Jean-Jacques Rousseau


(1712 – 1778)
By Karl Williams

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, “This is mine”, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes, might not anyone have saved mankind by pulling up the stakes, filling in the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

“Another disadvantage of personal taxes is that they may be too much felt or raised with too great severity. This, however, does not prevent them from being frequently evaded; for it is much easier for persons to escape a tax than for their possessions. Of all impositions, that on land, or real taxation, has always been regarded as most advantageous in countries where more attention is paid to what the tax will produce, and to the certainty of recovering the product.”

“It must be observed that we ought not to reason about a land-tax in the same manner as about duties laid on various kinds of merchandise; for the effect of such duties is to raise the price, and they are paid by the buyers rather than the sellers. For these duties, however heavy, are still voluntary, and are paid by the merchant only in proportion to the quantity he buys; and as he buys only in proportion to his sale.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most influential thinkers during the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe. As a brilliant, undisciplined and unconventional thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of those dramameisters who seem to create turbulence wherever they go.

Rousseau spent most of his life being driven by controversy back and forth between Paris and his native Geneva. He was born in Geneva, Switzerland, where his mother died shortly after his birth. When he was 10 his father fled from Geneva to avoid imprisonment for a minor offense, leaving young Jean-Jacques to be raised by an aunt and uncle. He ran away from these caretakers and was referred, by a charitable agency, to the care of Madame de Warens, a person with connections.

With a restless disposition, Rousseau left Geneva at 16, wandering from place to place before finally moving to Paris in 1742. He earned his living during this period working as everything from footman, an assistant to an ambassador, a tutor, and a musician before undertaking a literary career while in his forties.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Rousseau was a pants man. It would seem Rousseau had no problem launching and maintaining love affairs, and had no qualms in bedding married women with absent or distracted husbands. In time, Rousseau was to return to Madame de Warens to become both her general administrator and lover. After deserting her he took up with a maid, Thérèse Le Vasser, at the hostelry in which he was staying and they were to continue to have a life time relationship which brought into the world five children.

Can a man be judged by the care he gives to his children? If so, Rousseau – the man who wrote of man’s natural goodness and the corrupting forces of institutions – is to be judged harshly, for he refused to support his children and assigned all of them to a foundling hospital. Moreover, he frequently initiated bitter quarrels with even the most supportive of his colleagues and attracted much personal criticism (Edmund Burke dubbed him “the great professor and founder of the philosophy of Vanity”).

Nevertheless, even as an armchair philosopher who didn’t really walk the walk, Rousseau came to move in the lofty circles of the Paris Set, having the good fortune to mix with the likes of Voltaire and Diderot. He was soon setting the Parisian coffee shops abuzz with his provocative and original writings.

Rousseau’s insight can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today. Somewhat complicated and ambiguous, Rousseau’s general philosophy tried to grasp an emotional and passionate side of man which he felt was left out of most previous philosophical thinking.

Perhaps Rousseau’s most important geoistically-inclined major work is “The Social Contract” which is the compact agreed to among men that sets the conditions for membership in society.

Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, but socialists who confuse land and capital have considered him a forebear of modern socialism. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority. Not surprisingly, this work caused great controversy in France and was immediately banned by Paris authorities. Rousseau fled France and settled in Switzerland, but he continued to find difficulties with authorities and quarrel with friends.

The end of Rousseau’s life was marked in large part by his growing paranoia and his continued attempts to justify his life and his work.

Although his personal flaws undoubtedly marred the effectiveness of his geoist insights, in the world of philosophy (if not in economics) his influence still lingers – for instance, he greatly influenced Immanuel Kant’s work on ethics and inspired the French Revolution. C’est la vie, non?