The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Rousseau, a forerunner of the French Revolution, sets out to establish political authority somewhere – anywhere – other than royalty. He admits explicitly near the beginning that he rejects divine revelation as a guide. The only alternative is to set up something else as infallible and indestructible - in Rousseau's case: the "will of the people." Somehow, as you take larger groups of people into account at once, their individual selfish wills and desires will smooth and even out and a General Will that is best emerges. This is mere worship of man - of the collective state, really - put in political terms. The will of the people is sovereign.
A better and more biblical view sees only God’s Word as infallible and sovereign, and political authority as balanced between king, elders and people. None of the latter three are immune from sin. Each can abuse their rights, and do. But each has a role to play. Rousseau wants to level it all to the absolute will of the people.
Rousseau occasionally hits some wisdom
- his basic understanding of the need to distinguish a legislative and executive branch of government.
- a state needs to check the power of rulers assigned to carry out their will, that they not usurp power belonging to the people. This is true, but in his context used to destroy royalty undeserving of such punishment.
Rousseau is thoroughly misguided at most points. Here are some examples:
Page 140 – “The word ‘finance’ is the word of a slave…. In a genuinely free state, the citizens do everything with their own hands and nothing by means of money.”
Freedom and finance are not contradictory, much less freedom and currency.
Pg. 143 – “The moment a people adopts representatives it is no longer free.”
This idea is part of the great leveling. There must be absolutely nothing standing between the individual and the state. Ironically this is what makes it possible for the state to tyrannize the individual! Representatives preserve freedom and help discern the will of the people. Rousseau seems to think figuring out the people’s will is all that’s needed, but representatives also play an important role in evaluating that will.
In book IV, chapter 8, he limits the prohibitions of a state to one: “no intolerance.” This was an attack on religion, on the Church, it continues today, and he calls for banishment of all churches from his state since they are the prime example of intolerance. He wants a limit to rulers’ power, but the will of the people is to banish anyone who holds there is only one way to salvation.
As one of the first and best modern attempts at establishing government apart from the truth of Christianity, Rousseau gives it a valiant go. But it’s thoroughly contradictory and unconvincing to me.
View all my reviews