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Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Genevan by birth, was a major contributor to modern political and educational theory and practice; he also set in motion what is known as the romantic movement in art, music, and literature. Shortly after Rousseau's birth on June 28, 1712, his mother died, leaving the child-rearing duties to the father, who shared his enthusiasm for books with his son but who otherwise provided little support. At the age of ten Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver, but before the terms of the contract were fulfilled, he fled. At sixteen, abandoned by his father, he found himself in the home of the twenty-nine-year-old Madame de Warens, ostensibly to receive religious instruction. They became intimate friends and lovers. In 1745 Rousseau met Thérése Levasseur, an uneducated washerwoman, who became his mistress and eventually his wife, but not before giving birth to five children, each of which was placed in a foundling home.

Rousseau was variously employed as tutor, secretary, and music copyist, but he valued his independence too much to be harnessed to a conventional career. In 1750 Rousseau found his true calling as a writer with his prize-winning essay, "A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences." His opera, The Village Soothsayer (1752), added to his reputation. There followed a series of original works for which Rousseau is best Acording to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, childhood is a distinct and precious period of life, functioning according to its own laws and developmental stages. (AP/Wide World Photos) known today:A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755); Julie, or the New Eloise (1761); Émile, or On Education and The Social Contract (1762); and Confessions (1771). His last work, Reveries of a Solitary Walker, was completed shortly before his death on July 2, 1778.

Three key ideas are central to Rousseau's view of children and their development. First, to an age known as the Age of Reason, which put its faith in science and technology, Rousseau preached instead the primacy of feeling and sensation and the centrality of matters of the heart. Second, against the prevailing doctrine of original sin, Rousseau proclaimed the basic goodness of human nature and the innocence of childhood. Third, Rousseau took issue with the notion that children were but imperfect adults. In Rousseau's view, depicted in Émile, childhood is a distinct and precious period of life, functioning according to its own laws and developmental stages. The persuasiveness of Rousseau's ideas has significantly influenced contemporary approaches to children and their development.


Cranston, Maurice. Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Cranston, Maurice. The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Cranston, Maurice. The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Dent, N. J. H. Rousseau: An Introduction to his Psychological, Social, and Political Theory. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Publications by Rousseau Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, or On Education, translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic, 1979.

Jim Hillesheim

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 7