Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract

(1762)

Explanation and Analysis of the Document

Like many other “contract theorists” before him, Rousseau begins his analysis of the social contract that binds men together in society by analyzing pre-social man, offering an interpretation of man in the state of nature. Under such conditions, according to Rousseau, man acts on his own will with no sense of moral obligation to others, governed simply by his own strength. This “right” of force entails no moral choice or obligation because either he is strong enough to assert his will or he must follow the will of another; yielding to force out of necessity is a rational act, not a moral one.

The chimerical nature of strength and the obvious advantages that accrue from an association with others in providing security, sustenance, and stability led to the formation of society, and with it the concept of obligation was born. For Rousseau, however, the difficulty in any association is uniting with others but remaining as free as in the...

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Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Augustin de Saint-Aubin (Yale University Art Gallery)

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