Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is perhaps best known for A Treatise on the Social Contract, one of the great classics in political philosophy. Rousseau was concerned with the relationship between the state and the individual. He recognized that the state has tremendous power over individuals, that it can command them, coerce them, and determine the sort of life they are to live, and also that individuals make many demands on society, even if they do not have the power to back them up. However, he insisted, the relations between the state and the individual cannot be simply those of naked power, threats, coercion, arbitrary decrees, and fearful or cunning submission, for people do speak of justified authority, the legitimate exercise of force, the rights of citizens, and the duties of rulers. The big question, then, is this: What is the source of the rights and responsibilities of both the citizen and the ruler?

In A Treatise on the Social Contract, Rousseau repudiates those who argue that the stronger have the right to rule the weaker, insisting that strength as such amounts to coercion. If a robber brandishing a pistol stops me and demands my purse, I am forced to hand it over, but his strength does not justify his act and my weakness does not make my reluctance blameworthy. Nor does this right of society over the individual flow from nature. True, the simplest social group, the family, does rest upon the natural requirement that the parents...

(The entire section is 418 words.)