Jean Jacques Rousseau was one of the few people who could be considered as a jack of all trades. He was a philosopher, author, and composer, and he also dabbled in botany and mathematics. He produced many wonderful works in his lifetime and had made several important contributions to music, literature, and political philosophy.
His professional success belied the difficult childhood that he had. His mother died a few days after he was born, and his father later remarried and left him in the care of his uncle. When he was in his teenage years, Rousseau had to support himself and worked as a servant, tutor, and secretary, among other jobs. Problems followed him throughout his adult life; he eventually spent many of his days penniless and had to constantly move from one place to another to avoid getting caught and imprisoned. Despite the hardships that he experienced, Rousseau was still able to come up with several achievements. These include the following.
The Social Contract
This is probably the most well-known among Rousseau’s works. In this book, he pointed out that men naturally are always in a state of competition with each other while also being constantly dependent on each other. These conflicting states can put a lot of pressure on people and limit their freedom while reducing their chances of survival.
The only solution to this dilemma, according to Rousseau, is for everyone to enter a social contract. Through this, they will need to submit to the authority of the government, who will make sure that everybody gets fair treatment. In essence, people have to give up some of their rights in order to enjoy freedom and equality.
“The Social Contract” gained lots of attention when it was published and divided people into two major groups. One side agreed with Rousseau’s arguments and believed that there should be a balance between the power of the state and the rights of individuals. The other side disagreed, saying that the book criticized the Christian government and the religion as a whole because it encouraged people to submit to authority instead of participating in the government system.
Le Devin Du Village
Rousseau composed several operas and motets in his lifetime, but “Le devin du village” (or “The Village Soothsayer” in English) is the most well-known among all of them. It’s a one-act opera that focuses on the story of a couple named Colin and Colette, who love each other but think that the other is being unfaithful. They individually get the help of the village soothsayer and, after following his advice, they eventually got back together and became married.
The opera grabbed the attention of many people during its performance. King Louis XV liked it so much that he offered to provide Rousseau with a life pension (Rousseau declined it). The piece was performed during the wedding of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and Beethoven later rearranged the famous duet into a song.
Julie, or the New Heloise
This book was inspired by Rousseau’s romantic feelings for a girl named Sophie d’Houdetot. In “Julie, or the New Heloise”, Rousseau tells a love story but also weaves through it his philosophical ideas about autonomy and authenticity. The book stirred emotions in many readers, and hundreds of them wrote letters to Rousseau telling him how his work made them weep. It became so popular that copies flew of the shelves and publishers couldn’t keep up with the demand.
“Julie, or the New Heloise” didn’t only attract readers but also changed the landscape of fiction writing. Specifically, it paved the way to the development of romanticism as well as the 19th century obsession for Alpine countrysides (the story was set in the Swiss Alps).
Emile, or On Education
Rousseau believed in the power of education, and he stated this argument in “Emile, or On Education”. In the book, he pointed out that education is one of the best ways for people to learn how to become good citizens, even when the society they live in is less than stellar. He emphasized the importance of helping children develop their character and morals instead of just teaching them concepts and giving them information. This way, they can stay virtuous even when the people around them are not. Rousseau also described the three stages of child development and pointed out how important it was to provide education that was appropriate for a child’s developmental level.
“Emile, or On Education” turned Rousseau into a popular education and child rearing theorist. However, he gained many criticisms, especially from those who pointed out that he, who had written a book about children, had abandoned his own children and given them up to a foundling hospital.
During the last years of his life, Rousseau became paranoid and anxious and felt the need to explain his side of things. This resulted to “Confessions”, an autobiography in which he outlined the details of his childhood as well as the experiences he had as an adult. In the book, he talked about his father and how they bonded over reading adventure novels that his mother had left. He also told how and why he convinced his partner Therese Levasseur to give up their children as soon as they were born and revealed that he regretted his decision later on.
“Confessions” was published posthumously in 1782. It grabbed the attention of those who wanted to learn more about Rousseau and the intimate details of his life. More importantly, it paved the way to the modern format of autobiography.
Aside from “Confessions”, Rousseau wrote a couple of other autobiographical works. These include “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”, which is a collection of essays that reveal his love for botany and give insights into his ideas on education and philosophy. He also crafted “Dialogues: Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques”, which he used as a way to reply to his critics.
Jean Jacques Rousseau produced many thought-provoking works in his lifetime. Many of them weren’t welcomed by the people in his time, but it can’t be denied that his books and ideas promoted a fresh approach on things and encouraged change for the betterment of humanity.