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Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Legacy

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Although most famously known for his work in philosophy, Jean Jacques Rousseau contributed to many other areas during his lifetime. He not only built upon contemporary moral, political, and educational thought, but also developed the subjects of musical composition and writing. His ideas and accomplishments preceded many historical and modern thinkers, who use such ideas to continue to improve and expand on the fields of education, philosophy, government, and music today.

Rousseau’s most overt influence was on later philosophers and political theorists; several of his ideas are clearly paralleled in their works. For example, in Rousseau’s book The Social Contract he writes about general will; that is, the will and interests of the public as a whole. Immanuel Kant, another 18th century philosopher, later echoed this concept in his own work, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, with the categorical imperative (Cooper), the obligation of a self-governing society (McCormick). Another example is Rousseau’s notion of amour propre, or self love, which guided Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (in which Hegel expands on this problem of recognition). Rousseau also argued that citizens will choose just laws because of their own self-interest; this led to Rawls’ argument in A Theory of Justice, where he uses the device of “original position” to argue that when citizens determine justice they will be motivated by self-interest and free choice (Bertram). Rousseau’s theories clearly resounded with multiple philosophers who spanned centuries, and laid solid ground for later thinkers.

Beyond prominent philosophers, Jean Jacques Rousseau created a stir in the general public as well. In 1750, he wrote his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts for an essay competition hosted by the Academy of Dijon. He won first place after arguing that social improvement corrupts both society as a whole and individual morals (Bertram). The Discourse was Rousseau’s first major published success; it shocked contemporary thinkers and provoked response from the public. Historian and literary critic Lytton Strachey (Alexander) said of Rousseau: “… he possessed one quality which cut him off from his contemporaries, which set an immense gulf betwixt him and them: he was modern … he belonged to another world” (178). Rousseau dared to openly and seriously discuss unconventional topics that caused the citizens of France – and people in other areas – to question what they considered intrinsic ideas (Conroy). Rousseau’s brazen attitude provided forward momentum for the Enlightenment and caused the rapid diffusion of his philosophy.

Rousseau later used much of this philosophy to lay a foundation for his educational theories. He believed education should be a natural process, tailored to match a child’s development, with the child “discovering” concepts with the help of a teacher (“Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, 1998). Rousseau’s work Emile was one of the first examples arguing for this discovery within education; the standard model at the time defined a teacher as a figure of authority who conveyed skills and knowledge based on a curriculum (“Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, 2003). Montessori education, a modern system employed by about 20,000 schools worldwide (NAMTA), makes use of many of Rousseau’s theories: the basic values of the system include “guided choice of work activity” (“Introduction to Montessori”), with teachers matching instruction to a child’s growth. Both systems emphasize the importance of learning not from teachers but from experience and mistakes. Rousseau’s ideas also impacted 20th century psychologist John Dewey, who stressed the importance of a student’s involvement in curriculum in his book My Pedagogic Creed. Dewey may have helped popularize Rousseau’s and others’ values that led to the Montessori system (Goncalves). Although his theories on education were popular at the time, they are just as relevant in society now as people question and debate the workings of the public and private school systems.

Rousseau’s philosophy also led to change in government and ruling authorities. In his work Government of Poland, he carefully designed a government state with checks and balances, which included inspection of the king, and elections and supervision of the Diet (Williams). His firm conviction in natural rights and general will is found throughout the American Constitution, which would in turn shape the governments of other countries. Likewise, France’s National Assembly would later incorporate his concept of general will into Declaration of the Rights of Man, which states that “law is the expression of the general will” (Lauritsen). Rousseau’s ideas elicited an emotional connection with people and eventually made their way into important historical documents.

Rousseau’s more obscure yet no less important influences survive through music. His opera Le Devin Du Village (or, The Village Soothsayer) experienced such good rehearsals that it was immediately played at a command performance in Fontainebleau for the royal court. The opera remained popular for centuries and was later played at the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (“Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, 2003). Rousseau imbued his philosophical ideas into his music, which is undoubtedly why it remained so popular. Since people give up personal freedoms for society, he therefore believed that music should not be too restrictive in regard to rules and conventions. He created dynamic, emotional music that displayed many early characteristics of the Romantic Period; indeed, it is possible his style anticipated this entirely new period of art, literature, and music (Bertram). Le Devin also inspired other composers such as the 12-year-old Mozart, who wrote a parody of the play called Bastien und Bastienne (Zaslaw). However, the public was not so accepting of all his musical creations; he later caused an uproar, initiated by the Academie des Sciences, when he attempted to establish a new system of musical notation he had designed. Although the system was widely disparaged, it is still in use in some parts of Europe and South Asia because of its compatibility with typography (Simon).

Another of Rousseau’s lesser-known accomplishments is his development of the biographical novel. His work The Confessions, published during his exile in England, details a part of life most writers glossed over: childhood. A University of Sussex professor wrote that “No-one before Rousseau had taken intimate childhood experiences and delineated … [their] consequences on the life of the suffering, dislocated adult … he anticipates Freud by more than a century” (Abbs). Rousseau himself boasted that “I have entered on an enterprise which is without precedent, and will have no imitator” (17). Other, less noticeable aspects also prove Rousseau’s later influence, however. First, he manages to connect to a female audience (rarely attempted at the time) by detailing his close relationships with women that shaped his life as a young adult; it was mainly women who would later be ardent readers of Confessions (Stelzig). Furthermore, he is one of the first 18th century writers to stretch time; that is, some of the sections cover years, while others only a few months. All of these traits will be later reflected in books popular during the Romantic period (Priestly). Through the innovative characteristics of his work, Jean Jacques Rousseau advanced the autobiography closer to what one would recognize today.

Rousseau’s multi-faceted involvement influenced many aspects of society. Besides directly shaping philosophical thought from the 18th to the 21st century, he also advanced education, the autobiography, and radical government theories. His works directly targeted public thought, affected how citizens viewed social change, and often exhibited early Romantic period characteristics. While the avant-garde ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau may have been rejected by other 18th century thinkers and citizens, they undoubtedly have shaped a broad range of history that continues to affect everyone from composers to philosophers to teachers today.

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