Rousseau in 1753, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Rousseau: Inequality and Democracy

Instructor: Michael Stevenson

“Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.”So began Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, one of the first modern meditations on how democracy, autonomy, and self-government can overturn the rampant inequality found in human society. Rousseau provocatively claimed that it was excessive social and economic inequality, rather than natural differences, that account for unfreedom and alienation. As he wrote in 1754, “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellowmen, ‘Do not listen to this imposter.” For Rousseau, the proper response to such a situation was to transform that degrading civil society into truly a democratic one, imbued with the power to ‘force people to be free.’

Rousseau, who would become a much revered figure during the French Revolution, agreed with his Enlightenment contemporaries that human beings, through reason, possessed a unique capacity to control their moral and political destiny.  He disagreed, however, that we have in fact used this capacity in the service of human emancipation and justice; humanity has used it, rather, to become a “tyrant over himself and nature”.

In this class we will examine Rousseau’s philosophy with the goal of evaluating the applicability of his account to our own contemporary state of rapidly growing inequality, both nationally and globally. We will examine his account of how inequality takes root in society alongside his prescription for curing these ills through the attempt to recover reason, both in the public sphere and on the personal and psychological level. The reality of 21st century global capitalism seems to include a return to levels of extreme inequality unseen since the late 19th century.  But what is the root cause of inequality?  What can really be done about it? These questions were Rousseau’s central concern and will animate our reading of his work. Texts include the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among MenOn the Social Contract, and Emile, or On Education. 

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm
May 12 — June 02, 2016
4 weeks


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