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In 1749 the Academy of Dijon offered a prize for the best essay on the question, “Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to the improvement of mores?” Most of the contestants must have vied in counting the ways “enlightenment” had raised the level of culture. By the middle of the eighteenth century, advances in science and technology had fueled faith in progress. It was widely believed that the human race was emerging from a long night of ignorance and superstition into an era when Reason at last would conquer age-old social and political problems. It was something of a sensation, therefore, when the palm went to a self-taught thirty-eight-year-old who answered the question with a resounding “No.”

In the essay now known as his First Discourse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that manners and morals had been corrupted as the arts and sciences had advanced. The arts had encouraged sensuality and license, while science had set up strange gods against true religion. Reason had been elevated over feeling, learning over plain goodness and honesty. City people looked down on country folk, and the rich more than ever lorded it over the poor. Political writers spoke less of virtue than of commerce. Society was overrun with scribblers who “smile contemptuously at such old names as patriotism and religion, and consecrate their talents and philosophy to the destruction and defamation of all that men hold sacred.” Echoing pietistic warnings about vain learning, Rousseau asked: What is learning without virtue? What progress can there be without progress in goodness?

The First Discourse was followed by a cascade of writings in which Rousseau challenged the scientific rationalism of Voltaire and other well-known intellectuals who immodestly called themselves les Lumières, the enlightened ones. In the space of twelve years, the eccentric outsider produced a stream of works that made him the preeminent critic of modernity. Yet he was no traditionalist. Through his elevation of feeling over reason, he became the leading prophet of the ultramodern era that would succeed the so-called age of reason.

Rousseau was born in Calvinist Geneva in 1712, the son of a watchmaker and a mother who died from complications of childbirth. When the boy was ten, his father placed him in the care of an uncle who in turn sent him to live with a country pastor. These men provided him with a haphazard education, but the precocious youth never received any formal schooling. At fifteen, after an unhappy apprenticeship to an engraver, he struck out on his own for the nearby Duchy of Savoy. There, a parish priest commended the wandering lad to the hospitality of a woman of good works in Annecy.

Warmhearted Madame de Warens, the estranged wife of a landowner, was not your usual church lady. Though a convert to Catholicism and pious in her way, she did not believe in original sin, or Hell, or that it could be sinful to follow one’s natural impulses. She took a fancy to the clever, awkward boy, and he developed an enduring attachment to her. Rousseau spent several formative years as a sort of cavalier-servant, and occasional sexual partner, to this woman, whom he called Maman. Under her protection, he read voraciously, gained a sense of his extraordinary mental powers, and learned enough about music to support himself as a copyist and teacher.

In 1744, after holding various menial positions—footman, tutor, secretary—in well-to-do households here and there, Rousseau settled in Paris, determined to be independent. There he became friendly with Diderot, and began his lifelong liaison with Thérèse Le Vasseur, a laundry maid in his residential hotel. According to the well-known story in Rousseau’s Confessions, each of the five children born of this union was abandoned to a foundling home shortly after birth. The writer whose works had extolled the child-centered family explained to posterity that he had insisted on this “solution,” over Thérèse’s tearful protests, because he was too poor to provide for children, and that, besides, they would have interfered with his study and work.

(Rousseau’s biographers, though skeptical of much of his autobiographical material, have always taken that tale at face value. There is reason to suppose, however, that the long-suffering Thérèse may not have complied with her consort’s wishes. She and her ever-present mother treated their brilliant patron, in many respects, like a child or ward. They did not hesitate, for instance, to make financial arrangements with Rousseau’s friends behind his back. It would have been quite in character for them, faced with his refusal to accept parental responsibility, to have placed the babies with members of their large, extended Catholic family.)

Rousseau’s circumstances improved greatly after he won the Dijon prize. His cheeky, contrarian First Discourse brought him not only literary fame, but an entrée into polite society where, however, he would never be at ease. That essay was followed by his discourses on Inequality (the Second Discourse) and Political Economy, both destined to be landmarks in political philosophy. Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, which appeared in 1761, became the best-selling novel of the eighteenth century. The Social Contract, with ideas and phrases that would capture the imaginations of revolutionaries, and Émile, his enormously influential work on education, were both published in 1762.

That extraordinary burst of creativity was followed by a long period of physical and mental decline, the former mostly due to an agonizing disorder of the urinary tract, and the latter aggravated by persecution for the blasphemies that Catholics and Calvinists alike discerned in his work. Despite the sufferings, real and imagined, of his later years, Rousseau managed to produce the Confessions, Dialogues, and Reveries of a Solitary Walker, all published posthumously.

After his death in 1778, Rousseau’s popularity soared to new heights. Julie and Émile continued to attract a wide readership, especially among women, while his political writings made him a cult hero to the leaders of the French Revolution. The century was one in which rulers and politicians were particularly open to the ideas of philosophers. Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine the Great, and Joseph II of Austria considered themselves enlightened monarchs and took pride in being advised by the likes of Voltaire. The American Founders were much influenced by the thinking of Locke and Montesquieu. When the French Revolution entered its radical phase, it was the ideas and catchphrases of Rousseau, more than any other thinker, that dominated the thinking and speaking of the insurgents.

Even today, Rousseau remains the preeminent expounder of challenging ideas about human beings, nature, politics, and history that must be reckoned with one way or another. Whether one finds him disturbing or stimulating, it is nearly impossible to remain unaffected by him. Like Plato and Nietzsche, he saw deeply into the most important questions and wrote about them so beautifully that, love him or hate him, we all stand in his shadow. As Allan Bloom once wrote, “His influence was overwhelming, and so well was it digested into the bloodstream of the West that it worked on everyone almost imperceptibly.”

Rousseau’s influence on political thought extended far beyond France and its Revolution. His early modern predecessors, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, had broken with the virtue-based political theories of the ancients and developed theories of government based on human nature as they thought it really was, rather than as it ought to be. Rousseau attacked this “new science of politics” at its foundations. He began his Discourse on Inequality by scoffing at previous attempts to account for the origins of government by describing what human beings must have been like in the “state of nature.” The mythic tales told by Hobbes and Locke had recounted the progress of mankind from “a horrible state of war” (Hobbes) or from a “very precarious, very unsafe” existence (Locke) into a more secure way of life in organized society. According to Rousseau, such accounts had it backwards. Prior writers had failed to understand the natural condition of man, he claimed, because they “carried over to the state of nature ideas they had acquired in society; they spoke about savage man but they described civilized man.” The complex fears and desires they attributed to our early ancestors could only have been produced by society.

Rousseau then presented his own version of pre-history as universal truth: “O man, of whatever country you are, and whatever your opinions may be, listen: behold your history as I have thought to read it, not in books written by your fellow creatures, who are liars, but in nature, which never lies.” The earliest human, as Rousseau imagined him, was a simple, animal-like creature, “wholly wrapped up in the feeling of [his own] present existence.” He was not inherently dangerous to his fellows as Hobbes had it. But neither was he fallen as the biblical tradition teaches. Rather, he must have led a “solitary,” “indolent” life, satisfying his basic physical needs, mating casually without forming ties. He possessed a “natural feeling” of compassion for the suffering of other sentient beings that made him unwilling to harm others, unless (a big unless) his own self-preservation was at stake. He was not naturally endowed with reason, but existed in an unreflective state of pure being. The transition from this primitive state into civil society represented a “loss of real felicity,” in Rousseau’s view, rather than an unambiguous step forward.

Rousseau next took aim at the social contract theories of his predecessors. As he saw it, what drew human beings out of their primeval state was not rational calculation leading to agreement for the sake of self-preservation (as Hobbes and Locke thought), but rather a quality he called “perfectibility.” Previous thinkers, he claimed, did not pay sufficient attention to the distinctively human capacity to change and develop, to transform oneself and to be transformed. In other words, they failed to consider the implications of the fact that human nature itself has a history. Or that human beings, through their capacity to form ideas, can to some extent shape that history. These were the insights of the Discourse on Inequality that won the admiration of such a dissimilar personality as Immanuel Kant and stirred the historical imaginations of Hegel and Marx.

With the development of human faculties, Rousseau continued, came language, family life, and eventually an era when families lived in simple tribal groups. That centuries-long stage of communal living, succeeding the state of nature and preceding organized society, he wrote, “must have been the happiest and most stable of epochs,” which only a “fatal accident” could have brought to an end. That accident was precipitated by the ever-restless human mind that invented agriculture and metallurgy, which led in turn to the state of affairs where human beings lost their self-sufficiency and came to depend on one another for their survival. (“It is iron and wheat which have civilized men and ruined the human race.”)

In contrast to Locke, who taught that property was an especially important, pre-political right, Rousseau wrote:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this imposter, you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

Contrary to Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau contended that it was civil society, not nature, that gave rise to a state of affairs that was always in danger of degenerating into war. Civil society begat governments and laws, inequality, resentment, and other woes. Governments and laws “bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labor, slavery, and wretchedness.” It would be absurd to suppose, he went on, that mankind had somehow consented to this state of affairs where “the privileged few . . . gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life.”

Though Rousseau’s evocative imaginary depictions of primitive societies were to swell the tide of nineteenth-century romantic “nostalgia” for the simple life, he himself insisted that there was no escape from history. There was no going back, he explained, because human nature itself had changed: “The savage and the civilized man differ so much . . . that what constitutes the supreme happiness of one would reduce the other to despair.” Natural man had been sufficient unto himself; man in civil society had become dependent on his fellows in countless ways, even to the point of living “in the opinions of others.” Reprising the theme of his Dijon essay, Rousseau concluded that modern man, though surrounded by philosophy, civilization, and codes of morality, had little to show for himself but “honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.”

The radical character of Rousseau’s political thought is nowhere more apparent than in his treatments of reason and human nature. Together with early modern and Enlightenment thinkers, he rejected older ideas of a natural law discoverable through right reason. But by insisting that human beings are not naturally endowed with reason, he struck at the very core of the Enlightenment project, subordinating reason to feeling in a move that would characterize the politics of a later age. Like others within the modern horizon, he rejected the older view that human beings are naturally social or political. But by exalting individual solitude and self-sufficiency, he set himself apart from his fellow moderns, anticipating the hyper-individualism of a much later age—our own.

Not without justification, then, did Bloom call the Discourse on Inequality “the most radical work ever written, one that transformed the way people thought about the world.” This one essay contained the germs of most of the themes Rousseau would develop in later works, and that would be further elaborated by others who came under his spell. Rousseau’s lyrical descriptions of early man and simple societies fueled the nineteenth-century popular romantic revolt against classicism in art and literature. His criticism of property, together with his dark view of the downside of mutual dependence, made a deep impression on the young Karl Marx.

The thesis of the Second Discourse, that the most serious forms of injustice had their origins in civil society rather than in nature, foreshadowed Rousseau’s famous charge at the beginning of The Social Contract that virtually all existing governments were illegitimate: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” Having raised the explosive issue of legitimacy, and sensing that Europe’s old regimes were about to crumble, Rousseau turned to his most ambitious project to date: the question of how better governments might be established. “I want to seek,” he wrote, “if, in the civil order, there can be some legitimate and solid rule of administration, taking men as they are and the laws as they can be.”

Like many critical theorists before and since, Rousseau was less successful at developing a positive political vision of his own than he had been at spotting flaws in the theories of others. In The Social Contract, he framed the problem of good government as that of finding a form of political association which would protect everyone’s person and property, but within which each person would remain “as free as before.” The solution he devised was an agreement by which everyone would give himself and all his goods to the community, forming a state whose legislation would be produced by the will of each person thinking in terms of all (the “general will”). The state’s legitimacy would thus be derived from the people, who, in obeying the law, would be obeying themselves.

That solution to the problem of legitimate government would obviously require a special sort of citizen, a “new man” who could and would choose the general will over his own interests or the narrow interests of his group. The concept of the general will thus links The Social Contract to Rousseau’s writings on nurture, education, and morals, particularly Émile, which contains his program for forming the sentiments of the young so that they will retain their natural goodness while living in civil society.

The legitimate state, as Rousseau imagined it, would need not only virtuous citizens, but an extraordinary “Legislator” who could persuade people to accept the rules necessary for such a society. Law in the properly constituted state would be, among other things, an instrument of transformation: “He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s laws ought to feel himself capable of changing human nature.” Rousseau had learned from the classical philosophers, however, that good laws can take root only amidst good customs. It was thus implicit in The Social Contract that many existing societies were already beyond help. “What people,” Rousseau asked, “is a fit subject for legislation?” His answer was not encouraging to revolutionaries bent on overthrowing unjust regimes: “One which, already bound by some unity of origin, interest, or convention, has never yet felt the real yoke of law; . . . one in which every member may be known by every other, and there is no need to lay on any man burdens too heavy for a man to bear; . . . one which is neither rich nor poor, but self sufficient . . . . All these conditions are indeed rarely found united, and therefore few states have good constitutions.”

Once a legitimate state is established, it needs to be maintained and defended. Thus, according to Rousseau, there should be no “particular associations” competing for the loyalty of citizens; religion should not be left independent of political control; and those who refuse to conform to the general will would have to be “forced to be free.”

The contrast between Rousseau’s program and the practical ideas that guided the American Founders could hardly be more striking. The legacy of the most influential political thinker of the eighteenth century is thus at odds with the era’s greatest political achievement—the design for government framed by men who believed that good governments could be based on reflection and choice. The pragmatic authors of The Federalist had their own, clear-eyed, understanding of human nature with its potency and its limitations. They knew that human beings are creatures of reason and feeling—capable of good and evil, trust and betrayal, creativity and destruction, selfishness and cooperation. In Madison’s famous formulation: “As there is a certain degree of depravity in human nature which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

As it turned out, Rousseau and his most discerning readers, especially Tocqueville, served the world’s democratic experiments well as sources of constructive criticism. They were instrumental in keeping alive the classical insight that a healthy polity cannot be sustained without virtuous citizens and good customs. They have been among the main contributors to the classical critique of liberalism that has sustained, enriched, and corrected the excesses of democratic states. At the same time, however, liberal democracy has been menaced by Rousseau’s most illegitimate offspring—not the Le Vasseurs who, God willing, are still thriving somewhere, but the practitioners of the politics of feeling who bridle at authority themselves but advocate authoritarian measures to force others to be free.

Generations of scholars have attempted to resolve the seeming contradictions in Rousseau’s political writings, notably between his passionate attachment to natural freedom and his complacency about the state that forces nonconformists to be free. Biographers have pointed out that Rousseau himself was against revolution; that he thought the ideas in The Social Contract could work only in a small homogeneous polity like Geneva; and that he was generally pessimistic about the possibility of changing bad institutions.

But in the worlds of politics and culture, what Rousseau actually said or meant was of less consequence than the emotional responses his writings stirred. Rousseau’s critique of existing governments was heady stuff. The difficulty and subtlety of his political thought were masked by his fluid, seductive literary style. His writings thus became a reservoir of ideas and slogans from which individualists and communitarians, revolutionaries and conservatives, moralists and bohemians, constitutionalists and Marxists drew freely and selectively. Vulgarization of his thought sheared off his deep historical pessimism, with the result that his influence at the popular level was overwhelmingly to the left where, ironically, it fed the nineteenth-century cult of progress.

Though Rousseau can fairly be regarded as the leading secular thinker of the Counter-Enlightenment, his “defense” of religion shows how firmly he stood within the modern horizon of his antagonists, and how he extended that horizon. Voltaire and others, much impressed by the natural science of their day, mounted an offensive against what they called “clericalism” but by which they meant Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. They portrayed organized religion as an impediment to progress and a bastion of bigoted ignorance. Rousseau gained more credit than he deserved for reproving their contempt of religion in his First Discourse, for he was no friendlier to traditional religion than they. His childhood Calvinism and his brief, later passage through Catholicism left him with a vocabulary and a critical stance, but little more. Where Christianity was concerned, he seems to have unquestioningly accepted the reigning opinion among the secular learned men of his time.

He made his own views about organized religion clear in Émile and The Social Contract—so clear in fact that he was forced to flee from both Swiss and French authorities. The Savoyard vicar in Émile sounded much like Rousseau himself. He argued that the presence of religion in society should be welcomed, but not the religion of the day. Rejecting both reason and revelation, he proclaimed that “The essential worship is that of the heart. God does not reject its homage, if it is sincere, in whatever form it is offered to him.” The religion that Rousseau “defended” was a radically subjective one, based on inner sentiment—a belief system rooted in being true to one’s own feelings. It was the religion of Madame de Warens—the same religion that a U.S. Supreme Court plurality would one day attempt to establish when it announced a “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Casey v. Planned Parenthood, 1992).

That private, inner religion was well-suited for the ideal polity outlined in The Social Contract. Once a truly legitimate state has been constructed, Rousseau argued, religion would be helpful in shoring it up—ideally, a patriotic “civil religion.” Sharing Hobbes’ fear of competitors for loyalty with the state, Rousseau held that a well-constituted state could be tolerant of other sorts of religious activity so long as they remained inward and private. Unlike Luther and other reformers, he was uninterested in correcting the defects of institutional religion. He came not to support their critique, but to push it to the limit.

Morality, in Rousseau’s view, was rooted in neither reason nor revelation, but in the natural feeling of compassion. Indeed, he is in an important sense the father of the politics of compassion. As we now know, however, compassion is a shaky foundation on which to build a just society. Compassion, unlike charity, is not a virtue acquired by self-discipline and habitual practice. It is only a feeling, and a fleeting one at that. It yields not only to self-preservation, but to self-interest.

Rousseau’s thought won admiration from a surprising assortment of readers. Julie marked the rise of the romantic literary genre that celebrates the primacy of feeling and the beauties of nature, while the Confessions did the same for the modern literature of self-revelation. Taken out of context, his passages on the communal existence of peoples, his evocation of a lost happy childhood of the human race, and his stress on the importance of religion found wide and disparate audiences, as did his critiques of the commercial mentality, the institution of private property, and the conquest of nature. The new human sciences of anthropology and psychology and the modern understanding of history are all in his debt.

Yet not all of his insights were original. He borrowed heavily, though haphazardly, from classical and biblical sources to criticize the reigning dogmas of his age. The extent of his debt was not always apparent, for he was adept at “translating” traditional wisdom into language that appealed to secular intellectuals. Though his skepticism about the benefits of progress in the arts and sciences was at odds with widely held views among educated men of his time, such attitudes would have been common among the women who were his closest friends, and in popular devotional literature.

Madame de Stael once remarked of Rousseau, “He had nothing new, but he set everything on fire.” Though exaggerating his lack of originality, she did not overestimate the magic of his prose. Rousseau was a consummate stylist, the father of the sound-bite, a phrasemaker par excellence. Moreover, he gave many different kinds of readers the impression that he understood and empathized with their deepest concerns. Above all, he tapped into ressentiment as no writer had done before. All the humiliations he had suffered in his life, all the pettiness and vice he had observed in the households of the ruling classes, lent power to his prose. Many others before and since have written about the plight of the disadvantaged and the injuries of class, but Rousseau remains, as Judith Shklar neatly put it, the “Homer of the losers.”

By Rousseau’s own lights, however, his influence was different from, even opposite to, what he had hoped. His philosophical ideas, he frequently insisted, were only for the few, and the writings containing them could not be understood unless read in relation to one another—and more than once. The teaching of the First Discourse, for instance, is not that the sciences and the arts are unworthy pursuits, but that their spread to the public at large, their vulgarization, had had a corrupting effect—by destabilizing customary morality and fostering skepticism. The best education for ordinary folk, Rousseau held, was education aimed at the formation of healthy sentiments.

But no writer can control how and by whom his works are read. Discerning readers like Tocqueville and Kant were stimulated by Rousseau. To them, his writings were sources of enrichment and challenge, not least because, in his borderline mystical way, he carried forward to the new science of politics important insights from classical and biblical thought. Many activists who were “influenced” by Rousseau’s political ideas, however, probably never read even one of his works in its entirety. More often than not, Rousseau’s writings seem to have affected the emotions of his readers more than their intellects. Even Jacques Maritain, who detested Rousseau, conceded that, more than any other writer, Rousseau gave voice to the longings of his times:

Such men are prophets of the spirit of the world, prophets of below, who concentrate in their heart the influences which work in the deeps of wounded humanity during a whole epoch. They then proclaim the age which is to follow them, and at the same time discharge on the future with prodigious strength those influences which have found their unity in them. They act on men by an awakening of emotional sympathies . . . . They spread around them the contagion of their self, the waves of their feelings and their instincts, they absorb people into their temperament.

What is one to make of a body of thought so ambiguous and so influential as that of Rousseau? Rousseau’s native genius enabled him to acquire a good grasp of one of the two great premodern intellectual traditions. He learned enough from the ancient Greeks to mount a powerful critique of narrow scientific rationalism, but not enough to appreciate the more capacious form of reason that gave the classical and biblical traditions alike their dynamism. Like the Enlightenment thinkers he criticized, Rousseau rejected the moral and intellectual traditions that had nourished his own genius, throwing out the ratio of natural law along with modern scientific reason. He thus failed to see that what he called “perfectibility” was rooted in man’s innate desire to know, the desire that gives rise to the never-ending, recurrent operations of questioning, experiencing, understanding, and choosing.

This prodigiously gifted, gravely flawed genius of the eighteenth century was at his best when he reminded his proud contemporaries of the limitations of science and politics. He sounded an early, much needed warning that material progress does not necessarily bring moral progress. He helped to keep alive the classical insight that good government requires moral foundations. He gave vivid expression to the plight of the poor and marginalized. But Rousseau’s most problematic legacy, the one that bedevils us today, has been his elevation of sincerity over truth, and feeling over reason. Ironically, philosophical works he meant for the few fostered popular skepticism and relativism, while his writings addressed to the many promoted a revolt against reason even among philosophers.

Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.