French writer and political theorist of the Enlightenment, Rousseau's work inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and the romantic generation.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on 28 June 1712. His mother died when he was young, and Rousseau was initially brought up by his father, a watchmaker. He left Geneva aged 16 and travelled around France, where he met his benefactress, the Baronnesse de Warens, who gave him the education that turned him into a philosopher.
Rousseau reached Paris in 1742 and soon met Denis Diderot, another provincial man seeking literary fame. They formed the core of the intellectual group, the 'Philosophes'. Eschewing an easy life as a popular composer, in 1750 he published his first important work 'A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts' (1750). Its central theme was that man had become corrupted by society and civilisation. In 1755, he published 'Discourse on the Origin of Inequality'. He claimed that original man, while solitary, was happy, good and free. The vices dated from the formation of societies, which brought comparisons and, with that, pride. 'The Social Contract' of 1762 suggested how man might recover his freedom in the future. It argued that a state based on a genuine social contract would give men real freedom in exchange for their obedience to a self-imposed law. Rousseau described his civil society as united by a general will, furthering the common interest while occasionally clashing with personal interest.
Increasingly unhappy in Paris, Rousseau travelled to Montmorency. While there, he produced 'Èmile', a treatise on education and 'The New Eloise' (1761). This novel escaped the censors and was the most widely read of all his works. Its freedom with emotion was in tune with developing romanticism and won him many important fans. But it scandalised the French authorities, who burned it and ordered Rousseau's arrest. He travelled to England, a guest of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, but grew unhappy and secretly returned to France.
In his last 10 years, Rousseau wrote his 'Confessions', justifying himself against his opponents. He died on 2 July 1778 in Ermenonville, the estate of the Marquis de Girardin, who had given him refuge.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.