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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778) was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. He is primarily known for his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, The Social Contract, and Émile. Rousseau was a highly controversial figure and spent most of his years writing and traveling.

Biographical Sketch

Early Life

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born a watchmaker's son in the Protestant Republic of Geneva on June 28, 1712. Tragically, his mother would die in childbirth. Rousseau became close to his father, who constantly read with the child to expand his young mind. However, his father abandoned him after a legal quarrel with a wealthy landowner, and Rousseau would find himself in en pension with the country pastor Jean-Jacques Lambercier. As a young man, Rousseau worked as a pupil clerk and an apprentice engraver but suffered greatly at the hands of his master until he finally left Geneva in 1728 for France. Rousseau would find himself in the care of Mme de Warens, whose job was to convert protestants and who was well known for her kindness to Protestant refugees and young men. She civilized Rousseau, grooming him for polite society where he learned philosophy, mathematics, and most importantly to him, music. In just a few years after taking him in, she schooled him in the ways of love and "intimacy."


Rousseau in Paris

After gaining his inheritance in Geneva and living off of the kindness of Mme de Warens, Rousseau settled in France in 1742. Once there, he developed a system of musical notation and presented this invention to the Academie Des Sciences, which was rejected but still praised. In 1743, Rousseau wrote his first opera Les Muses Galantes, one of seven operas. Throughout his time, he would engage with Jean-Philippe Rameau, arguing the superiority of Italian over French music. However, Rousseau abandoned the theater completely because he decided to break from civil values seeing them as corruptive. While in Paris, Rousseau would become the lover of Thérèse Levasseur, by which they would produce five children, abandoning them all. Additionally in Paris, Rousseau would write several Encyclopédie articles over music for his friend Denis Diderot and submit his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in 1750 to the Académie de Dijon. The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences argued that the progression of the arts and sciences had led to the corruption of humanity instead of moralizing it. Rousseau was awarded the first prize, which gained him significant fame.

Rousseau in Geneva

Rousseau returned to Geneva in 1754 and reconverted to Calvinism. The next year, he finished the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, which expanded his arguments of the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. It argued that humanity was good in a state of nature, but civil society corrupted individuals through private property, which was the source of all inequality. While in Geneva, Rousseau obtained a patroness Mme. d'Épinay, and pursued a romantic attachment with her sister Sophie d'Houdetot, inspiring his epistolary novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse in 1761. Julie would argue for the spiritual origin of the soul and the universe, rejecting French materialism. In time, conflict would arise between Mme. d'Épinay and Rousseau, leading to a fallout with the Encyclopédistes. In 1762, Rousseau published Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right, which presented the public with ideas about gaining political liberty the legitimacy of government, and General Will. A month after, he published Emile, or On Education, which is considered a precursor to modern theories of education.

Later Life and Death

The Social Contract and Émile would anger those in Geneva and France due to their ideas concerning Religion, causing both countries to burn these works. Following this controversy, Rousseau became a fugitive in 1763, spending the majority of the decade moving from country to country. While abroad, he would write trivial works, not gaining the same amount of fame, and would be taken in by thinkers such as David Hume. Not surprisingly, Rousseau would have a falling out with Hume and secretly returned to France to marry Thérèse in 1768. He would spend the remaining years of his life defending himself against the accusations of those he had quarreled with. Rousseau died in 1789, but his story would live on after the publication of his Confessions four years after his death.


First Discourse on Arts and Science

Second Discourse on Inequalities



- Audiobook

The Social Contract



- Audiobook




- Audiobook

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