This January, the OUP Philosophy team honors Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) as their Philosopher of the Month. Rousseau was a Swiss writer and philosopher, considered important for his contribution to modern European intellectual history and political philosophy. He is best known for Social Contract (1762) with its famous opening line: “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.”
Rousseau’s books attracted both admiration and hostility during his lifetime and exerted profound influence on French revolutionaries, his contemporaries, and later thinkers such as Kant, Hume, Wollstonecraft, Hegel, and Marx.
His contributions to political philosophy can be seen in various works such as Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755) and The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau’s central thinking in politics is that a state cannot be sovereign unless it is guided by the “general will,” or the collective will of its citizens, taken as a whole. The general will creates the law, promoting liberty and equality for citizens.
Another important doctrine of Rousseau was his belief that mankind was, by nature, good, but had become corrupted by society and civilisation. This thinking was evident in his first important work, A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), which won the Dijon prize. Rousseau developed this idea further in the Second Discourse, also known as Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755): as society becomes more advanced, this gives way to a new type of self-interested love, amour proper (love of self/vanity), or the need to compete with each other for success and recognition.
“Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.”
Rousseau also offered his theory on education, which is mainly explored in his novel Emile (1762). Education should be in line with Nature, meaning that education should be carried out in harmony with the development of the child’s capacities and natural goodness. This is opposed to the conventional model of education with the teacher as a figure of authority, conveying prescribed knowledge to a child. Some of Rousseau’s stages of education involve encouraging a child to find out about the world through discovery and practical experience. In this way, Rousseau believes a person can become an independent individual.
The publication of Social Contract and Emile, however, scandalised the French and Genevan authorities, with the result that Rousseau had to flee into Switzerland and England. Towards the later stage of his career, Rousseau composed more autobiographical works. Les Confessions (1764-1770), the first autobiography ever written in the history of literature deals with his childhood and adolescence, and his adventure as a young man, his career as a writer and living in exile. His last work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, 1776-1778) which is a meditation on his life and philosophy, has become a seminal text on the development of Romantic sensibilities.
For more on Rousseau’s life and work, browse our interactive timeline below.
Featured image credit: Les Charmettes. The House where Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived with Mme de Warens in 1735-6. Now a museum dedicated to Rousseau. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.