Monday, 31 March 2008

Review: The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social ContractThis is the fourth book I (randomly) picked to read out of the Penguin Great Ideas Series. It's number 8 in the list and part of series one (the red series).

This book took a loooong time to read. Weeks and weeks! In comparison to other 'great ideas' it is relatively long - 167 pages, when most seem to be closer to 100. However, the length of time it took probably has less to do with the number of pages, rather than the depth of arguments and ideas presented here.

After looking at his wikipedia page, Jean-Jacques Rousseau seems to have been some literary, philosophical, musical, political genius (darn him). The first thing that struck me about 'The Social Contract' was the absolute logical rigour that Rousseau applies to all his arguments. They're razor sharp and the scientist in me loved this, even though it did make the text very dense (I'm sure I've not taken away half the information that I could have). Rousseau builds his arguments from first principles, which means that unlike some of the previous (and abridged) 'great ideas' the reader can appreciate all of Rousseau's arguments. Rousseau argues that for any form of governance, 'the people' must form together and agree to a binding social contract, which essentially strips them of all private will, so that only the greater public will remains. He then discusses the flaws which make such governance difficult (impossible??), such as the fact that the 'private will' of those in power will inevitably conflict with their 'public will'. He describes numerous forms and sizes of government, the role of religion (there isn't one), as well as the mechanics of legislative and administrative power.

This was the first book I felt I *had* to bookmark pages so that I could come back to sections later for the review. Because of the way Rousseau builds up his arguments, he came up with a number of points that I'd not considered or though of before:
  • the right of life and death in the social contract - 'whoever wishes to preserve their life at the expense of others must give his life for them when necessary'
  • the idea that there is only one good government for each state, and that different governments may suit different people and even different climates!
  • good laws lead men to make better ones; bad laws lead to worse
  • laws constantly gain strength in any well constituted state, if laws becom weaker this shows there is no longer any legislative power and the state is dead

And my favorite line, which made me think of many recent governments:

'Usurpers always choose troubled times to enact, in the atmosphere of general panic, laws which the public would never adopt when passions were cool'

I don't agree with all these ideas, but they did make me think. Ultimately I think many of Rousseau's arguments are outdated now. People, particularly in the western world, probably like their 'private self' too much to sublimate themselves totally to a greater public good, as Rousseau requires. Monarchy seems to be taken as a fundamental component in government in 'The Social Contract', and this is less so now. Finally, Rousseau's ideas of economic are very outdated - his economies are based almost entirely on agriculture and crops, with no thought of the technology and 'value adding' (tourism! entertainment! IT!) by which many nations make substantial portions of wealth now. I did not find it the 'blue print for political terror' as it was once considered.

Still, the books *was* written in 1762 and, despite the effort it required, I loved the absolute rational approach Rousseau takes to his work (William Hazlitt makes mention of this in 'The Pleasure of Hating', but more on that later). Overall it was a really interesting book to read.

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