60 in 60: #8 – Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

The Social Contract
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Memorable Line
“Any man can carve tablets of stone, or bribe an oracle, claim a secret intercourse with some divinity, train a bird to whisper in his ear, or discover some other vulgar means of imposing himself on the people. A man who can do such things may conceivably bring together a company of fools, but he will never establish an empire, and his bizarre creation will perish with him.”

The Skinny
An argument for individual liberty and for good government used since its publication as both a blueprint for political protest and democracy.

Relevance? Argument?
Particular sections of Rousseau’s classic work seemed relevant to our recent past in a national context–and to the present and future. In re-reading Rousseau for the first time in twenty years, I focused on the following: “Whether the General Will Can Err,” “The Limits of Sovereign Power,” “The Lawgiver,” “Democracy,” “That All Forms of Government Do Not Suit All Countries,” “The Signs of a Good Government,” “The Abuse of Government and Its Tendency to Degenerate,” and “Means of Preventing the Usurpation of Government.”

I found it interesting, if not surprising, that Rousseau enters into dialogue with Machiavelli in several sections. In particular, he uses Machiavelli’s injunction against factionalism (read: tribalism) as an argument for direct democracy–that each “citizen should make up his own mind for himself” to avoid the rifts caused by lesser forms of representational democracy. However, Rousseau enters into a seeming contradiction because he calls the common will “rightful” and always tending to the public good, but acknowledges that “The people is never corrupted,” it is “often misled; and only then does it seem to will what is bad.” In a modern context, we see numerous examples of people voting against their own best interests and against the common good. In many cases, this is not because they have been misled, but because they have allowed some wedge issue to guide their thinking. Thus, they are serving a “good” that seems greater to them than either their personal health or the public good.

Usually, this greater good has some religious component or emphasis, and Rousseau again invokes Machiavelli in this context–especially Machiavelli’s observation that no great leader “has not evoked the deity, for otherwise his laws would not have been accepted.” To Rousseau, however, this is only window-dressing, and the power of a ruler lies in his “great soul,” which “must vindicate his mission.” This reflects a kind of naivety, and ignores the complexity behind Machiavelli’s observation. Human beings do not make many decisions based on logic–at least, not as many as we would like to think (something Swift knows well)–and this must be taken into account in any practical guide to government.

I found Rousseau’s thoughts in “Democracy” much more practical. On the very first page, he writes, “Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests, and the abuse of law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests. When this happens, the state is corrupted in its very substance and no reform is possible.” This statement could easily describe the current situation in the United States, and nothing depressed me more in re-reading Rousseau.

The rest of “Democracy” consists of commonsense discussion of the greater and lesser ways in which this form of government can flourish, and under what conditions. More interesting is “That All Governments Do Not Suit All Countries,” as it pertains to misguided “nation-building,” and in that it contains so many specific examples that Rousseau might as well be talking about individual people as the characteristics of countries. He discusses issues like climate, agriculture, clothing, and diet. The particulars are outdated and reveal the prejudices of his day, but the point is well-taken–because it is not prejudicial to say “Freedom is not the fruit of every climate,” if we take “climate” in its most general sense. The pros and cons of the U.S. invasion of Iraq aside, equally tragic consequences occurred from a misunderstanding of the differences between the U.S. and Iraq, and how that might affect the establishment of a new government.

Throughout A Social Contract, Rousseau keeps making excuses–footnotes that tell the reader to forgive apparent contradiction or bringing up possible contradictions the reader has already forgotten. And yet, I as a reader did not mind the contradictions. I liked the sense that Rousseau was in conversation with himself, trying out theories and approaches. That his mind was not set.

Although St Augustine and Kempis, two prior authors in the Great Ideas series, strive for a very different idealized world, or soul, they share an odd sympathy of spirit with Rousseau, in that he, too, is looking beyond this world to a more perfect one. We still do not have that world, but while reading A Social Contract, I felt it might be attainable.

Much of what Rousseau discusses in A Social Contract is still playing out in the modern world. We have not made the kind of progress that would render the book irrelevant.

Question for Readers
Was the United States ever a true democracy? Is there a better role model in the 21st Century?

Next up, Edward Gibbons The Christians and the Fall of Rome…


  1. says

    My main exposure to Rousseau dealt with his thoughts on education (namely, waiting until adolescence or even beyond to begin formal instruction), thoughts that I’m sometimes tempted to accept… His thoughts on the Social Contract are still engaging even today, but as you said in regards to Machiavelli, his naivety was rather stunning at times.

    As for the U.S. being a “true democracy”? Of course not! But it has improved from the days of Tammany Hall and the political graft machines of the late 19th century. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think the closest it’s come has been when it’s also the closest to adopting principles of democratic socialism (New Deal, Great Society). As for a better role model? Perhaps some of the Scandinavian countries and their social welfare system that’s also reflected in having proportional representation of political parties?

    As for the Gibbons…it would have been ironic if that one had fallen on Christmas :P

  2. says

    I’ve always been torn on Rousseau and Locke. The social contract is a noble concept, probably one of the noblest, but even the most cursory glance at current events and back at history will make it plain that natural rights are a sham. Nation states and the contract of rights they grant and/or deny to their citizenry are based on a foundation of violence either explicit or implicit, directed toward its own citizens or outwards towards perceived foreign enemies.

  3. dick says

    I don’t think the US has ever even been designed as a true democracy. The whole concept was to select those to represent the interests of the people and on that basis enact the laws and modes of society.

    As for “democratic socialism” I think the furthest we have come from “true democracy” was in te New Deal and Great Society era. If you look at the draconian changes that have been made to the various segments of society based on those laws and rules and seen how those changes have essentially destroyed whole parts of society, then I think the point is that while the ideals of those eras may have been for the good of the people, the results were completely opposite. In the case of the Great Society we are still paying the price for that and with this new administration that price will get higher. If something does not work and keeps not working, one would think a different approach would be taken. With this crew all that happens is they tell us if we throw more money at the problem it will be solved this time. The problem is that when it is not, they tell us again if we throw more money at the problem it will be solved this next time. And so it continues with no advance happening but people patting themselves on the back that they are doing good! Bah, humbug!