Jean-Jacques Rousseau Research Paper

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1. Life And Work

Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712 and raised in Geneva, the center of Calvinism. Jean Calvin, not a native of Geneva, published his magisterial Christinae Religionis Institutio, the central work on education, in 1536. Its final version, dated 1559, justified general priesthood by way of the doctrine of predestination. Calvin dissolves the ‘two empires’ of laymen and ecclesiastical office in favor of a parish without differences, one which sees itself as an elected body (Calvin 1957). Clergymen are chosen teachers whose sermon is intended to educate without the possibility of it being associated with primacy or hierarchy (Calvin 1958). Rousseau’s life and work is, in many ways, a manner of dealing with Calvinism. The concept of equality determines The Social Contract, the theory of education, and Rousseau’s natural theology. Calvin’s doctrine of grace is translated into the predestination of nature, along with a rigorous inwardness which has the only true form of education on its side. Virtue becomes a model for society given the education of man’s nature. Calvinistic rigor fascinated Rousseau. Following the banning and public burning of his books, he dispensed with the citizenship of the Republic of Geneva in 1763, but not his membership in Calvin’s church, which he had renewed in 1754.

Rousseau’s dramatic life (Cranston 1991a, 1991b, 1997, Incoprom SA et al. 1999) is characterized by ascent outside the elite and by being an outsider. The young Rousseau completed an apprenticeship as an engraver and in terms of his education he was largely self-taught. His constantly intermittent, restless, and wavering career ran between Geneva and Paris, later included Switzerland, and England. Rousseau himself attempted to gain control over his biography with the writing of his Confessions (Rousseau 1961), which was published posthumously in 1782 and have determined the image of Rousseau ever since then. In 1740, after various wanderings and low-level activities Rousseau took up a position as a private tutor in Lyon, where he wrote his first text on education (Memoire a Mr de Mably: Rousseau 1969, pp. 1–32). In 1742 Rousseau went to Paris, publishing his Dissertation sur la musique moderne in 1743. In 1749 Rousseau wrote the articles on music for Diderot’s Encyclopedie. His first major literary success came a year later with the Discours sur les sciences et les art, which was awarded a prize by the Academy of Dijon. From 1756 on, Rousseau, living now in the Eremitage of Montmorency, concentrated on his three major works, the Nouvelle Heloise (1761), a successful, widely read novel throughout Europe, the Contrat social (1762), Rousseau’s theory of society, and Emile ou de l’education (1762), the theory of ‘new education.’ The latter two books were banned directly after publication and publicly burned in Paris and Geneva.

From then on Rousseau was on the run. He was granted asylum by the Prussian governor in Neuchatel soon after his flight from Paris. At his place of refuge in Motiers he was subjected to attacks by such differing authors as the general procurator of Geneva, Tronchin, and his arch-enemy Voltaire (‘Sentiment des citoyens’, Voltaire 1961, pp. 715–18). At the same time Rousseau became the idol of the generation of ‘Sturm und Drang’: young literati from all over Europe visited Rousseau in Motiers and made him famous. In January 1766, his flight having taken him to various places, Rousseau made for England following an invitation from David Hume. Both had different preconceptions of each other and their relationship soon broke down. Rousseau returned to France and worked, with increasing paranoia, on his autobiography, which can be viewed as an attempt at self-therapy. His precarious financial situation was revived at short notice in May 1778, when Rousseau and Therese Levasseur, whom he had married in 1768 following a long-standing affair, moved to Ermenonville into an estate owned by the Marquis de Girardin, Rousseau’s final benefactor. His sudden death on July 2, 1778 ended a very unlikely literary and philosophical career which was intended to be a rebour—contrary to convention.

2. Education And Society

The archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, justified the banning and burning of Rousseau’s Emile primarily because of its denial of original sin. Rousseau assumes that human nature is not tainted. ‘There is no original sin in the heart of man’ 1969, p. 322). In his statement of defense against Beaumont, printed at the beginning of 1763, Rousseau formulated a far-reaching dualism which has dominated political and educational conceptions ever since. The two aspects of this dualism are nature and society, which are treated as contradictions. The present social order contradicts human nature in every respect, society is the alienation of nature, and this explains the vices of men and the evils of life. The assumption of original sin then is superfluous: man could live without sin if nature and society corresponded and harmonized (Rousseau 1969, 966ff.). In this respect Rousseau had a post-Augustinian concept of education in mind, and this is developed in Emile.

Essentially, the theory has three axes: the political difference of homme Civil and homme naturel, the assumption of phases of ‘natural development,’ and the anthropological difference of amour de soi and amour propre. Rousseau’s concept of education is constructed from these axes. This concept is peculiar not because it stresses ‘natural education,’ a term that was established in educational discourses long before Rousseau (Mercier 1961), but because of its paradoxical attempt to solve the contradiction between nature and society by way of education. To this end, Rousseau, as early as in the draft of Emile, the Manuscrit Fa re, draws a distinction between two contrary types of education: that of nature and that of society (Rousseau 1969, p. 58). These refer to two ways of life—the life of natural and of civil man—both described contrary to Hobbes, who, in his Le iathan (1968, originally published 1651) distinguished between natural and social condition. Society, for Hobbes, tames and cultivates nature, and thus repression of nature is unavoidable. Rousseau reversed this argument. For him, the social condition is that of ongoing civil war (bellum omnium contra omnes), while the natural condition is considered to be of presocial peaceableness. Education for ‘public business,’ as suggested by Hobbes (1968, 289ff.) is completely ignored.

Rousseau justified his fundamental thesis in the second Discours, dated 1765, which was devoted to the evolution of inequality (Rousseau 1964, pp. 109–94). Rousseau explains inegalite in the form of society’s corruption of human nature, which was originally in a position to live harmoniously with people’s own needs. Homme sau age (‘savage man’), as he terms it, is considered to exist on the basis of his own strengths, while homme civilise (‘civilized man’) develops social needs which render him dependent and weaken his nature (Rousseau 1964, 135ff.). The division of labor, the development of knowledge, and connected social differentiation (Rousseau 1964, p. 143ff.) forcefully brought about a progressive inequality among men. Leave is taken of the condition of innocence and natural freedom (p. 152), and the invention of the first society irresistibly causes all those following (p. 178) for the prize of alienation of mankind from its own nature. In this respect society is the fall of men, not nature.

The theory of education in Emile picks up the evolution thesis and elaborates it with regard to the development of the child. This forces a reversal: the social condition does not follow the natural condition. Moreover, the social condition is led back to the natural condition, given that education can develop nature on the basis of its own potentials. Rousseau’s risky experiment of thought goes as follows: if children are seen as the homme sauvage, education would have to apply to this condition entirely, provided that the social condition can be excluded for the duration of education. This assumption leads to Emile’s basic scenario: an eleve imaginaire, described in greater detail merely as an ‘orphan,’ is exclusively educated by a ‘governor’ outside any society. The scene is anonymous countryside far away from corrupt cities and raw villages i.e., independent from the social condition as Rousseau viewed them (Rousseau 1969, pp. 264, 267, 279). The place in which the story is told is described simply as au milieu des champs (‘in the middle of fields’) (p. 277) without any details of the origin and personal history of the two protagonists. As such, the tale is not a novel of education but a treatise which is intended to describe the paradigm of true education. The name ‘Emile’ is presumably reminiscent of Plutarch (Shanks 1927), as it has no biographical meaning. Accordingly, the governor is not given a name and is thus not distinguishable. Both are paradigms, not persons.

‘Natural’ is negative education. Rousseau largely draws on the phases of human development from the Histoire Naturelle by Buffon and de Leclerc Comte (1989, pp. 1–114). Again it is not the schema of ‘development,’ formulated at the beginning of the Manuscrit Favre (Rousseau 1969, p. 60) that is original, but the linkage with the axes of educational theory. Rousseau understands the entire childhood as the ‘age of nature,’ which must take place outside the social condition. Thus the entire first education is negative. It does not consist at all of teaching virtue or truth, but in avoiding vices and errors in order to grant innocence of heart and integrity of mind (Rousseau 1969, p. 323). The concept of negative education is aimed against Locke (317ff.), whose Some Thoughts Concerning Education had been available in French in a translation by Pierre Coste since 1695 and had had considerable influence. Locke’s central idea (1989, p. 142), that ‘Children are to be treated as rational creatures,’ aroused passionate contradiction in Rousseau. For him ‘Reasoning with children’ (Locke 1989, p. 142) was nothing other than the reversal of nature’s plan. Reason (raison) is the end of education, but the end cannot determine the beginning: ‘If children could understand reason there would be no need to educate them’ (Rousseau 1969, p. 317). Childhood must have its own manner (maniere) of seeing, thinking, and feeling, which is not that of adults (p. 319). Locke’s concept of reason is that of adults outside the world of children.

It is above all this idea of the separate world of childhood, that justifies Rousseau’s fame in education—along with the paradisaical metaphor of pure education outside society and the spontaneity of children led by immediate interests (interests presents) (Rousseau 1969, p. 358). Rousseau seems to be the originator of modern education, which stresses the ‘new’ image of child and childhood. In this respect, however, the fact that Emile clearly has a theological center is overlooked. The treatise ends by giving preference to republic, not to nature, and the whole theory presents two concepts of education with differing gender forms. The center of Emile is the concept of ‘natural religion,’ justified in the Profession de foi du Vicaire Savoyard, a treatise within the treatise (Rousseau 1969, pp. 565–635). Rousseau takes the role of the vicar, who, against the materialism of the Parisian philosophy, announces a supreme being or an active creator who is assumed to be ‘King of Earth’ (Rousseau 1969, p. 382). Being in unison with creation cannot mean anything sinister: ‘Where everything is good nothing can be injust’ (p. 588). The good can be seen in creation, justice emanates from the good, only a just person can live happily (p. 589), but the enthusiasm for virtue (p. 596) is an inner principle (p. 598)—that of the heart and not of reason (p. 627). Consequently, the key to the profession of faith is as follows: ‘We can be men without being scholars’ (p. 601).

What Rousseau called ‘natural religion’ (Rousseau 1969, p. 607) is a theology of the heart (Osterwalder 1995, cf. Chevallier 1994), it does not require any positive dogma. Moreover, inner enlightenment needs no teachers (pasteurs) (Rousseau 1969, p. 609), only the inspiration of belief in seeing God’s creation. Rousseau radicalizes the Calvinistic doctrine here: the metaphor of ‘heart’ signals independence even from the community of belief. ‘Equality’ is therefore not a social construction which would require comparison with others, but a sovereignty in solitude. ‘Sovereignty’ or inner strength presupposes identity and distance. Rousseau justified this difference with the relation between two instances of the soul called amour de soi and amour propre. The fact that two instances are mentioned violates again a convention of literature. In French virtue literature such as La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes (1665) or Blaise Pascal’s Pensees (1670), ‘amour propre’ is the formula for egoism and self-love that has to be restrained by education. Rousseau used the formula in a new way: he took over the negative meaning of amour propre but added a second, positive, instance—that of amour de soi. The positive instance suggests that man looks only for himself and is content with the satisfaction of his own true needs. The negative instance, amour propre, leads to comparison with others; man is never satisfied because no man will give preference to others more than to himself (Rousseau 1969, p. 493).

Loving and tender passions occur in amour de soi; hate and temper, i.e., from comparison with others, occur in amour propre. Thus, man is all the happier the fewer needs he has and the more he can avoid comparisons with others; in contrast, the factors which make man suffer ills and evils (mechants) are too many needs and too many opinions i.e., the dependency on others. Consequently, Rousseau develops the concept of education solitaire (Rousseau 1969, p. 341), which isolates the fictitious Emile throughout his childhood, totally controls learning (la liberte bien reglee: p. 321), and stipulates the didactic scenario on the theory of natural requirements and needs. Therefore Emile does not receive lessons, is not provided with any written works, and is excluded from all forms of cultural education. Only the age de raison—youth—requires formal lessons; all of childhood should apply exclusively to nature, which, of course, is only experienced in a didactic manner i.e., extremely artificial. The governor (and he alone) arranges the entire experience, and it is not by chance that Robinson Crusoe is the only literary evidence that Emile is given to read (Rousseau 1969, 455ff.).

The concept of education solitaire refers to the education of man (faire un homme: Rousseau 1969, p. 248). However, in the beginning of the fifth book Rousseau introduces ‘Sophie ou la femme’ i.e., he is forced to react to the difference in sex. The education of ‘the woman’ is given treatment as generalized as was previously the case with ‘the child.’ But now ‘the child’ is recognized as a male child and not as a sexless ‘person’ in general. Rousseau’s homme sauvage is stated as male, namely ‘strong,’ ‘sovereign,’ and ‘independent.’ Sophie, the generalized women, is educated in a manner that she can see herself as being in complementary dependence on males. The education of the sexes is therefore not equal, it is dissimilar (Rousseau 1969, 700ff.). This is subject to the precondition of sexual difference that cannot be dissolved or harmonized (p. 697). Because men want to seduce, they are dependent in the crucial moment, but women have to agree and thus can say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ This female strength can only be compensated by binding the woman to the house and forcing her to virtuousness publicly. The ‘mutual dependency’ is therefore not symmetric: men are dependent on women because of their desires (desirs), women are dependent on men as a result of their wishes and needs (besoins). Accordingly, ‘by the law of nature itself women are at the mercy of men’ (Rousseau 1969, p. 702), not vice versa.

Rousseau’s treatise about true education ends with a grand tour (Rousseau 1969, pp. 826–55) which is intended to introduce Emile to basics of government theory (p. 833) i.e., the doctrines of Rousseau’s own Contrat social. Endeavors are made regarding ‘le derniere perfection’ (p. 799): it is envisaged that the well-educated man now is to become a respectable citizen. The citizen’s know-how is taught with the theory of the ‘social contract’ (839ff.); Emile has to learn what defines the status of citizens (citoyens) and thus the constitution of society (p. 840). The small republic is given preference—one which can create an ideal relationship between population and government (p. 840). Obviously the Republic of Geneva, idealized by Rousseau during his lifetime, is the paragon for this thesis. The ideal republic is rare and thus hard to find. The governor concludes his teachings on government as follows: the obligations of the citizen presuppose a true country (patrie), and a country is true insofar as it can be considered a model of political virtue. Those who do not find their patries will not face political abysm, ‘car qui n’a pas une patrie a du moins un pays’ (Rousseau 1969, p. 858).

The connection of education and society fails. Rousseau had two views on society: first the ideal of the contrat social creating a model for social order that is mainly granted by the concept of volonte generale— the general will behind all singular wills (Rousseau 1964, 361ff.); and second the polemical description of general decadence within existing society. In no place does society comply with the ideal; therefore the grand tour ends without result. The couple Emile and Sophie, educated differently, are not released into society as citizens but led to marriage and family (p. 867). More is not possible: the ideal society, inspired by the volonte generale and thus safe from the corruption of power, is not realized anywhere. The social ideal has no social place. Decadent society, on the other hand, is morally unacceptable; real society has its place but not a legitimate form. Thus, loneliness (solitude) is in the end stronger than sociality (Starobinski 1971), because education will not change society but can only develop man’s nature. The great project of ‘humanization’ though natural education (as stated by Ravier 1941) fails because of its own ambitions and contradictions. ‘Nature,’ in the framework of Rousseau’s Emile, is an artificial experience, learning is bound by didactic parameters, control is total, and sentiment for the children’s separate world arises from the fiction of a good and equal nature that does not mirror any child’s individuality.

3. Reception And Enduring Influence

The reception of Rousseau’s work demonstrates the often dramatic and always radical conflict between convinced supporters and equally convinced adversaries. Rousseau divides his readers into the twenty-first century, not least because he wrote against reality. His ideals of antiquity, especially those of Sparta and Athens, suggest an age d’or (Terasse 1970, Leduc- Fayette 1974), which can be understood as an anticipation of the future, the renovation of the ‘true society’ that has been lost in history. It is therefore not by chance that Rousseau is the hero of the Jacobins; his cult was established in the French Revolution (Barny 1986) against all conservative theories that negate Revolution in favor of the long-term development of society without the sentiment of decadence. Rousseau’s Social Contract represents the new society that conservatives can only deny. The tension between freedom and equality attributed to, and paradoxically and provocatively described by, Rousseau characterizes one major part of political theory up to John Rawls’s reformulation of the Contrat social. The same applies to the theory of ‘natural education’: Rousseau’s Emile is a key source for Tolstoy and the reform movements of the nineteenth century, a central inspiration for Piaget (Oelkers 1996) and the development of child psychology, and a milestone for progressive education.

Of central importance are Rousseau’s dualisms and thus his language. He stresses contradictions and paradoxes between nature and society, men and citizens, children and adults, and, not least, male and female. Even John Dewey, who rejected dualism, accepted that Rousseau—and only Rousseau—was the founder of the theory of ‘natural development’ (Dewey 1985, 211ff.) as opposed to artificial schooling, and was thus to be read in a dualistic manner. Educational theorists are irritated by Rousseau, who is regarded as a ‘classical writer’ of education (Rorty 1998) because of the unsolved paradoxes. Rousseau’s concept of education makes no attempt at solving the paradoxes and dilemmas, but leaves them open, thus puzzling readers with keen contradictions which are right and wrong at the same time. What counts for Rousseau is not logic but the heart, and this seems to be part of his success. His radical conclusions seem to be obvious: politics within a new society following the education of ‘new man’ according to his own true nature. The famous ascription to ‘return to nature,’ which was part of the nineteenth century’s reading of Rousseau and nowhere stated by him directly, was regarded as the emancipation from alienation, and thus a project of the left. But Rousseau was at the same time radical and conservative—stating that society should return to the golden age, education should leave schooling for true nature, man should be first man and then citizen. It is this rigor without reality that fascinated Rousseau’s readers—disciples as well as opponents.

Rousseau’s theory of education is provocatively puzzling: ‘negative education’ has no objective, and nature develops itself. However, the learning process is subject to extreme regulations (Rorty 1998, p. 248). The present should not be made a victim of the future (Rousseau 1969, p. 309), but every form of education is a deal with the future, and this is true for Rousseau’s theory too: the ages of childhood and of youth are clearly defined, as are the phases of education, so nature is not chance but necessity, aiming at the future. Children should be educated in a manner solely dependent on things (p. 311), yet the governor dominates the whole of Emile’s education. Nature should lead the way (p. 259), but every effort possible must be made to avoid the first wrong step (p. 317). Children stand like savages outside the law and are completely natural (p. 320), but education must take everything in hand so as to exclude chance (p. 342) without being able to act solely on the basis of the necessity of nature. The first education should be that of the senses alone (p. 380), but that requires a rational plan of education which cannot simply be drawn from nature. In consequence Rousseau’s educational scene is one of extreme regulation: Emile does not play, he does not develop anything of his own and is not allowed to listen to music, and his learning differs in every way from ‘amusement’ (p. 407). According to Rousseau, education should be ‘realistic’ (p. 418) and this is possible only when undertaken in an extremely artificial manner. Because society is excluded, educational rigor can rule. The basis for this is nature in the sense of self-love (amour de soi). Self-love is always good and always in compliance with the natural order (p. 491)—which begs the question why education does not concentrate fully on this amour de soi.

Rousseau wrote the counterclaim to sensualistic educational theory, which dominated the pedagogy of the eighteenth century. Children, according to Rousseau, should not be viewed as empty vessels or tabulae rasae, but instead as parts of nature which develop of their own accord. Children cannot simply be influenced, and education is not merely the establishment of habits and customs; moreover, it is the child’s nature that limits all education. This fundamental concept is weakened by the implicit sensualism, the education of the senses (Rousseau 1969, 415ff.) that is necessary because education is inconceivable without any influence. But the provocation remains, and it defines Rousseau’s standing as an educational author. Education is limited by nature, nature has nothing to do with sin, the child is innocent because of nature’s original goodness, thus education can take place without any of the burdens of history and society. It is a renewal of mankind with every new child. This is the fundamental basis of Rousseau’s theory, which is still read and discussed today because it provokes and stimulates educational thought without attempting to solve the puzzles. Rousseau is read today because he defines the problems, not their solutions.


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