With the publication of The Social Contract in 1761, Jean-Jacques Rousseau took his place among the leading political philosophers of the Enlightenment. Like his contractarian predecessors (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke), Rousseau sought to ground his political theory in an understanding of human nature, which he believed to be basically good but corrupted by the conflicting interests within society. Here self-interest degenerated into a state of war from which humanity could only be extricated by the imposition of a contract. As a party to the compact, each individual would find his true interest served within the political expression of the community of man, or the “general will.”
What is the content of human nature and how does it compel mankind to come together to create a civil society? What form does this society take? What benefits does it offer its citizens, and what must each individual sacrifice to reap its rewards? How does sovereign power manifest itself, and what consequences follow for those who choose not to abide by the “general will”? Does Rousseau’s political theory set forth a blueprint for democracy — one that results in equality, universal suffrage, and popular sovereignty — or is it a recipe for central state totalitarianism? These are just a few of the complex questions that will confront readers of The Social Contract.
Whatever their intent or ultimate result, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views on the state and man’s relationship to it have culminated in one of the most powerful and compelling pieces of political philosophy ever written.