Rousseau 1: The Romantic Turn

Jean-Jacque Rousseau, a native of Geneva Switzerland, spent a large portion of his adult life in France and deeply influenced French thinking and European and American thinkers generally. He is often referred to as the “Philosopher of the French Revolution,” which many scholars feel results from a misreading of his work by French revolutionaries. It is possible that even revolutionaries today misread his work and intentions. Rousseau seems to me to be a bridge between the Classical, Renaissance Heritage of Western Culture and the Modern World. Although he writes during the Enlightenment (1685-1815), in my view he is not fully an Enlightenment thinker. His work is often a critique of the Enlightenment optimism concerning the powers of human reason. As such, Rousseau is the intellectual father of the Romantic Movement. He rejects the over-estimation of the powers of human reason and the myth of progress characteristic of the Enlightenment and of Western Culture for the past several hundred years. His influence continues to this day, for we live in a politically romantic age, with all of its irrational revolutionary potential, given legitimacy in part by his work.

Early Biography

Rousseau was born in June 1712. His mother died when he was young, and his father deserted the family, abandoning his child. As an orphan with little or no prospects, he was apprenticed to an engraver and mistreated by his master. He fled Geneva at age 16. In this second phase of his life, he converted to Catholicism, forfeiting his citizenship in Geneva, a Protestant city. He drifted around the neighborhood of France and Italy, was a servant, and then returned to Switzerland, where he became the lover of a wealthy woman.

Around age thirty, Rousseau arrived in Paris, becoming one of the young intellectuals (called “Philosophes”) who were the center of the intellectual life of the city. Around thirty-seven, he had an inspiration that modern progress was a corrupting influence over people rather than a help. Out of this experience he wrote his First Discourse, in which he argues against the theory of human progress and for a theory that civilization has been corrupting on the human race. This idealization of primitive man is the first important characteristic of his writing.

Return to Geneva and Its Place in His Writing

In 1754, Rousseau returned to Geneva after a long absence, “reconverted” to the Calvinist faith of his mother, and began another phase of his life and work. Geneva was an essential part of his life and works, despite the fact that, in faith and practice, Rousseau drifted from an orthodox Calvinism for which the city was known. Although he lived outside of Geneva most of his life, his most important works bear the inscription “Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva.” This connection with Geneva is important for understanding his thought.

Geneva marks the place he called home, and a place he idolized. He published his Discourse on Inequality in1754, which many believe to be his finest work. In the beginning of his “Discourse on Inequality,” which he dedicates to The Republic of Geneva, he says the following:

If I had had to choose my birthplace, I would have chosen a society of a size limited by the extent of human capacity, that is limited by the possibility of being well governed, and where, with each being equipped perform his task, no one would have been forced to delegate to others the functions with which he is charged; a state where, with   all private individuals being known to one another, neither the obscure maneuvers of vice nor the modesty of virtue could be hidden from the notice and the judgment of the public, and where the pleasant habit of seeing and knowing one another turned love of homeland into love of citizens rather than into the laws of the land. [1]

This aspect of Rousseau’s character and thought is important. A part of his romanticism was a love of the organic and small. He could see that large, impersonal governments, far from local communities might be less human and less effective. This is a part of this thought continued in the late modern era through works like Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. [2] This ideal of a more personal and organic society is a part of the New Agrarian movement in America and the movement of people to smaller cities. In larger communities, it manifests itself as a concern for neighborhoods as essential to metropolitan health.

Final Paris Period

In 1762, Rousseau returned to Paris to recover his friendships there and find a place where he could continue to work. However, he was now alienated both from his fellow philosophes, and their belief in Enlightenment, the inevitability of human progress, and attacks on religion. Although not himself fully-orthodox, he felt the attacks on religion were harmful to society, particularly to Geneva, because of attacks on Calvinism by intellectuals. Unable to feel at home, he left Paris, living on the estate of a wealthy friend. During this phase, he completed The Social Contract, (1763), which I will look at next.

Final Years and Mental Illness

Alienating his former supporters, he fled again into exile, renounced his citizenship in Geneva, and spent the rest of his life moving around, living for a time in England, but never finding the place of where he could find a home. He degenerated into mental illness from which he suffered the reminder of his life. During his final period, he wrote his Confessions, named after St. Augustine’s work of the same name, and other autobiographical works. His literary output is overwhelming: essays, books, novels, articles and the like.

He died in July of 1778, at the age of sixty-four.

Rousseau and Religious Faith

Rousseau conducted a life-time spiritual pilgrimage, that led from his parent’s Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism, back to Protestantism, to flirting with a form of Deism, to a quasi-unitarianism, back to some kind of orthodoxy, and perhaps at the end of his life to a kind of Romantic Pietism. What can be said for certain is that Rousseau should not be read as anti-religious or anti-Christian. In fact, his break with his fellow Parisian intellectuals was partially based on his rejection of this feature of Enlightenment thought. Rousseau respects religion, has faith in God, and seeks in his life and work to be some kind of Christian.

In the end, Rousseau was impacted by the skepticism of his age, but unwilling to sever his ties with Christian faith. His Romanticism led him to a kind of intuitive faith, one based upon an intuition or feeling of the divine. In this way, he is the forerunner of Friedrich Schleiermacher and a version of Christianity based upon feeling. [3] In this sense, Rousseau is a sympathetic figure for post-modern people seeking to form a faith under the conditions of our culture, which stands at the end of the culture the Enlightenment created.

Rousseau and the Myth of Progress

Unlike the majority of Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau is critical of the idea of human progress, and especially the inevitability of human progress based on human reason. Rousseau believes civilization is as much the cause of the human problem as it is the solution. In his “Discourse on the Science and the Arts, he says:

Almighty God, you who hold minds in your hands, deliver us from the enlightenment and deadly arts of our fathers and give us back to ignorance, innocence, and poverty—the only goods that can bring about our happiness and that are precious in your sight.” [4]

For Rousseau, all the supposed progress of the sciences and arts has added little to actual human happiness, but instead corrupted morals, and the purity of the original human condition. [5]

One sees in Rousseau the inevitable reaction against the excessive idealization of mind and human reason that is fundamental to the Enlightenment view of human nature. Rousseau sees the need to appreciate the intuitive and pre-rational aspects of human life. In so doing, however, he often overstates his case. This series of blogs, which adopts a view I call “Sophio-Agapic” is inclined to see the need to avoid the modern separation of mind and matter, of the intellect and emotion and adopt a position intentionally different from that promoted by the severance of mind and matter in modern thought.

Rousseau and Human Nature

This leads us directly to Rousseau’s theory of human nature. If there is any single doctrine (other than double predestination) for which Calvinism is known, it may be its strong, Augustinian Doctrine of the Fall. Rousseau is often cited for the reverse view: that human beings are basically “good.” While this simplistic summary is partially correct, it ignores the complexity of Rousseau’s analysis of human nature. It might be better to say that according to Rousseau human beings are by nature morally neutral, but that the impact of heredity, family life, human history, culture, and the like infect all human beings with what religious people call sin. Human civilization is the history of the infection of the human character with the defects Christians call “sin.”

This view has something in common with a more orthodox Calvinist view that sees human beings as made in the image of God, but captured by sin from birth. Both Calvin and Rousseau tend to miss the impact of human finitude and anxiety concerning the future that impacts human selfishness. This kind of analysis of sin awaited the 19th and 20thCenturies to come to full bloom.

Next week, we will look at Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory, and in so doing we will return to his theory of human nature, which impacts his political theology in a major way. Suffice it to say that Rousseau understands that it is nearly impossible at this late stage of history to know the precise nature of our first forbearers. Thus, he says:

“For it is no light undertaking to separate what is original from what is artificial in the present nature of man, and to have a proper understanding of a state that no longer exists, that perhaps never existed, that probably never will exist, and yet without which it is necessary to have accurate notions to judge properly our present state. [6]

In this brief sentence, there is illuminated, not just the defect in Rousseau’s idea of a basic State of Nature of human beings, but the defect of all such endeavors: We cannot know by human reason alone what the “State of Nature” might have been. The Bible gives Christians a revelation and interpretation of the nature of human beings older than almost any we possess, and it sees human beings as flawed.

Interpreters, theological and philosophical, have attempted endless explanations. In the end, we are left with the idea that human nature today is what it as always been: noble but inclined towards self-centered, self-interested, and self-destructive behavior damaging to the self and others. It seems to me that political philosophy cannot and should not begin with some supposed “state of nature” but with the human animal as we experience it day by day. Instead it must begin with the long history of human political organization as we can understand it. I will return to this again next week, for any “Social Compact” theory of government must either suggest a “State of Nature” or as in Rawls, some neutral state that allows the social compact to be instituted.

Rousseau and Human Society

Having briefly understood Rousseau’s view of human nature (basically good, but corrupted by civilization), we are in a position to understand and critique his idea of human society and origins of inequality. This is important for it informs his view of the Social Contract, for if he is wrong in his views of human nature and the human inequality, then his views on the Social Contract are suspect.

One might say that for Rousseau, human history and the evolution of human society is a mistake. Human beings once lived in a state of nature, without property or worries, in a state of perfect equality. This natural state did not endure, for “In becoming habituated to the ways of a society and a slave he becomes weak, fearful, and servile; his soft and effeminate lifestyle completes the enervation of both his strength and his courage.” [7]

The Discourse on Inequality begins with a long interpretation of human history based upon the idea that human beings in a state of nature were superior beasts, stronger and wiser than any of their natural enemies, existing in a state of perfect equality. One commentator says all that needs to be said:

In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, dating from 1754, Rousseau gives a philosophy of history, resting on a condensed account of the development of the human race, and the whole essay is saturated with that passionate hatred of inequality which may not unfairly be regarded as the dominant feature of his character. It is almost unnecessary to say that for Rousseau’s history there is not the faintest shadow of a particle of evidence. [8]

Indeed, a reader cannot be but struck by the naïve understanding of Rousseau of the condition of primitive peoples.

According to Rousseau, the degeneration of the human race to its current state began with the institution of private property, which began the development of human society. The first person, who having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and having found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society.’” [9] Here we see the beginning of the modern communist and socialist movement. Rather than seeing private property as an engine of the development of human culture and civilization, it sees private property as a mistake to be corrected.

From this point, Rousseau constructs an “imaginary history” of the decline of the human race from its original equality to its present inequality. Human society bred an understanding of differences, of the difference between the strong and the weak, the intelligent and the not so intelligent, the talented and the not so talented. Human pride then took over and took advantage of the differences that were now seen among human beings until the current state of inequality took over. [10] Once this understanding of the differences among human beings was fully integrated into the human psyche and society, the result was certain. Thus, Rousseau says:

With things having reached this point, it is easy to imagine the rest. I will not stop to describe the successive invention of the arts, the progress of languages, the testing and use of talents, the inequality of fortunes, the use or abuse of wealth, now all the details that follow these and that everyone can easily supply. [11]

Political Consequences of Inequality

The result of the inevitable progress of civilization was an increase in inequality. This inequality is economic, social, legal and political. The growth of wealth enabled an increasing difference in economic circumstances. The growth of social institutions gave advantage to those with the intelligence and social skills to prosper. The growth of courts of law and the need for social arbitration increased the ability of the rich to get advantage over the poor. Inequality of power, allowed increasing distinctions between those in power and those out of power, with those with power increasing their social advantage.

Rousseau describes this process as follows:

Such was … the origin of a society and laws, which gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established forever the law of property and of inequality, changed adroit usurpation into an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery. [12]

 Here one sees clearly the implications of Rousseau’s original decision to see human beings as originally equal, with inequality a development of society. This, however, seems to me to the opposite of the truth. A more likely and historically defensible opinion would be to see the original situation of the human race as one in which physical size, strength, and the like assured the rule of the “fittest,” with protection of the weak, the less intelligent, and others as a development of civilization—and particularly of Christian civilization, which rejected much of the pagan ethic.


Rousseau is complex. His dislike of inequality is visceral, perhaps a result of his early poverty and struggle to achieve financial security and social prominence. For this we can admire his views, and learn from them to ameliorate the worst consequences of inequality. However, his analysis makes human society not an achievement but a mistake, which is not the most logical conclusion to draw from human history. Instead of seeing human history as a long series of errors ending in bondage, it might be more accurate to see human history as a long journey from bondage to a precarious freedom. This will be the subject of the next blog.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Letter to the Republic of Geneva” in Jean-Jacque Rousseau: The Basic Writings 2nd ed. Trans and Edited by Donald A. Cross (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press), 31.  All citations in this blog are from this edition of Rousseau’s work.

[2] E.F. Shumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Vancouver, BC: Hartley and Marks, 1973). There are many other aspects of modern and post-modern thought that are impacted by Rousseau. In many ways, he anticipates the postmodern critique of modernity, which is another reason that it is difficult to call him an “Enlightenment figure” without qualification.

[3] Schleiermacher developed a complex theology, including a political theology, in response to the Enlightenment critique of Christianity and was influenced by, and representative of, the Romantic movement. His theology continues to have impact in some circles, where his impact is as great as any historical thinker. His basic idea is that human beings are by nature religious, and have a religious intuition or feeling that is fundamental, a feeling of absolute dependency.

[4] Rousseau, Discourse on Science and the Arts, at 33.

[5] Id.

[6] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 40.

[7] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 51.

[8] Alexander Gray, Mises Daily Articles, “Rousseau’s Form of Socialism” (September 22, 2009), reprinted from The Socialist Tradition, Moses to Lenin London, ENG: Longmans, Green & Co., 1946),, downloaded April 3, 2021.

[9] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 69.

[10] Id, at 70-76.

[11] Id, at 70-71.

[12] Id, at 79.