Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (also known by the Castilianization of his name as Jean-Jacques Rousseau) (Geneva, June 28, 1712 – Ermenonville, July 2, 1778) was a French-speaking Swiss polymath. He was at the same time writer, pedagogue, philosopher, musician, botanist and naturalist, and although he was defined as an enlightened man, he presented deep contradictions that separated him from the main representatives of the Enlightenment, earning for example the fierce iniquity of Voltaire and being considered one of the first writers of pre-Romanticism.

His ideas gave a Copernican twist to pedagogy by focusing it on the natural evolution of the child and on direct and practical subjects, and his political ideas greatly influenced the French Revolution and the development of republican theories.

He was critical of the political and philosophical thought developed by Hobbes and Locke. For him, political systems based on economic interdependence and self-interest lead to inequality, selfishness and, ultimately, to bourgeois society (a term he was one of the first to use). He incorporated into political philosophy incipient concepts such as the general will (which Kant would transform into his categorical imperative) and alienation. His legacy as a radical and revolutionary thinker is probably best expressed in his two most famous phrases, one contained in The Social Contract, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”, the other, present in his Emilium, or Of Education, “Man is good by nature”.

Rousseau befriended Denis Diderot in 1742, and would later write about Diderot’s romantic problems in his Confessions. During the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular philosopher among the Jacobin members. He was buried as a national hero in the Pantheon in Paris along with Voltaire in 1794, 16 years after his death.

The Rousseau family came from French Huguenots and settled in Geneva about a hundred years before Isaac Rousseau (Geneva, 1672-Nyon, 1747) and Suzanne Bernard (Geneva, 1673-ibidem, 1712), daughter of the Calvinist Jacques Bernard, had the future writer Jean-Jacques. Nine days after giving birth, Suzanne died and the little Rousseau considered his paternal uncles as his second parents, since he spent a lot of time with them since he was very young and they were the ones who took care of him.

When Rousseau was 10 years old (1722), his father, a rather cultured watchmaker, had to go into exile because of an unfounded accusation and his son was left in the care of his uncle Samuel, although he had already taken from him a great love of reading and a patriotic feeling of admiration for the government of the Republic of Geneva that Jean-Jacques retained all his life. With this family he enjoyed an education that he would consider ideal, qualifying this period as the happiest of his life, and he read Bossuet, Fontenelle, La Bruyère, Molière and above all Plutarch, from whom he internalized important notions about the history of Republican Rome; in his Confessions, written towards the end of his life, he will say that this author was his favorite reading; he will also recommend in his Émile the reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Together with his cousin, Rousseau was sent as a pupil to the Calvinist Lambercier’s house for two years (1722-1724). Upon his return in 1725, he worked as an apprentice watchmaker and, later, with a master engraver (although without completing his apprenticeship), with whom he developed enough experience to make a living from these trades occasionally.

At the age of 16 (1728) he began to wander and left his hometown. After wandering around for a while and working in the most disparate trades, on the verge of marginality, he abjured Calvinism and embraced Catholicism, which he later also renounced (he would later expound his deistic ideas on a natural religion in his Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar) and settled in Annecy, being tutored by Madame de Warens, an enlightened Catholic lady without children, thirteen years older than him, who helped him in his discontinuous education and in his love for music, and also looked for different jobs for him. In Rousseau’s eyes, she would be the mother he had lost and, from 1733, a lover. He stayed six weeks in 1737 in Montpellier due to a serious illness, and upon his return, Madame Warens got him the position of tutor in Lyon for the children of the brother of two famous enlightened writers, Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (he also became friends with Fontenelle), Diderot (who signed him as a collaborator in musical matters for his Encyclopédie, 1751-1772, and with whom he would eventually fall out) and Marivaux (who corrected his one-act play Narcissus or the Lover of Himself, which he premiered in 1752). He then forged a character of “solitary stroller”, a lover of nature. But, always discontented, Rousseau worked as a journalist and in many other odd jobs. In 1742 he presented an innovative system of musical notation to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, with little success (his system was only interested in melody and not in harmony, and a similar system had already been invented sixty-five years earlier by the monk Souhaitti), and the following year he published his Dissertation on Modern Music (1743), in which he harshly criticized French music, which he considered far inferior to Italian music. He met Madame Dupin, whose secretary he would later become; also in that year he was appointed secretary to the inept French ambassador to the Republic of Venice, Pierre-François de Montaigu, with whom he disagreed, to the point that the following year he was dismissed (1744).

In 1745 and already 33 years old, he returned to Paris, where he lived with Thérèse Levasseur, an illiterate dressmaker with whom he had five children and whom he convinced to give them to the hospice as they were born; he did so in 1746 with the first one. At first he said that he lacked the means to support a family, but later, in volume IX of his Confessions, he claimed to have done so in order to remove them from the harmful influence of his in-laws: “The thought of entrusting them to an uneducated family, to be educated even worse, made me tremble. The education of the hospice could not be worse than that”.

At this time he came into contact with Voltaire, D’Alembert, Rameau and, again, with Diderot, and wrote his most famous works. When the Academy of Dijon proposed in 1749 a dissertation competition on the following question: “Whether the revival of the sciences and the arts has contributed to the improvement of manners”, Rousseau won the following year with his Discours sur les sciences et les arts answering no, since the arts and sciences in his opinion represent a cultural decadence.

But, in addition, the cultivation of the sciences and the arts was also responsible for the decline of morals, the lost innocence and the development of “luxury, dissolution and slavery”. From this point on, he achieved a controversial and controversial celebrity; even the deposed king of Poland and Duke of Lorraine, Stanislaus I Leszczynski, tried to refute Rousseau with another speech. In 1751 he resigned from his post as secretary to Madame Dupin and devoted himself to copying musical scores to earn a living, and in 1752 he successfully premiered his one-act opera The Soothsayer of the People at Fontainebleau in the presence of King Louis XV, daring to refuse an audience with the monarch himself. In 1754 he published his Discourse on political economy and abjured Catholicism, and the following year, in 1755, he published an even more important text, his Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, which he had submitted for another competition at the Academy of Dijon without winning a prize this time. This discourse displeased Voltaire and the Catholic Church alike, which accused him of denying original sin and adhering to the heresy of Pelagianism. Rousseau had sent a copy to Voltaire, then living in his native Geneva, and the latter replied that it was “written against the human race… never was so much intelligence displayed to want to turn us into beasts”. It was the beginning of a growing enmity between these two enlightened men, whose second phase occurred when Voltaire published his Poem on the Lisbon disaster (1755), in which he unequivocally affirmed his pessimism and denied divine providence, to which the Genevan replied with a Letter on Providence (1756) in which he tried to refute him. Voltaire’s response would be justly celebrated: his short novel Candide or Optimism. Voltaire’s hatred festered even more when Rousseau printed his Letter to D’Alembert on Spectacles (1758), in which he declared (being himself a playwright) that the theater was one of the most pernicious products for society, generating luxury and immorality; moreover, he was extremely misogynistic when he wrote sentences like this one:

Voltaire had been obstinate in creating a theater in Geneva where he could present his plays and act in them, and this letter was the final straw for any possibility of ingratiating himself with Rousseau, who, for his part, was beginning to attend Parisian salons and criticize French music in the Querelle des Buffons with the support of the encyclopedists and his, by then, close friend Frédéric-Melchior Grimm, with whom he shared the love of Madame d’Epinay.

The demands of his friends and his opinions distance him from them, Rousseau feels betrayed and attacked and leaves the Hermitage, a country house furnished for him by Mme. d’Epinay in 1756. He moved in that year to Mont Louis, also in the forests of Montmorency, and received a proposal to become the honorary librarian of Geneva, which he refused. In 1757 he fell passionately in love with Madame Sophie d’Houdetot, competing with her other lover, the poet and academic Jean François de Saint-Lambert, but their relationship became nothing more than platonic. To her he will address his Moral Letters (1757-1758), which remained unpublished until 1888. In 1758 he published his Letter to d’Alembert on spectacles and in 1761 his epistolary novel Julia, or the new Eloise.

1762 was a fundamental year in his literary creation, for he wrote a highly original play, Pygmalion, considered the creator of a new dramatic-musical genre, the melologue, which could only be performed in 1770, and published two major works: Emilio, or On Education, and The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Law. The first of these works was above all a full-fledged cannonade against traditional pedagogy and cultural and learned religions, not natural ones, which will have very important consequences in these disciplines; In pedagogy he made a Copernican turn that would be developed by another Swiss writer, Pestalozzi, centering education on the child and his mental evolution, and giving priority to practical subjects over theoretical and abstract ones, while in religious matters Rousseau proposed, despising theology as useless, a natural religion with a secondary and less important role than other practical disciplines; the second work was a well-founded criticism of the political principles of the Ancien Régime based on a question that became justly famous: “Man is born free, and yet wherever he goes he is in chains. Why this change?” In constitutional theory, unlike Thomas Hobbes and even more markedly than John Locke, Rousseau did not admit any restriction on individual rights and liberties: the man who does not enjoy complete freedom is not a man; he sketches a philosophical principle of wide future, alienation, as well as a political-legal one, the general will. The heterodox ideas expressed in these works make him tremendously unpopular, to the point that on June 9 the Parliament of Paris gives an order to arrest him for his Emilie; previously warned, Rousseau decided to take refuge in his native Switzerland, more specifically in Yverdon; There he learns that the Archbishop of Paris Christophe de Beaumont has also written a pastoral letter against his works; on June 19, the Canton of Geneva issues an arrest warrant for his works Emilien and Contrat social, and on July 10, he is expelled from Yverdon by the Canton of Bern; So he crosses the Jura mountains and takes refuge in Môtiers-Travers under the protection of Julie Emélie Willading, born Boy de la Tour (in 1763 he writes a Letter to Christophe de Beumont to defend himself from the persecution of the Catholic archbishop and then renounces his Geneva citizenship; in September 1764 he receives an offer from Pasquale di Paoli to draft a constitution for the short-lived Corsican Republic (1755-1769). Also in 1764 Voltaire published an anonymous pamphlet against Rousseau, The Sentiment of Citizens, in which he revealed the fate of his five children, given to the care of orphanages because Rousseau thought he would not be able to support them due to their economic conditions (this was his main justification in the Confessions):

Rousseau went to the trouble of refuting with medical reports his alleged syphilis and the unfounded allegation that he had killed his lover’s mother, republishing the anonymous pamphlet with his notes in Paris, but nevertheless concealing the truth of the abandonment of his children. From that moment on he adopted as his motto Vitam impendere vero (“to dedicate one’s life to the truth”, Juvenal, satire IV), which he put before a publication he made in December, his Letters from the Mountain; But the Protestant clergy (especially the Calvinist pastor of Geneva Jean Sarasin) and Catholics were ranting against him and in 1765 his house in Môtiers was stoned by an angry mob; a few days later Rousseau decided to take refuge on the island of St. Peter, in Lake Bienne, in the house of a trustee of Bern; but he was also forced to leave there. Rousseau despairs for the first time and asks the Bernese authorities to imprison him anywhere, that he will not write anything more; but they do not imprison him and he settles in Bienne, where he receives above all the visit of various Englishmen (James Boswell…), because his two speeches and his three great books, the latter translated by William Kenrick, had been widely disseminated also in the English-speaking world. He received requests to travel to Prussia (from Marshal George Keith), to the United Kingdom (from David Hume) and even to Russia (from Cyril Razoumovsky).

Persecution was beginning to arouse in Rousseau a paranoia or persecutory mania to which he was already prone; moreover, he was seriously ill with bladder disease. So on January 4, 1766, with David Hume and Jean-Jacques de Luze, he set out for London. His friend Hume welcomed him and Thérèse in England, but the Swiss philosopher could not stand the city and Hume had to find the couple a country residence to his liking, and he found it in Chiswick; however the enlightened Frenchman was often invited to other estates, such as Mundan House (Surrey) half a mile from Wotton Place, and especially Wootton Hall (they spent in England two agitated years (1765-1767), harassed by the opinion that most Englishmen had of him: A mad, bad and dangerous man who lived in sin with Thérèse. Hume had to find trickery even to bring the capricious, whimsical and paranoid Frenchman to the Drury Lane theater; when he arrived at the show, his strange attire (Rousseau usually dressed in the Armenian manner) caused an uproar and at the end of the performance he was taken to the great actor Garrick’s talking shop. Horace Walpole played a practical joke on him by writing him a false letter as if he were Frederick the Great of Prussia, Therèse cheated on him with Boswell, and Rousseau’s dog, “Sultan”, did nothing but run away and Rousseau spent the day complaining and protesting. In the end, Hume became fed up with Rousseau’s messes, oddities (for example, refusing a secret pension from King George III of one hundred pounds that Hume had forced himself to get him and the Frenchman had approved at first) and paranoia (he thought that Hume had allied with Voltaire, d’Alembert, Diderot and other enemies of his to discredit him, taking this altercation even to the printing press, to which Hume also responded with a printout). In 1767, when he was 55 years old, he nevertheless received the pension of George III, but decided to return to France under the false name of Jean-Joseph Renou, when his burdened English friends had already realized that something was wrong with him, that he was disturbed. The prince of Conti put at his disposal a house in Trye-le Chateâu and his Dictionnaire de musique was published. But in 1768 he went to Lyon and Grenoble and on August 30 he married his beloved Thérèse in Bourgoin. In 1770 he was allowed to return officially with his name: but under the condition of not publishing anything else.

He finished his memoirs, the Confessions, in 1771, an attempt to resolve or at least bear witness to his tremendous contradictions, and devoted himself to living off his patrons and public readings of these memoirs. In 1772 Mme. d’Epinay, a writer who was his lover and Grimm’s lover at the same time (which would provoke their enmity), scandalized by Rousseau’s account of his relationship with her, asked the police to prohibit such readings, and that is what happened. In a somber state of mind, he withdraws definitively from the world. He began to write his Dialogues in 1772, but the damage caused by the violent attacks of Voltaire (who said that he used sentimentality and hypocrisy to prosper) as well as those of other characters of his time ended up finally removing him from public life without being able to take advantage of the fame and recognition of his work, which would inspire romanticism. He lengthened his Considerations on the Government of Poland and in the following years he worked on Letters on Botany to Madame Delessert (1771-1773), Rousseau judge of Jean-Jacques (1772-1776) and the opera Daphnis et Chloé (1774-1776). In 1776 he began to write his Ensoñaciones de un paseante solitario (1776-1778), whose writing remained unfinished because of his sudden death, when he was retired in Ermenonville by medical advice, of a heart attack in 1778, when he was 66 years old.

His remains rest in the Pantheon in Paris a few meters from Voltaire and the exact site is clearly marked by a commemorative bust. Several posthumous works appeared: in 1781 his Essay on the Origin of Languages and a continuation of the Emile, Émile et Sophie, ou les Solitaires, as well as the Confessions (1782-1789). The Moral Letters were not published until 1888.


Given his distance from the encyclopedists of the time and his confrontation with the Catholic Church, due to his polemic doctrines, his literary style changed. His autobiographical works made a fundamental change in European literature; to such an extent that he is considered a pre-romantic author or precursor of Romanticism. His most influential works were Julia, or the New Eloise (1761) and Emilio, or Of Education (1762), since they transformed ideas about the family.

Other very important works are The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men.

Political and social ideas

Rousseau produced one of the most important works of the Enlightenment era; through his The Social Contract, he brought about a new politics. This new politics is based on the volonté générale, general will, and on the people as the depositary of sovereignty. He states that the only legal form of government will be that of a republican state, where all the people legislate; regardless of the form of government, whether it is a monarchy or an aristocracy, it should not affect the legitimacy of the state. Rousseau gives great importance to the size of the state, because once the population of the state grows, then the will of each individual is less represented in the general will, so the larger the state, the more effective its government must be to avoid disobedience to that general will.

In his political and social studies Rousseau developed a social scheme, in which power rests with the people, arguing that it is possible to live and survive as a whole without the need of a single leader who is the authority. It is a proposal based on natural liberty, with which, Rousseau explains, man was born. In The Social Contract, Rousseau argues that the power that governs society is the general will that looks after the common good of all citizens. This power only comes into effect when each of the members of a society is united by association under the condition, as Rousseau explains, that “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and each member is considered as an indivisible part of the whole”. Finally, Rousseau states that the association assumed by the citizens must be “capable of defending and protecting, with all the common force, the person and property of each of the associates, but in such a way that each of these, in union with all, obeys only himself, and remains as free as before”.

The Rousseaunian work argues that this association of men is not something natural. Man leaves his natural state of freedom because survival needs arise that impose on him the creation of something artificial, since man is not sociable by nature and was not born to be associated with others. It is voluntary for them to unite with one another and to base this bond with the development of morality and rationality to satisfy the needs that nature has imposed on them. Morality and reason become evident in society by establishing a normative model capable of creating a social order that avoids the domination of some over others and involves a participatory representation of all members of society.

Through The Social Contract, Rousseau opens the way to democracy, in such a way that all members recognize the authority of reason to unite by a common law in the same political body, since the law they obey is born of themselves. This society is called a republic and each citizen lives in agreement with everyone. In this social state, rules of conduct are necessary, created by reason and reflection of the general will, which is in charge of developing the laws that will govern men in civil life. According to Rousseau, it is the people, through the ratification of the general will, the only one qualified to establish the laws that condition civil association. According to Rousseau’s work, every legitimate government is republican, that is, a republic employs a government designed to have as its purpose the public interest guided by the general will. It is for this reason that Rousseau does not rule out the possibility of monarchy as a democratic government, for if those associated with the general will can agree, under certain circumstances, to the implementation of a monarchical or aristocratic government, then such is the common good.

In his political model, Rousseau attributes to the people the function of sovereign. To this term he does not assign characteristics that designate a single class or nation, but the representation of a community of those who wish to form a state and live under the same laws that are the expression of the general will. The people, as sovereign, must carry out a public deliberation, which places all associated citizens on a plane of equality, in which the body cannot decide anything that goes against the legitimate interests of each one. The laws in Rousseau’s republic are developed in accordance with the social order, established by the nature of the social pact and not by the human conventions of a single individual. The laws must be based on conventions that translate into rules the demands of human rationality and morality, while not infringing on the ideal of justice that imposes that all associates respect one another. Rousseau establishes that the rules of association must be the result of public deliberation, since therein lies the origin of sovereignty. The laws born of deliberation will not be just and sovereignty will not be legitimate if deliberation does not respect the common interest and if the citizens do not accept the conditions by which the rules are equal for all. These laws do not institute any specific form of government, but fix the general rules of administration and define the constitution, by which the people are to be governed, since they are the highest expression of the general will.

The political ideal proposed by Rousseau in The Social Contract is based on rational autonomy. This is the association that supposes the reign of the common law, in which each of the associates, by surrendering to the social pact, obeys himself because the laws are based on the general will, in which each citizen is at the same time legislator, by deliberating publicly in the creation of the rules, and subject, by freely submitting to obey them.

The political ideal of The Social Contract can be realized under any form of government. Rousseau argues that any form of government is valid and legitimate if it is exercised within the parameters governed by the common law. In his work, Rousseau defines a republic as “any state governed by laws, whatever its form of administration.”

In Rousseau’s political model, the people appear in a double dimension, in which they are both subject and object of sovereign power. Each individual is the subject of sovereignty because he surrenders all his rights to the community, but, at the same time, he is the object because, being part of a whole, he surrenders them to himself. When this pact is established, sovereignty resides in the people and, as a result, it is inalienable, indivisible, absolute and infallible, since it is contradictory for the sovereign as a people to implement something against himself as a subject.

What characterizes the political model that Rousseau develops in The Social Contract is the key Rousseauian idea of “general will”. Such a will differs from the will of all by its universalist character and its normative aspect. It is not a qualitative will, but is formed by a moral qualification, in which men are required to act in accordance with universalistic interests. Once this will is formed, its mandate is unappealable, since what it pursues is the collective interest which is no different from individual interest. That is why, if any associate should attempt to resist the general will, he will be compelled by the social body to obey him.

Rousseau conceived democracy as a direct government of the people. The system he defended was based on the idea that all citizens, free and equal, could come together to express their will in order to reach a common agreement, a social contract. In The Social Contract he would say that “any law that the people do not ratify is null and void and is not law” and that “sovereignty cannot be represented for the same reason that it cannot be alienated”. As “general will” cannot be represented, he defended a system of direct democracy that inspires, to a certain extent, the Swiss federal constitution of 1849.

The relationship of Rousseau’s theories to modern nationalism is one of the topics abounding in political theory and the history of ideas. In his works, Rousseau laid the foundations for modern nationalism by attributing to it the feelings of identification with the republic or society with which man has associated himself, although he argued that these feelings would have been possible only in small, democratic states.

While Hobbes thought that man was evil by nature, Rousseau states that man is by nature good, but society corrupts him afterwards; he summarizes this in a letter to Prelate Christophe de Beaumont, written in November 1762, which was of no avail, since this ecclesiastic condemned his Émile in a long essay of 1763:

Rousseau opposes natural man to historical man, but in order not to destroy society (revolution) he proposes as a solution to this contradiction the reform of society and a third man, the civil man, in his Social Contract, and a government by consensus through the general will expressed in common and equal laws for all.

Rousseau considered that every person who participates in the social contract is sovereign, and therefore, it is a common good that is obtained through this contract. For this reason there can be no distinction between the sovereign and the individual and legislation must be based on the general will. This type of government begins once the people have matured morally and politically to be able to understand and implement the general will, and that it is free from interference. Because of this, the law is always general, because it considers actions and the masses, never an individual. About laws, Rousseau makes a differentiation between the general will and the common will. And these laws or contracts cannot be created by the common will, because the common will can be good or bad, but it is not necessarily directed towards the general will, whose end is the common good.

These laws are divided into Fundamental, Civil and Criminal laws.

Rousseau set some of the political and social precedents that drove the systems of national governments of many modern societies by establishing the root of the inequality that affects men; for him, the origin of such inequality was because of the constitution of the right to property:

He thus opposes John Locke, who thought that the right to property was one of man’s fundamental and natural human rights. As the human species became domesticated, men began to live as a family in huts and were accustomed to seeing their neighbors regularly. As they spent more time together, each person became accustomed to seeing the faults and virtues of the others, creating the first step toward inequality. “He who sang or danced best, or the most beautiful, the strongest, the most dexterous or the most eloquent, was the most considered”. In this aspect, the formation of society made necessary the creation of entities that regulated the rights and duties of men, thus losing their freedom to take possession of what they had at hand, and indoctrinated them to forget their old feelings and simple way of living and pushed them to surpass their fellows causing the loss of equality, or better said, giving birth to inequality.

In his study on inequality, he established the differences between the civilized man and the savage man, determining that the situations they faced in their daily lives defined their behavior with others. Civilized man, motivated by a desire to be superior to others, creates a kind of mask that he presents to the world, with the purpose of creating a distinction between himself and others. In this new society, “Souls are no longer visible, nor friendship possible, nor trust lasting, because no one dares to appear what he is”. In this artificial world, human communication became impossible. The savage man did not have this problem, he did not live in society because he did not need it, since nature provided him with all his needs. When he felt hungry he counted on the animals of the jungle to satisfy his hunger, at nightfall he sought refuge in a cave, his relationship with others was in harmony, as long as both parties required it and no conflicts arose, and likewise everyone had an equal right to a part of the land they inhabited. According to Rousseau, as the savage man ceased to conceive of what nature offered him as dispensable for his subsistence, he began to see other men as rivals, his body was no longer his instrument, but he used tools that did not require so much physical effort, thus limiting his actions and concentrating on the improvement of other aspects of his new way of life, thus transforming himself into civilized man.

In the Origin of Inequality among Men, he states: “such is, in fact, the cause of all these differences: the savage lives for himself; the social man, always outside himself, knows how to live only in the opinion of others; and from this sole judgment he deduces the feeling of his own existence”. This human nature, which Rousseau supposes of savage man, is but a working hypothesis, for he himself admits in this work that it is not possible to show that such a savage state ever existed.

Although some of his writings seemed to attack the structure of society, this was, according to Rousseau, the way of thinking of his adversaries, as he expresses it here: “What is the point? Is it necessary to destroy society, to confuse yours and mine, and to go back to living in the jungles like bears? This is a consequence of the way of thinking of my adversaries, which I so much like to prevent as to leave them the embarrassment of deducing it.” His intention was not to dismantle this power, but to make it a community of equality where everyone would be free to express their thoughts and make decisions that would benefit all, as can be seen in The Social Contract.

Rousseau makes a study of the formation of the individual man before he “enters society”, with his early works including: Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, Essay on the Origin of Languages, and Emile, or Of Education. In the first and second works, Rousseau identifies the vices and virtues, and in the third, the most important, he proposes to lead man to virtue by setting aside the vices through an education adjusted to nature.

One of the definitions: vice: artificial, arts: letters, languages, music, sciences, excessive use of reason, expression of feelings that do not exist, harmony; virtue: pure, natural, melody, sincere expression of feelings and “necessary knowledge”.

The arts, according to Rousseau, bring knowledge that makes the individual behave in a way to “be liked by others”, and it is not a natural behavior; instead of creating a union between human beings, they create inequality between them. It creates a slavery to them and a slavery between men, he explains with his famous quote: “sciences, letters and arts, less despotic and more powerful perhaps, tend garlands of flowers on the iron chains with which they are burdened, suffocate in them the feeling of that original freedom for which they seemed to have been born”. So education comes in, involving the arts as part of the process, without excessive use of them, to “transform the individual by freeing him from perversions”.

In the Emilio, or On Education, he made a Copernican turn in the pedagogy of the then stereotyped society, focusing it on the child and not on what he should learn; he was more interested in artisans than in scientists, and more in elementary education than in advanced education. He wanted to create active citizens who valued work above all else. The principles he established are these:

All of Rousseau’s ideas were new for the 18th century and were developed by later pedagogy.

Although at first Rousseau seems to ignore the female sex, it is not that he ignores it, but he defines its role in society as a mere companion of the human being who should have all the rights, the man.

She affirms that the public space corresponds to men, while women’s natural territory is the domestic space. The intrinsic inequality between the sexes, he concludes, has been given by nature and not by the whim of men, nor by education or customs and resorts to the idea of “sexual complementarity” to support the intrinsic inequality of men and women. The sexes are not equal but complementary. The public sphere corresponds to men and women’s fulfillment must be developed in the private sphere governed by the self-sacrificing love that makes them accept their destiny of obedience, submission and sacrifice as wives and mothers.

In his first Discourses he hardly mentions women. When she speaks of men of science and rationalists, criticizing them, she only addresses them, since women were not allowed to participate in this type of activities. In the Discourse on Inequality he longs for that natural law of the human being in the state of nature. In it he also makes no reference to the female sex, however, this natural law will serve as a basis, later, to justify and argue in favor of the position of women as mere appendage of man, of the place they should occupy in society “by nature”. In La nueva Eloísa she reproduces this model of the ideal female, represented by Julia, the Baroness de d’Hochetat, a virtuous woman whose duty and highest aspiration is to comply with appearances, to be virtuous and to avoid censure in society.

In the Emilio, or On Education, all the richness of his contribution to the education of the time, in which the child is taken into account as a person in itself, not as a mere sketch in preparation for adulthood, is devalued when it comes to girls. A natural determinism guides their education, focused on pleasing the male and giving him children, that is, to be a mother and wife as a vital function. Sofia, Emilio’s wife, will be more or less free and will marry for love, but her growth as a person will be conditioned by the role assigned to her at Emilio’s side.

It is in his Letter to D’Alembert that his prejudices regarding women are revealed, leaving them aside in the defense of justice and equality among human beings. He says of them that “they are neither experts, nor can or wish to be experts in any art, that they lack wit, that the books that come from their pen are all cold and beautiful like them, that they lack reason to feel love and intelligence to know how to describe it”. Woman is shown, simply, as the instrument that facilitates the political life of man and his dedication to study and his personal development. This being so, he does not see her as a person in herself, sovereign and free -not even in a state of nature-, but as a being for, that is, as a mere means: “they must learn many things, but only those that it is convenient for them to know”.

D’Alembert himself answered him with a plea in favor of women and, a few decades later, Olympe de Gouges with her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen. “Strange, blind, swollen with science and degenerate, in this century of lights and sagacity, in the crassest ignorance he wants to rule like a despot over a sex that received all the intellectual faculties”, Olympe indicates. Soon after, in England, it will be Mary Wollstonecraft who will assume the role of giving rigorous response to that supposed natural order of thinking male thinking female companion, to demonstrate that such a distinction is purely artificial, product of a discriminatory education within a patriarchal society.

Carole Pateman has designated this implicit contract that subordinates women to men as the sexual contract, which stems from the patriarchal reorganization that adapts the Rousseaunian vision of the Enlightenment to today’s society, instituting lower salaries, sexual harassment, lack of social recognition, gender violence, etc.


Rousseau discovered botany late, around the age of 65, when he enjoyed herbalism, an activity that calmed him after so many days of reflection, which made him tired and sad, as he himself wrote in the seventh Ensoñación del paseante solitario (Dreaming of the Solitary Stroller). Thus his Letters on Botany allow him to continue a reflection on culture, in an immense sense, beginning with Émile, his treatise on education, and his romance Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, where he questions himself on the art of gardening.

Man, if he is denatured, if he lacks instincts, cannot contemplate nature, he only makes habitable and cultivable areas, denatured, “contoured in his own way” in “artificial countryside” where even if they can live, it is only in a poor country. And there are less and less possibilities of access to the natural “should be known and worthy of being admired …. Nature seems to be disordered to human eyes, and pass without attracting the gaze of the insensitive, and which in turn have disfigured … There are those who love it and try to look for it and cannot find it” continues Rousseau in his novel, where he describes how Julie installs a secret garden at the bottom of her orchard, playing with the pleasant and the useful in order to make a little walk reminiscent of pure nature: “It is true, she says that nature does everything, but under my direction, there will no longer be anyone to order it”.

Rousseau describes the garden of the man who reconciles at the same time the humanist and the botanist, as a useful and pleasant aspect where he can be without visible artifice, neither French nor English: water, greenery, shade and plantings, as seen in nature, without using symmetry or aligning crops and borders. The man of taste “will not be disturbed to the point of his perception of beautiful perspectives: the taste of views only visible to very few”.

The work to improve the soil and to make grafts will not return the natural taken from nature. In addition to the fact that it will not return, our urban civilization continues to spread catastrophically with consequences, but another destiny can be forced. And if the work of an orchard and of fields is a necessity for the man, the garden of “the man of taste” will work allowing to unburden oneself, to rest from moments of effort.

For Rousseau, melodies and the garden are of the order of the human, of perfectibility, imagination and simple passions. He speaks of a music of a melodic temporality, therefore there will be educational processes that allow humans to hope for a becoming “all that we can be” or to make nature not make us suffer.

Rousseau liked to offer small herbariums to his friends and acquaintances, and he himself assembled a personal herbarium consisting of up to 15 classifiers filled with sheets of specimens, some of which are now considered types. After Rousseau’s death, his herbarium had different owners until 1953, when it was acquired by the French National Museum of Natural History, which included it in the collections of the Botanical Gallery, in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, thus making it part of the French national herbarium, the largest in the world with almost 8 million specimens.

Rousseau was able to identify and name 21 new species (IPNI).

Jean Jacques Rousseau was more of a political philosopher, not a pedagogue; but, through his novel Emile, or Of Education, he promotes philosophical thoughts on education, this being one of his main contributions in the field of pedagogy. In this book, he exalts the goodness of man and nature while raising issues that he would later develop in The Social Contract. Rousseau conceives his paradigm of man in chains in Emile, or On Education. Just as in Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, in Emilium, or Of Education, he wants to remove the formation of man from his inquiry, “men, scattered among themselves, observe, imitate their industry, and thus rise to the instinct of the beasts; they feed equally on the majority.” Rousseau creates a system of education that leaves man, or in this case the child, to live and develop in a corrupt and oppressed society. As the preliminary study of Emile, or Of Education, says: “assign to children more liberty and less empire, let them do more for themselves and demand less from others.”

Emilio, or On Education

This educational philosophical novel, written in 1762, fundamentally describes and proposes a different perspective on education, which is applied in Emilie. Rousseau, starting from his idea that nature is good and that the child should learn for himself in it, wants the child to learn to do things, to have reasons to do things for himself. As Jurgen Oelkers, writer of the article Rousseau and the image of ‘modern education’ says, “Education must have its place within nature so that the child’s potential can develop according to the rhythm of nature and not to the time of society.” Rousseau believes that every man and child is good. Above all, he speculates that the humanity that poses an education based on a natural course would be a freer society. Sandro de Castro and Rosa Elena, in their article “Horizons of dialogue in Environmental Education: Contributions of Milton Santos, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Paulo Freire” say: “In writing Emilio, or On Education, Rousseau lays the foundation for an education capable of forming a true man, because above all, man must be formed. To form the man is the first task, the second is to form the citizen, because it is not possible to form both at the same time”.

Rousseau attacked the educational system through this novel, in which he presents that children should be educated through their interests and not by strict discipline.

The novel is divided into five parts. The first three are devoted to childhood, the fourth is devoted to adolescence, and the last deals with the education of Sofia, the ideal woman, and the paternal, political and moral life of Emilio.

From the mother’s womb one can say that one is alive. Thus, as the child grows, according to Rousseau, he must of his own free will acquire knowledge. He says: “We are born capable of learning, but neither knowing nor knowing anything”, just as he says that man’s education begins at birth, on the basis of his own experiences and general acquisitions. Without realizing it, from the moment we are born we are free and by our own will we know what is pleasure, pain and rejection.

Rousseau also states that learning is very necessary, especially at this stage of life. Returning to his theme of freedom, Luiz Felipe Netto in the article “The notion of liberty in Emile Rousseau” says: “Rather, a child is free when he can achieve his will”. He thinks that we should let the child manifest his will and curiosity for what surrounds him. That is to say, let the child touch, taste, use his sensory senses to learn.

In this section Rousseau says: “Nature formed children to be loved and assisted”. He also says that if children listened to reason, they would not need to be educated. Children should be treated with gentleness and patience; he explains that the child should not be forced to ask for forgiveness, nor should punishment be imposed. The rule of doing good is the only moral virtue that should be imposed.

This section still refers to childhood, between the ages of twelve and thirteen. The body is still developing and so is natural curiosity. Rousseau says: “The child does not know something because you have told it to him, but because he has understood it himself”,suggesting that the child is inspired by his will, that he is only given methods to awaken his interest and not his boredom. It is then that Rousseau begins to teach him to conserve, so that he has more moral rights.

He also states that the child should learn from the exchange of thoughts and ideas; he sees a social benefit in the child being able to integrate into society without being disturbed.

With this section begins adolescence. Rousseau states that “the child cannot put himself in the place of others, but once adolescence is reached, he can and does so: Emilio can at last be introduced into society” . Already in adolescence, Emilio has a better understanding of feelings, but passions are also exalted. Rousseau says that “Our passions are the principal instruments of our preservation”, because for him, sex, passion and love are the product of a natural movement.

To form man from nature is not to make him savage, but not to let him rule himself. Also in this part, Emilio is exposed to religion, but he fails to see it as something meaningful to him.

Adolescence ends at the age of twenty, when Emilio and his fiancée Sofia are reaching maturity and married life.

Fernando Sánchez Dragó argues that Rousseau is the father of totalitarianism and Juan Manuel de Prada argues that he is the father of social engineering.



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  3. Citado por Gavin de Beer, Rousseau, Barcelona: Salvat, 1985, p. 86.
  4. Gavin de Beer, Rousseau, Barcelona: Salvat, 1985. Ed. original, Rousseau and his world, London: Thames and Hudson, 1972.
  5. Geary, P., Kishlansky, M., & O’Brien, P., Civilization in the West, Combined Volume (7ª Edición) (MyHistoryLab Series), Nueva York: Longman, 2005.
  6. Geary, P., Kishlansky, M., & O’Brien, P., Civilization in the West, Combined Volume (MyHistoryLab Series) (7 ed.). Nueva York: Longman, 2007.
  7. 1 2 Jean Jacques Rousseau // Babelio (фр.) — 2007.
  8. 1 2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau // — 2005.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Роланд-Гольст Г. Жан Жак Руссо: его жизнь и сочинения. — М.: Новая Москва, 1923.
  10. Сергей Николаевич Южаков Жан-Жак Руссо. Его жизнь и литературная деятельность
  11. a b Hans Brockard: Rousseaus Leben. In: Ders. (Hrsg.) in Zusammenarbeit mit Eva Pietzcker: Jean Jacques Rousseau: Gesellschaftsvertrag (= Reclams Universal-Bibliothek. Nr. 1769). Ergänzte Ausgabe von 2003, 2008, S. 177–202 (S. 177).
  12. Leo Damrosch: Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Restless Genius. 2005, S. 7.
  13. a b c Hans Brockard: Rousseaus Leben. In: Ders. (Hrsg.): Jean Jacques Rousseau: Gesellschaftsvertrag (= Reclams Universal-Bibliothek. Nr. 1769). Ergänzte Ausgabe von 2003, 2008, S. 177–202 (S. 178).
  14. a b Hans Brockard: Rousseaus Leben. In: Ders. (Hrsg.): Jean Jacques Rousseau: Gesellschaftsvertrag (= Reclams Universal-Bibliothek. Nr. 1769). Ergänzte Ausgabe von 2003, 2008, S. 177–202 (S. 179).
  15. a b Hans Brockard: Rousseaus Leben. In: Ders. (Hrsg.): Jean Jacques Rousseau: Gesellschaftsvertrag (= Reclams Universal-Bibliothek. Nr. 1769). Ergänzte Ausgabe von 2003, 2008, S. 177–202 (S. 180).
  16. Damrosch, Leo (2011) p. 386.
  17. Trousson Raymond (1998) Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Tallandier, Parijs (twee delen), p. 19