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Rousseau: the main thought and works

Life and thought

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712, the son of a watchmaker who took care of his first training. In his youth, Rousseau worked as an apprentice engraver, studied in Turin and for some years lived with a French noblewoman, Madame de Warens, whose influence and culture will be decisive for the future life of the philosopher. Secretary of the French ambassador in Venice, from 1741 he moved to Paris, where he came into contact with philosophers and intellectuals of the Enlightenment (especially Denis Diderot), on whose Encyclopédie he collaborated with articles of music and dealing with the entire voice on the political economy: if Rousseau later polemically detaches himself from the group of encyclopedists, his cultural path is now clear.

In 1749, there is the first fundamental step: the philosopher participates in a tender from the Academy of Dijon, winning in competition with his answer to the theme: “Has the progress of the sciences and the arts contributed to the improvement of customs?”. The text, which contains in a nutshell the salient points of Rousseau’s philosophy, was published the following year with the title Discourse on the sciences and the arts and gave the philosopher as much success as controversy. In 1754 his Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, which broadens the reflection of the first intervention on the problems of the “state of nature” and human civilization, did not arouse the same attention among the academics of Dijon, which indeed they even abandon reading (the work will in fact be published a year later by an Amsterdam publisher). Subsequently, when his collaboration with the Encyclopédie ended and relations with the Parisian philosophers deteriorated, Rousseau returned to Geneva and was later hosted in Montmorency by Marshal de Luxembourg.

The works he wrote in this period remain fundamental in the history of Western thought: the Giulia, or the Nuova Eloisa (1761), the Social Contract (1762), and the Emilio (1762) bring to completion the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau , touching on issues such as the “contract” at the base of modern societies, the search for freedom and happiness by each individual and the needs of his “education”, the foundations of political power and the democratic principles of a government. However, the Emilio, for the clear-cut positions on pedagogy and education contained therein, was condemned by the archbishop of Paris (especially for the chapter entitled Profession of faith of the Savoyard vicar): Rousseau was therefore forced to flee France, for take refuge first in Switzerland and then, still in exile, in England, where he was hosted by David Hume (1711-1776). However, Rousseau’s difficult and now suspicious character towards anyone quickly deteriorate relations: Jean-Jacques spends his last years, in which he nevertheless spreads out the Confessions, Rousseau as judge of Jean-Jacques and the Reveries of a solitary walker , in an almost total solitude, to die in Ermenonville on 2 July 1778.

Main topics

In the vast panorama of the French Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Voltaire, D’Alembert, Diderot, Condorcet) that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a solitary voice who, while sharing the same cultural horizon as the philosophes, sings outside the chorus developing his thought in very original directions. Indeed, if the Enlightenment ideal identifies human nature with reason, Rousseau’s work develops around the contrast between natural man and artificial man: the concept of “state of nature” – despite the awareness of the radical separation between this and the contemporary man – becomes in him the tool to highlight the hypocrisies of contemporary society. While then the Enlightenment emphasize the progressive function of knowledge and the ideals of freedom and brotherhood that are undermined by the nascent bourgeois societies, that of Rousseau can be considered a thought inspired by a radical individualism, which then evolves into the communitarianism of the works of maturity.

The two Discourses of 1749 and 1754 support the thesis that material goods and the socio-cultural progress of the West have not produced an improvement in human virtue, but rather have generated an unjust and unequal world. This imbalance is not the result of human nature (which Rousseau considers to be intimately good) but is the work of a distortion of the original state of nature of man as a result of technical-scientific progress and the historical civilization of societies. These ambivalent phenomena, which have both positive and negative consequences, have given birth to “artificial” man, which the natural law of Grotius, Prudendorf and Hobbes has identified as an illusory natural situation of humanity. At this point, the transition to the formulation of a “social contract” is to be understood as the necessary redefinition of the relationship between the law and human freedom (given that a pure and simple return to the “state of nature” is utopian). Human societies must therefore be corrected from within, by reorganizing the relationships and relations between the citizen, political power and the government: the concepts of “general will” and “popular sovereignty” thus acquire relevance.

The reflection on human freedom continues with the epistolary novel Giulia, or the new Eloisa, which, through the story of two young lovers opposed by the family, takes into consideration the relationships between the conditioning of society and the desires of the individual, three ethical choices -moral and instinctual drives. But it is above all in the Social Contract that Rousseau outlines a possible ethical-political community line, based on the passage from “contracts” based on force (or on the pactum subiectionis postulated by Hobbes in Leviathan), with the aim of defining the requirements of a state democratic that protects citizens’ freedom, equality and security. Rousseau then focuses on the drafting of Emilio, a pedagogical treatise on the education of the individual, the fundamental nucleus of the new community he envisioned in the Contract. The education that Rousseau favors is opposed to the traditional one, which destroys the original nature of the child by replacing it with an artificial nature. The education that Emilio is the spokesperson for is rather meant to be an instrument of strengthening the original nature. He must therefore not teach the truth, but defend against error and must aim at a completely spontaneous psycho-physical development through a “well-guided freedom”. In the Emilio there is also a theory of natural religion which founds the existence of God based on the need for a cause for the movement and for the purpose of the things of the universe.

The thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau has a great influence on philosophers and subsequent philosophical currents: from Immanuel Kant to the philosophy of Romanticism and Idealism (in particular, Johann Fichte), from the French Revolution to Karl Marx and to all eight pedagogy. – twentieth century.

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