These are the famous opening words of a treatise that has not ceased to stir vigorous debate since its first publication in 1762. Rejecting the view that anyone has a natural right to wield authority over others, Rousseau argues instead for a pact, or 'social contract', that should exist between all citizens of a state and that should be the source of sovereign power. From this fundamental premise, he goes on to consider issues of liberty and law, freedom and justice, arriving at a view of society that has seemed to some a blueprint for totalitarianism, to others a declaration of democratic principles.
In his introduction, Maurice Cranston examines the historical and political ideas that influenced Rousseau, and places The Social Contract against a backdrop of his remarkable personality and life.
About The Author
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. Abandoned by his father at the age of ten he tried his hand as an engraver's apprentice before he left the city in 1728. From then on he was to wander Europe seeking an elusive happiness. At Turin he became a Catholic convert; and as a footman, seminarist, music teacher or tutor visited many parts of Switzerland and France. In 1732 he settled for eight years at Chambéry or Les Charmettes, the country house of Madame de Warens, remembered by Rousseau as an idyllic place in the Confessions. In 1741 he set out for Paris where he met Diderot who commissioned him to write the musical articles for the Encyclopédie. In the meantime he fathered five children by Thérèse Levasseur, a servant girl, and abandoned them to a foundling home. The 1750s witnessed a breach with Voltaire and Diderot and his writing struck a new note of defiant independence. In his Discours sur les sciences et les arts and the Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité he showed how the growth of civilization corrupted natural goodness and increased inequality between men. In 1758 he attacked his former friends, the Encyclopaedists, in the Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles which pilloried cultured society. In 1757 he moved to Montmorency and these five years were the most fruitful of his life. His remarkable novel La nouvelle Héloise (1761), met with immediate and enormous success.
In this and in Émile, which followed a year later, Rousseau invoked the inviolability of personal ideals against the power of the state and the pressures of society. The crowning achievement of his political philosophy was The Social Contract, published in 1762. That same year he wrote an attack on revealed religion, the Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard. He was driven from Switzerland and fled to England where he only succeeded in making an enemy of Hume and returned to his continental peregrinations. In 1770 Rousseau completed his Confessions. His last years were spent largely in France where he died in 1778.
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Comments about The Social Contract:
Don't be put off with the picture of the Roman fascia [bundle of sticks] on the front cover. This was a symbol of the 1st Republic in France as well as the later Fascist movement. The Social Contract supports values of religious tolerance but also rule of law.
This is more readable than other Enlightenment writers such as Hume or Kant simply because it lacks the rigour of these vey academic authors and is sometimes contradictory. Nevertheless it raises nearly all the right questions regarding what should comprise a democratic government whether you agree with all his prescriptions or not. It is also quite a short work.
The examples given to his illustrate his ideas are from various ancient and contemporaneous governments but particularly ancient Rome. Despite this it relates so clearly to Modern European and US history and even very current issues such as the Gay Marriage plebiscite.
The separation of Legislative from Executive powers of government that following the Roman Republic model Rousseau believes is tantamount to good government has been the cornerstone of Western democracies. However Rousseau does not believe that laws should be voluminous and should only prescribe the limitations on the executive which he believed should be elected by lots on the Ancient Greek model. Rousseau's ideal system is most like the current US system.
The greatest variance with Rousseau's model comes from his criticism of representation in legislation which he believes should be a last resort for rather trivial issues. All major laws should be enacted by plebiscite.
In short read it an enjoy. Despite many faults it will really get you thinking on political issues.
Comments about The Social Contract:
Well, before buying this book I was unaware that Jean was a freemason- freemasons, I despise. But, I am not going to let this book attract dust- no!
Keeping that to one side (well, at least trying to), it is manifest the writer of this work is an intelligent being.
Many men before him have constructed all manner of theories on political philosophy- men like Plato and Machiavelli spring to mind- all with varying visions of a societal utopia- Jean Rousseau is no exception.
There are some elements of his political thought that certainly have validation in an ideal society; the difficulty comes when trying to convince the "lemmings", or populace to embrace such revolutions of policy.
The book is short but contains intriguing concepts that one must sit and muse over if one is endeavouring to formulate an ideal society.
|Subject of the First Book||p. 14|
|The First Societies||p. 14|
|The Right of the Strongest||p. 16|
|That We Must Always Go Back to a First Convention||p. 21|
|The Social Contract||p. 22|
|The Sovereign||p. 24|
|The Civil State||p. 26|
|Real Property||p. 28|
|That Sovereignty Is Inalienable||p. 31|
|That Sovereignty Is Indivisible||p. 32|
|Whether the General Will Is Fallible||p. 34|
|The Limits of the Sovereign Power||p. 36|
|The Right of Life and Death||p. 39|
|The Legislator||p. 44|
|The People||p. 48|
|The People (cont.)||p. 50|
|The People (cont.)||p. 52|
|The Various Systems of Legislation||p. 55|
|The Division of the Laws||p. 57|
|Government in General||p. 59|
|The Constituent Principle in the Various Forms of Government||p. 64|
|The Division of Governments||p. 67|
|Mixed Governments||p. 78|
|That All Forms of Government Do Not Suit All Countries||p. 79|
|The Marks of a Good Government||p. 84|
|The Abuse of Government and Its Tendency to Degenerate||p. 85|
|The Death of the Body Politic||p. 88|
|How a Sovereign Authority Maintains Itself||p. 89|
|How a Sovereign Authority Maintains Itself (cont.)||p. 90|
|How a Sovereign Authority Maintains Itself (cont.)||p. 92|
|Deputies or Representatives||p. 93|
|That the Institution of Government Is Not a Contract||p. 97|
|The Institution of Government||p. 98|
|How to Check the Usurpations of Government||p. 99|
|That the General Will Is Destructible||p. 103|
|The Roman Comitia||p. 110|
|The Tribunate||p. 120|
|The Dictatorship||p. 122|
|The Censorship||p. 125|
|Civil Religion||p. 126|
|Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.|
Series: Penguin Classics
For Ages: 18+ years old
Number Of Pages: 192
Published: 30th June 1968
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 12.9 x 1.5
Weight (kg): 0.15
Edition Number: 1