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Brief Lives

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Graeme Garrard observes the life of a paradoxical revolutionary hero.

According to a popular legend the philosopher Immanuel Kant was so punctual that his neighbours would set their clocks by his daily constitutional. Allegedly, the only time he deviated from this rigid pattern was when he received a copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on education, Emile (1762). The book so captivated him that he missed his afternoon walk for several days. Furthermore, the only piece of art that the austere Kant kept in his home was a portrait of Rousseau, which hung above his writing desk. He claimed that “Rousseau set me right” by teaching him to honour mankind.

Another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, was not so impressed. At the end of the nineteenth century he denounced Rousseau as a tarantula who poisoned Kant with his moralising. This dim view of Rousseau’s legacy cast a long shadow over much of twentieth century ethics, particularly for a generation of liberals such as Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper and Jacob Talmon, for whom Rousseau was a proponent of ‘totalitarian democracy’. However, in the four decades leading up to the 300th anniversary of his birth on the 28th June 2012, Rousseau’s reputation has waxed again, in conjunction with the growing sophistication of Rousseau scholarship.

When Rousseau arrived in Paris in 1742 he was a poor, unknown, unpublished, thirty-year-old Genevan with no job, relatively little formal education (although well-read), whose mother had died in childbirth, and whose watchmaker father had abandoned him when he was ten years old. By the time Rousseau died in 1778 he was a best-selling novelist, an extremely successful opera composer, the author of numerous books and essays on education, ethics, music, religion, language, political philosophy, political economy and even botany, the rival of Voltaire, erstwhile friend of Diderot, d’Alembert and Hume (all of whom eventually denounced him as mad, as did Nietzsche), and one of the most famous men in Europe. Before the end of the century, Rousseau’s body lay in the Panthéon in Paris, immediately opposite his arch-nemesis Voltaire, who died just over a month before him. It had been placed there by the Jacobins to honour a ‘father of the French Revolution’. By the twentieth century, Rousseau had been blamed for influencing if not actually causing romanticism, anarchism, nationalism and even totalitarianism. He remains one of the most important, influential, divisive and widely-read thinkers in the history of ideas.

A Man of Paradoxes

Rousseau once described himself as a ‘man of paradoxes’, which is not difficult to believe of someone who famously claimed that it is sometimes necessary to force men to be free. Other evidence concurs. He wrote an influential treatise on education of the young, yet put all five of his children into a foundling home as soon as they were born (where probably most of them died). He claimed to have “the greatest aversion to revolutions,” yet inspired the leaders of the French Revolution, such as Robespierre and Saint-Just, who hailed him as their hero. Rousseau is commonly included among the leading philosophes of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and contributed to the Encyclopédie, yet in his first major work he praised ignorance and argued that the cultivation of the arts and sciences is detrimental to morals. He is famous as a proponent of democracy, yet claimed in his main political work, The Social Contract (1762) that the only place where democracy had any realistic prospect in contemporary Europe was in remote Corsica. Many of his most fervent and devoted admirers while he was alive were women and aristocrats, yet he was deeply misogynistic, and professed to dislike and disapprove of wealthy ‘grandees’ (“I hate their rank, their hardness, their prejudices, their pettiness, and all their vices”). He was one of the most admired and mesmerisingly eloquent writers of his age, yet he had little formal education and married an illiterate seamstress. He was a best-selling author and composer, yet he wrote that “books are good for nothing” and admired ancient Sparta, which tolerated neither writing nor music.

Rousseau’s most successful opera, Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer), was a huge hit when it was premiered in Paris in 1752, but it is almost never performed now. (Louis XV loved it, and wanted to offer its composer a lifetime pension, but Rousseau had fled, fearing that he might wet himself in the king’s presence owing to a disease of his bladder.) And Rousseau’s writings on music, extolling the virtues of Italian opera over French, are today known to only a few scholars. While his sentimental epistolary novel, Julie, or the New Héloïse (1761), was probably the biggest best-seller of the eighteenth century, it is now little read. Emile, which Rousseau described as the “best as well as the most important of the works I have written,” had a vast influence on the theory and practice of education. However, its controversial assumptions and prescriptions have long since been superceded by rival pedagogies. Yet Rousseau’s relevance endures despite all the changes which have made so much of what he did unfashionable to contemporary tastes. Many of his other works, above all in cultural anthropology and political philosophy, are classics that continue to resonate very powerfully with readers.

One such example is Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755). Although it was not awarded first prize by the Academy of Dijon, for which it was written, it caused a sensation when it was published, and has had a huge and lasting impact on natural and social science. It begins with an account of man in a pre-social ‘state of nature’. This account, while speculative and hypothetical, was enormously influential on debates about human nature and the origins of social and political life at a time when there was very little empirical evidence on these subjects and the gap between science and political philosophy was far less broad than it is today. The Discourse’s idyllic picture of the original human beings as innocent, simple, happy, peaceful, isolated and benignly selfish prompted Voltaire sarcastically to thank Rousseau for his “new book against the human species.” The second part of the book sketches the advent of society, and with it the emergence of an aggressive form of selfishness (amour-propre) that has led to a Hobbesian war of all against all dominated by inequality, injustice and exploitation.

The Social Contract

Rousseau’s Social Contract, published 250 years ago in April 1762, sets out a solution to the dilemma of civilisation posed in the Discourse. It was immediately condemned by the Paris Parlement, and placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books, next to works by fellow philosophes such as Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, Montesquieu, and d’Alembert. (This did not prevent Voltaire from declaring that the ‘monster’ had brought all these troubles on himself.) No one was surprised by any of this, least of all Rousseau. But Rousseau was shocked and dismayed when the book was banned in his native Geneva. The authorities ordered it burned and its author arrested if he ever dared to set foot in the city again. This wounded Rousseau deeply, since he had always been a proud citizen of Geneva – he signed his books (including The Social Contract) ‘Citoyen de Genève’, and said to the Genovese that “I took your constitution as my model.” Rousseau blamed Voltaire, then resident in Geneva, for whipping up opposition to him in an unholy alliance with the religious bigots who dominated the city.

The Social Contract was even proscribed in relatively liberal, tolerant Amsterdam. It seemed as though all of continental Europe – Catholics and Protestants, secularists and religious fanatics, Jesuits and Jansenists, philosophes and anti-philosophes – had united against Jean-Jacques, who was forced to flee. He even considered suicide. Rousseau’s desperation was so great that he actually moved to England, a nation he despised: “I have never liked England or the English,” he states in his Confessions (1770). In The Social Contract he had written that although England regards itself as free, “it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of its Members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” Even so, the English gave Rousseau sanctuary when few others would, for which he displayed his characteristic ingratitude, as his friend David Hume was to discover to his amazement and disgust when Rousseau spurned the offer of a pension from King George III, just as he had done to Louis XV.

The Social Contract is Rousseau’s most enduringly popular, widely-read and influential book. It ranks among the great classics of Western political philosophy, alongside Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Mill’s On Liberty. It has been continuously in print for two and a half centuries, inspiring generations of democrats and radicals as much as it has infuriated and provoked traditionalists and conservatives. It is a unique blend of ancient and modern elements which is difficult to classify, and it has vexed its interpreters since it was published.

In it Rousseau argues that both the monarchical absolutism of France’s then ancien régime, and the enlightened despotism favoured by philosophes like Voltaire, are inconsistent with the ‘principles of political right’ (the book’s subtitle) which he sets out in the book. Rousseau started from the assumption made by many near-contemporary political thinkers, such as Hobbes and Locke, that political life is unnatural and must therefore be based on consent and human artifice. In this view he was fully modern; but his models of political consent were ancient Sparta and republican Rome, because he held they understood best how to generate a sense of public spirit, without which the general will essential to a well-functioning polity cannot be formed. He was thus a modern with the soul of an ancient who opposed liberalism with his own unique form of modernity.

In the first line of the first chapter of The Social Contract Rousseau famously declares that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Yet contrary to the claims of many writers (including Voltaire), it was never Rousseau’s intention to break the bonds of political life and return us to some idyllic pre-political state of nature. Rather, he shows how he thinks political bonds can be made legitimate – meaning that sovereign and subject are no longer alienated from each other. Such alienation is typical of despotic rule, where power is imposed by might rather than by right. Rousseau gave the name ‘citizen’ to those who help make the laws to which they are subject. By together making their own laws, each citizen “obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before.” This Rousseau regarded as the only legitimate form of politics.

According to Rousseau, then, sovereignty should reside with the people, in the form of the general will, which ought to be the source of the law’s legitimacy. The general will is not a mere aggregation of the wills of selfish individuals (which Rousseau called “the will of all”). Rather, the general will is formed when citizens ask themselves what is in the common interest rather than what is good for them specifically as individuals. However, Rousseau believed that such public-spiritedness is wholly unnatural, since we are naturally selfish creatures. It must therefore be cultivated artificially, by means of a set of institutions and practices whose purpose is to promote ‘sentiments of sociability’. The most notorious of these proposed institutions is what Rousseau calls the ‘civil religion’, which makes each individual love his duty to the polity more than to himself. Rousseau believed that Christianity is completely unsuited to this role, since it preaches “only servitude and submission.” In fact, he says that he knows “nothing more contrary to the social spirit” and “favourable to tyranny” than Christianity. Little wonder that The Social Contract was banned both in Calvinist Geneva and in Catholic Paris.

Another device that Rousseau says is necessary to induce naturally selfish individuals to think of the public good is what he calls ‘the legislator’. Such rare individuals (he mentions Moses and Lycurgus as examples) invoke the divine to persuade people to subordinate their particular interests to the common interest, this being a precondition for the sovereignty of the general will.


Despite his reputation as a naïve idealist with both feet planted firmly in the clouds, Rousseau was keenly aware of just how unlikely it was that the political principles he prescribed in The Social Contract would ever be adopted under contemporary conditions. He thought they were only applicable in relatively small, cohesive city-states of the kind commonly found in ancient Greece; not the large, sophisticated nation-states of modern Europe. That is why it is very unlikely he would have endorsed the French Revolutionary attempt to implement his theories, had he lived to see it – even though he correctly predicted a coming age of revolutions which would engulf Europe.

Whereas Thomas Jefferson believed that “the government that governs least governs best,” Rousseau set out to legitimate strong government rather than to limit it. Indeed, for Rousseau, to limit a legitimate government would be to limit political right itself, which is contrary to justice. His objection to Thomas Hobbes was not that Hobbes defended an absolute sovereign, it is that he defended an illegitimate sovereign. Yet the American Founding Fathers fundamentally mistrusted government, and therefore designed a political system that was deliberately weak and limited by ‘checks and balances’. This is why John Locke was a more important influence on the American Revolution than Rousseau, who inspired the French Revolutionaries.

The alienation Rousseau experienced from the enlightened civilisation in which he was immersed appears to have become complete in the last decade of his life, when he sought to escape from the company of men entirely, in an apparent effort to preserve his own integrity in an age of utter corruption. He had finally concluded that there is “no hope of remedies” and that the words ‘fatherland’ and ‘citizen’ should be “effaced from modern languages.” He ended his days in total resignation and pessimism. His last work, the unfinished Reveries of a Solitary Walker, was written in the two years before he died, and suggests his conclusion that escape from civilisation into rustic isolation is the only real option for the man of virtue. His strong identification with Socrates is also best understood in terms of his self-conception as a good man living in a wicked age, attacked and vilified by contemporaries blinded to his goodness by their own vice. In his late best-selling masterpiece The Confessions, a cry from the heart written during the troubled and difficult years following the publication of his Social Contract and Emile, Rousseau offers readers an irresistibly endearing and often shockingly frank self-portrait which inspired an entire generation of romantic writers when it was published posthumously.

It is a very grave mistake to dismiss Rousseau’s ideas as the ravings of a lunatic, as so many of his enemies and detractors have done over the centuries. He was undoubtedly an eccentric and often very difficult character, prone to bouts of paranoia – although he was a paranoiac with many powerful enemies who actively persecuted him. But the power and eloquence of his writing have inspired many generations of the rebels, malcontents, misfits and outsiders who share his profound disquiet about the place of the individual in the modern age.

© Dr Graeme Garrard 2012

Graeme Garrard is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Cardiff University.

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