The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 1, Chapters 1–6 | Summary



Book 1, Chapter 1: Subject of the First Book

Before beginning Chapter 1, Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells his reader that his project is to investigate whether or not, given human beings as they are, a legitimate rule of law can be established. The aim is to "unite what right sanctions with what is prescribed by interest," because what is right and what is in an individual's interest may not always coincide.

Rousseau goes on to announce his reason for writing a work on politics. It is precisely because he is neither "a prince [nor] a legislator." Were he one or the other, he could simply enact his ideas rather than propose them in a treatise. Finally, it is because he is "a citizen of a free State," with a corresponding right to vote, he takes it as his "duty" to study "public affairs."

To begin Chapter 1, Rousseau declares, "Man is born free; and everywhere, he is in chains." The project in the first chapter is to discern when the change from freedom to the imprisonment of social constraints occurred and what political authority can legitimize it.

When people are "compelled to obey," regaining freedom by force is justified. As Rousseau points out, those forced into obedience are "justified in resuming [liberty], or there was no justification for those who took it away." At the same time, Rousseau claims, society is both "a sacred right" and the foundation for all other rights. Rights are not derived, then, from nature, but convention. Rousseau declares that an argument for this claim is the topic of the following chapters.

Book 1, Chapter 2: The First Societies

The family is the "most ancient of all societies" and the only society that is natural to humans. Children are dependent on their fathers in order to survive, though this dependence ends when they can fend for themselves. Concurrently, a father is responsible for the child until that child becomes independent, at which time the father, too, is freed. As Rousseau writes, at this point "the natural bond is dissolved." If the family remains intact, it is by choice, and so by convention.

Liberty is man's natural state. According to Rousseau, an individual's responsibility is only to self-preservation. It is up to the individual, when able to care for themselves, to determine the best means of doing so. In this way he "becomes his own master."

The family provides "the first model of political societies." A society's ruler is like the father, and the people that constitute the rest of society are like the children. The bond between them, that by which their liberty is restricted, is established "only for their own advantage." Before that, they are each entirely free, and all are equal. Political authority is not, then, derived from natural authority, such as found in families. Rousseau points out that, unlike the love a father has for his dependent children, a ruler feels "the pleasure of commanding" subjects. What is in the interests of the ruled may not be of interest to the ruler, and the natural authority found in families does not transfer over to a political authority.

According to Rousseau, thinkers such as Grotius, Hobbes, Caligula, and Aristotle consider the relation between ruler and ruled as natural (i.e., there are people whose natural condition is to be ruled by those superior to them) as a shepherd rules a flock because he is superior to them. Rousseau rejects this position, arguing that it is force, not nature, that creates rulers and ruled, and it is only by cowardice that anyone remains a slave.

Book 1, Chapter 3: The Right of the Strongest

Rousseau continues his argument against both a conception of ruling and ruled as a natural condition, and, more generally, against society as a natural state of man. At the outset of Chapter 3 he writes, "The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master," unless he resorts to lies and tyranny. Rousseau rejects the justice of this transformation. The "physical power" of force wielded by a ruler does not yield a "moral effect" in those ruled. Yielding or succumbing to force is not an act of will and cannot, consequently, be a duty.

Assuming, on the other hand, that a right can be generated through force, Rousseau concludes that "the sole result is an inexplicable mass of nonsense." This is because with each force greater to the one previous to it, a new right is established. Now, suppose that one is strong enough to get away with disobeying authority. This means that one is not forced to obey. Rousseau argues that force obviates duty, so when force is no longer a reason to obey, there is nothing else to compel one to do so. In other words, if people recognize and obey authority, then it is because they are forced to do so. In that case, they do not obey because they believe they ought to do so. But, when the moment comes that they are not forced to obey, there is no other motivation to do so. Consequently, claiming that force generates right results in the aforementioned "inexplicable mass of nonsense." Rousseau concludes that "we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers."

Book 1, Chapter 4: Slavery

Because human beings are naturally equal, and because force cannot establish a right, Rousseau concludes, "conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men." Giving up one's natural freedom to be ruled requires something in exchange. Hugo Grotius proposes that the individual's ability to "alienate his liberty and make himself the slave of a master" can be expanded to "a whole people," who could become subjects of a king. Rousseau asserts that there must be something subjects receive for relinquishing or effectively selling their liberty. Yet, while a king lives off the products of his subjects' labor, the people gain nothing in return. The claim that they gain security is undermined, Rousseau argues, by the fact that the king can send his people to war.

No sane person would turn over his freedom without gaining anything in return. Such an agreement would be void, given "the mere fact that he who does it is out of his mind." Giving up one's freedom for nothing is not only not a legitimate covenant, or contract, but it also does not extend to one's children, who are born free; "their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to dispose of it."

Indeed, no contract in which one gives up one's freedom is legitimate. "To renounce liberty," Rousseau writes, "is to renounce being a man." The moment one's freedom has been relinquished, one is no longer in a position to demand anything. This, Rousseau argues, is a simple contradiction, fostering "on the one side, absolute authority, and, on the other, unlimited obedience." Another way to put the contradiction is as follows: the master owns the slave and so also the slave's rights. The master, then, has a right against himself.

Rousseau also rejects Grotius's argument that the right of slavery can be derived from war. When one society vanquishes another, the "victor" supposedly has "the right of killing the vanquished." The price of life is slavery. Because there is an advantage to each, it is supposed, the arrangement is thought to be legitimate. Rousseau argues that the inference from war to slavery is erroneous.

War, Rousseau maintains, "is constituted by a relation between things, and not between persons." That is, wars are waged between states over property and resources. As such, they are not about individuals. When wars end, enemies revert to being human beings, with all that Rousseau believes that entails. Consequently, it does not serve as an analogue to individuals submitting themselves to a form of slavery.

Moreover, the exchange of slavery for life, Rousseau argues, is based on an erroneous right. A victor is not entitled to the lives of the vanquished. Indeed, "there is a vicious circle in" inferring a right to enslave from a right to kill or let live, and conversely in inferring a right to kill of let live from a right to enslave. The words, "slave" and "right" are themselves contradictory, Rousseau objects, insofar as the one who enslaves enters into an arrangement that is entirely to their advantage.

Book 1, Chapter 5: That We Must Always Go Back to a First Convention

Rousseau continues his argument against the general concept of the rule of might, be it by force, entering into slavery, or the spoils of war—in short, against despotism. Even if the arguments of the previous chapters are not convincing, Rousseau maintains, despotic rule does not reflect a society but merely a situation in which there is a master and slaves.

Moreover, Rousseau argues, an important point about the relation between ruler and ruled is missing on standard accounts of the generation of political authority. For example, even on Grotius's view that a political authority is established when people give themselves over to a king, there is still the assumption that a society exists to be ruled. In other words, "a people is a people before it gives itself." Already, then, society has been formed out of the natural state of individuals freely and independently pursuing their own interests.

What is required of an investigation into the formation of a society is how individuals initially collected in order to give themselves over to a king. As Rousseau points out, a "convention" must already be established if some people in a society want a master, while others do not. "The law of majority voting is itself something established by convention."

Book 1, Chapter 6: The Social Compact

The origin of society, and a contract which binds members together, is the subject of Chapter 6. Rousseau has already proposed the view that the natural state of individuals is freedom and independence. In that condition an individual's sole responsibility is self-preservation. A point is reached, however, at which the challenges to maintaining that state are too great: "The human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence." Individuals must band together in order to survive. The key, Rousseau maintains, is for individuals to unite without losing "the force and liberty" that "are the chief instruments of [that individual's] self-preservation." More specifically, Rousseau declares that such a union of individuals must preserve the individual's self-mastery and freedom.

The book, Rousseau claims, is the solution to the problem of maintaining the individual freedom from obedience to others. The essential terms of the contract Rousseau presents are as follows: all citizens subordinate their individual wills to the general will; in turn, they become an indivisible whole.

It is imperative that the individual completely and unconditionally join in the whole, for without doing so, there can be no "general will." From this, it follows that the individual does not maintain rights that oppose the formal whole, or state. At the same time, however, because those entering into the contract are equals, their natural freedom is preserved. Moreover, because individuals who enter into the contract wish to preserve their freedom, the contract must not be burdensome and complicated. Through this manner of association, Rousseau asserts, "a moral and collective body" is created, a "public person," in which each individual's vote counting as equally as another member's. That "moral and collective body," or "public person," is called a Republic or body politic.

Rousseau concludes the chapter by introducing further terminology to denote features of the contractual society: members call their society "State, when passive, Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself." Members of the society are, collectively, people, and as individuals in that collective are citizens. Citizens share "in sovereign power," while as subjects they fall "under the laws of the State."


Rousseau's central aim is to reconcile human nature with civil society. According to Rousseau, because that nature is not inclined to society, and because it is corrupted by it, the challenge is to convince people to want what is right. According to Rousseau, there is a need for a social contract, but not just any contract will suffice. A legitimate social contract is one that voices the general for the common good.

Rousseau begins the formal body of The Social Contract with what is now one of the most famous lines in philosophical literature: "Man is born free; and everywhere, he is in chains." The quote distills the central concept in Rousseau's political philosophy. The foundations of a civil society are illegitimate when they restrict freedom and, typically as a result, generate inequality. One who is wealthier than their neighbors, for example, has more power. Rousseau, like Plato, rejects the argument that might—in whatever form that takes—makes right.

Instead, Rousseau situates morality squarely in the realm of freedom. When he claims that yielding to force is not an act of will, and so cannot be a duty, Rousseau clearly expresses the view that a coercive political authority is not morally binding. This point helps clarify Rousseau's previous claim, in Chapter 1, that anyone compelled to obey is justified in shirking off the yoke by force.

Because Rousseau uses terminology unfamiliar to the contemporary reader, or uses it in unfamiliar ways, it is worthwhile to clarify it. The general will, which is named the Republic or body politic, is significant. Once individuals enter into a social compact or contract, the resulting body is an entity with its own will. The collection of people who enter into a civil society becomes one; hence, the term Sovereign.

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