Rousseau’s Èmile is a kind of half treatise, half novel that tells the life story of a fictional man named Èmile. In it, Rousseau traces the course of Èmile’s development and the education he receives, an education designed to create in him all the virtues of Rousseau’s idealized “natural man,” uncorrupted by modern society. According to Rousseau, the natural goodness of a man can be nurtured and maintained only according to this highly prescriptive model of education, and Rousseau states that his aim in Èmile is to outline that model—a model that differed sharply from all accepted forms of the time.

The system of education Rousseau proposes details a specific pedagogy for each stage of life, an educational method that corresponds with the particular characteristics of that stage of human development. Accordingly, Èmile is divided into five books, each corresponding to a developmental stage. Books I and II describe the Age of Nature up to age twelve; books III and IV describe the transitional stages of adolescence; and book V describes the Age of Wisdom, corresponding roughly to the ages of twenty through twenty-five. Rousseau claims that this stage is followed by the Age of Happiness, the final stage of development, which he does not address in Èmile.

In books I and II, Rousseau insists that young children in the Age of Nature must emphasize the physical side of their education. Like small animals, they must be freed of constrictive swaddling clothes, breast-fed by their mothers, and allowed to play outside, thereby developing the physical senses that will be the most important tools in their acquisition of knowledge. Later, as they approach puberty, they should be taught a manual trade, such as carpentry, and allowed to develop within it, further augmenting their physical capabilities and hand–brain coordination.

Rousseau goes on to say that as Èmile enters his teenage years, he should begin formal education. However, the education Rousseau proposes involves working only with a private tutor and studying and reading only what he is curious about, only that which is “useful” or “pleasing.” Rousseau explains that in this manner Èmile will essentially educate himself and be excited about learning. He will nurture a love of all things beautiful and learn not to suppress his natural affinity for them. Rousseau states that early adolescence is the best time to begin such study, since after puberty the young man is fully developed physically yet still uncorrupted by the passions of later years. He is able to develop his own faculties of reason, under the guidance of a tutor who is careful to observe the personal characteristics of his student and suggest study materials in accordance with his individual nature.

At this stage, Èmile is also ready for religious education, and in a subsection of book IV called “the Creed of the Savoyard Priest,” Rousseau describes that education. He describes Èmile receiving a lesson from the Savoyard Priest, who outlines the proper relationship a virtuous natural man such as Èmile should hold with God, the scripture, and the church. The main thrust of the priest’s instruction is that Èmile should approach religion as a skeptic and a freethinker and that he should discover the greatness and truth of God through his own discovery of it, not through the forced ingestion of the church’s dogma.

Rousseau writes that only after a final period of studying history and learning how society corrupts natural man can Èmile venture unprotected into that society, without danger of himself being corrupted. Èmile does venture out in book V, and he immediately encounters woman, in the form of Sophie. Rousseau devotes a large part of the concluding section to their love story as well as to a discussion of female education.