Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Modern philosophy

Rousseau was an 18th century Geneva philosopher (1712-1778). He left Geneva for Savoy and then Paris, seeking to earn a living as a musician. He is particularly famous for his work The Social Contract, but also for The Confessions, the first autobiography in French literature. His works were condemned by the Parliament of Paris. With a difficult temperament, he fell out (among others) with Voltaire. Ironically, he is buried opposite the latter's tomb in the Panthéon!

Rousseau's works summarised on this site

coming soon

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men

In this work Rousseau develops an original conception of man in the state of nature, which poses in a new way the problem of inequality between men.

coming soon

The Social Contract

In this work, Rousseau introduces his famous notion of the general will, which represents the foundation of popular sovereignty.


Here are the essential books if you wish to better understand this author's thought:

Virioli, Maurizio (2003), Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the "Well-Ordered Society", Cambridge University Press
Simpson, Matthew (2006). Rousseau's Theory of Freedom. London: Continuum Books
Riley, Patrick (ed.) (2001). The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Melzer, Arthur (1990). The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau's Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Gauthier, David (2006). Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Recommended videos

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Biography: life of Rousseau


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva. His family, originally from France, (from Monthléry near Paris), moved to Switzerland to escape persecution against Protestants.

This was a family of watchmakers, from father to son.

His mother died nine days after he was born. Ten years later, his father fled Geneva, to escape justice, following a dispute with an influential notable. It was his brother-in-law, a Protestant pastor, and his wife who brought up the young Jean-Jacques from then on.

Rapidly, he was placed in a boarding school with Pastor Lambercier in Bossey near Geneva. He stayed there for two years.

He apprenticed as a clerk, then as an engraver, but mistreated, Rousseau preferred to flee. He was sixteen at the time.

His wandering led him to take refuge with the parish priest of Confignon, who referred him to the Baroness Mme de Warens, who was in charge of conversions to Catholicism. He fell in love with her, and converted.

A few years later, she became his mistress, and they then moved to Les Charmettes, near Chambéry, in France. Rousseau was twenty-two years old at the time.

He devoured the books in the estate library. Self-educated, he had never received any intellectual training of any quality to speak of, other than that which came from his own reading.

He enjoys walking in the surrounding countryside, his head full of thoughts and reveries.

He gives music lessons to young girls from the local bourgeoisie. His health was frail and he was sent to Montpellier to consult a doctor.

After making a few contacts with Lyon's good society, he decided to try his luck in Paris.

In Paris

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It was at the age of thirty that Jean-Jacques Rousseau moved to Paris. At the time, he thought he would make a career as a composer. He had invented a new system of musical notation, replacing the staff with an encrypted system, and presented his project to the Académie des Sciences. It was rejected, as it was already known and not very effective.

He made the acquaintance of Diderot, who was just as unknown as he was at the time, and frequented the Parisian salons. He worked as a tutor, or secretary, to some of the noble families he knew there.

He lived in a common-law relationship with Thérèse Levasseur, a young washerwoman, who gave him five children, all of whom were entrusted to the Assistance publique.

He met Condillac, d'Alembert, and Voltaire, with whom he later fell out, and wrote articles on music for the Encyclopédie, at Diderot's request.

It was in 1750, at the age of thirty-eight, that he found fame. The Académie de Dijon organised a writing competition, around the question "Has the progress of science and the arts contributed to corrupting or purifying morals?"

Rousseau entered the competition on Diderot's advice. He wrote his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, supporting the idea that progress is a source of corruption, and won first prize. It provoked numerous reactions, including that of Frederick II, which brought the author real notoriety.

Abandoning his posts as tutor and secretary, he then devoted himself to writing, but kept a food job as a copyist of musical scores.

He composed an opera performed before the King, which met with great success, but he did not appear before Louis XV, with the result that he did not obtain the pension to which he would have been entitled.

In 1754, the Dijon Academy launched a second competition. This time, Rousseau wrote the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, which had as great an impact as the first, prompting reactions from Voltaire, for example.

Rousseau is now famous.

Fame, exile and solitude

Returning to Geneva for a few months, he became a Protestant again and reunited with Mme de Warens.

He moves to l'Ermitage, in the forest of Montmorency.

He distances himself from the Encyclopaedists, because of a fundamental problem: they believe in the virtues of progress, whereas he supports the opposite idea. Also because of little sentences that Rousseau considered (probably wrongly) addressed against him, and complicated love intrigues.

Isolated at the Hermitage, he became increasingly misanthropic but he began work on his new book, Julie or the New Heloise, an epistolary novel that became a huge bestseller when it appeared, in 1761.

The year 1762 was eventful: he had The Social Contract and Emile or On Education published back-to-back. That same year he was forced into exile in Switzerland after his works were condemned by the Paris Parliament. Having become undesirable in Geneva itself, he found refuge at the court of Frederick II, an enlightened monarch, King of Prussia.

Target of criticism and mockery, both from religious people (the Catholic Church quickly put the Emile on the Index) and philosophers (Voltaire and the Encyclopedists), Rousseau, bruised in his pride, wrote the Confessions to defend himself from these accusations, between 1765 and 1770.

He went to England, at Hume's invitation, in 1766, but the two philosophers fell out, following intrigues by the Encyclopaedists. This English exile therefore only lasted a year.

He returned to France and, still under threat of condemnation by the Paris Parliament, lived for some time under an assumed name. Rousseau, considering that a general plot was being hatched against him, became very touchy, and very suspicious, bordering on a delusion of persecution. He even goes so far as to suspect the loyal friends who come to visit him.

End of life

His life of wandering continues: he lives successively in Oise, near Grenoble, in Bourgoin-Jailleu, in Isère, in Lyon, then returns to Paris in 1770. He lived by copying music.

Passionate about botany, which he was able to practise at random during his many walks, he published a book presenting his herborisation work.

In 1776, he began writing his last work the Reveries of the Solitary Walker, which would not appear until posthumously, in 1782, as would The Confessions.

In 1778, while staying at the château d'Ermenonville, in the Oise department, he suffered a stroke. He died at the age of sixty-six.

His remains were transferred to the Panthéon sixteen years later, at the time of the French Revolution. His coffin was placed opposite that of Voltaire, his illustrious enemy.

Main works

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men
Emile or On Education
The Social Contract
The Confessions
Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques