Great Ideas Collection: Jean Jacques Rousseau

In the ninth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was actively writing at the height of the French Enlightenment; a cultural movement of intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries, which aimed to reform society by challenging ideas grounded in tradition and faith. The Social Contract was met with outrage and censorship when it was published in 1762 ­– so much so that Rousseau was a wanted man in France and his home of Geneva. Eleven years after his death however, the same book was considered to be one of the foremost influences on the intellectual development of the French Revolution.

The principal aim in writing The Social Contract was to ascertain if man could have freedom in a civil society. By entering into society we agree to a social contract and place restraints on our behaviour, and thereby create a community. Rousseau speculates about the different forms of government a country can have in order to find the best way to oversee a community.

His writing style is straightforward, colloquial and he talks directly to his reader. He is humorous and witty in parts, and you can tell his passion for politics. The Social Contract is easier to read than some of the other books in Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, but it can be a difficult subject to understand considering how different today’s politics are in contrast to the time in which Rousseau was writing. For example, did you know that dictators in history were only dictators for the duration of their term as head of government? Not like today, where they have the ability to take complete power and control until they die or are overcome by an uprising.

Rousseau states early on, “The social order is a sacred right which serves as a basis for all other rights. And it is not a natural right, it must be one founded on covenants. The problem is to determine what those covenants are.” He says “the oldest of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of family” – an instantaneous community with the father in the head role, with all contributing to the well-being and stability of the family as a whole. This has evolved over time as families enter into a wider community with fellow countrymen.

Laws needed to be created to ensure this wider community was maintained. Governments were formed in order to create these laws, and it is the various forms these take that Rousseau is interested in.

There are numerous combinations of governments with a head of state, the people, and a middle man between the head and the people, as well as dictatorship, sovereignty, aristocracy and an assembly of countrymen with no specific leader. Rousseau discusses each form and finds that they all have their downfalls, especially in regards to how laws are made: “Obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom”, but obedience to a law one did not agree with is submission, or an oppression of one’s will. Laws are for the general will, to create equality between fellow countrymen, but equality for all is impossible. Rousseau exclaims that Plato refused “to provide laws for the Arcadians and Cyreneans, because he well knew that those peoples, being rich, would not tolerate equality.”

There are other conditions, as well as equality, which influences the state – meaning choosing a government that allows people to enter into a civil society and still retain their personal will is nigh on impossible. However Rousseau, taking everything into consideration, suggests the best government for each type of country is a monarchy, “suited only to opulent nations, aristocracy to those of moderate wealth and size, and democracy to small and poor countries.”


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