Rousseau's The Social Contract set forth a view of government and society that challenged much of the established order (and even its "enlightened" challengers, the philosophes) by insisting that governments exist to serve the people, not the other way around, and that government derives its authority from the "general will" of the people-the desire for the common good. Two elements of European society in Rousseau's time, the rule of aristocracy and the capitalistic economical views of the bourgeoisie, were especially at odds with Rousseau's ideas of equality and social responsibility. To understand the challenge of The Social Contract to eighteenth-century society, it is necessary to understand what, exactly, is the "social contract," and how its assumption of equality makes aristocratic politics and bourgeois economics incompatible with the general will.
The social contract is, essentially, the process by which people in a state of nature form an association, for the benefit of all without sacrificing the freedoms of any (p. 60), which establishes a state of society. The natural state, as Rousseau describes it, is characterized by such things as instinct, desire, and physical impulse; "the absolute right to anything that tempts him and that he can take;" possession based on force or "the right of the first occupant;" and natural liberty limited only by the individual's physical power (p. 64-5). In short, man in nature is little better than the animals, though the simplicity of such a state may seem idyllic. However, "men reach a point where the obstacles to their preservation in a state of nature prove greater than the strength that each man has to p...
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...ied out. As long as there has been interaction between individuals, I think there has been society to some degree; and therefore I do not believe the social contract to be as much a single moment in time when men determined to end their state of nature and become social, as Rousseau implies. Rather, the covenants that bind people as societies must have developed gradually, only occasionally being formally stated or the "articles of association" worked out and agreed upon. Yet, once these covenants and associations exist, I do agree with Rousseau that from them derives the equality of all their members, which many social institutions besides aristocracy and capitalism have sabotaged with their preference for private interests over the common good.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Trans. Maurice Cranston. London: Penguin Books, 1968.
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