“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
With these stirring words, Jean-Jacques Rousseau begins The Social Contract—the first shot in a battle of ideas that would set the stage for the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. In the feverish days of the Enlightenment, Rousseau took aim squarely at the all-powerful French monarchy, proclaiming that no despot, no matter how powerful, had the right to terrorize his people. He laid out a plan for a new kind of government—an idea that was radical then, and remains so now.
The Social Contract is a landmark document from a fascinating period in world history and an invaluable guide to the foundations of modern democracy.
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Rousseau takes an innovative approach by introducing a "hypothetical history" that presents a theoretical view of people in a pre-social condition and the ensuing effects of civilization. In his sweeping account of humanity's social and political development, the author develops a theory of human evolution that prefigures Darwinian thought and encompasses aspects of ethics, sociology, and epistemology. He concludes that people are inevitably corrupt as a result of both natural (or physical) inequalities and moral (or political) inequalities.
One of the most influential works of the Enlightenment, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality offers a thought-provoking account of society's origins and a keen criticism of unequal modern political institutions.
Thus begins Rousseau's influential 1762 work, Du Contract Social. Arguing that all government is fundamentally flawed, and that modern society is based on a system that fosters inequality and servitude, Rousseau demands nothing less than a complete revision of the social contract to ensure equality and freedom.
Noting that government derives its authority by the people's willing consent (rather than the authorization of God), Rousseau posits that a good government can justify its need for individual compromises, rewarding its citizens with "civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses." The controversial philosopher further suggests that promoting social settings in which people transcend their immediate appetites and desires lead to the development of self-governing, self-disciplined beings.
A milestone of political science, these essays introduced the inflammatory ideas that led to the chaos of the French Revolution, and are considered essential reading for students of history, philosophy, and other social sciences.
Rousseau's five-part approach devotes the first three sections to Emile's early education, including the child's interactions with the larger world and the selection of a trade. The fourth part explores the cultivation of sentiment, with particular focus on natural religion. The book concludes with a profile of Emile's prospective bride, Sophie, that emphasizes the role of mothers in educating their children but encourages women to be submissive to their husbands—a view that excited controversy even among Rousseau's contemporaries and helped inspire Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.