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Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract (Oxford World's Classics) [Paperback]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Christopher Betts
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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The Social Contract (Oxford World's Classics) The Social Contract (Oxford World's Classics) 5.0 out of 5 stars (1)
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21 Jan 1999 Oxford World's Classics
Censored in its own time, the Social Contract (1762) remains a key source of democratic belief and is one of the classics of political theory. It argues concisely but eloquently, that the basis of any legitimate society must be the agreement of its members. As humans we were `born free' and our subjection to government must be freely accepted. Rousseau is essentially a radical thinker, and in a broad sense a revolutionary. He insisted on the sovereignty of the people, and made some provocative statements that are still highly controversial. His greatest contribution to political thought is the concept of the general will, which unites individuals through their common self-interest, thus validating the society in which they live and the constraints it imposes on them. This new translation is fully annotated and indexed. The volume also contains the opening chapter of the manuscript version of the Contract, together with the long article on Political Economy, a work traditionally between the Contract and Rousseau's earlier masterpiece, the Discourse on Inequality.


Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford Paperbacks; New edition edition (21 Jan 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192835971
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192835970
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 1.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 853,006 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Christopher is Senior Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Warwick. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Economy, or Economy. (Ethics; Politics.) The word comes from the Greek oikos, 'house', and nomos, 'law', and originally meant only the wise and lawful government of a household for the common good of the whole family. Read the first page
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Totalitarian or democrat? 22 Feb 2012
By Derek Jones TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
There are many editions of "The Social Conract" in print and it is a relatively short work. Hence publishers often seek to make their edition stand out from the crowd with either a long introduction or some add-ons. In this case we have the addition of "Discourse on Political Economy" plus the draft version of the first chapter of The Social Contract in the earliest manuscript of the book. The Discourse on Political Economy is an article first published in Diderot's Encyclopaedia, and shows the direction of Rousseau's thinking he finalised in this work.

The Social Contract has been seen as democratic by some and as a harbinger of totalitarianism by others. It is not difficult to portray Rousseau's ideas as authoritarian or totalitarian. He denied citizenship to women (though this was normal for thinkers of his age). He used language such as" forced to be free" and "trained to bear with docility the yoke of the public happiness". The Censorial Tribunal and the insistence on a civil religion seem illiberal to the modern mind. He argued that monarchy (single ruler) government is best in large states, and elsewhere aristocracy (preferably elective) is generally best for democratic governments often suffer internal strife; "If there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men." He requires citizens to cede all rights to the community, whereas modern democracies usually stress individual rights. Finally, Rousseau condemns representative government and dislikes political parties and pressure groups, for they tend to create mini general wills that make it difficult for the General Will to emerge.

Some of these points can be countered more or less successfully.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Totalitarian or democrat? 25 Feb 2012
By Derek Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
There are many editions of "The Social Conract" in print and it is a relatively short work. Hence publishers often seek to make their edition stand out from the crowd with either a long introduction or some add-ons. In this case we have the addition of "Discourse on Political Economy" plus the draft version of the first chapter of The Social Contract in the earliest manuscript of the book. The Discourse on Political Economy is an article first published in Diderot's Encyclopaedia, and shows the direction of Rousseau's thinking he finalised in this work.

The Social Contract has been seen as democratic by some and as a harbinger of totalitarianism by others. It is not difficult to portray Rousseau's ideas as authoritarian or totalitarian. He denied citizenship to women (though this was normal for thinkers of his age). He used language such as" forced to be free" and "trained to bear with docility the yoke of the public happiness". The Censorial Tribunal and the insistence on a civil religion seem illiberal to the modern mind. He argued that monarchy (single ruler) government is best in large states, and elsewhere aristocracy (preferably elective) is generally best for democratic governments often suffer internal strife; "If there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men." He requires citizens to cede all rights to the community, whereas modern democracies usually stress individual rights. Finally, Rousseau condemns representative government and dislikes political parties and pressure groups, for they tend to create mini general wills that make it difficult for the General Will to emerge.

Some of these points can be countered more or less successfully. On the question of language Rousseau is employing rhetorical flourish. On democratic government, Rousseau's preference for aristocracy is not all-important because the democratic elements of his theory concern the sovereignty of the people, not the form of government. On pressure groups and political parties, Rousseau wishes to discourage rather than ban them. As for representative government Rousseau is certainly not the only thinker to dislike it.

In what ways is Rousseau's thought democratic? The elements are consent, participation and majorities. Locke had postulated consent in the Social Contract and "tacit" consent thereafter, but for Rousseau consent requires all (male) citizens to meet regularly to determine the laws, for only thus could a general will emerge through which men find true freedom. Though this direct democracy is impractical in modern states (too large), the concept of participation won many supporters in the second half of the 20th century who argued that modern representative government provides inadequate opportunities for participation. The claim that people - all the people - must be the author of the laws is Rousseau's greatest claim to be a democrat. Others were later to assert that a "general will" existed in society without reference to a popular assembly, and Rousseau would have had no truck with that.

One idea that makes Rousseau seem very modern is his claim that freedom requires sufficient economic equality for no man to be dependent on another: that freedom and equality are inseparable. Not all modern democrats follow Rousseau in emphasising equality but an important group does.

Of the arguments for seeing Rousseau as authoritarian or totalitarian the most important is the extent to which Rousseau assumes each man's interest are synonymous with the common good. Rousseau says men must vote in the assembly on what they believe to be the general will and if in a minority should tell themselves they were "mistaken" rather than simply on the losing side. It is true that Rousseau constantly reminds us he is writing of small and homogeneous states, but even in the smallest states there are surely greater differences of wants than Rousseau supposes, and greater differences of opinion as to what constitutes justice.

The key feature of an authoritarian state is that decisions are made by a minority without majority participation in the previous discussions. The tools considered necessary by modern liberal democrats for "participation" and "discussion" are missing in Rousseau, for he discourages interest groups and political parties. However, the reason they are missing is because he insists on popular sovereignty, with the participation of all citizens in making the laws to establish a "general will". On the other hand, it is in this concept that elements of totalitarian democracy appear. Pluralist democrats assume men differ and that politics is the resolving of conflict between them. Rousseau assumes that politics is consensual, with a solution (a general will) waiting to be found. The word "authoritarian" is perhaps inappropriate, but his collectivism surely has totalitarian overtones. Yet Rousseau is perhaps more democrat than totalitarian by modern standards, arguing as he does that "each citizen should come to his own opinion." I don't think Stalin, Hitler or Mao ever said that.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential Philosophy 13 April 2010
By Bill R. Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book collects the two most important political writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on Political Economy and On Social Contract. Rousseau is one of the most original and influential philosophers, having a profound effect on everyone and everything from the French Revolution - and, depending on whom you ask, the American - to Marx to Tolstoy. His range was literally encyclopedic, but he is probably best remembered for political writings. Anyone looking to get a good overview of these will do well to start here, as this basically has all of his strictly political work, but anyone wanting a wider overview must look elsewhere.

Discourse on Political Economy essentially takes the next step of asking how we can legitimize and improve such a corrupt society. It does not have easy answers but does reject the seemingly obvious one that we return to a primitive state; Rousseau has often been charged with this, but he actually explicitly denies it. This Discourse is far less original but has several salient points and is well-written. It is an important contribution to the question that has dominated Western thought since at least Plato and essential reading for anyone with even the slightest interest in it.

On Social Contract is now considered Rousseau's most important work, and it is easy to see why. He of course did not invent the social contract; Thomas Hobbes' 1651 Leviathan is generally considered its foundation, but elements are visible at least as far back as Plato. It had dominated Western political thought since Hobbes, though, and Rousseau's contribution is one of the most important. He looks at the question more thoroughly and systematically than anyone since Hobbes and, though he admired the latter, comes to almost the opposite conclusion. His arguments for a social contract are strong - nay, near-undeniable - but, more importantly and unlike many, he actually goes into how to implement one in considerable detail. The work is again remarkable for being very well-written. As it is significantly longer than the Discourses, the quality is not as uniform; several chapters, especially those on the Roman republic, are more or less tangential, and there are other weak spots. That said, the vast majority is extremely engaging and generally lucid. One can come away from On Social Contract with an almost spiritually intense belief in its central tenets, and many have; Poland and Corsica both asked Rousseau to propose a constitution, and the French Revolution may well not have happened without him. The book was enormously influential throughout the twentieth century and continues to be. Unfortunately, though, the vaguest parts are precisely those that are the most specific about how Rousseau's social contract can be actualized. His infamous claim that we must be "forced to be free" has long been controversial, as have related statements about the General Will's infallibility, absolute sovereignty, anti-monarchialism, and religion. They are near-paradoxical at times and open to a wide interpretation variety. This is how Rousseau has been able to influence people at opposite ends of the political spectrum. He has been credited or blamed - depending on point of view - for everything from the French Revolution to Hitler and Stalin. His philosophical ties to these last have been near-definitively refuted in recent decades, but the book is such we can see how such misconceptions arose. Near-insurmountable pessimism about his own ideals, including his famous statement that only gods would be fit for a democracy, has also frustrated even his strongest admirers. As with all important controversial books, the key is to form one's own conclusions. Few seminal works have greater potential for viable individual interpretation and general applicability.

This gets to the crux of reading Rousseau; he probably invokes the greatest reaction disparity of all philosophers. One almost literally either loves or hates him. Many have idolized and based their whole lives and philosophies on him; at least as many have done the opposite. Those who value originality and writing qualities like general lucidity and conciseness will likely love Rousseau, as he here excels nearly all philosophers and even many literary writers. However, empiricists and others who value truth and facts above all, as well as those who are eminently practical, may well loathe him. Discourse on Inequality's infamous statement that it will ignore facts because they have no bearing on the issue has appalled many ever since publication. Even so, Rousseau's importance and influence are such that anyone seriously interested in philosophy or political thought must read him. Not everyone will agree, but he has been at least as valuable to dissenters as to advocates, however differently.

In sum, those wanting an essential overview of Rousseau's political writings will be interested in this, especially if they want some context and commentary.
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