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Jean Jaques Rousseau's Concept of Society and Government: A Study of the Social Contract

von Andrea Becker (Autor) Maren Reyelt (Autor)

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2001 30 Seiten

Politik - Politische Theorie und Ideengeschichte


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Some Biographical Facts and Rousseau’s Works

3. The State of Nature

4. The Social Contract as a Concept for Society and Government
4.1 The Development of Society
4.2 The Social Contract as a Counterpart
4.2.1 Freedom and Equality
4.2.2 Various Forms of Government and the General Will
4.2.3 The Legislator and the Composition of Government

5. Concluding Remarks: Can the Social Contract Stand the ‘Test of Reality’?


1. Introduction

“Man is born free and, and everywhere he is in chains. One believes himself the other’s master, and yet is more a slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can it make legitimate? I believe I can solve this.”[1]

Regarding this quoted statement, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right (in the following referred to as the Social Contract) of 1762 tries to explain and solve the problems of the society Rousseau lived in with the idea of a somewhat direct democracy and a radical popular sovereignty. Accordingly, the author’s theory is the counterpart to the early liberal Montesquieuian model of a state with a binding constitution, but also to the later classical liberal theories of democracy of John Stuart Mill. In general, Rousseau is known as a representative of the concept of direct democracy and as an intercessor of the identity of governors and the governed. Moreover, he pledged for the inseparability of popular sovereignty.[2]

Taking this into consideration, Rousseau’s Social Contract – although censored and prohibited in his own time – remains a key source of democratic belief and is one of the classics of political theory. His theories were viewed so controversially that they were even publicly burned. So, the Social Contract and Emile or on Education (1762) became victims of the flames.[3] This was, because basically, the Social Contract argues, that

“the first and the most important consequences of the principles established so far is that the general will [volonté générale] alone can direct the forces of the state according to the end of its institution, which is the common good.”[4]

Hence, Rousseau argues that the basis of any legitimate society must inevitably be the agreement of all its members in this general will. Because humans are born free, any kind of subordinance or subjection to government must be based on a social contract that is freely accepted. He therefore insisted on the sovereignty of the people, who are united individuals in the general will, because their common interest let them seek for the most suitable form of government and society to fulfill this basic need. Thus, the general will validates government and society but also the constraints both of them impose on men.

Our paper wants to answer certain questions arising from studying Rousseau’s political writings: Why do men form societies and what conditions spoil these contracts? Can there be a just government suitable for all human beings and how can it be achieved? How does Rousseau deal with the concepts of freedom and equality within the Social Contract ? What is his view of real democracy? What are possible points of critique and problems that can be found in his theory?

The Social Contract, which is our main focus, cannot be separated from Rousseau’s complete works. Therefore, we first of all want to describe his biography in terms of questions and topics that can be found throughout his works. In general, some references shall be made to the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1755), in the following referred to as Second Discourse, and to Emile or on Education (1762) because the first one deals with Rousseau’s view of the human being and the state of nature, thus preparing the Social Contract; the latter one was not only published shortly after the Social Contract but it also deals with the question how to preserve the individual’s potential for goodness in the society established in the Social Contract. Additionally, some comparisons to Hobbes’s Leviathan shall be drawn.

Our paper will describe Rousseau’s concepts of the state of nature, liberty or freedom and equality, the author’s theory of the different forms of government and finally how the general will constitutes a just form of government, especially in regard to the legislator and the government proposed by Rousseau. At last, the concluding remarks shall give a final discussion concerning the questions raised in this introduction.

2. Some Biographical Facts and Rousseau’s Works

Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived from 1712 until 1778. He was born in Geneva in Switzerland, on the 28th of June as a citizen with full political rights. His father (a skilled clockmaker) passed on his keen political awareness to him.[5] Rousseau’s whole lifetime presents him as a versatile talented artist and political thinker, whose professions ranked from being a moral philosopher, a novelist, a composer, as well as a music theorist.[6]

Largely self-taught, Rousseau left Geneva in 1728 to live in Paris further on where he got to know all kinds of classes of the society he so vehemently criticized. He was brought up mainly by his father in a bourgeois milieu and had to work shortly as a craftsman until he was sixteen. Later on, he had a liaison with a gentry’s woman, Madame de Warrens. He learned about noble life by being a servant and about the higher bourgeois classes by teaching the children of the Mably family.[7]

The Social Contract is preceded by the Second Discourse, where Rousseau describes his concept of the state of nature. Contrary to other political philosophers before him, Rousseau states that the man in this state differs highly from the civilized man. Thus, men are potentially good during the reign of nature. But as soon as society or rather the social state comes along, misery and tyranny emerge leading to the moral decay of men. This topic of the potential for good is reinforced in the Emile where Rousseau describes how the good individual can stay this way even in society. The Social Contract on the other hand, tries to promote a just social society where men are not naturally seek their own interests to the expense of everyone else.[8]

In this regard, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the first great critic of the bourgeois society he lived in by using and challenging the two main concepts this society relied on, namely freedom and equality. By attacking the citizen of his time he used his own (somewhat romantic) ideal of the genuine individual and the good citizen – a topic that can be seen as the groundwork of all his writings – to hold up a mirror for ‘his’ society.[9]

3. The State of Nature

Rousseau’s state of nature is outlined in the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men where he first of all established himself as the only philosopher capable to describe the real and original state of nature:

“The philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt it necessary to go back to the state of nature, but none of them has succeeded in getting there… All these philosophers [are] ceaselessly talking of need, greed, oppression, desire, and pride and have transported into the state of nature concepts formed in society. They speak of savage men and they depict civilized man.”[10]

For Rousseau, the original state of nature is characterized by an absence of community whatever. It is a state of peace, freedom and natural equality, where man live together in harmony. “Moral or political inequality … derives from a sort of convention, and is established or at least authorized, by the consent of men.”[11] The natural man who is potentially good becomes a competitive, egoistic creature, who is able to hurt other people. This image of human nature, inherent in all examined writings of Rousseau can also be found in Emile or On Education:

“The source of our passions, the origin and the principle of all others, the only one born with man and which never leaves him so long as he lives is self-love [amour de soi]… the love of oneself is always good and always in conformity with order. Since each man is specially entrusted with his own preservation; the first and most important of his cares is and ought to be to watch over it constantly. And how could he watch over it if he did not take the greatest interest in it?”[12]

In this regard, the drive for self-preservation is not only natural but also necessary. Rousseau’s savage is not an egoistic creature but lives just according to the way nature created him. This feeling does not make him bad. Inequalities just derive from physical causes like “age, health, strength of the body and qualities of the mind or soul.”[13] The state of nature is therefore a very comforting one – although the first human beings are endangered by a lack of food, enemies, the weather etc. Moral inequality as the destroying evil comes along with the essentially human “faculty of self-improvement” because this “drags man out of that original condition in which he could pass peaceful and innocent days, … bringing to fruition over the centuries his insights and his errors, his vices and his virtues, makes man in the end a tyrant over himself and over nature.”[14]

Nature therefore provides men not only with potentially good characteristics. Especially, self-love or self-preservation inheres potentially bad consequences when it clashes with society. Because everybody wants to improve his conditions to shape his own life and to find perfection, people lose their equality and their freedom because society cuts him from both. Nevertheless, civilization is determined to a great extent by circumstances beyond human control. Perfection as an “adaptive mechanism” is shaped by the circumstances men are facing; the history of man, Rousseau makes it clear, has been predominantly a gradual change from solidarity to a social existence that is guided by physical force.[15]

The faculty of self-improvement finally leads to the development of society and social classes where the formerly presiding instincts of self-preservation and pity or compassion are transformed into a dangerous egoism (amour propre) that can destroy the common well being of society.[16] In fact, self-preservation as the sole motive of human actions especially dominates compassion whenever needs conflict in the state of nature. Although, compassion hinders human beings from hurting others, it is not responsible for the peacefulness of the state of nature, a concept that means a powerful addition to Hobbes’s own concept of this state were uncontrolled violence occurs at any time. Compassion also is the only natural basis for empathy and sympathy between human beings.[17] It is therefore essential for his concept of a legitimate political regime because without compassion a Hobbesian world would soon emerge. This is something, Rousseau always and vehemently fought.

Rousseau’s critic against the modern society of his times, that led the human beings develop amour propre, cumulates vitally into the following statement where Rousseau describes what his society is build upon, namely upon an unjust division of power and wealth and even on a not very useful and prudent government with not very well selected leaders:

“Inequality, being almost inexistent in the state of nature, derives its forces and its growth from the development of our faculties and the progress of the human mind, and finally becomes fixed and legitimate through the institution of property and laws; … moral inequality, authorized by positive law alone, is contrary to natural right, whenever it is not matched in exact proportion with physical inequality; … for it is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined, that a child should govern an old man, that an imbecile should lead a wise man, and that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities.”[18]


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), 1997, Book I, p. 41.

[2] Manfred G. Schmidt: Demokratietheorien. Eine Einführung, 2. Auflage, Opladen: Leske + Budrich, 1997, pp. 23-24.

[3] Merle L. Perkins: Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Individual and Society, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974, p. 239.

[4] Rousseau: The Social Contract, Book II, p. 57.

[5] Christopher Betts: Introduction, in: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract, Translated with Introduction and Notes by Christopher Betts, Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. xxvii.

[6] Schmidt: Demokratietheorien, p. 63.

[7] Victor Gourevitch: Introduction, in: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract, p. xxxii.

[8] Mario Einaudi: The Early Rousseau, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1967, p. 118.

[9] Marc F. Plattner: Rousseau’s State of Nature. An Interpretation of the Discourse on Inequality, Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1979, pp.3-4. For further reading on Rousseau’s biography and especially on his autobiographical “Confessions” see Christopher Kelly: Rousseau’s Exemplary Life. The Confessions as Political Philosophy, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987.

[10] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Discourse on Inequality, Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Maurice William Cranston, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books/New York, Viking Penguin, 1984, p.78.

[11] Ibid, Part I, p. 77.

[12] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Emile or On Education, Book IV, Introduction, Translation, and Notes by Allan Bloom, New York: Basic Books, 1996, pp. 212-213.

[13] Rousseau: A Discourse on Inequality, p. 77.

[14] Ibid, Part I, p. 88.

[15] Perkins: Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Individual and Society, p.77.

[16] Schmidt: Demokratietheorien, p. 65.

[17] Roger D. Masters: The Political Philosophy of Rousseau, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 136-146.

[18] Rousseau: A Discourse on Inequality, p. 137.


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Titel: Jean Jaques Rousseau's Concept of Society and Government: A Study of the Social Contract