Rousseau’s Social Contract Review: Books 1&2

Independent Study/23 September 2017


Book one begins with Rousseau’s famous quote, “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.”  He then states how he will attempt to answer this question: whether or not there can be legitimate political authority in a society. He begins his exploration by showing that the only example of natural authority in nature is a father to a child. Rousseau insults Hobbes and Grotius for their assertion of putting ruler and subject in the same category as father and child. Political authority has no basis in nature. He comes to the conclusion that legitimate political authority rests on a “social contract” between members of a society. He then explores the idea of whether anyone has the right to enslave or kill their enemy after defeating them in battle. He determines the answer is no because men are not naturally one another’s enemies (man is naturally good). Therefore, no conflict in men should result in anyone having a supreme right over another man.

Then, Rousseau talks about slavery. He says that if we have our freedom taken away from us, our humanity and morality is also taken. Our actions can only be moral if they are done freely. Rousseau condemns slavery. In a society he says, there will come a time when people need to work together and combine sources in order to survive. They must find a way to do this while preserving their individual freedom. Rousseau concludes that men must surrender themselves unconditionally to the community as a whole and submit themselves to what he calls “the general will,” which he later defines as “the sum total of wills among the members of the social contract.” He then draws three implications from this: everyone will want to make the terms of the social contract easiest for all, the individual can have no rights that stand in opposition to the state, and people don’t lose their natural freedom when entering into the social contract. He then clarifies that the contract can hold no binding regulations on the sovereign. If not done voluntarily, subjects will be forced to submit to the general will or as Rousseau puts it, they will be “forced to be free.” The general will always tends toward the common good; however, the deliberations of the people do not always reflect the general will, thus distinguishing between the general will and the will of all.

Rousseau then spends a few pages talking about the sovereign and how he has the right to administer the death penalty. He talks about the difficulties of finding a good lawmaker who does not wish to rule. He concludes by explaining the burden of government and how it is the most important and difficult job but if handled correctly, can result in a truly well governed and good society

My Review:

I knew I wouldn’t agree with most of Rousseau’s ideas, however, there were a few that I found made logical and moral sense. I liked his view of slavery. He said to renounce one’s Liberty is to renounce his morality, humanity, rights and duties. One cannot make moral decisions unless they make them willfully. This is true; however, Rousseau contradicts himself later by saying that man must be “forced to be free.” While Rousseau can be interesting and fun to read, he starts with the wrong foundational principals. He believes that man is naturally good. Most of his arguments appear logical but rely on this huge assumption that man is good. A smart person with the wrong foundational principles can reason their way into just about anything, just as Rousseau does. I enjoyed this book because it is interesting and fun to read. However, I would not recommend it to others because I believe it has the potential to justify a lot of violence and evil deeds. Ideas have consequences and if taken to heart, Rousseau’s social contract could cause a level of terror not yet experienced by man.

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