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What were Rousseau's most influential ideas?

Rousseau proclaimed and argued for the natural goodness of man. It was society and custom that created human vice and evils in the world, he felt. For example, in the natural state, primitive man had a form of wholesome self-love, or "amour de soi," which in society became "amour proper," or pride and vanity about how he was regarded by others. In the natural condition, "Man is born free," but in society, the institution of private property, which Rousseau considered a form of theft, as well as other corrupt institutions, resulted in man being "everywhere in chains." Rousseau posited a natural sympathy in human relations, which had been corrupted by greed, and a simple piety, which was distorted by organized religion.

This vision of the goodness of man was set forth in Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) and in his novels. In Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right (1762), Rousseau addressed the same questions treated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) of how, given original freedom, a good government can be imagined to come about, and what such a government would be like.

Was Rousseau a hypocrite?

Based on his assumption that children were naturally good and that the purpose of education was to nurture this goodness, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) became the leading educational theorist of his age. His Émile; or, On Education. is a loving account of the development of a young boy under the guidance of Rousseau. The boy is raised in the countryside, where there are less corrupting influences and his mind is not taxed until he is 12. This is a progressive education set up to draw out the nature of the child: "Nature wants children to be children before being men.... Childhood has its own ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling." Émile then learns a skill (carpentry), and at 16 he is introduced to Sophie, who has been selected as his mate. Sophie has been educated to be "governed," whereas Émile is taught the principles of self-government.

Rousseau himself is said to have had five children by Thérèse Levasseur, and each one was brought to an orphanage at birth. Those individuals who already hated Rousseau, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), pointed out that most children in orphanages at that time perished. Rousseau's only defense was that he did not think he would have been a good father.

When a friend of Rousseau's noted that the course of education described in Émile was not practical, Rousseau wrote back: "You say quite correctly that it is impossible to produce an Émile. But I cannot believe that you take the book that carries this name for a true treatise on education. It is rather a philosophical work on this principle advanced by the author in other writings that man is naturally good."

If Rousseau did not take himself seriously as an educational theorist, then his own behavior as a parent would not have meant that he was a hypocrite on that score. The question, however, remains whether this behavior qualifies him as "naturally good," so the question of hypocrisy does not go away that easily.

Rousseau postulated that individual rights are given up to the community in the founding contract. In return, the individual becomes a citizen whose rights are protected. But this is an active model of citizenship because the individual is required to agree to the general will at the same time that he or she acts in self-interest.

Did Rousseau support a free society?

Not exactly. Like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), he held that structure and government authority are necessary to safeguard individual freedoms. Once they have entered into the social contract, citizens retain sovereignty, but the general will, or what is good for the community, is enacted by legislators into laws. This general will, or communal good, may at times be opposed to what is simply good for the majority. Rousseau's proposal for the ideal society was thus focused on the end or goal of that society. He thought that direct democracy was usually the best means for achieving that end in small societies, but in larger societies representative democracy, or even monarchy, would be more appropriate. Rousseau also advocated some form of state religion that would be binding on all citizens and require their participation for the sake of social coherence and stability.

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