Jean Jacques Rousseau


Portrait of RousseauJean Jacques Rousseau was an 18th century philosopher and educator who had tremendous influence not only on the thinking, politics, and educational practices of his times but for a century following his death. His ideas laid the foundation to late 18th and early 19th century romanticism.

Rousseau believed that the so called progress in the arts and sciences created by enlightenment writers and thinkers led people away from leading the virtuous life. He linked cultural progress with moral decadence. In contrast to the Christian doctrine of original sin, Rousseau argued that it was the institutions of society that corrupted humans. He felt that society resulted in selfishness, weakness, and arrogance.

Although he critiqued his philosopher colleagues, those who were part of the 18th century enlightenment movement, Rousseau was influenced by their thinking. He subscribed to the philosophical principles developed by John Locke, was a deist, and was committed to religious and political tolerance and equality.

Rousseau's ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern thinking about education. He minimized the importance of book learning, and recommended that a child's emotions should be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience.

Rousseau felt that children are entitled to enjoy life. In his classic book Emile (1762) he made the case that child rearing should be transformed from being punitive to being nurturing, bringing out the child’s natural goodness. For example he felt that infants, rather than being bound by their clothes, should wear loose clothing that would allow them freedom of movement and closeness to nature. Unlike others of his day, he saw children on their own terms and not as immature adults. Rather than restraining and indoctrinating children, teachers should arrange children’s environments to facilitate their natural learning.

Rousseau was best known for his work The Social Contract. In it he considered the relationship between individuals and society. The most controversial aspect of the book was that he advocated democracy and argued against the divine right of kings.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was self-educated. He was born in Geneva and educated as an orthodox Calvinist. He left school at the age of twelve, and was apprenticed to various trades. At sixteen he left Geneva for Savoy, an area that was later to become part of France. For what he calls “mercenary” reasons, Rousseau converted to Catholicism for a short period and then returned to Protestantism.

He moved to Paris in 1742 and took on different jobs including a footman and secretary to the French Ambassador to Venice. When in Paris, Rousseau associated with Enlightenment philosophes, including Diderot and Voltaire.

From 1756 to 1761 Rousseau lived just outside Paris where he wrote Emile and The Social Contract.

Writings by Jean Jacques Rousseau, arranged chronologically

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1749). Discourse on the arts and sciences.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1754). Discourse on equality.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1761/1967). The social contract or principles of political right. .

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1762/1979) Emile. Translated by Alan Bloom (1979), NY: Basic Books.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1782). Confessions.

Writings about Jean Jacques Rousseau and his ideas

Boyd, W. (1956) Emile for today. London.