Few people have equaled Rousseau's influence in politics, literature, and education. His political thought is contained in Du contrat social, but it must be supplemented by other works, notably the Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité and his drafts of constitutions for Corsica and for Poland. Rousseau is fundamentally a moralist rather than a metaphysician. As a moralist, he is also, unavoidably, a political theorist. His thought begins with the assumption that we are by nature good, and with the observation that in society we are not good. The fall of humanity was, for Rousseau, a social occurrence. "But human nature does not go backward, and we never return to the times of innocence and equality, when we have once departed from them."
Although he locates the cause of our deformity in society, Rousseau is not a primitivist. In Émile and Du contrat social, he proposed, on an individual and a social level, what might be done. What was new and important about his educational philosophy, as outlined in Émile, was its rejection of the traditional ideal: education was not seen to be the imparting of all things to be known to the uncouth child; rather it was seen as the "drawing out" of what is already there, the fostering of what is native. Rousseau's educational proposal is highly artificial, the process is carefully timed and controlled, but with the end of allowing the free development of human potential.
Similarly, with regard to the social order, Rousseau's aim is freedom, which again does not involve a retreat to primitivism but perfect submission of the individual to what he termed the general will. The general will is what rational people would choose for the common good. Freedom, then, is obedience to a self-imposed law of reason, self-imposed because imposed by the natural laws of humanity's being. The purpose of civil law and government, of whatever form, is to bring about a coincidence of the general will and the wishes of the people. Society gives government its sovereignty when it forms the social contract to achieve liberty and well-being as a group. While this sovereignty may be delegated in various ways (as in a monarchy, a republic, or a democracy) it cannot be transferred and resides ultimately with society as a whole, with the people, who can withdraw it when necessary.
Rousseau's political philosophy assumes that there really is a common good, and that the general will is not merely an ideal, but can, under the right conditions, be actual. And it is under such conditions, with the rule of the general will, that Rousseau sees our full development taking place, when "the advantages of a state of nature would be combined with the advantages of social life." Because he had such faith in the existence of the common good and the rightness of the general will, Rousseau was extreme in the sanctions he was willing to allow for its achievement: "If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: He has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law." Finally, Rousseau advocates a civil religion. Rousseau's thought sometimes rings of Calvinist Geneva, even though he reacted against its vision of humanity and had his books burned by its ecclesiastic authorities.
In its time his epistolary novel Héloïse was immensely popular, but it is scarcely read today, while the Confessions remains widely read. Proposing to describe not only his life, but also his innermost thought and feelings, hiding nothing be it ever so shameful, Rousseau followed the model of St. Augustine's Confession, but he created a new, intensely personal style of autobiography. The Héloïse, Émile, the Confessions, and the Rêveries all transfer to the domain of literature Rousseau's longing for a closeness with nature.
His sensitive awareness apprehended the subtle influences of landscape, trees, water, birds, and other aspects of nature on the shifting state of the human soul. Rousseau was the father of Romantic sensibility; the trend existed before him, but he was the first to give it full expression. Rousseau's style, in all his writings, is always personal, sometimes bizarre, sometimes rhetorical, sometimes bitterly sarcastic, sometimes deliberately plebeian, and often animated by a tender and musical quality unequaled in French prose. Although self-taught, he possessed a thorough knowledge of musical theory, but his compositions exerted no direct influence on music.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.