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Rousseau, Jean Jacques


Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1712-1778), French philosopher, social and political theorist, musician, botanist, and one of the most eloquent writers of the Age of Enlightenment.

Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 18, 1712, and was raised by an aunt and uncle following the death of his mother a few days after his birth. He was apprenticed at the age of 13 to an engraver, but after three years he ran away and became secretary and companion to Madame Louise de Warens, a wealthy and charitable woman who had a profound influence on Rousseau’s life and writings. In 1742 Rousseau went to Paris, where he earned his living as a music teacher, music copyist, and political secretary. He became a close friend of the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who commissioned him to write articles on music for the French Encyclopédie.

In 1750 Rousseau won the Academy of Dijon award for his Discours sur les sciences et les arts (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, 1750), and in 1752 his opera Le devin du village (The Village Sage) was first performed. In his prize-winning discourse and in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind (1755; trans. 1761), he expounded the view that science, art, and social institutions have corrupted humankind and that the natural, or primitive, state is morally superior to the civilized state (see Naturalism). The persuasive rhetoric of these writings provoked derisive comments from the French philosopher Voltaire, who attacked Rousseau’s views, and subsequently the two philosophers became bitter enemies.

Rousseau left Paris in 1756 and secluded himself at Montmorency, where he wrote the romance The New Heloise (1761). In his famous political treatise The Social Contract (1762; trans. 1797) he developed a case for civil liberty and helped prepare the ideological background of the French Revolution by defending the popular will against divine right.

In the influential novel Émile (1762; trans. 1763) Rousseau expounded a new theory of education emphasizing the importance of expression rather than repression to produce a well-balanced, freethinking child.

Rousseau’s unconventional views antagonized French and Swiss authorities and alienated many of his friends, and in 1762 he fled first to Prussia and then to England. There he was befriended by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, but they soon quarreled and denounced each other in public letters. During his stay in England he prepared the manuscript for his posthumously published treatise on botany, La botanique (Botany, 1802). Rousseau returned to France in 1768 under the assumed name Renou. In 1770 he completed the manuscript of his most remarkable work, the autobiographical Confessions (1782; trans. 1783, 1790), which contained a penetrating self-examination and revealed the intense emotional and moral conflicts in his life. He died July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville, France.

Although Rousseau contributed greatly to the movement in Western Europe for individual freedom and against the absolutism of church and state, his conception of the state as the embodiment of the abstract will of the people and his arguments for strict enforcement of political and religious conformity are regarded by some historians as a source of totalitarian ideology. Rousseau’s theory of education led to more permissive and more psychologically oriented methods of child care, and influenced the German educator Friedrich Froebel, the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and other pioneers of modern education. The New Heloise and Confessions introduced a new style of extreme emotional expression, concern with intense personal experience, and exploration of the conflicts between moral and sensual values. In these writings Rousseau profoundly influenced romanticism in literature and philosophy in the early 19th century. He also affected the development of the psychological literature, psychoanalytic theory, and philosophy of existentialism of the 20th century, particularly in his insistence on free will, his rejection of the doctrine of original sin, and his defense of learning through experience rather than analysis. The spirit and ideas of Rousseau’s work stand midway between the 18th-century Enlightenment, with its passionate defense of reason and individual rights, and early 19th-century romanticism, which defended intense subjective experience against rational thought.


1"Rousseau, Jean Jacques."Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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