Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712; his mother died on July 7. His father, Isaac Rousseau, was a watchmaker. Isaac left Geneva after an argument in 1722; Rousseau nevertheless had a high opinion of his father, referring to him in the dedication to Discourse on Inequality as "the virtuous Citizen to whom I owe my life." Rousseau worked as a clerk to a notary, and then was apprenticed to an engraver. He had no formal education, but read widely in ancient and modern authors, inspired initially by his father's collection of books. When, in 1728, Rousseau found himself locked out of Geneva at night, he decided to travel abroad to seek his fortune.

He met Madame des Warens, a noted Catholic lady of leisure, in Savoy. Rousseau began to write whilst living with her. They eventually became lovers, and des Warens persuaded him to convert to Catholicism. Rousseau worked as a servant, music teacher and engraver. From 1740–41, he worked as a private tutor for Monsieur de Mably, brother of the famous writer, the Abbe de Mably. From 1742 to 1749, Rousseau lived in Paris, barely earning a living by teaching and by copying music. He became friends with the Enlightenment figure Diderot, who commissioned him to write articles for the famous Encyclopédie.

In the early 1750s, Rousseau had a string of successes. His First Discourse, on the Arts and Sciences, won first prize in a competition run by the Dijon Academy, and he had an opera and a play performed to great acclaim. Discourse on Inequality was completed in May 1754, and published in 1755. In 1756, Rousseau left Paris. 1758 marked a break with many of the Enlightenment philosophers; his Letter to d'Alembert attacked d'Alembert's article in the French Encyclopedia on Geneva. Rousseau's later quarrel with Voltaire was legendary for its violence.

The publication of Rousseau's sentimental novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise in 1761 gained him a huge following. His next works were less popular; The Social Contract and Èmile were condemned and publicly burnt in Paris and Geneva in 1762. The French government ordered that Rousseau be arrested, so he fled to Neuchatel in Switzerland. Here, he began to write his famous autobiography, Confessions, and formally renounced his Genevan citizenship. Rousseau came under increasing attack, in print and in practice, from the French monarchy, Voltaire and many others. He accepted the Scottish philosopher Hume's offer to take refuge in Britain, only to quarrel with Hume as well and soon return to France. Rousseau died suddenly on July 2, 1778. His death caused a great outpouring of sentiment amongst his many readers and admirers. In 1794, the French revolutionary government ordered that his ashes be honored and moved to the Pantheon.

Background on Discourse on Inequality

The key historical context of Discourse on Inequality was the complex phenomenon known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a diverse movement, represented in France by writers such as Voltaire, Diderot and the authors of the Encyclopédie. Some of its key concerns were the operation of reason, the idea of human progress and development, and a hostility to received opinion (dogma) and religious authority. Rousseau's relationship to the Enlightenment was not a simple one. He was friendly with Enlightenment figures such as Diderot, and even wrote articles for the Encyclopédie, but later quarreled with them. More importantly, in Discourse on Inequality Rousseau is in many ways extremely negative about the progress of reason. He makes it clear that the growth of society, reason, and language makes man capable of amazing things, but at the same time, such growth will "ruin" him. This is not exactly the standard Enlightenment vision. However, it is important to consider the diverse concerns of the Enlightenment as a background to Rousseau's work.

Charting Rousseau's influence is hard, simply because it was so vast. Very many literate people in the eighteenth century read and responded to Rousseau, in France and elsewhere. However, Rousseau was later to write in his autobiography, Confessions, that "in all of Europe [Discourse on Inequality] found only a few readers who understood it, and of these none who wished to talk of it." Although he debated extensively with critics of his earlier work, First Discourse, Rousseau never mailed his replies to the major critics of Discourse on Inequality, Charles Bonnet (writing as Philopolis) and Charles Le Roy (writing as Buffon).

Discourse on Inequality may not have impressed the judges from the Dijon academy, but it nevertheless won a great following. Aspects of Rousseau's ideas from Discourse on Inequality, particularly his idea of a system of increasing needs that govern modern society are found in Hegel's account of civil society, and perhaps in Marx's idea of alienated labour. Arguably its greatest influence was as one of the first attempts to write a rigorous philosophical history of mankind.