Rousseau Publishes

In The Social Contract, Rousseau responded to the political tyranny of his age by arguing that government derived its legitimacy and power from the free consent of the governed. The text revolutionized political philosophy, contributing to the development of a school of thought known as social contract theory that still exists two and a half centuries later.

Summary of Event

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was at the height of his fame when his Du contrat social: Ou, Principes du droit politique (1762; A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, 1764; better known as The Social Contract) was published. His earlier writings during the 1750’s had created scandal and brought him adulation as well. As a celebrity, he appeared before his adoring reading public in strange costumes and behaved with boorish manners. He espoused the unconventional view that developing civilizations had corrupted the natural goodness of people, destroying their freedom and their free will in the process. He had also produced a successful opera and a runaway best-seller, Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Eloise: Or, A Series of Original Letters, 1761; also as Julie: Or, The New Eloise, 1968; better known as The New Héloïse
New Héloïse, The (Rousseau) ), with its themes of forbidden love thwarted by parental disapproval and corruptive city life. [kw]Rousseau Publishes The Social Contract (Apr., 1762)
[kw]Contract, Rousseau Publishes The Social (Apr., 1762)
[kw]Social Contract, Rousseau Publishes The (Apr., 1762)
[kw]Publishes The Social Contract, Rousseau (Apr., 1762)
Social Contract, The (Rousseau)
[g]France;Apr., 1762: Rousseau Publishes The Social Contract[1640]
[c]Philosophy;Apr., 1762: Rousseau Publishes The Social Contract[1640]
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
Malesherbes, Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de
Locke, John
Hobbes, Thomas

Rousseau’s Social Contract, by contrast, dealt with political philosophy, Political philosophy proposing how government should operate, how individual freedom Civil liberties could be reconciled with the dictates of society, and how the rights of citizens could be attained in a just state. Rather than focusing on practical solutions, The Social Contract searched for the principles of “political right,” Political right applicable only to ideal conditions. A four-part treatise, the book set forth the principles of legitimate and stable sovereignty. The opening section establishes the foundations of political authority, tracing the transition from anarchic individualism of “the noble savage” to the collective Collectivism authority of society over the individual. Entering into a contract with others to create a community, the individual surrenders all rights to the state, becoming equal to all other community members.

The second section of the text continues the theory of what is right and just in the political and moral life of the community, elaborating on various legal systems, the legislative powers that belong to the people, and the limits of sovereign power. The third section weighs the merits of four forms of government: democratic government, Democratic government which Rousseau distrusts; aristocratic, Aristocracy which Rousseau finds acceptable if an elective aristocracy exists; monarchic, Monarchy which Rousseau prefers but only if the ruler is wise and just; and a government that includes a mix of the other three. The best government for any particular community, large or small, concludes Rousseau, depends on practical, moral, and theoretical factors unique to that community. The final section presents Rousseau’s plan for establishing and operating an ideal government, somewhat modeled after that of the ancient Roman republic. The plan attempts to strengthen the constitution of the state and create structures to prevent government from becoming corrupt and unjust. Opponents would be censored, banished, or put to death.

Rousseau develops several key concepts in The Social Contract, including the social contract itself, the general will, and sovereignty. The social contract Social contract theory comes about when people, fearing for their own safety or promoting their own well-being, voluntarily agree to live together as a harmonious community. Natural or individual rights and independence must give way to rational desires for the general good, shared powers, responsibilities, and moral obligations within the community. The benevolent community, in turn, expects all members to be involved equally in the law-making process. Rousseau concludes that this community of participating individuals will then freely obey the laws that they themselves have determined.

“The general will,” General will according to Rousseau, activates the social contract so that states and institutions come into existence. The general will is not the sum of many competing wills within the community, nor merely popular opinion. Instead, the general will reflects a public spirit in which individuals, transformed as right-thinking citizens with a love of virtue and justice, always seek the common good. Through assemblies and under the direction of wise and capable leaders, the citizenry determines community interests, makes laws, and develops the general will. Rousseau recognizes that its success depends on a shared moral vision and some ability by all individuals to reason with ideas.

Sovereignty Sovereignty;Jean-Jacques Rousseau[Rousseau] (that is, the supreme authority over a given territory or people), according to Rousseau, is the exercising of the general will by the citizens themselves. Assemblies, held at fixed and periodic intervals with all citizens participating, vote on issues, such as whether the existing form of government should be preserved, or whether the current administrators should be replaced. To aid citizens, leaders work behind the scenes to create a communal spirit and mold the consensual will of the assembled citizens. These leaders have immense power by administering and executing the laws, controlling and censoring those elements contrary to the general will. Yet they are morally bound to serve the people, not to be their master. If the governing body attempts to subvert the general will, the citizens then have the right to replace the government. For Rousseau’s readers of the eighteenth century, reared on the divine right of kings and feudal privilege, this was revolutionary. The Social Contract boldly advocates that the people, when enlightened and responsible, have the right to determine governance.

Rousseau’s views have often been compared by scholars to those of the earlier “social contract theorists” Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, for all three explored the purposes of government and why rational individuals need government. Rousseau appreciated Hobbes’s methodology and precision in defining the terms of the social contract, but he disapproved of Hobbes’s negative vision of humans as being solely motivated by power and greed. Rousseau also disagreed with Hobbes’s theory that once the people consented to an absolute ruler or monarch, Absolute monarchy they were obliged to obey so long as the ruler protected them.

Rousseau, as did Locke before him, espoused the view that humans, in spite of their darker side, had the potential of developing goodness, morality, and a sense of justice. Rousseau and Locke believed government should be based on the consent of the people, and both championing individual rights and limited government. Rousseau, however, differed with Locke on who actually governs: Locke desired a representative government, Representative government chosen from the people at large, where majority rule prevailed—somewhat on the order of a parliament; Rousseau insisted that every citizen participate in person and vote to determine the contents of the general will. Strangely, all three “social contract theorists”—Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau—were persecuted and exiled when their political views became known.

In the case of Rousseau, the publication of The Social Contract in April and Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, a New System of Education, Emilius and Sophia (Rousseau) 1762-1763) in May made him a hunted fugitive in France and Switzerland. Before publication, French censor Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, anticipating serious problems, urged his friend Rousseau to remove his name from the title page of The Social Contract, a fashionable way of circumventing censorship problems. Rousseau refused. By June, public outrage caused authorities in Paris and Geneva to ban and then burn both books, claiming they were subversive and challenged the existing political institutions.

After warrants were issued for Rousseau’s arrest in both France and Switzerland, he fled to Germany, coming under the protection of Frederick the Great Frederick the Great of Prussia. From 1762 until his death in 1778, Rousseau lived a vagabond’s life, suffering failing health and broken spirits. His fame and influence on political reform waned, with The Social Contract somewhat forgotten. However, when Rousseau’s Les Confessions de J.-J. Rousseau (1782, 1789; The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau, 1783-1790; better known as Confessions
Confessions (Rousseau) ) and Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, The (Rousseau) 1783) were published posthumously, a cult arose in France devoted to restoring Rousseau’s prominence, promulgating his principles, and glorifying him as a martyr.


In 1789, the organizers of the French Revolution (1789-1796);Jean-Jacques Rousseau[Rousseau] French Revolution seized on Rousseau’s passionate slogans, maxims, and metaphors found in The Social Contract to justify their revolution. They also used the book for propaganda purposes, claiming Rousseau to be the father of republican France. The Social Contract fired the enthusiasm for revolution not only in France but also in the American colonies. The book influenced Jeffersonian democracy with its emphasis on enlightened people governing themselves and elected officials accountable to the people.

As a social contract theorist, Rousseau also influenced political philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, David Hume, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx. Because parts of The Social Contract are mystical and obscure, scholars over the centuries have variously interpreted the small book as supporting totalitarianism, nationalism, collectivism, liberal individualism, and direct democracy. The debate continues.

Further Reading

  • Cranston, Maurice. The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Provides biographical data on the germination of The Social Contract.
  • Cullen, Daniel. Freedom in Rousseau’s Political Philosophy. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993. Examines Rousseau’s concepts of natural, civil, and moral freedom.
  • Levine, Andrew. The General Will: Rousseau, Marx, Communism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Interprets Rousseau’s concept of the general will; applies it to modern Marxist, socialistic, and democratic theories.
  • Medina, Vicente. Social Contract Theories: Political Obligation or Anarchy? Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990. Synthesizes the research on advocates of contractarianism, such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hume.
  • Portis, Edward B. Reconstructing the Classics: Political Theory from Plato to Marx. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1994. Useful in comparing the early social contract theorists with those of modern times.
  • Qvortrup, Mads. The Political Philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Impossibility of Reason. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2003. Analysis of Rousseau’s political thought. Qvortrup argues that Rousseau was not a radical, revolutionary democrat, but was a conservative constitutionalist.
  • Riley, Patrick, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Collection of essays providing an overview of Rousseau’s life and an analysis of his ideas. Includes an essay interpreting Rousseau’s political philosophy.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Collected Writings of Rousseau. 5 vols. Edited and translated by Christopher Kelly et al. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990. Volume 3 contains a standard translation of The Social Contract, supplemented by editorial notes.
  • Wokler, Robert. Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. One in a series of books providing concise overviews of philosophers. Chapter 4 offers an analysis of Rousseau’s ideas of liberty, virtue, and citizenship.

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