An Introduction to Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Austin Tannenbaum
11 min readJun 11, 2021


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, political theorist, novelist, and musician active in 18th century Europe. Often grouped together with his Enlightenment contemporaries, Rousseau was in fact suspicious of the notion of progress, drawing attention to the ways in which modern society corrupts the natural goodness of humanity. His writings contrast life in a hypothetical state of nature to “civilized” life and investigate whether it is possible to preserve individual liberty and morality in a social context often inimical to both.

Rousseau was born June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland, which in his time was an independent city state. His father was an eclectic man who came from a lineage of watchmakers, taught dance, enjoyed music, and was well-educated. His mother, who belonged to a wealthy Calvinist family, died nine days after delivering Rousseau from a postpartum infection.

In his first years, Rousseau was raised by his father, who instilled in him a love of books by reading him his mother’s adventure novels and, later, Greek and Roman literature and history, often from dusk to dawn. In his autobiography Confessions, Rousseau wrote that the former “gave me bizarre and romantic notions of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to cure me of,” while the latter “formed in me the free and republican spirit.”

At a young age, Rousseau’s father sold the family home and moved Rousseau to a working-class apartment complex. This instilled working-class values in Rousseau, who later wrote that he preferred the practical goods of artisans to the “baubles” produced for the “idle and rich” by artists. Rousseau also witnessed his neighbors demonstrate against the Genevan elites, nurturing in him a sense of class consciousness and solidarity.

At the age of 10, Rousseau’s father was forced to flee Geneva due to his involvement in a trespassing dispute with a wealthy landowner. Put in the care of his uncle, Rousseau spent the next two years with a Calvinist minister. At 13, he was briefly apprenticed to a notary and an engraver, getting beaten by the latter. Detesting his master’s violent disposition, Rousseau decamped to Annecy, where he met Louise de Warens, a noblewoman employed by the King of Piedmont to convert Protestants to Catholicism. She successfully converted Rousseau, who renounced his Genevan citizenship to become a Catholic. The two struck up a relationship, initially familial, with de Warens acting as a mother figure to Rousseau, and later romantic. During this time, Rousseau supported himself variously as a servant, secretary, and tutor. He lived on and off with de Warens, who kept a large library of books and enjoyed entertaining and listening to music. De Warens fostered Rousseau’s academic and musical talents, introducing him to intellectual life and arranging music lessons for him.

In 1742, Rousseau travelled to Paris to present the Academy of Sciences with an alternative musical notation system consisting of a single line and numbers representing intervals. The Academy praised the system but ultimately rejected it. Nonetheless, Rousseau took up permanent residence in Paris and met Enlightenment figures Diderot and D’alembert, who were working on an encyclopedia embodying Enlightenment values. Rousseau contributed entries on political economy and music.

In 1745, Rousseau met a chambermaid named Therese Levasseur while lodging at a hotel employing her. The two became lovers, and, according to Rousseau, had five children together. Rousseau made Therese give up all of their newborns to a foundling hospital — an act Voltaire later publicly condemned.

In 1749, upon learning about an essay competition organized by the Academy of Dijon on the question of whether the arts and sciences had improved human morality, Rousseau had an epiphany that humanity is by nature good and corrupted by society. His submission, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, which argues that art promotes conformity by catering to popular tastes while science promotes arrogance by mistaking theories for facts, won first prize, and Rousseau began to make a name for himself.

His reputation was further advanced by his successful 1752 opera The Village Soothsayer, which deals with love and adultery. King Louis XV was so pleased with the opera that he offered Rousseau a lifelong pension, but Rousseau declined the offer, earning him notoriety as “the man who had refused a king’s pension.” He also stirred controversy in his Letter on French Music, which argued for the superiority of Italian music over French music given the former’s emphasis on melody in contrast to the latter’s focus on harmony. Rousseau viewed melody as central to communicating emotion and declared the French language inherently unmusical.

In 1754, Rousseau reconverted to Calvinism to regain his Genevan citizenship. One year later, he published his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, which traces the development of humanity and its accompanying inequality, contrasting a free and self-sufficient primal life to a culturally enslaved and dependent civilized life.

In 1761, Rousseau published what became the best-selling Julie, a philosophical romance novel on the topic of authenticity and the individual’s relationship to society. The following year, Rousseau published his two mature discourses: Emile, a novelized treatise on child rearing, education, and religious instruction, and The Social Contract, a political tract on the formation and types of society. The heterodox views espoused in the texts, including the idea that God is part of nature rather than over and above it, the suggestion that all religions are educational and should therefore be permitted, the rejection of original sin in keeping with his idea of humanity’s natural goodness, and the recommendation that political life should be largely secular, caused religious outrage that resulted in Rousseau’s Genevan citizenship being revoked.

Frederick the Great took pity on Rousseau and granted him political refuge in Prussia, remarking that “we must succor this poor unfortunate; his only offense is to have strange opinions which he thinks are good ones.” After being stoned in his new home in Motiers, Rousseau relocated once again to a Swiss island called the Isle of St. Pierre. Religious controversy followed him, and he was soon asked to leave within 15 days. Tired of the constant disruption, Rousseau implored the authorities to imprison him on the modest conditions that he could write and receive a daily outdoor allowance. The authorities refused and ordered him to leave within 24 hours.

After brief stints in Strasbourg and Paris, Rousseau settled in England in 1766 at the invitation of David Hume. This residence too was short-lived; after a dispute with Hume, Rousseau covertly returned to France the next year. He spent the remainder of his life penning largely autobiographical works in an attempt to counteract the calumnies raised against him. On July 3, 1778, Rousseau suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away from a stroke.

Rousseau’s system of thought is rooted in a theoretical history of humanity. He acknowledges that humanity, like all other species, has survival as its primary concern. However, he asserts that humanity is distinguishable from other species by its advanced degree of self-awareness. This faculty facilitates free will by enabling us to reflect on our options and choose how to act rather than being ruled by impulse. Our self-awareness pairs with free will to produce the uniquely human capacity for self-improvement or “perfectibility,” for which Rousseau maintains we have an infinite capacity.

For all the good this trait does for us, Rousseau holds that it is also the origin of our troubles, causing us to seek out more than what we need to survive. In the beginning, humans concerned themselves solely with self-preservation. Living in a state of nature and being forced to overcome difficulties such as harsh weather, attacks from other animals, and the need to procure food, humans developed a robust constitution complete with endurance, strength, and agility. This afforded primal humans self-sufficiency: they were able to do what they needed to survive and led solitary lives entirely in accordance with their present needs.

At times, it seems that if it were up to Rousseau, humanity would never have left this state of “happy ignorance.” Rousseau suggests that nature never intended for us to have knowledge, as evidenced in “the thick veil with which she had covered all her operations.” Given our self-sufficiency, why seek what we do not need? In his words,

“The man who first made himself clothes or a dwelling was furnishing himself with things not at all necessary; for he had till then done without them.”

Rousseau argues that the invention of creature comforts weakened humanity: we made ourselves less resilient by dressing and sheltering ourselves, less fit by using hunting tools. As a result, tasks that we could formerly do alone — braving the elements, fending off attackers, procuring food — now required banding together, compromising our self-sufficiency.

As we began to act in groups, we noticed that some members were better than others in various skills: fishing, hunting, building huts, fashioning tools, etc. This gave birth to comparative thinking, which Rousseau identifies as responsible for our moral decay. Amour de soi, or “love of self,” was replaced by Amour propre, or “love of pride.” Whereas natural humanity, being self-sufficient, did not preoccupy itself with the opinions of others, civilized humanity is increasingly dependent on others and must seek their approval.

Importantly, Rousseau believes humans are born moral beings who experience “an innate repugnance at seeing his fellow man suffer.” He offers the examples of a mother’s instinct to protect her children and our tendency to cry at the theatre, along with the claim that we would be horrified at witnessing “a wild beast tear a child from the arms of its mother” even if we were personally safe, as support for his stance. Rousseau conceives of humanity’s intrinsic compassion as a species-wide adaptation wherein our violent inclinations are moderated to “preserve…the whole species.” Humans in a state of nature thus instinctively live by the maxim, “Do good to yourself with as little evil as possible to others.”

Unfortunately, this natural goodness is undermined by society, whose demand for approval begets a host of vices including jealousy, vanity, vengefulness, and manipulation. Comparative thinking also creates inner turmoil, causing us to be discontented with ourselves, unsatisfied with what we have, and anxious about our place in the future. In an attempt to cope with this newfound pressure to be well-liked, humanity trades in its authenticity for civility: an empty politeness motivated not by a genuine care for others but a desire for esteem. In Rousseau’s words,

“Insatiable ambition, the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another, and with a secret jealousy, which is the more dangerous, as it puts on the mask of benevolence, to carry its point with greater security.”

Humanity’s moral decay is exacerbated by the innovation of private property, which allows some to acquire more than they need while others lack basic necessities. In a state of nature, primal humans, still ignorant of past and future, understood themselves as possessing something only as long as they were using it. This changed with the advent of agriculture, which taught humans foresight and incentivized laying an ongoing claim to land. Rousseau marks this as the kickoff to inequality, lamenting that innumerable “crimes, wars…murders…horrors and misfortunes” are attributable to our forgetfulness that “the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

Note that Rousseau distinguishes between natural inequality, which is the product of biological differences (e.g. in strength, beauty, and intelligence), and moral inequality, which is the product of artificial differences (e.g. in wealth, power, and status). According to Rousseau, some individuals, through superior natural ability, accumulated more property than others. As a result, there arose a bifurcation of humanity into rich and poor. Eventually, through successive generations of acquisition and inheritance, all the land in a given area became claimed, which forced the poor to work for the rich to survive. To mollify the poor, the rich bought off a portion of them by giving them wages and privileges and arming them. This seemingly benevolent appeal by the rich to support the poor is really just a guise to protect their wealth and parlay it into political power. In concluding humanity’s theoretical progression from nature to society, Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, identifies this assimilation of the poor into a social system as the genesis of the state, pejoratively describing the poor’s compliance as,

“[Running] headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty; for they had just wit enough to perceive the advantages of political institutions, without experience enough to enable them to foresee the dangers.”

In The Social Contract, Rousseau similarly remarks that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” However, he tells a slightly different origin story of the state. According to Rousseau, at a certain point in human history,

“The obstacles to…survival in a state of nature overpower each individual’s resources for maintaining himself in that state. So this primitive condition can’t go on; the human race will perish unless it changes its manner of existence.”

The solution humanity arrives at to preserve itself is uniting in the interest of becoming “jointly powerful enough to deal with the obstacles.” This unity takes the form of a “social contract” in which members of a prospective society collectively agree to give up their individual freedom to a state consisting of two major parts:

  1. The sovereign, consisting of a civically active citizenry that makes laws in accordance with the general will, or the common interest of the people, as opposed to the private interests of individuals.
  2. The government, consisting of magistrates, or political officials who execute the law in particular situations by arbitrating disputes, determining punishments, and enforcing laws, by force if necessary. (Rousseau prefers an aristocratic government of a few competent magistrates to a direct democratic government of many largely unqualified magistrates or a monarchical government of one all-powerful magistrate who is efficient yet prone to abuses of power.)

There are also two minor parts of Rousseau’s envisioned state:

  1. The tribunate, or the “guardian of the laws,” which rules on conflicts regarding the balance of power between the sovereign, government, and people.
  2. The censorship, or the court of public opinion, which fosters the mores of a community.

These four parts work together to legitimize laws, which Rousseau regards as a necessary counterbalance to “the forces at work in the world [that] always tend to destroy equality.” Rousseau rejected absolute equality in favor of distributive justice, advocating that each citizen contribute to society in exchange for an equitable piece of social wealth. By espousing equality, Rousseau did not envision a society wherein everyone is compensated equally regardless of their behavior, but a society in which “No citizen will ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”

With this arrangement, individuals lose their ability to do whatever they please, but gain institutional protection of their lives, liberty, and property and are given the opportunity to live a dignified life provided they fulfill their moral and civic duties. In a slight turn away from his earlier romanticization of the state of nature, Rousseau remarks that social life is really a higher form of freedom, dubbing “the drive of sheer appetite” a type of enslavement and “obedience to [just] law” a type of liberty.

In the final analysis, however, Rousseau is somewhat of a pessimist: due to the inherent tension between the sovereign, which is made up of the people, and the government, which is separate from the people and tasked with regulating them, the life of every state will eventually end when government inevitably usurps the sovereign. When this happens, the social contract is broken, and citizens gain the right to rebel.

Of course, for a state to work even temporarily, citizens must voluntarily uphold the principles laid out in the social contract. Rousseau regarded education as crucial in this endeavor, dedicating the book Emile to the subject of proper child-rearing in the home, school, and church. Education’s proper goal is to imbue children with reason, moral sense, and strength of character, so that when they reach adulthood they will practice virtue even in a society full of vices. To this end, Rousseau made a diverse array of recommendations, including not swaddling infants, breastfeeding infants, encouraging experiential learning and self-exploration in early childhood, teaching adolescents a practical trade, and cultivating emotional intelligence in young adults. Through this progressive educational program, Rousseau hopes to socially engineer a citizenry capable of maintaining a healthy state — if not forever, at least for as long as possible.