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Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

Social Inequalities, Émile, Gender Considerations

A political and moral philosopher during the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed provocative ideas about human nature, education, and the desired relationship between individuals and the ideal society.

Born in the city of Geneva, Switzerland, Jean-Jacques Rousseau lost his mother hours after his birth and was abandoned by his father at the age of seven. After many years of failed apprenticeships and employments, Rousseau rose to intellectual prominence in 1750 upon winning first prize in an essay contest in France. This marked the beginning of a long period of scholarly production in which he authored a number of philosophical treatises that addressed the problem of individual and collective freedom–and how education might help to resolve the dilemma by producing enlightened citizens who would uphold an ideal state. Forced to flee France and Switzerland as a result of the social criticisms inherent in his work, Rousseau found temporary refuge in England and then surreptitiously returned to France where he remained until his death.

Social Inequalities

Rousseau's discontent with contemporary society became evident in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750). Addressing the question of whether progress in the arts and sciences had abetted or detracted from morals, Rousseau portrayed civilization as evil, and he chastised scholars for pursuing knowledge for fame instead of social progress. Similarly, in his Discourse on Inequality and his article on political economy written for Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie (both published in 1755), Rousseau lamented man's departure from the state of nature and his consequent preoccupation with artificial social customs and institutions–all derived from vain and illusory desires to dominate others. Although he accepted individual or innate differences among human beings, Rousseau attacked the existence of social and civil inequalities in which people crushed the spirits of others in attempting to control them.

In the wake of these social criticisms, Rousseau sketched his vision for an ideal society. Particularly in The Social Contract and Émile, both published in 1762, Rousseau delineated a society without artificial social constraints or civil inequality. Ruled by a "general will" that encapsulated the essential commonality of all men, citizens would utilize reason to reconcile their individual interests with the laws of the state. Educated to be self-interested and self-reliant, a citizen would not measure himself against other people nor seek to control them. He would eschew selfish inclinations in favor of social equality. How, then, could such an ideal state emerge? For Rousseau, it required the complete education of a child.


Echoing his disdain for contemporary culture and politics in The Social Contract, Rousseau begins Émile by declaring: "God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil." Society held man hostage in artificial institutions and traditions, thereby corrupting the natural goodness of human nature. This proclamation contradicted the notion of original sin, widely accepted in eighteenth-century Europe. It implied that a complete social revolution–not mere pedagogical reform–was necessary to replace the artificial social mores of the bourgeoisie with a new class of natural, self-reliant citizens. In accordance with John Locke's empirical epistemology, moreover, Rousseau believed that children were born ignorant, dependent, impressionable, without rational thought, and gained all knowledge through direct contact with the physical world.

As a result, Rousseau removed his fictional pupil, Émile, from his family and placed him in rural isolation. The first three stages of a child's development (infancy, boyhood, and pre-adolescence) required a kind of "negative" education. Protected from the artificial and pernicious influences of contemporary society, Émile would not develop unrealistic ambitions and feelings of jealousy or superiority with regard to other men (amour propre). In such a way, the tutor would encourage the child's physical development, shield him from social and religious institutions, prevent the formation of bad habits and prejudices, and preserve his natural inclination of self-interest (amour de soi).

Educated free from the manipulations and desires of others up to this point, Rousseau wanted Émile to remain ignorant of social duty and only to understand what was possible or impossible in the physical world. In such a way, his student would learn to obey the immutable laws of nature. For instance, if Émile were to break the window to his room, he would face the consequences of sleeping with a cold draft. If Émile were to ignore his astronomy lesson, he would endure the panic of losing his way in the woods at night. Through this kind of trial and error, the child would gradually develop reason, adapt to different situations, and become an autonomous man.

The only appropriate book for Rousseau's future citizen was Robinson Crusoe, as it depicted the independent activities of a man isolated in a natural setting. And to abet Émile's self-reliance, Rousseau exposed his student to a variety of artisan trades. Thus, the child would not crave things he could not get, nor would he engage in a vain desire to control other people. An independent and rational young man, Émile learned to accept what was available to him. It is important to note, however, that although the tutor was always behind the scenes, he constantly manipulated conditions to give Émile the illusion of freedom.

Having developed the power to reason by the age of fifteen, the child then needed to develop his morality by understanding society and God. Through the safe and detached medium of historical study, Rousseau wanted his pupil to construct his understanding of human character. Detailed historical accounts of men's spoken words and actions would allow Émile to recognize the universality of natural human passion. As a self-confident and rational adolescent, he would neither envy nor disdain those in the past, but would feel compassion towards them.

This was also the time to cultivate Émile's religious faith. Rousseau did not want his pupil to become an anthropomorphic atheist. Nor did he want his pupil to fall under the authority of a specific religious denomination, with its formal rituals and doctrines. Such trappings smacked of the very artificial social institutions from which Émile was to be freed. Instead, Émile was to recognize the limitations of his senses and to have faith that God–the supreme intelligent will that created the universe and put it into motion–must in fact exist. In this respect, Rousseau deviated from the Enlightenment faith in man's reason as the sole vehicle for understanding God. Rousseau also alienated himself from formal religious institutions in demeaning their authority and asserting the original goodness of human nature. The corrupt codes and institutions of society had tarnished the purity of human nature, fueled a quest to rule over others, and made man a tyrant over nature and himself. The only salvation, however, rested not with God but society itself. A better society, with civil equality and social harmony, would restore human nature to its original and natural state and thereby serve the intent of God. In this way, Rousseau's brand of religious education attempted to teach the child that social reform was both necessary and consistent with God's will.

In Rousseau's final stage of education, his pupil needed to travel throughout the capitals of Europe to learn directly how different societies functioned. Émile also needed to find an appropriate mate, Sophie, who would support him emotionally and raise his children. Assuming that women possessed affectionate natures and inferior intellectual capacities, Rousseau relegated Sophie to the role of wife and mother. In direct contrast to Émile's isolated upbringing for developing his reason and preparing him as a citizen, Sophie's education immersed her in social and religious circles from the outset, thereby ensuring that she would not become a citizen. Despite this inequality, Rousseau believed that Émile and Sophie would comprise a harmonious and moral unit in the ideal state and produce future generations who would uphold it.

Gender Considerations

Some scholars have explored the implications of Rousseau's gender-distinct education and have suggested that Émile's societal isolation rendered him inadequate as a husband and citizen. Raised in social isolation and without family, Émile developed the capacity to think rationally, but at the expense of affectionate and empathetic feelings necessary to sustain a relationship with his future wife or with the ideal state. As delineated in The Social Contract, Rousseau's ideal state required not merely rational thinkers, but citizens who empathized with one another and the state. Thus, according to this view, Rousseau's gender-distinct assumptions produced an inadequate education for Sophie (whose reason had not developed) and Émile (emotionally cold and prey to his wife's manipulations). The family, fragmented and incomplete, could not sustain the ideal state.

A number of scholars have doubted whether Émile's isolation in the countryside could necessarily be free of social forces and whether the tutor could exemplify abstract principles without alluding to examples from conventional society. On the other hand, generations since Rousseau have altered their child-rearing practices and adopted his developmental view of childhood as a period of innocence. Some have accused Rousseau, in his manipulation of Émile and stress on the general will, of advocating a proto-totalitarian state. On the other hand, many scholars have identified Rousseau's faith in the agency of individuals to make rational and enlightened decisions both for themselves and their society as a precursor to democracy. Indeed, this lack of consensus about Rousseau's legacy speaks less to his inadequacies than to his profound contributions to the fundamental, enduring, and controversial questions about human nature, self, society, and education.


BLOOM, ALLAN. 1978. "The Education of Democratic Man: Émile. " Daedalus 107:135–153.

BOYD, WILLIAM. 1963. The Educational Theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau. New York: Russell and Russell.

CASSIRER, ERNST. 1954. The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. and ed. Peter Gay. New York: Columbia University Press.

MARTIN, JANE ROLAND. 1985. Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

OWEN, DAVID B. 1982. "History and the Curriculum in Rousseau's Émile. " Educational Theory 32:117–129.

ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. 1964. The First and Second Discourses (1750, 1755), ed. Roger D. Masters and trans. Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martins.

ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. 1993. Émile (1762), trans. Barbara Foxley. London: Dent.

ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. 1988. THE SOCIAL CONTRACT (1762), trans. George Douglas Howard Cole. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.


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