Jeanjacques Rousseau

Man's proper study is that of his relation to his environment.. .this is the business of his whole life.1

Born in Geneva, Rousseau was raised by his aunt and eccentric watchmaker father, who instilled in him an abiding love of literature, especially classical. After an unstable childhood and several years as a vagabond, Rousseau moved in 1743 to Paris, where he met Diderot and other philosophes involved in the great Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonée, for which he contributed an article on music. In 1749 Rousseau experienced an overwhelming inspiration from which he later claimed all his philosophical speculations were derived. He won a prestigious prize with his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in 1750, and wrote two operas. In 1754, on a return visit to Geneva, he reconverted to Calvinism and regained his citizen status, of which he was always proud. During the following eight years, living mainly in the country, he published most of his principal works, including Émile, and The Social Contract. These works were condemned in Paris and Geneva, and Rousseau moved to England, on the instigation of David Hume, with whom he soon quarrelled. Returning to France in 1767, he became mentally disturbed and was always in fear of being arrested. He finally settled in Paris in 1770, where he finished work on The Confessions, only to have his former friend and confidante Madame d'Epinay issue a police ban against him. His final, unfinished work, before his death in 1778, was the more serene and meditative Reveries of a Solitary Walker.

In the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau answered the question 'Has the rebirth of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification of morals?' with an emphatic negative. In direct opposition to the view espoused by the philosophes, he asserted that the progress of the arts and sciences in every society has been accompanied by the corruption and diminution of morality. In this essay he broached the concept of a natural human being, characterized by simplicity, lack of vanity and basic virtue, a natural state eroded by the acquisition of politeness, superfluous ornaments and dependence on artifice, including the machinery of warfare. He drew numerous examples from ancient history to show that the arts and sciences have not inspired humans with courage or patriotism, but instead deflected their energies into unnecessary inventions, the flattery of paintings and sculptures, and the display of erudition. Even our most valued sciences have developed out of idleness and trivial pursuits: astronomy from superstition, geometry from avarice for property, and physics from excessive curiosity. Rousseau's vigorous condemnation of modern morality is drawn from a conjectural history of humanity. He argues that the human species has declined from the innocence of its original condition and the most praised civilizations are decadent under the weight of their own cultural progress.

Despite its confident tone, this first Discourse suffers from incoherence, lack of originality, and indecisiveness about a remedy for the parlous situation. In this essay, he is not clear whether the general decline of culture is the cause or the effect of the erosion of morality.

In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau carries forward his central theme of the denaturation of human beings, their progressive removal from the sources of their natural being. The second Discourse is an ingenious, tightly argued essay which ran counter to the then-accepted view that humans in their original state were motivated solely by self-interest and aggression towards their fellows, and remained fractious until they were coerced into accepting governance under the rule of law. Rousseau distinguishes between natural inequality, which results from discrepant physical and mental abilities, and moral or political inequality, which depends on social conventions and is authorized by mutual consent. The subject of this essay then is 'the moment at which.. .nature became subject to law, and to explain by what sequence of miracles the strong came to submit to serve the weak, and the people to purchase imaginary repose at the expense of real felicity.'2 Previous political theorists, such as Hobbes, made the mistake of imputing to their hypothetical natural humans ideas which were only acquired by socialized humans. Rousseau constructs a conjectural history in order to make sense of the origins of moral and political notions such as natural right and justice. He resists the temptation to retroject notions which the civilizing process has conferred upon humans and considers instead an entirely natural human, a creature whose basic needs of hunger, thirst and sex are satisfied in the most immediate manner.

Rousseau follows Descartes in considering the animal in its bodily dimension to be an intricate machine, driven by its senses to seek what would nourish it and to guard against or avoid what would damage it. But where non-human animals carry out their actions for need-satisfaction by the internal operations of instinct, humans have a freedom to choose; they are at liberty to acquiesce or forbear to carry out what their natural desires impel them towards. 'In the power of willing or rather choosing, and in the feeling of this power, nothing is to be found but acts which are purely spiritual and wholly inexplicable by the laws of mechanism.'3 This account of the freedom prefigures the dualism of spirit and body in the Savoyard Priest's discourse in Emile. Rousseau thus expressly sides with the philosophical view that only the bodily aspect of humans can be explicated in mechanistic terms. But the fact that non-human animals are sentient creatures means that they ought to partake of natural rights; humans are subject to an obligation even towards the brute. 'This is less because they are rational than because they are sentient beings; and this quality, being common both to men and beasts, ought to entitle the latter at least to the privilege of not being wantonly ill-treated by the former.'4 Rousseau clearly expresses here one of the first conceptions of the intrinsic moral standing of non-human animals.

The first step beyond this entirely natural human condition was made by the first person who declared a piece of ground to be his own; civil society is founded on the notion of private property. But the satisfaction of natural humans' basic needs might not be immediate due to variations in circumstances, climate, soil and so forth which provoked the additional needs to build shelter, storage and implements. Reflection on the best way to achieve these ends would have inspired a sense of prudence which required that only in some cases would pursuit of private interest be to one's best advantage, whereas in other cases cooperation with one's fellows' pursuit of their interests would best serve one's deferred needs. Freed from the demand to be incessantly in pursuit of one's own needs, socialized humans had the opportunity to sing and dance, 'the true offspring of love and leisure', as Rousseau charmingly phrases it. It was from the desire for public esteem that the first moves towards inequality were made—on the one hand, vanity and contempt, and on the other, shame and envy. Moral sentiments are judgements conferred upon persons and actions which are deemed to endorse or contravene a suitable estimate of a person's or an action's worth.

Rousseau extols a conjectured golden age, 'the real youth of the world', whose best exemplar is the noble savage who maintains 'a just mean between the indolence of the primitive state and the petulant activity of our amour-propre'.5 The next stage was the specialized labour of metal-working and agriculture, but variable distribution of natural resources ensured that those who had more property and power accumulated greater riches. It was in the interests of those with more property and power to retain the services of the poor, and for the poor to offer their labour, even their liberty, in exchange for protection. Since the rich enjoy greater physical goods and the talented enjoy greater public esteem, it becomes a new interest for those less well blessed to appear to be what they really are not. Flattery, trickery and deceit become valued skills. But since even the rich and powerful might have to contend with dangers and even rebellion from everyone else, they devised an ingenious plan: 'to make allies of his adversaries, to inspire them with different maxims, and to give them other institutions as favorable to himself as the law of nature was unfavorable'. Thus the first version of the social contract is tendered, in which the supreme power which governs everyone is invested in the rule of law. 'All ran headlong to their chains in hopes of securing their liberty'; the contract 'bound new fetters on the poor and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty. and for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labor, slavery and wretchedness.'6

This ringing denunciation of the misfortunes which result from the progressive denaturation of human beings is taken up again in The Social Contract: 'man is [or was] born free, and everywhere he is in chains'. The Social Contract portrays an association by contract which draws citizens together instead of driving them apart and protects egalitarian ideals of public engagement which enhance liberty. Rousseau argues that our proper passage from the original, natural condition to civil society must not suppress true liberty, but instead realize our freedom by transforming appetite and desire into obedience to laws which we prescribe for ourselves. His radical vision centred around the notion that this association by contract ensured that the various parties were able to fulfil ambitions which they could not have managed without the contract. By renouncing freedom from 'each other's control,...citizens acquire moral personalities and cooperative interests unimaginable to solitary savages'.7

Rousseau's most complete, mature exposition of two themes little discussed in The Social Contract—humans' natural condition and the process of denaturation—is in Emile. This is divided into five books which roughly correspond with the five ages of man—infancy, childhood, puberty, adolescence and adulthood. The central theme of this convoluted work is that the proper education of children must take account of the maturation of their cognitive and affective abilities, leading their natural desires towards goals which will be of value to them as adults, and not impose adult expectations on each stage of growth. Rousseau's own experiences as a private tutor taught him that the only way to compel a child to obey one's commands was to prescribe nothing, forbid nothing, exhort nothing, and avoid boring him with useless book-work.8

Rousseau profoundly disagreed with John Locke's Treatise on Education and its numerous adherents who, he claimed, distorted the child's natural inclinations and inculcated ambitions for useless pursuits, vain conceits and superfluous social niceties. Rousseau's astonishing advice was to employ two other inborn motives for learning which do not corrupt the pupil's natural goodness. In childhood, this basic drive is for food, and after puberty it is for sex. In Alan Bloom's excellent analysis of these themes, the child seeks out desirable foods, whereas the adolescent and young adult seeks out other ideals because he does not yet know what he really longs for. 'The task is to enrich his desires before they are satisfied.The goal is to sublimate his desires prior to his capacity to distinguish sex from love, so that when he learns about the distinction it no longer interests him.'9 The tutor's task in the life-long education of Emile is to prepare him for his encounter with Sophie, the embodiment not merely of his sexual desires but also his longing for an ideal in this world.

Every child before the onset of education lives in the golden age of his world, a natural creature whose source of action is a surfeit of self-love. But the immediate environment does not always satisfy the child's desires, nor can the child count on the ability to manipulate persons and things to achieve its ends; however, nature has also endowed humans with imagination and this cognitive power compensates for what nature in general does not supply for the child's own existence. It is through imagination that the maturing child comes to understand that others have desires and feelings and that through compassion the child can extend its world. The adult needs other persons' compassion, their fellow-feeling for his own desires and their realization; this mutual compact with other adults is founded on an even balance between the self-serving primitive mode of human being and dependence on the esteem of others in the socialized mode. 'Man's proper study is that of his relation to his environment. So long as he only knows that environment through his physical nature, he should study himself in relation to things; this is the business of his childhood; when he begins to be aware of his moral nature, he should study himself in relation to his fellow-men; this is the business of his whole life.'10

Rousseau is often assimilated into the broad current of the Enlightenment project, but although he concurred with the philosophes in their attempt to eliminate religious prejudices, he was their sharpest critic in rejecting the elitist notion that human reason should hold sway over our passions. He rejected the Baconian and Cartesian advancement of humans' dominance over the natural order and their exploitation of the precious gifts of God's creation. Rousseau argued passionately for the natural goodness of the ordinary person and championed the idea of collective self-expression and popular self-rule. His epistolary novel Julie, or the New Heloise, with its evocation of ideal love and an earthly paradise, was highly influential and much imitated. Emile became the most important treatise on education since Plato's Republic and the Reveries of a Solitary Walker became the vade mecum of the Romantic Naturalist movement. Through his entire life and writings runs one of his deepest concerns—the implacable commitment to prevent an individual's dominance or submission, which would chain him to worldly things and negate his natural liberty.


2 The Discourses, pp. 44-5.

7 Robert Wokler, Rousseau, p. 61.

9 Alan Bloom, Love and Friendship, p. 61. 10 Emile, pp. 209-10.

See also in this book

Bacon, Goethe

Rousseau's major writings

Emile, or On Education, 1911, trans. Barbara Foxley, London: Everyman, 1992. The Social Contract and the Discourses, 1913, trans. G.D.H.Cole, London: J.M.Dent, 1973.

The Confessions, trans. J.M.Cohen, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954.

Julie, or the New Heloise, abr. and trans. J.H.McDowell, Pittsburgh, PA: State

University Press, 1968. The Collected Writings, ed. R.D.Masters and C.Kelly, 5 vols, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1990-2000.

Further reading

Bloom, Alan, Love and Friendship, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Cranston, Maurice, Jean-Jacques, vol. I, The Noble Savage, vol. II, The Solitary Self, vol. III, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 1991, 1997.

Green, F.C., Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Critical Study of His Life and Writings,

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955. Grimsley, Ronald, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Study in Self-Awareness, Cardiff:

University of Wales Press, 1969. Wokler, Robert, Rousseau, Past Masters Series, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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  • benigno
    What is the concept of the noble savage according to JeanJacques Rousseau?
    8 years ago
  • Birgit
    How would rousseau feel about global warming?
    8 years ago

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