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This article is about Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1762 treatise. For "social contract" as a political and philosophical concept, see Social contract. For other meanings, see Social Contract (disambiguation).
Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right
Social contract rousseau page.jpg
Title page of the first octavo edition
Author Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Original title Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique
Country France
Language French
Publication date

Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique) (1762) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a book in which Rousseau theorized about the best way to establish a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society, which he had already identified in his Discourse on Inequality (1754).

The Social Contract helped inspire political reforms or revolutions in Europe, especially in France. The Social Contract argued against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered to legislate; as Rousseau asserts, only the people, who are sovereign, have that all-powerful right.


Title page of a pirated edition of the Social Contract, probably printed in Germany.[1]

The stated aim of the Social Contract is to determine whether there can be a legitimate political authority, since people's interactions he saw at his time seemed to put them in a state far worse than the good one they were at the state of nature, even though living in isolation.

In this desired social contract, everyone will be free because they all forfeit the same amount of rights and impose the same duties on all. Rousseau argues that it is illogical for a man to surrender his freedom for slavery; thus, the participants must have a right to choose the laws under which they live. Although the contract imposes new laws, including those safeguarding and regulating property, a person can exit it at any time (except in a time of need, for this is desertion), and is again as free as when he was born.

Rousseau posits that the political aspects of a society should be divided into two parts. First, there must be a sovereign consisting of the whole population (women included) that represents the general will and is the legislative power within the state. The second division is that of the government, being distinct from the sovereign. This division is necessary because the sovereign cannot deal with particular matters like applications of the law. Doing so would undermine its generality, and therefore damage its legitimacy. Thus, government must remain a separate institution from the sovereign body. When the government exceeds the boundaries set in place by the people, it is the mission of the people to abolish such government, and begin anew.

Rousseau claims that the size of the territory to be governed often decides the nature of the government. Since a government is only as strong as the people, and this strength is absolute, the larger the territory, the more strength the government must be able to exert over the populace. In his view, a monarchical government is able to wield the most power over the people since it has to devote less power to itself, while a democracy the least. In general, the larger the bureaucracy, the more power required for government discipline. Normally, this relationship requires the state to be an aristocracy or monarchy. It is important to note here that when Rousseau talks of aristocracy and monarchy, he does not necessarily mean they are not a "democracy" as the term is used in the present day - the aristocracy or monarch could be elected. When Rousseau uses the word democracy, he refers to a direct democracy (a central idea of Anarchism) rather than a representative democracy. In light of the relation between population size and governmental structure, Rousseau argues that, like his native Geneva, small city-states are the form of nation in which freedom can best flourish. For states of this size, an elected aristocracy is preferable, and in very large states a benevolent monarch; but even monarchical rule, to be legitimate, must be subordinate to the sovereign rule of law.


  1. ^ R.A. Leigh, Unsolved Problems in the Bibliography of J.-J. Rousseau, Cambridge, 1990, plate 22.


  • Wraight, Christopher D. (2008), Rousseau's The Social Contract: A Reader's Guide. London: Continuum Books.

External links[edit]

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521 news items

AMERICAblog (blog)

AMERICAblog (blog)
Mon, 18 Aug 2014 07:11:10 -0700

The social contract is pretty much in tatters, as is the economic contract and the entire myth of the American Dream. Before long, those who are the objects of oppression and threats of violence from a militarized police, who have no hope for economic ...
Daily Sabah
Thu, 31 Jul 2014 16:27:15 -0700

But at times when individuals interact with others in a social setting, they are expected to abide by the social contract upon which the entire society agrees. Government officials, in particular, cannot impose subjective convictions and values ...

R Street

R Street
Mon, 28 Jul 2014 07:18:03 -0700

But the social contract ceases to be of value when the costs in freedom and privacy outweigh any benefit in security. Or, to put it less delicately, why should we grant the government the power to track and record all our public movements, 24 hours a ...
Stabroek News
Thu, 07 Aug 2014 02:00:00 -0700

The Kaieteur News' article of July 31, 2014 titled 'Mahdia gold miners to withhold royalties over poor roads,' consequently, must be seen and understood for what it is. The 'social contract' seems to have broken down or at a minimum is under severe threat.
ComputerworldUK (blog)
Mon, 28 Jul 2014 10:48:45 -0700

In this instance, the terms of the social contract are murkier than they may seem. In a market economy, successful selling does tend to keep some people in employment, while better-targeted marketing is less annoying than unremitting irrelevant offers ...
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 22:37:30 -0700

A larger view of the book is the social contract. Historically, we as individuals were willing to give up certain rights in return for social order within our own clan or culture. Later, civilization brought different cultures under one roof with the ...
Osun Defender
Mon, 28 Jul 2014 16:07:23 -0700

In what manner do we accommodate what ought to be the backbone of democracy the 'social contract' in the age of what is now known as “infrastructure of the stomach”? The question is crucial now. The concept of a social contract should be the engine ...

News & Observer

News & Observer
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 14:00:00 -0700

She describes it as “opting out” of the social contract. When parents are committed only to their own child's education, that affects the education of other children, those whose parents don't have the time or inclination to fight for improved school ...

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