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The Confessions of a radical free thinker

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most influential thinkers during the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe, died on July 2, 1778. He was born on June 28, 1712.

His first major philosophical work, A Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, was the winning response to an essay contest conducted by the Academy of Dijon in 1750.


INFLUENTIAL THINKER: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In this work, Rousseau argues that the progression of the sciences and arts has caused the corruption of virtue and morality.

This discourse won Rousseau fame and recognition, and it laid much of the philosophical groundwork for a second, longer work, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.

The second discourse did not win the Academy’s prize, but like the first, it was widely read and further solidified Rousseau’s place as a significant intellectual figure.

The central claim of the work is that human beings are basically good by nature, but were corrupted by the complex historical events that resulted in present day civil society.

Rousseau’s praise of nature is a theme that continues throughout his later works as well, the most significant of which include his comprehensive work on the philosophy of education, the Emile, and his major work on political philosophy, The Social Contract: both published in 1762.

These works caused great controversy in France and were immediately banned by Paris authorities. Rousseau fled France and settled in Switzerland, but he continued to find difficulties with authorities and quarrel with friends.

This is especially evident in his later books, The Confessions, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques.

Rousseau greatly influenced Immanuel Kant’s work on ethics. His novel Julie or the New Heloise impacted the late eighteenth century’s Romantic Naturalism movement, and his political ideals were championed by leaders of the French Revolution.

In 1750 he published the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, a response to the Academy of Dijon’s essay contest on the question, “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?”

To some, Rousseau’s condemnation of the arts and sciences in the First Discourse made him an enemy of progress altogether, a view quite at odds with that of the Enlightenment project.

In the autumn of 1753, Rousseau submitted an entry to another essay contest announced by the Academy of Dijon.

This time, the question posed was, “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by the natural law?” Rousseau’s response would become the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men.

In 1761 he published a novel, Julie or the New Heloise, which was one of the best selling of the century.

Then, just a year later in 1762, he published two major philosophical treatises: in April his definitive work on political philosophy, The Social Contract, and in May a book detailing his views on education, Emile.

Paris authorities condemned both of these books, primarily for claims Rousseau made in them about religion, which forced him to flee France. He settled in Switzerland and in 1764 he began writing his autobiography, his Confessions.

Two of his other later works, the “Reveries of the Solitary Walker” and “Rousseau Judge of Jean Jacques” are also autobiographical.

What is particularly striking about the Confessions is the almost apologetic tone that Rousseau takes at certain points to explain the various public as well as private events in his life.

 

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