Born in Geneva, Rousseau was brought up to cherish the ideal of the ancient Roman republic. Deciding, in 1728, to reject his apprenticeship with an engraver, he left for Turin where his extensive reading led to the beginnings of his writing career.
In 1742 he moved to Paris, but it was not until 1750, when his essay, the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts won the Academy of Dijon’s first prize that he was brought to wider attention.
Perhaps the most often quoted phrase of Rousseau’s work comes from The Social Contract in which he says ‘Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.’ To Rousseau, the value of freedom was of prime importance. He saw the ‘chains’ of government and laws as being justified only when they were based on the will of the people for the common good. Indeed he thought that obeying such laws makes us ‘free’, and that those who fail to obey them could legitimately be ‘forced to be free’.
Rousseau was one of the most influential of modern philosophers; he was the first true Romanticist philosopher, marking the end of the Age of Reason.
According to Rousseau, liberty was something that all could aspire to. He condemned the decadence of French high society, which he suggested corrupted human nature. His works were not only inspired the leaders of the French Revolution, but also an entire generation of Romanticists.