A Social Contract

I’ve been reading about the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who developed quite an enthusiastic following in 18th century France. The gist of his thinking had to do with the idea of subordinating individuality to participation in the ‘social welfare’ of all in the community (which he identified pretty clearly as ‘us’ not ‘them’, a xenophobe, I guess). He advocated a purer, simpler life free of the oppressive class divisions that competitive commercialism produced. The primacy of our community should always supersede personal acquisition and behaviors, he offered, which sounded to pretty much everyone at the time a virtuous direction for society to take.

Anyway, around the same time the enlightened public (the well-to-do ones anyway) were enthusiastically embracing these ideas, the king, Louis XVI was bankrupting France, allowing a lot of folks to go homeless and starving in the streets. Oblivious to the plight of the masses his Queen, Marie Antoinette, suggested that if the people were starving they should just go ahead and eat cake.

The people understandably revolted, stormed the Bastille, released political prisoners and guillotined the royal couple. The leadership vacuum was filled by the likes of an egocentric Robespierre who took to extremes the philosophical perspectives of our Rousseau such that if one wasn’t overtly sacrificing for the ‘general will’ she might likely end of guillotined or hung. Apparently, Rousseau’s ideas got a bit out of hand, applied with a bit too much zeal.

Lessons to be learned, I guess: be skeptical of leaders that attempt to isolate and demonize a perceived evil ‘other’, that find conspiracies were they don’t exist. Do we need another Napoleon?

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