Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract


Jean-Jacques Rousseau originally intended the political ideas expressed in The Social Contract (1762) to form part of a much larger and more elaborate work, but ironically it is the brief and pithy pamphlet-like style used throughout that, along with its banning in Paris, made it very popular. Heavily influenced by the Republican vocabulary of Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva, The Social Contract contains one of the most famous lines in eighteenth-century political writing: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”—a phrase that encapsulates the essence of his inquiry but which also demonstrates his penchant for paradoxical phrasing. Rousseau's portrayal of man in the “state of nature” as peaceful but morally ignorant countered both Thomas Hobbes's notion of pre-civil man as being in a “state of war” and John Locke's assertion that, at his birth, man has inalienable natural rights. The Social Contract famously developed the concept of the “general will,” the combined...

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Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Augustin de Saint-Aubin (Yale University Art Gallery)

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