Biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland. Nine days later, his mother, Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, died due to complications from childbirth. His father, Isaac Rousseau, was a watchmaker who often left for extended periods of time to pursue his trade. In 1772, Rousseau's father abandoned him to avoid imprisonment after fighting in a duel. Because of his family troubles, Rousseau was raised by his aunt and uncle until he was apprenticed to an engraver at the age of 13. Three years later, he ran away to serve as the secretary to Madame Louise de Warrens, a wealthy woman who would later become his lover.

Rousseau spent much of his youth pursuing his strong interest in music. He attended the Annecy Cathedral choir school for six months, and later worked as a music teacher in Chambery. In 1742, he presented the Academie des Sciences with a new system of numbered musical notation that he intended to be compatible with typography. Although the academy scornfully dismissed his system, a version of it is still used in some parts of the world.

From 1743 to 1744, Rousseau served as the secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, whose government he would later critique in On the Social Contract. After completing this job he returned to Paris. It was there that he met Therese Levausseur, with whom he had five children. Notably, Rousseau abandoned all of his children at a foundling hospital shortly after birth. His poor parenting received a great deal of ridicule and criticism, especially after Rousseau published Emile, which lays out theories on proper child-rearing and education. While he was in Paris, Rousseau befriended Denis Diderot, a prominent French enlightenment thinker and the organizer of an early encyclopedia. Rousseau wrote several articles for Diderot, including some on music and an influential one on political economy. Rousseau also became acquainted with Voltaire, although intellectual differences later ended their friendship.

In 1742, Rousseau entered an essay competition sponsored by the Academie de Dijon. The question asked whether the development of the arts and sciences had a positive effect on morals. Rousseau answered that the arts and sciences had corrupted human morality because they were not human needs, but were rather the result of pride and vanity. Rousseau won the competition, and his essay, "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," garnered him significant respect and fame.

In 1754, Rousseau returned to Geneva and converted from Catholicism to Calvinism. In 1755, he finished his second major work, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. Although Rousseau's second discourse did not win a prize, it furthered the ideas presented in the first by attacking private property and the other vices of modern society.

In 1762, Rousseau published two major works, The Social Contract and Emile, or On Education. Both books were banned in France and Switzerland because they criticized religion. As a result, Rousseau had to flee arrest and went to Moriers, Switzerland, where he received the protection of Fredrick the Great of Prussia. While he was there, he wrote The Constitutional Project for Corsica, which was never implemented because France invaded and annexed the island in 1769.

Rousseau continued to write until his death, even though he faced constant criticism and censure. In 1772, he was asked to make recommendations for a new constitution for Poland. He wrote Considerations on the Government of Poland, which was his last major political work. On July 2, 1778, Rousseau died of a hemorrhage while taking a walk on an estate close to Paris. Rousseau was first buried on the Ile des Peupliers. In 1794, his remains were moved to the Pantheon in Paris, home to many of France's greatest intellectuals, and were placed across from his intellectual rival, Voltaire.

Study Guides on Works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau