Jean-Jacques Rousseau - The Social Contract

Background

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a French philosopher and writer who lead a life rich in contradiction. He lived in an unhealthy garret, but taught hygiene. He wrote about nature, but lived in crowded Paris. He promoted virtues that he obviously lacked.

When he came to Paris he became increasingly aware that ordering society was unjust. The rules were made by the rich to suit their own interests not those of the common people.

In The Social Contract (1762) Rousseau argues that laws are binding only when they are supported by the general will of the people.

His famous idea, 'man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains' challenged the traditional order of society. Where previous philosophers had spoken of elites, Rousseau became the champion of the common person. His perfect world was one in which the will of the people was most important.

His arguments broke down for two reasons:

  • People are born into society, not freedom
  • The general will is a vague, romantic idea that can be adopted as readily by dictators as by democrats

Taken from: The Social Contract
Author / Creator: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (translated by H J Tozer)
Publisher: Swan Sonnenschein & Co
Date: 1895
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board
Shelfmark: 08276.ee.7