Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the most important minds of the Enlightenment and, although he did not experience it, of romanticism. Although he had his disagreements with some correctly illustrated viewpoints, there is no doubt that this Swiss philosopher made a significant contribution to the Enlightenment.
He spoke out on virtually everything that was a concern in his time: politics, education, progress, equality between men … perhaps his way of expressing his vision was somewhat controversial and caused him some problems with the authorities of his time but, without a doubt, his way of thinking will lay the foundations for a new society.
Below we will discover the life and work of this thinker through a biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, In which we will see his points coincide and diverging with the Enlightenment, his thought and the repercussion he had in the years he lived.
Brief biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also known as Rousseau, was a French-speaking Swiss polymath, and thanks to this he was able to establish direct contact with the most important figures of the Enlightenment of his time. Like a good cult figure of his time he did almost everything: he was a writer, educator, philosopher, musician, naturalist and botanist. Although he is considered enlightened, his views go against many of the assumptions of this movement.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland on June 28, 1712. At an early age, his mother passed away and his education was taken care of by his father, a modest clockmaker, and his maternal aunt. Almost without having received the proper training, he worked as an apprentice to a notary and an engraver who subjected him to such cruel and brutal treatment that the young man eventually left his hometown in 1728 at the age of sixteen.
In his modest exile, he traveled to Annecy, France, obtaining the protection of the Baroness de Warens., A woman who convinced him to convert to Catholicism by abandoning the Calvinist doctrine of his family. Already her lover, Jean-Jacques Rousseau settles in the residence of the baroness in Chambéry beginning here an intense period of intense self-taught training.
Contact with encyclopedists
The year 1742 is the one that puts an end to a stage that Rousseau himself will recognize years later as the happiest of his life, and really the only one. It was then that he left for Paris, where he would have the opportunity to attend several noble salons and to befriend the great minds of his time. He went to the Academy of Sciences in this city presenting a new and original system of musical notation which he himself had imagined although he did not achieve much fame.
He spent between 1743 and 1744 working as secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, with whom he would eventually have a heated argument and would soon return to Paris. Back in the French capital, Jean-Jacques Rousseau began a relationship with an uneducated seamstress named Thérèse Levasseur with whom he ended up marrying in 1768 by the civilian after having had with his five bastard children who ended up giving the hospice.
During his stay in Paris, he acquired a certain fame and befriended several enlightened men, being invited to contribute to the Encyclopedia of Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot with his articles on music. In fact, the same Diderot motivated Rousseau to participate in 1750 in a competition called by the Academy of Dijon.
In this call, Rousseau would be the winner, awarded first prize for his text “Discours sur les sciences et les arts”. In writing, he answered the question of whether the reestablishment of the sciences and the arts was helping to purify customs, which he believed was not and was, in fact, contributing to the degradation cultural.
In 1754, he returned to his native Geneva and returned to Protestantism to regain his civil rights as a citizen. For him, more than a reconversion to the faith of his family or a renunciation of Catholicism was rather a simple legislative procedure. It was at this time that he published his “Speech on the origin of inequalities between men”, which he wrote to present in the 1755 competition of the Academy of Dijon.
here Rousseau exposes his opposition to the enlightened conception of progress considering that men, in their most natural state, are by definition innocent and happy. However, as culture and civilization assimilate them, inequalities arise between them. It is mainly because of the emergence of property and the increase in inequalities that human beings are unhappy.
Residence in Montmorency
In 1756, he moved to his friend Madame d’Épinay’s in Montmorency. There he wrote some of his most important works, including his “Letter to D’Alembert on the Spectacles” (1758), a text in which he condemned the theater as a source of immorality. Also he would write “Julia or the new Eloísa” (1761), a sentimental novel inspired by his unrequited love with his hostess’s sister-in-law. In fact, it would be this passion that would make him end up arguing with Mme d’Épinay.
One of the most important works of this period and probably considered the most important of his life is “The Social Contract” of 1762, a text which is considered to be the inspiration for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of citizen. Basically, in this text, he argues that human beings must be heard according to their wishes as to how they want to be governed and treated and that the state must guarantee their rights and obligations by laws that emanate from the will. popular.
Finally at this time would also come a work of special educational importance “Emili or Education” (1762). It is an educational novel which, although very revealing, its religious part has given rise to much controversy. In fact, the Parisian authorities strongly condemned her, forcing Rousseau to leave for Neuchâtel, and she was not spared from criticism from local authorities.
The last years and death
Pressed by all this, Rousseau accepted in 1766 the invitation of his supposed friend David Hume to take refuge in England. He would return the following year, convinced that his host had taken him in simply to defame him. It is from there that Rousseau changed his residence constantly, harassed by a persecution mania that ultimately led him to return to the French capital. in 1770, where he would spend the last years of his life and where he would write his autobiographical writings, “Confessions” (1765-1770).
Death surprised him while meditating in the solitude of the gardens of Ermenonville, where he had been invited by the Marquis de Girardin. He died on July 2, 1778 from a cardiac arrest, having spent his last decade in constant tension with his former colleagues of the encyclopedists and being quite unpopular, although with the passage of time the New Regime would return to a key figure for dawn.
The work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a philosopher
We cannot speak of Jean-Jacques Rousseau without evoking his work, his philosophical position and his importance for the Enlightenment. In reality, with Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and Locke, the figure of Rousseau cannot be omitted when speaking of the Age of Enlightenment. Among his main works are the following:
- “Profession of faith of the vicar of Savoy” (1762), in which he theorizes deism.
- “Emili or De education” (1762), proposing the creation of a new pedagogy.
- “Discourse on the origin and basis of inequalities between men” (1755)
- “Discourse on Science and the Arts” (1750), speaks of the controversy over the meaning of human progress.
- “Julia ou la Nouvelle Eloïse” (1761), an important precursor of the romantic novel.
- “Confessions” (1765-1770), his autobiography fictionalized with philosophical touches.
Judging by all these works and the themes he discusses, there is no doubt that Rousseau engaged in the great enlightened philosophical discussions, leaving much aside the sentimental question posed in his novel “Julia or the New Eloise”. It was above all his views on education, absolutism and the inequality between men that marked a before and after within the Enlightenment itself, arousing the hostility of certain philosophers who saw their views too revolutionary.
No wonder that since the figure of Rousseau will become an ideological reference at the time of the French Revolution, Which would appear a little over a decade after the death of the Swiss philosopher. Defender of tolerance, freedom, nature and with a marked anti-absolutist in his writings, he believed that he would end up making the revolutionary flames reach such a deep repercussion that it would shake the regime that had ruled Europe for centuries.
Rousseau questioned the radical optimism of the Enlightenment. Contrary to what many thinkers of his time believed, Rousseau believed that nature represented perfection and that society was corrupt. The Enlightenment was convinced that progress and civilization were synonymous with greater perfection, peace and order in society, while Rousseau was rather pessimistic.
Rousseau thus exposes his idealization of the “good savage”, confronted with the idea supported by many enlightened economists of “the ignoble savage”. While the idea of the “good savage” was that of a man who, though uneducated, was happy and lived in peace and harmony with his fellow human beings, the “vile savage” of economists and most of the illiterate. not having social norms behaved like the most aggressive, bloodthirsty and dangerous of animals, only that this one went on two legs.
The opinions and political proposals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were quite disruptive compared to the thinking of most enlightened. His vision not only thwarted the illusions placed in the benevolent reformism of many monarchs of his time, that is, enlightened despotism (“all for the people, but without the people”). The Genevan philosopher proposed an alternative way of organizing society and launched a slogan clearly contrary to absolutism, important – rather unenlightened or uneducated.
Absolutism defended the idea that power rested with a single person, generally the king and, at most, his ministers and advisers. Most people maintained that the king held this title because God willed it (sovereignty by divine grace). Rousseau does not think so, arguing that the head of state and the form of government must emerge from national sovereignty and the general will of the community of citizens, ideas which would have been essential during the French Revolution and the emergence of nationalisms during the time of Romanticism.
Thus, with his thought, Rousseau was situated in a somewhat orthodox current of the Enlightenment. Although the way in which he presented his ideas was not the most solid or the most sophisticated, his first major text, “Discours sur les sciences et les arts” (1750), is fundamental to understanding his reluctance to optimism. rationalist who firmly believed in progress. of civilization.
Rousseau did not share this point of view of the majority of the enlightened ones. He attached little importance to the refinement of the sciences and attached more value to the volitional faculties than to reason. For him, the technical and material progress of society is not synonymous with greater humanity, and can even harm it to the detriment of moral and cultural progress. More technology does not mean a better society, but it can even make it worse and further increase inequalities if not used properly.
In his “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Between Men” (1755), he seeks to elucidate and expose the effects of social organization on human nature. In this particular text he has focused on describing his conception of the good savage, who, as we have mentioned, is a being who, although he lived in a primitive state in nature, did not suffered from no inequalities and lived in peace and equality with the rest of the world. their resemblances, having only differences derived from biology.
According to Rousseau, in the natural state, men were neither good nor bad by nature, simply “amoral”. He also explains that because a number of external causes of human beings had to come together and help each other to survive, Which, over time, has made societies, cultures and civilizations complex representatives of this human social life.
These societies must have been born at a given moment by transcending the most primitive and most idyllic associative stage: the family. Families would become associated in communities of nomadic settlers who shared all the hunted and picked up. Later, these societies would become more complex with the discovery of agriculture, from which private property and inequalities would emerge. Those with more possessions had more influence over the community and more power than they could wield.
The process continued with the emergence of bondage and slavery. Those who had nothing offered their labor in exchange for the protection of the powerful, or if they had nothing or the means to defend the more powerful, they made it their property. The abuses perpetrated by those who had most led to mutual mistrust and the need to prevent crime, thereby creating governments, enforcing their laws, and protecting the private property and privileges of those they possessed most.
Rousseau he sees in private property an element that clearly marks inequalities but that is not why he advocates the abolition of private property. Material goods and their possession were an irreversible fact and were already part of society as an inherent characteristic of it, however, Rousseau himself argued that the situation should be improved by improving political organization and ensuring that those who had less could have something to be. capable of living with dignity.
In his “Social Contract” (1762), he diagnoses the origin of social injustice and human misfortune, by proposing the foundations and the organization of a new society based on a pact freely agreed upon and accepted by all. individuals, a general will made law and which reconciles individual freedom with a just social order and broad social acceptance.
The Enlightenment was above all in favor of reason, a point on which Rousseau disagreed. In this sense, he collaborates in the dissemination of an aesthetic of feeling with the publication of his novel “La nova Eloísa” (1761), even if it must be said that he is not the only writer of sentimental novels of the time nor the person in charge of the melodramas which would appear partially in the Illustration and mainly in the Romanticism.
In his book “Emili or Education” (1762) he sets out his ideas on education, promote that educational work should be done outside of society and its institutions. Educating does not consist in imposing rules or guiding learning, but in favoring the development of the individual by taking advantage of the inclinations or spontaneous interests of the child by facilitating his contact with nature, a truly wise entity and educational according to Rousseau’s vision.
Finally, we have his “Confessions”, an autobiographical work which was published posthumously between 1782 and 1789. This text is an exceptional example of the depths of the soul and the spirit of Rousseau, an extreme demonstration of introspection personal that would not have fully arrived for a century. later with the advent of romanticism and its authors, who will perfect this genre.
All of them, and especially this last work, are considered as a “warning” of what will follow with romanticism, even if it must be said that Rousseau was not the only one to have contributed to the emergence of this current. Yet his exacerbation of the sentimentality he had displayed in his novel and the rise of nationalisms and the revaluation of the Middle Ages which, rather than a dark age, was at the origin of modern European peoples, would be aspects that Rousseauan thought to feed.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1998). Rousseau’s full correspondence: Edition complete with letters, documents and indexes. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation. ISBN 978-0-7294-0685-7.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1959-1995). Complete works Paris: Gallimard.
- Rousseau (2011). Sergio Sevilla, ed. Rousseau. Library of great thinkers. Madrid: Editorial Gredos. ISBN 9788424921286.