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Rousseau, The Social Contract

1762

Rousseau, The Social Contract

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  • Intro

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva in 1712, was one of the 18th century's most important political thinkers. His work focused on the relationship between human society and the individual, and contributed to the ideas that would lead eventually to the French Revolution.

     

    His early work argued that the development of civilisation had actually led to a decrease in happiness, and that humans should live instead in a state that was as close to nature as possible. The Social Contract, with its famous opening sentence 'Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains', stated instead that people could only experience true freedom if they lived in a civil society that ensured the rights and wellbeing of its citizens. Being part of such a society involved submitting to the general will - a force that transcended individuals and aimed to uphold the common good.

     

    Rousseau's theories of sovereignty and law had a direct influence on French revolutionaries such as Robespierre, and were blamed for some of the worst excesses of the Terror in France. Nevertheless, The Social Contract  has also been seen as one of the defining texts of modern political philosophy, emphasising the need for individuals to play a responsible part in civil society if they want their liberty to be assured.

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