The work tackles fundamental political and philosophical questions about the relationship between the individual and society — how, in particular, the individual might retain what Rousseau saw as innate human goodness while remaining part of a corrupting collectivity. Its opening sentence: "Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man".
Rousseau seeks to describe a system of education that would enable the natural man he identifies in The Social Contract (1762) to survive corrupt society. He employs the novelistic device of Emile and his tutor to illustrate how such an ideal citizen might be educated. Emile is scarcely a detailed parenting guide but it does contain some specific advice on raising children. It is regarded by some as the first philosophy of education in Western culture to have a serious claim to completeness, as well as being one of the first Bildungsroman novels, having preceded Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship by more than thirty years.