Continuing with my series of articles on historical French figures a name you will hear often whilst learning French in France is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It will certainly be in the more intellectual and philosophical discussions, so good luck if you find yourself having such a conversation with your French host families or whoever. If you do however, after reading this article hopefully you will be better equipped to contribute and he will come up later in your French immersion course so you will be ready to get in the mix. Bon courage!
Who was Jean-Jacques Rousseau?
- He was Francophone Genevan philosopher, writer and composer. (1712-1778)
- He was very influential in the enlightenment movement in France and Europe
- He influenced the French Revolution massively
- He had a huge impact on the development on modern political and educational thought
- His novels contributed to the development of romanticism
- He was classified as a national hero in 1794.
In the 18th century the conventional view of society was that of progression; that people were moving positively from a savage, ignorant state towards prosperity and civilisation.
Rousseau disagreed strongly with this accepted wisdom. He came to believe that civilisation and development was actually destroying peoples’ inner morality. This is the idea we have discussed in-depth on my DALF exam preparation course in France at the ILA French Language School in Montpellier.
Concentrating on this theme he wrote ‘Discourse on the Arts and Sciences’ – 1750 – He argued that people had once been good and happy but as they began to form societies they had become more enveloped in vice and sin. He goes on to describe his idea of what life would have been like when humans first came into being and he labelled it ‘The State of Nature’. In this state, he speculated people would:
- More easily understand themselves
- Be more attracted to the essential features of a satisfied life; love of family, respect for nature, appreciation of the beauty of the universe, an interest in other people, music and simple entertainments
- Be guided by empathy and morality
He believed civilisation had corrupted people by encouraging self-love, pride jealousy and vanity. Living in cities led people to compare themselves and become less in touch with their own sensations and experiences. He developed this idea of the ‘Noble savage’ which highlighted the innocence and morality of our very earliest ancestors compared to modern decadence. This is a debate I have seen a lot on the covers of intellectual magazines since coming to learn French in Montpellier. At this time Europe was gripped by the story unfolding across the Atlantic with the Native American tribes. Earlier writings had described these natives as materially simple but psychologically very rich and interesting. They had small, close knit communities that were egalitarian and playful but since the arrival of the settlers the temptations of newcomers’ way of life were destroying these tribes; alcoholism and suicide was rising, factions were fighting.
Child-rearing is also a hot topic of debate in our French class and with my host family and Rousseau extended his arguments to this subject as he thought children were born naturally good. Raising them meant preventing their corruption by society and this idea was widely influential; people no longer saw their children as evil or something to be corrected but rather a natural source of morality and beauty and filling their lives with play and time in nature were important. Everyone at the ILA French Language School in Montpellier has profited from this idea.
His Work You Might Hear Discussed On Your French Immersion Course
- Emile, or On Education (Émile, or Treatise sur Education) – This is a seminal work about education and the nature of humans. He considered it one of his most important writings and it was a big inspiration after the Revolution for the new education system. Before the Revolution it was banned in Paris and Geneva and was burned publicly.
- Julie, or the New Heloise (Julie, or la nouvelle Héloïse) – This novel includes a lot of philosophical theory about authenticity.
- Confessions/ Reveries of a Solitary Worker – These were his autobiographical writings and were an example of the ‘Age of Sensibility’ which was a movement of the late 18th century. They focused on subjectivity and introspection that has been massively important in modern literature.
- Discourse on the Arts and Sciences 1750/ Discourse on Inequality 1754 – Cornerstone of modern political and social thinking. In these seminal works, he introduces the concept of the ‘state of nature’; the hypothetical conditions of human life before societies were created.
- On the Social Contract (Du contrat social) 1762 – In this book Rousseau argues against the divinity of monarchs and their power to legislate.
We have a particular connection to Rousseau here in Montpellier as he lived here and travelled the area for a time, now there is a street named after him in the historic centre just opposite the botanical gardens. I will write a more in-depth article about Rousseau’s connection to your home for learning French in France in another article. He is a fascinated man and has had huge impact on our way of life in Europe and even if you’re not into philosophy it is useful to know who he is and why he’s revered whilst doing a French language stay here in Montpellier.