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Rousseau’s ‘the Social Contract’

Jean Jacques Rousseau

<![CDATA[Jean Jacques Rousseau was one of the most controversial figures of the French Enlightenment. The publication of his most famous work ‘the Social Contract’ in 1762 was met with a wave of outrage and censorship, in both France and his native Geneva. Thirty two years later however, the late author’s remains were transported to the Pantheon in Paris, and he was given the burial of a national hero. What is it about this book that made it so despicable in the Enlightenment era, and yet elevated its writer to such grandiose status in Revolutionary France? Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712 and reached adulthood during the peak of the French Enlightenment, a movement of French speaking writers and thinkers who celebrated the power of reason. They dismissed religion and put their faith in rational thinking and knowledge as the keys to the betterment of mankind. This was the time when some of the most celebrated writers in French culture, the likes of Voltaire, Diderot and d’Alembert, produced their most important work. Rousseau was acquainted with many of the movement’s key figures, and even contributed some articles to the ‘Encycolpedie’, the defining statement of the Enlightenment which aimed to collect all of the world’s knowledge in one publication. Differences began to appear because Rousseau clearly didn’t share the Enlightenment writers’ total faith in the power of reason. Indeed, in some ways one could interpret the Social Contract as a direct reaction to some of the key principles of Enlightenment thinkers. As the opening line of the Social Contract dramatically declares; “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains” Rousseau believed the history of society was built on mankind abandoning nature and accepting restraints for his own benefit. While the Enlightenment thinkers focused on intellectual practice as the key to bettering humanity, Rousseau focused on legitimising the unavoidable restraints society needed to function. There were two main influences on Rousseau’s political thought, first the voluntarist tradition embodied by Thomas Hobbes and his work ‘Leviathan’. The voluntarists supported the idea of an absolute monarchy as a way to liberate man from the brutality of nature. The key idea was that the establishment of a monarchy was something agreed between a society and its ruler. Rather than believing in the ‘divine right of kings,’ the voluntarists, and Hobbes in particular, believed that the king got his power because his citizens voluntarily swore allegiance to him. The other influence came from the liberal tradition of John Locke. Locke argued that the primary aim of a society was to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens. Indeed, Locke himself had argued for the existence of a social contract. The key difference between Locke and Rousseau however, was that Locke’s social contract was between the ruler and the citizens he ruled. For Rousseau, the social contract was amongst the people that formed a society. Rousseau refers to a country’s people as the ‘sovereign’, and suggests they should be treated as an individual person. He argues that although the sovereign was made up of individuals with personal interests, it generally reflects an aggregation of the common will, and strives for the common good. The sovereign only has authority over matters of public interest, and plays no role in personal matters. The key role of the state therefore, is to ensure liberty and equality through its laws. A form of government should still exist in Rousseau’s system, but it takes on the role of day to day administrator, and must always reflect the will of the sovereign. According to Rousseau, societies collapse when friction builds between the will of the government, and that of the sovereign. The celebration of Rousseau in the French Revolution came from the fact his work argued society was formed from the general will of its people. It provided a justification for the abolishment of a government, if it had breached the social contract and ceased to reflect the people’s will. Rousseau’s work is a key text for anyone reflecting on the relationship between individuals, governments and societies. It is therefore no surprise that it was so heavily associated with the French Revolution, and had an enormous influence throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the notions of government and society were questioned like never before.

Related Books

Philosophy and Theology
Rousseau’s Social Contract, Etc by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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