Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

Happy Birthday Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born to a family in Geneva. His mother passed only a few days after his birth. A few years later, his father fled after a duel. At the tender age of 16 he left for France and converted to Catholicism.

At first, he would try to make his way as a musician and composer. After meeting Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert in 1740, he became interested in philosophy.

When responding to a competition organized by the Academy of Dijon to answer the question “Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to refining moral practices?” Rousseau stumbled upon the idea that society might be a harmful influence. Not one to agree with the consensus answer, Rousseau argued the “no” case in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, which won him first prize. Far from improving minds and lives, he argued, the arts destroy happiness.

His second essay, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, sowed the seeds for the future by arguing that man is born free.

people are endowed with innate virtue and, more importantly, the attributes of compassion and empathy. But once this state of innocence is disrupted, and the power of reason begins to separate humankind from the rest of nature, people become detached from their natural virtues. The imposition of civil society on the state of nature therefore entails a move away from virtue toward vice, and from idyllic happiness toward misery.

Rousseau sees the fall from a state of nature and the establishment of civil society as regrettable but inevitable, because it resulted from the human capacity for reason. The process began, he thought, the first time that a man enclosed a piece of land for himself, so introducing the notion of property. As groups of people began to live side by side like this, they formed societies, which could only be maintained through a system of laws. But Rousseau claims that every society loses touch with humanity’s natural virtues, including empathy, and so imposes laws that are not just, but selfish.”

(via The Philosophy Book)

These laws, to protect property, were inflicted on the poor by the rich. “The move from a natural to a civilized state therefore brought about a move not only from virtue to vice, Rousseau points out, but also from innocence and freedom to injustice and enslavement.” Humanity, in the eyes of Rousseau, became corrupted by society. Thus while he is born free, the laws imposed by the state ensure he lives his life “in chains.”

As you can imagine this second Discourse caused quite the stir.

Rousseau’s rallying cry of ‘back to nature!’ and his pessimistic analysis of modern society as full of inequalities and injustices sat well with the growing social unrest of the 1750s, especially in France.

Stating the problem was one thing, but in The Social Contract, Rousseau offered a solution. The book opens with the famous quote: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” In time, this would become the slogan for the French Revolution. The solution, argued Rousseau, was to have citizens, not aristocrats, monarchy, or the Church, run the state.

Modeled on Classical republican ideas of democracy, Rousseau imagines the citizen body operating as a unit, prescribing laws according to the volonté générale, or general will. The laws would arise from all and apply to all — everyone would be considered equal. In contrast with the social contract envisaged by Locke, which was designed to protect the rights and property of individuals, Rousseau advocates for the benefit of all, administered by the general will.

He believed that freedom to participate in the legislative process would lead to an elimination of inequality and injustice and promote a feeling of belonging to society.

In the end, Rousseau’s controversial views lead to his books being banned in several countries, including Switzerland and France. Warrants were issued for his arrest. David Hume invited him to live in England, which Rousseau accepted. After a short while a row erupted between Hume and Rousseau and he returned to France under a fake name. At the time of his death in 1778, revolution was imminent.

Key Works:
1750 Discourse on the Sciences and Arts
1755 Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men
1755 Discourse on Political Economy
1762 The Social Contract

Still curious? Learn more about Rousseau by reading his key works.