Great European of the Week: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Philosopher, political theorist, novelist, scientist, general polymath – Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of modern Europe’s greatest thinkers. By James Bartholomeusz


Rousseau, born in 1712, was the son of a watchmaker and a proud citizen of the city-state Geneva. His early life was filled with a variety of different occupations and travels – including work as a servant, a teacher, a musician, a trainee priest and a civil servant – until in the 1740s he became acquainted with some of the major figures of the French Enlightenment. The following decades saw a spate of important works: his Discourses (essays in response to university competitions), entries for Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, his novels Julie and Emile, and his autobiographical Confessions.

His most famous work, however, is undoubtedly The Social Contract (1762), one of the great contributions to European political theory. Taking classical Sparta and republican Rome as great polities, Rousseau proposes a blueprint for the ideal state. Here, all the strands of his thought come together: despite the illusions of ‘civilisation’, humans are naturally equal; the only just state can be one which is founded on the common good, and which enshrines representative democracy, civic freedom, and brotherhood amongst citizens.

L’homme est né libre et partout il est dans les fers.

Perhaps Rousseau’s most immediate and tangible achievement was his influence on the French Revolution (the 225th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille is today). Many of the revolutionaries were inspired by the radical libertarianism and egalitarianism of Rousseau’s political theory, and indeed the triad of ideals which have become the pillars of modern democracy – libertéégalité, fraternité – find vivid expression in The Social Contract and elsewhere. Yet there is also a darker side to Rousseau’s influence. Amongst the many great figures of the Revolution, Maximilien de Robespierre was the most ardent disciple of Rousseau, a man who interpreted radical democracy as dictatorship of the people by a party vanguard. The period of the Jacobin Terror, from May 1793 to July 1794, has become the prime case for how even the most idealistic of uprisings can go very, very wrong.

After the Second World War, thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin traced the genealogy of 20th Century totalitarianism – fascism, Nazism, Soviet and Maoist communism – back to Rousseau’s political theory. However, in recent years, his reputation has somewhat recovered, as a more nuanced consideration of his thought has emerged. For John Rawls, he is one of the greatest figures in the contractarian tradition, and for many contemporary Leftists, he remains a hero of Enlightenment-era progressivism. In an era for which the emancipatory potential of both liberalism and Marxism looks pale, we could perhaps learn a lot by returning to such a strikingly original thinker as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Image: ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau (painted portrait)’ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, released under Creative Commons.

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