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The Social Contract

He was unstable, with bouts of hypochondria and extreme paranoia; he was scandalous and super influential in the revolutionary spirit of his day. Jean Jacques Rousseau was Hollywood before there was Hollywood.
Jean Jacques Rousseau is a man who typifies the idea of the classical liberal education. He was a political philosopher, a novelist, and a free thinker. He was interested in many things.

It was thought that he would be a tradesman and then he was apprenticed to an engraver, he did not like that work at all. He did like the work-a-day life. So, he actually ran away and ended up for a while being exiled from that city as a result. 

Rousseau had a string of very strange affairs with women throughout his lifetime. He produced any number of illegitimate children that he would then abandon which was ironic for a champion of great moral education.

Madam de Warens would become an important figure in his life. Rousseau would call her mama, and she would eventually take Rousseau as a lover when he reached the age of 20. This woman was a free spender, with a great library and a lot of wonderful social contacts. She introduced Rousseau to the intellectual life of independent exploration of scholarship and helped make him who he was. 

Jean Jacques Rousseau was particularly influential in the revolutionary spirit of France. He lived in the 18th century, which was a very tumultuous time in politics around Europe. The great problem in Rousseau’s day was the problem of inequality in society. He was living in an age in which industry and manufacturing was changing, and colonialism had become very competitive. The ticket to wealth for nations in Rousseau’s days was empire. Great collection of capital was changing the way that people made a living. It was changing the way that people became rich or poor. Initially, the displacement of the socio-economic changes caused tremendous inequality, especially in France. The target of his writing was to specify types of government or types of education that would make humans equal.
Social Contract
Social Contract
Rousseau’s concept of society involved two layers: government society and civil society. Civil society is the one that interested him most. It was here people actually lived and interacted and they are all sorts of interactions and individual pursuits that Rousseau said the government should not touch.

He viciously attacked the idea of inherited monarchy or the right of any given individual or given family to rule. He wanted representative and limited government that stayed out of the way of civil society and basic human interaction. Today we call this sort of political thinker a Libertarian. He became the philosophical voice of the French Revolution.

His thinking was adopted by the Jacobin Society, famous members like Robespierre who would go on to lead at least the first phase of the French Revolution. Some of Rousseau’s sayings became battle cries in the streets as people used his philosophy to galvanize the crowd and to overthrow the monarch in France. Unfortunately, some of his sayings also became used to excuse the abuses of revolutionary France when things got out of control. The revolutionaries managed to topple a government but they did not manage to build a stable government. He had high belief in the individual and low belief in government. As a result, you do not see a lot of stable government coming out of his devoted philosophical followers.
The Individual
The Individual
One of the great issues of Rousseau’s day had to do with slavery and its use. Was it an unacceptably exploitive practice, did it take wealth away from certain people? Rousseau entered this debate on slavery not from the socio-economic or just government side of things but from the very individual side of things. Underpinning all of Rousseau’s thought was the idea of the noble savage, that man in nature was an amazing creature. And one of his problems with contemporary society in his day is he thought we had become too socialized and refined. He saw this in his educational theories as well.

In African slaves, he saw a representation of the noble savage of man in his natural state. He didn’t spend a lot of time arguing against the institution of slavery but he did spend some time arguing about the nobility of the slave. His thinking should have ameliorated some of the abuses but it didn’t. For him, it always boiled down to the individual. Anything that threatened the sovereignty of the individual Rousseau viewed with great suspicion. If it was a grand university structure, he would attack them. If it was unjust government, he would attack that. If it was large economic corporations, he would attack that. If it was the church, he would attack that.
Contemporary Objections
One of the great ironies of history is that people that followed Rousseau’s philosophy most closely, that championed his thinking most strongly and most vociferously were the French revolutionaries that became so excessive in their practice of violence that it was unprecedented. The Rousseau-ian Revolution became extraordinarily bloody.

If Rousseau walked into today’s world and saw some of the terrorist movements that we see around the globe, I think he would be challenged. What makes a just, civil society if people are really hating each other, really attacking each other for deep set ideologies? I’m not sure he had an answer for that.

Rousseau, first and foremost, was a Libertarian. They don’t need a maternal government that weakened the individual. Rousseau would still have a lot to say to the Europe of our day.

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