Jean-Jacques Rousseau is bold and moves into new territory. He is one of the first thinkers of History. He has affected our language today even though he was walking the earth some 300 years ago. Consider what Rep Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said about the recent passage of the Health Care bill:

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

“It makes me so happy that, after 100 years, we can finally catch up with the rest of the world.”

At its core, that is an historical statement, an historicist statement.  Somehow, the world is more “in tune with the times” and the U.S. is “behind the times.”


Rousseau’s Social Contract is a book about reconciliation of the state of nature with the illegitimate society we find ourselves in.  On the surface, he seems to have many of the same opinions as Hobbes and Locke.  For example, he believes we are naturally equal and that man has no superior.  So far so good.  However, he he links the equality to a kind of freedom that comes from the will.  Where is our reason in relation to our will?  It seems that our Swiss is also the father of radical individualism in some respects.

Alienation:  What of this concept of alienation?  Marx picks up on this idea and applies it to society in terms of the worker.  But Rousseau has an expansive view of it–to give or sell ourselves is to alienate ourselves.  And this seems to be a bad thing, for to not be free is to be inhuman.

But clearly, one might say, Rousseau believes in reason for he speaks of an age of reason in chapter 2.  At a certain age, humans have the capacity to judge.  He speaks of it tho, in terms of societies.  And we know from the discourses, that society is a corrupting thing.  Further, as already noted, later he places much emphasis on the will and the expression  of the will as being necessary for freedom.  And, we read at the end of chapter 2 that we are born into slavery–society stinks, no?

Next time, we will look at what Rousseau believes are “legitimate powers.” Humans should only “obey” legitimate powers–and that discovery is the purpose of the Social Contract.