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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "The Social Contract" (1762)

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract” (1762)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a leading intellectual during the French Enlightenment period, published his seminal work, “Du contract social ou principes du troit politique” in Holland in 1762. This is translated as “Of the social contract or principles of political right” and as the name suggests, is a political treatise outlining the principles that Rousseau felt would reform political society. The Age of Enlightenment existed in seventeenth century Europe, and was essentially a cultural movement of intellectuals who wanted to challenge set ideas or advance knowledge. Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot, among others, were known as ‘philosophes’ and their goal was to bring attention to societies’ ills. However, Rousseau has been found to be an unusual man with many contradictions in his writing. He was a man who was a champion of individual freedom yet his “social contract” proposed a collectivist state. This essay will discuss the author and the historical background behind the “social contract”. Next, the document will be analysed as to its purpose and central ideas.
Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712 but came to live most of his life in France where he became acquainted with other fellow intellectuals. After winning a major essay prize, Rousseau then contributed to the crowning glory of the enlightenment, Diderot’s “Encyclopedie”. Love said in 2008, ‘Rousseau was the eighteenth century’s leading apostle of democracy’ (p.104). However, Brinton (cited in Love p.109) had another view saying ‘Rousseau as a person was an eccentric, an individualist ... and yet here he is ... one of the prophets [also] of modern collectivist society’. With the “social contract”, Rousseau attempted to further earlier works on social contract theory by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. This document was written as abstract…...

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