“The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau Book I (1762)

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Book I

Chapter One: Introduction

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

With respect to force, people will obey if they are forced to. Without the chains of obedience or slavery, life would definitely be better. The former master and former slave may continue a relationship based on superiority-inferiority but force is no longer what is binding – but a social convention.

Chapter Two: First Societies

The basic form of society is the family. The father owes his children protection and provision. The children owe their father obedience. Once the children are grown, the natural relationship dissolves. Any further link is voluntary and is a social convention.

Man’s first duty is to himself, his self-preservation, once he is old enough. He is his only source of judgment and his only master. Between a ruler and people there are obligations similar to that of the family. People obey the ruler for protection and the ruler gets obedience. Rather than the binding sense of love between a father and child, the ruler will get a sense of love of power, since he is incapable of loving an abstract idea such as his people.

Chapter Three: Right of the Strongest

Force can never oblige in any other way than through compliance based on self-preservation. It cannot impose duties or morals. If we are able to disobey with impunity, that is a legitimate behavior because we no longer have to obey out of force. Compliance due to force never implies a sense of duty. Once force disappears, duty doesn’t necessarily replace it. So, the word “right” can’t be used with “force”.

Because our duty to ourselves is self-preservation, we must obey force when we are unable to overcome it. Because power comes from “God”, as does illness, should we never call a doctor? If a robber demands our wallet even though we are able to keep it from him secretly, should we give it over to him out of “duty” to the force which comes from the gun?

Chapter Four: Slavery

Just because a man can exert force over another doesn’t make anything a “right”. Only conventions are the basis of legitimate authority over men.

Def’n: “alienation”: to give or sell oneself.

A slave doesn’t give himself to another but sells himself to another – at least for subsistence. Do people sell themselves to a king even if they don’t get any subsistence from him? They can get “civil tranquility”. But the consequences of the king’s greed might outweigh the benefits of civil tranquility. One can be quite safe and tranquil in a prison cell.

Giving oneself up to another, in a state of nature, is nonsense since a man gets nothing in return. Someone can do this but almost assuredly they are insane because they get absolutely nothing out of it – in fact, they lose everything.

The same goes for a people giving itself up to a king. Even if a man should sell himself, he doesn’t have the right to do that for his children. They are born free and are their own men. A father may stipulate the conditions of his children’s upbringing but he may not take actions that affect their children so irrevocably and unconditionally beyond the end of their “natural” relationship – when the child is grown. Nature’s laws or rules supersede those of the father. So for a government to be legitimate, each generation must be able to accept or reject it.

To give up one’s liberties is to renounce being a man and one’s rights, duties and morality. There is no possible recompense. Furthermore, it would remove all morality in his actions and liberty in his will, since the owner is responsible for all of the slave’s actions.

On the subject of slavery after war, often the victor swaps the vanquished’s life for his liberty. This “right” to kill doesn’t come from war. Men cannot be at war with each other, because this is only a state of relationship between two or more states. Individuals may engage in combats, duels and fights but these aren’t acts of states. Individuals are only enemies with each other in war by accident, and not as men but as soldiers and defenders of a state. States’ enemies may only be other states.

Declarations of war are as much warning to states as they are to individual men. A man who kills, steals or kidnaps without a declaration of war isn’t an enemy but an outlaw. In war, when a just country invades another, it must respect the rights of the newly conquered people as it does to its own. A state may kill its enemy’s defenders if they are armed but if they lay down their arms and surrender, they go back to being only men and the state can no longer have claim over their lives.

If war doesn’t give the right to kill the vanquished, then it doesn’t give the right to enslave. If we can’t kill the enemy once it has surrendered, we can’t make him a slave because we can’t make him choose between the two options, one of which we aren’t allowed to do to him. Furthermore, a slave would be under no obligation to obey his master except under threat of force. If you take what is the equal to his life, his liberty – since you are offering to swap them -, the victor isn’t really doing the vanquished a favor – he is only doing himself one. He gets a slave, instead of killing a man who has surrendered. Thus the war continues between the victor – imposing the right of the strongest – and the vanquished – fighting for his right to self-preservation. The relationship goes back to war because the slave is only a slave through force and not social convention.

So, the word “slave” and “right” are contradictory and shouldn’t be used together. The victor is essentially saying to a newly vanquished slave – in making a deal with with you, the vanquished, at your expense and my benefit, I will observe it if it pleases me and you will observe it if it pleases me.

Chapter Five: We must always go back to a first convention

Even if we put aside everything said about slavery not being “right” and legitimate, despotism is just as much nonsense. There’s a difference between conquering many people and ruling a society. Even if a man can enslave millions, the relationship between them and him is still that of master and slave. There is nothing at all related to society about it. There is no free association, body politic or public good. The master is just a man and his interests are his alone and not at all those of his slaves. If he dies, the collection of slaves is no more a society than before.

A people may give itself to a king because it is a people before this act. The act supposes that there is a public deliberation. There must also be a previous convention that the minority in this deliberation will abide by the decision of the majority before the king’s election. The law of the majority itself is a convention that supposes at one time in the past some unanimity.

Chapter Six: Social Compact

Man has reached a point where self-preservation in nature is no longer feasible, and a non-natural and indeed social convention is necessary. Men can only unite or aggregate forces to overcome aggression under a single motive, power and action. This is the union of many but the force and liberty of each man must remain his own. The goal is man will obey himself alone and remain as free as before, even in uniting in a common force for each man’s defense. This is the idea behind the Social Contract. The smallest modification of the Social Contract nullifies it, even though the contract was never formally stated, openly admitted or even recognized until it was violated. At this point each man regains his first right and natural liberty because the convention is nullified.

The clauses of the Social Contract mean in sum the “alienation” of each man to the whole community. He gives himself absolutely, as do all men and no man has the interest to make conditions more burdensome to others, as it will also be so to him. Alienation is without reserve and the union is as perfect as it possibly can be. Rights must be given to the whole so a man cannot place himself in the position of being the superior to another, which would make the other the inferior, so that the right of the strongest will not cause the convention to revert to a state of nature.

Every man gives himself to the all and acquires from the others exactly what he gave of himself. He gains the ability to preserve himself. The Social Contract becomes: giving up yourself, along with the others doing the same to the “general will” and the “corporate entity”, and each member becomes an indivisible part of the whole. This association creates a moral and collective body of members in a common identity, life and will.

New definitions are needed to be made to understand the parts of the Social Contract. These words need to be clarified as people often do not understand the nuances between them, and confuse them.

Under the Social Contract, the aggregation of the “city” becomes “republic” or “body politic”. Its members call it the “state” when it is in a passive form, “sovereign” when it is in its active form and “power” when compared to others. People within the Social Contract call themselves “citizens” when they are participants in the sovereign and “subjects” when they aren’t.

Chapter Seven: The Sovereign

A citizen is in a reciprocal arrangement with the state in a double capacity – an individual in a relationship with the sovereign, and a part of the sovereign in relationship with individual members. Public deliberation causes the state not to be bound by itself since it is both a social convention – which may change at any time – and merely an aggregation of citizens with their own natural rights surrendered to the sovereign in exchange for civil rights.

The state is in a sense a body in contract with itself. There can’t be a law it creates to bind itself that it has to force against itself. It may change the laws itself but the social contract maintains the general will of the people which cannot be bounded. The body may engage others as long as it doesn’t infringe its contract. It becomes like a single entity when acting with others.

Because the Social Contract is a sacred convention that creates a political body and authority, it cannot bind itself, even to an outsider, to anything that is derogatory to the original act, to alienate a part of itself or to submit to another sovereign. Any violation is an act of self-annihilation. Once there is a body, it may not harm itself or its members. Duty and interest oblige both parties – members and complete body – to help each other. The state doesn’t need to make guarantees to itself or its members because their interests are the same.

An individual may have interests contrary to those of the state. His own interests may cause him not to want to contribute to or abide by the common interest. His withdrawal of contribution and support are more harmful to himself than to the rest of the body. For the Social Contract to work, those who refuse the general will must be compelled to do so by the body. This alone legitimizes civil undertakings.

Chapter Eight: Civil State

The move from nature to the civil state produces a change: instinct and justice are swapped and morality is given to man’s actions. He is forced to act on different principles. He loses from what he had in nature but gains so much more from the Social Contract. He becomes civilized and above animals. He gains civil liberty and legal rights over property in exchange for his natural rights.

Chapter Nine: Real Property

Along with himself, man gives his property to the state in the Social Contract. Possession doesn’t change hands but is made stronger due to the increase in the force of the state. When the state relates to other states and outlaws, the property of members is considered that of the state on the basis of the right of first occupiers.

The right of first occupiers becomes more real than the right of the strongest in the Social Contract with secure property rights. In nature, a man has a right to secure what he needs and the act of acquiring makes him proprietor of it. The right of first occupier is weak in nature but is very strong in a civil society. We respect more so the idea of what is not ours than the idea of what belongs to others.

To authorize land to an occupier we need: the land to be vacant, the occupier to occupy what he needs and the land to be worked and cultivated , not just simply claimed. This is a good substitute for a legal title. But is this right unlimited? Is just being on the land enough? Is it enough to scare off others to make the claim? How can you own land and keep away everyone by simply claiming ownership? Spain claimed its American colonies but what happened to the rights of the natives who were there first? How did that claim stop other countries’ claims to that same land? Anyone can claim anything.

Possessors are made dependent, needing the formation of a sovereign to secure the right. Forces at their command used to guarantee property rights also guarantee fidelity. Older kings were called kings of the Persians, of the Scythians, of the Macedonians. They were rulers of men. Modern kings are called kings of France, Spain, England. These are rulers of a land and have the obedience of the inhabitants as a result. There has been a shift from the ruler essentially treating his people as those forced physically to swear allegiance to a ruler elected or tolerated by the people.

Alienation of people and goods isn’t plunder but allows them to enjoy property. Possessors are depositories of a public good and that public good is maintained against foreign countries, which is an advantageous cession that benefits the public. Individuals “retain” what they have “given up”. It is a paradox – the sovereign and proprietors have a claim over the same land.

It is entirely possible that men unite before owning anything, that just occupying land be enough for everyone, or that land is shared among members evenly or in a manner established by the sovereign. However it happens, each man’s right over his land is always subordinated to that of the community. Without that right, there is no social link or any real sovereign force.

The whole social system is based on: instead of destroying natural inequality, the fundamental compact substitutes a moral and legitimate equality for a physical equality that nature has established between men, and those being unequal in strength or intelligence become equal in convention and legal rights.

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