11. Keeping the Peace:
Conversations with Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, Penguin Classics, ISBN: 0140431950
The Social Contract and Discourses, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Everyman, ISBN: 0460873571
Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract belong on any short list of the greatest works of
political philosophy, not only for their compelling ideas, but also for their powerful and beautiful prose styles. Based on fundamentally different views of human nature, Hobbes and Rousseau come to contrary conclusions about how society should be organized and governed. Hobbes challenges us to consider whether it is only by surrendering individual liberty to absolute authority that humans can secure society against their own innate tendency to be at war with each other. Rousseau starts from the premise that humans are innately cooperative and asks us to consider that only individuals agreeing to exercise their natural freedom for a common purpose can assure a peaceful and fulfilling society. Their ideas represent an essential tension in any serious thought about political authority and power.
We will read and discuss Rousseau and Hobbes as if they are responding to each other and inviting us to join their ongoing conversation. Hobbes wrote at the time of the English Civil War; Rousseau wrote in the years preceding the French Revolution.
We, too, live in interesting times that may influence our
responses to their ideas.
Donald Whitfield is Director of Higher Education Programs at the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. He believes that the sparks generated by considering Hobbes and Rousseau side by side can illuminate the great and perennial political problems of any time, especially our own.