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A social contract is a tricky thing
Reviewed in the United States on June 7, 2013
"Social contract" is a term that is thrown about pretty widely in our society. People will talk in a casual if sometimes facile manner about the idea that people willingly give up the theoretically total freedom of a state of nature in exchange for the benefits that life in a civilized society provides. But what Jean-Jacques Rousseau means by the term, as expressed in his classic work "The Social Contract" (1762), is much more complex and much more nuanced.
"Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains" -- it is on this seemingly paradoxical note that Rousseau begins "The Social Contract." Indeed, there is a contrarian strain to Rousseau's work that is at once infuriating and refreshing. One gets the sense that Rousseau enjoyed the philosophical challenge of taking on the counterintuitive side of an argument, of expressing whatever might go against the received wisdom of his time. At the same time, however, one always has a strong sense that the man from Geneva believes deeply in what he says.
Rousseau takes great care in differentiating between the executive and legislative functions of government, just as carefully as he distinguishes between "the sovereign" and "the government." Perhaps because I was traveling in Lucerne while reading "The Social Contract," I took particular interest in Rousseau's assertion that small countries were best suited for republican government, as when he writes that democratic government is best suited to "a very small state, where the people may be readily assembled and where each citizen may easily know all the others" (p. 113). Looking at the beautiful little cities of Switzerland, each one sheltered by a cool clear lake at its front and a wall of mountains at its back, I could understand why Rousseau may have thought that such a setting was perfect for successful republican government. It seems worthy of mentioning, in that connection, that Geneva is still officially "the *Republic and* Canton of Geneva" (emphasis mine). Truly, the Swiss take their independence seriously. Think about *that* the next time you're in the old section of Zurich, enjoying some cheese fondue and a glass of Chasselas.
How, I found myself wondering, would Rousseau have felt about the United States as an experiment in building a large republic? When Rousseau wrote "The Social Contract" in 1762, the French & Indian War was not yet over, and the idea of American independence from Great Britain was not even on the horizon. By the time Rousseau died in 1778, the Continental Army had won the battle of Saratoga, and American independence was starting to seem like more of a real possibility. Did Rousseau ever talk about any of that? I don't know.
There were plenty of times when I found myself disagreeing with Rousseau. Among the city-states of classical Greece, he prefers Sparta to Athens, and I could not disagree with him more in that regard. I also thought that he treated the topic of dictatorship much too lightly and casually, as when he assures us that "a dictator could in certain cases defend the public freedom without ever being able to invade it" (p. 172); if he had lived through the 20th century, and had been writing "The Social Contract" in, say, 1962 rather than 1762, perhaps he would written about dictatorship quite differently. But I think Rousseau would have liked having readers disagree with him; for him, that was no doubt an integral part of the dialogue regarding the relationship between the individual and society.
This Penguin edition of "The Social Contract" is a good way for a first-time reader of Rousseau to get to know the philosopher and his work. The preface by British scholar and translator Maurice Cranston does an excellent job of situating "The Social Contract" in its social and historical context, and in terms of the biographical facts of Rousseau's life. Rousseau's reflections on government, on society, on sovereignty (be ready to hear a lot about the "general will"), are always thought-provoking. Read "The Social Contract"; and when you are done reading it, reflect on how you as an individual relate to the society in which you live. How do you feel regarding the terms of the contract that Jean-Jacques Rousseau says you have signed?