Review of Rousseau’s Political Philosophy: An Interpretation from Within

Review of Rousseau's Political Philosophy: An Interpretation from Within, by Stephen Ellenburg, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Jun 1978), pp. 485-486.


In spite of its title, this book does not give the impression of penetrating to the core of Rousseau’s arguments or his sensibility. Rather it presents a somewhat superficial and homogenized survey of Rousseau’s explicitly political writings from a perspective provided by the author’s thesis. The thesis is that Rousseau is both an anarchist and a communitarian. This is, of course, nothing new. It is just another way of stating the formula Rousseau himself gives for the social contract which consists in finding “a form of association which defends and protects with all the common force the person and the goods of each associate and by which each, uniting himself to all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.” Interpretation would consist in rendering this formula plausible whereas this book seems only to restate it over and over again without adequately reproducing Rousseau’s profound reasoning or his responses to the serious objections which he was aware that it involved. Everyone knows that Rousseau somehow reacted against liberalism or individualism and tried to reestablish the basis for a true common good, but Ellenburg acts as though this were his own unique discovery. I am frankly perplexed by the banality of this book which is made up largely of whirlwind resumes of Rousseau’s books. These resumes Ellenburg contrasts with eighteenth-century thought as conceived by standard intellectual history. Ellenburg simply dismisses Rousseau’s explicit agreement with, for example, Hobbes and Locke on such fundamentals as the definition of natural right. He thereby deprives us of an authentic account of Rousseau’s break with his immediate predecessors and the great difficulty he faced in arriving at such different conclusions on the basis of similar premises. He would have done better in giving us a close analysis of what Rousseau said about Locke instead of comparing what contemporary historians think of Locke as opposed to what they think of Rousseau.