The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: What You Need to Know

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is perhaps best known for his book The Social Contract, where he famously said, “Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.” According to Rousseau, when man came into society, he had complete freedom and equality. Yet civil society acts as chains and suppresses man’s inherent freedom.

To Rousseau, the only legitimate form of political authority is one in which all people have agreed upon a government with the intent of mutual preservation through a social contract. Rousseau refers to this group of people as a “sovereign.” The sovereign should always express the collective need of the people and provide for the common good of everyone, regardless of individual opinions or desires (he calls this the “general will”). The general will also shapes the creation of laws.

Rousseau does not dismiss the importance of government, however, and understood that there would be friction between a sovereign and a government (whether it be a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy). To ease such tensions, Rousseau claimed the sovereign should hold periodic assemblies and vote based on the general will. The assemblies should always be attended by the people of the sovereign, for the sovereignty is lost once elected representatives attend the assemblies, and in a truly healthy state, the votes should be practically unanimous. Furthermore, Rousseau advocates that there should be a court to mediate conflicts among individuals, and among the government and the sovereignty.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract is one of the most important philosophical texts in Western philosophy. At a time of political inequality, Rousseau made it clear that the right of the government was to govern by “the consent of the governed.” His radical ideas regarding the rights of man and the sovereignty of the people are frequently acknowledged as being the foundations of human rights and democratic principles.