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 the Discourse 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 The Social Contract

The key historical context of The Social Contract was the complex phenomenon known as the Enlightenment. Thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, and d'Alembert headed a movement that placed supreme faith on the powers of reason. They were disdainful of religion or blind faith of any kind, believing that reason and knowledge could slowly bring about the betterment of humankind. Diderot and d'Alembert undertook the editorship of the Encyclopédie, the crowning glory of the Enlightenment, which was meant to serve as a record of all human knowledge collected to date.Rousseau was initially friends with the other Enlightenment figures, and contributed several articles (mostly on music) to the Encyclopédie. However, he did not share their faith in reason or human progress, and intellectual and temperamental differences increasingly drew them apart.

Rousseau's political thought was primarily influenced by two groups. First, there is the voluntarist tradition of Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Grotius, who support absolute monarchy. They argue that only by entering into society and swearing absolute allegiance to a king can people escape the depravity and brutality of a life in the wild. Second, there is the liberal tradition of Locke and Montesquieu, who argue that society exists in order to protect certain inalienable rights of its citizens. While Rousseau draws ideas from both traditions, he also disagrees with both in significant ways. He is more favorably inclined toward the ancient Greeks and Romans, and often refers to Sparta or Rome when looking for an example of a healthy state. The societies of antiquity were characterized by a strong civic spirit, where citizenship was considered not only an honor but a defining characteristic of who one was. The influence of such thinking pervades The Social Contract, and we feel especially the influence of Aristotle's Politics.

When it was first published in 1762, The Social Contract was met with outrage and censorship. Rousseau became a wanted man both in France and in his native Geneva. However, thirty-two years later, in 1794, after the French Revolution his remains were transported to the Pantheon in Paris and he was buried as a national hero. The Social Contract was the foremost influence on the intellectual development of the French Revolution, and that stormy period in history is our best example of Rousseau's ideas put into practice. It is not fair to blame the Reign of Terror and the many disasters of the Revolution on Rousseau, but his influence was certainly felt throughout.