My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This volume is part of the Bedford Series in History and Culture, a very fine series from Bedford St. Martin’s. Helena Rosenblatt, the translator and editor, sets up the context of Rousseau’s work in her introduction. Rousseau was a contrarian, a part of the Enlightenment movement but also critical of the way that its leading figures did not challenge the power structure in Europe.
Rousseau was a social contract theorist, believing the governments originated in agreements between governments and those they governed rather than in divine right. The key to social contract theory is that human beings existed in a state of nature (the characteristics of which varied according to the theorist) but eventually gave up some of their liberties for the stability that government provided. As Rosenblatt points out, social contract theorists did not necessarily believe that this is how governments really arose; Hobbes and Pufendorf treated it as a “theoretical construct” (11).
But Rousseau argued other social contract theorists and scientists imported things like property and philosophy into the state of nature:
Leaving aside, therefore, all the scientific books that only teach us to see men as they have made themselves, and pondering the first and most simple operations of the human soul, I believe I perceive in it two principles anterior to reason, of which on interests us ardently in our well-being and our self-preservation, and the other inspires in us natural repugnance to seeing any sentient being perish or suffer, especially our fellow human beings. It is from the conjunction and combination that our mind is able to make between these two principles, without it being necessary to introduce that of sociability, that all the rules of natural right seem to me to flow; rules that reason is subsequently forced to reestablish on other foundations, when, by its successive developments, it has succeeded in smothering nature.”(39)
He paints a idealized picture of noble savages who then gradually develop the family, property, farming, trades, and government. Ultimately, this government evolves into despotism. His reasoning about the development of society is very speculative, but you can see why is was provocative, controversial, and influential.
Rousseau included many endnotes in the Discourse, but he said that they were optional reading, so I didn’t read them. Maybe another time.
2 stars for Rousseau’s work and 4 stars for Rosenblatt’s presentation of it makes for 3 stars.