Jean-Jacques Rousseau – We are Good by Nature but Corrupted by Society

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour. Image courtesy of the Joconde Art Database

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 1778) believed that man is naturally good and that vice and error are alien to him. This creates a conflict between “nature” and “artifice” in attitudes to society, education and religion.

According to Rousseau, nature is man’s state before being influenced by outside forces. At the same time, he asserts: “If man is left… to his own notions and conduct, he would certainly turn out the most preposterous of human beings. The influence of prejudice, authority… would stifle nature in him and substitute nothing.”

In other words, human beings need outside intervention to develop their natural propensity for good. “We are born weak, we have need of help, we are born destitute… we have need of assistance; we are born stupid, we have need of understanding.”

Humans Deface and Confound

Man needs to work with nature, not against it. Rousseau says, in his treatise, that man is discontented with anything in its natural state and claims that everything degenerates in his hand… “…he mutilates his dogs, his horses and his slaves; he defaces, he confounds.”

The correct balance of these three categories in human nature, enables man to develop naturally.

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  • Education from nature itself, the limitations of which are outside of man’s control.
  • The Education of man, for example, what we are taught,
  • Experience of things, for example, the objects around us.

These three elements should be consistent. Consciousness of sensation enables us to pursue or avoid them according to whether they are pleasing or disagreeable. This may result in enlightenment, “… but subject to the restraint of custom, judgements concerning pain or pleasure are more or less distorted by our opinions.”

Rousseau claims that outside influences, for example, society and custom, are responsible for deviations from natural, healthy development in humans and this creates a dilemma. Education should respect individuality rather than bow to social conventions.

Citizen or Man?

“Instead of educating a man for himself, he must be educated for others… we must chuse (sic) either to form the man or the citizen; for to do both at once is impossible.” Here Rousseau reinforces the value of reason, abhorring distortion and prejudice, asserting how difficult it is for man to be true to his inner nature and also accommodate the demands of society, “…held in suspense… without being able to render ourselves consistent, and without ever being good for anything to ourselves or others.”

Unnatural Nature and the Woman of Sparta

Rousseau says that feeling is a component of faith, sometimes presenting “nature” in a way that is positively unnatural, yet calling it “noble”. The woman of Sparta, having lost her five sons in a battle, cries, “…who asked you of my sons? – But we have gained the victory.”

Rousseau attempts to present an individual as a whole, therefore, as both true citizen and heroic mother, stretching credibility to its limits. This is an unlikely account of a natural, maternal reaction.  She has repressed her natural behaviour – and this is a problem for Rousseau’s attempt to reconcile citizen and man.  A child must first be a man, before choosing a profession: “Nature has destined us to the offices of human life, antecedent to the destination of our parents.”

Rousseau’s preoccupation with reason and enlightenment leads him to similar conclusions to those of the French philosophes. He argues for what he sees as rational liberation, making objections to the ways in which babies are unnaturally swaddled so that they cannot move, or wet-nursed instead of nursed by their natural mothers.

The House in Geneva where Rousseau was born.  Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The House in Geneva where Rousseau was born. Image by Bristoleast.

However, he is not averse to encouraging stoical endurance and abhorring indulgence: “…when she makes an idol of the child… prevents every approach of pain or distress… This is the rule of nature.” 

Later, he becomes even more extreme in his claims: “Man is born to suffer in every stage of his existence… Happy are we, who in our infancy, know only physical evils… We lament the state of infants, whereas it is our own that is most to be lamented.”

This seems to contradict earlier assertions about not swaddling children, and not keeping them from their mother’s breast, but Rousseau’s point is that the swaddling and wet-nursing are man-made evils, due to the caprices of women. “…such is the man made by our own caprices; that of nature is differently constituted.”

Evils that Spring from Weakness

Rousseau believes the education of man commences at birth and that experience is the forerunner of the precept. The child must be guided in order to facilitate its natural, good tendencies: “Prepare early for his enjoyment of liberty and the exercise of his natural abilities… unrestrained by artificial habits.”

Ideally, the child is left free to develop, but by example. When children begin to observe objects, proper choices should be made.  Therefore, a good influence is exerted that does not interfere with the natural propensity of the child to strive for good. Sometimes, the influence is exerted passively, for example, avoiding allowing weakness in a child by not giving in to them.

Design versus Disorder

Rousseau’s ideas are compatible with religion and the argument from design. He denies that matter organises itself by chance, and that disorder is the work of man

The word “powerful” inspires good, since evil springs from weakness. “Many evils, such as the “apprehensions” and “miseries” engendered by medicine, are manmade and constitute an “outrage” to the laws of nature. Natural evils, like physical pain, have a useful function: pain alerts us to the need for a remedy.” So – nature may be harsh but it is ultimately beneficial.”

Rousseau says that manmade evil is separate from divine providence. “Enquire no longer, man is the author of evil; behold him in yourself. There exists no other evil in nature than what you either do or suffer… in the system of nature I see an established order which is never disturbed.”

There is a free choice to be made here, according to Rousseau; man may do good or evil.

Distrust of Revealed Religion

Natural religion, Rousseau, feels, has been tampered with and worship made too ceremonial. “Religion should be studied in the lives of men and in the book of nature.” He disapproved of, and found suspect, revealed religion.

Rousseau’s concept of the word “nature” is that man is naturally good if exposed only to good influence and his goodness is adversely affected only by external forces. There are contradictions in Rousseau’s attempts to reconcile nature with society. While many of his arguments are sound, where he is guided by compassion, this compassion actually fails him because strong traditions influence him.

“Man by nature is formed to suffer with patience.” This is the traditional, stoical fortitude of Rousseau’s era.

There are other instances where he appears cold-hearted, for example, in analysing his ideal student: “…he must have no disabilities” suggesting an elitism which is lacking in compassion in a piece of writing where compassion is held in high regard.

A further example is the argument that men and women are unequal in many respects.

Rousseau’s Ideas: Instrumental to Kant and Marx

Rousseau’s ideas were taken up by the leaders of the French Revolution and were instrumental in influencing both Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx. His greatest work was The Social Contract about freeing man from his chains through the creation of an ideal society.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile or On Education: Books I, II and IV. (1762, 2007).French, English: Nu Vision Publications.

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  1. I am interested in the notions of “essential self” (rather much used) and “redundant ego” (my expression?) so decided to google Rousseau’s sentence “man is born good, society corrupts him”. I did not find it in his books but it seems “essential self” is what the philosopher mean with ‘nature” before corruption or ‘freedom’ before çhaining’, I found your post very interesting. My accidentla interest in Rousseau (havenot read any of his books) comes from my theory that “mindfulness meditation cuts down your redundant ego and let your essential self blossoms spontaneously”.

  2. Gustavo – thanks for your comment. I like your expression “redundant ego.” I don’t personally feel comfortable with all of Rousseau’s claims, , but I do like his emphasis on leading by example. As for the rest of it, I think life is a whole lot more complex than that. As for mindfulness meditation, so many people in my area are participating in classes at local Buddhist centres. I suspect though, that the people who need it most (for example, the ones with the biggest egos) never even consider trying it out.

    • Dear Janet good day to you and every one who has written . You are near the mark , but still no where near the clue of the real reality [ through most importantly no full fault of your own . For the [ CAUSE OF ALL causes ] is the full/full/full/ fault of none but our own [ True Creator ] it own self via it own [ STUPIDITY ] to be explained . Yet to the Creator is the last place any one would dare to look instead we stupidly blame the devil our selves and all other this and that leaving the creator free to continually mislead and harm us a thing the creator is incapable of stopping it self doing to us , as it has created a complexity beyond it own comprehension . The Creator good /bad / intent for all of us has always been very /very highly transparent , as is our creator it own self = the forces of creation = the mind =the no-1 player / nature / the sun / rain / and all the other elements that makes up the forces = our creator [ mistaken/misconstrued ] for gods/devils/and all other this and that , from the starting point of senses . Most importantly = the Creator created us all in it own image and of it own intent and our creator intends to implode/explode / on it own self meaning we are created [ via Cell to destruct others and destruct our very own self by the creator ] . this means no one is born pure = we are all the deadliest force in all of creation [ but there is a way out with in for us ] , and no surprise = we are Divisive/Evasive / of the [ right objective = all of our selves which we need very much times any for our true purpose = to all for one one for all take and take care of all of creation , in unity and equality ] . but we cant and this is played out every day/night we see as [ tribalism = a global tribal war is been fought by us against one another ] with racism of colour getting the blame , which is not the cause , as the white /black/and every other colour / have always tribally warring/capturing / enslaving / killing / their [ own colour ] . meaning a mother is not safe from a son or a daughter and all the other combinations = meaning every body fate depends on the individual [ liking them ] . Also this is why our brightest intelligence is all about dealing with the [ ramifications of the system ] and every single [ madness ] you see/hear / us getting up to on Earth today inclusive of all the count-more belief systems , which are all pure [ madness ] . so the capability to be deadly is there from before and after birth , this is why off earth = every thing is virtually [ impregnable ] until we [ wise up ] and find the easy way round them [ = where there is a will there is always a way ] found via accident or a tip off . Finally = until we come around to the reality = we are all still animals and not [ full humans/womans/ as yet = all the wickedness we know and do will not cease = ie insects /reptiles/all other forms of animals including us from we were created have always love to capture turf / water-ways / believing we own it [ but we do not = it had a maker = so we have no right to be living in luxury and other beings are suffering , and if you believe that is right = proof you are an animal remember this is what the other do = so you cant be doing what the others are doing [ who it is clear do not know better ] and say we are human/woman / = madness . thanks , i am that i am . and there is still the BIG ISSUE TO TAKE ON AND THAT IS OUR TRUE CREATOR AND I DO NOT MEAN IN ANY FORM OF WAR .

  3. Janet: I reread your post and found similarities between some of your Rousseau quotes and the Buddha’s teachings. This one is top: “Man is born to suffer in every stage of his existence… ” the Buddha said: There exists suffering (in human life). (I am not Buddhist; I am a “spiritual agnostic.)

    You should try meditation sometime. It removed a good fraction of my redundant ego (still I have a lot left).

    At I just posted my note on “essential self and redundant ego”. Great day and thanks for your answer.

    • Yes, I do meditate. I go to the Buddhist Centre in Brighton! I like the experience very much although I would not call myself a Buddhist.

      My philosophy articles are about the philosopher or the philosophy s/he embraces. They are not necessarily my own opinion, although I try to be sympathetic to all beliefs.

  4. Gustavo – Just read your post from your link above. . I love the Michaelangelo story, the idea of chipping away what’s “not statue,” to find the statue within, and comparing that to the essential self. What a wonderful analogy. And yes, I have meditated, perhaps not regularly enough, but still, it is a resource I can turn to when I need it.

    Great blog you have there!

  5. Excellent and precise (very helpful) paper on Rousseau. But would it be possible to list the year the paper was assessed to enable me to complete the Harvard reference system.

    Looking forward to more of your lectures/papers

    Thank you so much

    • I have only just received notification of your post through my spam folder Margot. It’s an article written for Decoded, not a paper set by a university.