Best known as a philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wanted to be a composer and moved from his home in Geneva to Paris, where he spent most of his life, to pursue this career. He had some success, but he became more interested in political debates through his association with Diderot.
Rousseau began writing, and his first major work was Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. His most widely known work is the Social Contract, published in 1762. In it, Rousseau contends that sovereignty should be extended over the citizenry and that the general will is communicated through legislative objectives. This general will supports liberty, equality, and fraternity among the populace. One can see how these ideas would be exploited during the excesses of the French Revolution.
Throughout his work, Rousseau maintained that people were good-natured, though often led astray and corrupted by society. He acknowledged that corruption came from within people, but it was sustained and enlarged by societal pressures such as competition. However, Rousseau was not pessimistic on the prospect for improvement in humankind. Quite the contrary, he thought that individual people had the potential to contribute to a new and different basis for society that would engender a better future for all people. For Rousseau, a main avenue for this revolution in thought and action would come from education, which he detailed in his Émile, also published in 1762.
- Damrosch, L. (2005). Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless genius. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Rousseau, J.-J. (1979). Émile: Or on education. New York: Basic Books.
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