Primary Source Reading: The Social Contract

Jean Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract, 1763

Introduction to the Source

In moral and political philosophy, the social contract or political contract is a theory or model, originating during the Age of Enlightenment, that typically addresses the questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. The question of the relation between natural and legal rights, therefore, is often an aspect of social contract theory. The Social Contract (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique) is also the title of a 1762 book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau on this topic.

Although the antecedents of social contract theory are found in antiquity, in Greek and Stoic philosophy and Roman and Canon Law, as well as in the Biblical idea of the covenant, the heyday of the social contract was the mid-17th to early 19th centuries, when it emerged as the leading doctrine of political legitimacy. The starting point for most social contract theories is a heuristic examination of the human condition absent from any political order that Thomas Hobbes termed the “state of nature”.[2] In this condition, individuals’ actions are bound only by their personal power and conscience. From this shared starting point, social contract theorists seek to demonstrate, in different ways, why a rational individual would voluntarily consent to give up his or her natural freedom to obtain the benefits of political order.

Hugo Grotius (1625), Thomas Hobbes (1651), Samuel Pufendorf (1673), John Locke (1689), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), and Immanuel Kant (1797) are among the most prominent of 17th- and 18th-century theorists of social contract and natural rights. Each solved the problem of political authority in a different way.

Origin and Terms of the Social Contract

Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains. This man believes that he is the master of others, and still he is more of a slave than they are. How did that transformation take place? I don’t know. How may the restraints on man become legitimate? I do believe I can answer that question….

At a point in the state of nature when the obstacles to human preservation have become greater than each individual with his own strength can cope with . . ., an adequate combination of forces must be the result of men coming together. Still, each man’s power and freedom are his main means of selfpreservation. How is he to put them under the control of others without damaging himself . . . ?

This question might be rephrased: “How is a method of associating to be found which will defend and protect-using the power of all-the person and property of each member and still enable each member of the group to obey only himself and to remain as free as before?” This is the fundamental problem; the social contract offers a solution to it.

The very scope of the action dictates the terms of this contract and renders the least modification of them inadmissible, something making them null and void. Thus, although perhaps they have never been stated in so man) words, they are the same everywhere and tacitly conceded and recognized everywhere. And so it follows that each individual immediately recovers hi primitive rights and natural liberties whenever any violation of the social contract occurs and thereby loses the contractual freedom for which he renounced them.

The social contract’s terms, when they are well understood, can be reduced to a single stipulation: the individual member alienates himself totally to the whole community together with all his rights. This is first because conditions will be the same for everyone when each individual gives himself totally, and secondly, because no one will be tempted to make that condition of shared equality worse for other men….

Once this multitude is united this way into a body, an offense against one of its members is an offense against the body politic. It would be even less possible to injure the body without its members feeling it. Duty and interest thus equally require the two contracting parties to aid each other mutually. The individual people should be motivated from their double roles as individuals and members of the body, to combine all the advantages which mutual aid offers them….

Source: From Jean Jacques Rousseau, Contrat social ou Principes du droit politique (Paris: Garnier Frères 1800), pp. 240332, passim. Translated by Henry A. Myers.