A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, commonly known as The Social Contract, is a product of Rousseau’s retreat from Paris. This examination of government appeared in 1762, the same year as Émile, his treatise on education. In The Confessions, Rousseau emphasizes the awkwardness that he felt in society. He was a deeply solitary man who found social life distracting and distasteful. Yet when he reflected on society, Rousseau created a work that provided posterity with the vocabulary, with the terms and assumptions that would be employed, consciously or unconsciously, to address social issues for the next two centuries and beyond.
“Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Thus Rousseau opens his treatise on human government, establishing his unique point of view. He continues: “Those who believe themselves the masters of others cease not to be even greater slaves than the people they govern.” Rousseau is himself a master at noting the contradictions underlying all generally accepted values. Perhaps that is one explanation for the enormous influence of the work.
The Social Contract is a major source, for example, of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Almost all modern states claim to be “people’s states.” Public deliberation, mass demonstrations, voting, plebiscites, all rituals for arousing a popular will are as necessary to authoritarian states as to liberal ones. It is generally accepted that The Social Contract exposes a doctrine that is valid. The only argument concerns its interpretation.
Rousseau, whose master in political philosophy was Plato, knew that the problems of contemporary democracy arise from the fact that the ideals of that form of government were developed in the intimate community of the Greek city-state and are inapplicable to the needs of the centralized and technological nation-state. Yet, as a moralist, Rousseau is mainly concerned with the principles of political rightness. His analysis was complicated by a nostalgic idealization of ancient city-states and his own native city of Geneva. Rousseau’s ambition in The Social Contract is to establish a political jurisdiction. He does not intend to describe law as it is but rather as it should be. In other words, his concern is to specify the conditions for a just society. Might does not make right, nor does the fact that a system exists mean that it exists for good. Rousseau speaks as a philosopher rather than a historian.
The central problem of the social contract is to determine the type of social organization that will ensure security to each individual. Security is, in fact, the necessary condition for happiness in society. The desire for security is the motive for the evolution from the state of nature to civilization. Yet security must be made compatible with freedom, for the sacrifice of freedom is the sacrifice of the essence of humanity. In Rousseau’s theory, the recurring problems of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and of John Locke are reconsidered. Security and liberty are the two criteria according to which the State is organized.
Rousseau rejects any authority based on natural advantages or the rights of force. The only legitimate basis for authority is a contract or covenant between the parties...
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