Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Man is naturally good: Rousseau and Romanticism

If we were to look at the things you and I assume are "true", and we were to make a list of the men who thought of those ideas, Rousseau would probably rank up there with Plato and Aristotle, Newton, Jefferson, and even Paul and Christ.  Yet unlike these other seminal figures, Rousseau seems to have invented his world view -- one most of us now accept -- from whole clothe, alone, and against the currents of everyone else around him.  He is truly the individual genius who radically alters the way all others think and feel.

And yet he was bonkers.  A self taught, independent genius, Rousseau moved to Paris in his thirties to become a musician and teach music.  But there he hung out with many of the key Enlightenment era philosophers, including Voltaire (18 years younger than Voltaire, they died in the same year, 1778).

One day in 1749, at age 37, while walking to the Bastille to see his imprisoned friend, the major Enlightenment-era philosopher, Diderot, Rousseau saw an ad for an essay contest, hosted by the Academy of Dijon, asking a simple question: has science made us better or worse, more or less moral?  As Rousseau tells it, he fell asleep in the park, had a vision, awoke in tears, and started to write his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts.  He won the contest, instantly rose to fame, and forever changed the way humans see what it means to be human.  His basic thesis: man is naturally good, and anything that is not natural has corrupted us from this natural state. 

Arguably, all Romantic philosophy and sensibility stems from this single, simple, radical idea.

This idea is in turn rooted in the fact that we feel before we think -- that emotion is natural and thinking a product of social conditioning -- and thus suffering is caused by our struggle to reconcile our "true" emotional selves with societal expectations.

But Rousseau is also the inventor of the modern autobiography, of modern conceptions of child rearing and the assumptions that inspired Freud, of the American concept of "freedom", of the ideas that inspired Karl Marx....

Most importantly, he invented camping, rock climbing and mountain biking.  Yeah, really!  Well, sort of....

Confessions (1782) (memoir)

In this book, one of the last he wrote, Rousseau literally invents the modern autobiography (modeled after Augustine's Confessions and similar religious autobiographies).  In so doing he sets the tone for the individualistic "confessional" tone of modern/contemporary autobiographies and poetry:

Subjectivity and Individualism:
"I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedence, and which will never find and imitator. I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man himself.  Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart...I am not made like any of those I have ever seen.  ... If I am not better, at least I am different.  ... I have told the good and bad with equal frankness. I have never omitted anything bad, nor interpolated anything good" (433).

-- The subjective nature of knowledge: "true" knowledge is emotional and based upon individual, personal experience
-- Each man is an individual, unlike any other; thus truth is subjective
-- The individual self is a subject worthy of study and representation
-- The confessional is a valid and compelling art-form: we should reveal our dirt to the public
-- Our personal, sexual lives, including the perverse, should be revealed to the public

Rousseau essentially secularizes the Catholic confessional as both an art form (autobiography) while paving the way for Freud's psychoanalytic "talking cure."

Confessions also attempts to frame his own life in terms of his philosophy, trying to use his own autobiography as first hand factual evidence proving his theories concerning emotion, justice, education and the nature of crime:

"I felt before I thought; tis is the common lot of humanity.  ...  I had conceived nothing, but felt everything.  These confused emotions which I felt one after the other, certainly did not warp the reasoning powers which I did not yet possess; but they shaped them in me of a peculiar stamp, and gave me odd and romantic notions of life" (435).

-- In stark contrast to Enlightenment rationality, Rousseau emphasis the primacy of emotion as a means of attending the Truth.  Emotion is natural and precedes Locke's Experience and Reflection, and what is natural is Godly and therefore good.
-- This is perhaps his biggest contribution to modern thinking.

-- Justice:
    -- Authorities tend to punish the inherently innocent and good
    -- Physical punishment does not lead to rehabilitation (or education)

“At last I emerged from this cruel trial, utterly broken, but triumphant. ... ...I declare in the sight of heaven that I was innocent of the offense, that I neither broke nor touched the comb.... Imagine a child, shy and obedient in ordinary life… a child who has always been led by the voice of reason and always treated with gentleness…. Carnifex, carnifex, carnifex!” (443)

"So true it that, in every condition of life, the strong man who is guilty saves himself at the expense of the innocent who is weak.  In this manner I learned that stealing was not so terrible a thing as I had imagined, and I soon knew how to make such good use of my discovery, that nothing I desired, if it was within my reach, was safe from me" (453).

-- Education:
    -- All behavior (as well as Locke's  "Human Understanding" or knowledge) is learned: sexual perversion, criminal mind and criminal behavior
    -- Children and inherently innocent. Man is inherently innocent (note relationship to tabula rasa): "My new master, M. Ducommun, was a rough and violent young man, who in a short time succeeded in tarnishing all the brightness of my childhood, stupefying my loving and lively nature.... ... My master's tyranny at length made the work, of which I should have been very fond, altogether unbearable, and filled me with vices which I should otherwise have hated, such as idleness, lying and thieving" (451).
(Rousseau's educational philosophy more explicitly spelled out in

Crime and the criminal mind:
    -- See above re: M. Ducommun; "I considered that, if I were beaten like a rogue, I was entitled to behave as one" (454)
    -- Is created by social injustice
    -- Is created by material inequality and injustice (distribution of property): " short, everything I saw became for my heart an object of longing, simply because I was deprived of it all. ... This explains why all servants are rogues, and why all apprentices ought to be; but the latter,
in a peaceful state of equality, where all they see is within their reach, lose, as they grow up, this disgraceful propensity" (452).

Bohemian Culture:
    -- "...none of my prevailing tastes center in things that can be bought. I want nothing but unadulterated pleasures, and money poisons all" (455).

Emile (1762) (educational method/theory, novel, essay, memoir)

Rousseau's theories on education are mostly spelled out in this sprawling 500+ page work.

-- Attempt to protect, nurture and foster a child's inherent goodness
(compare to his own five children)
-- Invention of systematic progressive education
-- Consider relationship to
Genesis story of Adam and Eve and how knowledge is the source of sin and evil:  Opening of Emile:
"God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. He forces one soil to yield the products of another, one tree to bear another's fruit. [...] He destroys and defaces all things; he loves all that is deformed and monstrous; he will have nothing as nature made it, not even man himself, who must learn his paces lie a saddle-horse, and be shaped to his master's taste like the trees in his garden.
    Yet things would be worse without this education, and mankind cannot be made by halves. Under existing conditions a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster than the rest [see Shelley's
Frankenstein].  [...]
    This education comes to us from nature, from men, or from things. [...] Thus we are taught by three masters. If their teaching conflicts, the scholar is ill-educated and will never be at peace with himself; if their teaching agrees, he goes straight to his goal, he lives at peace with himself, he is well educated." (6-7)

The New Heloise (1761) (novel)

When Rousseau wasn't busy changing the way Western culture viewed nature, the criminal mind and liberty, he wrote the most popular novel of the 18th century.

-- Emphasis on romantic love and naturalism, natural goodness of man
Sentimentality and excessive emotion

Social Contract (1762) (political/social philosophy)

“Man is born free and yet everywhere he lives in chains.” (Social Contract 1:1)

Along with Locke, this treatise provided a framework for the American constitutional experiment with democracy. Likely, without it, Americans would still be subjects of the crown.  Rousseau argues:

-- Freedom is man's true condition and nature
-- Society itself inflicts tyranny and injustice
-- Man, however, must rely on man; we must form a "social contract" to protect our own freedoms from those who would otherwise enslave us
-- Freedom necessitates true democracy: all individuals must vote on all issues, or they are not, in fact, truly free
-- In order to create a free society, that society must protect the freedoms of those who don't want them protected (shades of totalitarian dictatorship).

Upon receiving a copy of The Social Contract, Voltaire wrote back to Rousseau: "I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it."

Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) (political/social philosophy)

(Written as a response to Hobbes' Leviathan and the general Enlightenment view that education and progress had improved the human condition)

"It is manifestly against the Law of Nature . . . that a handful of men wallow in luxury, while the famished multitudes lack the necessities of life."

Overview:  "Noble Savage"

-- In our natural state, compassion or love* (pité)is the natural response to human suffering; this instinct balances that of self preservation (amour de soi)
Property, and then exploiting human labor to grow one's property, is the source social inequality and, in turn, of all mankind's social ills
-- The less civilized man is the happier, nobler, and more peaceful man
-- Thus, closer relationships to natural world may offer route back toward original goodness
-- Consider relationship to
Genesis story of Adam and Eve and how coveting what another has leads to disharmony.

*Throughout the Discourse Rousseau differentiates between three kinds of "love":
amour de soi or self love.  We share this trait with all animals and it's what we now would call the instinct of self preservation
amour propre is a contaminated version of "self love": This is selfish love in which we privilege our own desires over the needs of others.  He believes it's not natural but caused by social forces (see below)
pité or compassion or empathy: This is Rousseau's radical step: love -- love of others, compassion -- must have been natural or we would never have survived as a species.  It exists before Locke's "reflection", that is: thinking or reason.

Key Points from the Discourse:

There is another principle which has escaped Hobbes; which, having been bestowed on mankind, to moderate, on certain occasions, the impetuosity of egoism, or, before its birth, the desire of self-preservation, tempers the ardour with which he pursues his own welfare, by an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer.3 I think I need not fear contradiction in holding man to be possessed of the only natural virtue, which could not be denied him by the most violent detractor of human virtue. I am speaking of compassion, which is a disposition suitable to creatures so weak and subject to so many evils as we certainly are: by so much the more universal and useful to mankind, as it comes before any kind of reflection; and at the same time so natural, that the very brutes themselves sometimes give evident proofs of it. Not to mention the tenderness of mothers for their offspring and the perils they encounter to save them from danger, it is well known that horses show a reluctance to trample on living bodies.


"I conceive that there are two kinds of inequality among the human species; one, which I call natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and consists in a difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind or of the soul: and another, which may be called moral or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or at least authorised by the consent of men. This latter consists of the different privileges, which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others; such as that of being more rich, more honoured, more powerful or even in a position to exact obedience."

"THE first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."

"Equally confined by instinct and reason to the sole care of guarding himself against the mischiefs which threaten him, he is restrained by natural compassion from doing any injury to others, and is not led to do such a thing even in return for injuries received. For, according to the axiom of the wise Locke, There can be no injury, where there is no property."

"Behold then all human faculties developed, memory and imagination in full play, egoism interested ("amour propre" in French: self-interest, self-preservation), reason active, and the mind almost at the highest point of its perfection. Behold all the natural qualities in action, the rank and condition of every man assigned him; not merely his share of property and his power to serve or injure others, but also his wit, beauty, strength or skill, merit or talents: and these being the only qualities capable of commanding respect, it soon became necessary to possess or to affect them.

It now became the interest of men to appear what they really were not. To be and to seem became two totally different things; and from this distinction sprang insolent pomp and cheating trickery, with all the numerous vices that go in their train. On the other hand, free and independent as men were before, they were now, in consequence of a multiplicity of new wants, brought into subjection, as it were, to all nature, and particularly to one another; and each became in some degree a slave even in becoming the master of other men: if rich, they stood in need of the services of others; if poor, of their assistance; and even a middle condition did not enable them to do without one another. Man must now, therefore, have been perpetually employed in getting others to interest themselves in his lot, and in making them, apparently at least, if not really, find their advantage in promoting his own. Thus he must have been sly and artful in his behaviour to some, and imperious and cruel to others; being under a kind of necessity to ill-use all the persons of whom he stood in need, when he could not frighten them into compliance, and did not judge it his interest to be useful to them. Insatiable ambition, the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another, and with a secret jealousy, which is the more dangerous, as it puts on the mask of benevolence, to carry its point with greater security. In a word, there arose rivalry and competition on the one hand, and conflicting interests on the other, together with a secret desire on both of profiting at the expense of others. All these evils were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality.

Before the invention of signs to represent riches, wealth could hardly consist in anything but lands and cattle, the only real possessions men can have. But, when inheritances so increased in number and extent as to occupy the whole of the land, and to border on one another, one man could aggrandise himself only at the expense of another; at the same time the supernumeraries, who had been too weak or too indolent to make such acquisitions, and had grown poor without sustaining any loss, because, while they saw everything change around them, they remained still the same, were obliged to receive their subsistence, or steal it, from the rich; and this soon bred, according to their different characters, dominion and slavery, or violence and rapine. The wealthy, on their part, had no sooner begun to taste the pleasure of command, than they disdained all others, and, using their old slaves to acquire new, thought of nothing but subduing and enslaving their neighbours; like ravenous wolves, which, having once tasted human flesh, despise every other food and thenceforth seek only men to devour.


It is manifestly against the Law of Nature . . . that a handful of men wallow in luxury, while the famished multitudes lack the necessities of life."