Rousseau imagined a pre-civilized state of nature in which our ancestors, more like apes than like ourselves, had no need or opportunity to exploit and enslave each other. As hunter-gatherers they could be essentially self-sufficient. The irrevocable change came with the invention of metallurgy and agriculture, twin foundations of a developed civilization. (Interestingly, Jared Diamond says much the same thing in Guns, Germs, and Steel.) Each of these advances has contributed to our material well-being, but they are only possible in an organized society in which the many are controlled by the few. What then develops, accordingly, is bureaucracies, legal systems, and organized religions that teach people to accept their lot in this vale of tears.
Rousseau describes this change eloquently in the Discourse: “Equality disappeared, property was introduced, labor became necessary, and the vast forests changed to smiling fields that had to be watered with the sweat of men, where slavery and poverty were soon seen to germinate and grow along with the crops.” It is a powerful insight: Inequality is ethically wrong, and yet it is inevitable. The best we can do is to try to minimize it. No wonder, as the Swiss scholar Jean Starobinski has said, “The immense echo of these words expanded in time and space far beyond what Rousseau could have foreseen.”
If hierarchy and inequality will always be with us, what can be done to alleviate their burden? Pondering this question led Rousseau, a decade later, to write The Social Contract, one of the landmarks in the history of political thought. Previous theorists thought of the contract as a commitment in which a people had sworn allegiance to a king, or else, as with John Locke, in which a people had agreed upon specific powers that their government should exercise on their behalf. In either case it was an event in the past, by which successive generations must be bound. But Rousseau, building on the insights of his discourse on inequality, issued a ringing challenge: “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” If there have to be chains, how can we make them less binding and painful?
Rousseau’s solution was that in order to be truly viable, a culture needs the wholehearted commitment to a shared ideal. The social contract in this sense is not a historical event but a living belief in community, each individual fully part of the whole. Rousseau called such a community a moi commun, a common self (literally a “common me”). It follows that an individual should be seen not as a subordinate “subject” but as an equal member of the “sovereign.” That term normally referred to a monarch, but what Rousseau meant by the sovereign was the whole body of citizens, who can choose to delegate executive powers to a king or a president or any other agent they might prefer.
It is always said that the American Founders were chiefly influenced by Locke and Montesquieu, and so they were. But some were influenced by Rousseau as well, though his radical reputation made it unwise to say so openly. Jefferson’s immortal line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” comes directly out of The Social Contract, published two hundred and fifty years ago this year.