Jean Jacques Rousseau
(1712–1778), Swiss — author, philosopher
Son of Isaac Rousseau (1655–1747), a clockmaker, and his wife, Suzanne née Bernard (1673–1712). His mother died in childbirth and his father had to flee Geneva and left him in the care of relations as a child; he had no formal education. In 1728 he left Geneva for Annecy, where he became general factotum and lover to Françoise Louise Eléonore de La Tour, baronne de Warens. In 1741 he went to Paris to present a new musical notation scheme to the Académie des Sciences; it was rejected. Appointed secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, the comte de Montaigu, in 1743, he returned the following year to Paris, where he became a friend of Denis Diderot and composed articles for the Encyclopédie. He also began his relationship with a seamstress, Thérèse Levasseur, whom he married in 1768; they had five children, all of whom Rousseau consigned to the foundling hospital. His Discours sur les arts et les sciences (1750), written for a competition by the Académie de Dijon, was his first philosophical work; it was followed by his Discours sur l'inégalité (1754), which developed his earlier thesis of the natural goodness of mankind and corruption of society, and his immensely influential Du contrat social (1762), based on the notion of popular sovereignty as the "general will" of the people. His sentimental novels Julie, ou La nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Émile, ou De l'éducation (1762), were immensely successful but the latter caused serious trouble for its author; Rousseau took refuge in Môtiers, in the canton of Neuchâtel, under the protection of Frederick II. He became the guest of the philosopher David Hume in England in 1766; but he soon quarrelled with his host and returned to France. The fragility of his mental health in his last years led to almost complete withdrawal from society. Although he was dogged by controversy during his lifetime, Rousseau's influence on Enlightenment thought can hardly be exaggerated. His notions of the natural goodness of mankind and of the social contract were key ideas in the French Revolution, and they continue to play a role in the political and juridical discourse of modern Western society.
Biographical note by Electronic Enlightenment Project.
First released August 2008.
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