The Social Contract

The Social Contract Glossary

Civil liberty

What man acquires by entering the social contract. Civil liberty is obedience to the laws that one helps to design. By exchanging natural liberty for civil liberty, man attains basic humanity and morality.

Civil religion

The "sentiments of sociability" to which every good citizen must profess. The tenets of civil religion are a belief in good and the afterlife, justice for all, and respect for the sanctity of the social contract. The sovereign cannot obligate opponents of civil religion to accept its tenets, but it can banish them from the state.

General will

The will of the sovereign, which promotes the common good. People and governments have particular wills that tend to oppose the general will.


An intermediary between the people and the sovereign, charged with executing the general will. Whereas the legislative body takes care of matters that affect the entire populace, the government deals with particular acts. There are three main forms of government: democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. Which one is appropriate in a given country depends on a number of factors, including population and climate.


A decision that is made by entire populace and applies to the entire populace. The law must always embody this concept of universality. A decision that affects only a certain individual or group is a decree and is outside the consideration of the sovereign.


A person of superior intellect and morals who guides the people in making the laws. The legislator must be able to resist the passions of the people while still caring about their happiness.

Legitimate, political authority

What Rousseau seeks to determine the basis of in The Social Contract. A legitimate, political authority must meet two conditions. First, there must be no relationships of particular dependence in the state. Second, in obeying the laws, a person must obey only himself.

Natural liberty

A person's ability to do anything that he desires. Natural liberty is only limited by the strength of the individual and the resistance of others.

Social contract

The agreement, made by the members of the state, which establishes civil society. The clauses of the social contract are laid out throughout Rousseau's work and aim to ensure the freedom and equality of all citizens. Importantly, the social contract is the only law that requires unanimous consent.


An active, legislative body composed of the members of the state. The sovereign is the supreme authority of the state. Sovereignty always rests with the people, and cannot be transferred to a person or a group. It also cannot be divided into smaller functions. Rousseau's view of sovereignty contrasts with that of other political philosophers. Theorists such as Hobbes and Grotius made the government the sovereign authority instead of the people.

State of Nature

An amoral, prehistoric time during which man was governed by physical impulses instead of reason and morality. In Discourse on Basis and Origin of Inequality, Rousseau argues that the state of nature was preferable to civil society because man had no emotional attachments and lacked property - a primary source of conflict. Rousseau acknowledges that the actual state of nature may be different than he describes. He uses the concept of an amoral, prehistoric state to determine the basis of legitimate, political authority.

Will of all

The sum of all the particular or private wills within the state. In a state without factions, the competing interests of each individual cancel out, and the will of all approximates the general will. When factions exist, there is no general will, and the private opinions of a few dominate society.