As with many of the other philosophes, Rousseau admitted that his idea of the perfect system as outlined in The Social Contract was just that—an idea. It wasn’t actually in practice anywhere, nor was it likely that it ever would be. In fact, when asked to provide concrete advice to other countries’ governments, Rousseau would often give advice that was far more moderate than the suggestions of The Social Contract, simply because he knew his ideas would likely not work in practice. In this sense, Rousseau was an idealist, heavily influenced by the “utopian” republics of ancient Greece and Rome, in which each citizen had a vote and a say in the government. In his vision of a perfect world, Rousseau wanted people to be at their most natural state; he hated the idea of “civilized” society and its encroachment on the natural state of man but knew that it was necessary. His frequent denouncements of inequality and the ownership of private property even bore an early suggestion of communism.


Rousseau’s emphasis on natural order and the natural state of man, along with his unprecedented autobiographical candor in Confessions, ushered in a whole new era of thinking that eventually developed into Romanticism. Romanticism stressed a return to life as it can be seen, felt, and experienced and thus encouraged a reliance on emotion, intuition, and instinct as opposed to reason in guiding human behavior. Shakespeare’s romantic tragedies were received with a new appreciation during the Romantic era, as were the works of countless other authors and poets that would come to prominence during the next century of Romantic writing.

The innate, approachable philosophies of Romanticism also appealed to the public more so than the pure rationalism and reason of the Enlightenment, which often came across as cold. Although Rousseau certainly was not the only notable Romantic author, he was one of the first, and two of his works resonated greatly with the public. Though certainly not breaking new ground, La Nouvelle Héloïse told a story of forbidden love in a relatable manner that struck a chord with readers. Likewise, Rousseau’s Confessions opened up a whole new world of personal revelation in the genre of autobiography. No previous memoirist had ever discussed his anxiety over the struggle for integrity—nor elucidated his own flaws—so openly. By being so frank and personal, Rousseau not only questioned the developments taking place in the world but also provided a contrast to the cold, sarcastic musings of Voltaire and Hume. People of all classes loved it, and it spawned countless imitators in the decades and centuries that followed.

Popular pages: The Enlightenment (1650–1800)