The name Jean Jacques Rousseau is hardly known today, yet for over two centuries his ideas shaped the entire world. They formed the foundation for the French Revolution, which has been called “the most important event in western history,” and have been paradoxically credited with legitimating both the direct democracy that Occupy Wall Street was based on, as well as the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. He could be called both the father of Psychology, as well as the world’s first Hipster. He also coined the term Bourgeois and started the critique of modern industry that Environmentalism is based on.
Rousseau preferred “being a man with paradoxes than a man with prejudices,” and never shied away from following his train of thought wherever it led. He was obsessed with discovering the Truth, yet had nothing but disdain for “intellectuals” and their abstract, overly-scientific jargon. When his educational novel Emile was first released in 1762, it was burned by religious zealots for blasphemy and he was hunted by them throughout Europe, yet without its brilliant reconciliation of religion and reason, Christianity very likely would have been completely overcome by the atheism of the Enlightenment.
To me, his writings are the most beautiful and poetic philosophic works ever written. Below is a collection of some of his most illustrative quotes, as an introduction to his ideas. I hope they will spur you to engage further with one of the most complicated, complex, yet easily approachable philosophers of the modern world. Personally, I have found his work to be incredibly helpful in cutting through the bullshit that we are fed everyday, allowing me to get to the core of today’s most pressing issues and form my own opinions about them. And in this time of extreme and bitter political partisanship, it is a skill that is needed more than ever.
1. Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.
2. People who know little are usually great talkers, while those who know much say little.
3. The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.
4. Truth is no road to fortune.
5. No true believer could be intolerant or a persecutor. If I were a magistrate and the law carried the death penalty against atheists, I would begin by sending to the stake whoever denounced another.
6. Those that are most slow in making a promise are the most faithful in the performance of it.
7. Take the course opposite to custom and you will almost always do well.
8. It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living.
9. Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.
10. Insults are the arguments employed by those who are in the wrong.
11. What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
12. Living is not breathing but doing.
13. When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.
14. We are born, so to speak, twice over; born into existence, and born into life; born a human being, and born a man.
15. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.
16. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is.
17. Base souls have no faith in great individuals.
18. Falsehood has an infinity of combinations, but truth has only one mode of being.
19. You forget that the fruits belong to all and that the land belongs to no one.
20. The happiest is he who suffers least; the most miserable is he who enjoys least.
21. The one thing we do not know is the limit of the knowable.
22. The mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to the law we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.
23. As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall.
24. Nothing is less in our power than the heart, and far from commanding we are forced to obey it.
25. I may be no better, but at least I am different.