Rousseau's life, spanning the years 1712-1778, was marked with controversy, both because of his philosophy and because he was apparently a really annoying person. In addition to fathering a tribe of illegitimate children for whom he took no responsibility, he quarreled with everybody, even people who agreed with him, sort of like Thomas Paine with better brains.
The Short Course in Rousseau looks like this:
- Modern civilization is bad for people. It makes them soft, lazy, and unnatural.
- People in their natural, uncivilized state, are inherently noble, for a given value of noble.
- All natural appetites and impulses are good and healthy. Attempts to stifle these by "civilizing" are unhealthy and anti-human.
- The only legitimate government is one that has the universal approval of the governed, acting according to their aggregate wishes. (And what planet was Rousseau on where this is even slightly likely?)
- The truly noble, honest human is the savage, whose life has not been blighted by European culture.
- Studying the arts and sciences just produces more culture, which creates weak people.
Rousseau's philosophy increases in popularity after his death, and will inform much of American literature in the first half of the 19th Century. The concept of the noble savage is his, and it creates a renewed interest in the Native Americans, who are in short supply on the east coast of America and therefore safe to idealize. (Nobody suggests that those savages bashing brains on the frontier are noble. They must have been "civilized.") Literary romanticism, with its idealization of the natural world, the natural man, and raw, unfiltered emotions, comes straight from Rousseau. It will lead everywhere from Poe to Whitman, so buckle up.
Rousseau's major works include his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, (1750), wherein he explained how the study of arts and sciences perpetuates the corrupting influence of modern society. Anything that could remotely be labeled "cultural" was helping to perpetuate oppression of the individual. The notable exception to this was music, which Rousseau loved, performed, and wrote.
The Social Contract (1762) described the problem of government: we need to be organized somehow, but most of the ways to do it (monarchy for example) are wrong. Government needs to reflect the will of the people, banding together for the common good. Any person who wants can opt out of this system and be free of the government. I over-simplify, of course, but this is the gist. Note the emphasis on the individual, for whom the state exists. This opposes the more common European scheme, where the state exists for the individual to serve.
Emile, or On Education (1762) proposed the ideal education for a young man, one that was directed by his own natural inclinations rather than by a state intent on "civilizing" him and bringing his desires and expectations into line with conventional thought. In this polemical novel, Rousseau also asserts that women exist only to serve and please men, and bear children. Goodbye Enlightenment ideas about equality.