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The Core Curriculum

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

1712 CE – 1778 CE

   Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, late 18th C. (Wikimedia Commons) Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, late 18th C. (Wikimedia Commons)

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, Catholic priest-in-training, music copiest and teacher.  Later in life, he tried his hand as a composer, a novelist and an educational, political and ethical theorist.

During his appointment as a tutor in the 1730s, Rousseau was introduced to the key figures of the French Enlightenment.  An autodidact who wrote with difficulty, his interests ranged widely.  In 1742, Rousseau was introduced to Denis Diderot;  by 1744 he 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, however: they had five children together, all of whom they left at an orphanage in Paris. Rousseau had complicated romantic relationships and friendships. Collaborations would abruptly end, at times bitterly, and without notice.  This was especially the case with philosophical contemporaries, such as Voltaire and Hume.  




Readers new to Rousseau are often unaware that he was an accomplished composer.  Music held special interest for him and he composed pieces and wrote about music in the 1750s.  Rousseau’s opera, Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer), was a great 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, along with Rousseau's text Reveries of the Solitary Walker and certain dimensions of his philosophical work, continues to prompt debate over whether his work belongs squarely in the European Enlightenment or anticipates the Romantic Movement.  In any case, controversy followed Rousseau’s work in music as well as philosophy.  A 1753 letter of his criticizing French and praising Italian music even led a French orchestra to burn him in effigy.

Thought & Life

Rousseau arguably found his first footing in the world of ideas when he won an award from the Academy of Dijon in 1750.  While on his way to visit an imprisoned Diderot, Rousseau reflected on the topic of the Academy's upcoming essay competition: "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's pernicious 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) as well as in Emile and On the Social Contact (both published in 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.  

Rousseau’s life and works after the publications of Emile and Social Contract proved to be no less colorful and eventful than his early life.  In 1762 his treatise on Education,  Emile would be burned by order of the French parliament due to its indictment of religion in the education of youth.    On the Social Contract was later banned in Paris and burnt in Geneva.   Rousseau's
 final years were spent writing accounts of his life which, as some scholars have noted, reflect a growing frenzy and paranoia, as well as a preoccupation with his place in history.   Rousseau died in 1778.  In 1792, the French revolutionary regime honored his memory by transferring his ashes to the Panthéon. 


Rousseau continued to prompt strong and divergent reactions among intellectuals of subsequent generations.  He has been classed as 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, as a  Herald of republican liberty - as well as of 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.  

Such ambiguity and ambivalence aside, Rousseau had a signficant influence on many notable thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, including Hume, Smith, Voltaire, Wollstonecraft, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Emerson.  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 American pragmatism) and would go on to shape other fields.  

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 involves Kant's famous regularity of habit.   So regular were Kant’s walks that neighbors could supposedly set their clocks according to his location.   Asked about his whereabouts on the occassion of a missed walk, Kant is reported to have explained that he was so enrapt in reading Emile that he had lost all track of time.  Indeed, Kant claimed that he learned to honor humanity by reading Rousseau. And the categorical imperative can perhaps be understood as a powerful reworking of Rousseau's idea (in the Social Contract)  of the "general will." 

Rousseau’s biography shows a complicated, thoughtful and passionate person engaged in dialogue with diverse sources.  Machiavelli, Montaigne, the stoics and many other contributors to the Great Conversation were his life-long interlocutors and sparring partners.  Rousseau's was truly a life of the mind, in which questions of religion, politics, education, art, music and ethics were never arbitrarily separated from one another for the sake of scholarly convenience.  His subject, rather, was humanity as a whole. 


Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University.  


Works Consulted

Leo Damrosch, Restless Genius 

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau