In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rousseau’s Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • International Relations

Political Science Rousseau’s Political Thought
Joseph R. Reisert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0117


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.

General Overviews

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 Political 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.

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