This page contains a list of the eight best books on or by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on Rousseau” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works by Rousseau. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on Rousseau. Here are the best books on or by Rousseau in no particular order:
The Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Publisher description: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” These are the famous opening words of a treatise that has not ceased to stir vigorous debate since its first publication in 1762. Rejecting the view that anyone has a natural right to wield authority over others, Rousseau argues instead for a pact, or ‘social contract’, that should exist between all the citizens of a state and that should be the source of sovereign power. From this fundamental premise, he goes on to consider issues of liberty and law, freedom and justice, arriving at a view of society that has seemed to some a blueprint for totalitarianism, to others a declaration of democratic principles.
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Publisher description: In his Discourses (1755), Rousseau argues that inequalities of rank, wealth, and power are the inevitable result of the civilizing process. If inequality is intolerable – and Rousseau shows with unparalledled eloquence how it robs us not only of our material but also of our psychological independence – then how can we recover the peaceful self-sufficiency of life in the state of nature? We cannot return to a simpler time, but measuring the costs of progress may help us to imagine alternatives to the corruption and oppressive conformity of modern society.
Rousseau’s sweeping account of humanity’s social and political development epitomizes the innovative boldness of the Englightment, and it is one of the most provocative and influential works of the eighteenth century. This new translation includes all Rousseau’s own notes, and Patrick Coleman’s introduction builds on recent key scholarship, considering particularly the relationship between political and aesthetic thought.
The Confessions – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Publisher description: Widely regarded as the first modern autobiography, The Confessions is an astonishing work of acute psychological insight. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) argued passionately against the inequality he believed to be intrinsic to civilized society. In his Confessions he relives the first fifty-three years of his radical life with vivid immediacy – from his earliest years, where we can see the source of his belief in the innocence of childhood, through the development of his philosophical and political ideas, his struggle against the French authorities and exile from France following the publication of Emile. Depicting a life of adventure, persecution, paranoia, and brilliant achievement, The Confessions is a landmark work by one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, which was a direct influence upon the work of Proust, Goethe and Tolstoy among others.
Emile: Or On Education – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Publisher description: Alan Bloom’s new translation of Emile, Rousseau’s masterpiece on the education and training of the young, is the first in more than seventy years. In it, Bloom, whose magnificent translation of Plato’s Republic has been universally hailed as a virtual rediscovery of that timeless text, again brings together the translator’s gift for journeying between two languages and cultures and the philosopher’s perception of the true meaning and significance of the issues being examined in the work. The result is a clear, readable, and highly engrossing text that at the same time offers a wholly new sense of the importance and relevance of Rousseau’s thought to us.In addition to his translation, Bloom provides a brilliant introduction that relates the structure and themes of the book to the vital preoccupation’s of our own age, particularly in the field of education, but also more generally to the current concerns about the limits and possibilities of human nature. Thus in this translation Emile, long a classic in the history of Western thought and educational theory, becomes something more: a prescription, fresh and dazzling, for the bringing up of autonomous, responsible—that is, truly democratic—human beings.
Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction – Robert Wokler
Publisher description: One of the most profound thinkers of modern history, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a central figure of the European Enlightenment. He was also its most formidable critic, condemning the political, economic, theological, and sexual trappings of civilization along lines that would excite the enthusiasm of romantic individualists and radical revolutionaries alike. In this study of Rousseau’s life and works, Robert Wolker shows how his philosophy of history, his theories of music and politics, his fiction, educational, and religious writings, and even his botany, were all inspired by revolutionary ideals of mankind’s self-realization in a condition of unfettered freedom. He explains how, in regressing to classical republicanism, ancient mythology, direct communication with God, and solitude, Rousseau anticipated some post-modernist rejections of the Enlightenment as well.
Rousseau – Nicholas Dent
Publisher description: In this superb introduction, Nicholas Dent covers the whole of Rousseau’s thought. Beginning with a helpful overview of Rousseau’s life and works, he introduces and assesses Rousseau’s central ideas and arguments. These include the corruption of modern civilization, the state of nature, his famous theories of amour de soi and amour propre, education, and his famous work Emile. He gives particular attention to Rousseau’s theories of democracy and freedom found in his most celebrated work, The Social Contract, and explains what Rousseau meant by the ‘general will’.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius – Leo Damrosch
Publisher description: The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau burst unexpectedly onto the eighteenth-century literary scene as a provocateur whose works electrified readers. An autodidact who had not written anything of significance by age thirty, Rousseau seemed an unlikely candidate to become one of the most influential thinkers in history. Yet the power of his ideas is felt to this day in our political and social lives.
In a masterly and definitive biography, Leo Damrosch traces the extraordinary life of Rousseau with novelistic verve. He presents Rousseau’s books — The Social Contract, one of the greatest works on political theory; Emile, a groundbreaking treatise on education; and the Confessions, which created the genre of introspective autobiography — as works uncannily alive and provocative even today. Jean-Jacques Rousseau offers a vivid portrait of the visionary’s tumultuous life.
The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau – Patrick Riley
Publisher description: Rousseau, the great political theorist and philosopher of education, was an important forerunner of the French Revolution, though his thought was too nuanced and subtle ever to serve as mere ideology. This is the only volume that systematically surveys the full range of Rousseau’s activities in politics and education, psychology, anthropology, religion, music, and theater. New readers will find this the most convenient and accessible guide to Rousseau currently available, while advanced students and specialists will find a conspectus of recent developments in the interpretation of Rousseau.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Rousseau
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Rousseau
If you’d like to learn more about Rousseau, check out:
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