Book Review: "The Social Contract" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Now that I have been able to properly enjoy the summer, having essentially finished my PhD work, I've recently read the book The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (translated from French to English by Willmoore Kendall); this was a book that I got from a friend who moved away a few years ago, but never got around to reading until now. This is one of the classic texts of political philosophy from the European Enlightenment era, and came before many of the seminal events of world history, including the American & French Revolutions and the European colonization & subsequent independence of much of Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America. The author provides his own refutations of many of the arguments for hereditary monarchy and instead forcefully argues for a legislature, separate from the executive, that is conducted as a direct democracy, even while acknowledging that different circumstances for different states may suggest different forms & sizes for the executive. The book includes many examples from ancient & medieval European history, and while much of the discussion of cultures outside of Europe seems antiquated or racist to modern eyes, I imagine it was typical of its time & place.

It was really interesting to see such broad imagination of democratic & republican societies before they came to be in Europe & North America. However, the book itself is not an easy read: it basically feels like a polemical political treatise written in the terse style of the textbooks by the physicists Landau & Lifshitz, in which every definition and proposition must be carefully parsed & understood individually and also as part of a broader whole. The arguments are built up slowly, so patience is required too; frequently, I found myself wondering how the author could fail to acknowledge certain seemingly-elementary rebuttals to his arguments, only to find such acknowledgments after several pages. Originally, I thought the translator's introduction about how to read the book were basically excuses meant to cover for bad writing, but as I read through more of the book, I came to appreciate it more.

There are a few comments that I have about the contents. The first is that it isn't clear to me how citizens, in the author's view, are supposed to resume the exercise of natural rights, which have been pooled into the sovereign & redistributed as civil rights, when the social contract is thought to be violated, especially as it also isn't clear to me how to distinguish a violation of the social contract from an individual's unhappiness with the general will going against that individual's private will. Related to this, it isn't clear to me how a citizen, acting to debate & make laws for the sovereign to further the general will, is supposed to act completely separately, as a sort of Jekyll/Hyde situation, from that person's thoughts as an individual, because the execution of laws furthering the general will may affect that individual and others perhaps not particularly naming those people but naming a certain group affiliation, and it becomes hard then to define the general will in that context. The second is that so many of the author's arguments regarding the formation of a new state seem to depend on their being a full vacuum of power beforehand, with only the barest acknowledgment that new societies & nations don't emerge from a vacuum; to be fair, many of the great upheavals that figure prominently in my imagination regarding this point came after the publication of this book, but enough had happened which the author mentioned that this sparing treatment of the issue seems odd. I also have some more minor comments, namely that I'm not sure if the author's specific claims about the intertwined nature of politics & religion in ancient societies would be validated by modern scholarship, and the author's claims about there being no "true" Christian soldiers seems to rely too much on a no-true-Scotsman fallacy.

I would certainly need to reread this book carefully to better appreciate it, and perhaps that could address at least some of my comments. In any case, I'd only recommend this book to people with a serious deeply-rooted interest in political philosophy, who can appreciate the book and the context of its time & place, as opposed to novices like myself.