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on 26 August 2016
I found it most enlightening. Having read the French version - albeit a long time ago as a student - this translation is fluent and easy. In my view, Jean Jaques Rousseau is underestimated as a philosopher and as a singularly good member of the Enlightenment. His phrase "Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.." resonates with much of what passes for democracy in today's world.
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on 28 May 2017
Again what I expected I do not agree with Rousseau.
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on 27 April 2017
Very good, as described
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on 3 September 2017
Love it!
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on 24 May 2017
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on 26 August 2017
It isn't easy reading, but improves as you get in to it, especially if you have some knowledge of the history of the Roman Republic. Mine was not really sufficient.
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on 8 August 2017
Good insight into the past
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on 16 June 2013
A crucial book that is regularly included in school's programs in France.

The reading is not easy and one must really make an effort to read this book as the ideas are densely packed.

I have read this book when I was very young and just read it again and it has lost nothing of his power.
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on 4 February 2011
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) is best in large states, and elsewhere aristocracy (preferably elective) is generally best because 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 invariably stress 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, and Rousseau has certainly not been the only critic of representative government.

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.
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on 29 September 2015
Rousseau’s work is maybe not one that the majority of people have heard of. Amongst those who have an interest in political philosophy, though, it is regarded as something of a classic work.

So what is this social contract? Well, let me attempt to sketch an answer by contradiction. I recall a conversation I had with a fundamentalist libertarian where they argued that they had no duty to pay tax because they had not entered into any contractual arrangement for goods or services with the government. Their argument was that they should only pay for the precise goods and services which they have requested and have agreed a price with the supplier. As this individual did not have a contract which they had signed, they argued that they should be exempted from any obligation to society, including the paying of taxes.

While this was a ludicrous argument, based on a narrow view of contract law, applying to arenas of life where it does belong, it is interesting to consider what the best route is to take in countering it. One such answer is the idea of the social contract. This isn’t a paper contract that one signs, but is a tacit agreement between two sets of people, which we might broadly call the government the people, on how best to run a country.

I say “broadly call” because Rousseau brings in his own definitions, which are quite alien to a 21st century Englishman. For example, I would regard the term “sovereign” to denote a single person, the head of state. In our monarchy, that is the queen. In a republic, it would be the president. Yet for Rousseau the sovereign might not be a single person. A magistrate is not a low-level person who presides over a civil court. A prince is not a male member of the royal family.

What this leaves us with is a work that is rooted in a very different politics from that which we find ourselves in. If you wish to guide someone from A to B, it can be a little perplexing for someone who is starting from C; even more so when both A and C use the same terms but mean different things by them.

The book gets bogged down in some of the detail at times, such as how to conduct elections and the nature of dictatorship. On the latter point, Rousseau derives much of his understanding from the Roman Republic, which I was fortunate to be (by no design or specific purpose) reading Livy’s Early History of Rome at the same time. So while the historian of political thought may find Rousseau useful in tracing how modern western democracies view the nature of the relationships between citizens and their government, I cannot say that it has an enduring value in terms of the specifics of what Rousseau proposes.

If there is to be any application, it is in America where government is split into two arbitrary sides, entitled legislature and executive. In the UK, there is no such clear division, there is one government. Yet Rousseau contradicts himself on this particular point, as he states early on that to artificially separate the two functions (which are poorly defined) is not recommended yet he goes on later to talk about them as though they are two separate arms of government, but again with insufficient detail as to how someone is meant to discern between them.

The one major point where I disagreed with Rousseau is on the matter of taxation. This is something Rousseau sees as a burden on the people, but I couldn’t help but question whether the taxes he was subject to were the same as we have today. If you go back as far as the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire, then taxes were raised to keep the aristocracy in luxury and to fund wars. Indeed, our modern income tax began to take its current form as a way to finance the wars against France in the decades after Rousseau was writing. It seems he had little concept of the mechanics of a welfare state. While his opinion differed from mine, his view also wasn’t the same as my conversation partner alluded to above.

So what do I make of it? It’s a bit frustrating, as it’s dying for a re-write. If we clear up the muddled terminology then we could clarify the priorities of government, its democratic mandate and how it is funded. As it stands, it is a testament to the old adage that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Rousseau’s world seems quite alien to 21st century Britain.
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