Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was born to a Calvinist family in Geneva. His mother died only a few days after his birth, and his father fled home following a duel a few years later, leaving him in the care of an uncle. Aged 16, he left for France and converted to Catholicism. While trying to make his name as a composer, he worked as a civil servant and was posted to Venice for two years, but on his return he began to write philosophy. His controversial views led to his books being banned in Switzerland and France, and warrants being issued for his arrest. He was forced to accept David Hume’s invitation to live in England for a short time, but after they quarrelled he returned to France under a false name. He was later allowed to return to Paris, where he lived until his death at the age of 66.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was very much a product of the mid- to late 18th-century period known as the Enlightenment, and an embodiment of the continental European philosophy of the time. As a young man he tried to make his name as both a musician and composer, but in 1740 he met Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, the philosopher compilers of the new Encyclopédie, and became interested in philosophy. The political mood in France at this time was uneasy.
Enlightenment thinkers in France and England had begun to question the status quo, undermining the authority of both the Church and the aristocracy, and advocates of social reform such as Voltaire continually fell foul of the overbearing censorship of the establishment. Unsurprisingly in this context, Rousseau’s main area of interest became political philosophy. His thinking was influenced not only by his French contemporaries, but also by the work of English philosophers—and in particular the idea of a social contract as proposed by Thomas Hobbes and refined by John Locke.
Like them, Rousseau compared an idea of humanity in a hypothetical “natural state” with how people actually live in a civil society. But he took such a radically different view of this natural state and the way it is affected by society, that it could be considered a form of “counter Enlightenment” thinking. It held within it the seeds of the next great movement, Romanticism.
Science and art corrupt
Hobbes had envisaged life in the natural state as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In his view humanity is instinctively self interested and self-serving, and that civilization is necessary to place restrictions on these instincts. Rousseau, however, looks more kindly on human nature, and sees civil society as a much less benevolent force. The idea that society might be a harmful influence first occurred to Rousseau when he wrote an essay for a competition organized by the Academy of Dijon, answering the question: “Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to refining moral practices?” The expected answer from thinkers of the time, and especially from a musician such as Rousseau, was an enthusiastic affirmative, but in fact Rousseau argued the opposite case. His Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, which won him first prize, controversially puts forward the idea that the arts and sciences corrupt and erode morals. He argues that far from improving minds and lives, the arts and sciences decrease human virtue and happiness.
The inequality of laws
The inequality of laws Having broken with established thinking in his prize-winning and publicly acclaimed essay, Rousseau took the idea a stage further in a second essay, the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men. The subject matter chimed with the mood of the time, echoing the calls for social reform from writers such as Voltaire, but once again Rousseau contradicted conventional thinking with his analysis. The selfish, savage, and unjust state of nature depicted by Hobbes is, for Rousseau, a description not of “natural man”, but of “civilized man”. In fact he claims that it is civil society that induces this savage state. Humanity’s natural state, he argues, is innocent, happy, and independent: man is born free.
People in their natural state are basically good. But this natural innocence,however, is corrupted by the evils of society
~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau~
The state of nature that Rousseau describes is a pastoral idyll, where people in their natural state are fundamentally good. (The English wrongly interpreted Rousseau’s idea of natural man as a “noble savage”, but this was due to a mistranslation of the French sauvage, which means simply “natural”, not brutish.) People are endowed with innate virtue and, more importantly, the attributes of compassion and empathy. But once this state of innocence is disrupted, and the power of reason begins to separate humankind from the rest of nature, people become detached from their natural virtues. The imposition of civil society on the state of nature therefore entails a move away from virtue toward vice, and from idyllic happiness toward misery. Rousseau sees the fall from a state of nature and the establishment of civil society as regrettable but inevitable, because it resulted from the human capacity for reason.
The process began, he thought, the first time that a man enclosed a piece of land for himself, so introducing the notion of property. As groups of people began to live side by side like this, they formed societies, which could only be maintained though a system of laws. But Rousseau claims that every society loses touch with humanity’s natural virtues, including empathy, and so imposes laws that are not just, but selfish. They are designed to protect property, and they are inflicted on the poor by the rich. The move from a natural to a civilized state therefore brought about a move not only from virtue to vice, Rousseau points out, but also from innocence and freedom to injustice and enslavement. Although humanity is naturally virtuous, it is corrupted by society; and although man is born free, the laws imposed by society condemn him to a life “in chains.”
The Social Contract
Rousseau’s second Discourse ruffled even more feathers than his first, but it gained him a reputation and quite a following. His portrayal of the state of nature as desirable and not brutal formed a vital part of the emerging Romantic movement in literature. Rousseau’s rallying cry of JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU “back to nature!” and his pessimistic analysis of modern society as full of inequalities and injustices sat well with the growing social unrest of the 1750s, especially in France. Not content with merely stating the problem, Rousseau went on to offer a solution, in what is seen as perhaps his most influential work, The Social Contract. Rousseau opens his book with the challenging declaration “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”, which was considered such a call for radical change that it was adopted as a slogan during the French Revolution 27 years later.
Having issued his challenge, Rousseau then sets out his vision of an alternative civil society, run not by aristocrats, the monarchy, and the Church, but by all citizens, who participate in the business of legislation. Modelled on Classical republican ideas of democracy, Rousseau imagines the citizen body operating as a unit, prescribing laws according to the volonté générale, or general will. The laws would arise from all and apply to all—everyone would be considered equal. In contrast with the social contract envisaged by Locke, which was designed to protect the rights and property of individuals, Rousseau advocates giving legislative power to the people as a whole, for the benefit of all, administered by the general will. He believes that the freedom to take part in the legislative process would lead to an elimination of inequality and injustice, and that it would promote a feeling of belonging to society—that it would inevitably lead to the liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) that became the motto of the new French Republic.
The evils of education
In another book written in the same year, entitled Emile, or On Education, Rousseau expanded on his theme, explaining that education was responsible for corrupting the state of nature and perpetuating the evils of modern society. In other books and essays he concentrated on the adverse effects of both conventional religion and atheism. At the center of all his works lay the idea that reason threatens human innocence and, in turn, freedom and happiness. Instead of the education of the intellect, he proposes an education of the senses, and he suggests that our religious faith should be guided by the heart, not the head reason threatens human innocence and, in turn, freedom and happiness. Instead of the education of the intellect, he proposes an education of the senses, and he suggests that our religious faith should be guided by the heart, not the head.
Most of Rousseau’s writings were immediately banned in France, gaining him both notoriety and a large following. By the time of his death in 1778, revolution in France and elsewhere was imminent, and his idea of a social contract in which the general will of the citizen body controlled the legislative process offered the revolutionaries a viable alternative to the corrupt system as it stood. But his philosophy was at odds with contemporary thinking, and his insistence that a state of nature was superior to civilization led him to fall out with fellow reformers such as Voltaire and Hume.
Rousseau’s political influence was felt most strongly during the period of revolution immediately after his death, but his influence on philosophy, and political philosophy in particular, emerged to a greater extent in the 19th century. Georg Hegel integrated Rousseau’s ideas of social contract into his own philosophical system. Later and more importantly, Karl Marx was particularly struck by some of Rousseau’s work on inequality and injustice. Unlike Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, who had appropriated Rousseau’s philosophy for his own ends during the Reign of Terror, Marx fully understood and developed Rousseau’s analysis of capitalist society and the revolutionary means of replacing it. Marx’s Communist Manifesto ends with a nod to Rousseau, encouraging the proletarians (workers) have “nothing to lose but their chains”.
Almost a century after Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that nature was essentially benign, American philosopher Henry Thoreau developed the idea further, arguing that “all good things are wild and free”, and that the laws of man suppress rather than protect civil liberties. He saw that political parties were necessarily one-sided, and that their policies often ran contrary to our moral beliefs. For this reason, he believed it was the individual’s duty to protest against unjust laws, and argued that passively allowing such laws to be enacted effectively gave them justification.
“Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it,” as he said about English grammar, but the principle runs through his political philosophy too. In his essay Civil Disobedience, written in 1849, Thoreau proposes a citizen’s right to conscientious objection through non-cooperation and non-violent resistance—which he put into practice by refusing to pay taxes that supported the war in Mexico and perpetuated slavery.
Thoreau’s ideas contrasted sharply with those of his contemporary Karl Marx, and with the revolutionary spirit in Europe at the time, which called for violent action. But they were later adopted by numerous leaders of resistance movements, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
- This article is an excerpt from the book:
The Philosophy Book – Big Ideas Simply Explained