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The Social Contract

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
Project Gutenberg

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right,” 1762, found in The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole (London and Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923);

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a philosopher and political thinker from Geneva (in the French-speaking part of Switzerland). Rousseau’s thought influenced the Enlightenment across Europe. Along with John Locke, Rousseau created the concept of the social contract, which he explains in this excerpt. Compact is another word for contract. Unlike most other Enlightenment philosophers, Rousseau openly opposed slavery. Because Rousseau was a lawyer by training, he built his argument step by step, with many definitions and each idea adding onto the previous one. In the eighteenth century his writing seemed fiery and dramatic. What is the idea of the social contract, according to Rousseau? 



compact: contract 

gratuitously: free of charge, without good reason

association: a group of people organized for a joint purpose

alienate: transfer ownership of property to someone else

essence: the fundamental qualities of something

arbitrary: (of power or a ruling body) unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority

corporate: of or shared by all the members of a group

renounce: to formally give up possession of

sovereign: acting or done independently and without outside interference

severally: together, in the plural


indemnity: security or protection against a loss

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, which defined his key principles of the proper relationship between government and the people, was a foundational text for the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Rousseau conceived the idea of the social contract to reform the Old Regime, the French society organized around a class system with distinct privileges. Although Rousseau is in some ways the most readable of the philosophers, students will find this source difficult. Consider using the sentence deconstruction activity included in the set to help students understand the essential part. Rousseau defines the social contract as an association of citizens who have put their power in the hands of the general will. This key concept did not mean a majority opinion but what a citizen acting from his highest nature and full information would choose. In Rousseau’s association, men agree to surrender their individual power to a government that will rule by the general will of the citizens.

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.…
To say that a man gives himself gratuitously, is to say what is absurd and inconceivable; such an act is null and illegitimate, from the mere fact that he who does it is out of his mind. To say the same of a whole people is to suppose a people of madmen; and madness creates no right.
Even if each man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children: they are born men and free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to dispose of it.… It would therefore be necessary, in order to legitimize an arbitrary government, that in every generation the people should be in a position to accept or reject it; but were this so, the government would be no longer arbitrary.
To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts…
The Social Contract
The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.…
If then we discard from the social contract what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms - "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."
At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will. This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons formerly took the name of city, and now takes that of Republic or body politic; it is called by its members State when passive, Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and severally are called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State.…