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Why does Rousseau matter today?

Posted: 03/ 7/2012 1:54 pm

This year, Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau turns 300. To celebrate, the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York and the City of Geneva have curated a series of events exploring Swiss innovation. Included in the festival is "Occupy Rousseau," an evening of discussion around Rousseau and democracy at the New York Public Library on March 9.

Ambassador François Barras, consul general of Switzerland in New York, shares his thoughts on why Rousseau's ideas remain so crucial in our modern world.

How do the political ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau - an 18th century philosopher born before universal suffrage, when most of the world was ruled by absolute monarchies - speak to 21st century New Yorkers? What could his relevance to our lives possibly be today?

Rousseau lived in a very different era, but his exploration of the place of the individual in society could have been written yesterday. His words address many of today's worries, especially about social inequality and dysfunctional democracy.

Most experts agree that we are experiencing a profound social malaise. The growing income divide is one of the biggest risks facing the world in the coming years. Many citizens feel unrepresented by the people they elect and threatened by the many lobbies defending special interests. If the social contract we take for granted is really in danger of being destroyed in our developed society, it is essential to define a new one. Rousseau's ideas are integral to that quest.

Rousseau does not offer ready-made solutions but often asks the right questions: How do we reconcile man's individualism and the interests of society? How do we organize political life around a common aim? He also corners meaningful concepts, such as the general will expressed in the social contract between the citizen and the state, emphasizing the importance of political participation and the danger of extreme inequalities. He highlights the values of freedom, equality and community.

Like Rousseau three centuries ago, we in the 21st-century have to look for and identify the common good that will enable our society to revive democracy, solidarity and the art of living together.

"Occupy Rousseau: Inequality and Social Justice," an evening of readings, debates, discussions and presentations, will be hosted by LIVE from the NYPL on March 9. More information can be found at nypl.org/live.

The event is presented as part of ThinkSwiss: Genève Meets New York, A Festival of Global Ideas Born In Geneva, running March 6-12. Building on the tricentennial anniversary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's birth, this festival features more than 10 panel discussions and live performances, drawing attention to global ideas that were born in Geneva and still reverberate worldwide today.

 

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