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Matthew Kirkpatrick

AZRousseau.jpgDespite a childhood of poverty, homelessness, and abandonment by his family, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) became a celebrated novelist, composer, and philosopher, influencing the counter-Enlightenment, Kant, the Romantics, and the French Revolution.

Rousseau's main contributions to the history of thought are his intertwined theories of human nature and society. Rousseau grew up during the Enlightenment, which affirmed human potential through the promotion of rationality. In profound contrast, his first publication, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, argued that such striving was born out of pride, envy, and arrogance. As witnessed by such civilisations as Greece, Rome, Egypt, and China, it would lead to society's collapse. Furthermore, quite apart from promoting humankind's true nature and evolution, it actually inhibited it. Although the term 'Noble Savage' is wrongly attributed to him, in Discourse on Inequality Rousseau argued that in a pre-social state of nature, humankind is born equal, free, and, at least on some level, moral. However, just as with the Enlightenment, our natural state and evolution into social relations has been interrupted and distorted by fabricated, unnatural perceptions and agendas. Such concepts as property and ability have become perverted, corrupting human nature with greed, fear, and arrogance, creating inequality and suspicion. The very rules and form of society have been forged by the wealthy elite, to protect their newfound interests. In the present state, therefore, Rousseau famously declared, 'Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains'.

Rousseau sought to regain a more 'naturally' developed sense of human nature and society. The first is profoundly seen in Emile, where Rousseau describes a freeform, undisciplined educational system in which a child is allowed to learn and develop untarnished by outward pressure. Concerning society, in Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract, Rousseau argued that to overcome the chains of greed and fear, individuals must submit their own rights to a beneficent 'general will' of society: only when the good of the whole of society is maintained can the freedoms of the individual be preserved.

Rousseau is ultimately a tragic figure unable to break free from the fears and abandonment of his childhood: he ended almost all of his relationships in bitterness and paranoia, and sent all five of his children to their deaths in orphanages. However, Rousseau's ideas summarized in the revolutionary slogan, 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité!', and his belief in the goodness of human nature, all resonate 200 years later.

Matthew Kirkpatrick