The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau | Biography


Early Years

Born June 28, 1712, in Geneva, Switzerland, Jean-Jacques Rousseau became an immensely influential thinker in art, religion, and political philosophy. His mother, Suzanne Bernard, died shortly after his birth, leaving his father, Isaac Rousseau, to raise him. A watchmaker, Rousseau's father elevated his social status through marriage but eventually had to escape Geneva when he became embroiled in a dispute.

Prior to his departure, Isaac Rousseau had instilled into the young Rousseau a love of Geneva, where he, as a citizen, had voting rights. He also cultivated a love of reading, which, in turn, inspired intense romantic ideas about life.

Rousseau was left in Geneva with an uncle and later sent away to school. At 13 he was apprenticed to a notary and then an engraver, the latter of whom beat him. Having run away at 15, he eventually came under the protection of a noblewoman, the Baroness of Warens. A convert to Catholicism, Warens was instrumental in Rousseau's conversion, which resulted in his relinquishing his Genevan citizenship.

Rousseau's relationship with the baroness, who was separated from her husband, was complicated. He lived with her at various points, eventually becoming her lover when he turned 20. She often supported him financially and also provided for his religious and music education. In addition, having surrounded herself with the educated Catholic elite, she introduced him to the world of ideas.

Eventually, Rousseau began studying in earnest—mathematics, music, and philosophy, especially—and in his late 20s became a tutor in Lyon. After having developed a new system of musical notation, Rousseau moved to Paris in 1742 to present it to the Académie des Sciences. Though they rejected it as impractical, the Académie acknowledged Rousseau's mastery of the subject matter and encouraged him to continue working on it.

During a brief posting as secretary to the French ambassador to Venice, Rousseau developed a love of Italian opera. He would later write a popular opera, The Village Soothsayer, which was performed in 1752 for King Louis XV. Delighted with the work, the king offered Rousseau a lifelong pension, which he declined. Such decisions would become almost commonplace, rooted as they were in Rousseau's political views.

An essay entitled Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, which won first prize in an essay contest in 1750, established Rousseau's reputation. In it he argued that humans, who are basically good by nature, are corrupted by the arts and sciences. The basic thesis about human goodness became the foundation of his later political works.

During his time in Paris, Rousseau also became a friend of French philosopher Denis Diderot, whose Encyclopédie (1772) he copublished with French mathematician and philosopher Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. These philosophers were at the center of French intellectual life. United by the commitment to rationality, the French intellectuals wrote on an array of topics. Rousseau contributed music articles, as well as an important essay on political economy, which was published in 1755. The Encyclopédie became the repository of French Enlightenment achievements.

Rousseau's personal life continued to be complicated. He became involved with a seamstress, Thérèse Levasseur, and he had at least one child with her. He persuaded Levasseur to give the infant up to an orphanage. Eventually, he took her and her mother in as servants, supporting them and the rest of their family.

Period of Intense and Prolific Writing

Rousseau returned to Geneva in 1754, reconverted to Calvinism (branch of Protestantism), and regained his citizenship. He also became embroiled in a controversy that resulted in a falling out with Diderot and the Encyclopédistes. Rousseau's romantic spiritualism, for example, contrasted starkly with Diderot's atheism. This did not, however, prove to be an obstacle to a prodigious output: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755); Discourse on Political Economy (published in the fifth volume of the Encyclopédie, 1755); Letter to d'Alembert (1758); Julie, or The New Heloise (1761); Émile or On Education or Émile (1762); The Social Contract (1762); Dictionary of Music (1768); Confessions (1782); Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques (1780); and Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782).

The novels Julie and Émile were, respectively, popular and infamous. The former influenced romanticism, and the latter, education. In Émile Rousseau included a defense of religious belief; because it rejected original sin and divine revelation, both Protestant and Catholic authorities took offense. His books, and Rousseau himself, were banned in France and Geneva.

With arrest warrants out, Rousseau fled. He received various invitations, including one from French writer Voltaire, and eventually, with protection from Frederick the Great of Prussia, landed in a principality ruled by Frederick. There, however, he was hounded by religious critics and eventually left. He spent a brief time on a small island in Switzerland before he was instructed to leave.

Arriving in Paris, Rousseau met the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, with whom he would develop a short-lived friendship. He also reconnected with various friends. Conspicuously absent, however, was Diderot. They were never reconciled, for reasons unknown. Similarly, Rousseau eventually had a falling-out with Hume, who hosted him in Britain during a visit.

Last Days

Though there was still an arrest warrant out for him in France, Rousseau returned there under an assumed name. He continued writing, studied botany, and variously engaged his many critics. On July 2, 1778, Rousseau died from a stroke.


Rousseau never shied away from complexity. He celebrated nature and solitude but also advocated civil life as essential. He criticized the corrupting power of the arts but also wrote novels and operas. He insisted on the primacy of human freedom but also argued that such freedom is best supported by being forced into interactions with society. He was largely uneducated but was still one of the most successful thinkers of his generation and beyond. He was averse to revolutions but was an inspiration to revolutionaries.

Rousseau's influence is not limited to individual thinkers. Indeed, entire movements and founding documents of new nations can trace significant ideas to him. His Social Contract was an inspiration to the Society of the Jacobins (radical French revolutionaries) and others during the French Revolution (1789–99; a period of social and political upheaval), and his ideas were influential both in American politician Thomas Jefferson's creation of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and in the writing of the Federalist Papers (1788; a series of essays in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution).
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