Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, then an independent Protestant Huguenot Republic. He became a composer, philosopher and writer, but is best known for his philosophic influence on the French Revolution.
Geneva had developed its Republican approach to have a bicameral system where the Council of Two Hundred was created by the leading wealthy families in the city-state, plus a 25-man Little Council that made the executive decisions. It had developed a tradition of the sovereignty of the people.
Rousseau’s father was a watchmaker, his mother the daughter of a Calvinist minister. His mother died nine days after his birth, so he was brought up by his father and his father’s sister. He was brought up in a district populated by craftsmen who were often vociferous against the class system. He would later defend artisans above artists. He believed artists served the idle rich by producing arbitrarily-priced baubles.
Rousseau later thinking was much affected by Plutarch’s ‘Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans’ that as a child he read to his father in his workshop.
His early years were none too smooth, his education flimsy. His father had to flee to Bern where he remarried and Rousseau became estranged from him. He then lived with a Calvinist minister outside Geneva, where he learned mathematics and was drawn towards religion. Apprenticed to an engraver in Geneva he was routinely beaten so ran away. He stayed with a Roman Catholic priest in Savoy, where he was lured towards Catholicism by Françoise-Louise de Warens, moving to Turin; this negated his citizenship of Geneva.
De Warens was an older noblewoman who had separated from her husband and a lay preacher specialising in converting Protestants back to Catholicism. Rousseau became besotted by her and he became her lover when he was twenty years old; though the arrangement was far from exclusive on her part.
At 27 years old he took a job as a tutor in Lyon. Then at 30 he moved to Paris to pursue his idea for a numeric musical notation which he thought would emulate typography and make his fortune. The Académie des Sciences found it impractical and rejected it.
In his early thirties he was a secretary to the French ambassador to Venice where he was won over by Italian music and opera. Receiving his salary erratically led to him leaving the role with a deep mistrust of bureaucratic nonsense.
Back in Paris he had an unorthodox relationship with a seamstress with a raft of dependent relatives that he supported. He apparently insisted that each of their children, perhaps as many as five, were given to a foundling hospital; he confessed that this was because he did not want them brought up in this uneducated and dysfunctional family. Odd then that he would become famous as a child-rearing (promoting the benefit of breast-feeding for example) and education theoretician!
He began to produce articles on music and wrote several political articles for Diderot and D’Alembert’s great Encyclopédie. He submitted an essay for a competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon. His ‘Discours sur les sciences et les arts’ (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences) did win and was published in the Mercure de France. Its premise was that while mankind was naturally good, it was the arts and sciences that brought about a moral degeneration.
He wrote Le Devin du Village an opera, the book and music, which was performed before King Louis XV in 1752. The king clearly enjoyed it and awarded him a lifelong pension, but Rousseau refused it. His refusal of further offers earned him a reputation for being awkward. He also won few friends for his strong defence of Italian opera and attack of that of the French, in his ‘Letter on French Music’. The whole event being known as the Querelle des Bouffons (Quarrel of the Comic Actors).
Rousseau had enjoyed the patronage of two powerful and rich individuals in France – Charles François Frédéric de Montmorency-Luxembourg and the Prince de Conti. Though they were somewhat using his pieces to make veiled attacks of Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour. But he even offended some of their set with the targets of his material.
He probably had little choice but to leave France after this incident. He returned to Geneva, reconverted to Calvinism and regained his citizenship.
In 1755 he expanded on his winning essay with his Second Discourse ‘Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les homes’ (Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men). He dismissed the natural equalities that saw one man stronger than another and focused on moral inequalities that create differences in power and wealth. He concluded that society is a confidence trick that the powerful play on the weak so that they can retain their power and wealth.
He laid blame for many ills on the first man who fenced off a piece of land and declared it as his possession, though he also decried those stupid enough to accept his proclamation. He believed Man was naturally self-sufficient and pursued his selfish desires, only having conflict to protect himself. Society changes this so that it introduces competition and pride, an unhealthy comparison with others, which in turn prompts jealousy hatred and the pursuit of power over others.
He was not quite so clear on property seeming to agree with the concept of ownership. But then defined that it is the root of gathering humans in to families and into master-slave relationships.
In the 1760s he published two novels, the second included some contentious religious thought, denying original sin and divine revelation. Rousseau’s intention had been a defence of religion so he was shocked when the bishop of Paris condemned the novels. This led to copies being burned and their being banned in Paris and Geneva; an arrest warrant was issued.
In 1762 he collected his thoughts on how best to establish a political community, this was Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique (Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right). It made the point strongly that monarchs had no divine right to legislate, this should be for the people to decide. He insisted that the people should hold the sovereignty over themselves and that government should be a distinct entity that was used to make legal decisions and other matters that would be too unwieldy for the general population, without any loss of their sovereignty. Though he did conclude that the larger the state the stronger the government would need to be. This prompted much of the subsequent political thinking in Europe. This piece also guaranteed Rousseau’s ‘celebrity’ status in Europe.
His friends helped him escape to Neuchâtel, a canton that was part of the Prussian realm. When his house there was attacked he escaped to Britain, never settling there he travelled back to France in 1767 under an assumed name, he was allowed back in Paris by 1770.
In 1772, based on Social Contract, he was invited to propose a new constitution for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and wrote his Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne (Considerations on the Government of Poland). This was to be his last political treatise.