In Association with

Choose another writer in this calendar:

by name:

by birthday from the calendar.

Credits and feedback

for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)


Swiss-born French essayist, novelist, and philosopher, whose historical importance can be compared to that of Marx or Freud. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's life was full of contradictions: he defended the rights of little children but consigned his five illegitimate offspring to a foundling institution. Although Rousseau gained fame as an educationist, his formal education ended at about the age of twelve. He also was almost certifiably paranoid, an unsociable and quarrelsome human being, but championed man's innate goodness.

"The true founder of civil society was the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying, 'This is mine', and came across people simple enough to believe him." (from Discourse on Inequality, 1754, translated by Franklin Philip, 1994)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva into a Protestant family of French refugees. At the time, Geneva was a republic, but not a democracy. Rousseau's mother died of puerperal fever shortly after his birth. His father, who was a watchmaker of unstable temperament, fled from Geneva after being involved in a brawl. The young Jean-Jacques was cared for in childhood by an aunt and a maternal uncle. He received very little regular training, and never adopted ideas of rigorous discipline. For a while he attended a school in the country, kept by a retired pastor, and later he was apprenticed to an engraver (1725-28).

At the age of 16 Rousseau left Geneva to see the world. The next 20 years he spent traveling, studying, and adventuring. Rousseau's upbringing had been Calvinist, but under the influence of his benefactress and eventually his mistress, the Vaudois Madame de Warens, he became a Roman Catholic. From 1731 until 1740 Rousseau lived with or close to Madame de Warens. At her country home, Les Charmettes, near Chambery in Savoy, Rousseau began his first serious reading and study.

After moving to Paris Rousseau earned his living with secretarial work and musical copying. In 1741 he met Thérèse Le Vasseur, a dull and unattractive hotel servant girl, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life, never marrying her. They had five children whom Rousseau allegedly consigned to Enfants-Trouvés, a foundling hospital. This was a quite a common practice of the time, but in The Confessions (1782-89) Rousseau expressed his eternal and bitter regret. The celebrated autobiography is actually not a true account of his life, and also this detail has been under debate.

In 1743-44 Rousseau was a secretary to the French Ambassador Comte de Montaignu to Venice, and first came into close contact with political life and institutions. Back in Paris he was introduced through the famous philosopher Denis Diderot to the Encyclopedists. His own contributions to the collective effort were mostly on musical subjects, although he wrote one piece on political economy. Rousseau's new musical notation had been pronounced by the Academy of Sciences "neither useful nor original," and his opera, Les muses galantes, had failed.

Until he was 37, Rousseau had written nothing except libretti for his own music. In his later life, Rousseau became one of the dominant thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment. The French Nobel writer Romain Rolland once said of Rousseau: "He opened into literature the riches of the subconscious, the secret movements of being, hitherto ignored and repressed."

Rousseau's life changed on the road to Vincennes when he noticed an announcement in which the Dijon Academy was offering a prize for the best essay on the subject "Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification or the corruption of morals?" "All at once," Rousseu said, "I felt myself dazzled by a thousand sparkling lights; crowds of vivid ideas thronged into my head with a force and confusion that threw me into unspeakable agitation; I felt my head whirling in a giddiness like that of intoxication."

Rousseau won the prize for his essay Discours sur les sciences et les arts. He was 38 and had mostly failed in achieving recognition. Rousseau argued that the development of the arts and sciences, he wrote, did not improve man in habits and moral. Far from improving human behavior, the development had promoted inequality, idleness, and luxury. "If the sciences really better'd manners, if they taught man to spill his blood for his country, if they heighten'd his courage; the inhabitants of China ought to be wise, free, and invincible. - But if they are tainted with every vice, familiar with every crime; if neither the skill of their magistrates, nor the pretended wisdom of their laws, nor the vast multitude of people inhabiting that great extent of empire, could protect or defend them from the yoke of an ignorant Barbarian Tartar, of what use was all their art, all their skill, all their learning?" (from Discourse on Arts and Sciences)

Around 1750 Rousseau began to promulgate the romantic conception of the noble – or innocent – savage. The theme was elaborated in Rousseau's second essay, Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégualité parmi les hommes (1755, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality), where he maintained that only the uncorrupted savage is in possession of real virtue. (The most famous adaptation of the idea in literature is Edgar Rice Burroughs's hero of the jungle, Tarzan.) The cultivation of earth and invention of metallurgy led to the birth of work and property. People were divided into poor and rich, and laws solidified the state of affairs permanently. Despotism is the ultimate end of historical development – we are all equal because we are slaves of one ruler.

In Rousseau the feeling of "discomfort with culture" became a target of serious study for the first time. It also provoked anger and upset his friends. The cultured man is degenerate, Rousseau thought, and the whole history of civilization a betrayal. Rousseau's naturalism was in great contrast to all that his great contemporary Voltaire considered the quintessence of civilization. "No one has employed so much intelligence to turn us men into beasts," he responded to Rousseau's work. "One starts wanting to walk on all fours after reading your book." (Rousseau: A Guide for the Perplexed by Matthew Simpson, 2007, p. 70)

Taking seriously his thesis, Rousseau decided to "reform" and live the simple life. He returned in 1754 to Geneva, the city to which he had dedicated  the Discourse, reverted to Protestantism, and regained citizenship. In 1756 Rousseau moved to a cottage near the forest of Montmorency.

"With Rousseau the wider classes of society, the petty bourgeoisie and the undifferentiated mass of the poor, the oppressed and the outlawed, found expression for the first time in literature. . . . Rousseau is the first to speak as one of the common people, and to speak for himself when he is speaking for the people; the first to induce others to rebellion, because he is a rebel himself." (The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser, Volume 3, 1962, p. 71)

During the next six years Rousseau wrote The New Heloise (1761), Émile (1762), a treatise on education, eventually turning into a Bildungsroman about the ideal education of the innocent child, and The Social Contract (1762), which starts with the famous declaration, "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they." Its catchphrase 'Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité', inspired the French Revolution. Rousseau argues that only by surrendering to the general will, can an individual find his fullest freedom. The general will, essentially directed toward common good, Rousseau believed, is always right. The citizens of a united community exchanges their natural liberty for something better, moral liberty. In this theory political society is seen as involving the total voluntary subjection of every individual to the collective general will; this being both the sole source of legitimate sovereignty and something that cannot but be directed towards common good.

Rousseau's Julie; ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) was an 18th-century best-seller. It was born of the aging author's dream of finding a perfect love with a kindred soul. The story depicts the passionate love of the tutor Saint Preux and his pupil Julie, their separation, and Julie's marriage to the Baron Wolmar. The theme of sexual passion is in the end transformed into an account of a social utopia on the Baron's country estate.

Èmile paved way for the liberal modern educational experiments. It stated that experience should come not from books but from life. Rousseau's theory of education rests on two assumptions: that man is by nature good and that society and civilization corrupt the native goodness. Only through proper education in youth could the "natural man" come to being. Children should be kept from books until the age of 12 and youth should be taught "natural religion" only. Girls were to be trained solely as wives and mothers.

After its publication, Èmile was banned both in France and Switzerland. The French parliament ordered the book to be burned, and in 1762 Rousseau was condemned for religious unorthodoxy. He fled to Switzerland, first to Neuchâtel (1762-65), then to Bienne (1765). The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who admired him as "the Newton of the moral world," had a bust of Rousseau in his study. Diderot was bitter after his friendship with Rousseau ended: "This man is false, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical and vicious. . . . Truly this man is a monster." (Hypocrisy and the Philosophical Intentions of Rousseau: The Jean-Jacques Problem by Matthew D. Mendham, 2021, p. 4)

When the government of Berne ordered Rousseau out of its territory, he visited England. Rousseau's misanthropy and growing persecution mania led to quarrels with his new friends, among them David Hume, and he went to France, where he lived for a time in disguise.

Before his stay in England, Rousseau had failed to live up to his ideals, but then his conduct turned more principled. In 1768 he married Thérèse, and in 1770 he was officially permitted to return to Paris – if he do not write against the government.

"I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator. I want to show my fellow-men a man in all the truth of nature; and this man is to be myself." (from Confessions, 1781-1788, translated by Angela Scholar, 2000)

Rousseau's later works include The Confessions, the first "romantic" autobiography, which was composed between 1765 and 1770. Rousseau starts with his of uniqueness. "I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different." He speaks openly of his addiction to masturbation, to the point that he risked his healt. The sister converts at a Roman Catholic hospice in Turin, where he had fled from Geneva, he portrays as "the greatest set of sluttish, abandoned whores that had ever contaminated the Lord's sheepfold."

Like Rabelais, Rousseau had an unashamed obsession with bodily functions. In his advanced age, he found the need to urinate frequently, but as the center of social events, it was not easy for him to slip out of sight to relieve himself. "In short, I can usually urinate in full view of everybody and on some white-stocking leg." The book was part of his immersion into self-observation, also exemplified in Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques (1776) and the Reveries (1782). In 1778 Rousseau moved to Ermenonville. He died of apoplexy on July 2, 1778.

Rousseau and Voltaire died within weeks of each other. Because Rousseau was rumored to have shot himself, he had risked becoming a vampire by the rules of a folklore. Pope Pius VII placed The Confessions on the list of prohibited books of the Roman Index of 1806. In France, it was also among the works which Etuenne Antoine, bishop of Troyne, condemned in 1821 as godless and sacrilegious, and under canonical law, he prohibited the printing or selling the book within the territory of the diocese. U.S. Customs banned the book from entry in 1929, but revered the ban the following year.

During the French Revolution, Rousseau's remains were placed with Voltaire's in the Panthéon in Paris. When the Panthéon served as a church again, it was whispered that their remains had been dumped in a sewer. The tomb was opened in December 1897. There was no signs of vampirism. Moreover, Rousseau's skull showed no signs of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A few hairs were still visible. It was reported that the "thread of the shroud enveloped the skeleton; the body had evidently been imperfectly embalmed."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Finland. The most Rousseauesque practice in the Finnish way of life is the mass migration on holidays and weekends to summer cottages, which usually are located in the wilderness far from the urban centers. Three of Rousseau's central works, Émile, Du contrat social, and an abridged edition of Les Confessions have been translated into Finnish (1905, 1918, and 1968 respectively ). As early as in 1775, Fredrik Collin criticized Rousseau's religious views in his doctoral thesis De juventute in religione Christiana contra opinionem Rousseauianam instituenda. Collin believed that religious instruction was especially useful to the young.

The influential historian and journalist Henrik Gabriel Porthan (1739-1804) considered Émile pedagogically recommendable, although he saw in it some paradoxes. J.V. Snellman (1806-1881), journalist and statesman, a hugely influential philosopher in Finland, was against Rousseau's "nature gospel" of education. A large part of Snellman's philosophy was based on the thought of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Snellman argued that all education should be supervised by the state, which leaves little to individual differences. He emphasized traditions and the Finnish national ideals. Rousseau's view, that the State is born from a contract, also was criticized by Snellman.

In the 20th-century Rousseau's influence is seen in Erik Ahlman's (1892-1952) writings on education, especially in the concept of man's "true" nature and "pure" individuality. According to Ahlman, the purpose of education is to develop the individual, personal self. In the modern literature the "back to nature" theme constantly repeated in Arto Paasilinna's novels, beginning from Jäniksen vuosi (1975, The Year of the Hare; in French translation Le lièvre de Vatanen). The book gained popularity also in France, where its connection to Rousseau's ideals were immediately recognized. The protagonist, Kaarlo Vatanen, rejects consumer society and restores his peace of mind by escaping to the untouched nature in the north of Finland. In a way, Jäniksen vuosi re-tells the story of Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers (1870), who flee from their community to the backwoods. - Rousseau's Tunnustuksia (Les Confessions) was reprinted in 1999, but Émile has been out of print since the 1930s. Nowadays Yhteiskuntasopimuksesta (Du contrat social) is only found in the stockrooms of large libraries. It was not until 2000, when Tutkielma ihmisten välisen eriarvoisuuden alkuperästä ja perusteista (Discours sur l'inegalite) appeared in Finnish.

For further reading: Dreaming of Justice, Waking to Wisdom: Rousseau's Philosophic Life by Laurence D. Cooper (2023); Hypocrisy and the Philosophical Intentions of Rousseau: The Jean-Jacques Problem by Matthew D. Mendham (2021); The Rousseauian Mind, edited by Eve Grace and Christopher Kelly (2019); Lessons on Rousseau by Louis Althusser, edited with an introduction by Yves Vargas; translated by G.M. Goshgarian (2019); Rousseau: A Guide for the Perplexed by Matthew Simpson (2007); Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch (2005); The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity by Maurice Cranston (1997); The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762 by Maurice Cranston (1991); Bibliography of the Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to 1800 by Jo-Ann McEachern (1989-93); Rousseau's Exemplary Life by C. Kelly (1987); Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue by Carol Blum (1986); Rousseau and Romantic Autobiography by H. Williams (1983); Fictions of Feminine Desire by Peggy Kamuf (1982); Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Work by Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Cranston (1982); Rousseau et sa fortune littéraire by Raymond Trousson (1977); Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Lester G. Crocker (1968-73, 2 vols.); Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Jean Guéhenno (1966, 2 vols.); Rousseau: A Study of His Thought by J. Broome (1963); Jean-Jacques Rousseau by F.C. Green (1955); Rousseau and Romanticism by I. Babbitt (1919) 

Selected works:

  • Projet concernant de nouveaux signes pour la musique, 1742
    - Project Concerning New Symbols for Music: 1742 (translated by Bernarr Rainbow, 1982)
  • Dissertation sur la musique moderne, 1743
  • Discours sur les sciences et les arts, 1750
    - Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (translated by G.D.H. Cole, in Social Contract and Other Discourses, 1916) / The First and Second Discourses (translated by Roger D. and Judith R. Masters, 1964)
  • Le Devin du village, 1752 [The Village Soothsayer]
  • Narcisse ou l’Amant de lui-même, 1752
  • Lettre sur la musique française, 1753
  • Examen de deux principes avancés par M. Rameau, c1755
  • Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les homme, 1755
    - A Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind (tr. 1761) / Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (translated by G.D.H. Cole, in Social Contract and Other Discourses, 1913) / A Dissertation on Inequality (translated by Maurice Cranston, 1984) / as Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (translated by Donald A Cress, 1992; Franklin Philip, edited, with an introduction, by Patrick Coleman, 1994) / Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (second discourse); Polemics; and, Political Economy (translated by Judith R. Bush et al., 1992)
    - Tutkielma ihmisten välisen eriarvoisuuden alkuperästä ja perusteista (suom. Ville Keynäs, 2000)
  • Discours sur l'économie politique, 1758
    - Discourse on Political Economy, in Basic Political Writings (translated by Donald A. Cress, 1987) / Political Economy (translated by Christopher Betts, in The Social Contract, 1994)
  • Lettre a M. d'Alembert sur les Spectacles, 1758
    - A Letter to M. d'Alembert (translated anonymously, 1759) / Politics and the Arts, Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre (translated by Allan Bloom, 1960)
  • Julie; ou la Nouvelle Héloïse , 1761 (originally entitled: Lettres de deux amans, Habitans d'une petite Ville au pied des Alpes)
    - Eloisa, or, A Series of Original Letters (4 vols., translated by William Kenrick, 1761) / Julie or the New Eloise (translated by Judith H. McDowell, 1950) / Julie; or, The New Heloise (translated by Philip Stewart and Jean Vaché, 1997)
  • Émile; ou De l'éducation, 1762
    - Emilius and Sophia; or a New System of Education, with Plates (4 vols., translated by William Kenrick, 1762) / Emilius (2 vols., translated by Thomas Nugent, 1763) / Émile, or Education (translated by Barbara Foxley, 1911) / Emile, or On Education (translated by Allan Bloom, 1979)
    - Émile eli kasvatuksesta (suom. Jalmari Hahl, 1905)
  • Du contrat social; ou Principes du droit politique, 1762
    - A Treatise on the Social Compact; or the Principles of Politic Law (tr. 1764) / An Enquiry into the Nature of the Social Contract (tr. 1791) / The Social Contract (translated by G.D.H. Cole, in Social Contract and Other Discourses, 1913) / Of the Social Contract (translated by Charles M. Sherover, 1984) / as The Social Contract (translated by W. Kendall, 1954; Maurice Cranston, 1968; Donald A. Cress, in Basic Political Writings 1987; Christopher Betts, 1994) / Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract (translated by Christopher Betts, 1994) / Of the Social Contract and Other Political Writings (edited by Christopher Bertram; translated by Quintin Hoare, 2012)
    - Yhteiskuntasopimuksesta, eli, Valtio-oikeuden johtavat aatteet (suom. J.V. Lehtonen, 1918)
  • Lettres écrites de la montagne, 1764
  • Dictionnaire de musique, 1755-1767
    - The Complete Dictionary of Music (2d ed. 177?) / A Complete Dictionary of Music (translated by William Waring, 1779)
  • Émile et Sophie, ou les Solitaires, 1781
  • Essai sur l'origine des langues, 1781
    - On the Origin of Language (translated by John H. Moran and Alexander Gode, 1966) / Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music (translated and edited by John T. Scott, 1998)
  • Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques. Dialogues, 1782
    - Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques, Dialogues (translated by Judith R. Bush, Christopher Kelly, Roger D. Masters, 1990)
  •  Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, 1782
    -  Considerations on the Government of Poland (translated by Willmoore Kendall, 1947) / On the Government of Poland (edited and translated by Willmoore Kendall, introd. by Jr. Harvey C. Mansfield, 1985)
  • Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, 1782
    - The Reveries of a Solitary (translated by John Gould Fletcher, 1927) / The Reveries of the Solitary Walker (translated by Peter France, 1979) / The Reveries of the Solitary Walker; Botanical Writings; and Letter to Franquières (translated by Charles E. Butterworth, Alexandra Cook, and Terence E. Marshall, 2000)
    - Yksinäisen kulkijan mietteitä (suom. Erkki Salo, 2010)
  • Les Confessions, 1782-89
    - The Confessions of John James Rousseau, with a New Collection of Letters from the Author (tr. 1790) / Confessions of J.J. Rousseau, with the Reveries of the Solitary Walker (2 vols. in one, 1783) / The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (translated by W. Conyngham Mallory, 1890) / The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (with a preface by Edmund Wilson, 1924) / The Confessions (2 vols. edited by Lester G. Crocker, 1968-73) / The Confessions; and, Correspondence, including the Letters to Malesherbes (translated by Christopher Kelly, 1995) / The Confessions (translated by Angela Scholar, 2000)
    - Tunnustuksia (suom. Edwin Hagfors, 1965)
  • Original Letters of J.J. Rousseau, to M. de Malesherbes, M. d'Alembert, Madame la M. de Luxembourg, &c. With Original Letters of Butta Fuoco and David Hume, 1799
  • Political Writings: containing The Social Contract, Considerations on the Government of Poland, Constitutional Project for Corsica, Part I, 1953 (translated and edited by Frederick Watkins)
  • Correspondance complète, 1965-1991 (edited by Ralph Alexander Leigh) 
  • Œuvres complètes, 1959-69 (4 vols.)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1967-71 (3 vols.)
  • Lettres philosophiques, 1974 (edited by Henri Gouhier) 
  • Basic Political Writings, 1987 (translated by Donald A. Cress)
  • The Collected Writings of Rousseau, 1990-2005 (11 vols., in progress, edited by Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly)
  • The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, 1997 (edited by Victor Gourevitch)
  • The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, 1997 (edited by Victor Gourevitch)
  • On Women, Love, and Family, 2009 (edited by Christopher Kelly and Eve Grace)
  • Institutions chimiques, 2010 (édition critique par Christophe Van Staen)
  • Of the Social Contract and Other Political Writings, 2012 (edited by Christopher Bertram; translated by Quintin Hoare)
  • The Essential writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 2013 (translated by Peter Constantine; edited and with an introduction by Leo Damrosch)
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Oeuvres complètes 2014 (Arvensa Éditions; 93 titres)
  • The Body Politic, 2016 (translated by Quintin Hoare)
  • The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, 2018 (edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch)
  • On the Social Contract, 2019 (translated by Donald A. Cress; introduction and new annotation by David Wootton)
  • Rousseau: The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, 2019 (translated and edited by Victor Gourevitch)
  • Émile, premières versions (manuscrits Favre): 1758-1759, 2021 (édition critique par Bruno Bernardi, Bernard Gittler et James Swenson)
  • Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 2022 (translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella; edited by Frederick Neuhouser)

In Association with

Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. 2008-2023.

Creative Commons License
Authors' Calendar jonka tekijä on Petri Liukkonen on lisensoitu Creative Commons Nimeä-Epäkaupallinen-Ei muutettuja teoksia 1.0 Suomi (Finland) lisenssillä.
May be used for non-commercial purposes. The author must be mentioned. The text may not be altered in any way (e.g. by translation). Click on the logo above for information.