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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for On The Social Contract

The Discourse on Inequality's conception of natural man – as uncorrupted by social institutions and systems of artificial distinction –  sits in the background of Rousseau's later work, On the Social Contract  Like Plato and Machiavelli before him, Rousseau refused to separate concerns of politics and ethics from those of education.  And so, while Rousseau's Discourse treats human nature, his follow-up works Emile and On the Social Contract (both published in 1762) explore the sort of education and political order best suited to this nature.

 Mass Shootings of Nantes, 1793. (Wikimedia Commons) Although he died 11 years before the French Revolution, Rousseau’s works have often been blamed for its excesses. Mass Shootings of Nantes, 1793. (Wikimedia Commons) Although he died 11 years before the French Revolution, Rousseau’s works have often been blamed for its excesses.

The locus of democratic political authority is at the center of On the Social Contract, in which Rousseau advances a notoriously difficult concept:  the "general will."  As he explains it, the general will is expressly not what one might expect to emerge from democratic deliberation and voting, i.e., either the sum of all individual preferences or a majority consensus.  Rather, the general will is something like the common good, or the general welfare, but without reference to individuals' particular, selfish interests.  This presents a dilemma:  How can a real-world democratic polity of the kind Rousseau describes legitimately resolve conflicts between self and society?   Much of On the Social Contract is devoted to this question, though Rousseau's answer has failed to satisfy many critics, both in his own time and in ours. 

In light of Rousseau's radical critiques not only of existing social and political institutions, but of fellow thinkers advocating reason-based alternatives, scholars  have long debated whether Rousseau is an Enlightenment or anti-Enlightenment philosopher.   It is perhaps most accurate to characterize his thought as straddling the Enlightenment and Romantic movements.  Written in an age utterly enamored with the idea that all human problems are amenable to reason, Rousseau's works emphasize unforeseen problems that can arise when would-be reformers and revolutionaries disregard human nature and the power of affect.    Rousseau would argue, for instance, that reason engenders egocentrism and alienates individuals from one another.   And in the Social Contract, he argues that we must therefore recast our understanding of democratic politics.

Like the era and the author himself, Rousseau's work defies neat classification.  The changes that the 18th Century unleashed were both calamitous for those living at the time and foundational for the modern world we know today.  From the Enclosure movement in England and the War of Austrian Succession, to the age of Enlightened Monarchs, the context of Rousseau's life and times finds its way both onto the page and between the lines of his works.  Napoleon is reported to have said of Rousseau, "It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never existed."   Alas, he was neither the first nor the last to grapple with the provocative ironies and ambiguities of Rousseau's thought. 


Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University.  


Works Consulted

Leo Damrosch, Restless Genius 

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau