Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762) – Summary

Who is Jean-Jacque Rousseau?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a prominent theorist, writer and philosopher during the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe. His first significant work on philosophy was titled ‘A Discourse on the Sciences and Arts’.  Rousseau argues in this essay that the advancement of science and the arts has corrupted virtues and morals. These ideas spread rapidly and made Rousseau famous and recognisable, laying the foundation for his more in-depth work ‘The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. The major argument of the text is that humans are fundamentally good by nature, but have been tainted by the complicated historical events that have resulted in modern civil society. Rousseau’s appreciation for nature is a recurring subject in his later writings. The Social Contract aided in the inspiration of political reforms or revolutions throughout Europe, particularly in France. The Social Contract reasoned that rulers did not have divine authority to legislate. According to Rousseau, only the sovereign people really do have an all-powerful right.

What is a ‘Social Contract’?

The term social contract often involves two different kinds of contract: The first being related to the origin of the state and the second type of social contract may be more aptly referred to as the contract of government or the contract of submission. It has nothing to do with the beginnings of society in general, but it attempts to specify the conditions under which society is to be governed: the people have entered into a contract with their ruler that governs their interactions with them. They pledge the monarch allegiance, and the ruler promises them safety and excellent governance in return. When either end of the contract is violated, the loyalty is said to be shattered. Thomas Hobbes provides the first thorough elaboration and justification of the concept of a social contract, which is rightfully linked with contemporary moral and political thought. Following Hobbes, the most well-known proponents of this fundamentally important theory, which has been one of the most prominent views within moral and political thought all through the history of the modern West, are John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Despite his relatively pessimistic view of humanity, Hobbes manages to construct an argument that renders civil society, with all of its benefits, viable through his social contract theory. Because Locke did not see the State of Nature as cynically as Hobbes did, he could also foresee circumstances in which it would be wiser to reject a specific civil government and return to the State of Nature in order to build a better civil government instead.

Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’

  1. Summary of ‘The Social Contract’
    Having incorporated the ideas of private property and highlighting the beginning stages of inequalities, Rousseau wrote that Others who own property see that it is in their best interests to establish a government that will defend their private property against those who do not own it but can see that they may be able to obtain it by force. So, the government is constituted through a contract that pretends to ensure equality and protection for all, even if its ultimate goal is to maintain the disparities created by private property. In other words, the contract, which seems to be in benefit of everyone equally, is really in the favour of the few who have become stronger and wealthier as a result of private property growth. This is the naturalised social compact, which Rousseau sees as the source of modern society’s strife and struggle. Rousseau’s normative social contract, advocated for in The Social Contract (1762), is intended to deal with this unfortunate condition of affairs and to repair the social and moral problems caused by the growth of society. The gap between history and reasoning, between mankind’s actual situation and how it should live together, is crucial to Rousseau.
                The Social Contract opens with Rousseau’s most famous words: “Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.” From this intriguing start, Rousseau goes on to detail the numerous ways in which civil society’s “chains” hinder man’s fundamental entitlement to natural freedom. He claims that civil society does little to protect the equality and individual freedom that a human is promised when they enter into it.  According to Rousseau, political power is only legitimate if the people being governed have consented to it via a social contract. In this book, Rousseau attempts to define the term ‘sovereign’. He understands a group of people, who consent to join civil society, as the sovereign and should be seen as an individual person with a unified will. He does this while acknowledging that each individual may exhibit unique and differing opinions in accordance with their personal circumstances. Hence, the sovereign expresses the general will of the people in order to provide for the common good. The most essential purpose of the unified will is to guide the formulation of state legislation. These laws, even if formulated by an unbiased, noncitizen law maker, must represent the common will. As a result, while all laws must protect the rights of citizens to equality and individual freedom, Rousseau claims that their specifics can be tailored to local conditions. Although laws are created by and for the people, he states that some kind of government is required to carry out the role of executing laws and monitoring the state’s day-to-day operations.
                According to Rousseau, depending on the size and qualities of the state, this governance may take several forms, including monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and each of these forms has different advantages and disadvantages. He says that  a monarch is always the strongest and that it may be required in all governments in times of emergency. However, he maintains that aristocracy, or rule by a selected group of people, is the most stable and preferred structure in most governments. The primary takeaway of Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’ is that the government obtains the right to exist and govern by “the agreement of the governed.” This may not seem like an extreme viewpoint now, but it was not an easily digestible concept when The Social Contract was first written. Rousseau covers a variety of types of administration that may not appear democratic to modern eyes, but his focus was always on determining how to guarantee that the general desire of all the citizens was conveyed as accurately as possible in their government. He was continuously looking for methods to make society as democratic as possible.
  2. Rousseau vs Hobbes vs Locke – Comparing social contract theories (400)

    Prior to the works released during the enlightenment specifically of European philosophy, most rulers claimed that they possessed the divine right to rule over the citizens, and since most of the latter were religious, they readily accepted this power over them that supposedly came “directly from god”. As discussed above, the social contract theory was an attempt to dismantle this belief and establish a system where the right to have power over another came from the people itself. Apart from Rousseau, there were numerous philosophers who had their own take on the idea of a social contract.

            Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are two other notable philosophers who wrote about the social contract. Hobbes maintained that “Life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short” and that authority was necessary to ensure safety. Hobbes’ rationale for political responsibility is as follows: because men are inherently self-interested, yet rational, they would choose to submit to the rule of a Sovereign to have the ability to exist in a civil society that is beneficial to their own interests. Hobbes makes this case by visualising mankind in its natural state. Locke on the other hand believed, similarly to Rousseau, that the government should rule through the consent of the people and their function was to protect life, liberty and property. The State of Nature, unlike Hobbes, is not a state of persons, as per Locke. It is instead populated by parents with their offspring, or families, which he refers to as “conjugal society”. These communities are moral but not political, as they are founded on mutual understanding to look after children jointly. Individual men, representing their families, form political society when they agree in the State of Nature to give up the executive right to punish individuals who violate the Law of Nature and transfer that power over to a government.
            Modern societies use these three philosophers’ ideas as the foundation upon which they form their government. Most liberal democracies are often linked to John Locke’s idea of governments protecting individual freedom and private property. One common point of uncertainty for the philosophers was the extent to which governments and law could curb the citizen’s freedoms in exchange for security.

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Shaun Paul is a student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts doing a 4 year honours course. His major is International Relations and minors are Political Science and Sociology. He has been writing articles and reports since the age of 12 and has always found solace in researching, on most topics under the sun, and wishes to showcase this passion in his time at the Sociology Group.