The Social Contract

The Social Contract Study Guide

In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract and another major work, Emile, or On Education. Both works criticized religion, and were consequently banned in France and his native Geneva. As a result, Rousseau was forced to flee his homeland and live under the protection of others for the rest of his life.

In many ways, Rousseau was a philosopher because of his arguments against religion and his associations with other Enlightenment figures who shared the same anticlerical views. He wrote several articles for Diderot's Encyclopédie and was, for a time, good friends with Voltaire. Later on, intellectual differences would strain his relationship with both men and make him somewhat of an outcast among the French Enlightenment figures.

The idea of a social contract had existed since at the least the Renaissance, but previous versions claimed that there was a binding contract between rulers and the ruled. Other versions of the social contract viewed the contract as being between the people, but still asserted that they were obligated to obey their government. This theory provided the foundation of enlightened despotism, in which the king was sovereign and ruled in the best interests of the people. Rousseau, however, was not content to justify these old theories of sovereignty. He claimed that sovereignty belonged to the people and that the government was only a representative of the sovereign, charged with executing the general will. Although this is idea is commonplace today, it was shocking to contemporary readers of Rousseau's work.

The Social Contract influenced governments throughout Europe and helped to promote political reform and revolution. Although Rousseau, for the most part, avoids discussion of contemporary political affairs, his criticism of luxury and his emphasis on popular sovereignty certainly contributed to the ideals of the French Revolution. In addition, many political leaders believed that Rousseau's political theories provided a solid foundation for any state. Rousseau was invited to draft constitutions for both Corsica and Poland, although his recommendations were never implemented because of foreign invasions.

The Social Contract is, in many ways, a follow-up to Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men. In the earlier work, Rousseau attacks private property for causing inequality and exploitation. These vices are responsible for the "chains" that Rousseau refers to in the first sentence of On the Social Contract. Accepting that some loss of liberty is inevitable, Rousseau seeks to establish a legitimate, political authority. The Social Contract thus examines what constitutes such an authority.