Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), (Not to be confused with the Belgian independent film director with the same name), was born on 28th June in 1712, he was raised by his father as his mother died 9 days following his birth. He was a philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic and educational thought. He was born in Geneva but moved to France when he was 16 years old. Rousseau reached Paris in 1742 and met Diderot, they formed the core of the intellectual group, the ‘Philosophes’. In 1750 he published his first important work ‘A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts’ (1750). Its central theme was that man had become corrupted by society and civilisation. In 1755, he published ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’. He claimed that man, while solitary, was happy, good and free.
Increasingly unhappy in Paris, he travelled to Montmorency. While there, he wrote ‘The New Eloise’ (1761). This novel escaped the censors and was the most widely read of all his works. Its freedom with emotion was in tune with developing romanticism and won him many important followers. However it outrage the French authorities, who burned it and ordered Rousseau’s arrest. He travelled to England, a guest of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, but he became unhappy and secretly returned to France in 1767 and then spent much of the rest of his life working on autobiographical texts, completing the Confessions but also composing the Dialogues: Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques and The Reveries of the Solitary Walker. he died in 1778. In 1794 the French revolutionaries transferred his remains to the Panthéon in Paris.
He had a variety of interests, below are handwritten annotations from the herbarium of Jean-Jacques Rousseau held in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau remains an important figure in the history of philosophy, both because of his contributions to political philosophy and moral psychology and because of his influence on later thinkers and poets.
Poet William Blake studied Rousseau, his poetry reflects this in particular the theme of suffering, for examples in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ he explores the idea of suffering and death. Blake criticised the darkness of child labour, it was common in England in the late 18th and 19th centuries for poor parents to sell their children, four or five year olds were ideal to clean the soot from the chimneys due to their size. It was common for children to die either falling through the chimneys or from lung cancer and other diseases because of breathing in the soot. Please see Blakes’ poem below: