Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Freedom Fighter

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712, in Geneva, Switzerland. Rousseau’s mother died soon after his birth, and by the age of twelve, abandoned by his father, Rousseau traveled from home to home, staying with family members, employers, patrons, and lovers. Around 1742, Rousseau, who was now living in Paris and working as a music teacher and music copier, befriended Diderot, one of the major figures of the Enlightenment. Eventually, Rousseau would also become known as a key figure of the Enlightenment, though his relationship with its ideals and others associated with the movement were complex.

Rousseau’s first recognition came in 1750, with his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. The Academy of Dijon held an essay contest based on the question of whether or not the restoration of the sciences and arts had the tendency to purify morals, and Rousseau, who won the prize, argued that morals and goodness were corrupted by the advancement of civilization (an idea that would be common throughout his later philosophical texts). Rousseau continued to produce noteworthy texts (such as his famous political text, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) and grew in popularity. In 1762, however, his popularity came crashing down with the publication of his books The Social Contract and Èmile. The books were met with great controversy and outcry, which included public burnings in Paris and Geneva, and the French monarchy ordered his arrest. Rousseau fled France and ultimately resided in the Swiss town of Neuchâtel, where he not only renounced his Genevan citizenship but also started working on his famous autobiography, Confessions.

Rousseau eventually returned to France and sought refuge with British philosopher David Hume. On July 2, 1778, Rousseau died suddenly. In 1794, during the French Revolution, the new revolutionary government, whose views were vastly different than the monarchy’s, ordered that Rousseau’s ashes were to be placed in the Pantheon in Paris, and that he was to be honored as a national hero.

The common theme throughout most of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s important philosophical work relates to the ideas of freedom, morality, and the state of nature. His work laid the foundations of the French and American Revolutions and had an incredible impact on Western philosophy.