Philip's Reviews > The Social Contract

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
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Dec 23, 08

bookshelves: classics, non-fiction
Read in December, 2008

Wow. I think it'd be good to have a background knowledge of Livy especially The Early History of Rome. Rousseau references a lot of archaic work which makes for tough reading if it's unfamiliar.

Much of what Rousseau wrote should be common knowledge to those who've lived in free democratic states all their lives. (I.e. citizens agree to enter into the Social Contract by default - if they live in a given (free) society they agree to follow the Rule of Law or leave.) We all understand this, but Rousseau goes into detail to explain the hows and whys... He goes through who has the right to rule, and how they acquired it. He differentiates between natural equality and moral equality and then goes into the institutions of governments..."that the social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality that nature may have imposed on mankind; so that however unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right."

Reading Rousseau also brings to light some theological points that always aggrivate me. I wish the Bible had a book dedicated to governments, and the proper ways for governments to act. Granted, it has Romans 13, and Christ talks to a centurion here and there, but the Bible is for the individual, and not the government. He makes arguements for everyone's duty to serve in the military at the end of Book II chapter 4. As a Christian I always take up one side of this argument and then quickly switch to the other side when confronted by opposition to my stance. Rousseau: "Their very lives, which they have pledged to the state, are always protected by it; and even when they risk their lives to defend the state, what more are they doing but giving back what they have received from the state?"

And speaking of religion, Introduction, pg. 41: "... he belongs to a certain tradition of moral philosophers who argue that to be free is not to be left to do what you want to do but to be enabled to do what you ought to do."

This sounds so much like what Paul talks about, i.e. freedom in Christ. (Or slave to Christ...) We're free to sin, but Christ enables us to do what we ought, even though the capacity to sin is still there.

I find it interesting too that Rousseau was both Christian and sort of writing against Christianity - the state needs a religion that contradicts everything that Christianity is... Book IV chapter 8, "Everything that destroys social unity is worthless; and all institutions that set man at odds with himself are worthless." And yet Rousseau himself claimed to be a Christian.

Last, I do wonder how much he influenced our (U.S.)independence movement, as well as the French movement. (Especially things instances like the Great Terror.) I mean, I'd personally hate to have the Great Terror on my conscience, but then again Rousseau did write this: "Moreover, since every wrongdoer attacks the society's law, he becomes by his deed a rebel and a traitor to the nation; by violating its law, he ceases to be a member of it; indeed he makes war against it... therefore the right of war makes it legitimate to kill him." Jeepers. A rough time to live in France.

Anyway, what do you give a book like this? An "it was ok" "I liked it" "it was amazing?" I mean moreso than whether I liked it or not, it was amazing in how much it effected the world... of course, it was more of a difficult read, which made me like it less. Four stars it is.
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Reading Progress

10/06/2008 page 101
52.6% "I'm on book three. It's getting increasingly hard to remotivate myself to continue reading, even though it's incredibly insightful."
10/25/2008 page 149
77.6% "On to book four. It's fun to read this in conjunction with watching the HBO John Adams mini-series."

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Clickety (new)

Clickety He makes arguements for everyone's duty to serve in the military at the end of Book II chapter 4. As a Christian I always take up one side of this argument and then quickly switch to the other side when confronted by opposition to my stance. Rousseau: "Their very lives, which they have pledged to the state, are always protected by it; and even when they risk their lives to defend the state, what more are they doing but giving back what they have received from the state?"

Pf. In our society, that reasoning only supports the idea that everyone should serve the state in SOME way, not that they need to serve in the military. Military protection is not remotely the only service our society provides for us. That's why I support Everyone Serves (the link goes to the Google cache of the page, because the site is offline).

And I dunno - I've read too much dystopian lit to put social unity ahead of everything else. It's the idea that gets put forward in A Beautiful Mind: that we'd make more progress if each person did what was best for the group as a whole instead of what was best for him or herself. The one problem with this is that doing so goes against human nature. Not only self-preservation but self-promotion is part of our instincts - more significantly, self-promotion in comparison to others.

And as far as how many stars - IMO, it's what you think of the book itself.


Philip I don't think he was talking about other forms of service though. His point was that by giving up our natural freedom we gain liberty and it's everybody's responsibility to defend this or they aren't part of the social contract.


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