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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Do you believe government should try protecting the liberty of individual people while also promoting the interest of everyone over only the interest of a few? When governments is corrupt and protects only the right of the rich and powerful do you think it should be changed?

If so, you agree with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This French philosopher and Enlightenment thinker believed government should be based on the idea of promoting the collective good. Here, you'll learn about Jean-Jacques Rousseau's biography and his beliefs, theories, and political philosophy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Biography

Jen-Jacques Rousseau's biography beings with his birth in Geneva on June 28, 1712.

Rousseau was an avid reader from a young age, and he attributed his republican ideas to his reading of Plutarch as a young man. By his late 20s, he had become interested in philosophy, and he also began a career in music as a composer around this time.

He eventually moved to Paris and contributed some articles on music to Diderot's Encylocpédie. He later wrote an opera that was performed for King Louis XV in 1752. He also achieved fame for winning an essay contest in 1750 in which he published his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences where he argued man was basically good by nature but the arts and sciences corrupted him.

In 1754, he returned to live in Geneva, where he continued to publish works on philosophy, religion, and politics. This brought him into conflict with the authorities and his books were banned there and in France along with warrants for his arrest.

In 1765, he negotiated a return to Paris. He was welcomed as a famed celebrity and visited by many. He visited Britain for a time before returning to France.

In 1769, he finished his autobiography Confessions, although it wouldn't be published until 1782, after his death. Much of what we know about Jean-Jacques Rousseau's biography is from this book.

In 1776, Rousseau suffered an accident when he tried to dodge both a carriage and a dog on a narrow street. Historians today believe he likely suffered a concussion and possibly cerebral bleeding, although he remained intellectually active and seemed to be healthy.

On July 1, 1778, he suffered a stroke and died.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Biography Portrait StudySmarterPortrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Beliefs on Religion

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's beliefs on religion were interesting and somewhat contradictory. Born a Calvinist, he was strongly influenced by this belief even as he converted to Catholicism for a time before converting back.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's beliefs were strongly influenced by his belief in religious toleration. He was critical of the established church and rejected the doctrine of original sin. He instead believed all people to be born inherently good.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's beliefs brought him into conflict with the Catholic and Calvinist churches as well as distinguished him from many of the other Enlightenment thinkers who believed in Deism. Unlike most of the other Deists, Rousseau believed that God was not simply a disinterested creator who established rational laws of nature but that human beings were made in the good image of God.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Philosophy

Jean-Jeacques Rousseau's philosophy on politics and society is both highly influential in our ideas of modern democracy and somewhat controversial. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophy on politics can be examined in his ideas on the state of nature, the social contract, and his concept of the general will.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Theory of the State of Nature

The "state of nature" was an analytical tool to consider human nature employed by various Enlightenment thinkers. Two other famous ideas of the state of nature were Thomas Hobbes's idea that human beings were naturally in a state of war with one another, and John Locke's idea that human beings were naturally guided by a set of natural laws that respected the right to life, liberty, and property.

State of Nature

A hypothetical time before the creation of government used by political philosophers to consider how human beings should organize themselves and their government.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory of the state of nature differed from both. Rousseau argued that human beings by nature were good and had compassion. He didn't believe man was guided by natural laws, however.

For Rousseau, the state of nature was mostly a neutral place, and it was the development of society, especially the concept of private property that corrupted them.

This corruption occurs as humans come more into contact with each other, creating a society in which they compete for their self-preservation. Eventually, as society grows and there is private property and trade, more and more inequality is introduced. People compete more and more for social status and economic security out of their own self-interest. Rousseau saw this competition as leading to domination and exploitation by the few over the many.

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”1

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Philosophy Painting StudySmarterPainting of Jean-Jacques Rousseau writing. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Social Contract

It is in this state of competition that Rousseau proposes that human beings choose to create government. For Jean-Jacques Rosseau, the social contract is a way to manage the relationship between people.

Rousseau saw the original social contract and the governments it created as reinforcing inequality. He saw it is imposed by the rich and powerful, and the poor and less powerful agreed to it in the name of security. For him, it was a perversion of man's natural goodness.

However, Rousseau proposed a new social contract, one that promoted equality, with his idea of the general will.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Theory of the General Will

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory of the general will was his attempt to find the elusive balance between the need for security and state authority and the freedom human beings should enjoy.

General Will

Rousseau defined the general will as the common good or the desires of the people as a whole, as opposed to the will of the individual. Rousseau called for people to sacrifice their own interests in the name of the general will.

Put another way, people gave up their individual rights to the whole community. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory holds that government should therefore be guided by the collective will and interests of the citizens. In other words, it should be guided by the best interests of the community at large, not by the best interests of any person or group of persons.

He believed the general will should come from all and apply to all. In cases where someone acted against the general will, he believed they should be punished, or in his words "forced to be free." This idea means people are not totally free as they are in the state of nature but have equal freedom under the law with protection for their security and property.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory of the general will is also sometimes also referred to as "popular sovereignty" since it is based on the idea that the people are sovereign and the ultimate authority.

Whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body; this means merely that he will be forced to be free.”2

Ambiguity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Philosophy on Politics

One problem in interpreting Jean-Jacque Rousseau's philosophy and theories is the abstract nature of the general will.

Rousseau on the one hand rejected the idea of representative government with people electing a legislature to serve as a sovereign authority over them. He saw giving up the right of self-rule as akin to slavery.

On the other hand, he recognized that direct democracy was not practical He advocated for a form of administrative government by a representative body to carry out the day-to-day functions of government while ultimate authority remained with the people.

He also understood that social and economic inequality meant people's self-interest was not always in agreement with the collective interest. He argued strongly for social and economic equality, contending that if no one was allowed to get extremely rich or poor, the collective and individual interest would normally be the same.

While his ideas establish that government should generally adhere to the collective general will, he never laid out a clear formula for how this was to function in practice, especially in larger states. He likely saw small city states like Geneva as the ideal form of government where direct democracy could more easily take place.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Books and Works

Below is a list of some of the most important of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's books and writings:

  • Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750)
  • Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754)
  • Julie, Or, The New Heloise (1761)
  • On the Social Contract (1762)
  • Emile (1762)
  • Confessions (1782)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Social Contract StudySmarterTitle page of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's On the Social Contract. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Significance and Impact

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophy had an enormous impact.

His ideas of social justice and equality influenced the start of the French Revolution in 1789. Rousseau argued that when the government no longer represents the general will, it should be abolished. This argument played a key role in justifying overthrowing the monarchy.

His idea of the general will, and popular sovereignty also had an impact on Robespierre and the violent policies implemented in the Reign of Terror.

Some scholars have also contended that these ideas influenced authoritarian and populist governments ranging from fascism to communism and their stated goals of promoting the collective good at the expense of individual liberty.

However, it's worth pointing out that while Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophy argued that man should be "forced to be free" when he violated the general will, he explicitly rejected the idea that the individual's rights should be sacrificed for the good of the many.

If we are to understand by it, that it is lawful for the government to sacrifice an innocent man for the good of the multitude, I look upon it as one of the most execrable rules tyranny ever invented, the greatest falsehood that can be advanced, the most dangerous admission that can be made, and a direct contradiction of the fundamental laws of society."3

Therefore, Rousseau's larger impact is on ideas of social justice, equality, and the idea that government should be representative of the interests of all people. When government takes into account only the interests of some members of society, for example the rich and powerful, this is a corrupt and illegitimate government.

Although Rousseau's ideas may be interpreted by some as justifying more extreme action, this idea that government should be for the people and promote the good of everyone with equal protection under the law is one of the fundamental foundations of our ideas of Western Democracy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Key takeaways

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau's theory on the state of nature was based on the natural goodness of man, who was corrupted by society.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophy of the social contract called for the need to reconstitute the social contract on the idea of the general will, or the best interests for the collective.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau's beliefs were somewhat ambiguous and have been interpreted in different ways but are still highly influential in our ideas of democracy.


  1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On The Social Contract, 1762
  2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On The Social Contract, 1762
  3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Political Economy, 1755

Frequently Asked Questions about Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau was an Enlightenment philosopher and musical composer famous for his ideas on the Social Contract.

Jean Jacques Rousseau is known for expressing the ideas that men are naturally good but corrupted by society and that the social contract should be based on the collective general will of the people's common interests.

Jean Jacques Rousseau influenced modern government with the idea that government should be based on the collective good of all people.

Rousseau's concept of the social contract said that people give up their complete freedom to be managed by the authority of civil government, which should act in the collective and general interests of all people.

According to Rousseau, the origin of inequality is the corruption of people in government where people in power protect their own self interest at the expense of everyone else.

Final Jean-Jacques Rousseau Quiz


Where was Rousseau born?

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What did Rousseau believe about religion?

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He believed man was created in the image of God, making them inherently good and he rejected the idea of Original Sin. He also advocated for religious toleration.

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In addition to political philosophy, what else was Rousseau known for?

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Being a composer

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How did Rousseau's idea of the state of nature differ from Hobbes?

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Unlike Hobbes, he believed the state of nature was relatively peaceful and conflict was only introduced by society.

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How did Rousseau's idea of the state of nature differ from Locke?

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Unlike Locke, Rousseau did not believe in there were natural laws that governed the state of nature.

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Why did Rousseau see the social contracts made when government was established as corrupt?

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He saw them as reinforcing inequality, allowing the rich and powerful to control the poor and weak.

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What did Rousseau propose to make society better?

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A new social contract based on the principle of the general will.

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What is Rousseau's concept of the general will?

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The general will was the common good, or the best for the community at large over the best for each individual.

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Why did Rousseau advocate for social and economic equality?

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When people are more or less equal, it prevents some individuals' interests from coming into conflict with the general will.

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What kind of society did Rousseau see as ideal?

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A small city state where most people were economically equal and direct democracy could be practiced.

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What revolution did Rousseau influence?

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The French Revolution

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How has Rousseau's ideas been used by some to justify authoritarian government?

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Rousseau's idea of the general will and punishing those that violate it, or "forcing them to be free", has been used by some to violate individual liberty in the name of the collective good, although he argued against this idea.

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