The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was active at the height of the French Enlightenment. Thinkers such as ##Voltaire##, Diderot, and d'Alembert headed a movement that placed supreme faith on the powers of reason. They were disdainful of religion or blind faith of any kind, believing that reason and knowledge could slowly bring about the betterment of humankind. Diderot and d'Alembert undertook the editorship of the Encyclopedie, the crowning glory of the Enlightenment, which was meant to serve as a record of all human knowledge collected to date.
Rousseau was initially friends with the other Enlightenment figures, and contributed several articles (mostly on music) to the Encyclopedie. However, he did not share their faith in reason or human progress, and intellectual and temperamental differences increasingly drew them apart.
Rousseau's political thought was primarily influenced by two groups. First, there is the voluntarist tradition of ##Hobbes##, Pufendorf, and Grotius, who support absolute monarchy. They argue that only by entering into society and swearing absolute allegiance to a king can people escape the depravity and brutality of a life in the wild. Second, there is the liberal tradition of ##Locke## and Montesquieu, who argue that society exists in order to protect certain inalienable rights of its citizens.
While Rousseau draws ideas from both traditions, he also disagrees with both in significant ways. He is more favorably inclined toward the ancient Greeks and Romans, and often refers to Sparta or Rome when looking for an example of a healthy state. The societies of antiquity were characterized by a strong civic spirit, where citizenship was considered not only an honor but a defining characteristic of who one was. The influence of such thinking pervades The Social Contract, and we feel especially the influence of Aristotle's ##Politics##.
When it was first published in 1762, The Social Contract was met with outrage and censorship. Rousseau became a wanted man both in France and in his native Geneva. However, thirty-two years later, in 1794, after the ##French Revolution## his remains were transported to the Pantheon in Paris and he was buried as a national hero. The Social Contract was the foremost influence on the intellectual development of the French Revolution, and that stormy period in history is our best example of Rousseau's ideas put into practice. It is not fair to blame the Reign of Terror and the many disasters of the Revolution on Rousseau, but his influence was certainly felt throughout.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!