Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

The Social Contract

Summary The Social Contract

Just as he did in his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau borrows ideas from the most influential political philosophers of his day, though he often comes to very different conclusions. For example, though his conception of society as being akin to an individual person resonates with Hobbes’s conception of the Leviathan (see chapter 7, Thomas Hobbes), Rousseau’s labeling of this metaphorical individual as the sovereign departs strongly from Hobbes, whose own idea of the sovereign was of the central power that held dominion over all the people. Rousseau, of course, believed the sovereign to be the people and to always express their will. In his discussion of the tribunate, or the court that mediates in disputes between governmental branches or among people, Rousseau echoes ideas about government earlier expressed by Locke. Both Locke’s and Rousseau’s discussions of these institutions influenced the system of checks and balances enshrined in the founding documents of the United States.

The Social Contract is one of the single most important declarations of the natural rights of man in the history of Western political philosophy. It introduced in new and powerful ways the notion of the “consent of the governed” and the inalienable sovereignty of the people, as opposed to the sovereignty of the state or its ruler(s). It has been acknowledged repeatedly as a foundational text in the development of the modern principles of human rights that underlie contemporary conceptions of democracy.