Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Allan Bloom, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” in History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) pp.533-553.    


Rousseau begins the Social Contract with the celebrated words: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains. . . . How did this change come to pass? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? I believe I can resolve this question.” With this statement he poses the political problem in its most radical form and at the same time suggests the revolutionary principle that almost all existing regimes are illegitimate. Civil society enchains man and makes him a slave to law or other men whereas he was, as man, born to freedom, to the right to behave as he pleases. What is more, civil society, as it is now constituted, has no claim on the moral adhesion of‘its subjects; it is unjust. Rousseau’s political thought points away from the present in both directions: to man’s happy freedom of the past and to the establishment of a regime in the future which can appeal to the will of those under its authority. It is the task of the philosopher to make clear what man’s nature truly is and, on this basis, to define the conditions of a good political order. Rousseau’s thought has an externally paradoxical character, seeming at the same time to desire contradictories—virtue and soft sentiment, political society and the state of nature, philosophy and ignorance—but it is remarkably consistent, the contradictions reflecting contradictions in the nature of things. Rousseau undertook to clarify the meaning of modern theory and practice, and in so doing he brought to light radical consequences of modernity of which men were not previously aware. ‘