The Social Contract (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Overview

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." With those words, quite possibly the most famous in all political thought, Jean-Jacques Rousseau launches The Social Contract. It is a work that loomed over the French Revolution, haunted subsequent generations, and stalks the twenty-first century. Composed in the autumn of the Old Regime, The Social Contract presents a radical new form of political community composed of free and equal citizens who collectively retain ultimate authority; today it remains the ...
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The Social Contract (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." With those words, quite possibly the most famous in all political thought, Jean-Jacques Rousseau launches The Social Contract. It is a work that loomed over the French Revolution, haunted subsequent generations, and stalks the twenty-first century. Composed in the autumn of the Old Regime, The Social Contract presents a radical new form of political community composed of free and equal citizens who collectively retain ultimate authority; today it remains the most compelling counter-model to modern representative liberal democracy. Complex and deeply unnerving, The Social Contract challenges its readers to rethink their understanding of freedom and servitude, the common good, and the very legitimacy of contemporary governments.
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Introduction

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." With those words, quite possibly the most famous in all political thought, Jean-Jacques Rousseau launches The Social Contract, a work that loomed over the French Revolution, haunted subsequent generations, and stalks the twenty-first century. Composed in the autumn of the Old Regime, The Social Contract presents a radical new form of political community composed of free and equal citizens who collectively retain ultimate authority; today it remains the most compelling counter-model to modern representative liberal democracy. Complex and deeply unnerving, The Social Contract challenges its readers to rethink their understanding of freedom and servitude, the common good, and the very legitimacy of contemporary governments. For over two thousand years thinkers have speculated upon, analyzed, and debated the best form of government; reasons for obeying the state; the concepts of freedom, equality, and justice; and the rights of the individual. Political philosophy is a sober discipline devoted to logic and reason, suspicious of personal intuition and emotion. Rousseau brought to political philosophy a poetic intensity and an undying sense of personal outrage. His transparent prose is fraught with forceful paradoxes, clear on the surface while mysterious beneath. One of the towering works of political philosophy, The Social Contract fuses ancient republicanism with modern social contract theory into a compelling vision of an egalitarian community, reviled and revered by millions.

Democratic hero, literary cult figure, victim of political persecution, founding father of the Romantic Movement, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) remains a figure of titanic cultural significance. Alienated, neurotic, insecure, and self-consumed, Rousseau was the first recognizably modern man. He was born in the city-state of Geneva, part of present day Switzerland, which in the eighteenth century was divided into a federation of independent city republics, among the last remaining in a Europe dominated by great monarchical states. At sixteen, Rousseau left Geneva for Bourbon France where he, with no social status in a society that prized it, worked his way up from lackey, to tutor, to secretary, finally to writer and literary celebrity. When he turned to examine society and politics, he did so from the perspective of people at the bottom, the poor, the disadvantaged, the unsuccessful. The eighteenth century was the age of Enlightenment, an epoch of unmatched public intellectual activity reaching from Naples to Edinburgh and beyond to America. Bitterly opposed to the rational and scientific bias of the Enlightenment, Rousseau defined himself against his era: against monarchy, the aristocratic social order, the Enlightenment, and a burgeoning commercial economy enslaving men and women with material desires. The Social Contract is the product of Rousseau's quest to find an alternative to the modern state. Must people accept a political order of legalized domination and inequality in order to enjoy the benefits of social life? Is it the fate of humanity to choose between natural freedom and civilized servitude? The answer, Rousseau tells us, is The Social Contract.

Rousseau was a best-selling author in Pre-Revolutionary France, publishing works in a variety of genres. The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, written for a competition sponsored by the Academy of Dijon in 1749, catapulted him to public fame. In response to the question concerning the moral effects of the arts and sciences Rousseau took a stance that would characterize the rest of his intellectual life. When society is corrupt, music, art, drama, literature, and philosophy distract people from public problems and encourage private indulgence. Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) unfolds in the manner of classical Greek tragedy; every step forward from the state of nature is a step towards a predestined disaster. Progress is nothing more than a history of gradual enslavement, as men lose their natural equanimity and freedom and their descendants become envious, vain, poor, and alienated, the typical "civilized" member of the modern European monarchy. As his fame grew he was asked to work on constitutions for Corsica and Poland. Julie or The New Heloise, became the most popular novel of the eighteenth century. In 1762 the Parlement of Paris condemned the Emile, his combination novel and treatise on childhood education, which contained The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar, a statement of sentimental deism much admired by contemporaries. His novels and his shockingly frank memoir, the Confessions, were wildly successful in France and wider Europe, starting several trends, many of which were embraced by the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, including the cult of childhood, the sentimental pastoral novel, the fashion for tears, simple white dresses, and informal gardens.

Rousseau's contemporaries were among the most distinguished in history: Voltaire, Diderot, Gibbon, Hume, Smith, Kant, Goethe, Vico, Jefferson, and Adams. While Rousseau wrote, Fragonard, Reynolds, and Gainsborough painted; palladian country houses went up all over England while British aristocrats traveled to Italy on the Grand Tour, and Britain and France waged war for colonial empires. The Enlightenment, the name by which the intellectual revolution of the eighteenth century is known, subjected religion, science, morality, society, and politics to the most thoroughgoing critique in history. Enlightenment intellectuals or "philosophes" saw themselves as public leaders and confidently hoped to replace inherited customs with reasoned ideas verified by experience or experiment and to use new ideas to improve the human condition. As the Encyclopaedia, the great monument to the omnivorous intellect of the age attests, the Enlightenment took inspiration from the Scientific Revolution of a century before, which transformed the human understanding of the cosmos and humanity's place within it. The Enlightenment thrived thanks to a talking public, made possible by the rise of commercial capitalism, world trade, and a new middle class of merchants, lawyers, and bankers.

The society of eighteenth-century Europe is difficult to describe. Wealth and aristocracy still exist, but the world of the Old Regime, with its finely graded distinctions that branded one for a lifetime, is lost in darkness. Atop this order of legally entrenched privilege and class prejudice sat absolute monarchs, "benevolent despots," Catherine the Great of Russia, Maria-Theresa of Austria, and Frederick the Great of Prussia. At the beginning of The Social Contract, Rousseau proudly announced to monarchical Europe that he was the citizen of a free state. As previously mentioned Geneva was one of the last free states or republics, as states governed by citizens together are known, in Europe. Renaissance Europe abounded in republican city-states and independent free cities, but two centuries of brutal war and conquest changed all that, and the territorial state emerged triumphant after the Peace of Westphalia. Due to the nature of communal self-government, republics could not encompass large territories, so they had largely disappeared by the time of The Social Contract. Republics would appear again after the American and French Revolutions transformed them into modern territorial states through the system of representation, but the hunger for the older more participatory system remains with us. The Social Contract embodies the enduring tension between the small face-to-face community and the great modern state.

The world never tires of The Social Contract. Many avenues lead straight from its pages. One familiar avenue leads to Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy, another leads to Edmund Burke's eloquent critique of the absurdity of abstract ideas in politics, yet another to the French Revolution. The nature and extent of The Social Contract's influence on the French Revolution and the Terror remains unresolved. The ruthless emphasis on unity and sacrifice for the public good, the very language of Saint-Just, Danton, and Robespierre intentionally invoked Rousseau. Suffice it to say that The Social Contract was the Bible of the French Revolution; meaning few followed its precepts but many mastered its rhetoric for particular ends. The Social Contract spoke to student activists and philosophers in the 1960s, and its emphasis on the power of people and community appeals today in the era of global capitalism. Moreover, The Social Contract still shapes political philosophy. John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, the most celebrated work of political thought in the last half-century, draws on both Kant and Rousseau.

First published in 1762, The Social Contract achieves its power from the tense interlocking of elements of the Western political tradition; it deploys modern social contract theory in the service of an ideal political community inspired by the classical republics of Sparta and Rome. The Social Contract confronts the stark, monumental grandeur of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), in which the terrors of the wild are allayed by the contract human beings make to form a political order and hand power over to an absolute sovereign. The roots of social contract theory reach back deep into the past-medieval tradition insisted upon the existence of an unwritten contract between ruler and ruled which obliged the king to protect his people as well as govern with justice. A new way of thinking about the traditional contract arose in the seventeenth century during the bleak chaos of the English Civil War. No longer an agreement between ruler and ruled, the new social contract was an agreement between the people themselves to form a political community; the Mayflower Compact is a famous example. Hobbes presumed people agreed to form a state in order to provide security. John Locke in his Second Treatise of Civil Government of 1690,a work which decisively influenced the American Founding Fathers and formed the blueprint for the Declaration of Independence, reasoned that people formed a state to preserve private property. Both classic works of modern social contract theory share the same fundamental premise, that the political order is legitimate only if people consent to it. Rousseau took the concept of consent to its logical extreme. He believed that our capacity to will freely, rather than reason, constitutes the core of our uniquely human nature, hence freely willed consent is the source of our obligation to obey the laws of a state. Consent legitimates, or makes morally right, the chains of law and society. Rousseau's emphasis on consent led to his most radical and daring transformation of political thought.

In contrast to Hobbes who argued that people together consented to delegate power forever in the interest of avoiding chaos at all costs, Locke proposed that people tacitly consented to government, while collectively retaining the right of rebellion should a government show signs of tyranny. When his time came, Rousseau unleashed the doctrine of popular sovereignty. The people, not rulers, together maintain sovereignty, or ultimate political authority. Furthermore, sovereignty cannot be alienated to representatives, in the manner of British and American democracies. In The Social Contract, "We the People," remain in charge. Moreover, consent cannot be given just once but must be repeatedly rendered throughout a citizen's lifetime. As a result, genuine self-government, the only legitimate political order, is possible only in cities or small states.

Rousseau suggests that people can preserve their freedom and enjoy the blessings of social life by consenting to join a cooperative system rather than subjecting themselves to a ruler/protector. People can vanquish chaos by working together to preserve their lives, liberty, and property. Parties to The Social Contract agree to be governed by a system of rules, similar to the U.S. Constitution, which contain broad provisions in the general interest. The contract establishes a collective organization, a political community. More controversially, people unify their wills into a single common will: the General Will. The General Will, which many twentieth-century readers have found unsettling, is the will of the community. In a similar manner, collective organizations such as corporations and trade unions have legal personality, and act in the common interest in accord with the will of the group. Rousseau makes a bold move and claims that the General Will cannot harm anyone because it is general in its object, meaning it can never be directed at anything specific, therefore it is in the interest of all even when particular interests diverge. It appears obvious that the General Will presupposes a simple and egalitarian society. More than that cannot be said with authority, for the meaning and significance of the General Will remain enigmatic.

Lest the reader be entirely enraptured by Rousseau's model, The Social Contract is not devoid of danger. Rousseau writes that a citizen must be "Forced to be free." Liberal or negative freedom, the type of freedom that the Bill of Rights calls immediately to mind, means following one's desires without interference. Rousseau favors a different variety of freedom, the ability to overcome selfish desires and follow the higher calling of civil freedom, acting in accord with the common good, be it through paying taxes, recycling, or going to war. True freedom comes with mastering the baser appetites. This insight would inspire Kant's moral philosophy, which in many ways is the culmination of the Enlightenment. In The Social Contract, the common good takes precedence over individual preference. Although Rousseau assures the reader that the state will not constrain individual freedom unless it is necessary for the good of the community, many readers still prefer the protections offered by constitutional rights.

The second half of The Social Contract abandons logic for the haunting rhetoric of the classical political tradition. Rousseau revered the classical republics of Sparta and Rome, praising their forgotten practices and institutions, such as the assembly of the citizenry in public, essential in preventing tyranny, and civil religion, the civic rituals that united people and swayed them serve the city-state. Rousseau was the first to romanticize the classical republics, infusing The Social Contract with nostalgia for a pure, vanished world of virtue and heroic devotion to the city. One finds the same nostalgia in Jacques-Louis David's great painting The Oath of the Horatii of 1784, the severely classical architecture of the early American Republic, and the arguments of the Anti-Federalists.

In the end, The Social Contract moves readers emotionally as well as philosophically through its recognition of the need of the soul for human solidarity. The state exists not merely to protect the individual but to protect common things: a system of justice, the environment, artistic and architectural masterpieces, public libraries and schools, ambulances and sidewalks. Politics, however, is also about language, talking, negotiating, arguing; and for that Rousseau had no need and little patience. The goal in The Social Contract is always consensus, and in the end one suspects what Rousseau finally wanted was silence, a world beyond speech, which he offers us: the timeless republic of collective memory.

Alissa Ardito received her doctorate in political science from Yale University, where she studied political philosophy, intellectual history, and the history of architecture. She is currently a visiting professor at Duke University.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Great philosophy that is actually easy to read.

    I had to read this particular book along with a few others that concerned the social contract theory including "Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes, and work by people such as John Locke and the like. Being a philosophy major, I am constantly reading works that take all of one's will power to follow. Whether the ideas in the books aren't all that straight foward, or the writer just wasn't an interesting writer (most philosophers aren't. We're usually philosophers first and writers second or third). However, when I sat down to read this text, which is small and not daunting in the slightest, I was pleased to find that this book was a very easy read. Not only was it easy to read, it was easy to follow, and the ideas were set in clear and concise order. "The Social Contract" by Rousseau explains the social contract theory in a way different from Hobbes, who said that before government the world was in an anarchy with people doing what they wanted when they wanted. For Hobbes, the social contract saved us. However, Rousseau takes another route. He says that human beings were at peace before the social contract, and that the contract made us slaves. Through it we made the laws, or chains, that bind us, hence the saying: Laws are the chains the bind us. All in all, whether you're an aspiring philosopher, or you're simply into politics, I would reccomend that you read this book.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2008

    Fantastic book

    I read this book my junior year in high school, and it astonished me. I found myself having to read over paragraphs multiple times to merely understand the intense concept of his writing. A must read for anyone with an interest philosophy.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2005

    good!

    Should be required reading in our schools... could lead to informed citizens who think for themselves.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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