People often seem to forget that Rousseau dedicated his Second Discourse to “The Republic of Geneva.” This is a shame because, in doing so, they miss precious clues not only about the meaning of the Discourse itself, but also about its place in Rousseau’s political thought as a whole.
It is no accident that Rousseau dedicated the Discourse on Inequality, his most radical work of all, to his hometown of Geneva; but it requires some research into the historical context to understand why. In Geneva a patrician ruling elite was using social contract theory to subvert the democratic principles of the city’s ancient constitution. Arguments taken from theorists such as Pufendorf, Barbeyrac and Burlamaqui - joined with notions of doux commerce that were current during the Enlightenment - were being used to legitimize an increasingly oligarchical regime. As perhaps the period’s most famous “citizen of Geneva,” Rousseau’s duty was to speak out.
Rousseau’s Dedication makes it clear that he did, indeed, intend to send a message to his fellow citizens. Their republic was in danger and needed their immediate attention. Through ostensible flattery, Rousseau delivered an ingenious criticism of the values of Geneva’s patrician magistrates as well as a strong warning about the direction in which they were taking the republic. In fact the Dedication also contains an outline of Rousseau’s theory of the ideal democratic state. However, it is not just the political ideas expressed in the Dedication and the Second Discourse that are so interesting and worthy of attention; it is also how he delivers his message. Rousseau reinforced his overall political message by appropriating, and then subverting, the rules and conventions of gift-giving.