Jean Jacques Rousseau Biography, What Did Jean Jacques Rousseau Do?


Who was Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Information on Jean-Jacques Rousseau biography, life story, works, philosophy and writings.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau; French writer and philosopher: b. Geneva, Switzerland, June 28, 1712; d. Ermenonville, France, July 2, 1778. He was probably the most influential figure in modern French literature and philosophy.

His mother died at his birth so that, in his own phrase, his birth was the first of his misfortunes. His father was of unstable disposition and in his attitude toward his son wavered between overfondness and neglect. He taught the lad his letters out of Plutarch and the French 17th century romances. Father and son remained reading at times all night until they saw the swallows flying low under the eaves. Such indulgence hardly contributed to stabilize a temperament essentially unbalanced, and to the end Rousseau was to worship the heroic and the romantic.

Rousseau received very little regular training. Ideas of rigorous discipline remained foreign to his life and thought, a fact that is reflected in his later treatise on education. His father came into conflict with the authorities, and later married a second time, and there followed a period when the lad seems to have been left to shift pretty much for himself. For a little while he, with a cousin, was sent to a school in the country, kept by a retired pastor. Later, when Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver, he was left largely to his master’s mercy, and he learned the petty tricks and villainies of maltreated apprentices generally.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Biography – What Did Jean-Jacques Rousseau Do?


On this whole period of his early life it is unwise to accept the Confessions, our largest single source of information. Most of the facts there recounted are substantially correct, and it is dangerous to assume, as has been done by fimile Faguet and other biographers, that he frequently misrepresented. It must be remembered, however, that this eloquent autobiography was written half a century later, when the author’s mind had been unsettled by real or imaginary persecutions and when he believed himself in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.

For this reason, though he recounts and excuses the sordid events of his early youth, he looked back upon his childhood as a refuge, the first asylum of his innocence. He idealized his relations to his city, his father, and his relatives, and theirs to him. That his boyhood in Geneva was spent in relative isolation and unhappiness will be plain to the student who ponders the significance of an event that is usually emphasized as the turning point of his life.

When he was 16 years old, Rousseau hurried back one Sunday from his walk in the country to see the city gates closed in his face. Up to this point there had been nothing in his story to indicate the rover or vagabond, nor any desire to “see the world,” nor any unusual chafing under the restraints of his apprenticeship. That, however, there could not have been any bonds of affection to hold him to anything or anyone within the gates of his native city is plain from his course.

An untrained apprentice, absolutely without means, and as yet with no ulterior purpose or desire, he decides forthwith that he will not enter the home of his youth again, and he wanders about aimlessly in the environs. The parting caused no serious heart burnings, either to himself or to his father and relatives, and for the next quarter century he merely “stopped off” at Geneva once or twice in a most casual way. The varied life of vagabonding, study, desultory occupations and adventures of the next 20 years it is impossible to describe in brief or general terms. His two most important relationships were those formed with Mme. de Warens and with Diderot, toward the beginning and the end respectively of this long period in the maturing of his genius. The former, an over-generous woman of purse and person, received him at her home where in the course of years he was in turn guest, protégé, lover and intendant.

From her he received perhaps his first lessons in gentility and while at her house developed an interest in music of which he was to become one of the great 18th century masters. There, too, especially at her country home, Les Charmettes, near Chambery in Savoy, he began his first serious reading and study. In the intervals between his sojourns with Mme. de Warens and after his departure from her home he made many long trips, usually afoot, tried many desultory means of support, had many adventures and naturally saw much of the under side of 18th century society, which seems never to have seriously attracted him and against which he later sincerely if ostentatiously revolted.

In 1743 he accompanied the French Ambassador to Venice and first came into close contact with political life and institutions. After his return to Paris (1744), he became more intimate with Diderot, who probably quickened his interest in philosophical and social problems, though Rousseau at this time was still primarily a composer, poet and musician. He lived with a dull and unattractive servant, Thérèse Le Vasseur, by whom he had five children whom he consigned to a foundling’s asylum.

One day in 1749 on his way to visit Diderot, who was at the time confined at Vincennes because of his (Letter on the Blind) he had that strange experience which was to inaugurate his amazing career as man of letters and reformer and beget his first epoch-making work. This contains in germ the ideas which he later softened and amplified and provides the best starting point for the study of his philosophy.


Before considering it in detail certain general considerations must be borne in mind. The greatness of Rousseau is due to the fact that his work marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. We may admit, as recent studies have shown, that the isolated elements, the disjecta membra of his philosophy, are to be found in predecessors and contemporaries. It is none the less true that he marks the end of classicism in literature and of mediaeval theories of the rights of empire and church in politics and religion.

He tended to break the hold of all external sanctions in state, church, literature and society. His attitude toward the past is in general that of the modern radical. He starts on the other hand that immense enthusiasm for individual liberty and emotional participation in life which is to be the most characteristic feature of romanticism. He will exalt freedom as against any externally constituted authority; natural impulse as against discipline, and the individual’s feeling (which he was often to identify with conscience) as against any convention of society.

Phases of this spirit were to exert extraordinary influence in Germany on Herder, Schiller and Kant, and in England on men like Godwin and Wordsworth, while in France its first powerful expression is to be found in. the destructive enthusiasm of the Revolution. Such an attitude was essentially dynamic in an age that clamored for new principles, though it was weak on the constructive side, for it lacked elements of cohesion, and it was fraught with danger wherever, as only too often, it made the individual and not mankind the point of reference in all human relationships and actions.

For all its dangers, however, it is hardly too much to say that this attitude was the most powerful regenerative force of the late 18th and 19th centuries. It is as contributory to this general body of doctrine that each of Rousseau’s works should be judged if we are properly to gauge its historical importance. We have seen that by temperament and experience he was already peculiarly fitted to become its champion. He was essentially the novus homo, the man without attachments, who was as strange to the highly socialized life of 18th century Paris as a man from Mars.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

By temperament he was averse to discipline and control. The circumstances of his life had not as yet, indeed were never, to force either upon him. He had from a boy been at home in nature and was ever to feel awkward and constrained in society. His posture was, therefore, one of attack and he had been endowed with an extraordinary and as yet untried gift of eloquence.

Upon his way to Vincennes his eye fell upon an announcement that the Academy of Dijon was offering a prize for the best discourse on the subject whether the arts and sciences have contributed to improve morals. Putting the question thus sharply before him seems to have released all of his pent-up social antagonisms and as he tells the story he fell in a trance and began to write feverishly at his first famous essay. Naturally he answered the question with a ringing negative.

The development of the arts and sciences, he said, not only did not improve man in habits and morals, but he implied that with their progress man deteriorated. Society corrupted man’s native goodness. The discourse is naturally full of inconsistencies and it is less well written than its successors. Its importance, however, lies in its purport. It is this that makes it the harbinger of a new dispensation, for it presents society and existing institutions as the perverters of mankind. In other words it throws them upon the defensive and inaugurates the age of experiment and reform.

His next discourse on (The Origin of Inequality (1753) is a much better if less striking performance and in it he distinguishes between natural and unnatural or social inequality. Its upshot very briefly is that the former,— inequalities of talent, natural endowment, etc.,—are good and should be fostered, while the latter,—inequalities of social position, rank, inherited wealth, etc.,—are evil, go back to the institution of private property and should be abolished. For some time before 1750 Rousseau had been living in a position of relative comfort and had been received in the houses of the great.

Possibly as the result of illness and from a desire for notoriety as well as from a constitutional inability to accept restraint, he decided to “reform” and live the simple life. He made no attempt to recover his wardrobe, which had been stolen, gave away his watch and sword and dressed in simple garb. In 1756 he retired to a cottage near the forest of Montmorency. Here he broke with most of his old friends, including Diderot and his patroness, Mme. d’Epinay. In this quiet neighborhood he pondered and wrote during the next six years his three great masterpieces, The New Heloise, Emile and The Social Contract, which were published in 1761 and 1762.

His misfortunes now increased with his fame and the remainder of his life is a tragedy clouded certainly by fixed delusions, possibly by periods of insanity. The Emile was condemned in Paris and a decree pronounced against Rousseau which forced him to leave France for Switzerland. Geneva was no more tolerant and he suffered from real or imaginary persecutions or both, and moves from place to place in a mood that approaches distraction. He is consumed by the desire to justify himself and confute his enemies and his later works, The Letters to M. de Malesherbes, The Confessions, Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques and the Reveries are devoted to this end.

David Hume, who respected his genius, invited him to England, but here his delusions followed him and he accused his benefactor of conspiring with his enemies. He returned to France, where he lived for a time in disguise, and finally with Thérèse, whom he had now married, he comes back to live in Paris (1770) until his death at Ermenonville (1778).


We have spoken in passing of the general spirit of his work and of its importance. Its general principles may roughly be stated as follows : God is good, nature is good, man is good. The great governing forces of the world make for righteousness and virtue. Evil, therefore, is not natural or fundamental, it is the result of perversion. Rousseau found its sources in the human institutions which have produced society and have begotten ambition.

His problem was, therefore, not so much to master or counter its possible effects as it was to eliminate evil altogether and prevent its irruption into a world of whose complex it is not an essential element. It is here that he links up with the Utopians of whatever age or clime. This being the case, Rousseau’s insistence is not upon discipline and control. On every side, individual, social, educational, political, he believes in expression rather than repression.

His ideal government is that which least checks the impulse and desire of the individual and gives him the maximum of direct control in all state affairs. His ideal system of education is that one which least hampers the development of the pupil’s native bent. His ideal social life is that which ignores convention and allows all characters, even of contradictory interests, to live in one hive of harmonious virtues. For this reason his novel, The New Heloise, instead of being the tragic story of two men who love the same woman, is a wonderful but impossible idyll.

Unrestrained self-revelation is exemplified in the Confessions, one of the most wonderful autobiographies in literature, and all told, probably his most valuable permanent contribution to pure literature. It remains not only a masterpiece of proud apologetics for a sorry and unhappy life, but the one indispensable document for him who would understand this strange sick genius who held so firmly and preached so eloquently his belief in the goodness of God, of nature and himself.

It was this subjectivity of his, this individualism, this willingness to indulge in lyric expressions of his own griefs and joys that furnished a glowing precedent for that “pageantry of the bleeding heart” which was one of his greatest legacies to the later romanticists. His title as father of romanticism is further justified by his magnificent descriptions and glorifications of nature. Indeed in this respect the famous lines of Wordsworth,

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.”

are merely a later poetic restatement of the doctrine of this Genevan philosopher and man of letters.

The best complete edition of Rousseau’s works in French is still that of Musset-Pathay (1823-1826).

John Morley’s Rousseau remains in spite of its inadequacy, especially on the biographical side, the most important study of the man in English. Frederika McDonald’s J. J. Rousseau (2 vols.) is a well-intentioned but occasionally uncritical attempt to justify Rousseau against his enemies and gives irrefutable evidence of the plot of misrepresentation.

The important results of the recent attacks on Rousseau have been incorporated in Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), an able indictment rather than an open-minded criticism. Many of the important recent studies themselves and the results of all appear in the volumes annually published by the Rousseau Society of Geneva, Annates J. J. Rousseau, which contains complete bibliographies. Of the longer recent works consult Ducros, J. J. Rousseau, de Geneve, a I’Hermitage (1908) ; Vallette, J. J. Rousseau, Genévois (1911) ; Faguet, Vie de Rousseau (1911) ; Lemaitre, J. J. Rousseau (1907) ; Mornet, Le sentiment de la Nature en France de J. J. Rousseau d Bernardin de St. Pierre (1907); Schinz, A., Vie et oeuvres (1921) ; Hoffding, Harald, Jean Jacques Rousseau and His Philosophy (New Haven 1930) ; Green, Frederick, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (New York 1955) ; Guehenna, Jean, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 2 vols. (New York 1966).

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