual propensities. Rousseau did not allow any violence to the child’s personality, giving less attention to education than to moral upbringing, which he could not imagine without a religious foundation. In this respect he diverged from 18th-century French materialism. Rousseau, a deist, rejected forms of worship, church practices, and religious dogma, thus inviting the denunciation of Emile by French clerics and Genevan Calvinists. He retained a faith in god as the creator of the universe and the supreme moral lawmaker, but, unlike Voltaire, he appealed not to enlightened reason but to a heartfelt religiosity as the inner voice of conscience.

Rousseau criticized the entire method of upbringing associated with the feudal system of social estates, pointing out that it suppressed the child’s personality. An enemy of dogmatism and scholasticism, he championed the development in children of independent thought, insisting on an intensification of schooling and of its connection with life and the child’s personal experience. He attached special importance to labor as a part of education. His views on education, which were permeated by humanism and a sense of democracy, played an important role in the development of views on the objectives, tasks, and methods of upbringing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Rousseau’s views had a significant influence on the German “philanthropist” educators, J. H. Pestalozzi, L. N. Tolstoy, and to some extent, H. Spencer and J. Dewey.

Rousseau wrote fiction in many genres, creating verses, poems, and comedies, such as Narcissus (1733, staged 1752, published 1753) and Prisoners of War (1743, published 1782). He wrote both the librettos and the music for several operas, of which the most significant is The Cunning-Man (staged 1752, published 1753), with music modeled on French folk songs and dances. There are some elements of the Italian style in The Cunning-Man. The lyrical one-act piece Pygmalion (staged 1770; music jointly with H. Coignet), which combined a text and instrumental music, was an early example of the melodrama, a musical dramatic genre.

Also among Rousseau’s works are the novel Julie: Ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and the Confessions (1766–69, published, 1782–89). The novel describes a love affair between the aristocratic Julie d’Etange and Saint-Preux, an intellectual of no definite class. The first half of the book is a panegyric to natural passion, which sweeps away all the conventions of civilization. In the second half the family life of Julie and Wolmar is portrayed as a Utopian ideal, and man’s moral duty and societal obligations are glorified, as they were in the Social Contract. The two parts of the book are simultaneously contradictory and interrelated: according to Rousseau, the voice of nature, which the heroes obey, makes them virtuous. The epistolary genre made it possible for Rousseau to show the “life of the heart” and the heroes’ inner world and to touch on the most important social and philosophical problems of the age. This literary feat is associated with the figure of Saint-Preux, a new type of person from the third estate, stirred not only by personal passions and interests but also by the fate of the world. Landscape plays an important structural role in the novel. A lyrical attitude corresponding to the characters’ emotional states always colors Rousseau’s landscapes.

La Nouvelle Héloïse was tremendously successful among Rousseau’s contemporaries, but his most outstanding work, the Confessions, had greater significance for later generations of readers. The work is not only an autobiography but also an early 18th-century novel. According to its author, its purpose was “to show my brothers one person in all of his true nature” (Rousseau, Izbr. soch., vol. 3, Moscow, 1961, p. 9), in all of his unique individuality. With extreme sincerity and merciless truthfulness, Rousseau bared his heart, “all of [his] innermost thoughts” (ibid., p. 671), not afraid to relate “the most loathsome things” about himself (ibid., p. 673). The “entire truth” about a person is the rationally uninterpretable complexity and contradictoriness of emotional life: the lofty coexists with the base, and good with evil. Rousseau, however, retained faith in the goodness of human nature, which modern society perverts, forcing people to wear masks, to lie to those around them and to themselves, to look at the world through “other eyes,” and to “want with someone else’s will” (Emil’, Moscow, 1896, p. 75). For Rousseau, psychological analysis is inseparable from the social enthusiasm of the Confessions. Among his other autobiographical works are Dialogues: Rousseau Judges Jean-Jacques(1775–76) and Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1777–78, published 1782). Rousseau had a tremendous influence on all subsequent literature, social thought, and philosophy. His thought engendered an entire school, Rousseauism, which had varying degrees of influence throughout Europe. Outside France, the influence of Rousseau’s ideas was especially strong in German philosophy (I. Kant, J. G. Fichte) and literature (the Sturm und Drang poets J. M. R. Lenz and F. M. von Klinger, and the young Goethe and Schiller).

Rousseau’s work has consistently attracted Russian readers. A. I. Herzen wrote: “We experienced Rousseau …just as the French did” (Sobr. soch., vol. 18, 1959, p. 322). D. I. Fonvizin, N. M. Karamzin, A. N. Radishchev, A. S. Pushkin and N. G. Chernyshevskii showed a keen interest in the Enlightenment philosopher. By his own admission, L. N. Tolstoy “idolized Rousseau,” whose ideas were sharply attacked by F. M. Dostoevsky.


Oeuvres complètes, vols. 1–13. Paris, 1885–1905.
Oeuvres complètes, vols. 1–3, Paris, 1959–64.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. soch., vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1961.
Iuliia, ili Novaia Eloiza. Moscow, 1968.
Traktaty. Moscow, 1969.


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