Chapter 5 Laconism and the Literary Politics of the Social Contract

In: Silence, Implicite et Non-Dit chez Rousseau / Silence, the Implicit and the Unspoken in Rousseau

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In terms of style, The Social Contract has often been considered to be the most uncharacteristic work of Rousseau. I argue that its laconism reflects Rousseau’s political ideal of republican action while also engaging with the French moraliste tradition of brief writing. But because of its very brevity, the Social Contract poses difficulties of reading and comprehension. Rousseau claimed that the Social Contract is a difficult text that does not aim to have a broad appeal. Nonetheless, the work’s linguistic economy is also the source of its political brilliance: expressions such as “le moi commun” concisely convey new political entities such as the general will. I attend to Rousseau’s subtle and complex use of summarizing and elliptical language in order to tease out possible connections and differences between the Social Contract and other works of Rousseau such as Émile and the unfinished Institutions Politiques. I argue that the Social Contract invites a critical reading that is congruent with a modern ideal of readership.