|ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques (1712-78).
The famous French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave better advice and followed it less than perhaps any other great man. Although he wrote glowingly about nature, he spent much time in crowded Paris. He praised married life and wrote wisely about the education of children, but he lived with his servant, marrying her only after 23 years, and gave up their babies. He taught hygiene, yet he lived in a stuffy garret. He preached virtue, but he was far from virtuous. Rousseau himself was unable to guide his behavior to follow his beliefs. Yet his writings on politics, literature, and education have had a profound influence on modern thought.
Of French Huguenot descent, Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 28, 1712. His father was a watchmaker. Young Rousseau grew up undisciplined, and at about the age of 16 he became a vagabond. In Chambery, France, he met and lived with Madame de Warens, a woman who was to influence his intellectual evolution. For a while he roamed through Switzerland, Italy, and France, earning his way as secretary, tutor, and music teacher. When he went to Paris in 1741, he was impressed by the fact that society was artificial and unfair in its organization. The society that Rousseau viewed lived by rules made by the aristocracy and had little interest in the welfare of the common man.
This unknown wanderer upset that whole elaborate society. After years of thought Rousseau wrote a book on the origins of government, 'The Social Contract', stating that no laws are binding unless agreed upon by the people. This idea deeply affected French thinking, and it became one of the chief forces that brought on the French Revolution about 30 years later.
Rousseau helped bring about another revolution in education. In his novel 'Emile' he assailed the way parents and teachers brought up and taught children. Rousseau urged that young people be given freedom to enjoy sunlight, exercise, and play. He recognized that there are definite periods of development in a child's life, and he argued that children's learning should be scheduled to coincide with them. A child allowed to grow up in this fashion will achieve the best possible development. Education should begin in the home. Parents should not preach to their children but should set a good example. Rousseau believed that children should make their own decisions.
In literature, too, Rousseau inspired a profound change. He stirred writers to realize that the beauties of nature have a rightful place in literature. The Romantic movement in Germany, France, and England owes much to Rousseau's influence and example. He dared to write of his most intimate emotions. His autobiographical 'Confessions' is considered a masterpiece of self-revelation.
Rousseau was persecuted for his innovative ideas and fled France in 1762. For a time he lived in Switzerland and then with the historian David Hume in England. He later returned to France. He died in Ermenonville, near Paris, on July 2, 1778.
Careful readers of Rousseau find many flaws in his logic, especially in his greatest book, 'The Social Contract'. Rousseau was broad-minded enough to realize that his was not the final word on government. Rousseau's chief works are 'The New Heloise', published in 1761; 'The Social Contract' (1762); and 'Emile' (1762). His 'Discourse on the Origin of Inequality', published in 1755, was nearly as influential as 'The Social Contract'. The 'Confessions', written in his later years, was published in 1782.
Major works of
As part of what
Rousseau called his "reform," or improvement of his own character,
he began to look back at some of the austere principles that he had
learned as a child in the Calvinist republic of Geneva. Indeed he
decided to return to that city, repudiate his Catholicism, and seek
readmission to the Protestant church. He had in the meantime
acquired a mistress, an illiterate laundry maid named Thérèse
Levasseur. To the surprise of his friends, he took her with him to
Geneva, presenting her as a nurse. Although her presence caused some
murmurings, Rousseau was readmitted easily to the Calvinist
communion, his literary fame having made him very welcome to a city
that prided itself as much on its culture as on its morals.
Rousseau had by
this time completed a second Discourse in response to a question set
by the Academy of Dijon: "What is the origin of the inequality among
men and is it justified by natural law?" In response to this
challenge he produced a masterpiece of speculative anthropology. The
argument follows on that of his first Discourse by developing the
proposition that natural man is good and then tracing the successive
stages by which man has descended from primitive innocence to
his Discours sur l'origine de l'inegalité (1755; Discourse on the
Origin of Inequality) by distinguishing two kinds of inequality,
natural and artificial, the first arising from differences in
strength, intelligence, and so forth, the second from the
conventions that govern societies. It is the inequalities of the
latter sort that he sets out to explain. Adopting what he thought
the properly "scientific" method of investigating origins, he
attempts to reconstruct the earliest phases of man's experience of
life on earth. He suggests that original man was not a social being
but entirely solitary, and to this extent he agrees with Hobbes's
account of the state of nature. But in contrast to the English
pessimist's view that the life of man in such a condition must have
been "poor, nasty, brutish and short," Rousseau claims that original
man, while admittedly solitary, was healthy, happy, good, and free.
The vices of men, he argues, date from the time when men formed
exonerates nature and blames society for the emergence of vices. He
says that passions that generate vices hardly exist in the state of
nature but begin to develop as soon as men form societies. Rousseau
goes on to suggest that societies started when men built their first
huts, a development that facilitated cohabitation of males and
females; this in turn produced the habit of living as a family and
associating with neighbors. This "nascent society," as Rousseau
calls it, was good while it lasted; it was indeed the "golden age"
of human history. Only it did not endure. With the tender passion of
love there was also born the destructive passion of jealousy.
Neighbors started to compare their abilities and achievements with
one another, and this "marked the first step towards inequality and
at the same time towards vice." Men started to demand consideration
and respect; their innocent self-love turned into culpable pride, as
each man wanted to be better than everyone else.
of property marked a further step toward inequality since it made it
necessary for men to institute law and government in order to
protect property. Rousseau laments the "fatal" concept of property
in one of his more eloquent passages, describing the "horrors" that
have resulted from men's departure from a condition in which the
earth belonged to no one. These passages in his second Discourse
excited later revolutionaries such as Marx and Lenin, but Rousseau
himself did not think that the past could be undone in any way;
there was no point in men dreaming of a return to the golden age.
as Rousseau describes it, comes into being to serve two purposes: to
provide peace for everyone and to ensure the right to property for
anyone lucky enough to have possessions. It is thus of some
advantage to everyone, but mostly to the advantage of the rich,
since it transforms their de facto ownership into rightful ownership
and keeps the poor dispossessed. It is a somewhat fraudulent social
contract that introduces government since the poor get so much less
out of it than do the rich. Even so, the rich are no happier in
civil society than are the poor because social man is never
satisfied. Society leads men to hate one another to the extent that
their interests conflict, and the best they are able to do is to
hide their hostility behind a mask of courtesy. Thus Rousseau
regards the inequality between men not as a separate problem but as
one of the features of the long process by which men become
alienated from nature and from innocence.
dedication Rousseau wrote for the Discourse, in order to present it
to the republic of Geneva, he nevertheless praises that city-state
for having achieved the ideal balance between "the equality which
nature established among men and the inequality, which they have
instituted among themselves." The arrangement he discerned in Geneva
was one in which the best men were chosen by the citizens and put in
the highest positions of authority. Like Plato, Rousseau always
believed that a just society was one in which everyone was in his
right place. And having written the Discourse to explain how men had
lost their liberty in the past, he went on to write another book, Du
Contrat social (1762; The Social Contract), to suggest how they
might recover their liberty in the future. Again Geneva was the
model; not Geneva as it had become in 1754 when Rousseau returned
there to recover his rights as a citizen, but Geneva as it had once
been; i.e., Geneva as Calvin had designed it.
Contract begins with the sensational opening sentence: "Man was born
free, but he is everywhere in chains," and proceeds to argue that
men need not be in chains. If a civil society, or state, could be
based on a genuine social contract, as opposed to the fraudulent
social contract depicted in the Discourse on the Origin of
Inequality, men would receive in exchange for their independence a
better kind of freedom, namely true political, or republican,
liberty. Such liberty is to be found in obedience to a self-imposed
definition of political liberty raises an obvious problem. For while
it can be readily agreed that an individual is free if he obeys only
rules he prescribes for himself, this is so because an individual is
a person with a single will. A society, by contrast, is a set of
persons with a set of individual wills, and conflict between
separate wills is a fact of universal experience. Rousseau's
response to the problem is to define his civil society as an
artificial person united by a general will, or volonté générale. The
social contract that brings society into being is a pledge, and the
society remains in being as a pledged group. Rousseau's republic is
a creation of the general will--of a will that never falters in each
and every member to further the public, common, or national
interest--even though it may conflict at times with personal
very much like Hobbes when he says that under the pact by which men
enter civil society everyone totally alienates himself and all his
rights to the whole community. Rousseau, however, represents this
act as a form of exchange of rights whereby men give up natural
rights in return for civil rights. The bargain is a good one because
what men surrender are rights of dubious value, whose realization
depends solely on an individual man's own might, and what they
obtain in return are rights that are both legitimate and enforced by
the collective force of the community.
There is no more
haunting paragraph in The Social Contract than that in which
Rousseau speaks of "forcing a man to be free." But it would be wrong
to interpret these words in the manner of those critics who see
Rousseau as a prophet of modern totalitarianism. He does not claim
that a whole society can be forced to be free but only that an
occasional individual, who is enslaved by his passions to the extent
of disobeying the law, can be restored by force to obedience to the
voice of the general will that exists inside of him. The man who is
coerced by society for a breach of the law is, in Rousseau's view,
being brought back to an awareness of his own true interests.
there is a radical dichotomy between true law and actual law. Actual
law, which he describes in the Discourse on the Origin of
Inequality, simply protects the status quo. True law, as described
in The Social Contract, is just law, and what ensures its being just
is that it is made by the people in its collective capacity as
sovereign and obeyed by the same people in their individual
capacities as subjects. Rousseau is confident that such laws could
not be unjust because it is inconceivable that any people would make
unjust laws for itself.
however, troubled by the fact that the majority of a people do not
necessarily represent its most intelligent citizens. Indeed, he
agrees with Plato that most people are stupid. Thus the general
will, while always morally sound, is sometimes mistaken. Hence
Rousseau suggests the people need a lawgiver--a great mind like
Solon or Lycurgus or Calvin--to draw up a constitution and system of
laws. He even suggests that such lawgivers need to claim divine
inspiration in order to persuade the dim-witted multitude to accept
and endorse the laws it is offered.
echoes a similar proposal by Machiavelli, a political theorist
Rousseau greatly admired and whose love of republican government he
shared. An even more conspicuously Machiavellian influence can be
discerned in Rousseau's chapter on civil religion, where he argues
that Christianity, despite its truth, is useless as a republican
religion on the grounds that it is directed to the unseen world and
does nothing to teach citizens the virtues that are needed in the
service of the state, namely, courage, virility, and patriotism.
Rousseau does not go so far as Machiavelli in proposing a revival of
pagan cults, but he does propose a civil religion with minimal
theological content designed to fortify and not impede (as
Christianity impedes) the cultivation of martial virtues. It is
understandable that the authorities of Geneva, profoundly convinced
that the national church of their little republic was at the same
time a truly Christian church and a nursery of patriotism, reacted
angrily against this chapter in Rousseau's Social Contract.
By the year 1762, however, when The Social Contract was published, Rousseau had given up any thought of settling in Geneva. After recovering his citizen's rights in 1754, he had returned to Paris and the company of his friends around the Encyclopédie. But he became increasingly ill at ease in such worldly society and began to quarrel with his fellow Philosophes. An article for the Encyclopédie on the subject of Geneva, written by d'Alembert at Voltaire's instigation, upset Rousseau partly by suggesting that the pastors of the city had lapsed from Calvinist severity into unitarian laxity and partly by proposing that a theatre should be erected there. Rousseau hastened into print with a defense of the Calvinist orthodoxy of the pastors and with an elaborate attack on the theatre as an institution that could only do harm to an innocent community such as Geneva._