The Basic Political Writings
Every student of political theory compiling a list, however short, of essential books in his discipline, must include Rousseau’s Social Contract. All will agree that it is a necessary classic. Yet here agreement ends. The book has been called an encomium to democracy and a blueprint for totalitarianism—or, in an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, the design of totalitarian democracy. Individualists, collectivists, anarchists, socialists— all have taken courage from Rousseau’s controversial masterpiece.
All these readings cannot be correct at once. There are interpretations of historic texts that vary because they are complementary—they throw light on different aspects or sources of the work. In grasping for larger meanings, such readings can be reconciled in a higher synthesis. But the interpretations that Rousseau’s Social Contract has endured diverge more sharply than this: they have proffered contradictory conclusions.
How is such a scandal to be explained? It is far from rare in the history of ideas but still startling every time it occurs. For a century after Rousseau’s death in 1778, critics assumed that this inconclusive search after his meaning must have been Rousseau’s own doing, the inevitable byproduct of a disordered mind ruled by extravagant feeling alone. Rousseau, to be sure, explicitly and emphatically disclaimed this perception of his total thought. “I have written on diverse subjects,” he said in 1763, defending his great treatise on education, Entile, against its condemnation by the archbishop of Paris, “but always on the same principles, always the same morals, the same beliefs, the same maxims, and, if you will, the
same opinions.” But nearly all of his contemporaries, like many of his later readers, fixated on that stick-figure Rousseau the lachrymose madman, the noble savage, the impious revolutionary; they refused to see, and even look for, that one principle. Whether Rousseau was the prophet of untrammeled reason or untamed irrationality, of anarchic disorder or collective despotism, his claim to the status of a thinker long seemed worse than pretentious. It seemed ludicrous.
Many of these appraisals, which modern research into Rousseau’s ideas has made to seem ludicrous in their turn, stemmed from hasty and partisan perusals of his writings. Recalling one phrase or one sentence, readers projected their own wishes or anxieties into the text before them and found in it what they had placed there.
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