The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract

Rating: ★★★

Genre: Nonfiction, politics

Medium: Paperback

Synopsis: In this translation of one of Rousseau’s most well-known political nonfictions, Rousseau explains how society as we know it has come to be this way, and how he believes he can make things equal and better for the human race.  In this book, his thoughts on how social inequality came to be through society, politics, and agriculture are also included.

Review: I’m not gonna lie.  When I first started this, I asked my French friend who was majoring in political science what she thought about Rousseau.  Her response was something along the lines of “I hate him because he’s for everything I’m against.”  Wow.  Harsh words.  Still, I plodded through, because I felt that reading some political science would make me seem smarter and be smarter.

However, I’d also like to bring up the fact that this isn’t the original text, on account of it being a translation.  One thing I really appreciated about this edition was that the translator explained how and why he chose this specific translation (though I’m sure there are many more translations out there now that like…what, 50 years since the publication of this edition has passed?), and included all of the notes, prologues, and epilogues.  Knowing why he chose this particular translation helped me understand the text at a very fundamental and basic level, which is perfect because I’ve never read political science books before.  So, those extra tidbits were highly appreciated.

But for the text itself…dang.  I mean, this isn’t exactly a novel here, so it’s not like I can critique theme, main ideas, plot points, or rave about them.  And it’s a subject I’m not familiar with, so I don’t know exactly how Rousseau holds up against other political philosophers or how his ideas are reflective of the time period in which he lived.  Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to convey my thoughts.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, my friend was pretty obvious in her dislike for Rousseau.  At first, I didn’t totally understand why–his ideas were spot on, questioned the right things, explained how inequalities came to be in a way that was understandable (though a bit boring for someone not familiar with the subject).  And then it happened.  His proposed solutions to fix these problems were a little 1984-esque, though the text obviously predates Orwell’s work.

Granted, he doesn’t exactly express the want for a Big Brother, but when he begins going to town about how voting should work in his ideal society…yike.  I mean, I know that in the latest election in America, both sides of the bipartisanship we have here were shaking their heads saying, “Well, they didn’t know any better…”  Rousseau thinks the same way, except he doesn’t exactly give the citizens of his proposed society the option to “not know any better.”  He eliminates individual thought on who the best leader of a country would be.  Don’t get me wrong, regardless of who you vote for, I’m going to assume it’s because you honestly think that they’re the best person to run the country.  Rousseau sees no need for this, so long as there’s a representative-like figure to tell you who the best person to run the country would be.

Following this, he also discusses ideological slavery.  At first, I agreed with what he said, in that he asks questions like “Are we truly free when we’re so eager to please others?  Are we still [ideological] slaves under the guise of being free?”  Like, okay, yeah, these are good questions to think about, even a hundred years later.  Because dang, with all that advertising going on and all those thinkpieces being published, how can we ever have an individual and independent thought that’s free from being constantly inundated by all of these external sources?  But then he delves into the question of whether it’s better to be “free” when really we’re still [ideological] slaves, or whether it’s simply better to just be [ideological] slaves, knowing that we’ll never be free.  And then he gets into some sort of human nature versus nurture, and continues this conversation for quite a while.

Additionally, I feel it worthy to note that when he discusses ideological slavery, Rousseau simply just uses the word “slavery.”  Which, don’t get me wrong, I know that he’s using the very literal definition, but I think we can all admit that there’s a racial connotation to it, and that it’d probably be best to continue saying ‘ideological slavery’ even if it might get a bit redundant.  But, like I said earlier, I read a translation, so this might be partly the translator’s fault.

Overall, I’m glad I read this, and I do feel that Rousseau asks a lot of really good, really thought-provoking questions.  However, I just can’t agree with his proposed ideal society, or his solutions to the problems that exist.  Ultimately, it’s definitely worth reading if you like philosophy and political science books.


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