The Social Contract

Major Themes

Buy Study Guide


Rousseau's theory of sovereignty differs dramatically from those espoused by other political philosophers. Unlike Hobbes and Grotius, Rousseau asserts that the people should exercise sovereignty rather than bend to the whims of an absolute monarch. By banding together, the people create a "public person" called the "sovereign," which aims for the common good. Every person is both a "citizen" (in that he is a member of the sovereign) and a "subject" (in that he must obey its decisions).

Rousseau places several stipulations on the sovereign to ensure the legitimacy of political authority. The sovereign must maintain equality, without which liberty cannot exist. It can only consider matters that affect the entire populace, and cannot demand more from any one subject than from any other. The sovereign must also ensure that the people obey only themselves and remain as free as they were prior to the institution of the social contract. Thus, sovereignty cannot be transferred to an individual or group, because only the people can express the general will. Sovereignty is also indivisible, because a part of the sovereign cannot legislate for the whole.

Legitimate Political Authority

In Book I, Rousseau establishes two conditions for a legitimate polity. First, there are no relationships of particular dependence. Second, by obeying the laws, the people only obey themselves. To meet these two conditions, Rousseau creates several rules for the sovereign and the government that must carry out its decisions.

Rousseau claims that there is no contract between the people and its government. To ensure that the people only obey themselves, the sovereign must be the supreme authority in the state. Because a contract creates obligations for both parties, the people would no longer be the supreme authority if they had to obey the government. Another clause that ensures legitimate, political authority holds that the law can only deal with matters that affect the entire populace. The sovereign cannot make rules that only apply to certain people because this would violate the second condition of a legitimate polity.


Rousseau stresses the importance of morals throughout The Social Contract. In contrast to Grotius, Rousseau asserts that a right must create a sense of moral obligation. Force is thus unable to create a right. Slaves submit to their masters because they fear physical harm, not because they feel that they ought to obey them.

Civil society substitutes a moral existence, in which people have obligations to each other and to the state, for the independent existence of the state of nature. Rousseau praises this transformation, which forces man to listen to reason before acting on any physical impulses. He claims that only after entering the social contract does man become fully human. However, Rousseau also criticizes the effect that civil society has on man. He states his objections most clearly in Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men.