Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 12, 1712. His mother died soon after his birth, and his father, a watchmaker named Isaac Rousseau, virtually abandoned him at the age of twelve. Orphaned at such an early age, Rousseau spent many years as an itinerant, living in the homes of various employers, patrons, and lovers, working variously as a clerk, an engraver, and a private tutor. By 1742, when he was thirty years old, he had made his way to Paris, where he eked out a living as a teacher and a copier of music. Here, he befriended Diderot, a major figure in the fledgling intellectual movement that would later be called the Enlightenment.
Rousseau had his first success as a writer when he was forty years old, relatively late in life for a man of his day. In 1752, he won a prize from the Academy at Dijon for his First Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, which he composed in response to the Academy’s question, “Has the advancement of civilization tended to corrupt or improve morals?” Rousseau answered in the negative, provocatively arguing that the advance of civilization mostly corrupted human morals and goodness. This thesis would run through all his later philosophical works.
Immediately following his reception of the Dijon prize, he had an opera and a play performed to wide acclaim. In 1755, Rousseau’s first major political work, the Discourse on Inequality, was released. In 1761, Rousseau gained an unprecedented level of popular notoriety with the publication of his sentimental novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, but his fortunes were to change in the following year.
In 1762, Rousseau released both The Social Contract and Èmile, a novelistic take on education. Both works were violently scorned by official forces and intellectuals alike, and both were publicly burned in Paris and Geneva. The French monarchy ordered that Rousseau be arrested, and he fled to the Swiss town of Neachatel. There, he formally renounced his Genevan citizenship and began work on his great autobiography, the Confessions. Rousseau spent much of the subsequent years seeking to escape continued attacks from French authorities and many of his contemporaries.
On July 2, 1778, a few years after returning to France from Scotland, where he had been seeking refuge with the British philosopher David Hume, Rousseau suddenly died. Although his passing was undoubtedly met with relief by many of his enemies in the French establishment, it also set off a great outpouring of regret by many of his readers. The esteem in which he was held by the people of Paris and all opponents of the monarchy was justly sanctified in 1794, when the French revolutionary government ordered that he be honored as a national hero and his ashes placed in the Pantheon for eternity.
Although never formally educated, Rousseau read widely throughout his years in obscurity, in philosophy, political science, and modern and ancient literature. His many influences as a thinker are evident in his own work. As a political philosopher, the area of his thought for which he is best known, Rousseau thoroughly engaged the work of immediate predecessors such as Hobbes, Grotius, Montesquieu, and Locke and sought to mediate between the thoughts of theorists on both ends of the political spectrum. In certain instances, he seems to embrace the view of conservatives such as Hobbes and Grotius, who claimed that consenting subservience to an absolute sovereign, or monarch, is the only means by which human beings can escape the brutality of the state of nature. At the same time, however, Rousseau shared the concerns of liberals such as Montesquieu and Locke, who argued for maintaining individual rights and protecting naturally free human beings from the abuses of an artificial state.
Although he respected these conflicting modern influences, Rousseau was in many ways a devoted classicist. His profound admiration for Aristotle’s Politics and the civil societies of antiquity is clear throughout his political work. Although he betrays an affinity for the direct democracy modeled in a city-state such as Sparta, he acknowledges that such a form of government may not be possible in the modern age of nations. Above all, Rousseau’s philosophical project was to describe the passage of human beings from their natural state into a civil society and to understand the differing virtues of each state and the ways they could be mediated between to provide for the common good.
The key philosophical context for Rousseau’s work was the historical epoch in western Europe known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was centered in France, and its key thinkers, often called the Lumieres, or “enlighteners,” included Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert. These writers held a diverse array of ideas and opinions, but the common current running through their thought was a great faith that human reason, rationality, and knowledge could be the key factors in human progress. Accordingly, they were hostile to religious dogma, received knowledge, superstition, and blind faith of any sort.
Although Rousseau is sometimes regarded as a key figure of the Enlightenment, he in fact had a complex relationship with many of its famous representatives and their mode of thought. At the start of his career, Rousseau maintained an intellectual friendship with Voltaire and even contributed some articles to Diderot’s Encyclopedie, which purported to compile the entirety of recorded human knowledge to that point. In later years, however, he fell out with both men because of personal and intellectual differences. In much of his writing, Rousseau departs from their key intellectual tenets, such as in his very un-Enlightenment habits of occasionally defending religious faith and denigrating the potential benefits of human reason and “progress.”
Rousseau’s thought had a wide historical impact. As a writer on politics, his rhetoric laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the French and American Revolutions brought to completion in the years following his death. As a memoirist, his Confessions in many ways inaugurated the modern genre of autobiography and has greatly influenced literary theory and narrative technique for over two centuries. As a theorist, Rousseau rigorously attempted to describe the rational foundations underlying modern civil society, in all its imperfections, and his echo has been felt in the work of the most influential social philosophers since his time, from Hegel to Marx to Foucault. Rousseau is a massive figure in the intellectual history of the West.