Reading Revolutions: Intellectual History

Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Father of the French Revolution

Grace Denison

The following is based on the presentation and slides of Grace Denison:

Rousseau as a revolutionary thinker and philosopher begins by questioning the premise of society as the protector and arbiter of good.  One of his basic principles is that man is free in the natural state but that within society his is more or less enslaved to that society.  He refers to this free man as the "noble savage" and sees him and the natural state he lives in as good.  If there is evil it is due to the constrictions on freedom and to the corruption of the social compact.


In his description in the Social Compact of the relationship between the individual and society and the population and society, he lays out the forces which act within the society.  Throughout the Compact he says that all will be well as long as the government abides by "the general will."  He never quite says what it is, although he specifies that it is not necessarily the majority.  The best example that I can think of applied to Maine is that we all want peace, we all want prosperity.  If we were to hold an election to decide how to get there, there would be vast differences of opinion on how to achieve these goals.  There would most likely be a "lunatic fringe" that would advocate extreme measures but the central core would be an amalgam of other positions.  The majority might not be right or reflect the "general will."

According to Charles Frankl, a Rousseau scholar from Cornell, "What most immediately appealed to Rousseau's generation was his insistence that men's social arrangements are the products of human choice..."  If they are not, they ought to be.  During the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette many people did not feel that they had a human choice in their poverty and standards of justice.  They were rather unhappy. 

Rousseau insisted that men must bear the moral responsibility for the kind of society they construct or accept.  Of course, Rousseau used men as the inclusive "mankind", not being barred from sexist language during that era.  Both men and women had the moral responsibility for the society, if they accepted what is and it wasn't good, then they bore the responsibility for it.  This concept struck a cord with the French people.

Frankl notes further that "...The Social Compact was an incitement to revolution because it did what a revolutionary book has to do:  it joined justice and utility, and showed men that their interest and their duty were on the same side."   "...The Social Compact made social change not only a matter of self-interest but a moral obligation incumbent upon all."  The changes in society, the extreme indulgence of the ruling classes, and an increased awareness of just how bad the situation was among the common people created the perfect climate for Rousseau's words to both hit home and inflame.

According to Rousseau when man passed through the state of nature, he passed from a place where he was perfectly free to do what he wanted to a place where he was constrained by others.  In nature he could choose to build a house wherever he wished, but in society he has to defend it.  He must defend it because there may be somebody else who feels that he has a right to it.  Rousseau was not a supporter of wealth, property is fine as everyone has some and nobody has too much. 

It gets tiresome to constantly defend your property in the state of nature.  There will be those who are bigger than you are, more able, and more aggressive.  It gets to the point, according to Rousseau, that it makes sense to band together to form a society to protect the rights of everybody.  According to Rousseau, that is how society first came into being.  When we move from the state of nature to the civil state we observe a great change.  We can no longer use instinct in our conduct and substitute justice. 

So while man looses his natural freedoms in return he has civil liberty and the compact frees him from the necessity of defending himself, and yes, it frees him from the need to attack others.  Man is safe in his possessions and property.  Rousseau placed great emphasis on property and the laws governing property as the justification for a society. 

Rousseau was not one to speak simply.  He could take one sentence and blow it up into three chapters.  I have never read so flowery a writer in my life.  But even he said that if you take the Social Compact and look at the barest elements you would get the essentials of society:


  • Each of us places in common his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will
  • ...and as one body we all receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.


This sounds like a lot of fellowship and friendship, and it does mean just that, because that is the way it should be.  We should be doing things by common agreement.  Rousseau is not suggesting gamboling elves in a forest glen, but a smoothly running society based on justice.  If we are not achieving that, there is something wrong.

Rousseau published the Social Compact in 1762 but he didn't pull all of the ideas out of the blue.  Earlier, in 1751, he entered an essay contest to address the question whether the progress of the arts and sciences improved the morals and habits of man.  He answered with a resounding no.  He proposed that the development of the arts and sciences had promoted inequality, idleness and luxury.  He won first prize.  In 1755, he published his "Discourse on Inequality" in which he reflected on the state of society around him.  He draws an explicit picture of the injustice and poverty of the time, the suffering of the populace and the excesses of the rich.

Also in Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau argues that in the state of nature, the noble savages possessed a natural dispositions to compassion.  Thus, he saves his argument from despair and begins to develop his more general theory of the natural good and the general responsibility for civil justice.  It's a fascinating work.  He ends it by saying " is plainly contrary to the law of nature, however defined, that children should command old men, fools wise men, and that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life."

The essay is only about twelve pages long, but it was powerful and inflammatory.  He is also the first philosopher to assert that compassion is in the nature of man.  He later expanded this idea and included it in his work on education to say that compassion is something we must instill in our children because society and the arts and sciences and all of the bad and corrupt characteristics of civilization have gotten us away from the idea of compassion, so we have to go back to our centers to find the goodness which must serve as a foundation for a good society.

In 1762, Rousseau published two works.  In addition to The Social Compact he published Emile, or On Education.  This was a very productive period for him.  A year earlier he had published Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, also a major work.  In Emile he explores the same theme:  "Everything is good as it leave the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man."

To understand Rousseau and his attitude both toward society and toward childhood it is instructive to look at his background.  R ousseau was born in 1712 and his mother died a week later of complications due to childbirth.  He lived with his father until he was ten and then his father had to flee Geneva following a duel and move to Lyons.  Rousseau was abandoned to his relatives and bounced from place to place.  He was apprenticed to a lawyer, that failed, he was apprenticed to an engraver, that failed, and he fled to Italy.  He met Madame de Warens there and she introduced him to polite society.  He met writers, musicians, philosophers, and began to self-educate.  He didn't like much of what he observed.  He was both attracted and repulsed by the degraded state of society.

In Emile, he places himself in the role of tutor and governor to explain how young men should be educated.  In this instance, Rousseau intends the pronoun in the limiting sense.  The first teacher should be the mother.  She should have total control until the age of five or six and then the responsibility shifts to the fathers.  He comes down hard on fathers, and in this he is referring to aristocratic fathers and those in wealthy families because poor people don't need an education, life gives them one. 

He says that when "A father, when he engenders and feeds children, does with that only a third of his task. He owes to his species men; he owes to society sociable men; he owes to the state citizens."  "He who cannot fulfill the duties of a father has no right to become one."  This is interesting when you consider that Rousseau and Therese le Vasseur had five illegitimate children, all of whom were placed in care.  He didn't raise a single one.  The story goes that the woman in charge of the orphanage berated Rousseau for his neglect and he explained that he just wasn't meant to be a father, to which she replied, "Then you must stop being one!"  Eventually, late in life he married Therese but that did not mean that he mended his parental neglect.

What gets to me about this man was that he was right.  He was right about education.  Education begins before birth, before speaking, before understanding.  We know now that this is true.  The child starts learning in utero, they already have learned before they are born.  With the older child Rousseau observed that reading is a terrible pain for children.  They don't want to learn to see Spot run.  They couldn't care less.  They have other interests and concerns.  Rousseau says that [Emile] "must know how to read when reading is useful to him."  I've seen examples in my own teaching.  I had a student in the third grade who could not read a word.  Then he fell in love.  The object of his affections sent him a letter.  Now he needed to read!  He finished the three pre-primers of first grade, the second grade readers, and the third grade readers in three months.  We call that reading readiness today and know that it applies to mathematics as well.  Some children, not only because of lack of interest, but also because of maturation level, will not perform just because we specify something in the curriculum.  The "No Child Left Behind" initiative is taking us backward and driving teachers into a frenzy of frustration.  Rousseau would understand.

You have to make things interesting if you want to teach a child about anything.  If you want to teach them about nature, take them out into the woods, take them out in a boat, let them see, feel, and smell to excite their curiosity. "Make your pupil attentive to the phenomena of nature.  Soon you will make him curious.  But to feed his curiosity, never hurry to satisfy it.  Put the questions within his reach and leave them to him to resolve."  "Let him know something not because you told it to him but because he has understood it himself.  ...If ever you substitute in his mind authority for reason, he will no longer reason."  Today we call this "Discovery Learning" and strive to incorporate such experiences into each child's day.  And of course you are going to have to discover the truth of it for yourself. 

Emile got Rousseau kicked out of France, so he went back to Switzerland.  In Switzerland people stoned his home and attacked him in the streets.  He renounced his citizenship in Geneva, wanders, and the David Hume offered him asylum in England.  Why was there such a furor over the book?




He wrote of ideas that were not only challenging to the authority of the government and Catholic Church but were considered scandalously immoral at the time.  While such quotes as:

may seem tame by our standards, the ideas which underlie them presaged a revolution in social standards and structure.  People were taught that they must control, suppress their passions.  That self-sacrifice not self-love is the highest goal and that grace and God determine who will be lovable.  If that weren't bad enough, Rousseau goes on to say "It is from the moral system formed by this double relation to oneself and to one's fellows that the impulse of conscience is born."  God is not the source of conscience, nature and our sense of self is.  "Conscience, conscience!  Divine instinct, immortal and celestial voice, certain guide of a being that is ignorant and limited but intelligent and free; infallible judge of good and bad that makes man like unto God;"


He is reflecting on the destructive force of society when he asks, "If it speaks to all hearts, then why are there so few of them that hear it?" and answers "Well, this is because it speaks to us in nature's language, which everything has made us forget."  We can no longer hear the passions, the compassion, the conscience, or even the goodness of our natural self.  We start this at a very young age with children, we teach them not to express their feelings.  Boys don't cry, today, yes, but, men have forgotten how.  For Rousseau, if you were good you would express your passions and develop a conscience, not because of anything the Church told you, but by nature.

Rousseau does not speak of religion in his education of Emile.  He explains this when he says:

"I foresee how many readers will be surprised at seeing me trace the whole first age of my pupil without speaking to him of religion."

"If I had to depict sorry stupidity, I would depict a pedant teaching the catechism to children. If I wanted to make a child go mad, I would oblige him to explain what he says in saying his catechism."

"You must believe in God to be saved."

"This dogma badly understood is the principle of sanguinary intolerance and the cause of all those vain instructions that strike a fatal blow to human reasoning in accustoming it to satisfy itself with words."

"Doubtless there is not a moment to lose in order to merit eternal salvation. But if in order to obtain it, it is enough to repeat certain words, I do not see what prevents us from peopling heaven with starlings and magpies just as well as with children."

There doesn't seem to be much doubt as to why the Church would object to those observations.  While the Emile was condemned in France and Geneva, only the Social Compact made it to the Index of books banned by the Catholic Church.  Perhaps they felt that was sufficient to prevent any of his works from being read.

Rousseau did not feel that the responsibility for education ended until the child married and then it would pass on to his wife.  She would teach him the passions of life and sexuality.  Emile is to marry Sophie.  Sophie is given a complementary education to prepare her to guide and support he husband while helping him maintain his individuality and independence. 


"A woman's education must therefore be planned in relation to man.  To be pleasing in his sight, to win his respect and love, to train him in childhood, to tend him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time, and this is what she should be taught while she is young.  The further we depart from this principle, the further we shall be from our goal, and all our precepts will fail to secure her happiness or our own." 

Rousseau did marry Therese finally.  The reason he didn't do so earlier was that, as he said in his confessions, she was boring!  So Sophie must be something more.  Although Rousseau doesn't use the word, a major part of Sophie's education was to learn how to flirt.  This is how she will get Emile to do her bidding.  When she has a good idea, she will lead him to think that it was his idea.  He was not unsympathetic to the role of women, he says, "Has not a woman the same needs as a man, but without the same right to make them known?  Her fate would be too cruel if she had no language in which to express her legitimate desires except the words which she dare not utter."

Late in life Rousseau turned down a lucrative job writing book reviews for a newspaper.  He said he couldn't write to prescription like a hack, but could only write from passion.  And write from passion he did.  In 1761, a year before the Social Compact and Emile, he published Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, a novel that became a big best-seller, probably the biggest best-seller of that century.  It went through 70 editions and was in such demand that book sellers resorted to renting it, first by the day and then by the hour, to meet demand.  It was a novel about his search for the perfect woman.  Now he had been searching, through seven volumes he had been searching.  Rousseau was not hesitant to express his passions and to find new challenges for his passion.  Before his novel was published he found the company of women, many different women, pleasurable.  Both men and women were deeply moved by reading the story of Julie.  She died in the 6th volume and people mourned her to the point of hysteria. 

Rousseau became an instant celebrity.  Although romantic novels existed during that period, it was unusual for the writer to use his or her own name.   In one letter written to him by an army officer, the man says "that reading created such an effect on me that I would have gladly died during that supreme moment."  I have never had a book have such an effect on me, and I read a lot!  People attributed all of the passion of the novel to Rousseau himself.  Women threw themselves at him.  They thought that anyone who could write so accurately about their feelings and create such empathy of grief must understand their inner soul.  They could not separate the fiction from reality, and to be frank, he was very good looking.

I tried reading some of Julie in translation.  I like romance novels, but I've got to tell you, the action has to come along with the story.  Seven volumes!

The passion with which he wrote came through everything that he wrote.  People responded to it even if it seems verbose today.  When he wrote the Social Compact people were ready for it and they read much more passion into it than you or I would because they now expected it and as Frankl says we read differently.  I bet we do.  We want the end of the story by page 5 not by volume 17. 

Rousseau is not known today as a novelist, the only reason Julie survives beyond a footnote is because of his political and educational theories.  The novel serves to show the complexity of the man.  Certainly his own enjoyment of passion is important to the understanding of his view of man and his fellow creatures.  But beyond that he had far-reaching influences with his theories.  What should we remember from Rousseau?

The noble savage…that man is by nature good
    This is the philosophy that you see in our schools today.  John Dewey took up where Rousseau left off.  Most everything you see in Dewey is straight out of Rousseau.

The general will…
     If we are unhappy with our government it is probably because it has departed from what we feel in the general will.

The Social Compact…
     That we are morally responsible for the state of the social world, if it is corrupt it is because we tolerate it.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité…
     The cry that led people to storm the Bastille is right out of the Social Compact.

Education begins at birth
     And by extension the total responsibility of the parents and the society for shaping that child.  No longer can you leave it in the hands of
fate to form or deform the child.  If the child is bad, it is because the civil world destroyed what was good.

Education should be done according to nature
     Reading and mathematics education must follow the normal development of the child and the child should be involved in the discovery process in order to make a reasoning, logical adult.

Passions, feelings…
     Controlling the passions and denying their existence warps and destroys what is good in us.  We must express and enjoy those feelings so that we may develop a conscience.

     He was the first philosopher to propose that we naturally develop compassion and that we nurture it and support it in our children.

His influence on the United States can be found throughout the writings of the early founders.  Read the words of the Declaration of Independence with the Social Compact in mind:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind required that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…

Then again in the Constitution:  We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Rousseau died of a stroke on July 2, 1778.  Following the French Revolution, his body was moved to the Pantheon in Paris and laid to rest in a crypt.  He was and is a national hero to the French and hero to those who benefit from his teachings and the freedom that it engendered.

Pantheon in Paris

Rousseau's tomb




Following the presentation the audience was invited to examine the three volumes of essays.

Rousseau painted portrait from Wikipedia, etched portrait from frontispiece of 1797 edition shown above.

The photographs of the book may be used freely on non-commercial sites (no advertisements).  Please provide a link to this page with the image.


"Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Father of the French Revolution."  Summary of a lecture by Grace Denison.  University of Maine at Farmington, November 2, 2005.  Retrieved _______.  <>.


Marilyn Shea, 2005