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on 21 July 2009
I have a theory that while it's possible to be a bad man but a good engineer or scientist (von Braun, probably Einstein, in his dealings with women, maybe even Newton), you cannot be a bad man and a good philosopher, certainly not of ethics or political philosophy.

Rousseau, on this account, was a worthless man who wrote the ur-text of modern authoritarianism.

Whether it's the specious twaddle of 'the general will' (you know, the one that tells you to kill the kulaks or the Jews or people who need to wear glasses, and it's OK because the General Will said so), or the weird drivel of the 'noble savage' (who presumably was immune to polio, malaria, leprosy, smallpox as well as to the competitive attentions lions, bears, locusts and so on) whose life was more convincingly described by Hobbes, Rousseau managed to give a completely unconvincing and historically refuted account of the social and political evolution of man.

But it's his murderous treatment of his children, his disgusting treatment of the unfortunate women whom he attracted and his foul disloyalty to David Hume, who took him in after he had been ejected from everywhere else that should settle the fate of this man's philosophy.
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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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on 14 September 2014
The book Social Contract by J.J. Rousseau, a great French thinker, ideated a state built on the basis of a contract made by people. Social contract was thus conceptualized to legitimate democracy established by most of the modern states in the world. Yet if we study the origin of the state further, we may find that men’s behavior of making a contract may be studied in a deep-going way in view of the role played by language because when a contract is made, language must be used. Thus we may probe the origin of the state from the perspective of linguistic ontology to explain why the idea of social contract can be thoughtful and reasonable. In my study I find that language plays a role in the formation of the state. That is why Rousseau could vindicate the role of contract in the formation of the state. I mean that human community evolves from the tribe of the primitive society to the state of the civilized society. Language is the key for the explanation of the origin of the state. That is, the use of language extends the distance of communication step by step because media can be developed when language is used. When the distance of linguistic communication is extended because human chain linguistic communication as well as written communication can be performed, the community grows large in population and area. When language is used in communication, common interest of those who use that language is also formed. For example, common memory is kept and common religious belief is spread. Then the unity of the community is no longer maintained by kinship ties but by linguistic communication. In the meantime, in their mutual interaction, men gradually feel obligated to give certain rights to others and the need of gaining certain rights acceptable by others. A tacit contract is made. Such contract may be embedded in morality or the constitution. The state is born and the tribe is dissolved. Thus, if we study the theory of the state, we may look at the state from another angle instead of Rousseau’s angle. The traditional view of the origin of the state needs to be updated.

Commentator: Xing Yu, the author of the book Language and State: An Inquiry into the Progress of Civilization
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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 23 February 2011
In The Social Contract Rousseau aims to convey his theories on the way in which society operates through governance. Being the result of many years of work by the author, he abandoned the greater bulk of it after reaching the conclusion that he had `reached his limitations`. In a moment of cynicism, I might venture to surmise that there may have been other more pragmatic considerations surfacing in the publishing industry.

This work resides in the genre of Political Philosophy. It is concerned primarily with the interplay of interests and influence within society which in turn necessitates laws and government. A significant emphasis is placed on the theory of the General Will. Rousseau argues that upon man's emergence from his primitive state, `there was a remarkable change in him` and there was a `substitution of justice for instinct in his conduct, giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and the right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations`.

`The first societies governed themselves aristocratically. The heads of families took council together on public affairs. The young bowed without question to the authority of experience. The savages of North America govern themselves in this way even now, and their government is admirable.` (1750s). `When among the happiest people in the world, bands of peasants are seen regulating affairs of State under an oak, and always acting wisely, can we help scorning the ingenious methods of other nations, which make themselves illustrious and wretched with so much art and mystery`.

Rousseau concludes that `There has been at all times much dispute concerning the best form of government, without consideration of the fact that each is in some cases the best, and in others the worst`. He adds, `it follows that, generally, democratic government suits small States, aristocratic government those of middle size, and monarchy great ones. But it is impossible to count the innumerable circumstances which may furnish exceptions`.

We see that today, some 250 years after Rousseau, that the problems of governance and coexistence persist. Judging by the evidence of settlement left in the archaeological record, human civilisation has existed for some 10,000 years. Not long when considered within the history of our species as a whole. The Social Contract is merely experiencing teething problems.
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VINE VOICEon 21 October 2009
I actually fell in to a slight, but common, trap when thinking about buying this book (as the Introduction explains). Rousseau's brilliant first line "Man is born free, and everywhere he is chains" immediately suggests that mankind must throw of the shackles of oppression, in order to be free from the powerful few, who wish to control the many by depriving them of their liberty. With this in mind, I thought that this book might be similar in message to the great works on Liberty by, for instance, John Stuart Mill or Thomas Paine. In fact it says the opposite - I even believe it goes farther than Machiavelli argues in The Prince in the need to be a strong but not necessarily free society (at least as far as Personal Freedoms are concerned). This is a book about how Rousseau thought different societies ought to be run, and not about liberating man from all repression.

The central idea is that each citizen should give over to the State whatever the State requires, and in return he would become part of a moral entity, whose General Will - composed of all its citizens' individual consciences - is always to act in the interests of the State, therefore ultimately benefiting its citizens. In such a way, the citizen becomes part Sovereign of the State. This is the Social Contract. There is nothing particularly illiberal about all this, except that Rousseau places the interests of the State infinitely higher than that of Personal Freedom; condoning the use of whatever measures necessary to ensure that the General Will is enacted, by means of authoritarianism if necessary.

There are some excellent passages about political involvement, equality of rights and the fact that the State should always work in the interests of its citizens, but there are also some darker undertones about how all this is to be accomplished and the necessary relinquishment of individual liberties in favour of the State, which has historically made the book well-read by Totalitarians as well as by casual readers.

All this considered, it is still a very fine work and well worth the effort.
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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 31 August 2017
There is supposedly something really deep and meaningful in this book that explains why certain aspects of civilization are the way they are.
I just cannot get into it though because it's dull... Beef up the first page with zombies or something, that's my advice.
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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 23 October 2017
A standard text with little which is now new or acceptable.
N.B. I have not purchased the book by Mills!
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