Rousseau, Jean

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was a Swiss-born French philosopher (see: la-ville-lumiere). He expanded on Hobbes notion of a social contract to state it should be more egalitarian. He was critical of some aspects of formal religion but believed in the inherent divinity of man’s soul. Rousseau sought to prevent the corruption of this natural man, through better civil government and promotion of virtue.

“Humans are born free, yet everywhere they are in chains.”


Rousseau was a writer, philosopher, and — unique among entrants on this list — a composer of operas and classical compositions. Born in Geneva, then a city-state in the Swiss Confederacy, Rousseau would be one of the most consequential thinkers of the Enlightenment era. His ideas on human morality, inequality, and most importantly, on the right to rule, would have an enormous and definable impact not just on thinking in Europe, but on the actual power dynamics within Western Civilization. Indeed, his most important works would identify personal property as the root to inequality and would refute the premise that monarchies are divinely appointed to rule. Rousseau proposed the earth-shattering idea that only the people have a true right to rule. These ideas fomented the French Revolution, and more broadly, helped bring an end to a centuries-old entanglement between Church, Crown, and Country. Rousseau may be credited for providing a basic framework for classical republicanism, a form of government centered around the ideas of civil society, citizenship, and mixed governance.

Rousseau’s Big Ideas

  • Suggested that Man was at his best in a primitive state — suspended between brute animalistic urges on one end of the spectrum and the decadence of civilization on the other — and therefore uncorrupted in his morals;
  • Suggested that the further we deviate from our “state of nature,” the closer we move to the “decay of the species,” an idea that comports with modern environmental and conservationist philosophies;
  • Wrote extensively on education and, in advocating for an education that emphasizes the development of individual moral character, is sometimes credited as an early proponent of child-centered education.
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