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Understanding Jean-Jacques Rousseau

pencil drawing of Rousseau

Rousseau The Social Contract Summary

There are only a few books that have made a significant change in political society. There are even fewer books that inspired a revolution. But in 1789, 11 years after his death, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract did just that. The Social Contract became the Bible of the French Revolution. From Rousseau’s opening words “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains” to his call for a government “by the people,” he risked his life and reputation by challenging the existing political order to return to the terms of the social contract and restore civil liberty.

What is Rousseau’s social contract?  Understanding Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Professor Laurence Houlgate is a study guide or companion for "smart" philosophy and political science students who want to get a better understanding of Rousseau's The Social Contract than they can get from study guides that provide only outlines and flashcards. This book assumes that students want to learn how to think critically about the ideas and theories presented by Rousseau. It does this by breaking down each chapter into segments with running commentaries by the author. The commentaries clarify Rousseau's most difficult passages while giving students lessons in critical thinking and philosophical method.

Each chapter segment is followed by questions for thought and discussion. These questions not only help students prepare for examinations but also provide topics for term papers.

Part I of the book has a preface and a short biography of Rousseau. Part II is the main part of the book, providing a step-by-step interpretation and commentary for each chapter in the Social Contract. Part III compares and contrasts Rousseau's ideas and theories with those of Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and John Locke (Second Treatise of Government).


Here is a sample of what you will find in Understanding Jean-Jacques Rousseau:


The state of nature.

Rousseau begins chapter 6 of The Social Contract with the observation that there is probably a point at which people in the pre-political state of nature realize that they can no longer preserve their lives.  “The obstacles in the way of their preservation” are too great.  “That primitive condition can then subsist no longer, and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.”

This is the third time that Rousseau has used the phrase “the state of nature.”  The first is in the introduction to Book I where he writes that he will show how the transition can be made from the state of nature to the state of society.  The second mention of the state of nature is in Chapter 4 where he uses the defining words “primitive independence,” “simple personal relations,” “no mutual relations stable enough to constitute either the state of peace or the state of war,” and “no constant property.” He does not clarify these phrases but one can surmise that examples of simple personal relations are those between family, friends, and members of small communities (tribes, villages, neighborhoods).  Since people in such relationships are morally dependent on each other, it is not clear what Rousseau means by “primitive independence” in the state of nature.  If children are dependent on their parents, elderly parents are dependent on their children and friends are dependent on friends, then what is it that makes these people independent in the state of nature?


 Rousseau’s dilemma

Rousseau continues: If people cannot survive in the primitive condition of the state of nature, they have no choice but to form “by aggregation a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance.” This requires that “several persons come together,”  each motivated by a desire for self-preservation but each giving up part of their liberty to protect and preserve others as well as themselves. 

In what kind of association can one defend and protect others while one still obeys only oneself?

Rousseau puts the dilemma in these famous words:  "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 dilemma is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.


Rousseau’s solution

One has a dilemma when one must choose between two unfavorable options. Rousseau observes that if we form an association in which everyone is mandated to defend and protect everyone else, then each of us will lose a large part of our freedom. But if we don’t form an association of mutual defense and protection, then we risk perpetual war and the eventual disintegration of the human race.

Rousseau’s solution is the social contract. 

…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.

By the terms of the contract, each associate alienates (gives up) all his power (rights) to the whole community.  Since each gives himself absolutely, “the conditions are the same for all; and this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.” 

It is important to understand that each associate must give up all of his power.  If any person retains even one right,  the social contract will collapse. Suppose that a few persons retain the right to judge and punish.  There would inevitably be conflicts between them and others.  Since each would be his own judge, there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public. But this is exactly the condition they previously experienced in the state of nature.  By declaring a right to be their own judge, they have rejected the social contract and returned to their original rights, and have resumed their natural liberty.

Hence, each person must give themself to everyone: “There is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself.”  The justification for yielding one’s natural rights is utilitarian.  “He gains an equivalent for everything he loses and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.”   There is a greater benefit to be achieved by entering into the social contract than there is in remaining in the state of nature.

The dilemma has disappeared. 

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.

There is no “me.” There is only “us.”  My will is the general will.

Hence, there is no loss of liberty when members of the assembly vote for laws prohibiting acts that preserve our lives.  Regardless of how I voted, I now embrace the will of the collective body as my will.

There is a distinction between two ways of viewing society that applies here.  The first is individualistic. Society is composed of individual persons “who are basically complete even apart from society.”  They use society to fulfill their individual needs and desires.  Society itself is “at most a useful instrument” for their satisfaction” (Gewirth, 10).  In this kind of relationship the private interests of individuals, not the interests of society, are primary.  The second is organic or corporate.  “It views the individual as constituted by, rather than as constituting society in that the individual is basically incomplete apart from society…” (id.).   The interests of society, not the private interests of individuals, are primary. Society uses individuals to achieve societal goals.  Individuals are a useful instrument for the satisfaction of society.  Rousseau’s account of civil society (the body politic) is organic, not individualistic.  The social contract puts every individual “under the supreme direction of the general will.”  The people cast off their rights and enter into a communal relationship.  The individual disappears and is now “an indivisible part of the whole.” Instead of using society to fulfill their needs and desires, the needs and desires of the social whole become primary.




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