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Who Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

Who Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

“Masochist, exhibitionist, neurasthenic, hypochondriac, incapable of normal or parental affection, incipient paranoiac, narcissistic introvert … pathologically timid, a kleptomaniac, infantilist, irritable, and miserly.” This is how one scholar has diagnosed Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Harsh though this may sound, the details of Rousseau’s life (1712–1778) bear out this description.

Rousseau’s ideas are at the foundation of the disastrous and radical politics rampaging through our institutions, the collapse of the education system, and even the bloody French Revolution. So, who was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and what did he believe?

Rousseau struggled all of his life to fit into normal society. His philosophy is, in part, an attempt to justify his own unrestrained behavior, and he blamed society for all evil—not the individual, and certainly not himself.

Rousseau reacted in part against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which had overemphasized reason to the point of minimizing both the emotional and the spiritual side of humanity. The Enlightenment asserted that reason must be free from all authority, including and especially the authority of any divine revelation, that is, faith. Rousseau took things a step further, asserting the freedom of the emotions and senses from reason itself.

In other words, he argued that if it feels good, you should do it. Rousseau evangelized the idea of acting on one’s inner inclination, and the world has greedily gobbled up the idea. “Follow your heart”—a mantra we often hear—is a simplified expression of Rousseau’s philosophy.

Disastrous Personal Life

What kind of man was it who bequeathed to us so many principles of the modern Left? As historian Paul Johnson informs us in his book Intellectuals, Rousseau depended on others until well into his 30s, especially his lover who financially supported him, Madame Françoise-Louise de Warens, and he failed at 13 different jobs. After acquiring a new mistress, Therese Lavasseur, Rousseau, finally, at the age of 39, became prosperous and famous. To his great fortune and our great misfortune, he won an essay contest in 1750, and his career was launched.

Despite his successful literary career, Rousseau was a chronic complainer and self-pitier. “Nature … has shaped me for suffering,” he wrote, and said he felt like “the unhappiest of mortals.” Yet at the same time, he had a very high opinion of himself: “Posterity will honor me … because it is my due.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Rousseau’s ego, people struggled to get along with him (though he could be charming when he chose). Johnson sees in Rousseau’s poor relationships evidence of “a mentally sick man.” Over time, Rousseau viewed injuries done to him as part of a larger pattern of persecution and became a paranoiac.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Rousseau’s character is his sexual immorality and parental irresponsibility. In his (sometimes untruthful) autobiography, Confessions, he narrates his sex life in detail, including certain sexual perversions. He also took no responsibility for the consequences of his sexual activity. He had five children by his mistress Therese and abandoned all of them to an orphanage, without so much as deigning to give them names. And this from a man who dared to write a whole treatise on the proper education of children!

With this backdrop in mind, we can now move to exploring Rousseau’s influential ideas.

Total Freedom and Radical Equality

For Rousseau, every human being is born free and equal. “Man is born free,” runs one of his most famous quotations. But his definitions of freedom and equality are critically mistaken. For Rousseau, freedom means the ability to do whatever we want, to follow our natural impulses with absolutely no restraint (as seen in his own behavior). Since human beings are completely good by nature, every impulse will be good and should be acted upon. We see here Rousseau’s justification for his own irresponsible and sensual behavior.

Rousseau’s notion of equality goes far beyond the genuine equal value of all people based on their dignity as human beings. Instead, he argues that human beings ought to be equal in everything—social position, wealth, talents, etc.—and that the state must enforce this equality. We must not be merely equal in our humanity but equal in all the circumstances of our lives.

The influence of Rousseau’s ideas about liberty and equality on the modern day are clear when we look at the woke movement, for example. Woke ideologues hold that everyone should be (1) free to pursue any whim, even a whim such as changing gender or sexually grooming children; and (2) if they are treated differently in any way because of their perverted behavior, this is an  injustice.

State of Nature

Part of why Rousseau believed in the total autonomy of the individual was because he saw  human nature as perfect if uninterfered with. Rousseau agreed with Enlightenment philosophers that humans had once lived in a “state of nature” prior to the establishment of civilization. According to Rousseau, human beings lived in complete isolation, hunting and gathering on their own, and living happy, healthy, free, and virtuous lives.

Fundamental to Rousseau’s whole system is the belief that humans are inherently good, as outlined in his work Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. He rejected the Christian idea of original sin. For Rousseau, the “original sin” of humanity was to begin to live in society.

The Social Contract, the Collective, and the ‘General Will’

Rousseau suggested that society corrupts the naturally good individual, bringing in vice and evil. He claimed that living with others generates jealousy, pride, and competition. This is exacerbated by the establishment of private property, along with government to protect it. This, he said, is the origin of inequality and vice.

In his influential book The Social Contract, Rousseau laid out his proposed solution to this inequality and the loss of the state of nature: complete surrender of citizens to “the general will” through a social contract. This “general will” is a kind of monolithic force of the collective community, aimed, in theory, at benefiting everyone.

As the entry on social contract in The Catholic Encyclopedia emphasizes, “the general will is the ultimate source of justice, morality, property and religion.” But it entails the “suppression of personality … and the tyranny of the multitude.”

In Rousseau’s mind, submission to the general will involves no violation of the radical personal freedom he claimed as a natural right. The obvious problem, of course, is that an individual’s will isn’t always going to align with the “general will.” But under the social contract, the individual has surrendered and been absorbed into that general will. Thus could leaders of the French Revolution (who put into practice Rousseau’s ideas) butcher scores of innocent people in the name of freedom and democracy.

Un-Education

Despite refusing to raise or educate his own children, Rousseau also left his stamp on modern educational theory through his book Emile.

For Rousseau, the purpose of education was to create men like himself. He considered himself to be the most virtuous man alive, according to Johnson. Because human beings are intrinsically good, the process of education is more about preventing anything in society from spoiling the pupil’s natural goodness than it is actually instructing or instilling virtue. The student ought to be free to do whatever he wants and to teach himself. We can see the influence of this idea on, for example, the modern approach of constructivism in education.

Influence on the French Revolution and Beyond

The leaders of the French Revolution were the direct inheritors of Rousseau’s philosophy. The French Revolution, which rejected the traditional Western social order, permanently altered the face of Europe and the direction of history. The dual strains of liberalism and collectivist totalitarianism flowed out of the French Revolution, and surging like floodwaters, they have shaped the modern political, intellectual, and religious landscape.

Though he did not live to see it, this was the work of Rousseau.

Image credit: public domain

Correction: A previous version of this article said, “As the entry on Rousseau…”

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Walker Larson
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    Chris Robert Hughes
    May 30, 2024, 6:48 pm

    This was an amazing article, with the exception of the assertion that enlightenment thinking tried to (especially) remove itself from revealed authority. Rather it grew out of, and reasoned within, revealed authority. Rationalism eventually arrogated itself – as in Rousseau for example – and became a law unto itself, rejecting first revealed authority and then reason itself.

    But the enlightenment project began as an exercise of reason within the framework of the emerging availability of Judeo-Christian revelation and its doctrines encouraging the dignity of the individual in thought and discovery. It wasn't until the later 19th Century that Nietzsche could finally declare that reason and rationality had killed the God that had given then birth

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