Jean-Jacques Rousseau is perhaps best known for A Treatise on the Social Contract, one of the great classics in political philosophy. Rousseau was concerned with the relationship between the state and the individual. He recognized that the state has tremendous power over individuals, that it can command them, coerce them, and determine the sort of life they are to live, and also that individuals make many demands on society, even if they do not have the power to back them up. However, he insisted, the relations between the state and the individual cannot be simply those of naked power, threats, coercion, arbitrary decrees, and fearful or cunning submission, for people do speak of justified authority, the legitimate exercise of force, the rights of citizens, and the duties of rulers. The big question, then, is this: What is the source of the rights and responsibilities of both the citizen and the ruler?

In A Treatise on the Social Contract, Rousseau repudiates those who argue that the stronger have the right to rule the weaker, insisting that strength as such amounts to coercion. If a robber brandishing a pistol stops me and demands my purse, I am forced to hand it over, but his strength does not justify his act and my weakness does not make my reluctance blameworthy. Nor does this right of society over the individual flow from nature. True, the simplest social group, the family, does rest upon the natural requirement that the parents...

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A Social Contract

This social contract delivers us from a prior state of nature. Before people lived in societies, they were motivated primarily by the basic urge to preserve themselves, an urge that manifested itself in physical appetites and desires and released itself instinctively through actions designed to satisfy these. People were not governed by reason or by moral considerations, for there were no rights or moral relationships to be respected. Rousseau does not claim that presocietal people were vicious or that they had no gregarious instincts, but he does claim that each person’s life was dominated by the amoral, unreflective pursuit of the individual’s own welfare. As a result of this marked individualism and the rude circumstances of nature, life was uncertain and precarious, cooperation impossible, and aggression common. Such a state could be transcended only by instituting, by common consent, some sort of body politic within which cooperation would be possible and security guaranteed.

According to Rousseau, the society instituted by the contract brings about a marked transformation in humanity, for rational behavior replaces instinct, a sense of responsibility replaces physical motivation, and law replaces appetite. Latent capacities and faculties finally flower, and out of “a stupid and dull-witted animal,” there emerges “an intelligent being and a man.” In these respects, Rousseau differs from Locke and political leader Thomas Jefferson, who...

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The Terms of the Contract

It may sound as if Rousseau were advocating a rather extreme despotism, but this is not so. First, according to the terms of the contract, civil power and responsibility are not turned over to a king or to some small group of persons, but are kept in the hands of the contractors themselves, who thus become jointly sovereign. Consequently, when people contract to place themselves under the control of the sovereign, their action means only that they, like every other person, place themselves under the control of themselves and their fellow citizens.

Second, while the state has control over the individual, the scope of its control is limited to matters pertaining to the preservation and welfare of all. If it transgresses these limits, the contract is void and the citizen is released. Thus, for instance, although new citizens hand all their possessions over to the state, the state immediately hands them back and, by giving them title to these possessions, institutes property rights as distinguished from mere possession. According to the contract, the state retains control only in the sense that it has the right to appropriate the individual’s property if the public interest should require that it do so. Similarly, the state can command the individual only to the extent that control is needed for the public welfare. At all other times and in all other respects, it guarantees the individual freedom from the encroachment of the government and of other individuals. In this way, the contract brings human rights into being and specifies their scope.

Again, the individual is safeguarded insofar as the function of the sovereign group is restricted to the making of laws and insofar as the object of the law is always general. The sovereign power can pass laws attaching rewards or punishments to types of action and privileges to certain offices, but it cannot pass judgment upon individuals. The latter is the function of the executive or administrative branch, not that of the legislative. Rousseau maintains emphatically that the legislative and administrative functions shall not be discharged by the same group.

The General Will

The transformation wrought in the individual and the nature of the sovereign act are both expressed in what is perhaps the most basic of Rousseau’s concepts, that of the “general will.” Even though people are initially motivated by self-interest, the awareness that a contract is desirable forces them to think about others and their interests. Once the contract is made and the mechanism of democratic assemblies put into practice, individuals will be forced to consider those other interests more seriously than ever before. This consideration may result solely from prudence in the first place, but the deliberate joining of lots, the debating, the compromises to accommodate others, and the conscious recognition that they have common ideals cannot fail to encourage a genuine concern for the welfare of all. People become social creatures with social consciences, and what would otherwise have been a mere collection of individuals with individual goals and individual wills becomes a collective person with a single general will and a single goal. There comes into being a res publica, a republic, a body politic with many members.

Rousseau stressed that people are not really citizens as long as they accept society from prudence alone, that they become real citizens only when they develop a genuine concern for the welfare of all. There is an emphasis here that is not found in the English and American social contract writers. Of course, Rousseau does not write that people’s interest in...

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A Small State

Through the expression of their general will, then, the people exercise the sovereignty that they have and must retain in their own hands, but they do not administer the resultant laws. To do so, they establish an executive branch that functions as their agent. The form and structure of the administration will depend upon the size of the state, and other things being equal, the number of rulers tolerable for efficiency will vary inversely with the number of citizens. This is so because a larger state will require the tighter administrative control that can be achieved only if the executive power is restricted to a small number of administrators. On the other hand, a very small state might get along by allowing all the citizens to take part in the administration. Having in mind a moderately sized city-state, such as his native Geneva, Rousseau suggests that the ideal government would be a small elected group. He says that the function of the executive is restricted to the support and administration of the law and to the preservation of civil and political liberty and that the sovereign assembly is restricted to legislating, but he does not specify these functions in detail nor does he discuss the relationship between them. Furthermore, he does not discuss a judiciary, but this is presumably included in the administrative complex.

He is clear, though, in his insistence that the administrator be the servant of the assembly. To ensure that this be so, the people enter into no contract with their administrator and, unlike the Hobbesian contractors, transfer no rights. They extend to him nothing more than a revocable commission, thereby retaining control without being bound. When the sovereign assembly meets, as it does very frequently, all commissions granted by it at previous meetings become void until they are renewed.

Rousseau favors a moderately sized state something like the communes of Switzerland, wherein every citizen can come to know all the others, for in the large state relations between citizens become impersonal, and their interests,...

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Additional Reading

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Copleston places Jean-Jacques Rousseau against the backdrop of the Enlightenment, suggesting both his affinities and his points of disagreement with his philosophical contemporaries.

Cranston, Maurice William. The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Explores Rousseau’s views on individual experience with special reference to solitude, exile, and adversity.

Crocker, Lester G. Jean-Jacques...

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