The Enlightenment Period

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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.


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