“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau


I was talking to my friend Steve last weekend and, as is often the case, we went off into lofty heights where ideas constellate. He was telling me about a new “social contract” he was investigating. That sent me back to Rousseau, of whom I have only a wisp of a classroom memory.

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (born in Geneva in 1712) was intrigued by an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon in 1749 that asked “Has the revival of the arts and sciences done more to corrupt or to purify morals?”

Rousseau started on an essay that he would title “A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” which ended up making him “a writer almost against my will. …The remainder of my life and all my subsequent misfortunes were the inevitable result of this moment of aberration.”

His essay won first prize. He argued that the advances of science and art had been harmful to humanity by consolidating power in the hands of governments and creating an atmosphere of competition and fear between citizens.

He went on to write many more philosophical works. His most famous is The Social Contract (1762). The essence of his argument, which is all I retained from any study I had of his work, is a bummer. He said that the natural condition of humanity is to be brutal and lawless. It is only through an agreed “social contract” of what constitutes a good society that humans are able to rise above their base nature.

Sometimes we rise. Sometimes we fall.

Visit Steve’s hibernating blog, The Constellating Image , and tell him to wake it up.