Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau was an 18th Century French Enlightenment philosopher. He was born in Geneva in 1712 and died in 1778. His major work was on the philosophy of personal development, education and religion. He was often controversial and disagreed with contemporaries Hume and Voltaire.

He stated that people should have freedom to develop as they see fit, not under tutelage. He said that people were free, but they remained in chains. He believed that the human condition was such that we should be free to make our own choices and be as one in society where that freedom is exercised under a chosen leader or sovereign.

He believed that children should be educated to think for themselves. That there should not be too much instruction when under 12 years old as they should be discovering themselves and the world around them. To teach by force subjugates the child and teaches them to dissemble and lie. To learn the teaching by rote, but not know its meaning, was insufficient. Rousseau held that the child should know themselves and experience the world, then be encouraged to learn from others. In this way you would produce individual citizens not slaves. This would require enlightened teachers and the will of society to allow children to think for themselves.

Most of the enlightenment philosophers reasoned that there was a creative force that made the universe, but had no proof of a continuing divine presence. They were described as deists. Hume and Voltaire believed this and spent time in discussion with him. But Rousseau did believe in the existence of God. He felt the world was under the control of a divine presence. He accepted this without proof or understanding. He greatly admired Christ’s teaching, but could not see any proof of his divinity, but felt a desire to worship whatever the divine presence was that he sensed.

Rousseau made an interesting counter-point to his colleagues Hume and Voltaire. Though they disagreed, they would debate and share ideas. They shared a desire to get to the truth, but Rousseau demonstrated that the individuality that he sought in society carried forward to the divine concept. Proof of God could never be universal, but individual. Hume could not prove God, Voltaire believed in the corruption of the Church, but Rousseau had faith in a continuing existence of a creative force, without fully accepting the church’s teaching.

In my opinion, the great enlightenment quest for the existence of God comes down to the simple truth that it is a personal decision. The key lessons that Rousseau teaches us are that faith is a personal decision that should be arrived at by the free access to the truth and education. And that we should be free to make that decision without coercion.

Conway-Laird (2017)

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