The European Enlightenment
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

   Perhaps the single most important Enlightenment writer was the philosopher-novelist-composer-music theorist-language theorist-etc. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who is important not merely for his ideas (which generally recycled older Enlightenment ideas) but for his passionate rhetoric, which enflamed a generation and beyond. The central problem he confronted most of his life he sums up in the first sentence of his most famous work, The Social Contract :

"Man is born free but everywhere is in chains."

Enlightenment Readings

Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality

The Idea of America Readings

The Declaration of Independence

The central concept in Rousseau's thought is "liberty," and most of his works deal with the mechanisms through which humans are forced to give up their liberty. At the foundation of his thought on government and authority is the idea of the "social contract," in which government and authority are a mutual contract between the authorities and the governed; this contract implies that the governed agree to be ruled only so that their rights, property and happiness be protected by their rulers. Once rulers cease to protect the ruled, the social contract is broken and the governed are free to choose another set of governors or magistrates. This idea would become the primary animating force in the Declaration of Independence , which is more or less a legal document outlining a breach of contract suit. In fact, all modern liberation discourse at some level or another owes its origin to The Social Contract and Rousseau's earlier treatise, The Discourse on Inequality .

Enlightenment Readings

Discourse on Inequality

Reformation Readings

The Freedom of a Christian

Written for an essay contest sponsored by the city of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1754 (Rousseau won the contest), The Discourse on Inequality outlines all the key ideas that were to greatly influence modern culture: a) the idea of the noble savage, that is, the happiest state of humankind is a middle state between completely wild and completely civilized; b) the idea of social contract; c) the nature of human distinctions; d) the criticism of property; and e) the nature of human freedom. As you read this essay, you should get a good handle on each of these topics. In particular, you should compare these ideas to their earlier incarnations (such as Luther's idea of "freedom") and keep them in mind as we explore later ideas in modern human cultures.

   Rousseau first argued that civilization had corrupted human beings in his essay, Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in 1750. This corruption was largely a moral corruption; everything that civilized people have regarded as progress&emdash;urbanization, technology, science, and so on&emdash;has resulted in the moral degradation of humanity. For Rousseau, the natural moral state of human beings is to be compassionate; civilization has made us cruel, selfish, and bloodthirsty. In the Discourse on Inequality , Rousseau also argued that civilization has robbed us of our natural freedom. While semi-civilized humanity looked to itself for its values and happiness, civilized human beings live outside themselves in the opinions and authority of others. The price of civilization is human freedom and human individuality:

In reality, the difference is, that the savage lives within himself while social man lives outside himself and can only live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the feeling of his own existence only from the judgement of others concerning him. It is not to my present purpose to insist on the indifference to good and evil which arises from this disposition, in spite of our many fine works on morality, or to show how, everything being reduced to appearances, there is but art and mummery in even honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting; to show, in short, how abject we are, and never daring to ask ourselves in the midst of so much philosophy, benevolence, politeness, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.

Enlightenment Glossary

Social Contract

General Glossary
Legitimation of Authority

   In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract , which, though it was largely unread when it first came out, became one of the most influential works of abstract political thought in the Western tradition. In the Discourse on Inequality , Rousseau had tried to explain the human invention of government as a kind of contract between the governed and the authorities that governed them. The only reason human beings were willing to give up individual freedom and be ruled by others was that they saw that their rights, happiness, and property would be better protected under a formal government rather than an anarchic, every-person-for-themselves type of society. He argued, though, that this original contract was deeply flawed. The wealthiest and most powerful members of society "tricked" the general population, and so installed inequality as a permanent feature of human society. Rousseau argued, in The Social Contract , that this contract between rulers and the ruled should be rethought. Rather than have a government which largely protects the wealth and the rights of the powerful few, government should be fundamentally based on the rights and equality of everyone . If any form of government does not properly see to the rights, liberty, and equality of everyone, that government has broken the social contract that lies at the heart of political authority. These ideas were essential for both the French and American revolutions; in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the French and American revolutions are the direct result of Rousseau's abstract theories on the social contract.

Enlightenment Glossary


   It would be incorrect, though, to think of Rousseau as a thorough-going individualist. In fact, Rousseau believed that the social contract, if it were followed on all sides, bound every member of society to obedience to political authority. It was only when political authority broke the basic premises of the social contract and individual liberty was replaced by inequality that Rousseau believed that government should be torn down. Rousseau was trying to figure out a way to maximize individual liberty while preserving order, obedience, and harmony in society. He was really the first Enlightenment thinker to articulate the contractual basis of rights. Rights, or principles of individual autonomy or liberty, are not magical entitlements that come from heaven into this world the moment you pop out of the womb nor are they inscribed in our DNA. Rights and liberties are social contracts. You have rights and individual liberties because the rest of society agrees that you have those rights and liberties . If you don't have a right or liberty, then you must convince everyone to give you that right or liberty. For Rousseau, natural human beings are born completely self-sufficient and self-governing; social human beings are dependent and restricted. The rights and liberties that social human beings get are derived ultimately from a general social agreement. This is one reason, by the way, that the American and French revolutions resulted in "contracts" outlining the rights and liberties of the governed.

   Rousseau also wrote a novel, Emile , which outlined the best way to educate human beings. His goal was to produce an education that maximized human potential rather than restricted it. Both European and American educational ideas were greatly influenced by this work; the American public school system, established in the first part of the nineteenth century, drew heavily from Rousseau's educational ideas.

   Your translation of Discourse on Inequality is taken from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses , translated by G. D. H. Cole (London: J.M. Dent, 1913), pages 207-238.

Richard Hooker

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©1996, Richard Hooker

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Updated 6-6-1999