Jean Jacques Rousseau Politics

The world that we inhabit is a construction that has been in the works for thousands of years; from the first civilizations that used written language to the creation of the internet, ideas have been instrumental in building our modern world. While some ideas from ages long past may seem alien to us, there is a period of thought known as the Enlightenment, which started in the late 17th century and came to an end at the beginning of the 19th century, that is still incredibly familiar to us modern humans. This period is full of powerful thinkers who challenged the status quo of human thought and caused a permanent shift in the way humanity understands itself and our place in the world, one of these thinkers was Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. 

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Table of contents

    Jean Jacques Rousseau Short Biography

    Jean Jacques Rousseau did not have the typical upbringing or life that one may expect a philosopher of his calibre to have. Jean was born in Geneva, Switzerland on June 28, 1712, to Isaac and Suzanne Rousseau, unfortunately, Suzanne died nine days after Jeans' birth. His father, a generational watchmaker, watched over Rousseau until he was ten years old at which point, after an altercation with a wealthy landowner, Isaac fled Geneva and left his son with one of Jeans' uncles, this would be one of the last times the two spoke. After this, Rousseau spent some time bouncing around until he landed in the care of a French woman by the name of Françoise-Louise de Warens, who would support Rousseau throughout his late teens and early twenties.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau Portrait of Jean Jacques Rousseau StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of Jean Jacques Rousseau

    The relationship between de Warens and Rousseau would eventually become romantic and end with Rousseau moving to Paris in 1742. Throughout all of the moving and work he did, Rousseau never received formal education from a university; instead, it was de Warrens who coached the young Rousseau on the basics of philosophy and gave him the tools he needed to begin developing his own thought.

    Rousseau's work began to pick up steam after he won an essay writing contest that asked contestants; "Has the restoration of the sciences and arts contributed to the purification of morals?" For Rousseau, the answer to this question was a very well thought out, no. The answer was contradictory to the times and as a result, it launched Rousseau into the ongoing philosophical debates taking place in Europe, though many other major thinkers of the time such as Voltaire and David Hume had problems with Rousseau personally, and his work. From the publishing of his contest-winning article up to his death on July 2, 1778, Rousseau managed to produce several great works, many of which would go on to inspire prominent thinkers of future generations such as Goethe and Tolstoy.

    Now that we have met Jean Jacques Rousseau the person, we can take a deeper look at the philosophy which has made him such an important thinker.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau Works

    As mentioned in the biography section, Jean Jacques Rousseau's first major publication was an essay he wrote titled, "Discourse on the Sciences and Arts." The essay took a counterintuitive position on the ideas of progress during the enlightenment which is what garnered the essay such significant attention and won Rousseau first prize in the contest. He argued in the essay that instead of civilization bringing humans to a higher standard, it was instead the instrument used to corrupt human beings the most. For Rousseau, the question of how civilization corrupts the individual would become a lifelong task that appears in most of his philosophical writing, including his most famous, Emile more commonly referred to as "On Education."

    Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote many books and essays, but his most influential are:

    • Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (First Discourse) published in 1750

    • Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Second Discourse) published in 1754

    • Julie, Or the New Heloise: published in 1761

    • Emile: published in 1762

    • On the Social Contract: published in 1762

    • Reveries of a Solitary Walker: published in 1782 (posthumously published)

    • Confessions: published in 1782 (posthumously published)

    Jean Jacques Rousseau Cover of Emile StudySmarterFig. 2 - Cover of Emile

    Rousseau's "Confessions" is widely considered to be a key text in revolutionizing the way in which autobiographies are written. In the book, Rousseau conducts a sort of psychological examination of himself and tries to describe his mind to the reader. While this may be common for autobiographies now, it was Rousseau who paved the way for this type of literature.

    To begin understanding Rousseau's ideas about how society and civilization corrupt the individual we have to first explore a critical theme in his writing, the state of nature.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau State of Nature

    The state of nature is a term that first entered political thought through the pen of Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English political theorist whose work helped to shape the way we think about modern political thought. Following Hobbes, another English philosopher, John Locke, took the concept and added his own spin on it, using it as the basis for his understanding of politics and human nature. After Locke, Rousseau was the next major thinker to theorize about this time and by developing his view of the state of nature he was able to build a system of thought that has been able to stand the test of time. So what exactly is this whole state of nature thing and what were Rousseau's views on it?

    In short, the state of nature denotes a period in which civilisation and society had yet to come into being, and this period was, depending on whom you asked, either an incredibly miserable place as Thomas Hobbes described it, or a more peaceful existence than what civilisation could provide as Rousseau would argue. For Rousseau, this period of human existence was filled with solitary individuals following instinctual pressures, they would pursue food, water, sex, and shelter while not concerning themselves with moral vices such as pride, envy, and greed as these vices for Rousseau only appear after humans begin forming civilizations. It may seem strange to us as a modern audience, but Rousseau believes that before civilization humans were so preoccupied with following instincts and simply enjoying existence that we had no time for squabbles over our pride and no desire to compete in contests over material goods.

    It is the creation of private property for Rousseau which acted as the catalyst for the creation of civilization and removing humans from the state of nature. The further humans removed themselves from the natural condition of the state of nature, the more they became egocentric, constantly focused on material and status competition with one another.

    Egocentric: regarding the self as the centre of all things

    So how exactly does a theory on the state of nature serve as the basis for a political theory? Rousseau belongs to a group of political theorists known as "contractualists", these theorists posit that a social contract is made between individuals in the state of nature that allows them to create a civilization, in the next section we will cover this in more detail.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau Theory

    As with other contractualists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, Rousseau argues that a deal is made between the sovereign and the citizens underneath that sovereign. Where Hobbes argued that the sovereign is an absolute authority never to be questioned, Rousseau made the claim that the sovereign must be a reflection of the "general will" a term that creates as many problems as it tries to solve. For Rousseau there has to be a single individual who can articulate the general will of the people, this person he describes as "the lawgiver" and it is their responsibility to properly describe the general will to the government and establish the state. Critical to the idea of the lawgiver is that the lawgiver does not take on a role in the state after they have established it according to the general will, for Rousseau this would only create problems further down the line.

    Sovereign: that which holds the supreme political power; it can be an individual, institution, or in the case of liberal democracies, the people.

    The general will is a difficult yet simple concept. Simply put, Rousseau believes that there is a consensus amongst the people as to what they want, a kind of unarticulated sentiment that the right person can understand and put into action (the lawgiver). Simple enough right? We can all sort of imagine the idea, it is when it comes to putting the general will into words that we start to run into trouble, especially when the general will begins to target a minority of people who disagree with it. This is one of the primary problems in Rousseau's thought, he often argues for the freedom of the individual, yet proposes a general will that creates a minority which is oftentimes suppressed at the demand of the general will.

    It is often said that people do not know what they want until they experience it for the first time. Imagine wanting a new flavour of ice cream and everyone you know agrees that they would also like a new flavour of ice cream, yet, none of you can describe the flavour you would like. An expert in making ice cream catches wind that there is an agreement amongst the people that a new flavour of ice cream is desired so she goes around asking people questions about what they want. After hearing from 100 people the ice cream maker develops a new flavour "razzle-dazzle mango pop sherbet" and most people agree that this is exactly what they were looking for. In this instance the ice cream maker is similar to the lawgiver, she was able to successfully articulate the general will of the people and create something that worked for most of them, though there is a minority who did not like the flavour and will just not get what they wanted.

    To summarize, the social contract for Rousseau is an agreement between the citizenry and the sovereign that the sovereign will follow the general will of the citizens as described and established by the lawgiver. The social contract becomes void when the sovereign or government no longer act in the interest of the general will which serves as the desires of the people.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau Quotes

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

    This quote is the opening line to the book "The Social Contract" and describes Rousseau's view of civilization. Remember, for Rousseau the state of nature was true freedom and it is civilization which enslaves the human being.

    The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

    It was private property which Rousseau blamed for setting the foundation for the creation of civilization, no quote illustrates that point better than this one.

    Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces.

    Rousseau blames the problems of humanity at the feet of civilization and argues that civilization is in a constant process of solving the problems it creates simply by existing.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau - Key takeaways

    • Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712.

    • He is known as a contractualist for the way in which he constructs his political thought.

    • The state of nature for Rousseau was a rather peaceful and happy existence.

    • Civilization is the primary cause of grief in suffering for human beings.

    • The creation of private property was the beginning of civilization according to Rousseau.

    • The Confessions laid the groundwork for the modern autobiography.

    • Rousseau believed that a lawgiver must exist to properly enact the general will.

    • The social contract for Rousseau was the government carrying out the general will of the people as articulated by the lawgiver.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    where was Jean Jacques Rousseau born?

    What was the name of the person who introduced Rousseau to philosophy and became his lover?

    What is the name of theorists who write about social contracts?


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