Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the new social contract

De Baripedia

One man will answer Hobbes and Montesquieu, challenging state modernity, and that man is Rousseau. Rousseau is fascinating because his work is gigantic; he is a man who practised many professions before becoming the citizen he was. He was born and grew up in Geneva in 1712.


Biography[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28th 1712. He was the second son of Isaac Rousseau and Suzanne Bernard, who died on July 7th.

1712 - 1722 : Education by his father. Reading of Plutarch.
1722 - 1724 : Isaac Rousseau settles in Nyon. Jean-Jacques in boarding school in Bossey.
1725 : Apprenticeship as an engraver.
1728: On March 14, Rousseau finds the gates of Geneva closed. He takes refuge with the parish priest of Confignon and then, on 21 March, meets Mme de Warens in Annecy. He soon converts to Catholicism in Turin.
1729 - 1731 : Rousseau lives with Mme de Warens in Annecy and then in Chambéry. He learns various trades, notably music. Travels in Switzerland (1730-1731) and Paris (summer 1731).
1736 : Stays at Les Charmettes (Chambéry).
1738 - 1739 : At Les Charmettes, Rousseau perfects his scientific, literary and philosophical education.
1740 - 1741 : Stay in Lyon. Rousseau tutor of the children of Mably.
1742 : Hardly in Paris, Rousseau presents to the Academy of Sciences his Project concerning new signs for music.
1743 - 1744 : Rousseau in Venice as secretary of the French Ambassador, M. de Montaigu. Discovery of politics.
1745 : Rousseau becomes friends with Diderot. Beginning of his liaison with Thérèse Levasseur. Their children will be put in the Foundlings.
1746 : Secretary of Mme Dupin.
1749 : Rousseau writes the articles on music for the Encyclopaedia. In October, while going to see Diderot imprisoned in Vincennes, he discovers in the Mercure de France the theme of the competition of the Academy of Dijon: If the restoration of sciences and arts has contributed to purify morals. This is the illumination and the idea of the First Discourse.
1750 : Rousseau's Discourse on the Sciences and Arts is crowned by the Academy of Dijon.
1752 : His opera Le Devin de village is performed in October in front of Louis XV. In December, performance at the Théâtre-Français of his play: Narcisse ou l'Amant de lui-même.
1753 : Preparation of the Second Discourse for the Academy of Dijon: What is the origin of inequality among men and if it is authorized by natural law?
1754 : Trip to Geneva. Rousseau enters the Calvinist Church and regains his rights as a citizen and member of the General Council.
1755 : Publication of the Second Discourse dedicated to the Republic of Geneva and the article Political Economy in Volume V of the Encyclopaedia.
1756 : Rousseau moves in with Mme d'Epinay. He begins writing La Nouvelle Héloïse.
1757 : After quarrelling with Grimm, Mme d'Epinay and Diderot, Rousseau settles in Montmorency.
1758 : Letter to M. d'Alembert on the shows by which Rousseau answers d'Alembert's article on Geneva in volume VII of the Encyclopaedia. Completion of the writing of La Nouvelle Héloïse and beginning of that of l'Émile.
1761 : Publication of La Nouvelle Héloïse.
1762 : Publication in the spring of the Social Contract and the Emile. Condemnation of l'Émile on June 9th. Pursued, Rousseau takes refuge in Yverdon, then in Môtiers-Travers, in the principality of Neuchâtel, which depends on the King of Prussia. On 19 June, Émile and the Social Contract are burned in Geneva and Rousseau is decreed to take his body.
1763: Rousseau renounces his claim to the bourgeoisie of Geneva. The Public Prosecutor of Geneva Jean-Robert Tronchin publishes the written Letters of the campaign.
1764 : Rousseau replies from Môtiers-Travers to J.-R. Tronchin with the Letters written from the mountain. Beginning of the writing of the Confessions.
1765 : Rousseau in conflict with the pastor and the inhabitants of Môtiers-Travers - Drafting of the Draft Constitution for Corsica. Stay on the island of Saint-Pierre from where the Little Council of Bern ends up expelling him.
1766 : Departure for England with David Hume.
1767 : Fight with Hume and return to France. Publication of the Dictionary of Music in Paris.
1768 : Rousseau wins Grenoble, Chambéry and finally settles in Bourgoin in the Dauphiné, where he marries Thérèse Levasseur on August 30th (marriage under natural law).
1770 : Rousseau goes back to Paris.
1771 : Rousseau writes the Considerations on the government of Poland at the request of Count Wielhorski.
1773 : Drafting of Rousseau judge of Jean-Jacques.
1776 - 1778 : Drafting of the Reveries of the Solitary Walker.
Rousseau's tomb at the Pantheon of Paris

<1778 : In the spring, Rousseau settles in Ermenonville at M. de Girardin's house with his wife Thérèse. He dies on July 2nd and is buried there on the 4th in the Ile des Peupliers.

1782 : Publication of Rousseau's Works in Geneva, with the Confessions and Reveries of the Solitary Walker.
1792 : The General Council of Geneva reports the decree of condemnation of Rousseau.
1794 : Transfer to Paris of Rousseau's remains to the Pantheon.
1835 : Inauguration in Geneva of the statue of Rousseau by Pradier on the Ile des Barques, which becomes the Ile Rousseau.
1878: Celebration in Geneva of the "Centenary of Jean-Jacques" on the hundredth anniversary of his death. Marc Monnier addresses the French delegation : « You gave us the Reformation, we gave you the Revolution. We owe you Calvin, you owe us Rousseau. ».

Rousseau is a man who has experienced the relationship of domination having worked for people who did not always treat him well, he has the experience of a craftsman, the experience of service, he has worked in multiple trades giving him considerable human experience.

Rousseau is a great traveller who has had a wandering life, he has the experience of the humanity of men, but also the experience of travel and wandering.

He tackles a multitude of subjects, he is the author of treatises on music, a treatise on languages, a political and literary work, he was interested in education, he was a man of genius who touched everything; he is the Mozart of the humanities, he has something universal for having touched many and varied subjects.

Geneva in the 18th century: a struggle between social classes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Rousseau does not write in a European context, but in a Geneva context, he is proud of his Geneva citizenship. The structures of the social institutions of the Republic of Geneva left a strong impression on Rousseau.

Functioning of Geneva's Political Institutions under the Ancien Régime, from Barara Roth-Lochner, "De la Réforme à la Révolution"., p. 76[4]

The Republic of Geneva operates on the system of emboitement :

  • first of all, there are the four trade unionists who are in charge and exercise the executive power, having to execute the decisions taken by the ...
  • ... Small Council composed of 25 people who execute the laws, but also propose them. It is the heart of the power of the Republic of Geneva.
  • The Council of Sixty is a council that meets when the Republic is threatened, it is a kind of political war council.
  • the Council of Two Hundred meets once a month to adopt laws, but the laws proposed by the Petit Conseil. It is a legislative power limited by its capacity to initiate legislative reforms.
  • the General Council and the electorate, it is within the General Council that the members of the Councils are chosen. This council includes all those who have the title of citizen and are over 25 years of age.

Sociologically, Geneva is divided into four categories. Rousseau was haunted by discrimination between citizens and others :

  • citizens.
  • a bourgeois in the Republic of Geneva is a foreigner, but who has bought the right of bourgeois, i.e. a right giving the same political rights as citizens, but with the reservation of eligibility.
  • the inhabitants have the right to reside and to practise their profession.
  • The natives are the descendants of the inhabitants who do not hold any political rights, but can exercise their profession as craftsmen.

The whole history of Geneva in the 18th century can be read as a struggle between citizens, bourgeois and natives, who in 1792 obtained the same rights as citizens and bourgeois. This struggle for the political emancipation of the natives left its mark on Rousseau, who found in his writings numerous allusions to the struggles between natives, citizens and bourgeois.

Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, 1755[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

DOI Rousseau.jpg

In 1755 the speech in which he responds to Hobbes and Montesquieu is published. This discourse on the 'Origin and foundations of inequality among men' is a founding and fundamental text which tries to answer three questions:

  1. question of the history of humanity: how did we get to where we are today? It is a historical dimension of humanity.
  2. question of who we are: do we have passions inherent in humanity? what are we made of?
  3. analysis of the degradation of human nature: history of the degradation and corruption of human nature. What makes man born free and yet in irons.

Rousseau shows that the professions he has practised are fundamental to him, he has an exceptional knowledge of human nature. He shows us that his life experience marked his political philosophy and his philosophy of law.

The first part is the answer on human nature, taking up the posture of Hobbes :

  1. Yes he agrees with Hobbes that man is alone, isolated, which is not naturally social, yet man is not fearful, he does not feel threatened, man is happy.#Yes he agrees with Hobbes that man is alone, isolated, which is not naturally social, yet man is not fearful, he does not feel threatened, man is happy. This is the myth of the good savage, Man is simple and self-sufficient.
  2. Man is not endowed with a passion for war, man is not a wolf for man, he is endowed with two characteristics in the state of nature:
  3. self love
  4. pity
  5. the feeling of self-love is transformed, we compare ourselves, we envy our neighbours because self-love is born in us. Self-love changes, destroys and corrupts our natural innocence. Pity is a noble feeling just like self-preservation, but self-love is no longer.

Man is going to leave this state of instability to form modern society.

« The first one who, having enclosed a piece of land and said: This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe it, was the true founder of civil society. »

Rousseau attacks property, but it is not so much property as the accumulation of wealth that he attacks because it causes a threefold degradation in human beings is of three orders:

  • moral;
  • political;
  • cultural.

Self-esteem and love of wealth corrupt our soul for Rousseau, this corruption is at the root of inequalities between men.

Humanity was built on a certain number of human principles that introduced inequality among men, so we must find a formula, a state that respects and restores this natural equality that has been destroyed and degraded.

A model must be constructed that allows equality among men to be constitutive of this State. We must find a model that makes the people the very heart of power.

The state of the modern people is not England, but the democratic state we now know as the meaning of the Social Contract of 1762.

Rousseau - Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, 1755 In the second discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men, Rousseau offers us two essential things:

  1. a history of humanity: it is an attempt to answer the question what is Man and how did he evolve in the state of nature? What made him different? What made him perfectible? What made us evolve from zero time to the moment we decided to live together? This is the story of human beings from the origins to the present day.
  2. How can we explain that this evolution led to political and social inequality among men? What happened in the history of mankind that caused the man-society machine to seize up and that will lead to inequality among men?

The diagnosis is made in the second discourse, which is the analysis, the solution to the problem was proposed by Rousseau in 1762, which is "The Social Contract".

In order to restore the lost equality among men, here is the type of state that is proposed to be established. Rousseau does not question the existence of natural inequality.

« I conceive in the human species two kinds of inequality; one which I call natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and which consists in the difference of ages, health, forces of the body, and qualities of the spirit, or of the soul, the other which may be called moral or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or at least authorised by the consent of men. It consists in the various privileges, some of which are enjoyed to the detriment of others, such as being richer, more honoured, more powerful than them, or even to be obeyed. »

It is clear that Rousseau is aware of this necessary distinction between natural and physical equality between men and equality in society; he does not want to interfere and intervene on the first type of inequality, but on the second.

« So what exactly is this Speech about? To mark in the progress of things the moment when law succeeded violence and nature was subjected to the law; to explain by what chain of wonders the strong could resolve to serve the weak, and the people to buy a rest in thought, at the price of real happiness. »

Rousseau knows the authors of the past, he sends a spade to each of them:

« The philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the need to go back to the state of nature, but none of them have succeeded in doing so. Some of them did not give up the idea of assuming that man in this state had the notion of just and unjust, without bothering to show that he must have had this notion, or even that it was useful to him. Others have spoken of the natural right of every man to keep what belongs to him, without explaining what they meant by belonging; others, giving first to the strongest authority over the weakest, have immediately given birth to government, without thinking of the time that had to pass before the meaning of the words authority and government could exist among men. Finally all, speaking incessantly of need, greed, oppression, desires, and pride, brought to the state of nature the ideas they had taken from society. They spoke of the savage man, and they painted the civil man. »

We can feel Rousseau gradually rising, explaining where we come from, while Hobbes is much more brutal in the passage from the state of nature to the state of society.

The whole first part retraces the history of humanity:

« I will not follow its organisation through its successive developments. I will not stop looking for in the animal system what it might have been in the beginning, to finally become what it is […] »

« By stripping this being, thus constituted, of all the supernatural gifts he may have received, and of all the artificial faculties he may have acquired only by long progress, by considering him, in a word, as he must have come out of the hands of nature, I see an animal less strong than some, less agile than others, but, all in all, organised most advantageously of all. I see him satiating under an oak tree, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that provided him with his meal, and there his needs are satisfied. »

It is the myth of the good savage and the natural man, he continues his explanation: since the moment t0 what happened? Nature has played its part, Man has shown a particular instinct.

« With so few sources of evil, man in his natural state has little need of remedies, still less of doctors; nor is the human race in this respect worse off than any other, and it is easy to know from hunters whether in their races they find many crippled animals. Many of them are found to have received considerable wounds which have healed very well, to have had bones, and even limbs, broken and rebuilt without any other surgeon than time, without any other diet than their ordinary life, and which are nevertheless perfectly healed, for they have not been tormented by incisions, poisoned by drugs, nor exhausted by fasting. Finally, no matter how useful well administered medicine may be among us, it is always certain that if the sick savage abandoned to himself has nothing to hope for from nature, on the other hand he has nothing to fear but his own evil, which often makes his situation preferable to ours. »

It is an almost modern anthropological vision that sees Man in the state of nature.

« Alone, idle, and always close to danger, the wild man must love to sleep, and sleep lightly like the animals, who, thinking little, sleep, so to speak, all the time that they do not think. »

Man differs from the beast in the sense that he needs to perfect himself, he is perfectible. What will distinguish man from animals is language.

Rousseau insists on our ability to communicate, he thinks we have developed a more sophisticated language.

« Allow me to consider for a moment the embarrassment of the origin of languages. »

Man progresses, communicates and develops his language. Rousseau develops a true evolutionary theory of language. There is not one language, but languages that man appropriates and develops, it is through language that ideas are born, that reason begins to function.

All attention is always paid to the calm and serene evolution of Man in the state of nature.

« It seems, first of all, that men in this state having no kind of moral relation between them, nor any known duties, could be neither good nor bad, and had neither vices nor virtues, unless, taking these words in a physical sense, one calls vices in the individual those qualities which may harm his own preservation, and virtues those which may contribute to it. »

Hobbes' criticism goes up :

« Above all, let us not conclude with Hobbes that, in order to have no idea of goodness, man is naturally evil, that he is vicious because he does not know virtue, that he always refuses his fellow men services that he does not believe to be their duty, or that by virtue of the right he rightly attributes to himself the things he needs, he foolishly imagines himself to be the sole owner of the whole universe. Hobbes saw very well the flaw in all modern definitions of natural law: but the consequences he draws from his own show that he takes it in a no less false sense. In reasoning on the principles he establishes, this author had to say that since the state of nature is the one in which the care of our conservation is the least prejudicial to that of others, it is therefore the state that is most conducive to peace, and the most suitable for humankind. »

The state of nature for Rousseau is the anti-Hobbes, it is the state of bliss. The man of nature does not have the qualities desired by Hobbes, but he has two essential ones:

« There is, moreover, another principle which Hobbes did not perceive and which, having been given to man to soften, in certain circumstances, the ferocity of his self-esteem, or the desire to preserve himself before the birth of this love, tempers the ardour he has for his well-being by an innate repugnance to see his fellow man suffer. I do not think I have any contradiction to fear, in granting man the only natural virtue that the most outraged detractor of human virtues has been forced to recognise, I am speaking of pity, a disposition suitable for such weak beings, and subject to as many evils as we are. […] »

« Self-esteem and self-love should not be confused; two very different passions in their nature and effects. Self-love is a natural feeling which leads every animal to take care of its own conservation and which, directed in man by reason and modified by pity, produces humanity and virtue. Self-love is only a relative feeling, false and born in society, which leads each individual to make more of himself than of any other, which inspires men with all the evils they do to each other, and which is the true source of honour. »

Self-esteem is the comparison with others, it is a form of selfishness and egocentricity. In a way, Rousseau agrees with Hobbes in the sense that the principle of self-preservation is within us, but he adds pity. It is because we love ourselves that we want to preserve ourselves.

« It is therefore certain that pity is a natural feeling, which, by moderating in each individual the activity of self-love, contributes to the mutual conservation of the whole species. »

For Rousseau, pity is a noble sentiment because it ensures peace, the peaceful nature of relations between men.

« Having proved that inequality is hardly noticeable in the state of nature, and that its influence is almost nil, it remains for me to show its origin, and its progress in the successive developments of the human mind. »

So what happened?

« The first one who, having enclosed a piece of land and said: This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe it, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, misery and horrors would not have spared the human race if he had torn out the stakes or bridged the gap and shouted to his fellow men, "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and the earth belongs to no one. But there is a great appearance, that then things had already come to the point that they could no longer last as they were; for this idea of ownership, depending on many previous ideas which could only be born successively, did not suddenly form in the human mind. Much progress had to be made, much industry and light had to be acquired, passed on and increased from age to age, before reaching this last end of the state of nature. Let us therefore take things from above and try to bring together under one point of view this slow succession of events and knowledge, in their most natural order. »

This misinterpretation of property has somehow upset the natural evolution of mankind. Then people experience self-esteem and compare themselves until everything starts to change.

« Everything is beginning to change. The men who had been wandering through the woods until now, having taken a more fixed plate, slowly come closer together, gather into various troops, and finally form in each region a particular nation, united in morals and character, not by regulations and laws, but by the same kind of life and food, and by the common influence of the climate. »

« But it should be noted that the society which had begun and the relations already established between men demanded qualities from them which were different from those they had derived from their primitive constitution; that as morality began to creep into human actions, and as each person before the laws was the sole judge and avenger of the offences he had received, the goodness appropriate to the pure state of nature was no longer that which suited the nascent society. »

The remedies that enable man to live with his fellow human beings in the state of nature, the mechanisms can no longer exist and are no longer applicable to the state of society.

« Here then are all our developed faculties, memory and imagination at stake, self-esteem interested, reason made active and the mind almost at the end of the perfection to which it is susceptible. Here are all the natural qualities put into action, the rank and lot of every man established, not only on the quantity of goods and the power to serve or to harm, but on wit, beauty, strength or skill, on merit or talent, and these being the only qualities which could attract consideration, it was soon necessary to have them or to affect them, it was necessary for one's advantage to show oneself to be other than what one was in fact. To be and to appear became two quite different things, and from this distinction came the imposing pomp, the deceitful cunning, and all the vices that go with it. »

« He must therefore constantly seek to interest them in his fate, and to make them find in fact or in appearance their profit in working for his: this makes him deceitful and artificial with some, imperious and hard with others, and puts him in the necessity of abusing all those whom he needs, when he cannot be afraid of them, and when he does not find it in his interest to serve them usefully. Finally, the devouring ambition, the ardour to raise his relative fortune, less out of genuine need than to put himself above others, inspires in all men a black inclination to harm each other, a secret jealousy all the more dangerous since, to make his move more safely, it often takes the mask of benevolence; in a word, competition and rivalry on the one hand, on the other opposition of interest, and always the hidden desire to make one's profit at the expense of others, all these evils are the first effect of property and the inseparable procession of the incipient inequality. »

He has turned Man over, Man is not a wolf to Man in the state of nature, but in the state of society.

« This was, or must have been, the origin of society and of laws, which gave new obstacles to the weak and new forces to the rich, destroyed natural freedom without any return, established for ever the law of property and inequality, made an irrevocable right out of skilful usurpation, and, for the benefit of a few ambitious people, subjected the whole human race to labour, servitude and misery. »

Rousseau criticised inequalities, he noted that man in the state of society is a wolf for man and not at all in the state of nature, he reversed Hobbes' arguments, but did not propose any solutions.

Rousseau - The Social Contract, Book I, 1762[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The Social Contract, edition of 1772.

The Social Contrac is the political response, the political solution that Rousseau proposes to us after having masterfully analysed the origin of inequality among men.

The work is based on four books; it is a systematic treatise, the logic of the reasoning is perfect. As a political society is not natural, it is necessary that men agree to put themselves together and renegotiate the social pact on other bases.

It is a question of redefining the social pact. All those who have thought about the social contract have been right to think in terms of the contract, but it needs to be rethought. He proposes another form of political order that aims to establish a new social contract. The whole question of the social contract is to build, to restore a form of inequality, but above all to establish a legitimate state, i.e. a state that guarantees equity and justice.

This State is based on the idea of the sovereignty of the people, it is the great idea of the social contract which has four criteria; sovereignty is the expression of the general will, but it has four criteria :

  • infallible
  • finalizable
  • indivisible
  • absolute

The last two terms bring Rousseau and Bodin closer together; the central term of the Social Contract is that of the sovereignty of the people.

Hobbes was right to say that there had to be a power that holds the body politic together, but it is not a monarch imposing power from below, but for that power to be legitimised it must come from below, it is the people who are sovereign and not the Leviathan, the people are the Leviathan, they remain and always are the sovereign: they promulgate laws, ratify them, but do not enforce them.

Rousseau was the first to give the government the notion of executive power; before Rousseau, when we spoke of government, we thought of the state.

Comparative table of social contract theories[5]
Conception of the state of nature Logic behind the pact Fundamental, priority values
according to Hobbes (Leviathan) war of all against all safe (breaking with the state of nature) the "security", the "life", of everyone.
according to Locke (Second Treaty of the Civil Government) everyone enjoys natural rights (freedom and private property) liberal (guarantee the state of nature) freedom and private property
according to Rousseau (The Social Contract) humans are naturally "good". democrat (break with the state of nature: the people is sovereign) the general interest

For Hobbes, the sovereign is the Leviathan, which is generally a man, for Locke there is a shift, the sovereign is no longer a man, but is parliament, for Rousseau the sovereign is the people. We see very clearly the evolution and the shift in the definition of the people, which is the sovereignty of parliament in Locke and of the people in Rousseau.

The people for Rousseau is and remains sovereign. Basically, Rousseau's whole objective was to warn society and the state of a double danger:

  • the usurpation by the sovereign of governmental functions.
  • the usurpation by the government of the sovereign's functions.

For Rousseau, what is extremely important is that the one who passes and ratifies laws is not the one who applies them; the two functions must be distinct. Otherwise there is a danger of authoritarian drift.

This double danger shows that Rousseau is not in favour of democracy in the ancient sense of the term. Rousseau rejects the regime of direct democracy where the one who raises his hand to vote is also the one who applies the laws, for him this is a real danger: « it would take a people of God to govern themselves democratically ».

Is Rousseau a democrat? In the modern sense, Rousseau anticipates the advent of modern democracy, but if we mean democracy in the Athenian sense then no, he is not.

This work of 1782 will have a particular posterity, it will be banned in France, will be condemned in Geneva, and will spread slowly.

It was the French Revolution that made the Social Contract a reference work; since the French Revolution there have been two readings of the Social Contract, both of which are as radical as the other:

  • those who think that the Social Contract is a utopia that is an apology for the goodness of the people and direct democracy.
  • those who make the Social Contract a work that anticipates authoritarianism and the beginnings of totalitarianism by its rigid side.

Clearly, these two readings are erroneous when one asks what Rousseau is looking for when he writes the Social Contract is that it defends a legitimate regime that allows Man to become a citizen.

A man or an individual is not complete if he is not also a citizen. Rousseau's work seeks above all to define the idea that being a citizen is a demanding exercise, there are a certain number of conditions for success which is education for sovereignty.

The "Social Contract" is perhaps there to propose a legitimate political model based on equity. The proposal to establish a legitimate, fairer and more equitable remige restoring this lost equality can be found in chapter one.

« Man is born free, and everywhere he is in irons, such is the master of others, who does not let himself be more slave than them. How did this change come about? I don't know. What can make it legitimate? I think I can solve this question.

If I were to consider only the force and the effect that derives from it, I would say: "As long as a people is forced to obey and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake the yoke, and shakes it, it does even better: for, having recovered its freedom by the same right that took it from it, it is either entitled to take it back, or it was not entitled to take it away". But social order is a sacred right which serves as a basis for all others. However, this right does not come from nature; it is therefore based on conventions. The question is: what are these conventions? Before coming to that point, I must establish what I have just said. »

Rousseau will propose a just order based on the principle of legitimacy.

For Rousseau, the beginning of the state of society is the family because there is a convention: the family is like a convention, what is in family relations can be transposed to inter-societal relations.

« If they continue to stay together, it is no longer natural, it is voluntary; and the family itself only stays together by convention. »

In chapter III the reference to Hobbes is very clear:

« Obey the powers that be. If this means: Give in to force, the precept is good, but superfluous; I reply that it will never be violated. All power comes from God, I confess, but so does all sickness: does this mean that it is forbidden to call a doctor? »

Rousseau wants to propose a state model. He sees a law of power relations derived from slavery. Chapters III and IV can be summed up in the assertion that the societies around us are only remnants of life, of the Roman society based on slavery. According to Rousseau, slaves are those who must obey, those who are subject to relations of domination.

Why does Rousseau make freedom and equality the very heart of his reflection? If you give up being a free man, then you are no longer a man.

« To renounce one's freedom is to renounce one's quality as a man, the rights of humanity, even one's duties. »

Hobbes and Locke were right to say that modern society is based on a pact, but the proposed pact is not the right one, a pact based on equity, justice and sharing is needed.

« I suppose men have reached the point where the obstacles to their preservation in the state of nature outweigh, by their resistance, the forces which each individual can employ to maintain himself in that state [...] To find a form of association which defends and protects from all common force the person and property of each associate, and by which each one, uniting himself with all, nevertheless obeys only himself, and remains as free as before. »

It should be noted that the diatribe of seven years earlier has faded; it is a matter of preserving the property of each partner.

« Finally, everyone giving himself to everyone gives himself to no one; and since there is no partner over whom one does not acquire the same right as one gives over oneself, one gains the equivalent of all that one loses, and more strength to keep what one has. »

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

Rousseau - The Social Contract, Book II, 1762[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

« I therefore say that sovereignty, being only the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the sovereign, who is only a collective being, can only be represented by himself; power can be transmitted, but not the will. »

Sovereignty has a number of characteristics:

  • Sovereignty is inalienable: one cannot delegate, one cannot represent the will. Rousseau is hostile to political representation because the sovereignty we all possess cannot be alienated to a third body. Rousseau is here very hostile to the idea of political representation, he believes that will cannot represent itself.
  • Sovereignty is indivisible: either the people is sovereign or it is not, it cannot be half-sovereign, or it has general competences or it does not.
  • Sovereignty is infallible: « [...] the general will is always upright and always tends towards public utility ». However that « one always wants what is good for oneself, one does not always see it. One never corrupts the people, but often one deceives them. [...] ». And how do we find the general interest? « There is often a great difference between the will of all and the general will; the one is concerned only with the common interest; the other is concerned with the private interest, and is only a sum of particular wills: but remove from these same wills the more and the less which destroy each other, and the general will remains the sum of the differences. ».
  • Sovereignty is absolute: it cannot be limited.

What moves the political bodies forward is the laws debated, ratified, voted by the sovereign and applied by the government.

Rousseau in Chapter VI makes the law a general and abstract act:

« But when all the people rule over all the people, they consider only themselves; and if a relationship is then formed, it is from the whole object from one point of view to the whole object from another point of view, without any division at all. Then the matter on which one rules is general, like the will which rules. It is this act that I call a law. »

The law expresses a relation somewhere a balance between what must be and what can be. For Rousseau, the law does not affect one individual in particular, but the law must remain general, not meaning vague, because it is the expression of the general will and must address everyone.

« It can also be seen that, since the law brings together the universality of will and that of object, what a man, whoever he may be, orders on his own authority is not a law: what even the sovereign orders on a particular object is not a law either, but a decree; nor is it an act of sovereignty, but of magistracy.

I therefore call a republic any state governed by laws, under whatever form of administration it may be: for only then does the public interest govern, and the public thing is something. Every legitimate government is republican: I will explain below what government is. »

Whether the government takes the form of a monarchy or a democracy is not a problem for Rousseau, what is important is that the regime is republican and that the law is the keystone.

Rousseau is the worthy heir of Machiavelli, making the Respublica, the laws, the sovereignty of the people, the keystone of any state that claims to be legitimate, fair or just.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

  1. Alexis Keller - Wikipedia
  2. Alexis Keller - Faculté de droit - UNIGE
  3. Alexis Keller | International Center for Transitional Justice
  4. Barbara Roth-Lochner, Dans Sont Livre "d. Fonctionnement Des Institutions Genevoises Sous L'ancien Régime (n.d.): n. pag. Web. <>.
  5. Contractualisme. (2014, juillet 4). Wikipédia, l'encyclopédie libre. Page consultée le 21:30, juillet 31, 2014 à partir de