Rousseau begins The Social Contract with the most famous words he ever wrote: “Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.” From this provocative opening, Rousseau goes on to describe the myriad ways in which the “chains” of civil society suppress the natural birthright of man to physical freedom. He states that the civil society does nothing to enforce the equality and individual liberty that were promised to man when he entered into that society. For Rousseau, the only legitimate political authority is the authority consented to by all the people, who have agreed to such government by entering into a social contract for the sake of their mutual preservation.
Rousseau describes the ideal form of this social contract and also explains its philosophical underpinnings. To Rousseau, the collective grouping of all people who by their consent enter into a civil society is called the sovereign, and this sovereign may be thought of, metaphorically at least, as an individual person with a unified will. This principle is important, for while actual individuals may naturally hold different opinions and wants according to their individual circumstances, the sovereign as a whole expresses the general will of all the people. Rousseau defines this general will as the collective need of all to provide for the common good of all.
For Rousseau, the most important function of the general will is to inform the creation of the laws of the state. These laws, though codified by an impartial, noncitizen “lawgiver,” must in their essence express the general will. Accordingly, though all laws must uphold the rights of equality among citizens and individual freedom, Rousseau states that their particulars can be made according to local circumstances. Although laws owe their existence to the general will of the sovereign, or the collective of all people, some form of government is necessary to carry out the executive function of enforcing laws and overseeing the day-to-day functioning of the state.
Rousseau writes that this government may take different forms, including monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, according to the size and characteristics of the state, and that all these forms carry different virtues and drawbacks. He claims that monarchy is always the strongest, is particularly suitable to hot climates, and may be necessary in all states in times of crisis. He claims that aristocracy, or rule by the few, is most stable, however, and in most states is the preferable form.
Rousseau acknowledges that the sovereign and the government will often have a frictional relationship, as the government is sometimes liable to go against the general will of the people. Rousseau states that to maintain awareness of the general will, the sovereign must convene in regular, periodic assemblies to determine the general will, at which point it is imperative that individual citizens vote not according to their own personal interests but according to their conception of the general will of all the people at that moment. As such, in a healthy state, virtually all assembly votes should approach unanimity, as the people will all recognize their common interests. Furthermore, Rousseau explains, it is crucial that all the people exercise their sovereignty by attending such assemblies, for whenever people stop doing so, or elect representatives to do so in their place, their sovereignty is lost. Foreseeing that the conflict between the sovereign and the government may at times be contentious, Rousseau also advocates for the existence of a tribunate, or court, to mediate in all conflicts between the sovereign and the government or in conflicts between individual people.
Rousseau’s central argument in The Social Contract is that government attains its right to exist and to govern by “the consent of the governed.” Today this may not seem too extreme an idea, but it was a radical position when The Social Contract was published. Rousseau discusses numerous forms of government that may not look very democratic to modern eyes, but his focus was always on figuring out how to ensure that the general will of all the people could be expressed as truly as possible in their government. He always aimed to figure out how to make society as democratic as possible. At one point in The Social Contract, Rousseau admiringly cites the example of the Roman republic’s comitia to prove that even large states composed of many people can hold assemblies of all their citizens.