5 Chapter 5: Enlightenment Philosophy: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This chapter introduces students to the political and educational philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau was born in a poor section of Geneva, Switzerland. After experiencing a troubling childhood, he left Geneva at age sixteen and travelled to various European states including France, Prussia, and Switzerland. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau was a romantic who reacted negatively to the Enlightenment for its exclusive focus on reason and science. To Rousseau, the Enlightenment simply created new forms of tyranny and diminished Man’s natural instinct toward compassion. Said differently, Rousseau appears to reject the atomistic individualism and the self-interest that it underscored by both Hobbes and Locke. Rousseau viewed individuals as interdependent and the Enlightenment’s focus on individuality undermined the natural equality of human beings. A few of his most important works include Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, the Discourse on Political Economy, The Social Contract, and Emile. The latter work served as an exposition of Rousseau’s educational philosophy understood through the education of a young male by the name of Emile, which will be discussed in more detail below. Furthermore, it should be noted at the outset that Rousseau developed different forms of education for males and females, attempting to accommodate what he believed to be natural, innate differences between the sexes. Notwithstanding his differentiated models of learning, Emile was viewed as an attack on the Catholic Church in France. Rousseau was threatened with arrest, and he fled the country. He returned years later, and he died ten years before the French Revolution, to which his writings helped inspire.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Understand Rousseau’s theoretical foundation for representative government and basic political theory.
  • Articulate why Rousseau represents an anti-Enlightenment turn.
  • Understand Rousseau’s conception of community and his unique notion of the general will.
  • Articulate Rousseau’s approach to knowledge and the education of Emile.
  • Describe Rousseau’s assumptions about males and females in his educational philosophy.
  • Articulate criticisms of Rousseau’s education philosophy.
  • Discern differences among Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.


Part 1, Chapter 5 Preface to Readings

Rousseau’s thinking represents a pessimistic reaction toward the Enlightenment. Perhaps because of his turbulent childhood, Rousseau criticized the Enlightenment’s sole focus on reason and science. He appears to have looked upon these changes as impersonal, detached, and alienating. The heightened focus on reason, individualism, and the pursuit of self-interest prioritized in works by Hobbes and Locke, for example, seemed to drain from humanity a natural inclination toward compassion, feelings, and interdependence. The Enlightenment focus on competitive individualism generated unnatural forms of inequality and reduced an otherwise natural harmonious collective to an aggregate of atomistic, self-seeking, aggressive, and egoistic beings.

Like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau’s depiction of the initial state of nature is one where human beings pursue their own self-preservation. However, unlike Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau adds another instinctive desire: compassion for others. Because individuals in Rousseau’s state of nature care about one another, there is no immediate need to enter into a social contract. It is this compassion, as opposed to reason (as if the two were incompatible), that personifies the state of nature. While individuals in the state of nature remain unassociated in the civic sense, they are friendly and harmonious, self-sufficient, and have no desire to harm others, a much more idyllic setting than that described by either Hobbes or Locke. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, Rousseau’s individual is not inherently political and remains generally isolated, which illustrates a paradox in Rousseau’s anti-individualistic thinking. There is no need to create a government to protect individuals from a state of war, nor is there any need to protect property since all property is common. Rousseau depicts individuals in this primitive state of nature as both apolitical and amoral, yet he ascribes human nature with one natural instinct –compassion for others.

Eventually, individuals in this state of nature develop nuclear families in order to improve their subsistence and overall condition. This development occurs naturally, according to Rousseau, from the human instinct for compassion and moral association. Rousseau then says that this leads to a transitional phase in human history wherein small communities develop followed by the division of labor among men, the emergence of language and speech, and eventually competition and rivalry. A final stage is reached with the development of the arts and sciences and the creation of government. Once people reach this level of “civilization,” according to Rousseau, they are no longer free. In fact, Rousseau considers “civilization” responsible for draining from Man his one moral instinct, compassion. Compassion is compromised when political institutions cause individuals to shift their motivations toward self-interest and power. Institutions like government are considered corrupt and they promote new forms of life that were absent in the state of nature. By corruption, Rousseau means that these “civilized” institutions promote selfishness and inequality. Human beings have now been extricated from their natural environment and forced to live in a new world corrupted by private property, the division of labor, and other institutions that are antithetical to, and therefore diminish, the intrinsic human impetus for compassion. Rousseau presents a political theory that is the inverse of Hobbes’ in that human beings have transitioned from a perfect state of equality where instinctive compassion dominates the motives of people to a state of war in a “civilized” society characterized by greed, vanity, and power. The only difference is that Rousseau’s state of war or “civilized” society is augmented by an over emphasis on individual reason. The use of reason, according to Rousseau, results in our domination and exploitation of nature, selfishness, competitiveness, vanity, social stratification, oppression, and relationships based not on compassion, but on power. This is why Rousseau concludes that, in the state of nature, “man is born free and everywhere [in civilization] he is in chains.” In other words, “civilization” causes Man to become materialistic by developing the desire to possess accoutrements he does not need. Likewise, “civilization” forms impulses in Man, driven by his need to acquire social status and symbolic forms of power, to convey neoteric socially constructed repertoires and status, i.e., taste, rank, class, prestige, and prioritized significance among others who share in such competitive positioning. According to Tannebaum and Schultz, “Civilization is the result of a conspiracy by a rational, calculating, selfish few against the many,” which “is based on the twin evils of private property and the division of labor.” In other words, both institutions are unnatural and contribute to the development of self-interest and power in “civilized” society. Likewise, these institutions diminish the cooperation and equality Rousseau idealizes in the state of nature, resulting in “a state of war between rich and poor.” Rousseau’s anti-Enlightenment thought is similarly reflected in his ideas on science, which he considered exploitative of nature and oppressive of human beings. Enlightenment’s exclusive use of reason contributed to the objective domination of nature and the oppression of individuals. (Tannenbaum and Schultz, 1998, 186). Likewise, Rousseau’s theory prioritized human feelings and emotions, which parallels his cooperative and communitarian approach, as well as his educational philosophy.

Rousseau’s Response to the Plague of “Civilization”

How does Rousseau respond to this plague of “civilization”? He advocates removing variants of civilization to the extent possible in order to restore compassion and to re-acknowledge collective interdependence. The best that we can do, he argues, is to create a democracy that parallels, to the extent possible, our instinctual nature. In a democracy, all citizens participate and function according to their natural tendencies, which have been subjugated by the “chains” of “civilized” society. Interestingly, Rousseau asserts that it is at this point –the realization in the need for democracy –that individuals agree to a social contract. Individuals agree to give up all their rights to the sovereign collective. It is from this collective that the general will is developed and expressed. Everyone enjoys the equal rights granted by this sovereign collective. This body is morally legitimate, according to Rousseau, because its inclusiveness is more prone toward establishing policies favorable to all; that is, policies that embody individuals natural instincts for compassion. This contract protects political and legal equality, and social equality is acceptable to Rousseau as long as it does not interfere with political and legal equality.

Rousseau’s conception of the social contract represents a traditional and long-standing strain of thought inherent in classical republican theory, the origin of which can be traced back to Aristotle’s notion of a mean and the importance he gave to materialistic moderation. However, the general will is not focused on individuality in the sense presented by Locke. Rather, it is communal, reasonable (but not focused on reason), and it governs based on compassion, feelings, and what is best for all. Neither the laws nor the government are instituted for the purpose of focusing on and protecting individual rights. Rather, the sovereign body transcends individual interests by focusing on the common public interest. The sovereign will also exercises complete authority in remedying the disobedient or criminal. Paradoxically, since the general will is always right, Rousseau concludes that those who break the law must be coerced or “forced to be free.” Rousseau’s notion of the general will can be perceived as his attempt at returning “civilized” man nearer to the state of nature where the individual and community are largely undifferentiated. Because the individual in the state of nature views himself as part of a collective social identity, his innate compassion toward others and their compassion toward him are mutually actualized.

Finally, it should be noted that another paradox of Rousseau’s theory is his patriarchal view of the family and of citizenship. Specifically, he believed that women were subservient to men. He defined women solely on the basis of their sex, and he denied them citizenship in his theory. His paternal arrogance (not uncommon during his day) is paralleled in his education philosophy, which is his primary focus in Emile.

The Education of Emile


Familiar with Rousseau’s idyllic view of primitive life, it is not surprising that his education philosophy focuses on a child’s unrestricted learning experiences in nature. Opposed to rote memorization and lectures, Rousseau believed that education should be experiential, child-centered, and based on the developmental stages of cognitive and physical growth. Children, who Rousseau believed were innately good and virtuous, were to learn autonomously with little guidance from parents. This frees the child to learn naturally and remain unencumbered to the extent possible during the learning process. Natural interests and talents will emerge free from the expectations (or demands) of others. Rousseau believed that infants should be as free as possible to explore and investigate, albeit protected from harm. This allows the child’s natural instincts to develop.

Based on his developmental approach, it was around the age of twelve children are taught abstract skills and concepts through practical applications. After the sense of self has been allowed to develop over several years, it is during adolescence when children are educated alongside others. Due to the potential for “corrupt” behaviors to emerge, such as seeing others instrumentally as a means to manipulate and dominate, for example, Rousseau places responsibilities in the teacher to prevent this from taking place. Moreover, once children transition from their earlier and isolated educational environment and begin learning with other children, there is the danger of competition emerging. It is up to the teacher to prevent this from happening and to inculcate compassion among students.

In the final stage of Rousseau’s educational plan for Emile, we see the teacher transitioning from an external manipulator of the children’s environment to that of a trusted advisor wherein the students are instructed in a way that is compatible with the nature of social and political life understood by Rousseau’s civic arrangements discussed above. The stages of education parallel the transition from a primitive state of nature to “civilized” society, which requires increased responsibilities of the teacher who is expected to prevent the corruptions of “civil” society from being internalized in children. Anyone familiar with the physician, Maria Montessori’s educational and developmental approach, will recognized parallels with Rousseau’s philosophy.

Rousseau’s Misogynistic Education of Sophie

Sophie was Rousseau’s counterpart to Emile, but she was clearly not considered his equal. As a female, she was denied the kind of educational experiences enjoyed by Emile. In fact, Sophie was to be educated to serve man’s desires and to fulfil the functional needs of the household. Her education was designed to be instrumentally useful to men. Men depended on women to support their emotional, sexual, and narcissistic interests. In the fifth book of Emile, Rousseau highlights his educational philosophy for Sophie:

The entire education of women must be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them, to be loved and honored by them, to rear them when they are young, to care for them when they are grown up, to counsel and console, to make their lives pleasant and charming, these are the duties of women at all times, and they should be taught them in their childhood. To the extent that we refuse to go back to this principle, we will stray from our goal, and all the precepts women are given will not result in their happiness of our own (Okin, 2013, 136).

Paradoxically, Rousseau fails to recognize the extent to which “civilized” society formed his conventional views of the opposite sex and his educational philosophy for Sophie. Sophie’s education was to be subjugated for Emile’s interests. She was to be taught docility, service to her husband, and characteristics compatible with conventional society.

Questions to Consider

  • What is your opinion of Rousseau’s state of nature? Why does he differ from Hobbes and Locke?
  • Why does Rousseau perceive “civilization” so negatively? Do you agree with any of his criticisms of the Enlightenment and modernity?
  • How does Rousseau resolve the paradox of human compassion and the subjugation of women?
  • Can you point to any language in your readings that connect Rousseau’s influence leading up to the French Revolution?
  • What does Rousseau mean by the “general will?”
  • Does Rousseau present a democratic ideal or a communitarian one?
  • Does Rousseau leave any room for individuality and individualism?
  • How would Rousseau define citizen virtue?
  • What do you think of Rousseau’s educational ideas?
  • Why are Emile and Sophie (the female student) educated differently?
  • Is it fair to hold Rousseau accountable for his misogynistic views toward Sophie?
  • What are your thoughts on Rousseau’s prioritizing feelings and emotions over the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, particularly with regard to education?


Honohan, Iseult. (2002). Civic Republicanism. London: Routledge.

Okin, Susan Moller. (2013). Women in Western Political Thought. Princeton University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1997). Rousseau: The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings. Gourevitch, Victor (Ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Tannenbaum, Donald G., and Schultz, David. (1988). Inventors of Ideas: An Introduction to Western Political Philosophy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.


Have students discuss Rousseau’s education philosophy including, but not limited to his developmental views from infancy to adolescence.

Have students discuss the differences between male and female education in Rousseau’s philosophy.

Have students make comparisons with Rousseau’s education philosophy and how we perceive the purposes of education today.

External Readings & Resources