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Social Contract, The

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Review

Government doesn’t happen in an ideal realm where men always behave reasonably—it happens here and now, hammering out order in a disorderly world. For this reason, it seems to me that the best political theorists would tend toward realism rather than Romanticism.

If this is true, Jean-Jacques Rousseau should never have attempted The Social Contract. Rousseau is a Romantic in the worst sense of the word, oftentimes completely out of touch with the blood, sweat and tears required in the practical world. In what is surely the most heinous example of how badly he confused theory and practice, Rousseau fathered several children by a mistress and demanded that they all be abandoned at an orphanage—but he later loudly asserted, “I know full well no father is more tender than I would have been.”

My students had trouble seeing past this bald-faced hypocrisy—and perhaps they were right to bear it in mind as they considered The Social Contract. Just as Rousseau ignored many practical details of parenting, he tended to look past the real world to an ideal government. He makes it clear that he considers the best form of government to be the small Swiss city-state, where all the citizens meet together under a large oak tree to determine what is best for themselves. The fact that most nations are too big for this sort of system pains him, and he hopes to approximate it wherever possible.

Rousseau goes on to make the utopian mistake typical of Enlightenment thinkers, assuming that government can create a society “so perfect,” as T.S. Eliot says, “that no one will need to be good.” In this view, men are reduced to being merely products of their environment, and as long as the state creates the right environment men will always behave well: “In a well-governed state,” Rousseau writes, “few are punished, not because there are many pardons but because there are few criminals.” This fundamental misunderstanding of human nature reverberates throughout modern history, from the French Revolution through Percy Shelley to Karl Marx and socialistic visions today.

by Jeff Baldwin

Thegreatbooks.com