"Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains"
These are the famous opening words of a treatise that has not ceased to stir vigorous debate since its first publication in 1762. Rejecting the view that anyone has a natural right to wield authority over others, Rousseau argues instead for a pact, or 'social contract', that should exist between all the citizens of a state and that should be the source of sovereign power. From this fundamental premise, he goes on to consider issues of liberty and law, freedom and justice, arriving at a view of society that has seemed to some a blueprint for totalitarianism, to others a declaration of democratic principles.
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The Social Contract
By Jean-Jacques Rousseau
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IntroductionRousseau's Political Triptych SUSAN DUNN
Is there any deed more shocking, more hateful, more infamous than the willful burning of a library? Is there any blow more devastating to the core of human civilization? In the mid-eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau startled - and excited - his readers by praising Caliph Omar, who in the year 650 ordered the incineration of the glorious library in Alexandria.
In his first important work, The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750), also known as the First Discourse, Rousseau held that the search for knowledge was so socially and morally destructive that book burning and the subsequent return to ignorance, innocence, and poverty would be a step forward rather than a step backward in the history of civilization. He was convinced that only cultural and material regression could accompany the movement of society toward morality. The entire rational enterprise of the Enlightenment found itself unexpectedly under fierce and principled attack.
When Rousseau burst upon the intellectual scene, the philosophers and writers of eighteenth-century France had for decades been passionately engaged in an audacious, innovative project: the questioning and dismantling of all the traditional underpinnings of their society. Their daring charge entailed exposing to the light of reason all preconceived ideas, supernatural dogmas and superstitious beliefs, all political and social assumptions. Intellectuals were challenging the theological foundation of monarchy, the privileges of the aristocracy, the doctrines of Catholicism. Having wiped their intellectual slate as clean as they could, men of letters in France embarked upon the bold plan of using human reason to address people's needs: how they should live, govern themselves, organize society, and conceive morality. Their goal was a rational society dedicated to equality, freedom, and happiness. Life had become an intellectual adventure, and people were optimistic that they could shape their own destinies.
Rousseau had once participated in this luminous and probing culture. He too had wanted to embrace all knowledge; he too had known the joy of intellectual curiosity, the bliss of creativity. Mingling and collaborating with artists, musicians, philosophers, and writers - the great philosophe Voltaire, the composer Rameau, the versatile man of letters Diderot, the witty playwright Marivaux, the philosophe Fontenelle - he had reveled in the aristocratic world of brilliant salons, where luxury, elegance, and genius combined to make life a joy for the mind and the senses.
But his fascination with the sophisticated world of the Enlightenment was also colored by bitterness and resentment, the result of his humiliating experience in 1743 working as the secretary for the French Ambassador in Venice; by his disappointments in life, especially his dismay in 1745 at not having received more recognition for his part in a musical collaboration with Voltaire and Rameau; and by his own deep insecurities and demons, his paranoid feeling that he was the target of various cabals conspiring to undermine and discredit him. Suddenly his eyes bore into the heart of this dazzling culture. He judged. He condemned. Behind the splendid facade, he concluded, lay a world that was superficial, corrupt, and cruel.
Astonishingly, Rousseau turned against the entire Enlightenment project. He branded the daring intellectual, scientific, and artistic culture of eighteenth-century France a lie, a vast devolution, a symptom of alarming moral decline. Nothing more than a fake veneer, the century's worldly accomplishments were all the more perfidious because they masked so effectively the deep corruption of a decadent, unequal society. The quest for knowledge and intellectual advancement was a superficial luxury that, instead of serving society, reinforced its self-indulgence and decay. "We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters," he remarked, adding tellingly that "we no longer have citizens."
People, Rousseau was convinced, had been deceived, seduced, and corrupted by the radiance of the Enlightenment. And what was worse, they cherished their corruption, for it seemed to mark the summit of progress and civilization. Everywhere Rousseau saw educated individuals who resembled "happy slaves," preferring the glitter of high culture to true freedom and happiness. The search for knowledge had merely taken on a life of its own, divorced from the real needs of society and citizens.
Skepticism and vain inquiry attracted people more than a search for a meaningful life. People believed that they knew everything, Rousseau remarked, but they did not know the meaning of the words magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, courage, fatherland, and God. Overwhelmed by pretension, affectation, and deceit, the values that create robust citizens and a healthy society - self-sacrifice, sincere friendships, love of country - had disappeared.
The principles of science and philosophy and the decadent values implicit in the arts on the one hand and the requirements of a healthy society on the other, Rousseau insisted, are irremediably at odds with one another. Whereas science searches for the truth by fostering doubt and undermining faith and virtue, a vigorous, patriotic society, Rousseau contended, requires assent to the principles of its foundation.
What then is the mission of the intellectual in society? The proper, socially useful role of philosophers and men of letters, according to Rousseau, was not to spread mistrust, not to make piecemeal proposals for incremental reform, not to seek fame and glory for themselves through their intellectual acrobatics, but rather to offer, as he himself would, a radical prescription for the complete social and political overhaul of the nation and for the moral regeneration of its citizens.
In his mind's eye, he saw, in the place of a decadent culture that valued superficial luxury, prosperity, and free though vain inquiry, a muscular, Spartan society that imposed rules and discipline and asked its citizens for sacrifice. In such a polity, virtuous citizens would have no need for futile intellectual pursuits. Indeed, Spartan virtue itself is anti-intellectual. Derived from the Latin word for "man," vir, virtue implied not just moral goodness, but rather strength, courage, and, above all, self-sacrifice and self-discipline.
Even so, Rousseau was not suggesting that French men and women rush out and torch the libraries of France - or copies of his own book. On the contrary, in an already unhealthy, decadent society, science and philosophy might, to some extent, be useful. Certain great individuals - such as Bacon, Descartes, Newton - might serve as guides for humanity, and a few others might be permitted to follow in their footsteps and even outdistance them. In an already corrupt society, the arts and sciences, harmful for "average" people, could, in the hands of a few people of genius, perhaps bring some true enlightenment to all.
The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts won first prize in the Dijon Academy's intellectual competition, a contest that had asked writers and philosophers to respond to the question, "Has the revival of sciences and arts contributed to improving morality?" With Rousseau's friend Diderot having arranged for the essay's publication, the Discourse took Paris by storm, becoming a best-seller. Were people merely captivated by Rousseau's contrarian viewpoint and fascinated by harsh criticism of their radiant and celebrated culture? Or were they intrigued by his surprising, anachronistic resurrection of Spartan concepts of virtue, self-sacrifice, and duty?
Already in the seventeenth century, the shrewd aristocratic writer of maxims, the duke de La Rochefoucauld, had criticized the high culture of France, noting that "luxury and excessive politesse in states are a sure sign of increasing decadence, because as all individuals become attached to their private interests, they turn away from the public good." And in 1748, the great political philosopher Montesquieu had also condemned the "manufactures, commerce, finances, wealth, and luxury" of the modern world for displacing civic and political virtue. But Rousseau's attack on modernity was far more consistent and ambitious - and more psychologically acute - than that of the other philosophes, and it is he alone who can be credited with composing the jolting introduction to one of the most original, provocative, and far-reaching challenges to Western society ever undertaken.
The first seeds of a powerful, world-historical Revolution had been planted. The "paradoxes" of the First Discourse exploded "like a bombshell," wrote the English economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. "Rousseau produced more effect with his pen," Lord Acton said, "than Aristotle, or Cicero, or St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or any other man who ever lived." Of all the great philosophes of the French Enlightenment - Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire - it was Rousseau who would have the most profound and enduring impact on history, not only on the Revolution in France but on almost all modern, democratic movements for political liberation. He was the most radical political theorist of his times, the most utopian. But it was also Rousseau who unwittingly set the stage for the totalitarian states of the twentieth century, for "one-party democracy," and for communitarianism gone haywire.
How can this paradox be explained?
ROUSSEAU'S DISCOURSE ON INEQUALITY
Three years after composing his First Discourse, Rousseau leaped at the chance to add a further dimension to his political philosophy. The Dijon Academy was proposing another intellectual competition. This time the subject concerned the origins of inequality. Rousseau's entry, his Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind (1753), also known as the Second Discourse, occupies a pivotal place in his thought. On the one hand, it looks back to the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, giving a historical and theoretical explanation for the decadence and corruption he diagnosed in eighteenth-century French society. On the other hand, it looks forward to his next great work, The Social Contract, by suggesting the necessity of finding an alternate, healthier path along which society and citizens can evolve.
Why had inequality become so rooted in society, Rousseau asked himself. How had such a wide variety of people, poor as well as rich, come to accept or profit from outrageous social and economic disparities? How did we arrive at our present condition?
In order to fathom the different causes of inequality and analyze the successive stages in its development, Rousseau decided to play the role of theoretical anthropologist, hypothesizing about the lives that people might have led in the "state of nature," before social relations and organized society molded and corrupted human behavior. Rousseau admitted that the "state of nature" he imagined might never have existed. Still, such theoretical conjecturing was necessary, he insisted, to "judge properly of our present state."
Rousseau tried to let his imagination go back in time as far as he could to envision human beings stripped of even the most primitive social relations, stripped even of language itself. In an act of impressive intellectual originality, he pared off all accretions, all the wants, needs, habits, skills, beliefs, emotions, and values that one develops in society, revealing the "bare bones" of the human being.
A century earlier, the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes had also hypothesized about the "state of nature." In one of the most famous sentences of his classic text Leviathan (1651), Hobbes had maintained that human life in the state of nature was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Though people were free and equal, they were engaged in perpetual warfare with one another.
Now it was Rousseau's turn to sketch a portrait of life in the state of nature, and he would present a very different picture of primitive human beings. He envisioned the state of nature as a kind of dormancy period. People were free and equal, he theorized, but they lived mostly solitary lives, feeling little need for others. Though they had sexual relations with one another, they formed no lasting bonds. There existed among them neither cooperation nor conflict.
They lived entirely in the present, experiencing only spontaneous drives. Still, they felt a harmony with the world because their desires never exceeded their needs and because they were able to satisfy both needs and desires immediately. They were independent and devoid of aggression toward one another. Were they happy? Perhaps. But their moral and rational faculties remained largely asleep. Though they did have an "instinct" for pity for the suffering of others along with a "survival instinct" of their own, they were for the most part untouched by morality. Neither love nor friendship nor family nor thought nor speech impinged upon their primitive solitude. These early humans were all potential and virtuality.
The notion of a state of nature was a useful fiction. It furnished Rousseau with theoretical "evidence" for claiming a radical dichotomy between our present demeaning condition and the Eden we left behind. Here was an original standard against which all future human dislocation could be measured.
This vision of the state of nature, moreover, provided Rousseau with a basis for his belief in human "perfectibility." Now he could argue that if modern individuals appeared corrupt, unequal, and enslaved, it is society - not human nature - that is to blame. Thus a remedy to the situation might be found. Because of people's vast rational and ethical potential, it was possible and reasonable to propose an alternate route for their social, political, and moral development. This was the challenge Rousseau accepted: he was convinced that it was his mission to chart that course, not backward to the state of nature, but forward toward a more rational, social, and moral Eden.
Given our equality and freedom in the state of nature, why did inequality come to define the human condition in most societies? How would Rousseau explain entire civilizations under the spell of servitude and the yoke of despotism?
Very early in human history, according to Rousseau's hypothetical scenario, people began to work and collaborate occasionally with one another.
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Table of ContentsThe Social Contract Translator's acknowledgments
On Thursday, July 15th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Jim Brickman to discuss DESTINY.
Moderator: Welcome, Jim Brickman! You have the distinction of being the first musician in our Auditorium since we launched our music site. What an honor for us, and we're thrilled to be discussing your album, DESTINY. How are you this evening?
Jim Brickman: I am great.
Amy from Mustang, OK: Hello, Jim. I was wondering when you started writing piano music. I am 12 and writing music myself (though it's not very good). I have been playing the piano for a little over six years. I think that you are a really talented pianist, and you're definitely my favorite composer.
Jim Brickman: Thank you very much. I am thrilled to hear from people who play the piano. I started when I was 4 years old, and, frankly, I wasn't very good at your age either. I didn't start writing music until I was 16, and I wasn't sure I knew what I was doing. I just played from my heart and soul. I think it is very important to follow your heart and not to feel like you need to be further along than you really are. Just take it as it comes and let it flow.
Bryan McPherson from Clearwater, FL: Why did your style of music change from the successful format of the first two CDs? Your style with the first was inspirational and soothing, without the vocals. What made you want to add voices to your CDs? How long have you been playing piano? Will you be coming to Tampa, Florida, in the near future, as I unfortunately had a family emergency and was unable to attend your concert when you were in the area the last time.
Jim Brickman: I feel that my style has grown through the albums. At the core it will always be solo piano, but I feel that it is important to keep stretching and growing. I need to keep learning with my audience. I have always been a songwriter, so I love writing words and music. I felt that the combo of solo piano with added vocals gave a little something for everyone. I believe I am coming to Tampa in November at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Check the web site -- www.jimbrickman.com.
Moderator: You were classically trained at the Cleveland Institute of Music. How did that training affect your work as a pop composer and performer?
Jim Brickman: The best thing about being trained classically is the foundation and discipline it gives you. I try to think of my education as being sort of a platform to go on and do the thing that is really in your heart.
Jan from Detroit: What effect do you think the Internet will have on the music industry? Are you a fan of MP3?
Jim Brickman: I think that it has a huge impact on the way music is sold and heard. I am a fan of MP3 because I believe that it reaches people who might not ordinarily find me.
Bob D. from Phoenix, AZ: How do you feel about having the "new age" label applied to your music?
Jim Brickman: I don't really mind labels of any kind because people make their own determination of what they like and what they don't. I don't think someone would not buy my record just because it is called "new age." I don't care what they call it -- as long as they buy it!
Malinda from Chicago: Was there a particular inspiration for your new album, DESTINY? Do you have a favorite song on it?
Jim Brickman: The inspiration for DESTINY really came from my own personal experience of ending up doing this for my career. I didn't have any idea that this would be happening to me. I always loved music and enjoyed playing the piano, but I never sought any fame or celebrity attached with that. For me, I really feel we are all meant to do certain things, and the choices that we make lead us to our destination.
Bonnie from Nashua, NH: Your music is so emotional. Do you use music as an outlet for when you're upset or joyful? When are you most creative?
Jim Brickman: Music is definitely an outlet for my emotions. Sometimes it is easier for me to speak through music than to verbalize my thoughts. I don't tend to write music when I am happy. I would say that the emotional moments in life bring out my music focus.
Kathy from Pennsylvania: Will you be doing a CD any time soon with you singing all the lyrics? You have a great voice, and we'd like to hear it more often!
Jim Brickman: When did you hear me sing? I don't plan on doing an all-vocal album any time soon. I feel most comfortable singing live in concert, and as I do it more and more I get more comfortable with it. Possibly one or two songs but never a Jim Brickman CD, all vocal.
Joan from New York: Hi, Jim! Of all the albums that you have produced, which one is your favorite?
Jim Brickman: It is so hard to say because they are all sort of reflections of different times in my life. But I would have to say that BY HEART is closest to my heart.
Moderator: What inspires you? Is it a person, an event, a song lyric?
Jim Brickman: I am inspired by human relationships more than anything. I don't tend to write about places or inanimate objects unless something has happen there with me and someone else or friends. I tend to write about love, friendship, and emotional connections.
Amanda from Takoma Park, MD: Do you have children? If so, do you hope they grow up to be musicians?
Jim Brickman: I don't have any children yet, but it is something I look very much forward to. One of the things that I have learned from my parents is that you have to let people be who they are, so I guess if that is what they want to do, then that is what they are going to be.
Neil R. from Seattle, WA: Since you are such a great pianist, I was wondering what other pianists you admire a lot.
Jim Brickman: I am a big fan of a composer named Erik Satie as well as some of the old George Gershwin musicians. I am not that inspired by contemporary pianists. I feel that in order to be unique you have to have your own voice.
Audra Ann from Boston: Jim, I love how romantic your music is.... Is there anyone in particular you are writing such romantic music for?
Jim Brickman: Well of course!
Danny from Lincolnshire: How long did it take you to become as good as you are?
Jim Brickman: That is an interesting question. I think it is something that evolves. You can't control it. You have to work hard and take it seriously and believe that you have something to say with your music. All of those things together make the music successful.
Lynne D. from Atlanta, GA: You've worked with a lot of great musicians like Carly Simon, Martina McBride, and Herb Alpert. What other artists do you want to work with?
Jim Brickman: I like to work with a very diverse group of people. It helps me to keep learning and exposes my audience to some unique combinations. On my list it could be anyone from Bruce Springsteen to Pavarotti.
Kate from Sarasota: What are some of your favorite books? Are you an avid reader?
Jim Brickman: I am an avid reader, and lately I have been reading the Julia Cameron book THE ARTIST'S WAY, as well as her follow-up to that, THE RIGHT TO WRITE.
Lisa S. from Pensacola, FL: Do you enjoy giving concerts? I really love your music. Please keep writing and playing more.
Jim Brickman: I love performing in concert. It is my favorite thing to do. There is nothing like a live audience to inspire a performer.
Suzanne from Toronto, Ontario: Michelle Wright is so great singing "Your Love." How did you find her, and are you going to write more songs for her?
Jim Brickman: I agree with you. She is one of my favorite singers. We are actually part of the same record company, which is how I met her, and we are working on a brand-new album together, and I will be one of the producers.
Moderator: What comes after DESTINY? What can your many fans expect next?
Jim Brickman: Good question! I would imagine that the very next thing would be a live concert album. Either that or an album of lullabies.
Ginny from Camden, ME: Hi, Jim. Who is your favorite artist? Who would you say influenced you the most?
Jim Brickman: I was influenced by many people but most by Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, et cetera.
Bryan Underwood from Wytheville, VA: Good evening, Jim! I have been a fan of yours for quite a few years, having collected all of your solo projects and every compilation you have appeared. Plus, I have attended many of your concerts. I have been known to make a six-hour drive to hear you. In other words, I am a devoted fan! Now for my question. What advice could you give someone such as me who is looking to have his own original piano compositions/recordings heard by more than his adoring friends and family? I already do some studio work but would like to put more effort into my composition and performing solo. Any advice you could give would be greatly appreciated. You are the best!
Jim Brickman: First of all, thank you for your support of my music, Bryan, and continued luck with your music as well. I feel that it is very important to put yourself in an environment where the music business surrounds you, for example, Nashville, Los Angeles, New York City -- places where you will find people to learn from, grow from, and experiment with -- and to always have colleagues around. In every business you need to have colleagues, and it is very hard to do that unless you live in one of these places. I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and if I hadn't ventured to L.A., there is no way I would be where I am today. It also takes an incredible amount of dedication, and you have to want it more than anything else in the world.
Rhonda from Berkeley, CA: I have all your records and listen to them all the time. (I like PICTURE THIS best!) Do you listen to your own records? Do you have a favorite?
Jim Brickman: I hardly ever listen to my records. In many ways it is a reflection of a period of time in my life, and I like to keep looking forward. Sometimes in a weak moment I will go back to listen to something, and it is such a strange experience because it reminds me of that time in my life and it is so strange. That is the power of music.
Claire from Portland, ME: Jim: What would you consider your signature song?
Jim Brickman: Hi, Claire! I have to say it is an instrumental song called "Angel Eyes" (BY HEART) and as a vocal song, without a doubt "Valentine" (PICTURE THIS).
Moderator: Thank you, Jim Brickman, for joining us tonight. Do you have any final words for our audience?
Jim Brickman: I really appreciate all the kind words, and I look forward to seeing you at a concert sometime soon. Thanks again.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I had to read this particular book along with a few others that concerned the social contract theory including "Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes, and work by people such as John Locke and the like. Being a philosophy major, I am constantly reading works that take all of one's will power to follow. Whether the ideas in the books aren't all that straight foward, or the writer just wasn't an interesting writer (most philosophers aren't. We're usually philosophers first and writers second or third). However, when I sat down to read this text, which is small and not daunting in the slightest, I was pleased to find that this book was a very easy read. Not only was it easy to read, it was easy to follow, and the ideas were set in clear and concise order. "The Social Contract" by Rousseau explains the social contract theory in a way different from Hobbes, who said that before government the world was in an anarchy with people doing what they wanted when they wanted. For Hobbes, the social contract saved us. However, Rousseau takes another route. He says that human beings were at peace before the social contract, and that the contract made us slaves. Through it we made the laws, or chains, that bind us, hence the saying: Laws are the chains the bind us. All in all, whether you're an aspiring philosopher, or you're simply into politics, I would reccomend that you read this book.
The Social Contract was another surprising book. Rousseau advocates a society based on the "General Will" of the people. The "general will" is actually the sovereign in a society--not a king. Each person has a social pact with others in their society. The pact is to submit to the "general will." The general will should always reign supreme--for the good of the people--and is indestructible. So, individualism is definitely out. The people do not have a social contract with their government, only with one another. The government just expresses the general will of the people. He doesn't like representative governments. So how do you find out the general will? You meet in assemblies. Christianity is against his social pact because Christians would love God more than their society. He thought there should be more public service and less private (personal) business. It was interesting to read this in view of the French Revolution, and possibly the influence this had on future revolutions. Population should be spread equally, there should not be any really wealthy or really poor people....luxury is out as it is not compatible with the general will. You need to control equality with legislation. Monarchy was blasted in this book.
The Social Contract is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's seminal work. He takes on the question of the state, government, and man's desire to be free under these conditions. Although Rousseau speaks quite too favorably of Rome and Sparta when justifying his main points, he nevertheless provides a provocative case for the use of the State, it's laws, and it's authority. However his flaws lie in his assurance of top-down government, and lack of faith in true democracy. He accuses direct democracy as incredibly paralyzing, and inefficient, which is true when applied in the context of mercantile, pre-modern conditions. ¿You forget that the fruits belong to all and that the land belongs to no one.¿
Should be required in all High Schools.
I read this book my junior year in high school, and it astonished me. I found myself having to read over paragraphs multiple times to merely understand the intense concept of his writing. A must read for anyone with an interest philosophy.
Should be required reading in our schools... could lead to informed citizens who think for themselves.