(AN, G1, G2, G3a)

xxxxxThe French social philosopher and political theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau was one of the most original thinkers of the 18th century. He made his name with his Discourses on the Origins of Inequality Among Mankind, a work of 1755, in which he put forward his thesis that society had corrupted man. He called for a “return to nature” and the simple virtues of the “noble savage”. To achieve this aim, in 1762 he wrote his major political treatise The Social Contract. To free man from his chains and enable him to lead a moral life, he put forward the idea of an agreement between the ruler and the ruled. The ruler had to govern according to the “general will of the people”, and the people had to obey in order to reap the benefits. Another major work of 1762 was his Émile, an enlightened work on education, in which he argued that a child should be allowed to develop naturally. His advanced ideas made him many enemies, and he spent some years in exile, but his support for the rights of the common people sowed the seeds of the French Revolution, and his emphasis on feeling over reason - expounded in his novel The New Heloise and in his Confessions - made him a prophet of the French Romantic movement.

xxxxxFew men have had such an impact on the society of their day as the Frenchman Jean Jacques Rousseau. A social philosopher, political theorist and eloquent writer, he was one of the greatest freethinkers of the 18th century. His works made a major contribution to the intellectual thought of his time, be it in politics, education or social affairs. By challenging the whole structure of society, he sowed the seeds of the French Revolution, whilst in music and literature he helped to hasten the development of the romantic movement. (Thexportrait of Rousseau is by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788), the brilliant French pastelist who gained fame for his life-like portraits.)

xxxxxRouseau was born in Geneva. Sadly, his mother died a few days after his birth, and for much of his childhood he was brought up by an aunt and uncle on his mother's side. He began work as an engraver, but at the age of 16 he ran away and was eventually taken in by Madame Louise de Warens, a wealthy, intelligent woman of Chambery, Savoy. First employed as a steward, he later became her lover, and stayed at her country house, Les Charmettes, for the best part of nine years. She did much to further his academic learning, particularly in philosophy and music. In 1742 he went to Paris and took up work as a music teacher and music copyist. It was here that he became a close friend of the young philosophe Denis Diderot and, at his invitation, contributed to the Encyclopédie on the subject of music. In these articles, written at a time when the music world was sharply divided between the merits of the new Italian opera and the traditional French opera, Rousseau attacked head-on the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Supporting, as one would expect, the free expression associated with Italian music - melody over the dictates of harmony - he won the argument, thereby contributing to the growth of the romantic movement in European music. It was at this time that Rousseau produced a successful opera-comique, Le Devin du village (The Village Soothsayer). This gained the king's approval, and a successful stage career beckoned, but Rousseau saw himself as a man with a mission, a philosopher with a message to tell.

xxxxxHis thesis received its first airing in his prize-winning Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, published in 1750. In this he argued that art and science were products of vanity, and did not meet basic human needs. Indeed, he held that material progress actually hindered the development of genuine human relationships. This idea was carried further five years later in his Discourses on the Origins of Inequality Among Mankind, the work that made his name. Here he expounded the view that civilised society as a whole had corrupted mankind. There was a need to “return to nature” and the virtues and innocence of original man, the “noble savage”. The “nascent society” in which man had lived had been good, but with its development came ownership, and the vices of pride and envy that inequality engenders.

xxxxxA follow-up to this work, his Du Contrat Social (The Social Contract) was published in 1762. A thought-provoking treatise on political theory, it attempted to demonstrate how man might recover his lost freedom. “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” First and foremost, it insisted that justice, equality and sound government must be firmly based on popular sovereignty, the choice of the people themselves. There needed to be, therefore, an agreement or contract between the ruler and the ruled whereby the state carried out the “general will” of its people and fulfilled rather than corrupted man's natural goodness. This being the case, then by obeying the laws of state which he had himself imposed, a citizen would be pursuing his own moral interest. It followed from this that (echoing the thoughts of the English political theorist John Locke) should a government fail to fulfil this “general will”, then the people had the right to overthrow it. That was political dynamite!

xxxxxAnd the year 1762 also saw the publication of Rousseau's other major work Émile. Concerned with the theory of education, it was almost as controversial as the Social Contract, and, in its own sphere, was equally as influential. In this work, Rousseau again sees the need to protect the child from the corrupting influences of society. Humans are born good and this goodness must be nurtured and developed. To do this a child must not be repressed, but allowed to grow and develop naturally. At the same time, natural instincts must be carefully channelled so that the child develops into a well-balanced, moral individual who is fully capable of achieving virtue. As we shall see, this new and enlightened theory was to provide the basis for further and far-reaching developments in the field of education. And to this period belongs his highly successful novel La Nouvelle Héloïse (The New Heloise). Centred around a moving love story, its free expression of emotions and its profound sensibility anticipated the romantic movement in French literature.

xxxxxRousseau's unconventional views on the need to “return to nature” came in for some spiteful derision, alienating the authorities, the clergy, and many of his friends, including Voltaire, Diderot and a number of the other philosophers. Tormented by a persecution complex for much of his life, he was a man who made friends with difficulty and fell out with them at the slightest provocation. And matters became decidedly worse with the publication of The Social Contract. Needless to say, a work questioning the traditional structure of society, and defending the will of the masses against the divine right of kings, deeply alarmed the French government! And to this was added the hostility he aroused by his attack on Jansenism in Émile. He soon found himself assailed on all sides. He was obliged to get out of Paris and eventually France itself, and he spent the next eight years wandering about Europe as a fugitive. In 1765 his travels took him to England, where he was befriended by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (illustrated), but their friendship soon ended in a bitter quarrel, with both men publicly denouncing each other.

xxxxxRousseau returned to France under an assumed name in 1770, and spent his last years completing his Confessions, a remarkable work of self-examination which set the trend for confessional autobiography. Instead of the usual record of appointments and achievements, this work was a public display of the inner self, an intimate and revealing insight into his thoughts and emotions. It revealed a complex, somewhat disturbed man. The first part was not published until 1782, but he did read parts of it aloud in private salons.


xxxxxAs a champion of individual freedom, and the advocate of feeling and sentiment over reason and dogma, Rousseau's writings had a profound influence on the development of romanticism in the early 19th century, especially in music, literature and philosophy. In education, too, his emphasis on a more permissive, specialised approach to child care was to shape the views of educators like the Swiss Johann Pestalozzi and the German Friedrich Froebel. On the other hand, his political theory, whilst certainly in favour of some form of democracy - and clearly influencing the French Revolution as a result - was left open to wider interpretation. His failure to explain how the “general will” was determined allowed Robespierre - the architect of the Reign of Terror during the revolution, and a devotee of Rousseau - to make his own judgement as to what was in the interest of the people! And Rousseau's back to nature philosophy in which land was the property of no man, was later latched onto by communist leaders like Marx and Lenin, bent on bringing all land under state control. Nonetheless, in his own time, his ideas certainly served to challenge and change the political scene, hastening the movement towards greater power for the masses.

 xxxxxIncidentally, the brilliant Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart admired Rousseau and based the text for his operetta Bastien und Bastienne on his Le Devin du village. ...…

xxxxx...... Thexidea of Rousseau's “noble savage” had been around as early as 1688 when the English writer Aphra Behn produced her novel Oroonoko. This told the story of an African prince sold into slavery. And in 1775 the idea received what appeared to be living proof with the arrival in England of the Tahitian Omai (illustrated), brought back by Cook's second expedition to the South Seas. A dignified young man with great charm and excellent manners, he was presented to the King and Queen and, before returning to his homeland the following year, was wined and dined in high society, and had his portrait painted by the artist Joshua Reynolds. ……

Xxxxx…… ThexGerman educational reformer Johann Bernhard Basedow leaned heavily upon Rousseau’s enlightened theories on education. He was particularly impressed with Émile, and this led to his own four-volume treatise on education in 1774. Given the title Elementarwerk, it emphasised the need for physical education and nature study, stressed the importance of games as an aid to learning, and called for an end to corporal punishment. His early work at his Philanthropinum, a model school he established at Dessau, Saxony, in 1770, impressed his fellow Germans Immanuel Kant and Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and, like Rousseau, his ideas influenced the educational reformers Pestalozzi and Froebel.


Rousseau: pastel, after the French portrait painter Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788), 1753 – Museum of Art and History, Geneva, Switzerland. Les Charmettes: by the French engraver A. Lefèvre – Collection Jean-Jacques Monney, Geneva, Switzerland. Hume: detail, by the Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), 1766 – Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Omai: by the English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), c1776 – Tate Britain, London. Pestalozzi: by the Swiss painter Konrad Grob (1828-1904), 1879 – Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland. Yverdon: date and artist unknown. Herbart: date and artist unknown – Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Ohio.



Johann Pestalozzi

xxxxxA man greatly influenced by Rousseau's ideas on education was the Swiss Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827). In his books, the Evening Hour of a Hermit and Leonard and Gertrude of the early 1780s, he stressed the importance of the mental and physical development of a child within a secure and loving environment. Children, he claimed, needed to develop their faculties - head, heart and hand - through their own experiences. In 1805 he opened a boarding school at Yverdon, near Neuchatel, and this was visited by students and teachers from all over Europe to see how his advanced ideas were put into practice. Among those influenced by his work was the German educator Friedrich Froebel (1837 W4).

xxxxxA man much influenced by Rousseau's Émile was the Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827). He dedicated his life to helping underprivileged children. His first attempt to establish a school for them at Neuhof in 1773 ended in failure, and he turned to writing. Following closely the ideas proposed earlier by Rousseau, and improving on them, he made a valuable contribution to educational philosophy. His two major works, The Evening Hour of a Hermit, published in 1780, and his Leonard and Gertrude, begun the following year, stressed the idea of education according to nature, and emphasised the importance of the mother's role in a happy home life. His teaching methods were further explained in his work How Gertrude Teaches her Children, published in 1801.


xxxxxA later attempt to found a boarding school at Yverdon, near Neuchatel, opened in 1805, proved remarkably successful. Students and teachers came from all over Europe to see his revolutionary ideas put into practice. Here, subject matter, though clearly of value, was seen as less important than the mental and physical development of the child within a secure and loving environment. Children needed to develop their faculties - head, heart and hand - through their own experiences. Where possible, knowledge needed to be acquired, not implanted.

xxxxxUnfortunately, towards the end of his life a dispute broke out between the teachers at Yverdon, and the school was closed down in 1825. But as a result of the work achieved there, Pestalozzi's advanced teaching methods had a marked influence on education both in Europe and North America, particularly at elementary level and in teacher training. Among those who visited the school was the German educator Friedrich Froebel. As we shall see, he opened the world's first kindergarten in 1837 (W4), based to a large extent upon the methods he saw practised at Yverdon.

xxxxxIncidentally, among those who visited Yverdon and were much impressed by Pestalozzi’s teaching methods was the German philosopher and educator Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841). His work of 1802, Pestalozzi's Idea of an A B C of Sense Perception, and his Universal Pedagogy, published four years later, developed further the idea of a child-centred education system, and did much to establish education as a branch of science.