Born in Geneva, Rousseau was educated at home by his father, Isaac, a watchmaker, and his aunt, after the untimely death of his mother following his birth. Unfortunately, he soon lost his father too, after the latter unwisely challenged a gentleman to a duel, and was expelled from the city as a result. Jean-Jacques went into the care of his uncle, to become an apprentice engraver. But Rousseau considered this to be a demeaning trade and, using a tactic his city had demonstrated some years before to gain its independence, changed his religion to became the ward of some benevolent Catholic aristocrats, the de Warens of Savoy. It was in their library of the great political philosophers that he imbibed the ideas of HOBBES, MACHIAVELLI and LOCKE that would later inspire his influential, even revolutionary, works.
In his most polemical essay, the Discourse on Inequality (1753), he ridicules the pretensions of ‘civilisation’. Nor is he impressed by the achievements of science. Instead, he argues that primitive peoples had been happier and better off without it. He demands that people be measured not by their social position, not by their possessions, but by the shared divine spark that he saw in them all, the immortal soul of ‘Natural Man’. In his influential work on education, Emile (1762), he outlines a way to bring up children to recreate this supposed vanished world, and to bring out the spirit of free cooperation. His philosophy offers a more spiritual, romantic view of the world.
Rousseau marks a radical shift in philosophy, away from the search for authority and towards uncertainties of ‘freedom’. As the eighteenth century drew to an end, new ways of looking at the world were needed, and Rousseau, despite his personal aristocratic pretensions, seemed in his writings to offer a complete reversal of the values of the time. His views were, of course, also anathema to many. VOLTAIRE refused to abandon ‘civilisation’ to accept what he called an invitation to ‘go down on all fours’, saying that after 60 years or so, he had lost the habit. Dr Johnson said of Rousseau and his supporters: ‘Truth is a cow that will yield them no more milk, so they have gone to milk the bull.’ But many others were entranced and inspired.
At the age of 32, Rousseau arrived in Paris, where he began to move in the sort of circles he felt he belonged in, being, after all, a citizen of Geneva and, as he never tired of telling people, born free. He became secretary to another aristocratic family, found a mistress and began to write.
His first major work was an attack on the ideas of the encyclopaedists, and indeed the whole basis of the ENLIGHTENMENT. In the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750), Rousseau takes on the scientists, and says that, far from being our saviours, they are ruining the world, and that any notion of progress is an illusion even as we move further and further away from the healthy, simple and balanced lives of the past. The Discourse on Sciences is a conscious salute to the kind of society advocated by PLATO two millennia earlier, and both a contrast with and a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of his times. Notwithstanding, or probably (in France) because of that, the essay was considered a great success, and earned Rousseau the Dijon prize.
In it, and in the later, more famous, Discourse on Inequality (1753), Rousseau argues that man in his natural state, far from being greedy or fearful, as described by Hobbes, is in fact in living in a peaceful, contented state, truly free. This is a freedom with three elements. The first is free will, the second is freedom from the rule of law (as there are no laws) and the third is personal freedom. It is this last that is the most important.
Rousseau says that the first people lived like animals. He says this not in any derogatory sense, merely in the sense that the original people sought only simple fulfilment of their physical needs. They would have had no need of speech, nor CONCEPTS, and certainly not property. Rousseau points out that much of the imagery in both Hobbes and Locke belongs to a property-owning society, not the supposed ‘natural state’ prior to the invention of property rights. By realising this, ‘we are not obliged to make a man a philosopher before we can make him a man.’ The first time people would have had a sense of property (he thinks) is when they settled in one location, when they built huts to live in. Even sexual union, Rousseau notes pragmatically, as well as reflecting on his own experience, is unlikely to have implied any exclusivity, being more likely to have been just a lustful episode no sooner experienced than forgotten, least of all in terms of the children. (Rousseau’s view of women is at best romantic in an unenlightened sort of way. In Emile (1762), he confines the education of the fair sex to domestic science and recommends training from an early age in habits of docility and subservience.)
Since this primitive state is actually superior to those that followed it, Rousseau explains the change by the development of self-consciousness, and with it the desire for private property. According to Rousseau, at this point following Hobbes, society necessarily leads people to hate each other, in accordance with their different economic interests. But Hobbes’ so-called ‘Social Contract’, is, in fact, made by the rich, as a way of doing down the poor. Actually, not even the rich benefit from it, as they warp themselves and become increasingly out of touch with nature’s harmony, raised needlessly above their own proper state, just as the poor are pushed below theirs.
Rousseau offers instead just two laws, or principles, that could be said to be ‘antecedent to reason’. The first is a powerful interest in self-preservation and our own well-being; the second is ‘a natural aversion to seeing any other sentient being perish or suffer, especially if it is one of our own kind’. The only time ‘natural man’ would hurt another is when his own well-being requires it. In saying this, Rousseau is drawing a parallel for humankind with the animals who – unlike their masters – never harm each other out of malice alone.
Rousseau paints a mocking portrait of the rich man, seeking to protect his gains by pretending concern for his victims. ‘Let us unite’, says his rich man, ‘to protect the weak from oppression, to ensure for each that which he owns, and create a system of justice and peace that all shall be bound to, without exception.’ Rousseau thinks this explanation of civil law is more convincing than those offered by philosophers who suppose some sort of universal social contract, for, as he puts it, the poor have only one good – their freedom – and to voluntarily strip themselves of that without gaining anything in exchange would appear to be absolute folly. The rich, on the other hand, have much to gain.
The only way that the sovereign and the people can have a single and identical interest, so that all the movements of the civil machine tend to promote the common happiness, is for them to be one and the same. No one can be outside the law, for once they are, all the others are ‘at their discretion’. Furthermore, there should be few laws, and new ones introduced only with the greatest circumspection, so that ‘before the constitution could be disturbed, there would be time enough for everyone to reflect that it is above all the great antiquity of the laws that makes them sacred and inviolable’.
The details of institutions of government are not of much interest to Rousseau, although his later work, the Social Contract (1762), attempts to indicate a way to harmonise collective decision-making rule with individual freedoms, once their essentially malign character has been identified. He merely adds that if law and property are the first stage in human society, and the institutions of government are the second, then the third and last stage is the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power. Human society leads people to hate each other in proportion ‘to the extent that their interests conflict’. People pretend to do each other services while actually trying to exploit them and do them down. ‘We must attribute to the institution of property, and hence to society, murders, poisonings, highway robbery and indeed, the punishments of those crimes.’ That is at the individual level. On the national scale, ‘Inequality, being almost non-existent in the state of nature. . . becomes fixed and legitimate through the institution of property and laws’. When society has, as it inevitably will, degenerated into tyranny and all are slaves again, the circle is complete, for ‘all individuals become equal again when they are nothing’. And all the time ‘Civil man’ torments himself constantly in search of ever more laborious occupations, working himself to death, ‘renouncing life in order to achieve immortality’. Civil society is, in fact, a society of people ‘who nearly all complain and several of whom indeed deprive themselves of their existence’. This is the logic of property ownership and capitalism.
Rousseau died in 1778, the same year as his critic, Voltaire, possibly by his own hand, and certainly in sad and lonely circumstances. But as Goethe commented: ‘with Voltaire an age ended, with Rousseau, a new one began’.