The Social Contract: Forced to be Free

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique.

Printed in Amsterdam 1762 by Marc Michel Rey.


The average Western European owns about 10,000 things. Collectors from all walks of life of course possess more. Many people feel suffocated by this and that is why minimalism is the trend par excellence, people don’t want to burden themselves with too much. At the same time, many are looking for community with others, coupled with a “natural” lifestyle in the countryside or at least with their own small plot of land for urban gardening between car lanes in the city centre. But naturalness and minimalism were already “in” almost 300 years ago. Back then, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau held the view that humankind was good in its natural state and that it was culture that spawned its evil. So either one lives in the primal state or one has to come up with the most “natural” form of political organisation possible in order to facilitate a morally good life. This was explained in detail by Rousseau in 1762 in his “Social Contract” – which was banned immediately.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) in a portrait from 1753.

Rousseau and the World of Absolutism

The reason for this prohibition is very simple: In Rousseau’s utopia, neither God (we hear the outcry of the church!) nor aristocrats (that really was not possible) are needed, but rather one sovereign, namely the people. In a downright aristocratic world like Rousseau’s, these were unacceptable and dangerous ideas. We find ourselves in the world of absolutism, Louis XV is firmly in control, those who can, live it up, castles are being built and splendid feasts are being celebrated. And then comes Rousseau.

In a novel from 1714 the civilised European brought the achievement of fire to the brutalised savages. Later, the “noble savage” was instead considered a projection surface of the uncivilised yet morally unspoiled human.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712, his mother died after he was born, his father, a respected clocksmith, taught the boy the love of literature – until he went into hiding after a violent attack on an (aristocratic) officer, plunging his son into an unsettled life. The young Rousseau was a difficult, headstrong character, who occasionally worked as a teacher, then was kept as a secretary and lover by a rich lady. He educated himself autodidactically and moved from place to place throughout France. Until, in 1749, he had an “enlightenment”, as he himself called it.

The Prize Question: Is Humankind Inherently Good or Evil?

Coincidentally, Rousseau came across an advertisement that would determine his life henceforth. The Academy of Dijon asked in a newspaper: “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts contributed to the purification of morals?” Any intellectual would have immediately said yes. But Rousseau was a stubborn and solitary man who loved to provoke. So now he took on the entire French elite and answered the question: No! Humankind was good in its natural state and only through human coexistence – and thus also culture – did it become evil and immoral. Strangely enough, however, Rousseau was also met with approval; overnight he became one of the most widely read authors in Europe and won first prize in the competition. From then on, the 37-year-old Rousseau took on the role of the enfant terrible and cultivated it until his death in 1778.

The Social Contract: Foundation of an Idea

Rousseau published plays and essays in which he repeatedly stressed that only the establishment of a society led to greed and excessive needs among people. In 1762, based on this basic assumption, he developed a political manifesto, his main theoretical work: “On the Social Contract; or, Principles of Political Rights”. In wise foresight, he had it printed not in France but in the more liberal Netherlands, in Amsterdam with Marc Michel Rey. Rey was a patron of the literature of the Enlightenment, as we call this epoch, in which time and again there were individuals who had ideas like Rousseau that fought against the prevailing mainstream and placed reason above tradition. Rey had already published other writings of Rousseau, but with the “Social Contract” he not only received fame but also anger. The work was immediately banned not only in France, Geneva and Bern, but also in the Netherlands itself. Rousseau had to take flight and was granted asylum by Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Here we have a first edition of the “Social Contract”, which caused a great stir throughout Europe and was to influence philosophers, political thinkers and finally even constitutionalists and sociologists for centuries. But how could someone who saw the human community as the cause of all evil design a political organization for a good society?

Freedom Does Not Equal Freedom

According to Rousseau, humankind is initially good in nature. It lives in “natural freedom” and only his own strength sets his limits. Then, at some point, ownership structures came about, and that is where the problems began. For “insatiable ambition”, “artificial passions” and “the thirst of raising their respective fortunes” are evils that have arisen as a result of “first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality.”

Rousseau describes this very graphically: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’” Marx? Lenin? Mao? Rousseau!

But Rousseau realised that to survive in a dangerous world with wild animals and natural disasters, a community is inevitable. But how do you prevent the progressive decline of morals? In this community, citizens should be given as much territory as they need (minimalism avant la lettre). Natural freedom meant: We may wish to take everything we want if we can. Civil freedom meant: We respect other people’s property, just as they respect our property; we may therefore no longer desire everything.

This is the social contract that all members conclude with one another. One could also say: First, all individuals cede their potential rights to the community (the sovereign), which in turn assigns property to them. The advantage? Not everyone has to defend their property on their own, but everyone stands up for one another.

This rational theory knows only one legitimate basis of power: the general will, volonté générale. This will, which emanates from all individuals, can only want what is best for the community, and is thus detached from subjective interests. It exists only because the individual citizens have to a certain extent abandoned their will and their rights and transferred them to this public person.

Sounds good. But are people like that? Well, even Rousseau knows: If citizens were to claim more rights than duties for themselves, this would eventually lead to the downfall of the state. Therefore, the community may force a member to have a common will, which “means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free”, as Rousseau puts it. In all these constructs there is neither divine grace nor the traditional estate-based society.

Thus, as previously mentioned, the dear Rousseau had initially overstepped the mark. But the idea was printed, the thought could no longer be suppressed. The seed was watered by the suffering of the common people and the enlightened thoughts of some intellectuals and soon it sprouted in the French Revolution. Its radical champion Robespierre was heavily inspired by Rousseau’s “Social Contract”. Was the result the society that Rousseau had in mind? Probably not. He was very much a theorist and really just wanted to be left in peace. A work that would have pragmatically developed a realistic and applicable social order would hardly have been expected of him.

But his approach has been taken up again and again since it was born in 1762 and still serves theorists today as a grindstone to sharpen their thoughts.


Other Things You Might Be Interested In

You can find the text of the first edition at the National Library of Geneva.

Here is available an English translation from 1782.

In the 18th and 19th century, Rousseau’s “noble savages” were thought to be found in the South Seas or in the Swiss mountains…

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