Read with me: The Social Contract, Part I

In this Read With Me series, we’ll be having a close look at The Social Contract, written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and published in 1762. It is perhaps one of his most memorable and influential works, and contributed significantly to the philosophy of the social contract — that is, the idea that, in a society, people consent to give up some freedoms for the security offered by participation in said society. This series will take a deep dive into Rousseau’s take on the issue, going section by section through his book and in each outlining Rousseau’s key ideas and arguments. I’ll then provide some commentary, thinking about how these ideas might work (or not) in our contemporary moment. This isn’t going to be a thorough historical analysis of Rousseau; I am not an expert in this area. I am, however, deeply interested in the subject, and I invite you to join me as I learn more. If you want to know what to expect, please see my previous series that explored John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Otherwise, thank you for reading, and I look forward to having you come along on this journey with me!

Book I

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains

Rousseau outlines here his intentions for this book, and places himself as observer of society and political theorist. The work will, so he asserts, take men as they are, and laws as they should be. It will strike the balance between justice (the needs of society) and utility (self-interest).

Rousseau begins by highlighting his key starting assumptions. The most important of these is the idea of ‘natural freedom’; that is, people are born ultimately and completely free. The only natural obligation one has is that of a parent to the child. Once the child becomes an adult, the duty ends. In interacting with one another, people form and agree on conventions — should the child, once grown, choose to continue associating with the parents, this becomes a convention between the two. Such agreements are the foundation of society, and of the social order that moves people out of a state of nature. The individual alone is best placed to look after themselves — and as such they may voluntarily combine with others and relinquish certain freedoms.

Before he expands further on his own views, however, Rousseau takes the time to critique the other ways by which societies might be said to form. One is the exercise of force by one person over another. Strength becomes converted into right, so some might say, and obedience into duty. And yet the people who yield to force do so by necessity, and not by consent. The ‘duty’ is a mask, for force is always present — and as such force exercised in this way provides no moral basis. Might is not right.

If might does not confer right and provide natural authority, then where does legitimate authority come from? Legitimate authority, argues Rousseau, must be agreed by convention — and convention with the implications of free consent. There are situations where there may be the appearance of agreement, but where consent is not free (or where it is at first, but then freedom of consent is retracted). Some might argue that one person could sell themselves to another as a slave, and give all their rights over to the other in exchange for subsistence. If this could be the case, can a nation come together and agree to give itself to a king? If they do, they may in return get peace, or security.

Yet this is not necessarily a fair deal, as Rousseau points out. Peace given at any cost does not make for a fair transfer — “prisoners live peacefully in their dungeons; is that enough for them to feel comfortable there?” If peace comes with a state of misery, then it is an unfair exchange; anyone who would agree to such a bargain would be mad, and thus the transfer would be void. Further, one cannot give their children to the king, so at any rate each generation must accept or reject the king’s authority. What’s more, a person cannot, without contradiction, sell themselves into slavery, and so a nation cannot, without the same contradiction, give itself to a king. If the rights of the slave belong to the master, then the master holds rights against himself — slaves cannot agree to slavery, because, even if one sells himself into slavery, he loses the right to agree. For consent to be free — for it to be a right — then one must be able to withdraw consent.

Can a person become a slave by right of conquest? Can a king subjugate a people through war? The king, after all, makes a trade with the enemy combatants — they can become slaves, or be killed, and thus they gain their life in exchange for becoming slaves. No, says Rousseau, because ‘war’ is a condition that can only exist between states, and not between people as citizens. War is a formal act, which requires a declaration; the object is destroy a state, and not its people. Without a formal definition of war, we return simply to the matter of strength and force, which Rousseau has already established cannot be the basis for right. Further, soldiers cease to be soldiers, and thus belligerents who might be killed, when they lay down their arms. As soon as they surrender, they become citizens, and must be treated like such. If one has no right to kill them, then one has no justification for enslaving them. The only justification is, again, force.

Even if a society does come into being in this way, however illegitimate it might be in theory, Rousseau would never be able to see it as a society. No, he contends, a king who gained power in this way would always be a master, and his people slaves; Rousseau “cannot see a people and its leader.” Furthermore, after the demise of such a ruler, his empire dissolves along with the structures by which he governed, built as they were around his own strength. A king therefore cannot take a people; a people must, if anything, give themselves to a king. But even if we accept that a people can give themselves to a king, this presupposes that a people must exist as a unit. How does this collection of individuals become a people? If not all agree that they should give themselves over to a king, why should a minority submit themselves to the will of the majority? That a minority should respect the outcome of a vote assumes a covenant over which there was some unanimity.

Rousseau has therefore spent much of his time thus far laying the foundations for his argument, disputing the several ways through which societies might otherwise form. Might is not right; there is no legitimate way in which a person, or a people, can give themselves into slavery or subjugation. Even if we suppose that a people could give themselves over to a ruler, there needs to be some mechanism by which the people form together in the first place. Enter the social contract.

Contracts are formed when people, existing otherwise in a state of nature, face obstacles which they alone cannot overcome, but which they can overcome in conjunction with others. But how might these individuals join together, without harming or subjugating themselves? Simply, each agrees to give themselves voluntarily and completely to the society. The conditions are the same for all. All is given, and so there is no more to add. In giving oneself to all, the individual is given to none, and so no one person exercises rights over any other. Further, one receives a proportion from all to the equivalent of that which the individual gives.

Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and we as a body receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.

The society thus formed is a moral body. There should be as many votes as there are people. The associates to this contract are regarded as citizens when participants in sovereign authority, and subjects when they are bound to the laws that are made. The society, thus formed, becomes the republic or body politic. When passive, it is called the state, and when active, the sovereign. The sovereign, however, organised, cannot oblige itself to do anything that derogates from the original contract; it cannot submit itself to another sovereign. With the people thus joined, an injury to one is by definition an attack on the body itself, while any injury to the body must affect all its members.

Individuals will, of course, have a personal will contrary to the general will. Some may even see the costs of participation in the body as burdensome — they may see the loss to himself of contributing to the body greater than the loss to the body of his not contributing. They may seek the benefits of being a citizen, without the costs of being a subject. Such an attitude is detrimental to the body, and would come at a cost to all. Therefore, anyone who agrees to the contract, but who refuses to obey the general will, may be forced to do so by the whole body, and is therefore forced to be free. They are answerable not to other citizens, but to the law and the state. In a civil state, man must think beyond himself. 

How do property rights work in this transition from a state of nature into a civil state? By agreeing to the social contract, people lose their natural freedom and their unlimited right to anything, but gain civil freedom and the right to property. Natural freedom is limited by the strength of the individual; one, in this state, may not have property, only possession. Possession is the effect of force. Civil freedom is limited by the general will, and within it people are entitled to rights of property. The state is master of all property, and anything under one’s possession that is brought by the individual from the state of nature into the civil state comes under the jurisdiction of the state. In laying claim to property, people have a right to all that is necessary for their subsistence. In having right to such a limited amount of property, individuals are excluded from having rights to the property of others. One may claim possession of uninhabited lands, giving them the right of first occupancy, but the individual may not claim more than is needed for subsistence. Further, the land must be worked and cultivated — it cannot be taken, simply to exclude others by force. In laying claim to a property, an individual is being entrusted with what is, at its basis, public property, as both sovereign and owner have rights over the same property (given that the property falls within the territorial boundary of the sovereign body). The individual cedes any claim to complete ownership in return for protection of said property by the sovereign.

The social contract thus provides the basis for equality. Men may be unequal in strength or intelligence, but all become equal through agreed convention.

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Book I of The Social Contract therefore lays down some of the key concepts that will serve as the foundation for later arguments. Significantly, it establishes the means by which societies can be legitimately formed, and — crucially — how some people can legitimately exercise power over others. It also serves to situate the work against the broader literature. Rousseau frequently references Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. He also references Philo and Aristotle, and embeds his ideas in the classical tradition through occasional reference to Greco-Roman laws.

Perhaps most interesting here, at least to me, is the well-founded critique of slavery. Rousseau provides counter-arguments to at least two of the justifications used to support slavery: first, that slaves might volunteer themselves into slavery, and second, that war legitimises the capture and enslavement of belligerents. As I read this, however, it struck me that Rousseau might be talking about slavery in the Greco-Roman context, rather than in the transatlantic context. I don’t know if Rousseau ever was an Abolitionist. Interesting, however, is the way that he draws the parallel between master and slave, and king and nation. By insinuating that the king is no more than slave master, he constructs an incredibly inflammatory argument for his time. It is interesting to see this parallel play out in the French Revolution — after deposing their king, the Revolutionaries also outlawed slavery in the French colonies.

His broader critique of this king-subject, master-slave dynamic may certainly have some present-day relevance, with a further parallel between the dictator or strongman and the country he (as it so often is) purports to lead. Rousseau’s observation that “the empire after him is scattered and dissolved” may well certainly ring true. With the leader building around themselves a cult of personality, and with their claim to power based predominantly in their strength or competency, the institutions that would provide stability after they leave office or die are near non-existent. The result is often a power vacuum, instability, and civil war or revolution.

I have some problems with Rousseau’s argument thus far. As I haven’t read ahead, I admit that it is very possible (and likely) that my concerns will be addressed later on in the book. I’ll flag these anyway, and prepare myself to be consoled or corrected as I read on.

The biggest issue I have so far is with the contract itself. Can a person withdraw themselves from it? Rousseau makes a big deal about the illegitimacy of slavery because, once the rights are given over, the slave cannot withdraw themselves because they lose the ability to consent. Does someone not have that right in the contract? Rousseau asserts that, if someone’s individual will diverges from the general will to the degree that they don’t wish to comply with it, they can be forced to do so. Why can that person not withdraw themselves from the contract altogether if the general will is so at odds with their own? I appreciate that they should not then claim any of the benefits without incurring the costs, and that they should be beholden to their obligations, but even still Rousseau does not seem to allow for any possibility of withdrawing consent. On top of this, the idea that people can be ‘forced to be free’, to paraphrase, is deeply troubling and authoritarian. Being forced to do something simply because it is the “general will” that I do it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Rousseau has come up with something seemingly egalitarian and democratic, and still off-puttingly illiberal.

Further still, how are the next generation supposed to be inducted into this contract? Are they born outside of it or into it? What if they don’t like the terms of the contract? Making a new covenant with every generation might seem fair, but, given that the next generation is never born all at once, it would be incredibly impractical. Having regular elections and referenda on the constitution (this being the closest thing to a social contract, I suppose) might work, although the next generation is still beholden to the decisions made before them, and they still don’t have the freedom of possibilities that was given to the society’s first founders. Rousseau’s idea seems best suited to forming a society from scratch — something which obviously came to have relevance in the Age of Revolutions. For the rest of history, however, barring any further disruptions, this seems to have little utility.

Third is the issue surrounding property. Claims to property are justified as long as one takes only what they need for subsistence. This has the appearance of fairness, which is commendable, but there are still a number of slippery terms. Firstly, who decides what is and is not enough for subsistence? How does this work in a capitalist society where property and capital is utilised with the purported intention of improving the human condition, providing items for consumption that take us beyond mere subsistence? Secondly, people are free to expand onto ‘uninhabited’ land and claim right of ownership as first occupant. Who decides whether or not land is ‘uninhabited’? When Europeans were colonising the Americas, they decided, without consideration of the Native Americans, that such land was ‘uninhabited’. Is this not a case of might creating right? Does woodland, or forest, or anywhere inhabited by non-human animals count as inhabited or not? What right do humans have to destroy natural habitats? Finally, can someone withdraw their property from the society, if they brought it in or claimed it as first occupant, or does it always belong to the state thereafter? What defines the geographical boundaries of the state — its jurisdiction — and is secession legitimate for any persons that no longer wish to be beholden to the contract?

Sections of this book therefore raise more questions than they answer. I’m hoping that answers will be provided. There is certainly some indication that they will — Rousseau has kindly pointed out places where ideas will be elaborated upon. This is necessary for some areas, which I have not brought up as of yet. Significant of these is a particular passage regarding the conceptualisation of the ‘sovereign’ worth quoting at length:

The sovereign, then, consisting solely of the individual persons which form it, has and can have no self-interest that is contrary to theirs; as a result, it does not need to give any form of guarantee to its subjects, because it is impossible that the body should want to harm all its members; as we shall see later, it cannot harm any one individually. Simply by virtue of its existence, the sovereign is always what it should be.

I understand in vague, theoretical terms that the sovereign, by virtue of being made up of a whole group of people, cannot have a will that does not originate from any one of those people — but the implication that the people cannot disagree or have competing interests, or might want to do something that would cause harm, or cause perceived harm, against any other individual member seems fundamentally absurd. It is something which I will need elaborating upon further, and which I am pleased to see will be. It seems to be another of those instances where a practical example or hypothetical scenario would be very useful to help illustrate this theory.

So that was Book I of The Social Contract. Join me next time as I carry on reading, and let me know what you think in the comments!

The copy I have is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Christopher Betts:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract, edited and translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 45-62.

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15 thoughts on “Read with me: The Social Contract, Part I

  1. Re how the next generation stands vis-a-vis the social contract, I agree, Rousseau’s views don’t seem to provide a suitable answer. I remember reading somewhere (perhaps, Crito or a discussion of it, but I can’t be sure) that one was seen as having accepted the contract by living in a state and accepting what it offers its citizens, but that logic too is problematic since how can a child be seen as accepting a contract when legally they aren’t seen as competent to do so; and then further in a world like we have today, is withdrawing even an option since one can at best think of moving from one state to another and thus subject oneself to another set of restrictions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly — the child has to be subjected to whatever its parents want until they become an adult (which Rousseau claims is a part of the natural order, i.e. parental duty). But then where does the child-turned-adult go if they decide that they don’t like the present system? This was probably less of an issue in the eighteenth century given that people could migrate to the ‘New World’; perhaps we’ll start to see the colonisation of Mars as a possibility for dissatisfied people in the (maybe not too distant) future.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And in the present day context, one can’t say the parents have had much choice either; perhaps if one is wealthy enough to buy an island or something, one might be able to opt out, but there really isn’t very much choice; Mars as you say…

        The other issue that came to mind was vis-a-vis parents’ duty to their children till they grow up; I wonder if that conception would work in the Asian traditional set up–I mean joint families are still quite common, so children aren’t expected to set up on their own (they do of course, for work or other reasons), and the larger conception of family and duty to each other continues

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Another great point — Rousseau is obviously Eurocentric in his idea of what the ‘natural’ state of things is. And yes, regarding choice, we’re all dealing with inherited institutions, and there’s a significant amount of determinism/path dependency bound up with that. I like Burke’s approach to that issue — that it’s important to understand why particular institutions etc were introduced in the first place, and then set about trying to improve/change/replace them. It has quite a whiggish vibe, but there’s a certain level of acceptance and pragmatism that I find appealing. Going back to Rousseau, it’s obviously difficult creating a new society from scratch with each generation.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. sharemylibrary

      I think the points you’ve made here about children and their agency to decide for themselves are really interesting. I’ve also seen (potentially controversial) views of which adults have this agency and to what extent are people rational and even capable enough to enter such a contract.

      I thought about the social contract at the start of the pandemic when we saw a rise of community volunteers in neighbourhoods. We shifted from an individualistic society, which is common in Europe, to a more collectivist one which indirectly adopted this kind of contract.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You might also have people question the rationality of a minority who might not agree to the contract in the first place. I doubt you could ever get a unanimous vote on anything when you have a society’s worth of people, least of all a foundational contract stipulating how the society should be run!

        And perhaps related to that, as well as your second point, you also see people becoming more individualistic and rejecting this modern contract, e.g. by refusing to wear masks etc. But yes, it was certainly both interesting and heartwarming to see people stepping up and looking out for elderly neighbours and other vulnerable people! It’s interesting that you can look at it through the lens of the social contract theory, it’s not something I had considered.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Re refusal to wear masks or to get the vaccine, do we see it as a rejection or a breach, in the sense that the people involved continue to live in society and take advantage of the benefits it offers, so to speak?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I think it would only be considered a breach if it became law. So a majority of people would need to agree that it was the general will that all people wear masks/take the vaccine/etc. Anyone refusing would therefore be violating the contract – that is, they agreed to obey the general will in return for the protection and benefits of being in a society.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Fair enough; since a law would as you said represent the general will; but I am not sure, even in the absence of a law whether I would see the refusal as only a rejection of the contract or something more; in terms of ethical responsibilities one owes to he people we are living with; one may have free choice so long as that choice does impact on others, but when it does, how does one read it in the absence of mandatory legal requirements.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I see where you’re coming from, and that’s a really good point. I sense that this is where liberalism (as a moral philosophy) meets social contract theory. From what I have gathered so far from Rousseau, he would consider the only ethical obligations as those stipulated in the contract or by the general will. When you talk about freedom of choice and the impact choices have on others, that’s probably closer to a liberal perspective on society, so you think?

        Like

      6. Probably on the lines of my right ends where another’s begins but then where does free choice go, when effectively one is unable to exercise it? A lot to think about, really.

        Liked by 1 person

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