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The Core Curriculum

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

1712 CE – 1778 CE

Rousseau’s life was colorful, complicated, and included moments of great personal tragedy and intellectual achievement.  Rousseau’s mother, Suzanne Bernard, died shortly after Jean Jacques’s birth in Geneva on June 28, 1712.  The word to describe Rousseau’s life is peripatetic.  Early years would find him a house servant, a frustrated apprentice engraver and Catholic priest in training, a music copiest, and a teacher.  Later in life he tried his hand as a composer, novelist, and educational, political and ethical theorist, along with constitutional architect.

During his appointment as a tutor in the 1730s, he was introduced to the key figures of the French Enlightenment. An autodidact, who wrote with difficulty, his interests ranged widely.  In 1742, he was introduced to Denis Diderot;  by 1744 Rousseau was in Paris contributing articles on music to Diderot’s and d'Alembert’s Encyclopédie.   In 1745 Rousseau met Thérèse Levasseur, who would become his lifelong partner; they eventually married in 1768. Their life together was not without controversy: they had five children who were left at an orphanage in Paris.  He had complicated romantic relationships and friendships. Collaborations would abruptly end, at times bitterly and without notice.  This was especially the case with his philosophical contemporaries, such as Voltaire and Hume.  

Readers new to Rousseau are often unaware that he was an accomplished composer. Music held special interest, as it did for Machiavelli, and he composed pieces and wrote on music during 1752-3.  Rousseau’s opera, Le Devin Du Village (The Village Soothsayer), was a success.  Rousseau’s music, would, like much of European Romantic music, emphasize emotion; he employed melody to communicate the depths and range of human experience. This emotive music , his text  Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and certain dimensions of his philosophical work, prompt debate over whether to place Rousseau as a forerunner to Romanticism or place his work squarely in the European Enlightenment. Controversy followed Rousseau’s work in music and philosophy. His letter criticizing French music and praising Italian music in 1753 would result in Rousseau being burned in effigy by an orchestra.

Distortion and Formation 
Rousseau’s place in the history of ideas arguably found its first footing when he won an award from the Academy of Dijon in 1750 for an essay, published in 1751.  While Jean Jacques was on the way to visit an imprisoned Diderot, Rousseau reflected on the essay competition question: "Has the Reestablishment of the Arts and Sciences contributed to the purification or the corruption of morals?"  In his reply, called the First Discourse, Rousseau argued that the institutions of society are corrosive, that man is naturally good, and that modern society frustrates virtue.  

Rousseau would reshape and refine this theme of society as a formative (more often in his view, destructive) influence on politics, ethics, and education in various forms throughout his works.  The corrupting power of social norms, ideals, and practices is a central issue addressed in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754); Emile (1762); and On the Social Contact (1762).   Through these works Rousseau’s place in the history of educational, political, and ethical thought became secure and continues to inspire deep disagreement and reflection. His 1761 novel, Julie or the New Heloise, was a best seller.

Rousseau’s life and works after the publications of Emile and Social Contract proved to be no less colorful and eventful, and perhaps as painful as his early life.  In 1762 his treatise on Education,  Emile would be burned by order of the Parliament in Paris due to its indictment of religion in the education of the youth in its infamous fourth chapter, a classic and worthy of reading.    On the Social Contract would be banned in Paris and burned in Geneva.  

He visited David Hume in 1766, only then to quarrel with him and depart.   Jean-Jacques' final years were spent writing accounts of his life, which as some scholars note, reflected a growing frenzy and paranoia, as well as a preoccupation with his place in history.  Rousseau died in 1778.  His ashes were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris in 1792.

Rousseau prompts strong--and diverse--reactions. He has been classed a totalitarian, a democrat, a civic republican, a socialist, a communist, a communitarian, and a revolutionary. Rousseau is often thought of as the intellectual father of the French Revolution:  Herald of republican liberty as well as the Terror. Although a great champion of political freedom and equality, Rousseau, as Mary Wollstonecraft would argue, was far from egalitarian when it came to issues of gender and the education of women.  Contemporary socialists, social contract theorists, philosophers of education, and civic republicans all claim and reject him to varying degrees.

His works resonate through Marx, Hegel, Smith, Wollstonecraft, Hume, Nietzsche, Voltaire, Emerson, and many others.  Tolstoy read all of Rousseau’s works.  Mao cited Rousseau in his writings on Education.  Some say, with good grounding, that Rousseau anticipated other philosophical movements (such as Pragmatism) and would go on to shape other fields.  The list becomes unwieldy and enumeration easily becomes pedantic.   Some would be inspired, many enraged, but few have ever been unmoved by his works.

Two stories are often told to reflect the depth of Rousseau’s impact on Kant. The first story notes that Kant’s sense of interior design reflected his Pietistic Lutheranism.  Ornamentation in Kant’s house was eschewed in favor of austere simplicity. Kant is said to have had only one picture in the whole of his quarters: a portrait of Rousseau which hung over his desk. The second story resounds a familiar refrain from some readers of Rousseau: that his writings can’t be put down. Kant was famous for taking regular walks for an hour and sometimes more.  So regular were Kant’s walks that neighbors could set their clocks on Kant’s stroll. The one time Kant missed his walk, he was reading Emile and had lost track of the time.  Kant claimed that he learned to honor humanity by reading Rousseau; the categorical imperative can be understood as his powerful reworking of Rousseau's "general will." 

Rousseau’s biography shows a complicated, thoughtful, and passionate person engaged in dialogue with diverse sources.  Machiavelli, Montaigne, Stoicism and the writers, musicians, and other thinkers in the human conversation would be his interlocutors and sparring partners.  His was a life of the mind where the questions of religion, politics, education, art, music, and ethics were not arbitrarily segmented into academic disciplines.  For Rousseau, humanity as a whole was his subject.

Core Connections:


Works Consulted
Leo Damrosch, Restless Genius 

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau

Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University.  

Historical Contexts

Discourse on Inequality & Social Contract

Rousseau’s prize winning First Discourse on the arts enjoyed a great reception; the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality was not read by the Academy when it was submitted in 1754. The jury thought it too long and complicated.  In 1755, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality was published, a year in which both the Lisbon earthquake, a key event motivating Voltaire’s Candide, and the death of Montesquieu took place.

Similar in form to the analytical strategy pursued by Hobbes and Locke but divergent in terms of results, the Discourse pursues a hypothetical history of humanity to investigate the origins of inequality.  The legitimacy of legal and moral institutions is rendered on the basis of their coherence with original states of human relations, or the ideal state of nature.  Rousseau argued that “the philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of returning to the state of nature, but none of them have reached it...[A]ll of them, speaking continually of need, avarice, oppression, desires, and pride, have transferred to the state of nature the ideas they acquired in society.  They spoke about savage man, and it was civil man they depicted.”  This focus on natural man would follow from European adventures in the New World and the leitmotif of “noble savages.” This is a clear connection to Montaigne, but also to larger economic forces at play.

In the Discourse,  Rousseau plays anthropologist, ethical, and political theorist, and, some scholars argue, a precursor to Nietzsche’s moral genealogist. Rousseau’s notes to Part I are quite interesting in this regard, especially when it comes to race.  He can be read as an educational theorist here, as he speaks openly about the learning of the institution of property rights, the division of labor, social class, and the values and human practices that follow such as jealousy and competition.   Man is naturally good and society corrupts.  Natural man is whole and self-sufficient.  Social man is fragmented and at war with himself.  For Rousseau, inequality and difference prove to be the product of a toxic cocktail of distorted needs, interests, desires, institutional arrangements, which naturalize and normalize what is unnatural and inhumane.

A distinction between two forms of self-love is central to Rousseau’s work. Amour propre, or a prideful self-love, generates in man a comparative eye, something like looking at others and sizing others up, then turning in on one’s self.  This type of self-love, distinct from the salutary amour de Soi (or a self-love based on preservation) brings about the following trajectory of social and individual decline: vanity, contempt, shame, envy, ambition, concluding with inequality.  

Framing the Discourse, as well as the Social Contract and the Emile, are the massive political, social, and economic changes that the 18th Century European world experienced.  Forms of production and industry, disease outbreaks, urbanization, as well as reports of European adventures in the New World altered perspectives and occasioned new areas of inquiry.

Sources Consulted:
The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau

Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University.  

Discourse on Inequality & Social Contract

The Domain of the Social in Rousseau's Social Contact

Rousseau’s view of human beings uncorrupted by social institutions and systems of distinction sits in the background of his work, On the Social Contract.  Like Plato and Machiavelli, Rousseau did not analytically separate the concerns of politics and ethics from education.  The locus of political authority is at the center of the work.  If On the Social Contract is Rousseau’s answer to how to organize politics, the civic and moral education necessary to create citizens for Rousseau's state is to be found in Emile.  Both texts would appear on the scene in the same year, Rousseau's 50th.

The General Will

In On the Social Contract, Rousseau advances a notoriously difficult concept: The general will. The general will is expressly not the sum of the individual preferences, or "one person one vote."   Rather the general will is something like the common good or the general welfare.  A lacuna arises in this text:  How can democratic politics legitimately resolve conflicts between self and society?  In this text, Rousseau proffers a solution.

Rousseau as Enlightened Romantic?

Rousseau’s thought straddles the European Enlightenment and Romanticism.  He emphasizes the self distortions that can follow from social institutions, distance from nature, and the power of affect. 

Some scholars ask if Rousseau is an anti-Enlightenment philosopher. For an age high on the promise of reason to solve human problems, Rousseau would argue that reason engenders egocentrism and turns man upon himself. He argues in the Social Contract that the understanding of democratic representation must be recast.   


Like the era and Rousseau himself, his work defies neat classification.  The changes that the 18th century unleashed wracked Europe.  From the enclosure movement in England, the War of Austrian Succession, to the age of Enlightened Monarchs, the context of Rousseau's life and times are found on the page and between the lines.  Napoleon has been said to say of Rousseau that, "It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never existed."  Napoleon would not be the first, either out of pique or out of admiration to grapple with the impact of Rousseau.  He would not be the last.

Sources Consulted:
Leo Damrosch, Restless Genius
Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau

 Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University.