Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an Enlightenment philosopher who lived from 1712 to 1778. He was born in Geneva, Switzerland. His father was a watch maker named Isaac Rousseau who had a very bad temper and beat him often. Ironically his father was the person that taught him to read. His mother died one week after his birth and that led to his search for a surrogate mother. He was an apprentice who had little education. One evening in March 1728, he returned to the city too late and the gates were closed and locked. Instead of being punished he set out for Savoy where he met Mme. de Warens, (the woman he would idealize and love for the rest of his life). They were sexual partners for 1733 until 1738. Jean-Jacques was not her only lover, she had many others. He was not always the preferred partner or most privileged member of the several menages et trois. He converted to Catholicism and tried to find himself in the priesthood in music and in teaching. However, he failed in all his attempts. Almost all of Rousseau's friendships turned sour, he took offense to the slightest comments, he was very sensitive and lacked relationship skills. He became extremely paranoid and in the end this led to the alienation of his friends. In 1741 he went to Paris, entered the society of leaders of the Enlightenment, and lived with Thérèse Lavasseur. She was an illiterate and uneducated wife. In this common law marriage, she bore him five children. Most of Rousseau's friends detested Thérèse, they considered her a hag, a gossip, and a liar. They lived together for thirty years and had a civil marriage in 1768, after returning from exile. A tragedy in their relationship was that Thérèse could never reach his potential and could never be his intellectual companion. She could barely understand a word he wrote. In 1756 he wrote "Lettre sur La Providence" with the direct intention to spite Voltaire he considered his "Candide" to be a delayed response. In the spring of 1778 Jean-Jacques went to live with a long time admirer the Marquis de Girardin. On July 2nd, after a brief walk, Rousseau died. He was buried on the isle of Poplars, in the middle of a small pond on the estate. Within a few years he became acclaimed as a model of inspiration for future generations. "Dare to know! Have the courage to use your intelligence." This is how Emmanuel Kant described the Enlightenment in his famous essay What is Enlightenment? The Enlightenment was not a set of ideas but rather a set of attitudes. At the core of Enlightenment was criticism, a questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals. Rousseau was unlike most Enlightenment thinker in that he was a philosopher. The greatest impact of the Enlightenment was felt in the late 18th century with its influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In Rousseau's A Discourse on Inequality he shows a typical Enlightenment perspective by asking questions such as what are the origins of inequality and what should society do about its the current state, in an attempt to better society. One of Rousseau's lasting imprint on society was the visionary essay The Social Contract which envisioned a harmonious society capable of eliminating want and controlling Evil. Another important remnant of Rousseau's work was his influence on Germaine de Stael who is often hailed as the founder of French romanticism.

Rousseau's Famous Works

1750-Discours sur les Sciences et les arts

1755-Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité

1756-Lettre sur la Providence

1762-Du Contract social


Rousseau's Noteworthy Quotes

"Il faut étudier la socété par les hommes, et les hommes par la socété: ceux qui voudront traiter séparément la politique et la morale n'entendront jamais rien a aucune des deux."

"What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness."

"In the strict sense of the term, a true democracy has never existed, and never will exist."

"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

"The soul's elevation is born of self-consciousness."


Conroy Jr., Peter V. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau" New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

Cranston, Maurice. "The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1754-1762" Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Cranston, Maurice. "The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity" Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Gagnebin, Bernard. "Album Rousseau" Editions Gallimard, 1976.

Gay, Peter. "The Question fo Jean-Jacques Rousseau" New York: Vail-Ballou Press, 1989.

Jackson, Susan K. "Rousseau's Occasional Autobiographies" Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary and Patricia O'Brien. "Civilization in the West" New York: HarperCollins College Press, 1995.

Rousseau Links

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