Political Philosophy Part 1


Summary week 9: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712 – 1778.

Links: Notes on Rousseau 



‘… the human understanding is greatly indebted to the passions which, it is universally allowed, are also much indebted to the understanding. It is by the activity of the passions that our reason is improved, for we desire knowledge only because we wish to enjoy…’ (ed. GDH Cole: J-J Rousseau The Social Contract & Discourses p 61).


1. Background:

1.1 Born in Switzerland, in a Calvinist milieu, his mother died when he was born.

Tutored by his father who read him romances etc: “I understood nothing – I felt everything”… perhaps a spoiled child? A complicated, contradictory, introspective, over-sensitive person.  His political ideas are based on a view of human nature which perhaps reflects his own personality.


1.2 Age 16 traveled to Europe, met Voltaire, Diderot, Enlightenment philosophes: disagreed with them over reason vs. feeling (‘sentiment, sensibilité). Fell out with Hume. Voltaire’s sarcastic criticism of the idea that simple people (e.g. natives) are good.


1.3 Louis XIV and absolutism – growing middle class demanding more freedom: Rousseau’s ideas influenced the demands of the French Revolutionaries in 1789: opposition to absolute monarchy and to social inequalities. Rousseau’s aims:

sovereignty of the people based on the general will, direct democracy, social equality (see Quote 1)


2. Main Works:


1749: Discourse on Language

1749/50: Discourse on Arts and Sciences

1753/4: Discourse on Inequality

1755: Discourse on Political Economy - article for Encyclopaedia

1756: working on Political Institutions (abandoned, and replaced by Contrat Social), Julie (novel) Emile (educational treatise)

1762: Contrat Social: The Social Contract


3. Key Ideas:


popular sovereignty

general will (which is never wrong)

society shapes people (for good and bad)

language, reason and morality originate with society (did not exist before)

social contract (founds society)

false social contract (not based on general will) creates a corrupt society

natural (pre-social) sentiments (sensibilité) (which are the basis of the general will):

amour de soi


4. Rousseau’s early ideas:


4.1 Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and the Sciences (1749/50)


In 1749 he had an overwhelming revelation when he saw the title of an essay for a competition, organised by the Dijon Academy: “Has the revival of the sciences and the arts helped to purify or to corrupt morals?” In a later letter he describes (as he also does in his Confessions) his reaction: “If only I had been able to write down a quarter of what I felt under that tree, with what clarity I would have pointed out all of the contradictions of our social system! With what force I would have exposed all the abuses of our institutions! With what simplicity I would have demonstrated that man is naturally good and it is only through these institutions that he becomes wicked!” (Masters of Political thought, Vol 2, ed. Jones, p 251)


In the essay written for the competition he expresses his controversial view: the problem with society is that it has warped our natural feelings: because of “taste, manners, politeness, decorum” etc, “We no longer dare seem what we really are, but lie under a perpetual restraint… What a train of vices must attend this uncertainty! Sincere friendship, real esteem, and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate and fraud lie constantly concealed under that uniform and deceitful veil of politeness; that boasted candour and urbanity, for which we are indebted to the enlightened spirit of this age.” (ed. Cole, op cit, p 7).


4.2 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality 1753/4


Here Rousseau argues that: “men in a state of nature, having no moral relations or determinate obligations one with another, could not be either good or bad, vicious or virtuous… Above all, let us not conclude, with Hobbes, that because man has no idea of goodness, he must naturally be wicked.” (op cit p 71)


4.3 The origins of society: see Quotes 2, 3, & 4.


5. Rousseau’s views on politics – see Quotes 5 – 12.