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Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract Explained


The Man Behind the Contract


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. His mother dying in the process of giving birth to him which caused a rift between him and his father. This divide was so great that at only ten years old his father abandoned him to be raised by distant family. Which in itself only lasted until he was the age of twelve at which point he decided to leave school and set off on his own.


The adolescent Rousseau moved from place to place, taking odd jobs, living off charity and doing whatever he could to survive. It was at the age of fifteen he met one of the most influential people of his early life, Madame de Warrens, a Swiss Baroness, thirteen years his senior. Beyond being his lover, the well educated woman tutored the young Rousseau on Philosophy, literature and Religion.



But after ten years he moved on continuing his life as a vagabond. Eventually he met the woman he would later marry Therese Le Vasseur, a woman very different than Madame de Warrens, as she could was very poor and couldn't read or write. Rousseau would mingle with Paresian intellectual groups even though he was the only one among them without a formal education. Eventually he would cast off the city life for the countryside in 1756.


It was here in the quiet rolling hills in the year 1762 he would publish one of his most seminal works, that of the Social Contract. Eventually he would return to Paris where he would eventually die of an apoplectic stroke. Though his life was fraught with turmoil his many books are looked back on as some of the most important works of Philosophy from his time and though he would not live to see it, some regard the ideas he put forth as one of the catalysts for the French revolution.


The Social Contract



“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau begins his book, the social contract, with a declaration of both the natural state of humanity and its current position. What he means in these words is that we as humans were only truly free in our earliest form, a state he would define as the noble savage, a natural manifestation of humanity that we slowly moved away from as we came closer together, at first as tribes then as nations.


Through which we have deliberately allowed ourselves to be enslaved by those who stole power for their own. In that the state, as it stood in his time, did not grant freedom but rather took it from us, so that some may prosper while many suffered. In this way he aimed to envision a form of state that, while it would not allow us to be totally free; as we were in our natural form, would grant freedom through the application of the General Will of the members of that state, you and I.


Before the advent of the Romanticism movement, spurred on by writers and Philosophers like Rousseau, humanity was considered inherently vile and selfish and thus must be governed by the noble and strong. Rousseau rebelled against this notion, as there was no inherent right when it came to strength, and that it was rather an explanation provided by those in power to validate their existence. In his earlier work, the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men, he would explain this transition from the noble savage to that of humanities current form.



In regards to the noble savage he would say that humanity had two core traits, amour de soi and pitie or an instinct for self preservation and empathy for ones own species. In this form of being the noble savage cared not for property, possessions or control over one another, but rather lived simple lives where each person lived for themselves while holding compassion for one another. Stating that they had "no moral relations with or determinate obligations to one another" To Rousseau this was our state of nature and our straying from this form over time, is what has created our bonds of enslavement to kings and governments, to those who rule, not for our sake, but their own. To this end he states:


“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying 'This is mine', and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

What he is saying in this statement is that before the advent of civil society there was more land and resources than we could conceivably use and everyone lived for themselves in a nomadic lifestyle. Slowly though, we began living closer together, began claiming private property, cultivating land and dividing labor among ourselves, which created interdependence. This interdependence, as he defined, was one where no single person had all of the skills that were required to survive, as it had been in the past. Instead each person relied on another to do part of that work. Eventually we would claim land then task others to work it for us.



Within this transition the concepts of wealth and status were born. At first there was little difference in this wealth and status, but as we refined our civilization these gaps became greater and social hierarchies were formed. Through this progression we valued less how we saw ourselves and more how others saw us. This is where the values of empathy were replaced with envy. In his mind envy was the root of humanities failings.


After these social hierarchies became what we know them now to be, it was prudent to those with power and wealth to make laws that maintained their status rather than provide the best life it could for its citizens. To this Rousseau said in his book the social contract:


“In truth, laws are always useful to those with possessions and harmful to those who have nothing; from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all possess something and none has too much”

With this realization he set out to form a political philosophy which could govern humanity, through individual states, in a way closest to a desirable outcome for all not a few. As he knew we could never truly return back to the state of nature, as society had progressed beyond the point of no return. This is when he would go on to write his most important work, the Social contract.



In the Social contract Rousseau envisioned a system where we as the people would define the general will of the citizens within the state, which in turn would dictate the laws that would govern us. This governance through the application of the general will was, in his mind, the only chance we had for liberty.



The entity of the state that Rousseau lays out is called the sovereign, and each person within the sovereign makes up the whole and that the will of the whole is referred to as the general will. Through leveraging the general will laws will be created that benefit the sovereign and state. This does mean that all within the state must abide by the general will which is codified in the constitution and the laws. It may seem as though you are bending your knee to others and rejecting freedom by creating such laws, but he saw it different, as we are the ones defining the rules in which we live by, in turn becoming masters of ourselves not others. In this regard he says:


“Apart from the foregoing, to the gains of the civil state might be added moral liberty, which alone makes man truly master of himself; for the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery, while obedience to the laws you have set yourself is liberty.”

This notion can come off as contradictory, how can we be free through obedience to laws, but I think of it like this. Laws in their purest form are a contract we hold with one another to codify the morality of the state. If these laws are decided upon through the application of the general will, then those laws are aligned with our own view of how the state should function. So then if we have agreed upon the terms that we ourselves have set forth then we are merely stating how we intend to interact with the state in a way that benefits us, as well as those we share the state with, the sovereign. Freedom as it was in the time of the Noble Savage can no longer be obtained, while freedom through a cooperation based on the needs of the sovereign and not some foreign entity is the closest we can come to such freedom.



These laws would be applied to all within the state and none above them. They would not be created to protect the wealthy and powerful but rather to allow each person within the state to have what they need and none in excess. I find the best example of this notion is his thoughts on property and how it should be divided, for this he set three rules:


“First, that this land not yet be occupied by anyone; secondly, that you occupy only so much of it as you need to subsist; in the third place, that you take possession of it not through some vein ceremony, but by labor and cultivation...”

Through this declaration he makes it known that we cannot have more than we can feasibly work ourselves, which is a rejection of the idea of holding onto great estates which are worked upon by laborer's or worse yet slaves. If this is upheld then everyone will have what they need and no one person can take beyond their means.



Rousseau talks a lot about how we should strive for a state where everyone is equally free, but this does not mean equal in every right. He does not mean that each person of the state will be equal in wealth and power, but rather equal in rights and means. To this end he makes the statement which I think is important to bring up.


“As for equality, this word must not be taken to mean that degrees of power and wealth should be absolutely identical, but that in the case of power it should stop short of violence, and never be exerted other than in keeping with rank and laws; and in the case of wealth no citizen should be so opulent as to be able to buy another, and none so poor as to be forced to sell himself.”

When crafting these laws the general will must always be upheld as an obligation to one another, and no law may name an individual or group, it must only apply to the sovereign as a whole. These laws must work for another just as they must work for ones self. These laws then would be an obligation we hold to one another to guarantee that each person is as free.


“The engagements that bind us to the social body are obligatory only because they are mutual, and their nature is such that fulfilling them you cannot work for another without working also for yourself.”

The contrast can be seen, and the point further understood, by looking to our current state, as we are often beholden to laws which hold little merit, serve the ruling class not the citizen, or worse yet are harmful to the people. In fact we can look to the sheer amount of criminal activity within the states we reside, despite the wealth of laws that govern us, as not a failing of the individual but a failing of the state. For if all have what they need and envy was replaced with empathy, in that of our natural form, then those that strike out against the sovereign and have chosen to break the contract we have agreed upon would be few in numbers. In this way a well governed state would be one with few laws and little crime. If either become numerous then we can be sure that such a state is rotting at its core.



I have mentioned many times that the general will of the sovereign dictates the laws that govern it, but this isn't the whole picture. For the function of the state there would still have to be those who govern and those who obey. In this way he saw the state in three parts. The citizens of the state, who dictate the general will which he called the sovereign, or legislators of the law, though legislators in this sense means those who decide upon the laws not those who codify it. The government who writes, enforces and maintains the laws in accordance with the general will, also called the executors, and finally the state which is both the sovereign and the government combined. Both the sovereign and the government are single entities but both must maintain their part of the bargain lest the state itself will fail.


Now the important distinction Rousseau made clear in the social contract was that the executors of the laws cannot be the people who decide upon the laws, and the legislators cannot be the one to enforce the laws. This separation would maintain a balance. For if the government were allowed to decide on the general will it would then create laws that were in its best interest and not that of the people, and if the sovereign did not abide by the laws that the government enforces then anarchy would ensue. In this way the government is merely the force and the people the right. If either were to break from their role then the state would suffer. In book two of the social contract he lays out this balance as such


“The Government receives from the sovereign the orders that it gives to the people, and for the State to be well balanced there must, all things being equal, be parity between the product or power of the Government taken in itself and the product or power of the citizens who are sovereign in one hand and subjects in the other.”

To the point of Government, Rousseau goes on to say that there is not one single style of Government that is right for enacting the general will of the people, but he does lay out advantages and disadvantages of each. These governments can take any form, from that of a democratic government, an aristocracy, or even a Monarchy. We won't go to much into this point but when deciding upon a government to enact the will of the sovereign it must take into consideration size, climate, traditions, resources and many other factors.


While creating a government holds the greatest potential for failing, in that the government would naturally wish to prolong its existence by creating laws that benefit it, he does make it clear that there are always safeguards put in place, and that the general will is above all else the granters of government. You see while the government is setup to be the executors of laws they are not above them or the people. If the sovereign ever decides a law or a government does not serve the general will then it will be abolished and replaced. This means that the general will must always be checked in on through assembly, and that no one law or government lays stagnant if it fails to serve the state and the sovereign. This means assemblies and voting are still important no matter the governmental style, even while utilizing a monarchy. For this he says


"... the act of instituting government is no contract but a law; that those in whom the executive power is vested are not the people's masters, but its officers; that the people can appoint them and dismiss them as it pleases...”

From this point on in the book Rousseau will lay out the mechanics of the state in greater detail but for the sake of this article we will be satisfied with the abstract concepts which hold the Social contract together. I hope this gave you a better understanding of the core concept of Rousseau's social contract theory. From here I would recommend reading the book to learn more about the finer details.


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