Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the great figures of the French Enlightenment, also was a large influence on 19th-century Romanticism. Rousseau exemplified the Romantic period through his beliefs in the importance of the individual and the evils of repressive social institutions upon human nature. He created a new type of autobiographical style that had been previously unseen. His ideas about the individual and society influenced writers, philosophers, and revolutionaries to a great degree. Rousseau made creative leaps in both the style and content of his writing, thus making him very influential to the emerging Romanticism movement.

Rousseau’s vision, for the most part, fit in very well with the ideals of the fledgling Romantic period. The ‘Romantic’ is said to appreciate variety rather than uniformity, the infinite rather than the finite, nature rather than culture, the organic rather than the mechanical, and most important of all, freedom rather than restraint by rules and regulations. Rousseau, in a true Romantic mindset, preferred the unique individual to the average person and the free creative genius to the prudent person of good sense. The Romantic period was a time where feeling was preferred to thought. He believed that man should be aware of himself and his own needs, thus becoming closer to what he believed to be a natural state.

In fact, Rousseau's most celebrated theory was that of the "natural man." In his Discourse on the Inequalities of Men and Social Contract, he says that human beings were essentially good and equal but were corrupted by the introduction of property, agriculture, science, and commerce. He believed that man could achieve more intellectually and morally if he was allowed to be in his natural state. These beliefs were very much in opposition of what was popular in the waning Enlightenment movement, thus causing much controversy among the public and his peers.

Rousseau’s Confessions presented many ideas that became important in the Romantic period. Confessions is a prime example of classic tension between the individual and society, and solitude and association; these ideas were central to his work. In the autobiography, he portrays himself as being alienated and repressed as he tries to express his natural tendencies. He also reacts against the artificiality and corruption of the social customs and institutions of the time. Error and prejudice in the name of philosophy, according to him, had stifled reason and nature, and culture, as he found it, had corrupted morals.

In Confessions, he had also created a new, intensely personal style of autobiography. The Enlightenment writers never would have focused on themselves in their writing, and they especially would not have devoted an entire work to such a subject. This intense focus on such a subject was completely unheard of. This entirely new focus in his writing was met with much controversy. The Enlightenment authors wrote about society as a whole, not the individual. Even if they did write about an individual, it would be purely factual and not about themselves.

Rousseau’s autobiography is highly subjective; it presents facts, but is mostly based on theories about his existence in relation to other people. He explores every part of his emotional self and how he relates to other people. He says that he is made like no other, which is a new viewpoint that had been previously unexplored by philosophers and writers alike. Rousseau conveys his belief that self knowledge is a high moral achievement. He is striving to be natural, and he believes one can be closer to that naturalness through self absorption and actualization.

Honesty is also a virtue that is expressed in his writing. He believed that even though his actions might be reprehensible, could be comfortable because he was reporting them accurately. Many people viewed him as being self absorbed or even self indulgent, but his point was to assert the fact that he was an individual. Exploring what exactly made him happy is what separated him from other people. He realized that he was a unique individual, and he saw that as being something special.

Individuality was a virtue to him and social conventions are what stifled that virtue. In Emile, Rousseau writes:

As soon as we become conscious of our sensations we are inclined to seek or to avoid the objects which produce them: at first, because they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, later because we discover that they suit or do not suit us, and ultimately because of the judgments we pass on them by reference to the idea of happiness of perfection we get from reason…..In my view everything ought to be in conformity with these original inclinations.
Rousseau argued that people are inherently good, but become corrupted by the evils of society. People were able to live a life of virtue by being attentive toward nature. The question of what humans could achieve if they remained in their natural state was a common theme for Rousseau’s writing.

Rousseau was an individualist and questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct. 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. He was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property; he was certain that there were unnatural inequalities, such as great disparities in wealth, that should disappear.

Since Rousseau was the first person to come out and attack such institutions, he is considered a forefather of modern socialism and Communism. He also wrote Social Contract, which contained a new and controversial political viewpoint. Because of its expressed beliefs, Social Contract became the text-book of the French Revolution. Rousseau was not an advocate of the Revolution, but was a believer that the individual had the inalienable right to acquire property through personal means, and that the compassion of human nature would take over and regulate in case the system fell.

One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. He believed that when a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. It was in this way that Rousseau influenced the revolutionaries to start a war in France to overthrow the government which they deemed immoral, and thus not really in control to begin with. Whether he intended to do so or not, he changed many people’s ideas about what a government should represent to its people.

The second important principle that Rousseau expresses is that of freedom, which the state is created to preserve. In Social Contract, he regards the State as part of a contract. In this contract, individuals should surrender none of their natural rights, but agree for the protection of them. Rousseau asserted that human beings begin as individuals in a state of nature. They create a society by establishing a contract, whereby they agree to live together in harmony for their mutual benefit. This contract involves the retaining of certain natural rights, an acceptance of restrictions of certain liberties, the assumption of certain duties, and the pooling of certain powers to be exercised collectively.

Chapter 1 of Social Contract begins , 'Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains'. The first sentence alone is an expression of his belief that we corrupted by a society that is run incorrectly. Rousseau’s idea of a social contract involves people recognizing a collective 'general will'. This general will represents the common good or public interest, and it is something that individuals must have a hand in creating.

In addition, Rousseau went on to say that all members of a society should be committed to the general good, even if it means acting against their own personal interests. 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. He believed that people entered into a social contract amongst themselves, establishing governments and educational systems to correct the inequalities caused by the rise of civilization.

Rousseau's insight can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today. 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. His philosophical and political ideas became popular among many different people, influencing such figures as Kant, Goethe, Tolstoy, and the French revolutionists. Rousseau’s autobiography, entitled Confessions, paved the way for new introspection about the role of the self in regards to moral and social achievement. Rousseau was a heavy influence not only in terms of Romantic era literary style, he also influenced philosophy for years to come.

The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces Vol.2
Dent, N.J.H.. Rousseau: An Introduction to his Psychological, Social and Political Theory