Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reader's Log Part II: The Man and the Premise

Welcome back everyone! Today I’m going to give a brief (Brief!) introduction to Rousseau and the central premise his 1762 piece, “The Social Contract.”

Rousseau was a philosopher, political theorist, and writer who graced the European arena from 1712 to 1778. He was a Calvinist-turned-Catholic generally regarded as something of a heretic. Rousseau lived a tumultuous and messy law, a portion of it on the run from censors. His achievements include founding the autobiographical genre, shaping the development of the modern novel, and inspiring almost every detail of the French Revolution.

Rousseau believes in the Republic. He envisions a system in which the people are the state. Each individual citizen gives himself and all his resources over to the state, and is henceforth both a member and a trustee of the collective good. The state itself is governed by the “general will,” which is the net sum of its citizens’ individual wills.

Why this particular system? What would a Republic of this nature give Rousseau that a constitutional monarchy, perhaps with a Bill of Rights, would not?

Rousseau believes that nothing can resist brute force. John Locke had, in the late 17th century, proposed a system of rights and limits that would intervene between the government and the people. Rousseau apparently does not think these safeguards are strong enough. Rousseau believes that the only way to protect people from the government is if the people are the government. Because the resources of the state are the resources of the people, the majority will would be backed up by the majority of force in the state. It is an elegant solution, but notoriously difficult to implement in practice.

In the coming weeks, I’ll attempt to tackle key elements of Rousseau’s theory. Please note that these are the musings of a mere student, one without much formal training and who is working outside the scope of his own department. I earnestly invite anyone interested or educated in these matters to please, please chime in and comment on these logs!

Next time: Was Rousseau a Socialist?

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