Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft

Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft were both born in the 18th century, within 47 years of each other, and both were regarded as important philosophical thinkers of their time. Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1712; his father was a watchmaker and his mother died while giving birth to him. His father Isaac, who taught him to read, and appreciate the countryside, consequently brought up Rousseau. His father had to leave Geneva when Rousseau was 10 years old to avoid going to prison; he was then brought up by his aunt and later by an uncle.

In his writings ‘The Confessions’ he recalls only happy memories of his childhood, although to the reader it does have some strange features such as not being allowed to play with children of his own age, “Never once, until I left my father’s house, was I allowed to run out alone into the road with the other children” (The Confessions: Book 1, 1953, pp21). When Rousseau’s father had to leave Switzerland, he was put into the care of his Uncle Bernard, who had a son of Rousseau’s age.

Together they were sent to a place called ‘Bossey’ to board with a pastor called ‘M. Lambercier’, for an education. Up until this point Rousseau had had a childhood with no formal education at all. Rousseau also recalls his time at Bossey with fond memories, and claims; “The manner of my life at Bossey suited me so well that if only it had lasted longer it could not have failed to fix my character for ever.

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” (The Confessions: Book 1, 1953, pp25). After leaving Bossey and spending a few years living with his uncle, he was sent at the age of thirteen to be an apprentice engraver.

He lived here for about three years before running away at the age of sixteen to travel across Europe, where he becomes a Catholic briefly before converting back to Protestantism. Rousseau ended up in Paris, leading a somewhat unsettled life, where he eventually died in 1778. He left behind him a cult following, his name and writings became infamous during the French revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759 to John Edward Wollstonecraft, who was a tyrant and a bully, and Elizabeth Dixon. She was the second child of six. She had an elder brother; Edward and four other siblings were born after her, James, Charles, Eliza and Everina.

They were brought up as Anglicans. Wollstonecraft’s paternal grandfather owned a silk weaving business, and her maternal grandfather was a wine merchant. In 1765 her paternal grandfather died leaving the silk weaving business to her father. However her father was a bit of a snob and he didn’t care very much for being a tradesman, so he took the money from the business and invested in farming. This had disastrous consequences as her father knew nothing of farming, and the family spent their time moving from one farm to another, leaving their debts behind them.

Between the years 1759 and 1776 they had moved about the country on numerous occasions and tried their hand at farming at places such as Epping, Whalebone, Essex, Yorkshire and Wales. By the end of the 1770’s the family fortune was at very low ebb. In 1775 Mary Wollstonecraft met Francis (Fanny) Blood, who became her closet friend and companion until her death in 1785. Her mother died in 1782, and in 1784 Mary Wollstonecraft, her sister Eliza, and Fanny opened a new school in Islington, where they were joined by her other sister Everina.

After Fanny Blood’s death Wollstonecraft returned to find the school had suffered in her absence, so she closed it and turned her mind to writing by way of making a living. In 1786 she earned herself ten pounds after her first publication, which was a pamphlet entitled “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was changed, as was most of the world, by the French Revolution in 1789, and went to live in Paris in 1792 to witness first hand the effects of the French revolution.

Wollstonecraft went on to produce many more important writings during her lifetime, one of her most famous being ‘A vindication of the rights of women’. Wollstonecraft died on 10th September 1797 of “childbed fever” 11 days after her second child was born. In 1798 William Godwin, her husband published a book called ‘Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft’, which seemed to have a negative effect on her popularity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas on childhood and education were considered quite revolutionary at the time, and even today they continue to be quite controversial.

Rousseau was famous for being a social critic; he felt that social life corrupted human nature. Rousseau strongly believed that: “We are all born good, but civilisation turns us all into moral slaves. ” (Lecture notes, 13/10/03) It is upon this belief that Rousseau wrote one of his most controversial pieces in 1762, which was a novel called ‘Emile’. This book was based on Rousseau’s thoughts that people developed through various stages and that different forms of education may be suitable to each specific stage.

Rousseau alleged it was possible to sustain the original nature of the child by careful control of his education and environment. This was done through a close investigation of the different physical and emotional stages through which the child passed from birth through to maturity. Geraint Parry mentions in the book ‘Emile: Learning to Be Men, Women, and Citizens’ that: “It is intended to portray an ideal of education that is as close to nature as it is possible to attain in the world as we now find it. ” (The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, 2001, pp249)

In ‘Emile’, Rousseau divides the child’s development into five stages, and a book is devoted to each. The five stages are: “Stage one – Infancy (birth to two years), Stage two – The age of Nature (Two to Twelve years), Stage three – Pre-adolescence (Twelve to Fifteen years), Stage four – Puberty (Fifteen to Twenty years) and Stage five – Adulthood (Twenty to Twenty Five years). ” (www. infed. org) The books that are most fundamental to Rousseau’s belief of childhood being a crucial phase of self-development are books one, two and three.

Rousseau attempts to show the reader how a persons self-development can be determined by the way he is educated in his childhood. Rousseau’s belief that society was corrupt fuelled his ideas on education. Geraint Parry mentions in ‘Emile: Learning to be Men, Women, and Citizens’ that “The significance of education for Rousseau is that it seems to offer a means of solving one of the central dilemmas of his social and political thought.

A fundamental objective is to create a virtuous circle in which transformed human beings could live in a transformed society… (The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, 2001,pp248) Rousseau says in book one of ‘Emile’: “We are born sensitive and from our birth onwards we are affected in various ways by our environment. As soon as we become conscious of our sensations we tend to seek or shun the things that cause them, at first because they are pleasant or unpleasant, then because they suit us or not, and last because of judgements formed by means of the ideas of happiness and goodness which reason gives us. ” (Emile, 2003, pp7)

Rousseau backs this idea up when he writes his ‘Confessions’ later in his life when he recalls some of his childhood memories, one in particular of his time at Bossey when he was chastised by Mlle Lambercier for a wrong doing and found that the experience of being beaten by her wasn’t as bad as he had first thought it would be, and he goes on to say: “Who could have supposed that this childish punishment, received at the age of eight at the hands of a woman of thirty, would determine my tastes and desires, my passions, my very self for the rest of my life,.. (The Confessions, book one, Penguin 1953, pp26)

It is clear from Rousseau’s writings that he strongly believed that Childhood is a crucial phase of self-development. Much of his work was read and admired by Mary Wollstonecraft. She was born nearly fifty years after Rousseau, but his writings on education were something that Wollstonecraft admired: “the ideas she had begun to acquire about education, filtered down from Rousseau… ” (The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, Claire Tomalin, Penguin 1992, pp49)

Wollstonecraft was seen as very insightful, in the sense that she longed to bridge the gap between mankind’s present circumstance and an ultimate perfection. She was beyond doubt, a child of the French revolution. She saw a new age of reason and compassion close at hand. Wollstonecraft, in her writings, attempted to undertake the huge task of helping other women. Helping them to fight for a better education did this. Which in turn helped them to achieve a better life, not just for themselves, but also for their children and even their husbands.

In reality it took more than a century before society sat up and took notice of her beliefs and put her views into effect. “Mary Wollstonecraft’s experience in childhood and as a young woman, in a class-bound and male-dominated society, influenced and shaped the ideas she would later develop into a feminist argument. ” (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Penguin 1992, pp2) It is possible to see that Wollstonecraft’s own childhood experiences have shaped her beliefs on childhood as a crucial phase of self-development.

Unlike Rousseau, however Wollstonecraft is primarily concerned with the childhood and education of females. This is because in 1784 she opens a school for girls in Newington Green, near Islington. Wollstonecraft quickly became convinced that the young women they were trying to teach had already effectively been enslaved into submissiveness to men through their previous social training. As there were no qualifications that were needed to become a teacher sadly this venture failed, but it did lead her to start writing about her ideas on childhood and education, especially for women and girls.

In 1786 Wollstonecraft was published for the first time. She earned herself ten pounds from the publication of a pamphlet called, ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’. In this publication she proposed to intentionally explore the enlightenment ideals to include education for women; because she believed their rational natures were no less capable of intellectual achievement than were those of men. Wollstonecraft was for a short time a Governess to the Kingsborough family in Ireland. The position of a Governess was a hard one. She was employed to bring up the children of the Kingsborough family.

Wollstonecraft’s experiences in her childhood and as a young adult no doubtedly had an effect on her ideas about childhood being a crucial phase of self-development. In the introduction to ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ it states; “Mary Wollstonecraft may have been recalling her own childhood when her narrator in ‘Maria – The Wrongs of Woman’ says that her mother was a vague and uncertain figure. She seemed to dote on her oldest son, ‘a boy’,” (Penguin 1992, pp3) it is clear from this quote that Wollstonecraft’s childhood experiences, especially those with her mother and father have stayed with her into her adult life.

It has shaped her very ideas and thoughts on how parents should show affection and bring up their children. She has dedicated a whole chapter to ‘Parental Affection’ in her book ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. Wollstonecraft writes very clearly about parental affection, and she also makes it clear where she believes parents are going wrong with their children; “Parents often love their children in the most brutal manner, and sacrifice every relative duty to promote their advancement into the world. (Penguin 1992, pp270), Wollstonecraft is trying to make the point to her readers that the child will only suffer if it is brought up in this manner. The parents will rob the child of the vital stage of having a proper childhood if they neglect everything else while pushing their children to become the child genius they dream of them becoming.

Wollstonecraft goes on later in the chapter to describe the qualities of a good mother, which she lists as; “To be a good mother, a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands. (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Penguin 1992, pp272), Wollstonecraft is trying to reiterate that to have any hope of being a good effective mother, a woman must be in possession of good sense and have her own mind. A woman must also be independent from her husband, Wollstonecraft felt that if a woman relied too much on her husband it would effect her abilities as a mother, this is backed up by what she states later in the chapter; “Meek wives are, in general, foolish mothers; wanting their children to love them best, and take their part, in secret, against the father, who is held up as a scarecrow. (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Penguin 1992, pp272).

In conclusion it is clear to see from both Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s and Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings that they both believed that childhood was a crucial phase in a person’s self-development. It was important for them to try to relate their beliefs to the general public which is why they emphasise it in their books, and also the reason that they write about it so successfully is because of their own personal experiences in their own childhood which seems to have provided them with a solid base to work upon in their adult life.

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Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. (2017, Sep 10). Retrieved from

Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft
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