Born a citizen of the independent republic of Geneva, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) lived most of his life in exile from his native city, but his admiration for its republican traditions deeply informed his political thought. A writer of surpassing eloquence, his penchant for employing paradoxical and striking rhetorical formulations has led some to dismiss his political writings as unsystematic or even incoherent. That he was idolized by leaders of the French Revolution has led others to read his works as laying the intellectual foundations for the reign of terror and for modern totalitarianism. More recent scholarship, however, has substantially refuted those critiques and revealed Rousseau to be a political theorist of the first rank, alongside such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Hegel. In his early works, Rousseau denounced the hypocrisy and artificiality of Parisian society in the name of conscience and virtue, and he reimagined the state of nature more radically than Hobbes and Locke, seeking to prove that man is naturally good and that social inequality and evil are profoundly artificial. Having diagnosed the evils of modern society, he proposed two distinct sorts of remedies or palliatives: proposals for the reform of individual character and a theory of legitimate political authority. In fact, readers have found in his work two sorts of ideal character: persons who embody an austere, self-commanding virtue and those who retain their innate goodness. His political ideal combines the enthusiasm for civic virtue characteristic of ancient political thought with the moderns’ insistence on the centrality of human freedom, calling for the establishment of a republic based on a social contract in which each citizen agrees with all the rest to be bound by the community’s general will. In the idea of the general will, the centerpiece of his political theory, Rousseau finds the solution to the problem of reconciling authority and freedom: where the laws are the citizens’ general will, the law-abiding citizen obeys only his own will and not the command of any other person, and so is free. This conception of freedom as submission to a law that one gives to oneself anticipates Kant’s conception of freedom as autonomy, and one prominent strand of Rousseau’s influence leads through Kant toward modern liberalism, but another leads toward Romanticism and the celebration of such ideals as sincerity and authenticity.
Contemporary scholars generally accept that Rousseau’s political works form a coherently unified whole, although there remains considerable disagreement about the fundamental principle underlying that unity. Cassirer 1989 was one of the first to make a compelling case for the internal consistency of Rousseau’s thought and is the locus classicus for the Kantian interpretation of Rousseau; the introduction by Peter Gay usefully situates Cassirer’s essay in the context of the early literature on Rousseau. Jouvenel 2006 explains Rousseau’s individualism and collectivism as two aspects of a consistent response to the problems of modern society. Strauss 1947, by contrast, presents Rousseau as a philosopher concerned, like Plato and Aristotle, with the disproportion between a political order grounded on opinion and the philosophical or scientific quest for true knowledge. Masters 1968 reads the works comprising Rousseau’s “system” in the order Rousseau ultimately came to recommend: starting with Emile, then the Discourse on Inequality, followed by the First Discourse and the Social Contract. Shklar 1985 takes a thematic approach and provides a broad overview to several of Rousseau’s fundamental concerns, attending particularly to Rousseau’s interest in the inner moral life and to his uses of metaphor and imagery. Melzer 1990 adopts a more systematic and analytical method than the others, carefully reconstructing Rousseau’s arguments for the principle that human beings are naturally good and then showing how that principle forms the foundation for the political teachings of the Social Contract and Political Economy. Wokler 1995 provides a straightforward introduction to Rousseau’s life and whole body of work that will be particularly useful to readers approaching Rousseau for the first time. The interpretation of Rousseau set forth in Starobinski 1988 is both brilliant and unsettling, as Rousseau’s philosophical commitments are revealed as beset by paradox and as arising as efforts to resolve his own, deep psychological needs.
Cassirer, Ernst. The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 2d ed. Translated by Peter J. Gay. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
English translation of “Das Problem Jean Jacques Rousseau,” first published in the Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie in 1932. An early advocate for the thesis that Rousseau’s works constitute a coherent whole, this seminal work interprets Rousseau as a precursor of Kant, who locates freedom in obedience to a law that subjects will for themselves.
Jouvenel, Bertrand de. “An Essay on Rousseau’s Politics.” In Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers. Vol. 1. Edited by John T. Scott, 79–140. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Originally published as “Essai sur la politique de Rousseau,” in Bertrand de Jouvenel, Rousseau, Contrat Social (1947). Rousseau’s celebration of individual liberty and exhortations to conform to societal demands are shown to be two parts of a consistent response to the problems of society, diagnosed in his early works.
Masters, Roger. The Political Philosophy of Rousseau. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.
A sensitive reconstruction of Rousseau’s philosophical system, according to the plan Rousseau himself suggested, beginning with Emile, then turning to the two discourses and only then considering the Social Contract. Especially valuable for its extensive treatment of Emile and for noting the distinction in Rousseau’s political theory between principles of right and maxims of politics.
Melzer, Arthur. The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau’s Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
A detailed argument for locating the foundation of Rousseau’s thought in the principle of natural goodness. Identifying evil with the soul’s division against itself, Rousseau’s constructive teachings aim at preserving psychic unity: the regime of the Social Contract makes possible the artificially unified life of the citizen; in Emile and in Rousseau’s own autobiographical writings, one finds different versions of a more natural unity of the individual soul.
Shklar, Judith N. Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
A brilliant and psychologizing interpretation of Rousseau, as an unsparing and deeply pessimistic critic of modernity, who proposes mutually incompatible and unrealizable proposals for moral and political reform.
Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Contains the work originally published in French as Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l’obstacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), plus several essays. A pathbreaking and powerfully influential psychoanalytical interpretation of the development of Rousseau’s thought, with particular attention to the discourses, Julie, Emile, and Rousseau’s autobiographical writings.
Strauss, Leo. “On the Intention of Rousseau.” Social Research 14 (1947): 455–487.
Explores Rousseau’s thought through the lens of the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, and presents Rousseau as a philosopher who perceives a fundamental incompatibility between the requirements of political society and those of philosophy and the natural sciences. Reprinted in Cranston and Peters 1972 and Scott 2006, vol. 2 (both cited under Anthologies).
Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
A brief overview of Rousseau’s life and works. An ideal starting-point for students approaching Rousseau for the first time.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Advanced Democracies, Electoral System Reform in
- Advanced Democracies, Public Opinion and Public Policy in
- Advertising and Election Campaigns in the United States
- Africa, Comparative Politics of
- American Indian Politics
- Arab-Israel Conflict, The
- Arendt, Hannah
- Aristotle's Political Thought
- Arms Race Modeling
- Australia and New Zealand, Comparative Politics of
- Authoritarianism in Russia
- Bicameralism in Stable Democracies
- Big Data in Political Science Research
- Biopolitics and State Regulation of Human Life
- Brazilian Political Development
- Business-State Relations in Europe
- Campaign Finance in the Era of Super-PACS
- Canadian Foreign Policy
- Candidate Emergence and Recruitment
- Channels of Electoral Representation in Advanced Industria...
- China's One-Child Policy
- China-Taiwan Relations
- Chinese Communist Party
- Chinese Economic Policy
- Chinese Nationalism
- Civil Society in South Asia
- Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Civil-Military Relations in Asia
- Civil-Military Relations in Latin America
- Class in American Politics
- Comparative Capitalism Theory
- Comparative Industrial Relations in Europe
- Comparative Politics of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bis...
- Comparative Politics of Chile and Uruguay
- Comparative Politics of Federalism
- Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa
- Congress, Defense, and Foreign Policy
- Congressional Reassertion of Authority
- Conservative Litigation Strategies and Groups in US Judici...
- Corruption in China
- Cosmopolitan Political Thought
- Crisis of European Integration in Historical Perspective, ...
- Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School
- Cuban Political Development
- Cycles of Protest
- Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Democracy and Dictatorship in Central Asia
- Democracy in Latin America
- Democratic Citizenship
- Democratic Consolidation
- Democratic Peace Theory
- Democratic Theory
- Democratization in Africa
- Democratization in Central America
- Democratization in Mexico
- Development of Survey Research
- Direct Democracy in the United States
- East Africa, Politics of
- Economic Voting
- Election Forecasting
- Election Laws in Democracies
- Electoral and Party System Development in Sub-Saharan Afri...
- Electoral Change in Latin America
- Emotion and Racial Attitudes in Contemporary American Poli...
- Environmental Governance
- Environmental Politics among Advanced Industrial Democraci...
- Ethnic Diasporas and US Foreign Policy
- Ethnic Politics
- Eurasia, Comparative Politics of
- European Social Democracy
- European Union, Politics of the
- Failed and Weak States in Theory and Practice
- Far-Right Parties in Europe
- Federalism in the United States
- Field Experiments
- Filibuster, The
- Gender and Electoral Politics in the United States
- Gender and International Relations
- Gender, Behavior, and Representation
- Global Inequality
- Globalization and the Welfare State
- Globalization, Health Crises, and Health Care
- Governance in Africa
- Governmental Responses to Political Corruption
- Gridlock and Divided Government in the U.S.
- Historiography of Twentieth-Century American Conservatism,...
- Hobbes’s Political Thought
- Hume’s Political Thought
- Hybrid Regimes
- Identity and Political Behavior
- Ideological Reasoning in Politics
- Immigrant Incorporation in Canada
- Immigrant Incorporation in Western Europe
- Immigration and International Relations
- Immigration Politics and Policy in the United States
- Impact of Campaign Contributions on Congressional Behavior...
- Implicit Attitudes in Public Opinion
- Income Dynamics and Politics in North America and Europe
- Income Inequality and Advanced Democracies
- Income Inequality in the United States, The Politics of
- Indian Democracy
- Indigenous Rights and Governance in Canada, Australia, and...
- Informal Practices of Accountability in Urban Africa
- Institutional Change in Advanced Democracies
- Intellectual Property in International Relations
- Interest Groups and Inequality in the United States
- Interest Groups in American Politics
- International Conflict Management
- International Criminal Justice
- International Law
- International NGOs
- International Political Economy of Illegal Drugs
- Internet and Politics, The
- Iran, Political Development of
- Israeli Politics
- Judicial Supremacy and National Judicial Review
- Judiciaries and Politics in East Asia
- Kant's Political Thought
- Labor Politics in East Asia
- Land Reform in Latin America
- Latin America, Democratic Transitions in
- Latin America, Environmental Policy and Politics in
- Latin America, Guerrilla Insurgencies in
- Latin America, Social Movements in
- Legal Mobilization
- LGBT Politics in the United States
- Liberal Pluralism
- Local Governments in the United States
- Machiavelli’s Political Thought
- Marx's Political Thought
- Mass Incarceration and US Politics
- Mechanisms of Representation
- Media Effects in Politics
- Media Politics in South Asia
- Minority Political Engagement and Representation in the Un...
- Modern Dynastic Rule
- Modern Elections and Voting Behavior in Europe
- National Interbranch Politics in the United States
- NATO, Politics of
- Negative Campaigning
- Neoclassical Realism
- New Institutionalism Revisited, The
- North America, Comparative Politics of
- Oil, Politics of
- Origins and Impact of Proportional Representation, The
- Outcomes of Social Movements and Protest Activities
- Partisan and Nonpartisan Theories of Organization in the U...
- Partisan Polarization in the US Congress
- Partisan Polarization in the US Electorate
- Party Networks
- Peace Operations
- Personality and Politics
- Plato's Political Thought
- Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion
- Political Economy of Financial Regulation in Advanced Ind...
- Political Economy of India
- Political Economy of Taxation, The
- Political Geography in American Politics
- Political Obligation
- Political Parties and Electoral Politics of Japan
- Political Thought, Hegel's
- Political Thought of the American Founders, The
- Politics and Policy in Contemporary Argentina
- Politics of Anti-Americanism
- Politics of Class Formation
- Politics of Disaster Prevention and Management
- Politics of Financial Crises
- Politics of Foreign Direct Investment in South Asia
- Politics of Higher Education in the U.S.
- Politics of Internal Conquest in the United States and Can...
- Politics of Japan
- Politics of Natural Disasters, The
- Politics of North Korea
- Politics of Science and Technology
- Politics of South Africa
- Politics of Southern Africa
- Postcolonialism and International Relations
- Post-Communist Democratization
- Preferential Trade Agreements, Politics of
- Presidential Persuasion and Public Opinion
- Presidential Primaries and Caucuses
- Private Governance
- Public Opinion in Advanced Industrial Democracies
- Public Opinion in New Democracies and Developing Nations
- Public Presidency, US Elections, and the Permanent Campaig...
- Qualitative Methods, The Renewal of
- Race in American Political Thought
- Racial and Ethnic Descriptive Representation in the United...
- Regime Transitions and Variation in Post-Communist Europe
- Regional Integration in Latin America
- Regional Security
- Regulating Food Production
- Religion in American Political Thought
- Religion in Contemporary Political Thought
- Religion, Politics, and Civic Engagement in the United Sta...
- Rousseau's Political Thought
- Rule of Law
- Russia and the West
- Science and Democracy
- Social Policy and Immigrant Integration
- South Korea, Politics of
- Spectacle, The
- State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa
- State Formation
- State, The Nature of the
- Supreme Court of the United States, The
- Systemic Theories of International Politics
- Taiwan, Politics of
- Tea Party, The
- The New Right in American Political Thought
- Transitional Justice
- Transnational Private Regulation
- Turkey, Political Development of
- US Military Bases Abroad
- US Presidency, The
- Voter Turnout
- Welfare State Development
- Welfare State Development in Latin America
- Welfare State Development in Western Europe
- West Africa, Politics of
- Worker Politics in China
- Youth and Generational Differences in US Politics