Rousseau Jean-Jacques(1712-78) Swiss-born political and social theorist, who lived mainly in Paris, and was a leading, if ambiguous, figure in the French Enlightenment (see AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT), and whose ideas were invoked in the French Revolution. His overriding concern was with human happiness, for which an essential condition was the freedom and autonomy of the will. His critique of existing society identified the baleful effects of private PROPERTY which, in creating the unequal relationship of master and servant, enslaved all. Men could never recreate the ‘natural’ independence of premodern society, but by judicious education and democratic government they might ameliorate their condition. In Emile (1762), his major work on education, Rousseau indicates how the child might be brought to a state of physical and psychological self-sufficiency, through a system of personal tutoring geared to the child's own developing nature. It was Rousseau's argument that in seeking to perfect themselves, men had made the wrong choice about how they would live together. In the Social Contract, his major work of political philosophy, he was concerned to show men the choice they could have made. In the civil society of the Social Contract, each man is an equal member of a sovereign body – a classless, democratic assembly -which collectively determines the laws they will live under. All men surrender their rights and possessions to the body, which establishes both economic and political equality, and then each receives back from this body the same rights over others, that he allows others over himself. In such a condition of EQUALITY, men are able to make laws which genuinely apply to all, and since their only obedience is to laws they have themselves made, their wills remain free and autonomous, and they have the possibility of achieving happiness. In making laws, men give expression to the general will, which is the will of each person in so far as it refers to what they share as equal members of the sovereign body. Rousseau's view here has been seen as Utopian, but ‘taking men as they are’, he accepted that they each have a particular will, which is what differentiates them from every other, and that this will is always potentially in opposition to the general will. He advocated a number of devices to prevent the particular will from having its degenerative effects on the general will of the sovereign body. Men must be educated into citizenship, and their identity as citizens must be reinforced by, among other things, a CIVIL RELIGION. He did not believe that any human creation could last forever, and however perfect a society might be created, it would ultimately succumb to internal forces of destruction, centring on the individual particular will. Utopian or not, and however ambivalent was his own attitude to modernity, many of Rousseau's ideas, e.g. on inequality, on DEMOCRACY, on political legitimacy (see LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY), and on the moral community have been widely influential, both within the social sciences and in political life. The major critique of his work is that it can be read as resolving issues, e.g. tensions between authority and liberty, which, if overlooked, can lead to TOTALITARIANISM. But equally this work, and Rousseau's own ambivalence towards MODERNITY, illuminates such issues, and even finds some echoes in present-day movements such as POSTMODERNISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000