The Social Contract

The Social Contract


Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born and raised in the Francophone city-state of Geneva, which is now part of Switzerland. His mother, who was born into Geneva’s upper classes, died in childbirth, so Rousseau was primarily raised by his father, a watchmaker who passed his trade and sense of civic virtue on to his son. Specifically, Rousseau’s father was proud of having Genevan citizenship, which most of the city’s residents lacked, and of belonging to a community of politically active artisans who fought the small council of elites that controlled Genevan politics. When Rousseau was ten, his father was forced out of Geneva because of a political dispute, and he was sent to live with a Protestant minister, and later to work as an apprentice to a notary and then an engraver. He soon got fed up with these apprenticeships, so in March 1728, he decided to run away and convert to Catholicism. This led to him losing his beloved Genevan citizenship but gaining a benefactor in nearby France: the Madame de Warens, an ostentatious and sexually liberated noblewoman who dedicated her life to converting young Protestant men. She took Rousseau in, funding his education and facilitating his travels around France and Italy. They soon became lovers, and while Rousseau completely devoted himself to her, he was also conflicted about her parallel relationship with her butler. Rousseau eventually left for Lyon and then Paris to pursue his intellectual aspirations. When the French Academy of Sciences decided not to adopt his innovative system of musical notation, Rousseau ended up moving to Venice to work for the French ambassador there. He quit after two years and returned to Paris, where he fell in love with a reportedly illiterate chambermaid named Thérèse Levasseur and decided to financially support her entire family, even though he had no money. They had five children between 1746 and 1752, but Rousseau persuaded Levasseur to give them all to an orphanage because he distrusted her family. Still, Rousseau spent the rest of his life living with Levasseur, even though they never married and he remained in love with Madame de Warens. Mostly a composer by 1750, Rousseau had his first major break when he won a prominent essay contest for the work Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences. Two years later, he wrote The Village Soothsayer, an opera that was performed for the king of France. The king loved Rousseau’s work so much that he offered to pay him a pension for life—but shockingly, Rousseau turned down the king’s offer. The same year, he got into a public fight with the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau over whether French or Italian opera was superior. In 1754, Rousseau converted back to Protestantism and moved back to Geneva, where he regained his citizenship, fell in love with another noblewoman, and had a falling out with his contemporary Diderot. Then, he left and went back to France. Over the next decade, Rousseau published what are now considered his major works: the Discourse on Inequality (1754), the novel Julie (1761), the novel and educational treatise Emile (1762), and The Social Contract (1762). However, these works were radical for Rousseau’s time, and they were banned and publicly burned in both France and Geneva. Rousseau was forced into hiding. He moved to the nearby town of Môtiers and then to a small island in the middle of a lake, but he was kicked out of both. Fortunately, illustrious figures ranging from the Prussian king Frederick the Great to the Scottish philosopher David Hume offered to house Rousseau, and he soon accepted Hume’s invitation and went to England. However, within a year he had a public falling out with Hume and returned to France, where he was still considered both a criminal and a celebrity. Fortunately, the crown did not pursue him, and he spent the next five years studying botany and writing his autobiography, the Confessions, which was published to acclaim in 1782, after his death. Rousseau’s last decade, the 1770s, was rather scandal-free compared to his earlier life: he helped Poland craft its new constitution and wrote a book slandering his enemies. He suffered from a severe urinary disease, but his health only really began to decline after a nobleman’s large dog ran him over in Paris in 1776. Rousseau started having periodic seizures and finally died of a stroke in July of 1778, approximately a decade before the beginning of the French Revolution, which his work helped inspire. Although he is best remembered for his political theory, Rousseau’s work continues to influence fields ranging from opera to religion to child development.
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Historical Context of The Social Contract

Rousseau not only lived through one of the most transformative periods in European intellectual history—the Age of Enlightenment—but also helped shape an era of profound political change—the so-called Age of Revolution that began around the end of his lifetime. In the 18th century, Europe’s territory was largely consolidated under the rule of monarchies and the noble classes to whom they delegated power. City-states like Geneva were the exception, and Rousseau’s defense of popular sovereignty and direct citizen participation in lawmaking was considered revolutionary and dangerous. These monarchies also started building overseas empires in the Americas, and this expansion raised many questions that Rousseau takes up in this book: for instance, he argues that slavery can never be justified and notes that large states often have difficulty governing themselves. On the other hand, these monarchies also patronized science, mathematics, and the humanities, which flourished and began taking their modern institutional forms. The Catholic Church flourished too and it was influential in these monarchies (including France, where Rousseau lived much of his life), as well as in many European colonies in the Americas. Again, Geneva was an exception, since it was formally Protestant, and Rousseau exploited this tension throughout his life, converting back and forth between Calvinism and Catholicism as he moved back and forth between Geneva and France. But Rousseau’s insistence that citizens must rule themselves, rather than being ruled over by a king or nobility class, was as controversial in Geneva as in France: although Geneva had no king, its powerful aristocracy essentially wielded all the power that citizens were theoretically supposed to have. As he emphasizes throughout The Social Contract, however, the idea of a government run by and for the people extends back to ancient Athens and the Roman Republic, whose experiments with a kind of government that Rousseau called republican (and would also be called democratic today) Rousseau uses as evidence that it truly is possible for everyone to participate in politics. And Rousseau’s writings also had ripple effects, which are the principal reason for his fame today. Specifically, the Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract inspired the leaders of the French Revolution, who praised Rousseau in their speeches and openly claimed to be staging their takeover on behalf of the general will. In this sense, the shape of contemporary liberal democracy is heavily dependent on Rousseau’s thought, even if it often fails to achieve the social equality he sought to establish.

Other Books Related to The Social Contract

The Social Contract builds directly from Rousseau’s argument about the formation of human society in the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1754). In the Discourse On Inequality, Rousseau argues that society has the potential to create equality among people despite the natural inequalities in their power and intelligence, but instead it actually corrupts people and exacerbates inequality by concentrating wealth and property in the hands of a few. (In The Social Contract, he asks what a society should do in order to actually create true equality through popular rule.) Rousseau also transformed studies of child development and the philosophy of education with the book Emile, or On Education (1762), his personal favorite work, which mixes philosophical fiction and his theory of human nature to describe how education can help people realize their potential. His other most famous books are the best-selling romantic epistolary novel Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) and the autobiography Confessions (1782). While Rousseau is famous for his interpretation of the state of nature and the social contract, he is actually the latest of the most influential philosophers who wrote on these subjects. The first two were the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes, who laid out his political theory in the Leviathan (1651), and John Locke, who did the same in his Two Treatises of Government (1689). Both these thinkers deeply influenced Rousseau, whose conclusions are much more radical and democratic than Hobbes’s and Locke’s. Social contract theory is still alive and well today, with recent works like American philosopher John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) and Irish-Australian political theorist Philip Pettit's Republicanism (1997) building on the foundational insights of the Enlightenment. Finally, countless books have been written about Rousseau’s life, thought, and influence. Some scholars have taken up specific questions in relation to Rousseau’s thought: for instance, David Gauthier’s Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence (2006) focuses specifically on the concept of freedom in Rousseau’s work. Prominent studies of Rousseau’s life include Maurice Cranston’s three-part biography (1982, 1991, 1997) and Leo Damrosch’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (2005). Holistic guides to Rousseau’s thought include N.J.H. Dent’s Rousseau: An Introduction to His Psychological, Social and Political Theory (1989) and Rousseau (2005). A number of books have also focused specifically on this text, including David Lay Williams’s Rousseau’s Social Contract: An Introduction and Christopher Wright’s Rousseau’s The Social Contract (2008).
Key Facts about The Social Contract
  • Full Title: On the Social Contract; or, Principles of Political Rights
  • When Written: 1756-1760
  • Where Written: Paris and Montmorency, France
  • When Published: 1762
  • Literary Period: The Enlightenment
  • Genre: Political Philosophy; Enlightenment
  • Point of View: Third-person

Extra Credit for The Social Contract

Hometown Pride? Rousseau famously signed many of his works, including The Social Contract, as “J.J. Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva,” and in multiple places he praises the Genevan city-state as an ideal political community because it supposedly allows all citizens to participate in lawmaking. However, Rousseau was writing primarily about Geneva’s original political order when it was founded in the 1500s, and so his civic pride was also a way of pointing out the corruption and inadequacy of Geneva’s government at the time, which was elitist and aristocratic. Geneva’s government was so offended by Rousseau’s book that it banned and publicly burned it, then banned him from ever entering the city. (It so happens that the his father was also banned from Geneva, although for very different reasons.) Today, however, Rousseau is a celebrated figure in Geneva, which has named streets, hotels, schools, and even an island after him.