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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars

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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 24 May 2017
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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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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 28 January 2007
This book is a work of genius for the whole, exquisitely written it offers wisdom on most pages and nonsense on the others. It's been a very long time since I learnt such a large amount, the language has a poetic beauty to it and anybody interested in governance should read this. The thesis of the book is well known (as it indeed should be) but there are some startling facts about the author. Rousseau was serial child abandoner; he seems to have left five children in foundling hospitals and when attacked by his critic, a certain Voltaire, his defence was that the he would have been a poor father and his children would fair better in a foundling hospital. A slightly implausible fact given the high mortality rate at the founding hospital. Still, we judge him for his ideas, not his actions so this book receives a resounding five stars.
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on 4 June 2016
Did not realise the book was so small, not the full social contract, disappointed
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on 29 August 2013
Not much I can say that couldn't be read in the other comments. Personally I think Rousseau has a balanced theory of society, compared to other books I've read, such as Hobbes or Machiavelli.
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