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Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment period. Learn about his important works, his main ideas, and how he influenced other philosophers, movements, and governments in this lesson.

Introduction

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who lived from 1712 to 1778, was one of the most influential philosopher’s during the Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe. His treatises and novels inspired the leaders of the French Revolution, the Romantic generation, and many other famous philosophers.

Rousseau’s Works

Rousseau did many odd jobs until he wrote his first major philosophical work, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in 1750. He wrote the text as a response to an essay contest at the nearby Academy of Dijon.

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In this work, Rousseau argued that the progression of the sciences and arts had caused the corruption of virtue and morality. It was widely read and considered very controversial, but nevertheless, he won first prize in the contest for it. This discourse won him much fame and recognition.In 1753, the Academy of Dijon had another essay contest. Rousseau again entered a philosophical work, this time called The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men. This work was also widely read and considered controversial; however, he did not win the contest because the judges thought it was too long.

In this work, Rousseau argued that human beings are basically good by nature, but were corrupted by complex events that resulted in the present day society.After these two discourses, Rousseau moved from place to place due both to people not agreeing with his ideas, and his dramatic social life in which he had extra-marital affairs with many women. He wrote a book of fiction called Julie or the New Heloise in 1761. This was one of the best-selling books of the century. It was about a love triangle between some of the characters, but also showed off his philosophical tendencies about humanity and nature. The book greatly influenced the late 18th-century Romantic Naturalism movement.

In 1762, he published his next two major philosophical treatises: The Social Contract and Emile. The Social Contract is a political philosophical work. It outlines how a government can exist in a way that protects the equality and character of its citizens. The first chapter begins with one of Rousseau’s most famous quotes: ‘Man was born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

‘ In Rousseau’s opinion, this problem can be fixed by making a social contract in which the citizens give up some of their rights to the government in exchange for the government giving the citizens equality and freedom. Rousseau believed that this delicate balance between state authority and the rights of the individual citizen could be achieved.In his work Emile, Rousseau focused on his philosophical opinions on education. Rousseau believed that an education gave citizens the opportunity to learn how to be good even though they lived in a corrupt society. These views on education helped inspire the national education system in France during the French Revolution.

These three books caused much controversy. Paris authorities condemned the books and Rousseau was forced to flee from France and live in Switzerland. While there, in 1764, he wrote his autobiography, called The Confessions. Rousseau became very paranoid about people who wanted to see him harmed and found it important to justify his life and his works. This obsession is seen in his last books: The Confessions, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques. He moved from location to location, and finally ended up secretly living back in France, where he passed away in 1778.

Rousseau’s Ideas and Impacts

One of the main ideas of Rousseau is his belief that human beings are good by nature, but are made corrupt by society.

Nearly all of his works focus on this belief. He believed that all creatures have an instinct toward self-preservation, including humans, but that humans also have compassion, which makes them unique and naturally good.Another of his main ideas revolved around his concept of the social contract.

Rousseau truly believed that a balance between individual liberty and government authority was not only possible but also the preferred government for a nation.Rousseau greatly influenced later philosophers and political theorists, including the famous philosopher named Immanuel Kant and his opinions on ethics. Rousseau also had a huge influence philosophically on the European Romantic movement. Unlike some thinkers, Rousseau combined idealistic and realistic elements of life in a way that sparked the Romantic movement.He also influenced political thought. Most importantly, Rousseau’s political theories helped influence the leaders of the French Revolution.

He also strongly influenced famous thinkers such as Karl Marx, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was also a source of inspiration for liberal theories, communism, civic republicanism, and participatory democracy.

Lesson Summary

Rousseau’s philosophical and political beliefs influenced many people and movements in history. He made people think strongly about the nature of humankind and the balances between governmental authority and citizen freedom. He helped shape the Romantic movement, the French Revolution, individuals such as Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx, as well as entire governments on their theories on democracy, republicanism, communism, and many more. He is easily one of the most influential philosophers from the Enlightenment period.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson is finished you should be able to:

  • Recall how Rousseau became noticed in philosophical circles during the Enlightenment
  • Explain why Rousseau had to move constantly throughout his life
  • Discuss Rousseau’s philosophical beliefs that influenced later social and political movements

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