Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712. The death of his mother and the abandonment of his father brought about adult circumstances in his young life. Critical thinking maybe something he learned through his

encounters in his informal education with Plutarch and Calvinist Sermons. He believed that civilization was the catalyst to the lack of natural freedom. Also he believed that all humans were born with the same liberties and that these liberties were taken away by social inequalities. Though his philosophies are arguably revolutionary for the times, the question still remains; is Rousseau legitimately considered to be part of the Enlightenment movement?

Perhaps the single most important Enlightenment writer was the philosopher-novelist-composer-music theorist-language theorist. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who is important not merely for his ideas (which generally recycled older Enlightenment ideas) but for his passionate rhetoric, which enflamed a generation and beyond. The central problem he confronted most of his life he sums up in the first sentence of his most famous work, The Social Contract:” Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.”

Rousseau was considered part of the Enlightenment. Some even have regarded him as the most important individual found during the Enlightenment. His ideas were extremely radical for his time and somewhat continue to be radical in modern times. Some may even compare him to the more modern Karl Marx. Most of Rousseau’s works were based around the idea that humans were born with liberties and slowly overtime these liberties are stripped away. Rousseau also believed that civilization has taken away our natural freedoms. He argued the price of civilization is human freedom and human individuality . Even if each man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children: they are born free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one buy they has the right to dispose of it. Rousseau tried to break out of the Enlightenment mold by having his essay Discourse on the Sciences and Arts published in 1751. He won an essay contest with this entry because of its radical material. He discounted everything that the encyclopedist had strived to obtain. He stated that the sciences and the arts were the heart of the demise of society. However, this seemed to further his popularity among the group that he was trying to distinguish himself from. His theories were so far ahead of his time that men such as Voltaire balked at him and his efforts.

Rousseau believed that people that held power often abused that power. He suggested that nobles and kings abused their power and that they were not absolute. In order for a king to have power the people had to allow him that power not God as many had thought in times before.

Abuses of power can, of course, threaten the very life of the state. When the government—properly responsible only for carrying out the general will—takes upon itself the sovereign responsibility of establishing legal requirements for the people, the social contract has been broken. For Rousseau, then, the establishment of a government is always provisional and temporary, subject to the continual review by its citizens. Since the legitimacy of the social contract depends upon the unanimous consent of all the governed, the sovereign general will is fully expressed only in an assembly of the entire population. Even the effort to establish a representative legislative body is an illusion, according to Rousseau, since only each for all can determine the general.

The Social Contract preached against people staying in the “main stream.” Man is born free; and everywhere he is still in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. Rousseau states many times in all of his works that he is against a moncharial society unless it is ruling people that are not able to make up their own minds, however, he believes that most can make their own decisions. Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody. This particular set of quotes further establishes his role of the thinking of educated people in the enlightenment period. He wanted society to catch up and realize that they did not have to be miserable in the way they were being governed. The enlightenment period embodies thoughts of pushing towards a new way of thinking and Rousseau was the front man for this movement whether or not he wanted to be. Rousseau did not want to be a part of the enlightenment in fact he mocked everything that these men were working for, ironically when one is learning about this period his name is by far one of the most recognized.

Rousseau fought for the right of the people. He believed that if man put the general will of the people first that everyone would lead a much happier life. Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. He believed that without an absolute sovereign people would be much more responsive and there would also be less corruption within the government if there was more than one person running the show so to speak.

This formula shows us that the act of association comprises a mutual undertaking between the public and the individuals. And that each individual, in making a contract, as we may say, with himself, is bound in a double capacity; as a member of the State to the Sovereign. But the maxim of civil right, that no one is bound by undertakings made to himself, does not apply in this case; for there is a great difference between incurring an obligation to yourself and incurring one to a whole of which you form a part.

He argued that the King did his job just because he had to; which in Rousseau’s mind was a horrible calamity because if one is forced to do a task or does not know what the people think of his decision or know how exactly how his decision will affect those who are under his rule he should be considered an ineffective ruler. Those that live and see what is affecting their area should be able to make the decisions of what is going to happen to their families and possessions. This way of thinking almost completely eliminates a monarchal situation.

In all Rousseau may not have considered himself a part of the Enlightenment movement, however, he was very much a huge contender to the times. His beliefs were so advanced many did not appreciate them until a few years after his death. His beliefs affect American lives on a daily basis, his political beliefs and teaching are deeply rooted in our Declaration of Independence. He was a man that was way before his time. His writings help support the fact that he was a leader in the movement. One cannot be considered revolutionary and not be apart of the movement that is going on during that specific time period. Rousseau was a revolutionary man!

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