The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Context


The Enlightenment

Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived and worked during the period known as the Enlightenment, which is embodied in his work in the ways in which he challenges preconceived notions of religion while continuing to advocate for religious belief outside the dogmatic and authoritarian systems in which it was embodied. Some aspects of his work also identify him as a precursor to the Romantic era, in which intense feeling is privileged over rationality.

The Enlightenment period lasted for most of the 18th century. It was characterized by enthusiastic confidence in the power of human reason to seek and find answers to the most important questions about knowledge, nature, politics, art, and ethics. Religious authority and dogma were thrown over in favor of a burgeoning scientific method and faith in rationality.

Some features of Rousseau's religious views fit well in the Enlightenment context. Rousseau argued in Émile for the view that all religions are of equal value, insofar as they lead believers to a virtuous life. This conclusion reflects the Enlightenment preference of religious belief over submission to an authoritarian church. Meanwhile, Rousseau's passion for nature, from which his veneration of feeling is likely derived, along with his erratic and passionate friendships and romances, anticipates and gives voice to Romanticism. Still, Rousseau's lifelong appreciation of nature was combined with an appropriately Enlightenment-era intellectual interest in understanding it.

Rousseau's thesis, first articulated in his 1750 essay The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, continues throughout his work. This thesis states there is a direct relationship between intellectual conformity and moral degeneration. In other words, the cultivation of rational faculties within a system laden with pretext and decoration dulls the natural goodness associated with freedom. According to Rousseau, human beings are naturally independent and self-sufficient. Society weakens humans by increasing dependence.

Divine Monarchs and Revolution

Enlightenment thinkers questioned not only the authority of the church, but also the right of divine rule. Not only was reliance on one's own reason over external authority permeating scientific reasoning, but the related concept of autonomy was also taking center stage in moral and political thought. Autonomy is freedom from external control; rational autonomy in political and moral thought emphasizes self-governance, or the independence of the individual to make correct use of one's own reason. While thinkers such as Hobbes believed in the divine right of kings, others, such as Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, proposed forms of limited government.

Monarchs, or kings, often viewed their rule as absolute—justified by divine right. The divine right of kings became a political doctrine that declared a monarch's authority to be derived from God, who was said to have put them on Earth to rule. As such, the monarch claimed to be above human law and its institutions. The scope of this doctrine grew in the 16th and 17th centuries to include not just authority in the political arena but also in religious matters. In France, Louis XIV was an example of the sort of conduct that fomented revolution (his outlandish spending at the expense of his subjects' well-being). His palace at Versailles included such extravagances as crystal and gold fixtures, and copper fountain statues.

Growing resentment, along with the emergence of political treatises focusing on new conceptions of a just government, generated events such as the French Revolution (1789–99) in the late 18th century. People began to demand more freedom and more autonomy, and they were willing to fight for it.

Rousseau's Conception of the State of Nature

Rousseau was not the first political theorist to imagine humanity's natural condition, outside a civil society—a hypothetical state of nature. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for example, famously argued in Leviathan (1651) that the natural state of the human being is a war of all against all, that "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Humans are motivated, in Hobbes's view, purely by self-interest.

Rousseau, by contrast, conceived the natural condition in much gentler terms, believing humanity to be essentially noble, though he agreed with Hobbes that self-interest—more specifically, self-preservation—motivates human action. In addition, Rousseau was influenced by Locke's natural law account of human nature. According to Locke, human beings are naturally free and equal but are also governed by natural law. By this, he means those laws that applied to all people regardless of their customs, conventional laws, location, and generation. Moreover, human beings have natural rights, among which are life, liberty, and property.

In Rousseau's state of nature, human beings are also free to pursue their self-interest, uncoerced, and so uncorrupted by civil society. Self-interest is dominated by self-preservation, which, in turn, is tenuous in the state of nature. Indeed, natural liberty is shackled by instincts and desires. So, while people are free to do as they please, they are not free from their drives. Moreover, Rousseau maintains that property is not part of the natural condition but instead is a form of dependence.

In Rousseau's view people are also naturally good. This concept is contrary to the Christian doctrine (common to both Catholics and Protestants) of original sin, which states that every person is tainted from birth by the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Thus, Rousseau's statement of his belief put him at odds with the dominant power in Europe; caused many of his works to be censured; and even endangered his life, liberty, and right to own property on numerous occasions.

In Rousseau's worldview, civil society is the mechanism whereby the natural condition is best supported. By collecting as a single political body, called the "Sovereign," human beings can express "the general will." This behavior is superior, Rousseau thinks, to giving up natural freedom for a sort of enslavement that comes with the protection provided by a monarch or other type of government that does not have an interest in their subjects' well-being. Instead, by associating under a contract, written or understood, the people give up natural freedom but gain both collective freedom and the tempering of their natural impulses. After all, in a society one cannot always do what one wants, because that may encroach on one's fellow citizens' freedoms.

Rousseau's Influences

Rousseau engages with political theorists of the past and present in The Social Contract. Because he lived and worked during the apex of the French Enlightenment, whose thinkers—the philosophes—were influenced by the likes of English scientist Isaac Newton and English philosopher John Locke, Rousseau found himself at one of the centers of incredibly productive intellectual activity. The concept of natural law, for example, from Greek philosopher Aristotle through Italian priest Thomas Aquinas, and from Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius through English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, had become a core feature of political theories.

Rousseau's novel contributions to political theory stand out against the backdrop of these influences largely because he broke from the prevailing enthusiasm for human reason. Instead, he concentrated on human nature and the simultaneously aggravating and tempering influences of society. In addition, he did not side either with those who endorsed a monarchy as a way of escaping the savagery of the natural state or those who endorsed a civil society that exists in order to protect natural rights. On the former side were thinkers such as Hobbes and Grotius, while on the latter were the likes of Locke and French lawyer Montesquieu. While he agreed with some ideas and rejected others, his view of the state aligns best with the ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle.

For Aristotle, the political life is ultimately indistinguishable from the good life. A citizen thrives because of the state and through his contributions to it. Similarly, Rousseau holds that civic life is essential to a citizen's freedom. The general will cannot be expressed without participating in public life.


Both France and the United States developed social contracts, or constitutions, after their revolutions. A constitution lays out the principles of a society, such as how the government is structured and organized, which rights are observed as existing naturally, and which rights are considered granted by the establishment of the constitution. A constitution may also establish the practices of administering the government.

Romantic Naturalism

The Enlightenment not only influenced Rousseau, Rousseau also influenced it. He was, however, not exclusively an Enlightenment thinker. Insofar as he was deeply committed to the value of the emotions, rather than the singular primacy of reason, Rousseau did not fit neatly into the common conceptions of the Enlightenment philosopher. His novel Julie, or The New Heloise (1761) continuously set out the tensions between reason and emotion, the individual and societal norms, and the fundamental goodness of human nature and its corruption by society.

For Rousseau, nature and the human being's natural condition are not to be dominated, broken, and tamed. Indeed, one's natural state is a state of true freedom and goodness. Rousseau returned to this theme again in his novel on education, Émile (1762), and he himself eventually chose to live a quietly solitary life studying nature. His later work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), emphasize nature as a path to happiness. Through this study, he believed, one can properly become virtuous.

As a movement, Romantic Naturalism emphasized the immediacy of feeling and the concrete, albeit fleetingness, of nature. Such tangibility was contrasted with the arid abstraction of rationality favored so heavily in the Enlightenment.

Immanuel Kant

Perhaps Rousseau's most lasting mark on philosophy is in his effect on the groundbreaking German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant is said to have become so absorbed in Émile that he forgot to take the daily walks that were otherwise so habitual that neighbors could set their clocks by them. In addition, Rousseau's portrait was the only image displayed in Kant's home.

In his "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" (1784) Kant declares, "Sapere aude! Dare to know!" Given Kant's typically Enlightenment confidence in reason, it might seem strange that he was so affected by Rousseau. But like Rousseau, Kant understood reason's limits. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), for example, Kant argues that the structure of human understanding limits knowledge to the empirical world, thereby restricting reason.

Rousseau's commitment to freedom—more specifically, independence—likely influenced the framework of Kant's thinking on politics and morality. In other words, Kant's clarion call, "Sapere aude!" has more in common with Rousseau than would seem to be the case at first glance. After all, Rousseau was deeply concerned with preserving human independence in the context of a civil society. Thinking for oneself is one such point of contact.

Still another is equality. Kant conceives of human beings as fundamentally of equal value. For Rousseau, the erosion of freedom is one way of generating inequality by dependence. For Kant, conduct that interferes with another person's freedom to make their own choices undermines their fundamental value. As Kant put it, it was Rousseau who taught him the value of humanity: "Rousseau set me right."

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