*Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau



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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

French (Swiss-born), 1712–1778
Jean-Jacques Rousseau published nothing that could be called an essay, in the sense that even his late confessional works, although obviously personal in tone, as the essay must be, are not written in the objective style demanded by the essay form. However, Rousseau’s earlier, often polemical works of philosophical speculation, even when called discours (discourses), present their case in a form nearer to essay than to treatise, and the longer works like Julie; ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), ostensibly a novel, and Émile; ou, De I’éducation (1762), ostensibly a treatise on education, each contain speculative passages which could easily be regarded as selfcontained essays. Neither confines itself to the form in which it starts. Sometimes Rousseau disguises an essay as a letter, as to d’Alembert on the theater (1758). Both the Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences) and the Discours sur I’origine et les fondements de I’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755; A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) were actually written as prize essays for the Dijon Academy, and Du contrat social (1762; The Social Contract) itself, the 18th century’s best-known treatise on political philosophy, is speculative and personal enough to be categorized more suitably as an essay.
Rousseau never wanted to write. He had no formal education, and his consciousness of a lack of grace about his person, clothing, dress, appearance, and manners always eroded his self-confidence. He established for himself the circumstances of life which allowed him to think out as far as possible from first principles—without intellectual or social constraints from outside—the major truths about God, humanity, nature, life, art, education, love, society, and death. The focus of his interest was emotionally inspired activity of all sorts. He was aware that the results of his work were part theory, part dream, never completely coherent or even internally consistent.
Until he was 37, Rousseau had written nothing except libretti for his own music. Then, in the summer of 1749, the Dijon Academy announced a prize to be offered for an essay on the subject, “Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification of morals?” Rousseau changed the title to include the possibility that they had contributed rather to their corruption, wrote A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, and won the prize.
He later said that what he wrote in the first flush of inspiration was the oration of Fabricius, at the end of the first part of the published discourse, in which he laments the decadence wrought by luxury and science. The essay ends with a plea to strive for simplicity, virtue, and obedience to the inner voice of conscience.
The second, better-known Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, on the origins and basis of inequality among human beings, is the most powerful of Rousseau’s early works, although in response to the invitation to write about both the origins and the basis it moves bewilderingly from an historical account of the development of human social organization to the discussion of constitutional principles. Essentially Rousseau’s point of view is moral, extrapolating primitive human innocence from what is artificial and morally corrupt in the present state of society. He does not yearn for an impossible return to humanity’s primitive state, prior to the creation of society and morality, but points to the fact that the social order at present rests, and always has rested, on relations of subservience between those who should be equals. He draws on the tradition established by Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) that human liberty, unlike goods which can be bought and sold, is inalienable by contract. The need for corporate activities, like hunting and cultivating the soil, created both society and ownership, so that Rousseau does not need to presuppose that society was created by a contract, which could become binding only by virtue of the morality which was itself the result of the existence of society.
Rousseau’s most famous essay is the unsatisfactory Social Contract, a work he himself came to think needed rewriting. Its four books are devoted respectively to the nature of society, the nature of sovereignty, the different forms of government, and the administrative institutions appropriate to each. The published text of 1762 can be seen to have grown out of an earlier article on political economy, out of other material prepared for the “Institutions politiques” abandoned in 1758, and out of the Geneva manuscript of The Sociat Contract itself. The definitive text sets out from the premise that, since we are born free, our subjection to government must be the result of free assent to a social pact with our fellows. The famous opening declaration, “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains,” must refer to political freedom, although the second sentence understands freedom in a moral sense: “A man may believe himself the master of others and yet be more enslaved than they are.”
Rousseau is here going no further than the natural law school of political theorists derived from Justinian’s Digest through Aquinas and Grotius to Samuel Pufendorf. What is new in Rousseau is the inalienability of political liberty, even by the contract, an idea which Rousseau took from the Calvinist Johannes Althusius’ Politica (1603). Rousseau’s essay begins from the eighth chapter of the second book to be heavily dependent on Montesquieu’s De I’esprit des lois (1748; The Spirit of Laws), whose reliance on the Roman concept of virtue Rousseau incorporates, and whose argument he quite closely follows, although his social philosophy is by no means the same.
In fact, Rousseau’s desire to follow John Locke and the English liberals clashes with his fundamental concepts of moral and political liberty, so that there are several inconsistencies in his argument, as in the need he sees for a legislator, in society’s right to impose the death penalty, in his admission that his democratic ideal was unattainable, and in the notion of civil liberties, where he allows that when the individual can be forced to follow the general will, “he will be forced to be free.” Rousseau argues against Locke that the social contract can have only one form, and, unlike Montesquieu and Voltaire, he was uncompromisingly republican. He was, however, clearly thinking only of small societies in which corruption was not necessarily endemic, like Corsica and Geneva.
Like The Social Contract, Rousseau’s Émile further draws out the principles implicit in the first two discourses. Émile only begins as a treatise on education, eventually turning into a Bildungsroman, but it contends that a child is born innocent and is educated through its feelings, and at least the work’s earlier portion can be regarded as an essay, as no doubt can the nationalistic Considérations sur le gouvernement de la Pologne (1782.; Considerations on the Government of Poland)—not, however, intended for publication.
Only by stretching the meaning of the term essay to include a mixture of anecdote and intimate personal confidence can Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; Reveries of the Solitary Walker) be said to belong to the genre. The ten promenades are a mixture of anecdote and confessional introversion, very possibly an attempt to ward off the paranoia which they describe, and with which Rousseau felt himself threatened. They were written in the wake of the psychological crisis he suffered after his readings of the autobiographical Confessions were banned, and are not polished literary pieces, but indications of varying moods, certainly of greater psychological and biographical than literary interest. The eighth starts with a reference to “meditating” on his soul’s feeling in all the situations he has experienced, and it is perhaps better to look on the Reveries as meditations or “rêveries” (daydreams) than to regard them as essays, since they lack formal structure. There are philosophical reflections throughout the text, as on the mutability of things, but they seldom warrant being referred to as insights, however interestingly they reveal Rousseau’s own intimate feelings.
Rousseau took the essay very near the genre of formal treatise, keeping it distinct only through intrusive personal speculation. His frequent exploitation of the dialogue, epistolary, and fictional forms showed that he needed a genre which openly admitted the expression of speculative opinions based on personal feelings and allowed play to his imagination. Nonetheless, the two discourses and The Social Contract are genuine essays, however marginal their influence on the development of the essay as a literary form in France, especially once pre-Romantics such as Chateaubriand gave full rein to the expression of their views, even on abstract, theoretical subjects, as inspired by personal feeling.


Born 28 June 1712 in Geneva. Apprenticed to an engraver, 1725–28. Left Geneva to travel, 1728; converted to Catholicism in Turin, 1728; lived with or near Madame de Warens, Annecy and Chambéry, 1729–42, then moved to Paris. Secretary to the French Ambassador to Venice, 1743–44. Began liaison with Thérèse Levasseur, 1745 (married her, 1768): five children (all given to foundling hospital). Music copyist, 17505; returned to Geneva, reverted to Protestantism, and regained citizenship, 1754; moved to Montmorency, 1756; condemned for religious unorthodoxy, 1762, and fled to Switzerland, first to Neuchâtel, 1762–65, then to Bienne, 1765; renounced Geneva citizenship, 1763; visited England, 1766–67; lived in Paris, from 1770; moved to Ermenonville, 1778. Award: Dijon Academy Prize, for Discours sur les sciences et les arts, 1749. Died (of apoplexy) in Ermenonville, 2 July 1778.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Discours sur les sciences et les arts, 1750; edited by George R. Havens, 1946, and Gérald Allard, 1988; as A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, translated anonymously, 1752, and by Roger D. and Judith R.Masters, in The First and Second Discourses, 1964, and Victor Gourevitch, 1986
Discours sur I’origine et les fondements de I’inégalité parmi les hommes, 1755; edited by Bertrand de Jouvenal, 1982, Jean Starobinski, 1989, and Gérald Allard, 1993; as A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, translated by G.D.H.Cole, 1952, Roger D. and Judith R.Masters, in The First and Second Discourses, 1964, Maurice Cranston, 1984, Victor Gourevitch, 1986, Donald A.Cress, 1992, and Franklin Philip, 1994
Discours sur I’économie politique, 1758; edited by Barbara de Negroni, 1990; as Discourse on Political Economy, edited by Roger D.Masters, translated by Judith R.Masters, 1978, and Christopher Betts, 1994
Lettre á d’Alembert sur les spectacles, 1758; edited by M.Fuchs, 1948; as A Letter to M.d’Alembert, translated anonymously, 1759, and by Allan Bloom, in Miscellaneous Writings, 1960
Du contrat social; ou, Principes du droit politique, 1762; edited by C.E.Vaughan, 1918, and Jean-Pierre Siméon, 1977; as A Treatise on the Social Compact, translated anonymously, 1764; as The Social Contract, with The Discourses, translated by G.D.H. Cole, 1913, translation revised by J.H.Brumfitt and John C. Hall, 1973; as On the Social Contract, edited by Roger D. Masters, translated by Judith R.Masters, 1978;
as Of the Social Contract, or, Principles of Political Right, with Discourse on Political Economy, translated by Charles M.Sherover, 1984; as On the Social Contract, translated by Donald A.Cress, 1987; as The Social Contract, translated by Christopher Betts, 1994
Lettres écrites de la montagne, 1764
Essai sur I’origine des langues, 1781; edited by Charles Porset, 1976, Pierre-Yves Bourdil, 1987, and Catherine Kintzler, 1993; as On the Origin of Language, translated by John H.Moran and Alexander Gode, 1966
Considérations sur le gouvernement de la Pologne, 1782; as Considerations on the Government of Poland, translated by Willmoore Kendall, 1947, and Frederick Watkins, 1953
Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, 1782; edited by Marcel Raymond, 1948, and John S.Spink, 1948; as The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, translated anonymously, 1783;
as The Reveries of a Solitary…, translated by John Gould Fletcher, 1927; as Reveries of the Solitary Walker, translated by Peter France, 1979
Political Writings, edited and translated by Frederick Watkins, 1953
The First and Second Discourses, edited by Roger D.Masters, translated by Roger D.Masters and Judith R.Masters, 1964
Lettres philosophiques, edited by Henri Gouhier, 1974
The First and Second Discourse Together with the Replies to Critics; and Essay on the Origins of Languages, edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch, 1986
Basic Political Writings, edited and translated by Donald A.Cress, 1987
Selections, edited and translated by Maurice Cranston, 1988
Political Writings: New Translations, Interpretive Notes, Backgrounds, Commentaries, edited by Alan Ritter and Julia Conaway Bondanella, translated by Bondanella, 1988

Other writings: fictional works (including Julie; ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse, 1761; Émile; ou, De I’éducation, 1762), two volumes of autobiography (Les Confessions, 1782–89), a pastoral opera, correspondence, and philosophical and political works.
Collected works editions: OEeuvres complètes (Piéiade Edition), edited by Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond, 4 vols., 1959–69 (out of projected 5); OEuvres completes (Intègrale Edition), edited by Michel Launay, 3 vols., 1967–71; The Collected Writings (various translators), edited by Roger D.Masters and Christopher Kelly, 3 vols., 1990–92
(in progress).

McEachern, Jo-Ann, Bibliography of the Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to 1800, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2 vols., 1989–93
Senelier, Jean, Bibliographie générale des oeuvres de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949
Trousson, R., “Quinze Années d’études rousseauistes,” DixHuitième Siècle 9 (1977)

Further Reading
Blum, Carol, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986
Broome, J., Rousseau: A Study of His Thought, London: Edward Arnold, 1963
Cranston, Maurice, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, London: Allen Lane, 2 vols., 1983–91 (in progress; 3 vols. projected)
Crocker, Lester G., Jean-]acques Rousseau: The Quest (1712–1758) and The Prophetic Voice (1758–1778), New York: Macmillan, 2 vols., 1968–73
Derathé, Robert, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la science politique de son temps, Paris: Librairie Philosophique, 2nd edition, 1970
Guéhenno, Jean, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Columbia University Press, 2 vols., 1966
Havens, George R., Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Boston: Twayne, 1978
Masters, Roger D., The Political Philosophy of Rousseau, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976
Melzer, Arthur M., The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau’s Thought, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990
Miller, James, Rousseau, Dreamer of Democracy, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1984

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