Jean-Jacques Rousseau and The Social Contract

Amidst the varied thoughts emerging during the Enlightenment, there was a French philosopher who could be seen participating in the famous French salons discussing the great intellectual questions of the time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract in 1762; during the middle of what is known as the Enlightenment. Although ideas varied amongst philosophers, the Enlightenment carried similar themes of rational questioning and the belief in progress through dialogue.

The Social Contract Theory

The Social Contract was the second of Rousseau’s two social contract theories.

In order to better understand the second, we must seek to better understand the first. His first social contract theory is a recounting of the moral and political evolution of human beings over time. In short, Rousseau theorizes that mankind began in a State of Nature (a peaceful, uncomplicated existence where every human’s need was satisfied by nature). As the population increased, resources began to be shared and people began to own private property. It was at this point, Rousseau says, that humanity faced a pivotal change.

He claims that this pivotal change introduced humanity to greed, inequality, vanity, competition, and vice: that the invention of private property brought about humanity’s “fall from grace” out of the State of Nature.

The Social Contract, or the second of Rousseau’s two social contract theories, attempts to respond to this poor state of affairs and to fix the social and moral ills that have been generated by society. Two of the themes we can see emerging in this book are Rousseau’s idea of a sovereignty and moral obligation.

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He said, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” In other words, humans are essentially free, but because of the introduction of “civilization” we have moved to a more subservient state of being.

In attempting to address the philosophical question “How can we be free and live together?”, Rousseau subscribes to the idea of a sovereignty as opposed to bending to the whims of a monarchy. The sovereign is the supreme authority in the state consisting of the citizens. “now, because the sovereign is made out of nothing but its constituent individuals, it doesn’t and can’t have any interest contrary to theirs… the body can’t possibly wish to hurt all its members” The sovereign’s interest, or the “general will” always promotes the common good. If it so chooses, the sovereign can replace its leaders and change the form of government. In contrast to the monarchy in France, the sovereign cannot use money to avoid their responsibilities because this corrupts the state and destroys civil liberty. Rousseau argues that if a monarchy is replaced by the sovereign, each person is both a contributing member of the state, and a citizen that must abide by its decisions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserts that normal and flawed society unfairly favors the strong and wealthy and that the citizens are ruled by fear and submit to force. In The Social Contract, he argues that taking away the money and strength of its citizens puts humanity on an equal level, thereby resulting in their desire to obey. Rousseau stated, “An equality that is moral and legitimate, so that the men that may be unequal in strength or intelligence become equal by agreement and legal right.” Rousseau was disgusted by what he saw in France when he moved there from his birthplace in Sweden. He witnessed an artificial, unjust, and selfish society and government. As mankind progressed from a State of Nature, acting only on physical urges, to a sovereign state, he begins to feel a duty to his fellow man. Because of this moral change, Rousseau argues, man’s intelligence is developed and his soul is magnified.

Concepts of reason and liberty

With its rise of concepts such as reason and liberty, Enlightenment philosophy contributed to the French and American revolutions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract outlined the beliefs of the French Revolution. After the Revolutions ushered in new governments, The Social Contract provided an ideal the people would seek to attain. Rousseau was a major proponent of the French Revolution, and all revolutions in general. While the social contract was written well before the Revolution, its impact was transformative not only to the French, but anyone seeking to break free from the confines of monarchy.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau and The Social Contract. (2022, Mar 06). Retrieved from

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