Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was a French political and social thinker recognized as making major contributions to social contract and democratic theory through his writings, such as the Social Contract (1762). Rousseau’s works are credited also with being a major influence on the French Revolution (1789–1799), as well as education, gender, and literary theories, and they served as inspiration for many subsequent political theorists.
Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, and his father fled the city when Jean-Jacques was ten. All three of these events would dominate Rousseau’s biography and writings. His citizenship in Geneva and his admiration for the city affected his views on the political community, and his 1755 Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men—known as the Second Discourse—was dedicated to its citizens. Scholars theorize that the early death of his mother and the abandonment by his father pushed Rousseau into relationships with older women who served often as patrons for his work and affected his views on gender.
Rousseau’s importance in political theory derives from a collection of writings that situate him within the social contract theory tradition of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and subsequently Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Rousseau’s first major work, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences—the First Discourse—was a 1750 essay that initially thrust him into the French literary limelight. The essay questioned whether progress in knowledge had led to human perfection and the improvement of civilization. Rousseau was skeptical of this progress, suggesting human nature had been corrupted by society.
The idea of a more primitive yet noble and uncorrupted human nature that predated society dominated Rousseau’s Second Discourse. It sought to explain the sources of human inequality. Rejecting beliefs that political and social distinctions were natural, Rousseau instead saw them as conventional. Appealing to a distant time that predated the construction of social institutions, he saw a natural savage who lived an unreflective but uncorrupted solitary life in a state of nature. The lure into society, and eventually into inequality, in the Second Discourse is the result of the invention both of private property and the trick of a few seeking to convince all that joining a political community would be to their advantage.
This theme of society, at least as then constituted, corrupting humanity continues in Rousseau’s The Social Contract, which inquires whether any political society can be just, fair, and legitimate by opening with the claim that “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” The purpose of this book was to forge a theory of government that preserves individual freedom. Rousseau appears to find an answer in constructing a small homogeneous political community where individuals align their political will with that of the general will. Individuals thus give up nature for moral freedom, creating a political community they will for themselves.
Besides exploring the limits of legitimate political authority, much of Rousseau’s work also can be seen as an examination of human alienation and societal roles. In his posthumous Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782) he ponders the question of self-identity and consciousness by asking “What am I?” In Emile (1762) he examines the appropriate means of educating men to be citizens and women to be wives.
Rousseau’s discussions of human nature, alienation, property, gender, and political authority influenced writers as diverse as Mary Wollstonecraft, Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, George Hegel, and Sigmund Freud. Finally, his writings questioned the legitimacy of the French monarchy, helping to forge the ideological weapons that would drive the French Revolution.
- Cassierer, Ernst. The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated by Peter Gay. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The First and Second Discourses. Translated by Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martin’s, 1964.
- Translated by Barbara Foxley. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1974.
- The Social Contract. Translated by Maurice Cranston. New York: Penguin, 1977.
- Schwartz, Joel. The Sexual Politics of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
- Shklar, Judith N. Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
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