Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an 18th century political philosopher, education reformist, author, tutor, and composer. His ideas had an impact on political thought and practice, the emerging European romanticism movement, the development of the popular novel, and the discovery approach to education. He furthered John Locke's radical beliefs that the child is naturally good; in fact, Rousseau believed it was “possible to preserve the 'original perfect nature' of the child” through a child-centered, individually structured education.1

The son of Isaac Rousseau, a clock maker, and Suzanne Bernard, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 28, 1712. His mother died a few days later and he was raised by his father and an aunt.2 He characterized his childhood as happy even though he was not allowed to play with children his own age. His father taught him to read and to appreciate nature; however, when he was ten years of age his father was involved in a brawl that left Rousseau in the care of his uncle, who apprenticed him out to a notary.

Considered “incompetent” by the notary, at age thirteen Rousseau was next apprenticed to an engraver who treated him poorly. After three years, in 1728, he ran away to Annecy, France. There he met Madame Louise de Warrens, who had recently converted to Catholicism and was assisting others to do so as well. Accordingly, she sent him to Turin, Italy, to be baptized. While in Turin, Rousseau worked for a shopkeeper and then as a footman and secretary before returning to Annecy and Madame de Warrens. As her general servant he completed his education at a local choir school and in the process learned Italian music.3

When Rousseau was twenty years old he moved farther south to Chambery, France, and worked as a music teacher. He also continued to educate himself, and by 1740 he was tutoring the two sons of Madame de Mably in Lyon, a larger city about 50 miles west of Chambery.4 Unsuccessful as a tutor, Rousseau moved to Paris to present his new system of music notation to the Academie des Sciences. When the Academie rejected his system as “neither useful nor original,” he turned to secretarial work, musical copying, and composing.5

Rousseau's opera Les Muses galantes, published in 1742, led to his acquaintance with Denis Diderot, the intellectual group known as the Philosophes, and a correspondence with Voltaire. For two years Rousseau worked in the French embassy in Venice, Italy, where his interest in the Italian opera deepened. Though he returned to Paris in 1745, he continued his interest in the opera and later wrote the opera Le Devin du village (1752).6 In the meantime, he had begun writing articles on music for Encyclopedie, a radical magazine that Diderot was publishing.

When visiting Diderot in prison in 1750, Rousseau learned of an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. He won the contest with his first political essay, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he maintained that man was corrupted by society and civilization. His literary success brought him recognition and led him to a difficult time of reappraisal that included a move to Geneva and a reconnection with his Calvinist roots. Publicly, his behavior was erratic and his mental health became a concern to his friends.

In 1755 Rousseau published Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in which he claimed that man before society was “happy, good and free” and that the rise of societies brought corrupting comparisons and pride.7 At this time, he lost the support of Diderot but gained the patronage of the Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg, who gave Rousseau and his common-law wife, Therese, a house at their estate at Montmorency, north of Paris.8

Over the next four years he published three major influential works. The widely read The New Heloise, published in 1761, was a popular novel that furthered the emerging romanticism movement. The following year his landmark political theory book, The Social Contract, was published in April of 1762 and subsequently influenced the French Revolution, the philosopher Kant, and Hegel's Philosophy of Right.9 His basic theory that “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” is resolved by a contract between citizens and governments that “promotes liberty and equality—and it arises out of, and fosters, a spirit of fraternity.”10 These theories also influenced the American philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.11

One month later Rousseau published his treatise on education, Emile. Written as a novel about the education of a young boy, Emile effectively describes a system of “natural education” through five stages of development from birth through 25 years of age. Rousseau furthers John Locke's premise that children are inherently good and builds a case for allowing a period of childhood. He felt that the key to education was to structure the learning environment to include new “experiences and reflection” appropriate for the developmental stages and individual needs of the learner. He also maintained that the student must be encouraged to reason and discover his or her own conclusions and not rely on the authority of the teacher.12

Rousseau's Emile influenced Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who in turn influenced such education reformers as Johann Friedrich Herbart, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget. His theories fostered a child-centered education model and the discovery learning movements of today. At the time, however, his theories of education, social governments, and “natural” religion angered the French authorities and both Catholic and Protestant churches. Within a month his books were being burned and he had to flee to Motiers in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where he was protected by Frederick the Great. He remained there for four years, studying botany.

Accepting the Scottish philosopher David Hume's invitation, in 1766 Rousseau moved first to the Derbyshire area of England and then to London. While in Derbyshire, he began Confessions, an autobiography and a new literary genre. Plagued by paranoia, “hypersensitivity,” and a victim of a cruel practical joke, Rousseau believed that the British government was planning to kill him through Hume.13 Fleeing England in 1767 under the name of Renou, he was supported by both Victor de Riqueti, the Marquis de Mirabeau and political thinker, and Louis Francois, the Prince of Conti.

By 1770 he was able to openly return to Paris, where he completed Confessions. Two years later Rousseau wrote his last political essay, Considerations on the Government of Poland, in which he outlined a new constitution for Poland. In the previous decade, his benefactor, Louis Francois, had been offered the throne of Poland, though that had not become a reality.14

Living a quiet life of communing with nature, copying music, and writing, Rousseau completed more autobiographical works: Dialogues: Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques in 1776 and the Reveries of the Solitary Walker. On July 2, 1778, while living just north of Paris on the Ermenonville estate of the Marquis de Girardin, he returned from his early morning walk and died suddenly of apoplexy. He was buried on a small island on the estate until 1794, when his remains were moved to the Pantheon in Paris, where the key leaders of the French Revolution were honored.15 All of Rousseau's later writings were published after his death.

  • 1. Doyle, Michele Erina and Mark K. Smith. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education.” The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. < > 30 Jan. 2013.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. “Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe: Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778.” The History Guide. < > 30 Jan. 2013.
  • 4. Op.cit., Doyle.
  • 5. Op.cit., “Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe.”
  • 6. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Biography.” The European Graduate School. < > 30 Jan. 2013.
  • 7. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).” BBC History. < > 30 Jan. 2013.
  • 8. Op.cit., Doyle.
  • 9. Op.cit., “Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe.”
  • 10. Op.cit., Doyle.
  • 11. Op.cit., “Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Biography.”
  • 12. Op.cit., Doyle.
  • 13. Op.cit., “Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe.”
  • 14. “Conti.” Yahoo! Education. < > 3 March 2013.
  • 15. Op.cit., Doyle.