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  Jean-Jacques Rousseau
1712 - 1778

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a major figure of the 18th century "Age of Ideas", was born on June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland. He was the son of Isaac Rousseau, a watchmaker, and his wife, Suzanne Bernard, the niece of a Calvinist minister. The young Rousseau had little formal education, but read widely, and was educated in the classics by a Calvinist minister. He left Geneva in 1724, and went to Annecy, in Savoy, where he was taken in by a wealthy woman, Mme. De Warens. For several years, he was her protégé and sometime lover; she was ten years older than he, and probably influenced his conversion to Catholicism.

After trying his hand at teaching and other occupations, Rousseau began to write, and went to Paris--the obvious destination for aspiring authors. He was there in the early 1740’s, made a short trip to Venice as secretary to the French ambassador in 1744, and then returned to Paris where he would live for the next twelve years. In 1745, he began a relationship with Thérèse Levasseur, a chambermaid at his hotel, and he had five children with her. Eventually, in 1768, they married, but all of the children had been sent to a foundling home when they were quite young. In later years, Rousseau suffered greatly from feelings of guilt about the abandonment of his offspring.

The most important friendship made by Rousseau during these Paris years was with Denis Diderot, a leader of the French Enlightenment and founder and principal editor of the Encyclopédie. He encouraged Rousseau to compete in the literary competition of the Dijon Academy in 1750, and Rousseau won first prize with his Discours sur les sciences et les arts. It was published in 1750, and Rousseau became famous as both writer and critic. In his essay, he presented the beginnings of his assaults on the institutions and moral order of his time, and of his powerful suggestions for reform. At the same time that he was developing his political and social philosophy, Rousseau worked as a musician and musical theorist. He wrote all of the articles on music for the Encyclopédie, published a Dictionnaire de musique, and wrote the highly successful opera, Le Devin du village (The Cunning-Man, 1766). He also promoted Italian music as superior to that of France, and for this, and his criticism of kings, princes, and wealth, he came under police surveillance in 1753.

In 1755, Rousseau revealed the directions of his political and social thought in two essays-Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes and Le Citoyen: ou Discours sur l’économie politique. He asserted that, in an earlier, natural state, men had lived as equals in an age of communal living. Civilization, bringing with it laws and private property, was responsible for social inequality and all of its accompanying injustices. Rousseau did not recommend any attempt to return to the natural state, but sought to lessen social injustice through equality in political rights, universal education, moral austerity, and taxes on inheritances and luxuries. Seven years later, Rousseau would further elaborate his political ideas in Du contrat social.

When this was written, he was living in the country, at Montmorency. He had grown tired of life in Paris, and was no longer in sympathy with Diderot and his colleagues, whom he now regarded as too materialistic and worldly. Rousseau lived in rural France from 1756 to 1762, and completed the enormously popular novel, Julie: ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Émile: De l’éducation (1762). In the latter, Rousseau said that parents should "follow nature" in raising and educating their children. This meant an emphasis on physical activity while limiting intellectual pursuits; the latter would not be seriously undertaken until the youth had shown his own interests. In the conclusion of this book, and in Du contrat social, Rousseau’s examinations of the issue of inequality were continued, and one of his conclusions was that the people alone are sovereign and have the right to change their government according to their desires-the "general will". He argued also that "civil religion" was required in any state, but that all religious beliefs should be tolerated. In the age of absolute monarchy and religious conformism of which France was the most notorious example, such ideas could not be accepted. Both works were denounced by the Paris courts, and Rousseau was forced to move to Switzerland.

In Switzerland, Rousseau found the atmosphere no more welcoming than in France. His works were banned, and the executive council of Geneva ordered the public burning of Émile and Du contrat social. In response, Rousseau wrote letters attacking both the Archbishop of Paris and the Procurator General of Geneva. The result was another forced departure, this time to England, in 1766, where he was initially welcomed by the political philosopher, David Hume. However, Rousseau was now showing signs of mental disturbance, and he believed that he had numerous enemies. He decided that Hume was in league with his personal foes, rejected his patronage, and returned to France in 1767.

He lived for a time in the countryside, under an assumed name, while writing his Confessions, which was designed to justify himself against his detractors, but in 1770, he returned to Paris. He was no longer bothered by the police, but he continued to believe that he was being persecuted, and often suffered from acute depression. However, it was during these last years that Rousseau was able to make his distinctive contributions to the study of botany.

Rousseau began to study botany in Switzerland in the 1760’s, where he became acquainted with the botanist, Jean-Antoine d’Ivernois. The latter instructed him in the Linnaean system, but Rousseau was less interested in the taxonomic problems of the science than in the knowledge of plants which came from exploration, collecting, and the organizing of herbaria. To this end, he engaged in many botanizing expeditions, often solitary, in Switzerland, England, and in France, and the resulting botanical writings constitute an impressive final part of his literary work. Included are the incomplete Dictionnaire de Botanique and Lettres élémentaires sur la Botanique. In addition, the seventh part of his Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker) contains his thoughts on the pleasures and worth of botanical studies. Among others, Johann von Goethe acknowledged that his own interest in nature study had been influenced by Rousseau.

In the spring of 1778, Rousseau once more left Paris for the countryside at Ermenonville where he died in July. During the Revolution, his body was taken to Paris and placed in the Panthéon-the burial place for France’s great men.


Maurice Cranston, Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754. 1983.
Bruce Cummings, "Rousseau as Botanist". The Journal of Botany. v. 54:80-84. 1916.
Frederick C. Green, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Critical Study of His Life and Writings. 1955. 1970.
Albert Jansen, Jean-Jacques Rousseau als Botaniker. 1885.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Botanical Writings, and Letter to Franquières. Christopher Kelly, ed. 2000.

Robert F. Erickson 

Digitized Works:
Recueil de plantes coloriees
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