Examine the potential for tyranny in Rousseau's construction of the social contract.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As with everything else in Rousseau, the answer is complex.  Certainly, Rousseau would suggest that his social contract is precisely designed to avoid tyranny and a despotic condition.  The ability for individuals to shed their amour de soi and embrace the more socially connective amour propre is where the social contract resides.  For Rousseau, the brutish expression of amour de soi, self- indulgent narcissism that comes at the cost of individual security, is where the submission to the social contract is essential. The general will that binds individuals is where Rousseau sees an escape from tyranny and despotism.

Rousseau did not necessarily conceive of how an individual would desire to subvert a political system for their own gain.  It is here where his theoretical underpinnings could be seen as a source where tyranny results.  A charismatic individual could convince the body politic that his or her presence to embody the social contract could be in the name of enhancing amour propre.  After they secure this guarantee, the individual could subvert it to enhance their own amour de soi and pass it off as amour propre.  Essentially, Rousseau did not see a charismatic individual, such as a Hitler or Stalin, assuming control under the social contract's pretenses.  It is here, in its ability to be manipulated without any institutional checks or balances, where despotism or tyranny could be envisioned under Rousseau's theory of the social contract.

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