Rousseau and the Social Contract (Routledge Philosophy Guidebooks)

Christopher Bertram

Language: English

Pages: 225

ISBN: 2:00230521

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Rousseau's Social Contract is a benchmark in political philosophy and has influenced moral and political thought since its publication. Rousseau and the Social Contract introduces and assesses:

*Rousseau's life and the background of the Social Contract
*The ideas and arguments of the Social Contract
*Rousseau's continuing importance to politics and philosophy

Rousseau and the Social Contract will be essential reading for all students of philosophy and politics, and anyone coming to Rousseau for the first time.


...the book is smart, well-written and fair. It is both the best available companion for the first-time reader of the Social Contract and a valuable contribution to the scholarship on Rousseau. Matthew Simpson, Journal of the History of Philosophy

'Bertram gives us an insightful account of Rousseau’s character, an exemplary and charitable commentary on the Social Contract, and a brief but lucid account of his influence on later thinkers... a book which we should read and for which we should give thanks.' - Tony Lynch, Australian Journal of Political Science

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9). So what appears ‘unimaginable’ at one moment appears to be historical fact at another. The difficulties and anomalies are compounded when we read at 3. 4. 5 of the background conditions that are required for the democratic form of government to function. Rousseau mentions three: a small state where the citizens know one another and are easily assembled. Second, a rough equality both of wealth and status. Third, an absence of ‘luxury’ which inevitably gives rise to selfishness, ‘laxity’ and vanity. As Richard Fralin has observed,7 157 158 GOVERNMENT AND SOVEREIGN each of these characteristics is also put forward in the Dedication to the Discourse on Inequality as part of a description of eighteenthcentury Geneva.

In stressing labour as providing title to land Rousseau is following Locke. But whereas Locke’s emphasis is on the way in which a person’s ownership through labour excludes the common right of others, Rousseau stresses that once someone has privatised a piece of the common for their own benefit they thereby exclude themselves from the common. By this he must mean not that they are excluded from all use of the common land, but rather that they, having opted to subsist by farming a restricted area must not make use of common resources for their subsistence where other non-privatisers need that land for hunting and gathering.

Notoriously, for example, many academics are persons of great intelligence who nevertheless have poor organisational and social skills. Second, there is the question of the identification of leaders. Clearly there are going to be various racist and sexist theories purporting to sort people in the categories of naturally dominant and naturally subordinate, but there is no empirical basis to support such views. In the absence of a natural mark of dominance, how are we going to decide who rules? And who is to decide?

But Rousseau is alive to the way in which the pays legal may not be an accurate guide to the pays réel. A legal equality among men that simply vests them all with the same abstract rights of citizenship will not establish or THE SOCIAL PACT AND PROPERTY protect genuinely equal freedom if there are wide inequalities in the holdings of private property. Rousseau believes that it is essential that the sovereign power is used to ensure a dispersal of holdings such that all have sufficient property for their needs and none have too much.

Rousseau, here, gives a basic motivation for theories of ideology and authority, laying the groundwork for Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Weber. Force is always insufficient, only the voluntary acceptance of rule by the subordinated can provide an adequate guarantee of stability. Further, if you can dominate people by force then there is no need to claim the right to do so. If right flows from force, then as soon as the balance of force changes, then so does the balance of right. Both in saying this, and in lampooning St Paul (Romans 13: 1), Rousseau echoes Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, where the protagonist Usbek writes of the English: The crime of high treason, according to them, is simply a crime committed by a weaker party against a stronger by disobeying, whatever form this disobedience takes.

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