Title: The Social Contract (1762) (160 pages)
Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Summary: A theory on the purpose of and best possible directions for civilization. Rousseau being born in Geneva did not stop him from creating a work integral to American literature; Thomas Jefferson used the ideas put forth by this book as a basis for many of his writings. Even if the introduction hadn’t told me that I’d have noticed, as traces of Rousseau’s thought-processes can be found throughout modern-day America. One of the many suggestions in this book is that, because of the way people in certain geographic locations have to live, that they are better suited for different sorts of government. I believe that chain of thought to be the reason behind the strong national identity that has been fostered since the beginning of the USA. By providing people with an idyllic mold to fit into that also happened to benefit society in the form of propaganda like the Federalist Papers –which Jefferson edited- the population was pushed in the direction the founding fathers figured necessary for the continued success of the then infant democracy. My favorite assertion of Rousseau’s, though, is that true democracy is impossible without a slave class for the voters to live off of while deliberating on issues; the idea provides an interesting perspective on the age old conundrum of why a group of intellectuals would industrialize the enslavement of their fellow man. There are endless opportunities for deep thought provided by this book; the systematic analysis of different governments/systems of control, like religion, is also an eye-opener of a read, even at surface level.
I have to mention depth of understanding because even to an experienced and intelligent reader The Social Contract is a lot to take in. It is from a time when, unlike today, ventures that required deep thought were held in a high regard. This book was not written for the modern reader, and my experience taught me that being one leaves a person at a disadvantage. There are concepts that went over my head, references I have no desire to or hope of tracking down, and a general sense of mental superiority emanating from the text that left me feeling like a child on the receiving end of a scolding filled with words too big for me to understand. That all being said, I loved the entire experience; reading is to acquire knowledge, to acquire knowledge is to battle ignorance, and to battle ignorance its presence must first be confronted. The Social Contract is worth the large amount of effort required to achieve a light understanding, and has the potential to double, triple, exponentially extend its value based on the amount of dedication a person dumps into its pages. Even 250 years after its publication this book remains relevant; The Social Contract is a masterpiece.
What kept me reading: The anything goes analysis. Rousseau’s no-holds barred approach to knowledge got him displaced many times in his life; his suffering has proven to be the world’s gain. I could fill this space with quotes but to pick gems of knowledge from this book is to pull a jewel from a crown and speak on its beauty; this work of art is better experienced as a whole. The Social Contract is often intimidatingly brilliant – I happen to be a person that loves a challenge.
Recommended for: Everyone; this is a mental obstacle course that every brain should have to navigate through
Fun fact: This book would hold the elevator door open for you, but not if you needed the exercise from the stairs.