Revised: July 10, 2016

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“Never exceed your rights, and they will soon become unlimited.”
- ROUSSEAU                       
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Philosopher, 1712 - 1778

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland. His mother died shortly after his birth. When Rousseau was 10 his father fled from Geneva to avoid imprisonment for a minor offense, leaving young Jean-Jacques to be raised by an aunt and uncle. Rousseau left Geneva at 16, wandering from place to place, finally moving to Paris in 1742. He earned his living during this period, working as everything from footman to assistant to an ambassador.

Rousseau's profound insight can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today. Somewhat complicated and ambiguous, 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.

In his early writing, Rousseau contended that man is essentially good when in the "state of nature" (the state of all the other animals, and the condition man was in before the creation of civilization and society), and that good people are made unhappy and corrupted by their experiences in society. He viewed society as "artificial" and "corrupt" and that the furthering of society results in the continuing unhappiness of man.

Rousseau's essay, "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" (1750), argued that the advancement of art and science had not been beneficial to mankind. He proposed that the progress of knowledge had made governments more powerful, and crushed individual liberty. He concluded that material progress had actually undermined the possibility of sincere friendship, replacing it with jealousy, fear and suspicion.

Perhaps Rousseau's most important work is "The Social Contract" that describes the relationship of man with society. Contrary to his earlier work, Rousseau claimed that the state of nature is brutish condition without law or morality, and that there are good men only a result of society's presence. In the state of nature, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men. Because he can be more successful facing threats by joining with other men, he has the impetus to do so. He joins together with his fellow men to form the collective human presence known as "society." "The Social Contract" is the "compact" agreed to among men that sets the conditions for membership in society.

Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, and therefore is considered a forebear of modern socialism and Communism (see Karl Marx). Rousseau also 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.

One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. 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. The second important principle is freedom, which the state is created to preserve.

Rousseau's ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern educational theory. He minimizes the importance of book learning, and recommends that a child's emotions should be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience.

If you are aware of books, movies, databases, web sites or other information sources about Jean-Jacques Rousseau or related subjects, or if you would like to comment, please contact us.

Resource Menu
Books By/About Rousseau

Basic Political Writings Basic Political Writings
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Includes “Discourse on the Study of the Sciences and the Arts,” “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,” Rousseau’s “Notes to Discourse on the Origin Inequality,” “Discourse on Political Economy,” and “The Social Contract.”

Purchase this hardcover edition of Basic Political Writings

Emile Emile
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Emile,” is basically a discourse on education, illustrates one of Rousseau’s major themes: man is intrisically good, but that goodness is beaten out of him by society.

Purchase this paperback edition of Essential Adam Smith

Confessions The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In his “Confessions” Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells the story of his life, from the formative experience of his humble childhood in Geneva, through the achievement of international fame as novelist and philosopher in Paris.

Purchase this paperback edition of The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Restless Genius Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius
by Leo Damrosch

The author presents a concise and sensitive portrait of this infuriating “restless genius.”

Purchase this hardcover edition of Restless Genius

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life Jean-Jacques: The Early Life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754
by Maurice Cranston

“The definitive biography, as scholarly as it is entertaining.” — The Economist

Purchase this paperback edition of Jean-Jacques: The Early Life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754

The Noble Savage The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762
by Maurice Cranston

The second volume of Cranston’s unparalleled exposition of Rousseau’s life and works offers a vivid, entirely new history of his most eventful and productive years.

Purchase this paperback edition of The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762

The Solitary Self The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity
by Maurice Cranston

The author died in 1993, after completing the first seven chapters of this third volume in his biography of Rousseau. The eighth chapter was composed from his notes, a prepared lecture, and other sources. This final volume in Cranston’s definitive trilogy chronicles Rousseau’s last turbulent years as an outcast.

Purchase this paperback edition of The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity

Online Videos About Rousseau

A 1 Hour, 4 Minute reading of “Discourse’s” by Chris Krause
Discourse on the Arts and Sciences by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The philosophies of Locke and Rousseau on Democracy
Rousseau vs Locke

Rousseau eTexts

The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Translated by W. Conyngham Mallory

The Social Contract

Discourse on Political Economy

The Creed of a Savoyard Priest
From Emile

Narcissus -or- The Self-Admirer
A Comedy by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Related Websites

The Rousseau Association
A bilingual, international, interdisciplinary society devoted to the study of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education

The European Enlightenment

The State of Nature and Society
The Library of Congress

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Other Philosophers in the Lucidcafé Library

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