Rousseau, a native of Geneva turned up in Paris after a troubled and wandering youth, came to know Diderot and others of the philosophers, and for a time tried to become one of them. He was never easy in their company. However, he trusted reason, but he relied even more on emotion. He trusted nature, but to him, nature was the unspoiled simplicity of pre-civilized man, “the noble savage”. In a kind of conversion that he experienced in 1749, he became convinced that mankind had lost more than it had gained by cultivating the arts and sciences, and so he surrendered his faith in progress. He grew more and more irritated by the artificiality of Paris society and finally broke up with his former friends. Voltaire thought him mad, and Rousseau was haunted in his miserable later years by the illusion that he was being persecuted by everyone.

Rousseau was the great critic of the Enlightenment. By temperament, he was a shy and sensitive misfit. Deep down he knew himself to be good, but he felt that he had been corrupted and humiliated by an artificial society to which he did not and could not belong. To what kind of society or state could he give himself, then? Only to a society in which there were no hereditary rulers, no privileged aristocracy, no one with any right to lord it over others. Perhaps, Rousseau had an idealized Geneva in mind as he wrote The Social Contract– a community in which all the citizens knew and trusted each other. At any rate, he developed a theory of liberty as willing obedience to laws that the individual himself had helped to make as an active and loyal citizen, even though he might have been in the minority on any given issue. Locke and Montesquieu had thought that the way to obtain political liberty was to guarantee individual rights and to separate the organs of government so that no one of them could gain unrestricted control. Rousseau thought he would never feel free until he could find a community to which he could give up everything, on condition that all others did the same. In such a community there would be no division between rulers and ruled, the people would rule themselves. What magistrates there were would be mere servants of the community who could be instantly removed if they failed to carry out the people’s will. If the people really governed themselves there should be no checks and balances, no separation of powers, no protection of rights.

Rousseau was picturing democracy in its purest form, a tight-knit community of loyal and active citizens, unhampered by any checks on their collective will because they unreservedly accepted this general will as their own. His book was highly abstract and difficult to understand. But when revolution actually flared up in France after his death, The Social Control came into its own. It was not a work of the Enlightenment; its full force could be felt only in the new age of democratic revolution, nationalism, and romanticism. And when romantic nationalism reached its peak, Rousseau could be used to justify dictatorship (which after all is supposed to embody the common will) as well as democracy.

So the two centuries that saw the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment might well be called the most revolutionary centuries in Western intellectual history. The true watershed between what we call “medieval” and “modern” thought about God, man, and nature runs somewhere through these two centuries. The world of Luther and Layola, of Charles V and Philip II, was still organically related to the Middle Ages. The world of Newton and Locke, of Voltaire and Rousseau, was unmistakably the father of our own.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Triumph of Jacobinism
Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship
Importance of the French Revolution
The Origin of the French Revolution
The Course of the French Revolution
Why Revolution in France?
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
Short Note on Napoleon Bonaparte
Decline of the Napoleonic Empire
Spread of Revolutionary Principles
Popular Movement
Metternich and the Vienna Peace Settlement