Literature Study GuidesThe Social ContractBook 2 Chapters 7 12 Summary

The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 2, Chapters 7–12 | Summary



Book 2, Chapter 7: The Legislator

Legislators create laws, beginning with a constitution. However, good legislators are not easily found. This is because they must be very intelligent and insightful, and able to codify the general will. In so doing, they shape the character of the state, turning brutes into men. Moreover, legislators must not be citizens of the state for which they write laws. So, while as such they are exempt from the Sovereign, they are also unable to participate in governing.

Finding suitable legislators is not the only hurdle to be overcome. The legislator is confronted with a collection of individuals with no understanding of the principles that underlie laws. Those individuals also must be transformed into "substituting a partial and moral existence for the independent and physical existence nature has conferred."

Obedience to the law is not a given. Rousseau points out that the necessity of law as proof of this claim. As he writes, if it were a given, "men would have to be before law what they should become by means of law." Reason and force do not serve as authorities, so another must suffice. According to Rousseau, the legislator "must have recourse to an authority ... capable of constraining without violence and persuading without convincing." Historically, divine authority has served this purpose. This does not mean, however, that religion and politics share a common purpose. Instead, religion serves a political purpose.

Book 2, Chapter 8: The People

Rousseau has argued that people need to be convinced to obey laws. In Chapter 8 he focuses on the condition in which the people must be in, in order to be so convinced. Just as an architect must assess the conditions of the site on which a structure is to be built, so also a legislator must ascertain "the fitness of the people." Rousseau believes there is a period of youth for nations, just as for people, "before which they should not be made subject to laws." He concedes, however, that "the maturity of a people is not always easily recognizable." Societies that are not developed sufficiently cannot follow laws, despite their goodness.

Book 2, Chapter 9: The People, Continued

Ideally, people are mature enough to embrace law. In addition, ideally there will not be too many people in a social contract. For government to be effective, society cannot be too large. For a society to be secure, it cannot be too small.

Smaller states are preferable to larger ones, because the latter can be cumbersome and inflexible. As Rousseau points out, "Long distances make administration more difficult, just as a weight becomes heavier at the end of a longer lever." Moreover, larger, far-flung societies dilute the feelings citizens have for each other and for their leader. Given that the general will relies on both, such a situation is untenable.

Book 2, Chapter 10: The People, Continued

Rousseau's final chapter on "the People" focuses on the size of the state and the type of person best suited to it. The state's laws ought to ensure self-sufficiency, because without self-sufficiency, dependency on other states and military aggression become modes of survival. At the same time, a state that is overly productive is subject to aggression from those states wanting its resources.

There is no precise algorithm by which this balance can be achieved. Rousseau points out that multiple factors must be taken into account when thinking about the appropriate size and development of the state. These include the territory's geography, the variety of its natural resources, and the willingness of its people to contribute to its welfare.

Rousseau concludes the chapter with a list of characteristics of the people "fit" for legislation. This list also encapsulates the most significant features of what Rousseau takes to be the most successful type of state.

They are a people:

  • unified in some way but not already bound by law
  • not superstitious or who have an ingrained culture
  • not in danger of being invaded, or having allies to come to its defense
  • immune to neighbors' disputes
  • whose members all know each other
  • capable of individual self-sufficiency
  • not poor or wealthy but self-sufficient
  • possessing "the consistency of an ancient people [combined] with the docility of a new one."

Book 2, Chapter 11: The Various Systems of Legislation

Rousseau next sets out to discuss the purpose of law and how the state is to fulfill that purpose. To achieve "the greatest good of all," which is the ultimate purpose of the state, laws must promote and protect "liberty and equality." Each is essential, but equality is necessary for liberty.

Liberty here is "civil liberty," the independence of members in a society to pursue their own interests. Equality is, Rousseau claims, not identical power or riches, for example, but the prevention of any one person having so great a power or wealth over any other or others such that the latter's liberty is threatened or eliminated. More specifically, when one is dependent on another whose power or wealth effectively creates that dependence, one loses one's liberty. This, in turn, results in a weakening of the state.

Preserving liberty and equality, given the variables described in Chapter 10, means there is no exact formula. Each state is modified according to its own peculiarities, or "in accordance with the local situation and the temper of the inhabitants"; all these should determine the systems best for that particular state.

Book 2, Chapter 12: The Division of the Laws

The final chapter in Book 2 is concerned with the classification of the laws of the state, each of which focuses on a relation between institutions, between individuals and institutions, and among members of the society. The constitutional laws are "political laws." These concern the relation between the Sovereign and the state by setting out the rights and duties the Sovereign determines for the state. If they are wise, these laws are also called "fundamental laws."

The second and third classifications concern laws that govern citizens' relations to each other. Civil and criminal laws, respectively, maintain citizens' independence from each other, while preserving their dependence on the state. The fourth classification is not codified law, as are the others, but instead law imprinted "on the hearts of the citizens." Moral law is, according to Rousseau, "the most important of all," because, more than any written law, it is what preserves a society. Though "a power unknown to political thinkers, [it is one] none the less [on which] success in everything else depends." In "secret," the legislator crafts laws that aim at generating citizens who will the general good.


Freedom is foundational to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's project. Indeed, the entire book is organized around it. As Rousseau points out at the beginning of Chapter 11, the legislation has two main goals: "liberty, because all particular dependence means so much force taken from the body of the State" and equality, which Rousseau claims is essential to liberty. The key to a successful civil society, then, is to understand and relate freedom in its various aspects: natural, civil, and moral. Any encroachment on freedom weakens the state by creating dependence.

Rousseau has already argued that citizens who will uphold the general good are going to hold the society together. Through the society's mores, customs, and education, this goodwill is developed. So, while every society contains members who have more or less than others (for example property) with the cultivation of thinking about the common good, such inequality does not become immoral. In other words, Rousseau essentially associates morality with liberty, or freedom and equality. Equality might be construed as "equity." For example, not everyone is of equal height or weight or baseline health. Not everyone has equal talents and aptitudes. In short, sameness does not obtain. To the extent that there is a common good, however, one willed by all people, there is impartiality or fairness.

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