How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


Week 6: Human nature and ethics – extra notes: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712 – 1778


                                                                                                                             Links:      Imagining Other Index page


                                                                                                                                             Week 6: Human Nature and Ethics in Smith, Rousseau, and Kant


                                                                                                                                             Week 6: Adam Smith (extra notes)


                                                                                                                                              Week 6: Kant's Ethics (extra notes)



1. Rousseau and the philosophes.

2. The arts and sciences, and education.

3. Human nature, society and politics: the ‘state of nature’.

4. Women

5. Society, inequality, war

6. Religion

7. Politics


1. Rousseau and the philosophes.


Rousseau was untypical among the Enlightenment philosophes – he had arguments with Voltaire, who called him a ‘Judas’; Diderot called him an ‘anti-philosophe’ (Gertrude Himmelfarb: The Roads to Modernity, 2008, p 151); and he had a very personal falling-out with Hume when he stayed with him in Scotland for a while – he accused Hume (by all accounts a very genial man) of plotting against him, and in fact Rousseau may have had a persecution complex.


In particular he believed (i) the passions were more important than reason, whilst of course ‘reason’ was the central concern of most of the philosophes. In his political theories (see section 7) he differed from Locke, of whose ideas Voltaire was an enthusiastic supporter, emphasising (ii) the collective rather than the individual citizen, and (iii) direct democracy rather than representative or elective democracy. 


On (ii) the collective, as Himmelfarb (2008, p 174)) puts it: ‘when Rousseau spoke of the “greatest happiness of all”, he meant it in some transcendent, metaphysical sense, a “common good of men” that was something other than the sum of the goods of individual men.’ (See section 7 on the ‘general will’).


Rousseau’s tendency to ‘generalize’ the virtues, and to elevate the whole of mankind over the individual’ was however typical of the philosophes (as GH sees it).


He also shared with the other Enlightenment philosophes their opposition to absolute monarchy (he and Voltaire both had to take temporary refuge abroad because of their views), and he was highly critical of social inequalities.


He was born in Switzerland, the son of watchmaker, and brought up in a Calvinist milieu. His mother died when he was born (“I cost my mother her life” he says - significantly), and he was tutored – and spoiled - by his father who read romances and adventure stories to him. Rousseau says he soon acquired “not only a tremendous ease in reading and comprehending, but also an insight into the passions quite unique in one of my age… I understood nothing – I felt everything.” (Jones: Masters of Political Thought, 1980).


2. On the arts and sciences, and education.


He wrote an essay - the Discourse on Arts and Sciences (1749/50) - for a competition, on the question “Has the Revival of the Sciences and Arts helped to Purify or to Corrupt Morals?” His answer was highly original and controversial: nearly everyone in the Age of Reason would have praised the arts and sciences for their contribution to civilisation. Rousseau declared they were the cause of a corruption of our natural innocence, and that they serve to make us accept the existing "civilised" order, i.e. to accept our slavery.


He is also known for writing on education, especially in Emile (1758) and in a novel Julie. Both these works describe the upbringing of a child, and both advocate a child-centred approach. However, they are controversial today, since he believed that boys and girls should be brought up in very distinct ways – because they would play different roles in society (see 4 below).


3. On human nature, the ‘state of nature’ etc:


In the 1753/4: Discourse on Inequality he sets out his views on the fundamental nature of man, and on the origin of society, private property and conflict.


To develop his critique of existing society he asked what humans would have been like before the institution of society. Rousseau saw society as unnatural, and a social sense is therefore also not natural but artificial. In other words to define ‘human nature’ we have to think about what humans would have been like before society.


Note that many political philosophers (not just in the Enlightenment) used the device of conjecturing a ‘state of nature’ as a starting point for their theories.

For some it seems to have been an actual historical condition – for others merely a useful hypothesis. Either way, it was a popular device - after all, once something has been labeled ‘natural’ it is very hard to oppose or reject it… It has been said that the word ‘natural’ was a central concept in Enlightenment thinking.


Using evidence from the writings of travellers and naturalists such as Buffon, he explores the nature of man: natural man would be roving individuals; there would be no permanent relationships, but a "loose companionship"; there would be no love, no family, no morality, and no property; people would be free, but without knowledge, language, morality, or industry – they would be neither moral nor vicious: in a word – “innocent”. (Berki)


For Rousseau, then, the ‘savage’ in the state of nature was not selfish (as in Hobbes) nor even rational (as in Locke) – for these abilities, he argued, arose as a result of our interaction with others, and especially in ‘civilisation’.


For Hobbes, in the 17th century, the state of nature was one in which life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ – and in the state of nature (since there were no laws to restrain people) men would be constantly competing with each other (a ‘war of all against all’). For Locke, (also in the 17th century, but more influential on the Enlightenment thinkers) on the other hand, since men were rational, the state of nature was simply lacking in ways of enforcing what the majority of people regarded as right (especially the right to ‘life, liberty and property’).


Hence the idea (not exactly what Rousseau was saying) of the noble savage. In this, Rousseau was a precursor of the ‘romantics’ (Wordsworth and others) of the early 19th century: he also loved “nature” and wrote a book about his walks, and his dreaming as he walked through the countryside. He admired the newly “discovered” native peoples, whose lives were described by travellers, as he believed they led more natural lives than the civilised French. In retort, Voltaire sarcastically said that Rousseau's praise of the "noble savage" was so convincing that it made him want to get down on all fours.



Rousseau’s view of human nature (before society changes it) is that we all have two natural (pre-social) sentiments or feelings (sensibilité). Again, and most importantly, unlike the other Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau does not attribute reasoning powers to us as ‘natural’ or pre-social…  We have feelings first, and he identifies two such sentiments/feelings: amour de soi, and pitié:


- amour de soi – [love of oneself] is not the same as amour-propre, [self-love]: self-love develops in society, especially after the institution of property… and it is the basis of false values such as "honour", pride and vanity... Rather amour de soi could be self-respect or self-preservation.  Simply: the desire to satisfy our own short-term needs – and presumably not to be hurt.


- pitié – [pity] but probably best translated as sympathy or compassion. Pitié is not the same as altruism, but rather the desire not to hurt others.     


For Himmelfarb Rousseau’s account, in Emile, of how the central character develops ‘social feelings’ is that these feelings are based on self-love (because self-love comes first in human development): “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself (l’amour de moi).” And this is also the ‘source of [a sense of?] justice’: “Love of men derived from love of self is the principle of human justice.”


I have two comments on Himmelfarb’s implied position here (she is contrasting Rousseau with other writers who posit an inherent social feeling): first that Rousseau’s formulation seems to me very close to the ‘golden rule’: Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you (or: love others as you love yourself…).  Second, that Rousseau is describing a process of evolution or development, and in this he surely is right: a child is self-centred before becoming other-oriented.


However, as we will see with Smith and Hutcheson there were others who were more ready to attribute to social feelings to human nature. [Note that there is common ground between Rousseau and Adam Smith on ‘pity’ or compassion (see next week) – Smith may have got the idea from Rousseau’s 1755 Discourse on Inequality, which he reviewed three years before his Theory of moral Sentiments was published. The latter may in turn have influenced Rousseau when he wrote Emile (1758)].


4. Women:


Rousseau had a controversial view of the role of women – in fact he saw them as a threat to public order, because they do not have men’s rationality!! Men would be active in public affairs, i.e. politics, whilst women brought up the children.


Yet he gave women an important role in the home, bringing up children with a sense of responsibility, morality, duty etc, which underpins the civic virtues... This idea was seen by many women of the time as progressive. Perhaps part of its appeal was the importance Rousseau put on "natural" feelings. But it did mean that woman would have a separate role, and not be allowed to take part in public life… Contemporary feminist writers such as Carol Pateman have little time for Rousseau.


5. Society, inequality, war:


Society, whilst it brings benefits, such as mutual protection, also corrupts us – the main corrupting factors being: inequality (springing from private property), luxury, idleness and a (false) political constitution. War also originates from the idea of private property…


An interesting corollary of this argument is that language, reasoning, culture and morality all originate with society.


The important point to note at this stage is how Rousseau differed from other Enlightenment thinkers in his emphasis on feelings, and on the negative aspects of social conditioning; I would also stress that collective solidarity (the basis of social and political organisation) which is based on feelings would be very different from organizing on the basis of reason. We surely have to use both our feelings and our reason: although social feelings, and especially compassion, would bind a people together – whilst reason seems unlikely to promote social solidarity… also there is no guarantee that the feelings promoted would be positive: patriotism etc have to be kept in check. 


6. On religion: [Mainly from ‘Rousseau’ by Robert Wokler (Oxford Past Masters series, 1995), Chapter 5].


Rousseau supported religion and religious tolerance. Theological intolerance would have sinister political consequences (letter to Voltaire on Providence). He criticised the persecution of Protestants in his Manuscrit de Genève: ‘Of all Christian sects the Protestant is the wisest, gentlest, most peaceful and most social.’


In the second part of his Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar he assails ‘the bigotry and superstition above all of Roman Catholicism’ and criticises religion as revelation. (p 83)


In his later years he supported religious piety, because it was based on emotion rather than being intellectual.


Rousseau’s position, then, was in contrast to John Locke, Shaftesbury and others, who had ‘sketched out ways in which God was restrained by reason’ (O’Hara p 139). Locke had answered the question facing the materialists (following Descartes) as to how matter could think: God could make matter think.


Although Locke had denied innate ideas, he argued that God must exist in order for us to make sense of the world. With regard to revelation, Locke said that it might go beyond reason (and may come from God), but it could not be contrary to reason.


Rousseau attacked this idea (in the Profession…) as a ‘veritable absurdity’ - he felt that his own sense of his own existence cannot be generated by unorganized matter; we must be more than mere matter, we have the capacity for a spontaneous expression of will. 


On Christianity, in The Social Contract Rousseau argues that, historically, Christians were originally other-worldly; then, although their faith was spread by the Roman Empire, the Romans didn’t trust them to stay out of politics and persecuted them. Eventually, ‘laying claim to God’s earthly domains they established the most violent despotism.’


Everywhere, in Rousseau’s time, religion and politics were separate and either religion controlled politics or vice versa (the latter in England and Russia). He, however, believed in the value of a ‘civic religion’ – a kind of state secular religion to promote support for the community - but it would need to be simple, without dogmas and rituals that would distract from love of ones country.  For me, it is not clear how such a religion, coupled with loyalty to ones country, would avoid chauvinism, i.e. excessive patriotism.


Rousseau, however, argued that religious and secular power should be in the same hands, (as had Hobbes) but he also noted the danger of the ruler upholding his own interests rather than those of the state (and he criticised Hobbes for failing to see this danger). He also said that Christianity was not the best religion to support political order – Christians would be more concerned with saving their souls than defending the republic. For Rousseau: ‘true Christians are made to be slaves.’ 


Rousseau follows Plato, and Machiavelli especially, in advocating a civil function for religion.


He was passionate about religion, but his views changed through his life: he wrote prayers as a young man when ‘under the Catholic influence of Mme de Warens’, he wrote a defence of his Protestant faith in Letters from the Mountains, - he was a ‘child of the Reformation’ according to Wokler (p 81) - but he also described a ‘natural religion’ in his Rêveries.


This was one reason he opposed the scepticism and materialism of his contemporary philosophes.


We do not, he said, need any of the Holy Books (Bible, Torah, Koran), but we need only consult nature and our inner feelings. ‘I perceive God everywhere in His works… I sense Him in me.’


7. Politics:


The opening words of his best-known writing on politics, The Social Contract 1762, had a tremendous appeal in the run-up to the French Revolution: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they…”


He argued that what was needed was a new social contract – one based on the need for each citizen to consider the ‘general will’ (a kind of collective consciousness, an agreement as to what is best for the whole society).


Himmelfarb’s view on this was quoted above (section 1), and she contrasts Rousseau’s position with that of, say, Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746, author of A System of Moral Philosophy) who, when he ‘spoke of the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest numbers’ … meant this in the most prosaic, quantitative sense.’

Many liberal critics have underlined his (unfortunate?) statement that individuals must agree with the general will as it is by definition for the good of all. If they do disagree, they must be ‘forced to be free’…


In this, as in the other ways indicated, Rousseau was an atypical Enlightenment thinker!


Rousseau ‘should perhaps have been less surprised than he was’ (says Wokler) that his views were not welcomed – his work was proscribed in Geneva, and the Archbishop of Paris denounced him, the Sorbonne and the Parlement likewise, ordering ‘Emile’ to be burned by the public executioner!


His books (Emile and the Social Contract) were also ordered to be burned in Geneva – to his horror.  How could Protestantism – which he had defended as essentially tolerant – now become as fierce in its persecution as St Paul and the Inquisition? Rousseau recognises that the root of the problem was that the government of Geneva had changed its form (as he had argued governments and constitutions may do) ‘passing by degrees from the many to the few’ – an analysis that anticipates Robert Michel’s [early 20th c] ‘iron law of oligarchy’…


This defence of freedom later inspired Hegel and others ‘drawn to a God manifest in nature’ (cf. also Spinoza).


His ideas were incredibly influential during the eighteenth century, especially in France – and they contributed to the French Revolution which overthrew the monarchy and installed a republic. Robespierre was a follower of Rousseau – even to the extent of trying to establish a state religion. However, I am sure Rousseau would have been horrified at the persecution and fanaticism that followed the French revolution!


What worried the church – and the state – was that Rousseau was arguing against any intermediary body between the citizen and God, on the one hand, or between the citizen and the government on the other hand. Wokler puts it (p 90): ‘freedom of conscience required an unmediated God no less than did legislative freedom of assembly require an unrepresented sovereign.’ [i.e. direct democracy].





Jones, W.T. (ed): Masters of Political Thought, 1980, Harrap

Wokler, Robert: ‘Rousseau’ - Oxford Past Masters series, Oxford UP, 1995