33 Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Jean-jacques Rousseau Maurice Quentin de La Tour [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons






Jean-Jacques Rousseau,  1712 – 1778 CE,  was a philosopher of the 18th century who mostly lived and was active in France. His political philosophy influenced western Europe, including aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political thought.

Rousseau’s  Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones in contemporary political thought.

The Social Contract outlines what ought to be in place for a legitimate and publicly supported  political order. It is possibly the most influential work of political philosophy in the West. The treatise begins with the often heard opening lines, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”

Rousseau followed the work of Hobbes and claimed that the state of nature was a human existence that was without law or morality, which humans needed to leave behind in order to truly thrive and survive. As society developed, the human race was required to have institutions of law in order to protect themselves and to ensure that all people in a society or community kept their word to one another. According to Rousseau, by joining together through the concept of a social contract and giving up some of their inborn freedoms, individual people could  both protect themselves and remain basically free to live as they chose. This is because obeying the general will of the people through the laws that are agreed upon by the community guarantees all individuals both physical safety and protection from tyranny because they are, as a whole, the authors of those accepted laws.


This column from the New York Times helps apply some of Rousseau’s ideas to modern living

How Rousseau Predicted Trump



“No-one will dispute that the General Will is in each individual a pure act of the understanding, which reasons while the passions are silent on what a man may demand of his neighbour and on what his neighbour has a right to demand of him.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Excerpts from the book’s Introduction by  George Douglas Howard Cole, 1920

Rousseau has suffered as much as any one from critics without a sense of history. He has been cried up and cried down by democrats and oppressors with an equal lack of understanding and imagination. His name, a hundred and fifty years after the publication of the Social Contract, is still a controversial watchword and a party cry. He is accepted as one of the greatest writers France has produced; but even now men are inclined, as political bias prompts them, to accept or reject his political doctrines as a whole, without sifting them or attempting to understand and discriminate. He is still revered or hated as the author who, above all others, inspired the French Revolution.

Plaque of Jean-Jacques Rousseau issued by Geneva in 1912When he remarks that “the facts,” the actual history of political societies, “do not concern him,” he is not contemptuous of facts; he is merely asserting the sure principle that a fact can in no case give rise to a right. His desire is to establish society on a basis of pure right, so as at once to disprove his attack on society generally and to reinforce his criticism of existing societies.

Round this point centers the whole dispute about the methods proper to political theory. There are, broadly speaking, two schools of political theorists, if we set aside the psychologists. One school, by collecting facts, aims at reaching broad generalizations about what actually happens in human societies! the other tries to penetrate to the universal principles at the root of all human combination. For the latter purpose facts may be useful, but in themselves they can prove nothing. The question is not one of fact, but one of right.

The problem of political obligation is seen as including all other political problems, which fall into place in a system based upon it. How, Rousseau asks, can the will of the State help being for me a merely external will, imposing itself upon my own? How can the existence of the State be reconciled with human freedom? How can man, who is born free, rightly come to be everywhere in chains?

Wherever any form of government apart from the merest tyranny exists, reflection on the basis of the State cannot but lead to the notion that, in one sense or another, it is based on the consent, tacit or expressed, past or present, of its members. In this alone, the greater part of the Social Contract theory is already latent. Add the desire to find actual justification for a theory in facts, and, especially in an age possessed only of the haziest historical sense, this doctrine of consent will inevitably be given a historical setting. If in addition there is a tendency to regard society as something unnatural to humanity, the tendency will become irresistible. By writers of almost all schools, the State will be represented as having arisen, in some remote age, out of a compact or, in more legal phrase, contract between two or more parties. The only class that will be able to resist the doctrine is that which maintains the divine right of kings, and holds that all existing governments were were imposed on the people by the direct interposition of God. All who are not prepared to maintain that will be partisans of some form or other of the Social Contract theory.

The second view, which may be called the Social Contract theory proper,
regards society as originating in,"The Mayflower Compact was the first governing document of Plymouth Colony. It was drafted by the Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower, seeking religious freedom. It was signed on November 11, 1620 (OS) in what is now Provincetown Harbor near Cape Cod." or based on, an agreement between the individuals composing it. It seems to be found first, rather vaguely, in Richard Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, from which Locke largely borrowed: and it reappears, in varying forms, in Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in Hobbes’s Leviathan, in Locke’s Treatises on Civil Government, and in Rousseau. The best-known instance of its actual use is by the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower in 1620, in whose declaration occurs the phrase, “We do solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.” The natural implication of this view would seem to be the corollary of complete popular Sovereignty which Rousseau draws. But before Rousseau’s time it had been used to support views as diverse as those which rested on the first form. We saw that, in Grotius’s great work, De Jure Belli et Pacis, it was already possible to doubt which of the two theories was being advocated. The first theory was, historically, a means of popular protest against royal aggression. As soon as popular government was taken into account, the act of contract between people and government became in effect merely a contract between the individuals composing the society, and readily passed over into the second form.



The best-known instance of its (social contract) actual use is by the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower in 1620, in whose declaration occurs the phrase, “We do solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.”



We thus come at last to the General Will, the most disputed, and certainly the most fundamental, of all Rousseau’s political concepts. No critic of the Social Contract has found it easy to say either what precisely its author meant by it, or what is its final value for political philosophy. The difficulty is increased because Rousseau himself sometimes halts in the sense which he assigns to it, and even seems to suggest by it two different ideas. Of its broad meaning, however, there can be no doubt. The effect of the Social Contract is the creation of a new individual. When it has taken place, “at once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, the act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from the act its unity, its common identity (moi commun), its life and its will” (Book I, chap. vi).

It has often been held that Rousseau cannot really have inspired the French Revolution because this view is totally inconsistent with the “rights of man,” which the revolutionaries so fervently proclaimed. If every right is alienated in the Social Contract, what sense can there be in talking of “natural rights” afterwards? This, however, is to misrepresent Rousseau’s position. The rights of man as they are preached by the modern individualist, are not the rights of which Rousseau and the revolutionaries were thinking. We have seen that the theory of the Social Contract is founded on human freedom: this freedom carries with it, in Rousseau’s view, the guarantee of its own permanence; it is inalienable and indestructible. When, therefore, government becomes despotic, it has no more right over its subjects than the master has over his slave (Book I, chap, iv); the question is then purely one of might. In such cases, appeal may be made either to the terms of the Social Contract, or, putting the same idea another way, to the “natural right” of human freedom. This natural right is in no sense inconsistent with the complete alienation supposed in the Contract; for the Contract itself reposes on it and guarantees its maintenance. The Sovereign must, therefore, treat all its members alike; but, so long as it does this, it remains omnipotent. If it leaves the general for the particular, and treats one man better than another, it ceases to be Sovereign; but equality is already presupposed in the terms of the Contract.

Key Takeaway

The term “general” will means, in Rousseau, not so much “will held by several persons,” as will having a general (universal) object. This is often misunderstood; but the mistake matters the less, because the General Will must, in fact, be both.



Jean-Jacques Rousseau Museum, the Donjon (study in the garden).Key Points from Rousseau:

(Book I, chap. vi).

The effect of the Social Contract is the creation of a new individual. When it has taken place,

“at once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, the act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from the act its unity, its common identity (moi commun), its life and its will”


(Book I, chap, viii),

Here he is speaking of the change brought about by the establishment of a society.

“The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had hitherto lacked…. What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty … which is limited by the general will…. We might, over and above all this, add to what man acquires in the civil state moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.


(Book II, chap. iii)

It is possible for a citizen, when an issue is presented to him or her, to vote not for the good of the State, but for his or her own good.

“There is often,” he says, “a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter takes account only of the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills. The agreement of all interests is formed by opposition to that of each”


(Book II, chap. iii)

He claims that ignorance often creates problems in the General Will of people as a whole.

“The general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is: the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad”


(Book IV, chap, ii)

This is the passage expressing that humans can only approximate Social Contract.

“When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked is not exactly whether it accepts or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is its will…. When, therefore, the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so.”


divider between body and bibliography


The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Social Contract & Discourses, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Translated by George Douglas Howard Cole.  This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org

Title: The Social Contract & Discourses

Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Release Date: July 19, 2014 [eBook #46333]

Language: English



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