The Social Contract

“The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his dramatic opening lines to his immensely powerful treatise “The Social Contract,” wrote that man was naturally good but becomes corrupted by the pernicious influence of human society and institutions. He preached a mankind improved by returning to nature and living a natural life at peace with his neighbors and himself. He claims to be in favor of democracy, but what he really favors is egalitarianism. Rousseau’s influence both in art and politics was huge in his own day and continues to be strong today. Voltaire and Rousseau “To hold a pen is to be at war!” Voltaire to Mme.

d’ Angenthal Octiber 4, 1748 Voltaire and Rousseau Although they are two of the most famous of the great French philosophes, Rousseau and Voltaire hated each other. In fact, it would be hard to ever envision the urbane and suave Voltaire and the radically democratic Rousseau ever seeing eye to eye on much: Voltaire believed that through education and reason man could separate himself from the beasts while Rousseau thought that it was precisely all this which made men “unnatural” and corrupted. As Betrand Russell put it so eloquently: “It is not surprising that Rousseau and Voltaire ultimately quarreled; the marvel is that they did not quarrel sooner.” Like many intellectuals, Rousseau was a great lover of mankind as a collective but singularly unable to appreciate or get along with any individual persons who he encountered in his life. On the other hand, Voltaire was not a person you wanted to engage in a literary tte-a-tte as his scorn and ridicule were lethal. Rousseau sent Voltaire a copy of his “The Social Contract” and Voltaire wrote him the following: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid.

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One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages of Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves.” Voltaire, a young man in the France of King Louis’ XIV, supposedly was seen talking too loudly at the opera in December of 1725 by a certain French aristocrat named the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot. In the France of that time, anyone who did not have a de at the end of their name denoting royal patronage was immediately looked down upon. Rohan confronted him superciliously with the haughty question: “Monsieur de Voltaire, Monsieur Arouet – comment vous appelez-vous? [what really is your name?]” Voltaire is said to have replied: “One who does not trail after a great name, but knows how to honor that which he has!” Yikes! The enraged Chevalier raised his cane to strike while Voltaire tried to draw his sword before the fight was broken up and the two separated.

Voltaire spent the next day practicing swordsmanship for a duel to the death with Rohan when the aristocrat simply had Voltaire arrested and thrown into the Bastille. Soon thereafter, Voltaire was exiled to England where men and minds were free. “I have asked God for only one thing in my life and that is that he should make people laugh at my enemies. And he did.”.