Jean Rousseau: The Social Contract
"Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." The opening sentence of Rousseau's The Social Contract not only summarizes his entire philosophical system, it also proves how important he still is today. Rousseau explains how man went from this state of autonomy to the modern condition, dominated by inequality, dependency, violence and unhappiness. There were positive aspects to this process too, he admits, including the creation of families, the discovery of tools and technology, and the building of cities and social organizations. Unfortunately, this also gives way to what Rousseau called the "right of the strongest", where a reign of inequality destroys man's original state of happiness and freedom. Humanity becomes alienated, and the Discourse on Inequality ends unhappily in general war.
The Social Contract is an attempt to find a solution to this problem. For Rousseau, because of man's "perfectibility", the passage from a natural state to a social one is both an accident and necessary. Unlike animals, men are programmed to create and progress from one condition to the next. Rousseau discovers a way men can associate themselves with each other while maintaining their own individual freedom inside a social and political organization. He calls that concept the "general will". Simply put, it is a form of association in which an individual alienates himself completely to the general will, and therefore regains his freedom in a political form.
All of Rousseau's philosophy is an attempt to find a solution to the problem of alienation. For Rousseau, the only thing that made humans different from animals is his free will, something constantly placed in danger whenever man enters into society. Rousseau understood that the general will, or the will of the people, should be sovereign – and that is the catch. It is here where we regain our freedom inside social organization. Only the general will – general interest as...
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