The Problem of Evil in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Document Type: Research Paper


Independent Researcher


Throughout all of Rousseau’s works there is tension between reason and conscience. Reason binds men when they think correctly, but divides them when they place it at the service of self-interest. Conversely, the universality of conscience is immediate and transparent: it transmits the truth of the existence of God and of the universal principles that underlie human action, despite the differences of particular legislations. Mankind possesses an innate and intuitive conscience of the fundamental principles by which its conduct must be inspired. Were we to consider human actions only according to the criterion of physical need, of causality, and of movement, vices and virtues would disappear, and terms like morality and honesty would have no meaning. But each one of us perceives from within that this is not the case. We feel that moral good and evil are more real than anything else, without any need whatsoever to prove it. To obey the conscience one has of good and evil without human mediation means to reject the dogmatic formalism of religions, as well as the vanity of philosophical disputes. Every human being, however, is situated in a national community. What should the state’s attitude be vis-à-vis religion? Rousseau indicates two paths. The first consists in establishing a purely civil religion that admits only those dogmas that are truly useful to society. Rousseau highlights the contradiction of a Christian religion that, although it is the religion of peace par excellence, fuels continuing bloody clashes among men due to a dogmatic theology that is totally alien to the essence of the Gospel and extremely hazardous for the life of the state. The second path consists in allowing Christianity to retain its authentic spirit, its freedom from any material constraint, without any obligations other than those of individual conscience. The Christian religion cannot but benefit the state, as long as one does not make it part of the constitution.


Bauman, Z., and G. Dessal. 2015. El retorno del péndulo. Sobre psicoanálisis y el futuro del mundo liquido, 2014, Italian translation, Il ritorno del pendolo. Psicoanalisi e futuro del mondo liquido, by R. Mazzeo. Trento: Erickson.

Burgelin, P. 1952. La philosophie de l’existence de J.-J. Rousseau, Paris, cit. in J.-J. Rousseau, Œuvres Complètes, édition publiée sous la direction de Bernard Gagnebin et Marcel Raymond, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, vol. IV. Paris: Gallimard.

Courtois, L. J. 1969. Chronologie critique de la vie et des œuvres de J.-J. Rousseau, cit. in J.-J. Rousseau, Œuvres Complètes, édition publiée sous la direction de Bernard Gagnebin et Marcel Raymond, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, vol. IV. Paris: Gallimard.

Dupuy, J. P. 2005. Petite Métaphysique des Tsunamis. Paris: Seuil.

Forni Rosa, G. 2010. «L’amore impossibile. Passione e matrimonio nella Nuova Eloisa». In G. Forni Rosa, L’amore impossibile. Filosofia e letteratura da Rousseau a Lévi-Strauss. Genova-Milano: Marietti 1820.

———. 2012. «Introduzione» a J. J. Rousseau, Lettere morali, Genova-Milano: Marietti 1820.

Masson, P. M. 1914. Profession de foi du Vicaire Savoyard. Fribourg et Paris.

———. 1970. La religion de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Slatkine Reprints, Genéve 1970, reprint of the 1916 edition.

Migne, J. P. 1841-1864. Patrologiae cursus completes, series latina, Paris 1841-1864, vol. 7, coll. 77-146, 121A-B.

Neiman, S. 2002. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Oxford & Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rousseau, J. J. 1969. OC (Oeuvres complètes 1959-1995, Édition publiée sous la direction de Bernard Gagnebin et Marcel Raymond avec la collaboration de Samuel Baud-Bovy, Brenno Boccadoro, Xavier Bouvier, Marie-Élisabeth Duchez, Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Sidney Kleinman, Olivier Pot, Jean Rousset, Pierre Speziali, Jean Starobinski, Charles Wirz et André Wyss - Collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris), IV.

———. 1969. OC, I.

———. 1997. Lettre de J.J. Rousseau a Monsieur de Voltaire, J.-J. Rousseau, OC, IV, translated in The Discourses and other early political writings, edited by V. Gourevitch. Cambridge University Press.

———. 1998. J.-J. Rousseau, Professione di fede del Vicario Savoiardo, trad. it., a cura di G. Forni Rosa e con un saggio di C. Tugnoli. Genova: Marietti 1820.

Tagliapietra, A. 2004. Introduzione. La catastrofe e la filosofia, in Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Sulla catastrofe. L’illuminismo e la filosofia del disastro, introduzione di A. Tagliapietra, traduzioni di S. Manzoni ed E. Tetamo, con un saggio di P. Giacomoni. Milano: Bruno Mondadori.