See R. Shattuck, The Banquet Years (1958, repr. 1968); studies by D. Vallier (1964), D. C. Rich (1946, repr. 1970), G. Adriani (2001), and F. Morris, C. Green, and N. Ireson, ed. (2006).
Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker. His mother died shortly after his birth, his father abandoned him about a decade later, and his upbringing was haphazard. At 16 he set out on a wandering, irregular life that brought him into contact (c.1728) with Louise de Warens, who became his patron and later his lover. She arranged for his trip to Turin, where he became an unenthusiastic Roman Catholic convert. After serving as a footman in a powerful family, he left Turin and spent most of the next dozen years at Chambéry, Savoy, with his patron. In 1742 he went to Paris to make his fortune with a new system of musical notation, but the venture failed. Once in Paris, however, he became an intimate of the circle of Denis Diderot (to whose Encyclopédie Rousseau contributed music articles), Melchior Grimm, and Mme d'Épinay. At this time also began his liaison with Thérèse Le Vasseur, a semiliterate servant who became his common-law wife.
In 1749, Rousseau won first prize in a contest, held by the Academy of Dijon, on the question: "Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the corruption or to the improvement of human conduct?" Rousseau took the negative stand, contending that humanity was good by nature and had been fully corrupted by civilization. His essay made him both famous and controversial. Although it is still widely believed that all of Rousseau's philosophy was based on his call for a return to nature, this view is an oversimplification, caused by the excessive importance attached to this first essay. A second philosophical essay, Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité des hommes (1754), is one of Rousseau's most mature and daring productions. After its publication, Rousseau returned to Geneva, reverted to Protestantism in order to regain his citizenship, and returned to Paris with the title "citizen of Geneva."
Mme d'Épinay lent him a cottage, the Hermitage, on her estate at Montmorency. But Rousseau began to quarrel with Mme d'Épinay, Diderot, and Grimm, all of whom he accused of complicity in a sordid plot against him, and left the Hermitage to become the guest of the tolerant duc de Luxembourg, whose château was also at Montmorency. There he finished his novel, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), written in part under the influence of his love for Mme d'Houdetot, the sister-in-law of Mme d'Épinay; his Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), a diatribe against the suggestion that Geneva would be better off for having a theater; his Du contrat social (1762); and his Émile (1762), which offended both the French and Genevan ecclesiastic authorities and was burned at Paris and at Geneva.
Rousseau, with the connivance of highly placed friends, escaped, however, to the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, then a Prussian possession. His house was stoned, and Rousseau fled once more, this time to the canton of Bern, settling on the small island of Saint-Pierre, in the Lake of Biel. In 1765 he was expelled from Bern and accepted the invitation of David Hume to live at his house in England; there he began to write the first part of his Confessions, but after a year he quarreled violently with Hume, whom he believed to be in league with Diderot and Grimm, and returned to France (1767). His suspicion of people deepened and became a persecution mania.
After wandering through the provinces, he finally settled (1770) at Paris, where he lived in a garret and copied music. The French authorities left him undisturbed, while curious foreigners flocked to see the famous man and be insulted by him. At the same time he went from salon to salon, reading his Confessions aloud. In his last years he began Rěveries du promeneur solitaire, descriptions of nature and his feeling about it, which was unfinished at the time of his death. Shortly before his death Rousseau moved to the house of a protector at Ermenonville, near Paris, where he died. In 1794 his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris.
Few people have equaled Rousseau's influence in politics, literature, and education. His political thought is contained in Du contrat social, but it must be supplemented by other works, notably the Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité and his drafts of constitutions for Corsica and for Poland. Rousseau is fundamentally a moralist rather than a metaphysician. As a moralist, he is also, unavoidably, a political theorist. His thought begins with the assumption that we are by nature good, and with the observation that in society we are not good. The fall of humanity was, for Rousseau, a social occurrence. "But human nature does not go backward, and we never return to the times of innocence and equality, when we have once departed from them."
Although he locates the cause of our deformity in society, Rousseau is not a primitivist. In Émile and Du contrat social, he proposed, on an individual and a social level, what might be done. What was new and important about his educational philosophy, as outlined in Émile, was its rejection of the traditional ideal: education was not seen to be the imparting of all things to be known to the uncouth child; rather it was seen as the "drawing out" of what is already there, the fostering of what is native. Rousseau's educational proposal is highly artificial, the process is carefully timed and controlled, but with the end of allowing the free development of human potential.
Similarly, with regard to the social order, Rousseau's aim is freedom, which again does not involve a retreat to primitivism but perfect submission of the individual to what he termed the general will. The general will is what rational people would choose for the common good. Freedom, then, is obedience to a self-imposed law of reason, self-imposed because imposed by the natural laws of humanity's being. The purpose of civil law and government, of whatever form, is to bring about a coincidence of the general will and the wishes of the people. Society gives government its sovereignty when it forms the social contract to achieve liberty and well-being as a group. While this sovereignty may be delegated in various ways (as in a monarchy, a republic, or a democracy) it cannot be transferred and resides ultimately with society as a whole, with the people, who can withdraw it when necessary.
Rousseau's political philosophy assumes that there really is a common good, and that the general will is not merely an ideal, but can, under the right conditions, be actual. And it is under such conditions, with the rule of the general will, that Rousseau sees our full development taking place, when "the advantages of a state of nature would be combined with the advantages of social life." Because he had such faith in the existence of the common good and the rightness of the general will, Rousseau was extreme in the sanctions he was willing to allow for its achievement: "If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: He has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law." Finally, Rousseau advocates a civil religion. Rousseau's thought sometimes rings of Calvinist Geneva, even though he reacted against its vision of humanity and had his books burned by its ecclesiastic authorities.
In its time his epistolary novel Héloïse was immensely popular, but it is scarcely read today, while the Confessions remains widely read. Proposing to describe not only his life, but also his innermost thought and feelings, hiding nothing be it ever so shameful, Rousseau followed the model of St. Augustine's Confession, but he created a new, intensely personal style of autobiography. The Héloïse, Émile, the Confessions, and the Rěveries all transfer to the domain of literature Rousseau's longing for a closeness with nature.
His sensitive awareness apprehended the subtle influences of landscape, trees, water, birds, and other aspects of nature on the shifting state of the human soul. Rousseau was the father of Romantic sensibility; the trend existed before him, but he was the first to give it full expression. Rousseau's style, in all his writings, is always personal, sometimes bizarre, sometimes rhetorical, sometimes bitterly sarcastic, sometimes deliberately plebeian, and often animated by a tender and musical quality unequaled in French prose. Although self-taught, he possessed a thorough knowledge of musical theory, but his compositions exerted no direct influence on music.
Rousseau's influence on posterity has been equaled by only a few, and it is by no means spent. His influence on German and English romanticism—and thus, indirectly, on romanticism in general—is difficult to overestimate. In addition, men as diverse as Immanuel Kant, Johann Goethe, Maximilien de Robespierre, Johann Pestalozzi, and Leo Tolstoy have been his disciples. His doctrine of popular sovereignty had a profound impact on French revolutionary thought. Although he did not advocate collective ownership, his ideas also had their effect on socialist thought. It is probably more correct to say that he anticipated rather than influenced many insights of modern social psychology.
See biographies by F. C. Green (1955, repr. 1970), J. Guéhenno (2 vol., tr. 1966), L. G. Crocker (2 vol., 1968-73), and L. Damrosch (2005); I. Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (2d ed. 1947, repr. 1965); E. Cassirer, The Question of Jean Jacques Rousseau (tr. 1963); A. Cobban, Rousseau and the Modern State (2d ed. 1964); J. MacDonald, Rousseau and the French Revolution, 1762-1791 (1965); W. Blanchard, Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt (1967); R. D. Masters, Political Philosophy of Rousseau (1968); J. Maritain, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (1970); R. Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau (1973).
Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau was born in Nantes, France. His father, René Waldeck-Rousseau, a barrister at the Nantes bar and a leader of the local republican party, figured in the revolution of 1848 as one of the deputies returned to the Constituent Assembly for Loire Inférieure.
The son was a delicate child whose eyesight made reading difficult, and his early education was therefore entirely oral. He studied law at Poitiers and in Paris, where he took his licentiate in January 1869. His father's record ensured his reception in high republican circles. Jules Grévy stood sponsor for him at the Parisian bar. After six months of waiting for briefs in Paris, he decided to return home and to joined the bar of St Nazaire early in 1870. In September he became, in spite of his youth, secretary to the municipal commission temporarily appointed to carry on the town business. He organized the National Defence at St Nazaire, and himself marched out with his contingent, though they saw no active service owing to lack of ammunition, their private store having been commandeered by the state.
In 1873, following the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871, he moved to the bar of Rennes, and six years later was returned to the Chamber of Deputies. In his electoral program he had stated that he was prepared to respect all liberties except those of conspiracy against the institutions of the country and of educating the young in hatred of the modern social order. In the Chamber he supported the policy of Léon Gambetta.
The Waldeck-Rousseau family was strictly Catholic in spite of its republican principles; nevertheless Waldeck-Rousseau supported the Jules Ferry laws on public, laic and mandatory education, enacted in 1881-1882. In 1881 he became minister of the interior in Gambetta's grand ministry. He further voted for the abrogation of the law of 1814 forbidding work on Sundays and fast days, for compulsory service of one year for seminarists and for the re-establishment of divorce. He made his reputation in the Chamber by a report which he drew up in 1880 on behalf of the committee appointed to inquire into the French judicial system.
He was chiefly occupied with the relations between capital and labour, and had a large share in securing the recognition of trade unions in 1884. He became again minister of the interior in the Jules Ferry cabinet of 1883-1885, when he gave proof of great administrative powers. He sought to put down the system by which civil posts were obtained through the local deputy, and he made it clear that the central authority could not be defied by local officials. Waldeck-Rousseau also deposed the 27 May 1885 act establishing penal colonies, dubbed "Law on relegation of recidivists", along with Martin Feuillée. The law was supported by Gambetta and his friend, the criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne .
Waldeck-Rousseau had begun to practise at the Paris bar in 1886, and in 1889 he did not seek re-election to the Chamber, but devoted himself to his legal work. The most famous of the many noteworthy cases in which his cold and penetrating intellect and his power of clear exposition were retained was the defense of Gustave Eiffel in the Panama scandals of 1893.
In 1894 he returned to political life as senator for the department of the Loire, and next year stood for the presidency of the republic against Félix Faure and Henri Brisson, being supported by the Conservatives, who were soon to be his bitter enemies. He received 184 votes, but retired before the second ballot to allow Faure to receive an absolute majority. During the political crisis of the next few years he was recognized by the Opportunist Republicans as the successor of Jules Ferry and Gambetta, and at the crisis of 1899 on the fall of the Charles Dupuy cabinet he was asked by President Émile Loubet to form a government.
After an initial failure he succeeded in forming a coalition cabinet of "Republican Defense", supported by the Radical-Socialists and the Socialists, which included such widely different politicians as the Socialist Alexandre Millerand and the General de Galliffet, dubbed the "repressor of the Commune". He himself returned to his former post at the ministry of the interior, and set to work to quell the discontent with which the country was seething, to put an end to the various agitations which under specious pretences were directed against republican institutions (far-right leagues, Boulangist crisis, etc.), and to restore independence to the judicial authority. His appeal to all republicans to sink their differences before the common peril met with some degree of success, and enabled the government to leave the second court-martial of Alfred Dreyfus at Rennes an absolutely free hand, and then to compromise the affair by granting a pardon to Dreyfus. Waldeck-Rousseau won a great personal success in October by his successful intervention in the strikes at Le Creusot.
With the condemnation in January 1900 of Paul Deroulède and his nationalist followers by the High Court the worst of the danger was past, and Waldeck-Rousseau kept order in Paris without having recourse to irritating displays of force. The Senate was staunch in support of Waldeck-Rousseau, and in the Chamber he displayed remarkable astuteness in winning support from various groups. The Amnesty Bill, passed on 19 December, chiefly through his unwearied advocacy, went far to smooth down the acerbity of the preceding years. With the object of aiding the industry of wine-producing, and of discouraging the consumption of spirits and other deleterious liquors, the government passed a bill suppressing the octroi duties on the three "hygienic" drinks--wine, cider and beer. The act came into force at the beginning of 1901.
But the most important measure of his later administration was the Associations Bill of 1901. Like many of his predecessors, he was convinced that the stability of the republic demanded some restraint on the intrigues of the wealthy religious bodies. All previous attempts in this direction had failed. In his speech in the Chamber, Waldeck-Rousseau recalled the fact that he had tried to pass an Associations Bill in 1882, and again in 1883. He declared that the religious associations were now being subjected for the first time to the regulations common to all others, and that the object of the bill was to ensure the supremacy of the civil power. The royalist bias given to the pupils in the religious seminaries was undoubtedly a principal cause of the passing of this bill; and the government took strong measures to secure the presence of officers of undoubted fidelity to the republic in the higher positions on the staff. His speeches on the religious question were published in 1901 under the title of Associations et congregations, following a volume of speeches on Questions societies (1900).
As the general election of 1902 approached all sections of the Opposition united their efforts under the Bloc des gauches, and the name of Waldeck-Rousseau served as a battle-cry for one side, and on the other as a target for abuse. The result was a decisive victory for republican stability. With the defeat of the machinations against the republic, Waldeck-Rousseau considered his task ended, and on 3 June 1902 he resigned office, having proved himself the "strongest personality in French politics since the death of Gambetta." He emerged from his retirement to protest in the Senate against the construction put on his Associations Bill by Émile Combes, who refused in mass the applications of the teaching and preaching congregations for official recognition.
His speeches were published as Discours parlementaires (1889); Pour la République, 1883-1903 (1904), edited by H Leyret; L'État et la liberté (1906); and his Plaidoyers (1906) were edited by H Barboux. See also H Leyret, Waldeck-Rousseau et la Troisième République (1908).