The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the most influential—and troubled—philosophers of the 18th century. His most renowned sociopolitical work, The Social Contract, had a great impact on modern political thought, and it inspired movements against monarchies that had ruled Europe for centuries. Published in 1762, The Social Contract proposed a model of governance that sought to undo the great inequality between the classes that was so prevalent at the time. Rousseau argued that the people should have a greater say in governance, and that the nobility and monarchs had no true right to their power. Written at a time when monarchy was the prevailing form of government across Europe, The Social Contract quickly became a controversial work, despised by the ruling classes, and leading to many problems for Rousseau himself. Rousseau's mission wasn't in vain, however, as The Social Contract would spark political movements that would alter the power dynamics of European countries in centuries to come.

1. The Social Contract was a catalyst for the French Revolution.

Rousseau's work argued against inequality and took a firm stance against monarchy—two ideas that would lead to a great political upheaval. The Social Contract is often credited as a work that inspired the French Revolution (1789–99), a time of political turmoil, rebellion, and change in France. It was at this time that the monarchy of France was abolished and replaced with a democratic government. Scholars often cite The Social Contract as a treatise that inspired this uprising, although the text itself wasn't read widely in France leading up to the revolution. Rousseau had popularized his thoughts in his more accessible autobiographical Confessions (1782). The Social Contract, however, remained an essential work of Rousseau's political philosophy and a blueprint for the revolution of the late 1700s.

2. The Social Contract was banned and burned in parts of Europe.

The monarchies of Europe saw The Social Contract as a dangerous document that argued directly against their reigns—and they took steps to ban it as a result. The work was banned in Paris shortly after publication, and Amsterdam—a city that was famous for being liberal-minded at the time—outlawed the distribution of copies as well. Rousseau was most dismayed, however, when The Social Contract was burned publicly in his hometown of Geneva. Genevan authorities even demanded Rousseau's immediate arrest if he ever set foot in the city again. Rousseau had always been proud of the city of his birth, and he stated regretfully, "I took your constitution as my model."

3. Rousseau had a rough childhood—and once found himself locked out of the gates of his own hometown.

Rousseau's childhood was bleak, impoverished, and depressing. Born in Geneva—now part of Switzerland, but an independent city-state at the time—in 1712, Rousseau's mother died nine days after his birth. Rousseau's father abandoned him when he was only 10, fleeing Geneva to avoid imprisonment. The young Rousseau worked a number of tedious jobs to get by, including employment as a notary and as a watchmaker. One day, while returning home to Geneva, Rousseau found the gates of the city locked, barring him from entry. Rousseau left, with almost no money, and eventually made his way to Paris, where he began tutoring and writing.

4. Rousseau famously advocated that women breastfeed their children—which may have saved many lives.

Rousseau's treatise on education, Emile (1762), advocated that women breastfeed their children instead of raising them on milk from other animals or using wet nurses. Rousseau brought about a cultural change in European attitudes toward breastfeeding—which some of Rousseau's contemporaries claimed might have saved many lives. Aristocratic women in France, in particular, often opted to hire wet nurses to breastfeed their children, and a common fear was that these women from the "lower classes" would often drink heavily, which can have harmful effects for nursing infants. Whether or not this was really the case, Rousseau's advocacy for breastfeeding was considered a successful public health campaign at the time—although many feminist scholars also take issue with Rousseau's promotion of domesticity and traditional gender roles for women.

5. Rousseau was banished, exiled, and labeled the "anti-Christ."

As Rousseau's works, including The Social Contract, gained notoriety and faced bans across Europe, the author himself was exiled from several locales. Once he was threatened with arrest in his native Geneva, he fled to Switzerland (Geneva was a city-state independent of Switzerland at the time), but found himself unwelcome there as well. King Frederick the Great of Prussia—part of modern-day Germany—extended an invitation for Rousseau to seek asylum in his country. Rousseau accepted, but he soon fell out of favor with the local population, particularly the clergy. Pastors denounced Rousseau as the anti-Christ for his theological views, and Rousseau left Prussia as he was pelted with stones by an angry mob. Seemingly defeated, Rousseau took refuge back in Switzerland on a small island, Ile de St Pierre, but even this community would soon force him to leave.

6. Rousseau's health declined after a nasty incident with a Great Dane.

In 1776 Rousseau was injured while walking down the street and being knocked to the ground by a gentleman's dog. The dog—a massive Great Dane—trotted along and smashed into Rousseau, causing him to fall on the street, unconscious and bleeding profusely. Rousseau took a long time to recover from his injury, and one of his friends described the dog as:

One of those Great Danes which the vanity of the rich causes to run through the streets in front of their carriages, to the misfortune of people on foot.

It should be noted that Rousseau, who'd spent his life speaking out against the apathetic, careless ways of the nobility, was likely even further insulted by the fact that a nobleman had so thoughtlessly allowed his dog to harm a pedestrian without even stopping his carriage.

7. Rousseau's body was exhumed to dispel rumors of a suicide.

Rousseau died on July 2, 1778, at age 66. Doctors confirmed that the cause of death was a stroke, but this didn't stop the spread of an unfortunate rumor that Rousseau had committed suicide. Rousseau—whose mental health had deteriorated over the years—was said to have shot himself with a pistol, although his lover, Thérèse Levasseur, adamantly denied that this had been the case. The rumor was so persistent, however, that authorities finally decided to dispel it more than a century later in 1897 when Rousseau's body was exhumed and the skeleton examined. Clearly, no sign of a gunshot wound was found.

8. Rousseau's nemesis, the French philosopher Voltaire, criticized The Social Contract—but lamented that it was burned.

Rousseau's intellectual adversary was the French writer and philosopher Voltaire. The two bickered through letters throughout their lives, and Voltaire once read a copy of The Social Contract, writing his numerous arguments against Rousseau's political thought in the margins. However, when Voltaire learned that The Social Contract had been burned publicly in Geneva, he was outraged on Rousseau's behalf. Objecting to the very concept of book-burning, Voltaire wrote that:

The operation of burning it was just as odious as that of writing it. There are some things that a wise government must ignore. To burn a book of argument is to say: "We do not have enough wit to reply to it."

9. Scottish philosopher David Hume convinced Rousseau to move to England for his own protection.

After being kicked out of numerous European cities, Rousseau was in desperate need of asylum in 1765. He finally accepted an invitation he had previously refused—the chance to find refuge in London with Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume was a fan of Rousseau's controversial political works, and he had a deep respect for the man. Rousseau, however, hated both the climate of England and philosophers in general, so their friendship was rather short-lived. By 1766 Rousseau was convinced that Hume was plotting against him and withholding his correspondence from friends in other parts of Europe. Rousseau accused Hume, claiming:

You have badly concealed yourself. I understand you, Sir, and you well know it ... You brought me to England, apparently to procure a refuge for me, and in reality to dishonor me. You applied yourself to this noble endeavor with a zeal worthy of your heart and with an art worthy of your talents.

Hume was befuddled by this accusation, and he was offended that Rousseau could be so ungrateful after all the trouble he'd gone to in securing him a home in England. After their final exchange of words, Hume condemned "the monstrous ingratitude, ferocity, and frenzy of the man."

10. Rousseau suffered from paranoia.

A life of exile, threats of arrest, and a family whom he never truly knew left Rousseau psychologically scarred. Many contemporary psychoanalysts believe Rousseau exhibited signs of paranoia during his later years. Rousseau's quarrel with David Hume is a clear example of this, as he was so convinced that Hume was plotting against him, he wouldn't listen to reason. Scholars attribute Rousseau's paranoia to his many years living as a refugee in various parts of Europe, as well as the constant persecution he faced from governments for his political writings such as The Social Contract.

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