The first chapter opens with the famous phrase: "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains." These "chains" are the constraints placed on the freedom of citizens in modern states. The stated aim of this book is to determine whether there can be legitimate political authority--whether a state can exist that upholds, rather than constrains, liberty.
Rousseau rejects the idea that legitimate political authority is found in nature. The only natural form of authority is the authority a father has over a child, which exists only for the preservation of the child. Political thinkers--particularly Grotius and ##Hobbes##--have asserted that the relationship between ruler and subject is similar to that between father and child: the ruler cares for his subjects and so has unlimited rights over them. This kind of reasoning assumes the natural superiority of rulers over the ruled. Such superiority is perpetuated by force, not by nature, so political authority has no basis in nature.
Nor is legitimate political authority founded on force. The maxim that "might makes right" does not imply that the less strong should be obedient to the strong. If might is the only determinant of right, then people obey rulers not because they should, but because they have no choice. And if they are able to overthrow their ruler, then this also is right since they are exercising their superior might. In such circumstances, there is no political authority; people simply do whatever is within their power.
Rousseau's suggested answer is that legitimate political authority rests on a covenant (a "social contract") forged between the members of society. He has a number of predecessors in theorizing a social contract, including Grotius, who proposes that there is a covenant between the king and his people--a "right of slavery"--where the people agree to surrender their freedom to the king. Grotius is less clear what the people get in return for their freedom. It is not preservation: the king keeps himself fed and contented off the labor of the people, and not the other way around. It is not security: civil peace is of little value if the king makes his people go to war, and desolates the country by stockpiling all its goods for his own consumption. Yet it must be something, because only a lunatic would give up his freedom for nothing, and a covenant made by a lunatic would be void. Besides, even if people were able to surrender their own freedom, they could not justifiably surrender the freedom of their children as well.
It is impossible to surrender one's freedom in a fair exchange. By surrendering their freedom to their ruler, people surrender all their rights, and are no longer in any position to ask for something in return. More importantly, Rousseau links freedom with moral significance: our actions can only be moral if those actions were done freely. In giving up our freedom we give up our morality and our humanity.
Rousseau also objects to the suggestion that prisoners of war could become slaves through an even exchange, where the conqueror spares the life of the vanquished in exchange for that person's freedom. Wars have nothing to do with individuals. Wars are conducted between states for the sake of property. When an enemy surrenders, he ceases to be an enemy, and becomes simply a man.
The people in an absolute monarchy are slaves, and slaves have no freedom and no rights. A people only become a people if they have the freedom to deliberate amongst themselves and agree about what is best for all.
The concept of nature is very important throughout Rousseau's philosophy. He is famous for countering the common Enlightenment position that reason and progress were steadily improving humankind with the suggestion that we are better off in our state of nature, as "noble savages." This opinion is expressed more forcefully in his earlier work, the Discourse on Inequality; in The Social Contract Rousseau is more ready to accept the possibility that modern society can potentially benefit us.
It is not entirely clear what Rousseau means when he talks about "nature" or our "natural state." In his Discourse on Inequality, he seems to be alluding to a prehistoric state of affairs where people had no government, law, or private property. However, he makes no effort to support the historicity of this claim, and later denied that he intended the Discourse to refer to an actual former state of affairs.
Rousseau is not interested in history or archaeology so much as he is interested in understanding human nature as it exists in the present. His political philosophy is driven by the conviction that the political associations we participate in shape our thoughts and behavior to a great extent. His interest in a "natural state," then, is an effort to determine what we would be like if political institutions had never existed. Whatever is not a part of this "natural state" has come about as a result of human society, and is thus "unnatural."
In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau paints a very rosy picture of this natural state: without property to quarrel over and governments to enforce inequality, our fundamental human nature is compassionate and free of strife. This view contrasts sharply with most of Rousseau's predecessors. In the ##Leviathan##, Thomas Hobbes famously asserts that human life without political institutions is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes and Grotius both claim that human society comes about in order to improve this unpleasant natural state. Rousseau suspects that Hobbes gives such a negative portrayal of our natural state out of an assumption that human nature remains unchanged with or without political institutions. If human beings today were suddenly to find themselves without political institutions, they would indeed lead unpleasant lives because they would have all the selfishness and greed that society has bred in them without any of the safeguards and protections of that society. Rousseau's hypothetical natural state is pre-societal: before we were corrupted by politics, we had none of the unpleasant characteristics that Hobbes identifies. It is important to understand that Rousseau believes it is impossible to return to this natural state.
It should be clear that Rousseau intends a sharp contrast between nature and civil society. Human society is not a part of our natural state; rather, it is formed artificially. Rousseau's suggestion is that it is formed by a "social contract": people living in a state of nature come together and agree to certain constraints in order that they might all benefit. The idea of a social contract is not original to Rousseau, and could even be traced as far back as Plato's ##Crito##. More significantly, Rousseau is drawing on the ideas of Hobbes, Grotius, and Pufendorf, among others, who used the idea of a social contract to justify absolute monarchy. These thinkers suggested that people consent to be governed by an absolute monarch in exchange for the protection and elevation from the state of nature that this affords them.
Rousseau's own social contract theory is meant to overturn the theories of these predecessors, suggesting that no legitimate social contract can be forged in an absolute monarchy. His arguments are diverse, but they rest on the fundamental assertion that in surrendering their liberty to their monarch, people surrender the freedom and authority to consent to a social contract, and so render void any contract they make with the monarch. According to Rousseau, our freedom and our humanity are closely tied to our ability to deliberate and make choices. If a monarch has absolute power over us, we lose both our freedom and humanity, and become slaves.