A very famous philosopher. He was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712. His mother died in childbirth, and his father ran off and left him with 'relations'. He was home-schooled, mostly by his own efforts. He was employed by a notary, who fired him, and then by a coppersmith who treated him so badly that he ran away.

A few days later he met up with Roman Catholic priests, who turned him over to Madame de Warens at Annecy, who made a living helping converts to Catholicism. She sent him off to Turin to be baptized and to attend school. He there found a job working for a shopkeeper's wife, who took him as her lover while her husband was away. After the husband got back he took various odd jobs, before going back to Madame de Warens to become her lover. He spent eight years living with her, reading, studying and generally having a good time.

Eventually Madame de Warens took up with a wigmaker, and Rousseau left. He made use of his musical training (those eight years--they were busy. Music was the tip of the iceburg) to invent a new form of musical notation, which was declared "neither useful nor original" by the academy of sciences.

He started copying music for a living, and also started up an affair with Therese Le Vasseur, an illiterate maid who bore him five children, all of whom Rousseau sent off to a foundling hospital. He had an opera (Les Muses galantes) which failed, and an operetta (Devin du village) which was a success.

So, now he starts with the philosophy (he's a philosopher, remember? He's also about 40 by now) and he wows the French with his views on social injustice, and where it came from.

In a State of Nature, there is no moral law, and an abundance of Stuff (sez Rousseau). And, he sez, we (humans) are compassionate, and will try to keep others from suffering (remember where his kids are.) But at the same time, he thought humans were solitary creatures (He's living in the middle of Paris). So, humans are happy in a state of nature... except that when there is a shortage of something (food) humans are smart enough to find innovative ways of getting more (where other animals would just fight for it). And once a human discovers a new way of preparing or raising food, they don't want to give it up. Soon humans are demanding luxuries, and eventually end up gathering in towns and then cities so that they can manage to live in the best of all possible circumstances. And when you have all this, you need private property, and this in turn leads to unequal amounts of property, and thus social inequality. And for the rich to protect their private property, they form the Government. The government, he sez, is working against the poor, and thus it is immoral. He would rather have anarchy.

That's just one of his many interesting ideas. This stuff made him famous, being quite advanced for his time. But he didn't stop there. He wrote a book (Emile ou de l'education--It was about raising a child in accordance with a state of nature) that the French parliament deemed worth burning. They tried to arrest him for it, but he ran off to Neuchatel. He was then chased out of Neuchatel, and went to Berne. Which he was ordered to leave. So, next was England, where his friend David Hume offered him refuge. He accused Hume of conspiring to ruin his character (he was pretty much paranoid at this point). So he ran back to France, and eventually was even allowed back into Paris. All this took about eight years.

In Paris he worked on philosophy, botany and music. In 1778 he finally moved to Ermenonville, and quickly died of thrombosis on July 2.

He managed to back all this adventure and drama into just 66 years of life on earth.

In his lifetime Rousseau made three attempts at an auto-biography: The Confessions finished in 1770, the Dialogues (Rosseau, the Judge of Jean-Jacques) finished in 1776, and The Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Despite all his auto-biographies there are a lot of gaps of knowledge about his life, including some debate about whether he really gave away his children.

The Confessions talk about his path on his way to exile, and also include some kinky sex references. The Reveries are full of his paranoid and bitter accusations towards society which he excuses of exiling him. To take just one quote of many as example:

The accumulation of so many chance circumstances, the elevation of all my cruellest enemies, as if chosen by fortune, the way in which all those who govern the nation or control public opinion, all those who occupy places of credit and authority seem to have been hand-picked from among those who harbour some secret animosity towards me to take part in the universal conspiracy, all this is too extrodinary to be a mere coincidence.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the great figures of the French Enlightenment, also was a large influence on 19th-century Romanticism. Rousseau exemplified the Romantic period through his beliefs in the importance of the individual and the evils of repressive social institutions upon human nature. He created a new type of autobiographical style that had been previously unseen. His ideas about the individual and society influenced writers, philosophers, and revolutionaries to a great degree. Rousseau made creative leaps in both the style and content of his writing, thus making him very influential to the emerging Romanticism movement.

Rousseau’s vision, for the most part, fit in very well with the ideals of the fledgling Romantic period. The ‘Romantic’ is said to appreciate variety rather than uniformity, the infinite rather than the finite, nature rather than culture, the organic rather than the mechanical, and most important of all, freedom rather than restraint by rules and regulations. Rousseau, in a true Romantic mindset, preferred the unique individual to the average person and the free creative genius to the prudent person of good sense. The Romantic period was a time where feeling was preferred to thought. He believed that man should be aware of himself and his own needs, thus becoming closer to what he believed to be a natural state.

In fact, Rousseau's most celebrated theory was that of the "natural man." In his Discourse on the Inequalities of Men and Social Contract, he says that human beings were essentially good and equal but were corrupted by the introduction of property, agriculture, science, and commerce. He believed that man could achieve more intellectually and morally if he was allowed to be in his natural state. These beliefs were very much in opposition of what was popular in the waning Enlightenment movement, thus causing much controversy among the public and his peers.

Rousseau’s Confessions presented many ideas that became important in the Romantic period. Confessions is a prime example of classic tension between the individual and society, and solitude and association; these ideas were central to his work. In the autobiography, he portrays himself as being alienated and repressed as he tries to express his natural tendencies. He also reacts against the artificiality and corruption of the social customs and institutions of the time. Error and prejudice in the name of philosophy, according to him, had stifled reason and nature, and culture, as he found it, had corrupted morals.

In Confessions, he had also created a new, intensely personal style of autobiography. The Enlightenment writers never would have focused on themselves in their writing, and they especially would not have devoted an entire work to such a subject. This intense focus on such a subject was completely unheard of. This entirely new focus in his writing was met with much controversy. The Enlightenment authors wrote about society as a whole, not the individual. Even if they did write about an individual, it would be purely factual and not about themselves.

Rousseau’s autobiography is highly subjective; it presents facts, but is mostly based on theories about his existence in relation to other people. He explores every part of his emotional self and how he relates to other people. He says that he is made like no other, which is a new viewpoint that had been previously unexplored by philosophers and writers alike. Rousseau conveys his belief that self knowledge is a high moral achievement. He is striving to be natural, and he believes one can be closer to that naturalness through self absorption and actualization.

Honesty is also a virtue that is expressed in his writing. He believed that even though his actions might be reprehensible, could be comfortable because he was reporting them accurately. Many people viewed him as being self absorbed or even self indulgent, but his point was to assert the fact that he was an individual. Exploring what exactly made him happy is what separated him from other people. He realized that he was a unique individual, and he saw that as being something special.

Individuality was a virtue to him and social conventions are what stifled that virtue. In Emile, Rousseau writes:

As soon as we become conscious of our sensations we are inclined to seek or to avoid the objects which produce them: at first, because they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, later because we discover that they suit or do not suit us, and ultimately because of the judgments we pass on them by reference to the idea of happiness of perfection we get from reason…..In my view everything ought to be in conformity with these original inclinations.
Rousseau argued that people are inherently good, but become corrupted by the evils of society. People were able to live a life of virtue by being attentive toward nature. The question of what humans could achieve if they remained in their natural state was a common theme for Rousseau’s writing.

Rousseau was an individualist and questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority. He was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property; he was certain that there were unnatural inequalities, such as great disparities in wealth, that should disappear.

Since Rousseau was the first person to come out and attack such institutions, he is considered a forefather of modern socialism and Communism. He also wrote Social Contract, which contained a new and controversial political viewpoint. Because of its expressed beliefs, Social Contract became the text-book of the French Revolution. Rousseau was not an advocate of the Revolution, but was a believer that the individual had the inalienable right to acquire property through personal means, and that the compassion of human nature would take over and regulate in case the system fell.

One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. He believed that when a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. It was in this way that Rousseau influenced the revolutionaries to start a war in France to overthrow the government which they deemed immoral, and thus not really in control to begin with. Whether he intended to do so or not, he changed many people’s ideas about what a government should represent to its people.

The second important principle that Rousseau expresses is that of freedom, which the state is created to preserve. In Social Contract, he regards the State as part of a contract. In this contract, individuals should surrender none of their natural rights, but agree for the protection of them. Rousseau asserted that human beings begin as individuals in a state of nature. They create a society by establishing a contract, whereby they agree to live together in harmony for their mutual benefit. This contract involves the retaining of certain natural rights, an acceptance of restrictions of certain liberties, the assumption of certain duties, and the pooling of certain powers to be exercised collectively.

Chapter 1 of Social Contract begins , 'Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains'. The first sentence alone is an expression of his belief that we corrupted by a society that is run incorrectly. Rousseau’s idea of a social contract involves people recognizing a collective 'general will'. This general will represents the common good or public interest, and it is something that individuals must have a hand in creating.

In addition, Rousseau went on to say that all members of a society should be committed to the general good, even if it means acting against their own personal interests. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority. He believed that people entered into a social contract amongst themselves, establishing governments and educational systems to correct the inequalities caused by the rise of civilization.

Rousseau's insight can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today. Rousseau's general philosophy tried to grasp an emotional and passionate side of man which he felt was left out of most previous philosophical thinking. His philosophical and political ideas became popular among many different people, influencing such figures as Kant, Goethe, Tolstoy, and the French revolutionists. Rousseau’s autobiography, entitled Confessions, paved the way for new introspection about the role of the self in regards to moral and social achievement. Rousseau was a heavy influence not only in terms of Romantic era literary style, he also influenced philosophy for years to come.

The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces Vol.2
Dent, N.J.H.. Rousseau: An Introduction to his Psychological, Social and Political Theory

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