The Enlightenment Period

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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. 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.


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