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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

1712-1778. French writer and philosopher. Born in Geneva and raised a Calvinist, he converted to Catholicism in 1728. A former Pietist and his benefactress for the next decade, the French Madame de Warens contributed to the formation of his religious outlook, a Deism tempered by Quietist sentimentalism. After immersing himself in contemporary philosophical literature, Rousseau went to Paris in 1742. Denis Diderot* introduced him to the circle of the philosophes, and he contributed several articles on music to the Encyclopedia. Around 1746 he took Thérèse Levasseur, a servant girl, as his common-law wife. They had five children, all of whom he placed in an orphanage. Rousseau made his literary debut in 1750 with a prize-winning essay submitted to the Dijon academy. This Discourse on the Sciences and Arts contended that public morals and character were corrupted by the progress of knowledge and art. Virtue could be found only in simplicity, when man lives close to nature. After returning to Geneva and the Calvinist faith, he produced his “second discourse” in 1755, an unsuccessful contest entry. It argued that inequality among men was the result of organized society. The natural man was free and happy, but class divisions and despotism arose from land ownership and laws.

Settling in Montmorency in 1756, Rousseau composed three of the eighteenth century's most influential books. In Julie, or the New Héloïse (1760), a passionate love story, he popularized the idea of irresistible love and the beauty of nature, and propounded a natural religion necessary for morality. In Emile (1762), a treatise on education in novel form, he set forth a pedagogical scheme to protect man, inherently good, from the corrupting influences of society. The program's religious aspect was summarized in the chapter on the vicar from Savoy, an unfrocked priest who advocated a sentimental Deism. This included a belief in the existence of God (whose law is written in the conscience) and the immortality of the soul, but no eternal punishment. The Social Contract (1762) contained Rousseau's concept of a just state. The free man voluntarily surrenders his will to the community and submits to its laws which are based on the general will of the people. Particularly significant is his idea of the civil religion, a civic faith necessary for a government's stability. Although the regime fixes its doctrines and they are binding on all citizens, other religions are permitted, if they do not claim absolute truth.

After his works were officially condemned in 1762, he spent the next eight years wandering. In 1765 he produced the Confessions, a curious autobiographical mixture of vanity and self-accusation, and a number of other literary works in his last years upon his return to Paris.

Rousseau's emphasis upon irrationality, subjectivism, and sensualism made him the forerunner of both Romanticism and modern totalitarianism, while his elevation of the individual above society contributed to individualism and democratic thought. By substituting a sentimental faith for revealed religion and by removing Christian doctrines from their supernatural context, he paved the way for humanistic liberalism.

Oeuvres complètes (13 vols., 1874- 87); Correspondance complète (12 vols., 1965-70); I. Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (1947); J.H. Broome, Rousseau, A Study of His Thought (1963); J. Guéhenno, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (2 vols., 1966); W.H. Blanchard, Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt: A Psychological Study (1967); M. Einaudi, The Early Rousseau (1967); R.D. Masters, The Political Philosophy of Rousseau (1968); L.G. Crocker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1968); J.N. Sklar, Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau's Social Theory (1969).