The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 1, Chapters 7–9 | Summary



Book 1, Chapter 7: The Sovereign

In the "mutual undertaking" of contracting, the members of a Sovereign serve in two different capacities. One binds them to individuals, while the other binds them to the Sovereign. The Sovereign itself only has one capacity. In action (that is, as a legislative body engaged in the creation of laws), the Sovereign is not a subject. As such, it is not beholden to its own legislation. The practical reason for this is that legislation needs to adapt to changing conditions. Conceptually, Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserts that it is self-contradictory to hold that the Sovereign is bound to itself, such that it would be bound to its own authority.

The Sovereign is, however, bound not to violate the contract, because that agreement makes possible its very existence. Related to this prohibition is another one against doing anything against that agreement: "for instance, to alienate any part of itself, or to submit to another Sovereign."

The Sovereign, as a unified body, cannot "offend against one of the members without attacking the body," so that it is the state's—or Sovereign's—interest not to harm one of its members but instead to act in favor of their interests, despite not being bound to do so. In addition, any offense against the body itself creates resentment among its members. "Duty and interest" emerge to secure the subjects' relations to each other and the Sovereign, as well as the Sovereign's relation to its subjects. The dual capacity of a Sovereign's members makes this reciprocity possible.

The body comprises individuals and consequently has no "interest contrary to theirs." Moreover, "because it is impossible for the body to wish to hurt all its members," there is no reason for that body to provide its subjects with guarantees. On the other hand, subjects require laws to maintain their loyalty to the Sovereign. After all, Rousseau points out, some members "may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without [fulfilling] the duties of a subject." A continued state "of this injustice [would be] the undoing of the body politic."

In order for the social contract Rousseau proposes to be more than "an empty formula," it must include the condition that the whole body compel anyone who "refuses to obey the general will"—which is to say, anyone who does not obey the state "will be forced to be free." According to Rousseau, this condition "alone legitimizes civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses."

Book 1, Chapter 8: The Civil State

Rousseau moves on in Chapter 8 to consider the effects on the individual of entering into a social contract. Justice and morality substitute for instinctive actions. The voice of duty is substituted for "physical impulses and right of appetite." In this way, the individual is forced to rationally consider actions and act on principles different from pure self-preservation and inclination. The freedom lost in existing nature is more than made up for in what is gained in a civil society. Among the benefits are the stimulation and development of one's faculties and the cultivation and ennobling of one's feelings. In short, one moves from being "a stupid and unimaginative animal" to "an intelligent being and a man." Reason and the general will, having replaced instinct and freedom, guide subjects in the direction of improvement.

Book 1, Chapter 9: Real Property

When an individual "gives himself to" a civil state, he also gives "all the resources at his command, including the goods he possesses." This does not, however, entail relinquishing one's property. For insofar as the individual is also a subject of the state, the state has an interest in protecting what has been acquired in the state of nature.

Legitimate, or "real" property rights are secured by being "the first occupier." One could have acquired one's property by force, but Rousseau has already discounted it as a legitimate method. Instead, because everyone has a right to what they need to survive, and given that one works and cultivates property not already occupied—rather than taken "by an empty ceremony"—and not greater than what is necessary for survival, it follows that one has a right to property.


The Sovereign meets individuals where and how they are. In other words, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is not interested in creating a political structure out of whole cloth. Instead, he takes an empirical approach. So, while he offers a theoretical conception of the natural condition of the human being, he does not theorize about the myriad conditions in which people find themselves. So, for example, he does not assume that people live in the same geographical conditions—some live in coastal areas, others inland.

Rousseau is also interested in discussing the benefits of society. The reader does well to remember that Rousseau's criticism of modern life, so forcefully articulated in the opening line of the book, is a criticism of historical and current political structures, which include property ownership and other inequities. His remedy, founded on the belief in human beings' natural moral equality and goodness, and natural freedom, is to channel, not to transform. This is partly why he eschews dictating certain features of the political structure, such as the type of government a state should adopt (i.e., democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy).

What Rousseau is adamant about is the fundamental constitution of the body politic, the Sovereign. For people to agree to enter into a social contract, they must believe there is a common good that outweighs a continued solitary existence. Moreover, they must believe that harm to one is harm to all; that harm to the state is harm to all. If they do not share this belief, they will not grasp the significance of Rousseau's claim that, entering the social contract, one is "forced to be free," as he points out in Chapter 4.

Taking responsibility for action makes us better, which is one benefit of the civil state. The practically absolute freedom in nature, which amounts to the freedom from coercion by others, is attended by a lack of responsibility toward others. By entering into a social contract, one takes others' interests into account, which eventually leads to the general will concerned with promoting the common good. As Rousseau points out in Chapter 8, everything a person loses by the social contract he gains in guaranteed liberties.

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