"Le Materialisme du Sage": The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Vaughn Griesbauer, Fordham University


Rousseau wrote a sketch for a book, which he did not put into book form, and one of the titles he considered for the work was "Le Materialisme du Sage." This title, however, can be accurately applied to Rousseau's entire political philosophy. Rousseau's political philosophy is based on materialist principles and these principles are the means to forming a unified system out of his many works. Seemingly contradictory ideas can all be explained in light of these principles. The history of mankind, which Rousseau describes (primarily in the Second Discourse), relies on the influence of external objects to transform man from his animal beginnings in the state of nature into the modern man. Man's material and malleable nature also accounts for the distinctions between individuals and peoples. According to Rousseau, it is also essential for understanding politics and man's happiness. The wise man must understand the power and influence of material causes in man's life for both the individual and the species. Rousseau's political teachings depend upon this materialist understanding of man and the external world. The general will is just because it corresponds to the simple, passionate nature of man. The legislator can create citizens because of the malleability of man through the use of various influences. The possibility of legitimate government is also determined by material causes. History has destroyed the opportunity for just government for most men and will, eventually, destroy legitimate governments as well. According to Rousseau, the universe is, in large part, beyond human knowledge and control. Political action cannot overcome the power of chance or the contradictions of asocial animals in society. Man is the victim of the random nature of the universe. Rousseau's political philosophy concludes in an apolitical manner. Although Rousseau suggests reforms which can improve modern governments, his advice to most men is to withdraw from society into oneself for the preservation and happiness of the self. It is only within the imagination that man can experience the freedom and happiness which Rousseau thought man had experienced in the state of nature and is the only true happiness for man. Reveries are the solution for the problem of man in society.

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Griesbauer, Vaughn, ""Le Materialisme du Sage": The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau" (1994). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9425197.