Key Thinker: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Key thinker: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in the independent city-state of Geneva (now part of Switzerland). Rousseau and his brother were raised by his father—his mother had died only a few days after giving birth ( Though Rousseau received little formal education, his father’s makeshift lessons ensured that he learned about republicanism and read classical literature ( When Rousseau’s father got into trouble with the Geneva authorities, he fled the city, leaving Jean-Jacques to live with his mother’s family. At the age of sixteen, Rousseau also decided to leave Geneva. After wandering aimlessly through Europe, he eventually settled in Savoy, France, where he won the patronage (and the affections) of a wealthy Baroness ( With the Baroness’ help, Rousseau travelled to Turin, Italy to work as a servant for a noble family. In the following years, he would find work as a musician, music copyist, and teacher. He later returned to the Baroness in 1731 to run her household and nurture his talents in philosophy and music.

In 1742, he moved to Paris to present a system of musical notation he had invented to the Academie des Sciences. While his system was certainly impressive, even outright ingenious, for someone with so little formal training, Rousseau’s system was rejected by the Academie ( From 1743 to 1744 he acted as secretary to the French ambassador to Venice, but left the post in acrimonious circumstances. Back in Paris, Rousseau met Denis Diderot, the French Enlightenment thinker famous for editing the Encyclopédie (Rousseau penned several contributions to the volume). A few years later, he wrote a prize-winning essay, the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750), for the Academy of Dijon, which earned him a reputation as a fiercely independent thinker ( ‘first discourse' is still considered one of his most important texts; it was his first successful published philosophical work and sketched out many of the ideas about the tensions between nature and society that would reappear in his later work.

Rousseau was often at odds with his fellow philosophers: having quarrelled with his Parisian friends including Diderot, Rousseau returned to Geneva where he wrote his controversial Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1755). Between 1761 and 1762, Rousseau published Emile (1761), a treatise on education, and The Social Contract (1762), the work he is perhaps best known for today ( By then Rousseau had lost any sympathy for organized religion—both Emile and The Social Contract were denounced in Geneva and Paris for their religious heterodoxy ( In May 1763, Rousseau renounced his Genevan citizenship and, with the city authorities looking to arrest him, he was forced to flee to Switzerland. At the invitation of David Hume, he eventually made his way to England in 1766.

In England, Rousseau struggled with mental instability and paranoia, as he became increasingly convinced that his benefactor, Hume, was part of a plot against him ( He returned to France in 1767 under an assumed identity, only gaining official permission to return to Paris three years later. Rousseau would spend the rest of his life completing his autobiographical work, Confessions (1782), and other political texts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau died in Ermenonville on 2 July 1778. He was 66 years old. In the following years, Rousseau’s radical philosophical ideas went on to inspire the Jacobin faction of the French Revolution; Rousseau himself became a national hero. In 1794, his remains were transported from the original burial site on the Île des Peupliers to the Panthéon in Paris (


In The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau uses social contract theory to explain the origins of government (see 9.2.1. Mass Sovereignty). But unlike other social contract theorists like Hobbes (see Chapter 5 on Thomas Hobbes) or Locke (see Chapter 7 on John Locke) he rejects the assumption that human beings are selfish, aggressive, or brute. Rousseau doesn’t believe that human beings are sociable by nature; rather, socialization is a process that happens to human beings over time (see 9.2.2. Solitary by Nature). Rousseau’s state of nature, then, is not an attempt to narrate early human history, but a theoretical device that allows him to show that hierarchies and inequalities are neither necessary nor natural (see Key Concept: Inequality).

Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (1754) challenges the idea that freedom is tied to private property. He instead argues that the institution of property is the ‘original sin’ of humanity, pitting individuals against each other (see 9.2.2. Solitary by Nature). In the original state of nature, people felt amore de soi—genuine regard for oneself. Once private property had been introduced, this was replaced by amore-propre—a feeling of self-esteem that could only be generated by comparing one's condition to that of others. This led to the development of societies in which class distinctions or differences in status and occupation were reinforced, and where those few who have economic and cultural power can preserve a social order based on fear and envy. 

A legitimate social order must therefore be based on the ‘general will’ of the people (see Key Concept: General Will). Rousseau distinguishes between the self-centred desires of the individual and a more enlightened sense of obedience to the common good. He argues that a group only expresses a general will if it prioritizes the common good over individual advantages that might divide them. The ‘general will’ is therefore the utmost expression of popular sovereignty (see 9.2. Revolutionary Agenda). For Rousseau, a just society allows for natural self-love to expand and embrace the well-being of others. Because the ‘general will’ could threaten the interests of minority elite, however, an illegitimate sovereign could try to maintain its power by sowing seeds of division, or by directly preventing the people from assembling.

Rousseau’s writing is marked by its subversive potential: the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre (see Key thinker: Maximilien Robespierre) and Karl Marx (see Chapter 12 on Karl Marx) were both inspired by his radical ideas. More than two centuries after Rousseau’s death, his egalitarian political philosophy continues to be an important source for radical ideas about democracy. Moreover, Rousseau’s indispensable critique of private property and social hierarchies has since been incorporated by a wide range of movements which have challenged prevailing inequalities in contemporary society.

Though Rousseau was a radical utopian thinker who rejected all social hierarchies and inequalities, his egalitarianism certainly had its limits. For Rousseau, women were confined to the domestic sphere and could not participate in exercising popular sovereignty. His promise of emancipation also did not apply to enslaved people. Rousseau often employs slavery as an argumentative device, while ignoring the actual institution of transatlantic slavery which was thriving throughout the eighteenth century (see 9.4. Conclusion: Limits and Legacies).

Further reading

Cohen, Joshua (2011) Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gordon, Jane Anna (2014) Creolizing Political Theory: Reading Rousseau through Fanon, New York: Fordham University Press.

Hallward, Peter (2011) ‘Fanon and Political Will’, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 7:1, 104-127.

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