Jean-Jacques Rousseau – The family, the oldest of societies

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the Social Contract makes the family the oldest of all societies, and the only natural one. Just after having explained the project of his work, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau takes it upon himself to explain immediately what the family is. The family is thus the first step in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s explanation of any political system, and of any society. It is as much to say that the family has a particular importance in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s reflection.

→ General Knowledge: The Family

Children remain bound to the father, as long as they are in need. Jean-Jacques Rousseau then compares, keeping his caution, the father with the chief, the children with the people. However, the relationship between the father and the children is not that of the State, the difference residing in the love that the father and the children have for each other, while the chief does not feel the same love for his people, rather attracted by the power that the command simply provides him.

The oldest of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family: still the children remain bound to the father only as long as they need him to preserve themselves. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond dissolves. The children, free from the obedience they owed to the father; the father, free from the care he owed to the children, all return equally to independence. If they continue to remain united, it is no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is maintained only by convention.

This common freedom is a consequence of man’s nature. His first law is to look after his own preservation, his first care is that which he owes to himself; and as soon as he is of age, he alone, being the judge of the means appropriate to his preservation, becomes thereby his own master.

The family is thus, if you like, the first model of political societies: the chief is the image of the father, the people are the image of the children; and all, being born equal and free, alienate their freedom only for their own benefit. The difference is that, in the family, the father’s love for his children pays for the care he gives them; and that, in the State, the pleasure of command supplements the love that the ruler does not have for his people.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I, Chapter II

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