My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had never read The Social Contract, but I knew the one-minute summary of it and knew the effect that it had on the radical French revolutionaries like Robespierre who carried out the Terror. It was good to see his whole argument.
Christopher Betts’ edition also includes Rousseau’s Discourse on Political Economy, a contribution to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia. It was good to read this first and get an understanding of earlier development of his thought, including the early development of his famous idea of “the general will”:
The political body, therefore, is also a moral being which has a will; and this general will, which tends always to the conservation and well-being of the whole and of each part of it, and which is the source of laws, is, for all members of the state and in relation to it and them, the rule of what is just or unjust; a truth which (I mention in passing) shows how little sense there is in the way so many writers have treated as theft the Spartan children’s compulsory acquisition of their frugal meals by stealth, as if anything ordained by law could not be lawful. (7)
I found Rousseau’s concept of society and government fascinating but troubling. I had always thought that he believed that people gave up all of their rights to government, but instead he argued that people gave up all individual rights to society in order to gain the increased freedom of being in society. For Rousseau, the social body formed by a contract between individuals is all-important, and everything else (including government and religion) serves the interest of that body. The government (whatever form it takes) is the executive branch, while the whole body of the citizens passes the laws.
From my admittedly elementary knowledge of Rousseau, I believe that he would have been horrified at the uses to which his ideas were put by the Jacobins during the Terror in France. For starters, he idealizes the city-state, not the large nation-state, kingdom, or empire. He writes in The Social Contract that the people who give their lawmaking power to representatives have given up their sovereignty. Also, he almost certainly would have seen that the “particular will” of the radical revolutionaries was dominating the general will of the French people.
But Rousseau leaves a lot of tools lying around for potential tyrants. The supremacy of society’s rights over any individual rights, his concept of the general will, the figure of “the legislator” who guides the people into understanding their best interests when setting up a constitution, and his confidence that the majority of the people will ultimately come to the right decision (unless society is already sick) are (and have been) potent intellectual weapons in the hands of bad governments.