Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Jean Jacque Rousseau, one of the great philosophers of the French enlightenment, was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised by an aunt and uncle, after his mother died days after his birth. At the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to an engraver, but ran away three years later, eventually becoming the secretary for Madame Louise de Warens, who influenced his life and writings. In 1742, Rousseau went to Paris, where he became a friend of Denis Diderot, a French philosopher and the writer of Encyclopedie, the "bible" of the Enlightenment.

Rousseau was a creative writer and used everything from opera to novels and romances to explain his philosophy. He believed that human beings are inherently good, but are corrupted by the evils of society. He considered science, art and social institutions to be a part of what corrupts. He believed that the only way to get back to that goodness that human beings are born with is to be as close to nature as possible.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau explained his political theories, which would later influence the writers of the United States Constitution as well as the leaders of the French Revolution. "Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains." Because humans are corrupted by society, all people must enter into a social contract that requires people to recognize a collective "good will," which represents the common good or public interest. All citizens should participate and should be committed to the good of all, even if it is not in their personal best interest. He believed that living for the common good promotes liberty and equality.

Rousseau was a big supporter of education. "We are born weak, we need strength; helpless we need aid; foolish we need reason. All that we lack at birth, all that we need when we come to man’s estate, is the gift of education." His novel Emile emphasizes how allowing free expression and a focus on the environment instead of repressing curiosity will produce a well-balanced, freethinking child. He also believed that women needed to be educated as well as men, but in different directions. Women, according to Rousseau, were not meant to be brought up ignorant and only allowed to do housework. "Nature means them to think, to will, to love cultivate their minds as well as their persons; she [Nature] puts these weapons in their hands to make up for their lack of strength and to enable them to direct the strength of men. They should learn many things, but only such things as suitable." Rousseau was not only remarkable because he believed that a child's education should be focused on his/her interests, but also because he believed that women need to learn more than simply domestic chores.

After years of moving from place to place because his ideas were unpopular with government officials, Rousseau died in 1778 in Ermenonville, France.

Classroom Discussion Questions:

If Rousseau were alive today, how would he answer the question, "Which is more powerful, love or hate?"

In a historical context, what would Rousseau think was the greatest
challenge facing humankind during his lifetime?

According to Rousseau, what is the root cause of greed?

Rousseau believed that science, art, and social institutions corrupted human beings from their natural goodness. What modern examples do you think he would have been the most against?

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