Updated: Aug 24
Jean Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract has been considered a foundation for many political thinkers and political philosophy for decades. A pre-French revolution philosopher who spoke about the division of power, equality, liberty, and ending slavery.
There are parts of his thoughts that I vehemently oppose such as his views on women and will constrain myself to talk about specific quotes or outtakes from his literature that I feel are appropriate and relevant to current affairs and try to give a simplified or broken-down explanation of each statement.
"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."
This quote is very well renowned and is an establishment of a theme that Rousseau tries to bring about in his literature.
A majority of his work consists of him pointing out the various "chains" that hold back mankind from gaining liberty and freedom from the various oppressive forces. He takes various examples starting from the British Elections at the time and its independence, or lack thereof, from the Monarchy to the status of France at the time.
This quote also established the key idea he instilled in all his writings which is Man, by definition of the word, can only be born free.
"To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights [and duties] of humanity."
In a time where tyrannical Monarchy reigned supreme, Rousseau vehemently opposed the same. He strongly believed in individual rights and citizens and spoke in length about Liberty and the will of the people.
He considered the exercising of liberties and the freedoms that come along with them as much more than mere rights but as duties held by humanity. He believed Liberty in its core foundation was something innate to mankind. Thus, a man who renounced his liberty renounced being a man in the eyes of Rousseau.
"[Government is] an intermediate body set up between the subjects and the Sovereign, to secure their mutual correspondence."
Although he advocated monarchy, Rousseau spoke about a government structure vaguely similar to modern-day Britain.
He was one of the first thinkers to think of governance as much more than security but as a tool for correspondence between citizens and their monarchs. This was one of the first few references towards the establishment of ideas that we know today as “Welfare States”.
"The moment the people are legitimately assembled as a sovereign body, the jurisdiction of the government wholly lapses."
This is an idea that is pivotal across democracies of the world. The innate right of the citizens to guide the government in itself. The context with which this is written is such that if the people en masse gather/assemble, the government or any sovereign body that represents them becomes null and void.
Why? Because the represented have chosen to represent themselves, thus any assigned representative is no longer required. This can be further understood in the modern-day constitutions as the “Right to Protest” however Rousseau considered this an absolute.
"[When citizens] would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall."
This quotation can be understood in various ways. I would refrain from taking examples to explain this and it is rather self-explanatory in the sentence. I shall leave this here as some food for thought.
"Every man having been born free and master of himself, no one else may under any pretext whatever subject him without his consent. To assert that the son of a slave is born a slave is to assert that he is not born a man."
This one again brings about Rousseau’s stance on slavery. As a staunch believer in the “innateness” of liberty. The very idea of slavery is considered absurd. At various points, he makes several such logical statements that not only speak against slavery but point out the sheer absurdity of the concept of slavery itself.
Here is such an example
“The word ‘slavery’ and ‘right’ are contradictory, they cancel each other out. Whether as between one man and another, or between one man and a whole people, it would always be absurd to say: "I hereby make a covenant with you which is wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I will respect it so long as I please and you shall respect it as long as I wish."
Rousseau considered the idea of slavery to be near obsidian and more importantly i[NG5] llogical. To add another perspective, imagine a slave is owned by someone in 2020. This feeling of immorality and sheer disregard for Human Rights is what Rousseau tried to convey in his literature years ago.
"...in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”
This is one of the key statements that Rousseau makes in the Social Contract which strikes me as a modern-day socialist ideology. Apart from the simplicity of the statement itself, note that the usage of the word “Citizen” implies the involvement of the Government.
The context here being Rousseau believed the state shall not allow inequality to the degree as mention above. A simpler version of the statement I use to explain this idea in a more modern sense is:
“This rich should not be allowed to get richer while the poor get poorer.”
“As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State "What does it matter to me?" the State may be given up for lost.”
The minute I read this; I remembered a few moments from history as well as the millions of conversations online where this statement is used. Often.
There are many interpretations on how this could be understood but all leading to the idea that such a state will have its citizens value their citizenship lesser as time goes on because the state has become a third party to them and they see no concern in a matter that affects the state but not them (directly).
“In any case, frequent punishments are a sign of weakness or slackness in the government. There is no man so bad that he cannot be made good for something. No man should be put to death, even as an example, if he can be left to live without danger to society.”
I am just going to leave this here. Rather self-explanatory.
“Gods Would Be Needed to Give Men Laws"
Rousseau’s opinion on religion is fascinating, to say the least. He believed that the Lawgiver (his interpretation of Legislative) should not concern itself with the thought of whether or not God is real. To the state, he envisioned it did not matter for two specific reasons.
1. God was a choice for mankind. A man had the liberty to choose the god they wished to follow.
2. God was perfect for the absolute implementation of laws.
Law given by men with power was strong. Law “ordained by God” was absolute. The fear of God was the most useful tool in the hands of the Lawgiver.
Best explained by SparkNotes:
“Rousseau's idea of civil religion is essentially an attempt to return to the ancient idea of cementing good citizenship in faith. In Book II, Chapter 7, he suggests that lawgivers often invent supernatural origins for the laws for a similar reason: if people believe that the laws came from the gods, they will be less likely to violate them.”
These are some of the key ideas in his literature that I felt were worth sharing. His thoughts on various topics of government/society were much ahead of his time. The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau is an exemplary depiction of where some of the basics of modern-day democracy emerged from.
This Article was First Published by Project Statecraft https://www.projectstatecraft.org/