Rousseau, The First to Consider Who We Are?

I’m currently listening to another Great Courses Series: European History and European Lives: 1715 to 19141 (listened to the Audible version) featuring lectures by Jonathan Steinberg. In this series Steinberg uses biographies of key individuals throughout this period to elucidate the changes happening as the result of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. I was particularly taken by several of these lectures, so I may take my readers through a summary of one or more of them. This one discusses what I got from Lecture 5: Jean-Jacque Rousseau-A Modern Self.

First Steinberg sets context. Noting that Jean-Jacque Rousseau was born in 1712 and raised in Protestant Geneva which was not yet part of the Swiss confederation, and was a place where works were published that were not allowed in France. Rousseau lost his mother shortly after his birth and his father also was absent from his childhood. Rousseau was quite proud to be a citizen of Geneva, though not finding happiness in being a notary or a coppersmith, he left Geneva, first going to Turin and eventually to Paris.

Where thought was traditionally driven by light coming from God, the Enlightenment was a new view of a light of reason. Steinberg uses a quote from Emmanuel Kant to explain what the Enlightenment meant to human thought:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity (Unmündigkeit). Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another.”

Kant, Immanuel. “‘Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’ (German: Beantwortung Der Frage: Was Ist Aufklärung?).” Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly), December 1784.

According to Kant, the motto of enlightenment is ‘have courage to use your own understanding’. Simply: Dare to know! (Sapere aude.)

Steinberg notes that this thinking is a natural an extension of the Protestant philosophy which the quote below by Martin Luther makes clear:

If the article of our faith is right, “I believe in the holy Christian Church,” the Pope cannot alone be right; else we must say, “I believe in the Pope of Rome,” and reduce the Christian Church to one man, which is a devilish and damnable heresy. Besides that, we are all priests, as I have said, and have all one faith, one Gospel, one Sacrament; how then should we not have the power of discerning and judging what is right or wrong in matters of faith?

Luther, Martin. “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in 1520.”

Steinberg points to four specific implications of this movement of thought:

  1. People have been endowed with natural reason and should act this way.
  2. Reason is impeded by ignorance and superstition, like the belief in God.
  3. Education and reduction of religious belief was essential for freedom of the human mind.
  4. Individual reason is the basis for authority

What I find most interesting about Rousseau was how he expressed highly personal details about his thoughts and behaviors in autobiographical in his writings, printed in his Confessions. No other writer before Rousseau expressed themselves like this, so he made his life, and by extension our lives, a literary artifact.

As a result of his autobiographical readings and his music and compositions, he became a regular of Paris Salons where he was to befriend thinkers like Denis Diderot and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac. While in Paris he wrote an essay to respond to the question: Has enlightenment made people better?2 In this essay Rousseau wrote that the disruption of morals brings with it the corruption of tastes, while attacking the Enlightenment’s view on progress in urban life, explaining that luxury and the city destroy morals. Rousseau writes that while man is essentially good, a noble savage when in the state of nature, society is corrupt, where women no longer believe in honor nor men in virtue. He saw that law bound the poor and gave powers to the wealthy, destroying ‘natural liberty’, and subjecting all mankind to perpetual labor, slavery and wretchedness.

Though all Rousseau’s works were important in some way, Emile, or On Education was the basis on which the French created a new national system of education during the French Revolution. Though, maybe his most important work was The Social Contract which Steinberg states was an “exploration of the dilemma of pure democracy.” In this work, Rousseau asks “how can the citizen be free if his or her will is subjected to the will of the majority,” according to Steinberg. Maybe Rousseau’s most important quote is:

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains the greater slave than they. How did this change come about, I do not know. What can make it legitimate that question, I think I can answer.”

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract,” 1762. Wikisource. ACCEssed December 9, 2020.

Rousseau states some problems with this social contract

  • What protects the individual against the tyranny of the majority?
  • What if the general will is wrong?
  • Assumes that citizens are alike, but this is not realistic.
  • Can not set limits to power of sovereign.

Rousseau dismissed the concern about setting sovereign power because the sovereign is working for the general will, and therefore, no guarantee needs to be given to its subjects. This though was an opportunity for a major criticism of Rousseau since, it appears to condone totalitarianism.

In summary, Steinberg says Rousseau was the first to show the evolution of modern self, a reaction to the Enlightenment. What it is like to be us, and to see our own internal world. He foresaw the outlines of the world that we now live.

I’d highly recommend this lecture, and all the lectures of this Great Course by Jonathan Steinberg. I’ll consider providing more indepth views of his other lectures, since I think he provides great insight into the psyche of the enlightened romantic personalities of the 18th and 19th centuries.


  1. The Great Courses. “European History and European Lives: 1715 to 1914.” Accessed December 9, 2020.
  2. Rousseau, Jean-Jacque. “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.” 1750. In Wikipedia. Accessed December 9, 2020.

Author: T.P. Caruso

Retired from a healthcare and biomedical research career and now enjoying connections with anyone interested in history, geneology, healthcare, leadership or consciousness.

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