Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
(1712–1778)
Born in Geneva of a learned mother, who died within a week, and an artisan father, Rousseau was brought up to cherish the civic ideal of the ancient Roman republic. His father being exiled for an ill-judged duel, Rousseau was brought up with a cousin until the time came for him to be apprenticed to an engraver. Finding this intolerable he left Geneva, and in Turin was received into the Catholic church. In Savoy he belonged to the household of the slightly disreputable Baroness de Warens, but it was after becoming tutor to the family of the Abbé de Mably that Rousseau became acquainted with philosophers of the French Enlightenment, including Mably's brother Condillac . In Paris he made friends with Diderot ; a year in Venice saw him dismissed from the service of the Ambassador, the comte de Montaigu, for generally insufferable behaviour. Back in Paris he became secretary to an opulent tax-farmer named Dupin, and began passing an agreeable literary life in the magnificent château of Chenonceaux, where he wrote various contributions to the Encyclopédie .
In 1749 Rousseau's prize essay for the Dijon academy, the Discours sur les sciences et les arts (pub. 1751, trs. as the Discourses on the Sciences and the Arts, 1751, and known as the First Discourse) publicized his sudden realization that arts and sciences contributed neither to the virtue nor the happiness of human beings, but instead brought ruin and corruption. The implicit Romanticism of this vision was again manifested in his prolonged controversy with the composer Rameau over the true nature of music. Whereas for Rameau music was academic, celebral, Cartesian, and conservative in its order and its sophistication, for Rousseau it was melodic, flexible, inspired by emotion, and democratic. In 1753 Rousseau again entered the Dijon competition, this time unsuccessfully, with the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (pub. 1755, trs. as A Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind, 1762, and usually known as the Second Discourse). This essay argued that the ills of the human condition derive from society, and that in the state of nature life is free and independent, healthy, happy, and innocent. People are endowed by nature with the sentiment of pity (stifled as the power of reason develops, separating people from nature and from each other). The less idyllic vision of the state of nature familiar from philosophers such as Hobbes is quite inadequate: they ‘speak of savage man and they depict civilized man’. It is only with the (somewhat unaccountable) move from this pastoral idyll towards society that human beings leave the world of the ‘noble savage’ and step towards unhappiness and vice. Once a social condition is induced, and the fall from nature has taken place, then for the reasons Hobbes gives a system of law must emerge, although at this stage in his thought Rousseau has no illusions about its justice or objectivity: it is a fraud imposed by the rich on the poor. Similarly, whereas in nature sex is simple, love is an artificial device by which females manipulate men, in order to gain the shelter and protection that their dependent and domesticated state leads them to require.
However, some kind of redeeming political organization is possible, and Rousseau's pessimism is moderated by his commendation of the city of Geneva as a ‘democracy well-tempered’ (he revisited it after finishing the essay, and was predictably disillusioned). In Du contrat social (1762, trs. as The Social Contract, 1764), Rousseau returns to the defence of democratic, republican ideals modelled upon ancient Sparta, and centred upon the idea of freedom as active participation in politics and legislation. Just as a single person is free in so far as he or she prescribes for herself the rules of his or her life, so a civil society is a single organic unity with a single will: the ‘volonté générale’ or general will. The Social Contract is sensitive to the different conditions of different societies, and the different legal, political, and social arrangements that these might require. It inaugurated a new era of anthropological and comparative studies of human societies, reacting against the static, classical, assumption of human uniformity more characteristic of the Enlightenment. Back in the country in 1756 Rousseau began his novel La Nouvelle Héloïse, and fell in love with his neighbour, Sophie d’Houdetot. By now reconverted to Calvinism, Rousseau also defended the ban on the theatre that existed in Geneva, in his Letter to M. D’Alembert on the Theatre . Since he himself wrote operas and plays, this seemed surprising. Rousseau subscribes to versions of the argument to design, and even to the unmoved mover in The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Priest, a rebuttal of the deism or atheism of Voltaire and the materialism of the philosophes of the Enlightenment (see mover, unmoved ). However, in accordance with his philosophy of nature, true religious faith is more an affair of the heart than the head. Nature and innocence are usually corrupted by education, and in Émile, ou de l’éducation (1762, trs. as Émile, or Education, 1764) Rousseau propounds a better system, concentrating on the senses and bodily health at the expense of the intellect, discouraging books, and enjoying ‘the sleep of reason’. Émile was promptly banned. Rousseau fled to Neuchâtel in Switzerland (Geneva having also banned Émile and The Social Contract ), where the local pastor inflamed the population against him. His later years were spent in doubtful mental health, travelling in various places including England, where a brief sojourn ended with a paranoid quarrel with Hume . But these years produced the Les Confessions (1782–9, trs. as Confessions, 1783–90), an autobiography that broke new ground in facing the petty and shameful elements of a human life.
Rousseau's immense influence arises from his being the first true philosopher of Romanticism . In him many themes that came to dominate intellectual life of the next one hundred years are first found: the lost unity of humankind and nature; the elevation of feeling and innocence and the downgrading of the intellect; a dynamic conception of human history and its different stages; a faith in teleology and in the possibility of recapturing a vanished freedom.

Philosophy dictionary. . 2011.

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