Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in circumstances of considerable poverty. His mother died just a few days after his birth, and he received hardly any formal education.

At the age of 16 Rousseau left Geneva and after wandering aimlessly he reached France, where he won the patronage (and the affections) of a wealthy Baroness who was his senior by more than a decade. After various adventures—related with tremendous gusto and apparent honesty in his Confessions (published 1782)—he travelled to Paris in order to convince the Académie des Sciences of a system of musical notation that he had invented. Despite his lack of formal training in this field, the system was ingenious; however, it was rejected by the Académie.

By this time Rousseau had given ample evidence of two leading character traits—his undoubted and untutored genius, and an ability to make a strongly-favourable but short-lived impression on others. From 1743–4 he acted as secretary to the French ambassador to Venice, but left that post in acrimonious circumstances. Back in Paris, he befriended the philosopher and novelist Denis Diderot, one of the greatest figures of the French Enlightenment. In 1749 he wrote a prize-winning Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, which established his reputation as an independent thinker. He also won renown as a composer—his Le Devin du Village was performed in front of the French King—and as a novelist, with Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761), which was capable of wringing tears from susceptible romantics well into the next century.

However, Rousseau was never far removed from controversy; and, having something of a persecution-complex, he took no steps to avoid it. Having quarrelled with his Parisian friends, including Diderot, he returned to Geneva where he wrote (in 1755) his controversial Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men. In 1762 he produced The Social Contract, the work for which he is best known today, and Emile, a treatise on education. By now Rousseau had built up a corpus of work that proved him to be devoid of sympathy to organized religion, and his books were banned in several countries. His subsequent years of exile included a brief sojourn in England, which ended when he became convinced that his benefactors were actually in league with his enemies. He slipped back into France in 1767 under an assumed name, although he gained official permission to return to Paris three years later. He spent the rest of his life as a recluse, with a partner who had borne several children, all of whom were consigned to an orphanage.


Rousseau’s contribution to political philosophy revolves around the opening sentence of his Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” His work is marked by an unquenchable individualism, in keeping with the bizarre circumstances of his own life. Yet clearly Rousseau had a yearning for voluntary association with others—hence his use of social contract theory as an explanation for the origins of government; the contract, after all, represented a voluntary agreement between equals. However, once government had been formed there remained the problem of decision-making. If this was based on the will of a majority, why should the unsuccessful minority obey the ensuing law? For Rousseau, the solution could only lie in a distinction between the self-centred desires of the individual, and a more enlightened sense of obedience to the common good. Rousseau called the latter the “general will”—on the individual level it might almost be called a person’s “better self.” If individuals are too pig-headed to see what is in their real, long-term interest, they should be made to do so. Only then can they truly be “free,” because their own views will be reflected in the decisions of their government. Thus, it is possible for someone to be “forced to be free.”

Rousseau’s ideas were highly controversial at the time, and not just because they seemed irreligious. His writings undoubtedly helped to inspire the French Revolution (see page 65, Chapter 3), and in the twentieth century several critics portrayed him as an apologist for totalitarian rule. This conclusion is paradoxical, given Rousseau’s mania for participation and personal liberty. It is more accurate to depict Rousseau as a Utopian thinker, who would not even have felt at ease in Ancient Athens, where citizens were “free” but slavery was condoned. The Social Contract really invites contemporary readers to accept that, even in liberal democracies, people who are outvoted have to curb their individualism and act in conformity to laws that they do not support. From this perspective, Rousseau’s work should be seen as a devastating critique of naïve views about democracy, written long before democracy was instituted in the West. His social views were equally prophetic, anticipating Karl Marx in many respects. His Discourse on Inequality (1754) argued that the institution of property was the “original sin” of humanity, pitting individuals against each other. In the original state of humanity, people felt amore de soi—genuine regard for oneself. Once private property had been introduced, humans felt amore-propre—a feeling of self-esteem that could only be generated by comparing one’s condition to that of others. More than two centuries after Rousseau’s death, this fearless style of argument retains its subversive potential.

Further Reading

Maurice Cranston, Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Work, Norton, 1982.

Maurice Cranston, The Noble Savage, University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Maurice Cranston, The Solitary Self, University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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