Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau was a French Enlightenment philosopher and polymath who wrote on a wide variety of topics, including education, economics, psychology, drama, and music, for which he developed a new system of notation. His best‐​known works, however, are in political thought. He remains one of the most important theorists of what is now termed positive liberty, the notion that individuals must be encouraged or even coerced into being free.

Rousseau was born in Geneva, then a small but independent city‐​state, and throughout his life he prided himself on his Genevan citizenship. That city would remain an ideal for him throughout his political writings, particularly for its austere virtues, military prowess, and classical republican spirit. He built his political thought around two ideas that were common to many Enlightenment writers: the state of nature and the social contract. Yet Rousseau differed from, for example, Hobbes and Locke, in that he believed the state of nature to have been a happy one and civilization to be considerably less so. In Discourse on the Arts and Sciences and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau argued that civilization and material progress separated man from the state of nature, causing vanity, jealousy, luxury, effeminacy, and vice. In the state of nature, Rousseau argued, all are equal. Tragically, civilization and commerce divide us from one another and render us unequal.

There were few solutions to this problem, as Rousseau saw it, and often he looked on the advance of civilization with dread. As many theorists in the ancient world had argued, liberty could only be preserved under conditions of austerity. Rousseau agreed, and he rejected the notions of modern liberty that were then coalescing around commerce, material progress, and self‐​interest. Instead, he argued that only a rigorous program of civic education and communal moral life could delay the encroachment of civilization and the vices that followed in its wake. Rousseau’s search for alternatives to modern liberty led him to both praise the ancients and write his most important political text, The Social Contract, first published in 1762.

This work argued that individuals enter into a social contract in an attempt to conserve what they can of their natural goodness. The Rousseauan social contract is not an agreement to form a government, but an agreement to form a civil society of a particularly moralistic bent, encompassing religion, education, manners, family life, and economics. “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula,” Rousseau wrote, “it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.”

The general will is one of the most difficult of Rousseau’s concepts, but also perhaps the most central. The general will is not to be identified with the totality of individual wills of those comprising society, but the will of the community as a whole. The notion may be likened to a wise parent, ultimately internalized in each of us, under whose tutelage the child is not more limited, but freer to achieve. So it is, Rousseau argued, with the individual and society. Each of us must seek to understand its lessons. When we as individuals discover that our desires conflict with the general will, we are obliged to alter them, and when our fellows discover improper desires in us, it is their duty to correct us. Even an aristocracy of the wisest people should be obliged to obey the general will, rather than their own lights, Rousseau claimed, for the general will is to be the master of us all.

The problem with all of these considerations, from a libertarian standpoint, is that society is not in any sense analogous to a parent, and what holds for the latter—an individual—may not hold for the former. Nowhere is it clearly explained how one is to recognize an opinion or a course of action as representative of the general will, and the notion of the general will has served as an invitation to the power hungry and the unscrupulous ever since. This tendency was particularly the case during the French Revolution, when Rousseau’s ideas were invoked incessantly not only to dismantle the tyranny of the Old Regime, but to supplant it with an even more bloodthirsty, although short‐​lived, tyranny of its own. Subsequent advocates of nationalism also would find Rousseau’s notion of the general will appealing, although Rousseau mistrusted all polities larger than the city‐​state and would certainly not have approved of mass nationalistic projects.

Moving from the abstract to the particular, Rousseau’s prescriptions in social policy strike libertarians as abhorrent, particularly when they are combined with Rousseau’s incessant invocations of liberty. In the name of liberty, Rousseau would censor the press and forbid the theater; he would institute both sumptuary laws and a state religion. Limits to government power were in vain, Rousseau taught, for virtue alone should guide the people who would serve—undivided—as the legislators. “The laws are but registers of what we ourselves desire,” Rousseau wrote, and limits were therefore unnecessary.

Rousseau’s clear, affective style made him deeply influential, and his invocations of liberty inspired many, despite the contrarian nature of many of his ideas. The opening lines of the Social Contract are a striking example: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.” This ringing endorsement of freedom brought courage to many who were suffering under the Old Regime, as well as great fame to its author. Although he quarreled and broke ties with Enlightenment liberals such as Diderot and Voltaire, the educated public read Rousseau’s books in record numbers. His novel La nouvelle Héloise was a great commercial success, as was his book‐​length treatise Emile, which proposed a system of education that would inculcate Rousseauan philosophy. Ironically, Emile was burned at both Paris and Geneva for its subversive section on natural religion, the “Confession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar.”

Rousseau’s life was as paradoxical and tempestuous as his philosophy: The author of the best‐​selling educational and moral tracts of his era also fathered five illegitimate children and placed all of them in an orphanage. He wrote plays and ferociously attacked the theater. An advocate of unfeigned sincerity, Rousseau came to mistrust all around him, including the philosopher David Hume, who had offered him refuge in England. Rousseau’s Confessions, published posthumously, were scandalous enough that certain of his admirers claimed that they were forgeries. Attempts to make sense of it all are likely to be futile, and Rousseau is chiefly known today for his works, which are among the most ready of all to invoke liberty as a word—and among the most ready of all to betray liberty as an ideal.

Further Readings

Cranston, Maurice. The Noble Savage: Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Damrosch, Leo. Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Rousseau, Jean‐​Jacques. Confessions. Angela Scholar, trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

———. The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings. Victor Gourevitch, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

———. Émile: Or, Treatise on Education. William H. Payne, trans. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003.

———. Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre. Allan Bloom, trans. and ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960.

———. The Social Contract. Maurice Cranston, trans. London: Penguin, 1968.

Jason Kuznicki
Originally published