The social contract & discourses - PDF book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The social contract and discourses 

The social contract and discourses
Jean-Jacques Rousseau 

From Introduction:

They will be most the children of their age when they are rising most above it. Rousseau has suffered as much as anyone from critics without a sense of history. He has been cried up and cried down by democrats and oppressors with an equal lack of understanding and imagination. His name, a hundred and fifty years after the publication of the Social Contract, is still a controversial watchword and a party cry. He is accepted as one of the greatest writers France has produced; but even now men are inclined, as political bias prompts them, to accept or reject his political doctrines as a whole, without sifting them or attempting to understand and discriminate. 

He is still revered or hated as the author who, above all others, inspired the French Revolution. At the present day, his works possess a double significance. They are important historically, alike as giving us an insight viii Introduction into the mind of the eighteenth century, and for the actual influence, they have had on the course of events in Europe.

Certainly, no other writer of the time has exercised such an influence as his. He may fairly be called the parent of the romantic movement in art, letters and life; he affected profoundly the German romantics and Goethe himself; he set the fashion of a new introspection which has permeated nineteenth-century literature; he began modern educational theory; and, above all, in political thought, he represents the passage from a traditional theory rooted in the Middle Ages to the modern philosophy of the State. 

His influence on Kant s moral philosophy and on Hegel s philosophy of Right are two sides of the same fundamental contribution to" modern thought. He is, in fact, the great forerunner of German and English Idealism. It would not be possible, in the course of a short introduction, to deal both with the positive content of Rousseau s thought and with the actual influence he has had on practical affairs. The statesmen of the French Revolution, from Robes Pierre downwards, were profoundly affected by the study of his works. 

Though they seem often to have misunderstood him, they had, on the whole, studied him with the attention he demands. In the nineteenth century, men continued to appeal to Rousseau, without, as a rule, knowing him well or penetrating deeply into his meaning. 

"The Social Contract," says M. Dreyfus-Brisac, "is the book of all books that is most talked of and least read." But with the great revival of interest in political philosophy, there has come a desire for a better understanding of Rousseau s work. He is again being studied more as a thinker and less as an ally or an opponent; there is more eagerness to sift the true from the false and to seek in the Social Contract the "principles of the political right," rather than the great revolutionary's ipse dixit in favour of some view about circumstances which he could never have contemplated. 

The Social Contract, then, may be regarded either as a document of the French Revolution or as one of the greatest books dealing with political philosophy. It is in the second capacity, as a work of permanent value containing truth, that it finds a place among the world s great books. It is in that capacity also that it will be treated in this introduction. Taking it in this aspect, we have no less need of historical insight than if we came to it as historians pure and simple. 

To understand Introduction ix its value we must grasp its limitations; when the questions it answers seem unnaturally put, we must not conclude that they are meaningless; we must see if the answer still holds when the question is put in a more up-to-date form. First, then, we must always remember that Rousseau is writing in the eighteenth century, and for the most part in France. Neither the French monarchy nor the Genevese aristocracy loved outspoken criticism, and Rousseau had always to be very careful what he said. 

This may seem a curious statement to make about a man who suffered continual persecution on account of his subversive doctrines; but, although Rousseau was one of the most daring writers of his time, he was forced continually to moderate his language and, as a rule, to confine himself to generalisation instead of attacking particular abuses. Rousseau s theory has often been decried as too abstract and metaphysical. 
  • Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  •  Publication Date:1921
  • Translated by George Douglas Howard Cole
  • Company: London, Dent

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