Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Jean Jacques Rousseau


Like Hobbes and Locke, the central political concernof Jean Jacks Rousseauhas also been a legitimate public authority in agreement with them about its ultimate source – the people. But similarity ends here. For Hobbes and Locke, even theoretically, sovereignty emanates from the people but moves away to an external sovereign body, for Rousseau the sovereignty mot only emanates from the people but it must stay with them.  He deletes the dividing line between the ruler and the ruled and gives the theory of popular, collective sovereignty – the theory peoples’ ruling over themselves, something unheard of.Sovereignty can neither be alienated nor represented.Rousseau is the first critique of not only the liberal notion of liberty but also of liberal democracy. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Here’s one who thinks he is the master of others, yet he is more enslaved than they are”. For Rousseau the humans are born free but become unfree after being born and hence the freedom from the birth becomes his foremost concern. The unfreedoms, or for that matter the concepts of good and evil are not creation of some divine power but of society and hence it is the responsibility of society to put them right. Thus Rousseau transforms the concepts of good and evil from absolute to relative and transports them from meta-physics to social physics. In this essay attempts shall be made to explain Rousseau’s political theory i.e. his social contract theory of the origin of state and the system of collective or popular sovereignty in the historical context of the Enlightenment.

Rousseau’s 2 essays written for essay competitions organized by  Dijon’ Academy, on science and culture (1749) and on inequality (1754), generally known as first and second Discourses respectively have drawn immense commentary beginning right from the time of the publication of the FirstDiscourse. These were followed by his masterpiece The Social Contract. Some of his contemporary Enlightenment philosophers and subsequent historians of the French Revolution (1789) accuse him of engineering the FrenchRevolution (1789). Some including Edmund Burke in his Reflections on French Revolution seem to hold him responsible for single handedly bringing about the revolution, while he had died 11 years ago. Fidel Castro revealed in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution (1959) that he carried a copy of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract in his pocket during the revolutionary days and added that subsequently he preferred reading Capital.Rousseau was an odd-man-out among the Enlightenment thinkers. He inaugurated a new and alternative trend and perspective in the Age of Enlightenment, the people’s perspective, though his ‘people’ excluded the half of the human population, the women    In reaction to Lockean tradition of property based on the individualism, Rousseau eulogizes nature, the emotive aspect and rejects the prevalent liberal notion of atomistic existence of individuals and emphasizes their social character. ‘A’ is not a slave or master as an individual but “in-and-through a society” under certain prevalent social relations, that shall be defined a century later by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, asSocial Relations of Production. As we shall see subsequently, Rousseau, in many ways, anticipates Marx and Engels. He begins the Social Contractby his famous authoritative observation, “Man was born free and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters are bigger slaves than they.”[1]Thus Rousseau transports the idea of good and evils from metaphysics to social physics. If slavery is imposed by force it can and must be removed by force. Contrary to Hobbes, who was afraid of the revolution, for Rousseau the revolution was not only desirable but possible also, by “continuously bombarding the Bastille”[i]. Thomas Hobbes, the first liberal political theorist, creates false dichotomy between freedom and order and advocates surrender of the freedom for the order.For Rousseau, “To renounce freedom is to renounce one’s humanity, one’s rights as a man and equally one’s duties.”[2] Rousseau’s solution is dialectical unity of freedom and order. Rousseau was not a socialist;as the word appears for the first time in 1827 in ‘Corporate’ magazine (London) but was an ideological guide and inspiration for the leaders of the revolution (1789) and subsequent socialist thinkers[3].

John Lock, the first recognized, organic intellectual of the new order, the capitalism, theorizes right to unlimited property, Rousseau, in reaction, places the blame of all the social evils at the door of the first person, who invented property. “The first man, who having enclosed a piece of land, bethought himself of saying that ‘this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of the civil society.”[4]Against the direct-indirect liberal defense of growing inequalities, Rousseau proves that there can be freedom with equality or there can be no freedom. Freedom is total not more or less. As we shall discuss subsequently, Rousseau rejects the liberal notion of freedom as illusion and links individual freedom with social freedom, if one wants to be free one has to free the society, as humans are not atomistic individuals but social beings. At a time when the Enlightenment philosophers were celebrating the individual, the self-seeking, possessive individual, as laid down in the writings of Hobbes and Locke in the 17th century[5], his theory of the civil religion and collective will was considered to be a deviation from the values of Enlightenment, an utopia, a fantasy by his fellow philosophers[6]. With this introductory prelude, we seek to analytically overview his time; life experiences’; context and the ideas. Like lock, Rousseau also uses the Hobbesian thought experiment involving three interlinked concepts of State of Nature; laws of nature and social Contract but reverses their meaning to arrive at contrary conclusion. Against Hobbes’s Absolute sovereign, Rousseau theorizes the popular sovereignty.

A biographical note

“Rousseau was the first political thinker to make a text of his own life.”[7]The Confessions and Rousseau: The Judge of Jean Jacquesare in a way, apologies for a life that has gone waste, as he thought in the last stage of life. In History, things might have happened in so many permutations and combinations, but historically in only one, in which they happened. Notwithstanding Rousseau’s guilt conscience of not having lived up to his potentialities, he left behind a great intellectual treasure for the posterity, by giving a new perspective to political theory – the peoplesperspective. Normally the philosophers belong to the class of gainfully unemployed and view at physical labour and hence the labourer with a philosophical contempt[8]. Exceptionally,Rousseau, a common man himself,was the spokesperson of common people, but many things about him, beginning with the circumstances of his birth have been quite uncommon, including his heterodox views among the Enlightenment philosophers. Born as the second son of Isaac Rousseau, a watch maker by profession, in Geneva in 1712, Jean Jacks lost his mother shortly after the birth. He was nurtured and pampered by aunts and the nurses. Isaac Rousseau was not a successful artisan but was a man of cultural test. He would read to his sons and make them read for him the classics, novels, history and heroic stories of Plutarch. That is why Rousseau would boast that he was a Roman before he was twelve, though his reading of Plutarch had stopped before he was ten, when he was fully orphaned as his father had fought a duel with a neighbor that obliged him to banish from Geneva and the sons were boarded out with a Calvinist pastor and his sister[9].Rousseau’s life can be broadly divided into following 5 stages:

  1. 1712-1728.The circumstances of childhood and experiences of early apprenticeship have not been quite normal. As mentioned above, Jean Jacques was almost a born half-orphan and became full-orphan before he was 10. His father banished from Geneva, consequent to a sword duel[10]abandoning him and his brother to their fate. He was admitted to a school by one of his uncles, who took care of him but soon he dropped out without learning anything. Then he helped him to a clerical job in a law firm from where he was thrown out owing to “indiscipline”. At the age of 13, he joined apprenticeship with an engraver, at whose house he lived. There is no scope to go into his reflection upon and introspection of his experiences during this time, described in his autobiography, the Confessions, which is found by some of its reviewers, “embarrassingly frank”[11]. Recalling those days, Rousseau notes, “My trade did not displease me in itself. …….. I should perhaps have succeeded, if the brutality of my master and excessive constraint had not disgusted me from the work.”[12]One Sunday evening in March 1728, unmindful of time, when he returned from a walk in the country, city gates were closed. He could have spent the night out as few times before, but fearing scolding and beating by the Master next morning and also to seek adventures and new avenues of identity and the recognition, young Jean Jacques, not yet 16, decided not to return. He set out on a voyage not knowing where to? Thus, Rousseau’s first experience of the employment was that of dependence and bondage and hence his cynical passion against allkindz of unfreedoms does not surprise, when he says, “No one shall be allowed to disobey The General Will, in other words, everyone shall be forced to be free”[13]. It appears that Rousseau might have abstracted the idea of natural human as a free innocent being from his own childhood experiences. As he confesses in the Confessions, he was a mischievous, undisciplined and restless but a mature and thinking boy as compared to other children of his age group.

2.1728-42.The second phase of his life beginning with his self-banishment from Geneva and wandering in various parts of France doing odd jobs like a footman with rich ladies; self-educating through books and learning music.Wandering into wilderness, he entered the principality of Savoy bordering Geneva, where he found a benefactor, the baroness de Warens, who provided him with a refuge in her home and employed him as hesteward, before finding him odd domestic jobs with other rich ladies. She also furthered his education to such a degree that the boy who had arrived on her doorstep as a stammering apprentice who had never been to school developed into a philosopher, a man of letters, and a musician.


  1. 1742-49. The third phase of Rousseau’s life that could be called the time of preparation for an exceptional philosopher is 1742-49, when he went to Paris to seek recognition and identity in the field of music with the new tune he had invented. Though he did not get the expected recognition, yet he was able to perform and henceforth music tuitions became his source of livelihood and means to contacts with the Parisian elite. Through one of these contacts Rousseau got a small stint of diplomatic experience as a secretary to the ambassador of Venice, a retired military officer, which shortly ended amidst accusations and counter-accusations between the two. In Paris he met another young man, Dennis Diderot from the countryside. The history of humankind has also been the history of circumstantial and accidental inventions, not only external but internal too. Rousseau, destined by circumstances to be an artisan, through accidental circumstances, discovered a writer in him and decided to take the “intellectual world of France by storm” with Diderot, whose edited volumes of Philosophical Encyclopedia subsequently became the epithet of the Enlightenment. Their plans looked overambitious but the success they received was unexpectedly higher than the height of their ambitions.Rousseau contributed articles on music and political economy, one of his main intellectual concerns.


4.1749-62.The fourth phase of his life, 1749-1762 is the most illustrious phase during which transformed him from an ordinary music tutor to a celebrity of political philosophy as the first critic of liberalism and liberal democracy and the profounder of the theory of popular sovereignty, the theory of the self-rule, unheard before.  Rousseau emerged as an original political philosopher with unprecedented impact on future politics and political theory.Diderot had got in trouble with the authorities due to Encyclopedia. The establishments that be, get troubled, rather terrorized with new ideas. Diderot was also a known atheist like Voltaire. Under the pressure from clergy, he was imprisoned and Rousseau was going to visit him in jail in Vincennes[14]. Recalling this journey in Confessions, tells us that he had a singular experience on the journey. He opened thenewspaper, Mercure de France and read about invitation for a prize essay competition by Dijon Academy, on the question, Have revival of arts and science done more to corrupt or purify the morals? Rousseau informs us that the answer came to him as sudden revelation. Nothing comes as revelation, intellectual rebellion against the self-witnessed hypocrisies and artificialities of refinement sophistication and luxuriousness, must have been gaining strength for quite some time. He shared his experiences with Diderot, who did not agree with his views that arts and science have ruined the morality but as a journalist, encouraged him to go ahead with his unfashionable views, which would distinguish him from other competitors. And as is history now, with his essay winning the first prize, Rousseau, whether he liked it or not, became famous overnight. Some commentators have rightly said that had Rousseau died before 1749, no one would have known him. Most of the Enlightenment philosophers were disciples of Francis Bacon[15]. They believed that the development and organization of scientific knowledge could immensely improve the life of humans on the earth. Diderot wrote in the preface of the 1st Volume of Encyclopedia, “Our aim is to gather all knowledge together, so that our decedents, being better educated may become at the same time happier and more virtuous.”[16] Rousseau attacked all the Baconian notions in his prize essay; science was not saving us but was bringing moral ruins on us. When his contemporaries were celebrating the civilizational advances, the man’s triumph over the nature by taming it with the scientific discoveries, he eulogized the nature and accused the civilization of ruining the humanity. At a time when in Europe, the battle lines were drawn around contesting interpretations of the scripture, he shocked his contemporaries by transporting the notion of good and evil from metaphysics to social physics against the Christianity’s ethos of Sin and  Fall[17]. In this essay, Rousseau puts the blame of the evils in the society on the civilizational advancement owing to the developments in arts and science leading to artificial social institutions.  In his opinion the primitive humans happily lived a simple life free from vices. A “thinking man is a depraved animal”. Instead of reason Rousseau emphasized compassion[18].

Rousseau wrote another essay for Dijon academy in 1754 on the question, ‘What is the origin of inequality among the men and is it authorized by the natural law’? The essay, subsequently known as the Second Discourse, did not get the prize but laid the foundations for an alternative social contract theory of the origin of society and state contrary to the theories of naturalist thinkers. It answers the first question and leaves the answer of the second part for his next classic, The Social Contract. Rousseau’ state of nature is state of innocence. Rousseau wrote a dedicatory note in eulogy of Geneva and Genevan culture. Some commentators have opined that one of reasons of his doing so was to maneuver restoring his Genevancitizenship. He did not find a congenial form of government. Seven years later with the publication of Social Contract, also dedicated to Geneva were burnt and arrest warrants were issued against him and once again he fled from there, notwithstanding the fact that there are several flattering references to Geneva in the text[19]. We shall return to the theme of Second Discourse – The state of nature and the inequality subsequently. Since the prize essay; The Discourses on Science and Arts, next 12 years had been creatively most illustrious years of his life, during which he created and left behind invaluable intellectual treasure for the posterity. Apart from working on the Social Contract during this period, he wrote, as we saw above, The Discourse on Inequality; Emile on the existing education systemthat had irked the priestly classes; his novel, Le Nouvelle Helotse.


  1. 1762-78. The last stage of Rousseau’s had been a life on run in the literal sense, during which he was, as many commentators have noted, a “seriously disturbed” person and often would get into the state of paranoid[20]. With flattering references to Geneva in the Social Contract and re-conversion into Calvinist faith, he had expected citizenship and recognition. But the copies of the Emile and Social Contract were publicly burnt and arrest warrant was issued against him and he fled from there. During these years of being on run and in “seriously disturbed” state of mind, Rousseau wrote an exemplary autobiography, The Confessions; Rousseau the Judge of Jean Jacques, a play and constitutions of Poland and Croatia. (To be elaborated in the next editing).

The Context

After the fall of the classical Greek and Roman civilizations that had thrived on the slave labor, the Europe witnessed a long period of economic as well as intellectual stagnation. All the intellectual sectors were monopolized by the theology and intellectual functions were solely performed by the clergy. The erosion of theological explanations of the historical progress, which had already begun during the Renaissance, had reached to its logical conclusion by 17th-18th century known as the “the Age of Enlightenment” or the “Age of the Reason” and also as the Age of the scientific revolution[21].

The Renaissance was culmination of protracted intellectual dissent against medieval values of feudalism. The theological orthodoxy severely limited the scope of artistic/intellectual creativity, as owing to the original sin, there can be nothing worth celebration in the phenomenal world. Renaissance poets and artists liberated the art and poetry from theology and Machiavelli liberated politics. Poets and artists no more wrote poems of romance of cosmic forces or painted extra-human figures. They wrote poems of real romance between men and women and painted the real beauties. The democratic quality of European Renaissance was that it broke apart the birth qualification but replaced them with more stringent qualifications of ‘success’. It was celebration of “this worldliness” against the “other worldliness”. It was a celebration of individual, but of extra-ordinary, spectacular individual, of princes not of ordinary individual who was a tool, a dupe for princes, princes themselves were different matter[22]. Its contempt for ordinary individual was going to transform into hefty bourgeois contempt in the coming days.The Renaissance also witnessed the emergence of a new species of hero – the hero of finance, the risk-free heroism. This new hero in the course of about one and a half century acquired the center-stage when its first, recognized philosopher, John Locke, categorically declared that governance is a serious matter it could be entrusted with those who have already proved their worth by amassing sufficient wealth.[23]

Beginning with Thomas Hobbes, the liberal assumption that society consists of free and equal individuals, was not a call for freedom and equality but to conceal the new inequalities and unfreedoms, the immanently innate attributes of the new, bourgeois social order, a reflection of its perennial duality. As he recalls in the Confessions that after coming in contact with practical politics, in accordance with his conviction of redemption through political change, he undertook a larger work on body politic in 1743[24]. But, as he confesses in the microscopic preface of   Social Contract that it was an over ambitious beyond the “limits of” his “power”. Yet what he produced became a classic and a reference point of future politico-economic analysis for both the theoretical perspectives – egalitarian and hierarchal; individualist and collectivist; bourgeois and proletarian. He in many ways anticipates Marx and Engels that I shall point to in subsequent discussion.    His theory of General Will as a moral entity – a theory of participatory democracy – has such a lasting impact on the future politics and political theory that even the liberal democratic states are forced to place “the people” in the center of the preamble of their constitution. Even the staunch pro-corporate parties are forced to name themselves as peoples’ parties.

The idea of liberal democracy remains complex and contested. The philosophical developments towards liberal democratic state in the works of Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, James mill and John Stuart Mill consist of heterogeneous sets of assumptions and conclusions and have been matter of debate in Anglo-American intellectual world. Rousseau, the first critic of liberal democracy at its formative stage itself[25], propounded the theory of the direct, participatory democracy – ofThe General Will.

At a time when even the universal franchise was a distant dream in the mother country of the liberal or representative democracy, England, Rousseau’s theory of peoples’ government, the deletion of the dividing line between the ruler and the ruled was found to be a socking and was dubbed as fantasy, by his contemporaries[26]. In fact, he was quite ahead of his time. He had direct influence on and anticipated in many ways, as shall be discussed in subsequent sections, the key counterpoint to liberal democracy — the Marxism. Against the liberal tradition of the concept of universal man as a possessive rational egoist, Rousseau conceptualized the universal, natural individual as rational, innocent, compassionate and benevolent. As SudiptaKaviraj has rightly said that Rousseau was a romantic rebel against the Locke’s tradition, which eulogized property. In reaction he eulogized the nature, the emotive aspect of it.   In contrast with Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau’s natural individual is an innocent being, neither good nor bad that he becomes in and through society under the institutions he lives in[27].  Rousseau became a legend in his own life time and was arrogantly aware of his importance and ability to convince the ordinary people, the new people disenchanted with the bondage of inequality and the suffering about the need of the social transformation. Rousseau, is exceptional exception among the Enlightenment philosophers, as he brought in and so firmly established the common man — AamAadmi – on the center stage of the philosophical and political discourse that forced the writers of the modern constitutions to begin the preamble with reference to, “we the people”, though they do not mean it – the innate contradiction of the theory and the practice. Rousseau, the first critic of liberal freedom and the self-declared spokesperson of common man and common sense, redefined the freedom that is known as positive freedom. Linking liberty with equality he gave the revolutionary call of “continuously bombarding the Bastille”. In contrast to liberal notion of individual liberty in separation from society, Rousseau defined liberty in and through a society. In order to be free, the society has to be freed. By inventing the new protagonist in the collectivity of the people, Rousseau anticipated Marx’s invention of proletariat as the future protagonist of the history. Rousseau proved that revolution was not only desirable but possible also.

Rousseau was a romantic rebel against the Locke’s tradition of political theory that eulogized the property.In reaction Rousseau eulogized the nature, the emotive aspect of human nature and put the blame of all the evils at the door of the man who invented the property, i.e. the private property that created inequality and social injustice sanctified by law. (Why romantic? We shall discuss little later.)For Rousseau, morality was not a theological but political issue. In fact in his view, politics ‘founds’ morality. For him the ethical task of triumph of good over evil is not a spiritual issue but a task of political transformation of society. Thus Rousseau begins his theorization with transporting of the issue of the evil “from the camp of ‘theodicy’ into that of ‘politics’ and the origins of evils is no more attributed to an obscure wish of God or to some presumed original sin of man but is placed squarely on society.”[28] Rousseau pushes the old problem of evil out of the sphere of metaphysics and transfers it to the center of social physics – ethics and politics and turns it into the problem of the critique of civil society, releasing a stimulus of unprecedented power. As evil for Rousseau is not a metaphysical matter but the product of a determinate organization of society and therefore the elimination of the evil coincides with the problem of social transformation, i.e. with the problem of Revolution.

In 17th-18th centuries, when the dogma of the ‘original sin’ that the roots of evil are in human nature, was the mantra of the Catholic and Protestant faiths, Rousseau’s denial of it was found inexorably shocking by the both. Rousseau transforms the whole perspective on human existence. ‘Salvation’ is no more a subject of religious terrain but of politics. Redemption is possible only by man by destroying the coercive form of the society and replacing it by a free and ethical political community, and not by any external aid (“no God can give us it”). Voltaire, Diderot, d’ Alembert and all the other philosophes see it as ‘mere defects of society, mistake in organization that could be gradually eliminated, Rousseau considers the evils of the society as ‘sin’ that can be redeemed by transforming the society from its very foundations.

State of nature and the origin of inequality

Differences of interpretation of the Discourse on the origin of inequality began with its publication itself and persist till date. It is basically Rousseau’s explanation of the existing miseries on the earth.LucioColletti,with reference to various recent studies zeroes on two interpretation. Though Rousseau claims historicity to his description of State of nature but his historicity is speculative to present his State of Nature as “a ‘reference concept’, a hypothesis, a degree zero, by which to measure the ‘divergence’ of each individual phase of human civilization with respect to the original conditions.”[29] The second, much more serious position is that in his works Rousseau is inviting society to choose the savage existence rather than society (‘he wants us to walk on four legs’, Voltaire wrote sarcastically). This notion of primitivism associated with Rousseau’s work has survived till date despite his warning in the Second Discourse itself. “What, then, is to be done? Must societies be totally abolished? Must mine and yours be annihilated, and must we return again to the forests to live among bears? This is a deduction in the manner of my adversaries, which I would as soon anticipate as let them have the shame of drawing.”[30]

In order to understand Rousseau’s views on State of Nature; Social Contract and sovereignty, it would be appropriate to compare and contrast them with the views of natural theory tradition, particularly, those of John Locke. For Hobbes the state of nature is a horrifying hell, a state of war of all against all, in which everyone lives under the constant fear of sudden death. For Locke the State of Nature is already a moral and a social state, a state of “happy freedom”, under the laws of the nature. Everyone has natural rights including right to property and right to sell and buy labor. For Rousseau State of nature is nothing of these sorts. It is just a state of innocence. Humans are just solitary natural beings distinguished by the species-specific faculties of self-improvement and compassion. Other human faculties are latent to be realized ‘in and through the society’. Humans, as Hobbes would like us to believe are not wicked by nature but they become so through socialization. “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains”.[31] As mentioned above state of nature for him is a point of reference. For Locke humans in the state of nature are already moral beings living under the natural laws with natural rights. In Rousseau the idea of the ‘state of nature’ is quite different. In fact such a state to him is not a ‘moral’ condition but a state of innocence, a purely animal condition, beyond the distinction between good and evil.  Rousseau’s account of historical development from the state of nature, the state of innocence to the mess, which the modern society has got into, has been adequately summarized by LucioColletti into four stages:

  1. The stage of innocent solitary being, with easily appeasable needs, which is distinguished from the other members of the animal-kingdom by the species-specific,attributes of self-improvement and compassion. Other human species-specific faculties are latent, unawaken, which get actualized in and through society. In other words.


  1. With protracted technical revolutions and many revolutionary inventions like language, fire, metallurgy, art of building shelters etc., people started living in families and communities, what he calls patriarchal society, the golden period, for Rousseau.


  1. “Just as man lost the idle condition of the ‘state of nature’, giving himself up to labour and to thought (to the use of reason, which together with language develops from the consolidation of the first social relations), so now he comes to a new fall which wrenches him from the happiness of the ‘patriarchal’ state. By an ‘unhappy chance’ men discover the advantages of the ‘division of labour’, which enables them to pass from a subsistence economy to an economy of productive development ‘It was iron and corn which first civilized men, and ruined humanity.[32]‘ Now producing more than they really need, men vie for the surplus. They want not only to use things but to possess them. They want not only present goods, but the abstract tokens of possible, future goods.


  1. The consequence is the Hobbesian state needing civil order. With their security threatened men come together to form a civil order but the socialization went wrong. They entered into iniquitous contracts that instead of bringing about justice perpetuated injustices. “The law was second fraud perpetrated on people”[33] that converted the theft into legal rights. Rousseau’ solution is fundamental transformation of society through a just Social Contract that people eager to get out of the solitary state of nature would make.


The situation described by Rousseau reappears in Adam Smith, with a diametrically opposite perspective and concerns, “wherever there is property, there is inequality, for every rich man there must be at least 500 poor, and the affluence of few presupposes the indigence of many”, and of course, probably under TINA (There Is No Alternative) syndrome of development, supports the “establishment of civil government” to institutionalize these inequalities and indigence as for “the acquisition of valuables and extensive property” it is necessarily required. Smith wanted just to explain the status quo and was concerned with its management by a metaphorical entity “the invisible hands of market.”[34] Though a brief comparison between the contemporaries Smith and Rousseau reflecting in contrasting manner upon the same issue would not be inappropriate but that needs a separate discussion. Like the politics of Hobbes and Locke, the political economy of Adam Smith is explanation; rationalization and justification of the new status quo. Rousseau finds the existing societies “rotten” and rejects their unjust structures puts forth a theoretical model of a just, egalitarian alternative for future, modalities of which has to be worked out by future generations.

The Social Contract

Hobbes begins with the basic assumption that all the individuals are naturally free and equal and taking their particularly socialized attributes of rational, egoist and possessiveness as their natural attributes, proves the natural equality and freedom as antithetical to their desire of peaceable commodious life that requires order. After drawing a dichotomy between the freedom and the order, Hobbes makes a plea to surrender the freedom for order. “To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties.”[35] — Rousseau’s reaction to Hobbes’s Social Contract of surrendering liberty to the government for social order. Thus liberty is the key to Rousseau’s Social Contact, but not the individual liberty in dissociation from fellow beings[36] but in association with them falling in the category of positive liberty in Isaiah Berlin’s categorization, which shall be briefly discussed in the subsequent sections.

In the Discourses on Inequality Rousseau poses the problems confronting the society due to inequality among the men caused by the institution of the private property, in the Social Contract, he proceeds to provide solution. His solution to a real problem is a romantic, a utopia of an ambiguous moral entity, General Will through a just Social Contract based on the principles of equality. This envisioned contract provides the basis and the context of the liberty, different than the liberal notion of the liberty which excludes others to be actualized individually.Rousseau’s liberty, different from the liberal notion, can be actualized only through liberating the society. The liberty of the individual is, thus, intimately linked with the liberty of society.  He ridicules the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke as the covenants aimed at legitimating slavery. “The words ‘slavery’ and ‘right’ are contradictory, they cancel each other out. Whether between one man and another or between one man and the whole people, it would always be absurd to say: I hereby make a covenant with you, which is wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I will respect it so long as I please and you shall respect it so long as I wish.”[37]  Rousseau seeks a just contract by which one can ‘live as free as before’.Repudiating their contracts, he says, “Stipulated in inequality, the effect of the contract is to consolidate the privileges of the wealthy, and to give inequality the value of an institution: under that guise of peace and right, economic usurpation becomes political power; the rich safeguards his property with a right which did not previously exist, and from then on they are the masters. This abusive contract is a caricature of the true contract.”[38]

Rousseau not only demolishes the edifice of the existing contract theories but also provides a new alternative theory of contract for the “men being taken as they are”. Rousseau acknowledges that the acquired attributes of wrong socialization could not be unlearned and hence going back to state of nature is impossible. In Confessions he underlines the primary cause of unhappiness as the division of ‘civil’ life into self’s sense of right (justice) and the self’s sense of self-interest and their contradictions. The solution is their merger. He sets the agenda at the outset of the Social Contract,“I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be. In this inquiry I shall endeavor always to unite what right sanctions with what is prescribed by interest, in order that justice and utility may in no case be divided.”[39]

Like Hobbes and Locke, he too is concerned with the legitimate and secure principle of government based on the principles of equality and justice[40].Hobbes and Locke located the source of the validity of the legitimate authority in people. Rousseau takes it further to a radical point by saying that not only sovereignty emanates from the people but it must stay also with them, as “Sovereignty cannot be represented or alienated”[41]. Unlike the Contracts of Hobbes and Locke, his Social Contract does not propose to transfer the sovereignty from people to the government but creates a possibility of self-regulation and a participatory democracy. “Sovereignty not only originates from the people; it ought to stay there”[42]. “The sovereign authority is the people making the rules by which they live”[43]. Thus Rousseau propounds thetheory popular sovereignty, the collective power of self-rule.

Thomas Hobbes stipulates a single contact in which the rational, egoist solitary beings of state of nature, who not only can’t live in cooperation with each other but are after each other’s life are driven by the prudence of fear to get together and hold covenant of transferring their all the natural rights and power to a powerful authority, which can overawe each of them to facilitate peaceable commodious life. He creates a dichotomy between freedom and order, Rousseau proves themto be complementary. John Locke’s theory presupposes double covenants: one by which individuals, who already are moral beings with all the rights of bourgeois society including right to accumulate property and right to sell and buy labour in the state of nature, agree to unite in a society for mutual safety and preservation and then transfer the power for the self-preservation of the natural rights to the sovereign, i.e. the state by another contract. Rousseau resolves the duality by attributing sovereignty to the people as a whole and transforming the government as a mere commission for executing the instructions of the sovereign. In reaction to liberal contracts aimed at perpetuating the inequality and un-freeing the free-born human, his solution is: the Popular Sovereign – the General Will – self-government of the people, something unheard before, was indeed radical. It was termed as Rousseau’s romanticism.

He was much ahead of his time. In 18th century Europe the idea of ‘ordinary’ people as integral part of governance, was found to be shockingly unbelievable. The first recognized liberal democrat, John Stuart Mill, writing almost a century after the publication of the Discourses and the Social Contract, is a reluctant democrat with a Platonic disbelief in the ‘ordinary’ people, pleads for a weighted franchise tilted in favor of  ‘extra ordinary’ – “the talented and able” –“who happen to own property and social prestige.” Rousseau’s this originally and fundamentally new concept of popular sovereignty with the emphasis on ‘people themselves’ has compelled all the modern states to incorporate, at least, theoretically, the importance of the ‘ordinary people’ by beginning the preludes of their constitutions in the name of ‘we the people’. He agrees with the preceding social contract thinkers that Sovereignty emanates from the people but adds to it that it must stay with them.  Rousseau’s solution envisages the individuals directly involved in creating the laws by which they live. This individual, who in order to be social; to materialize the humanly potentialities of the state of nature; and of course to be free, enters into a contract with his fellow men to transform the isolated individuals into their collectivity with a collective will in the popularly agreed common interest. Hesets for himself the task of finding“A form of human association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting him with others obeys no one but himself and remains as free as before”[44].

The Social Contract does not envisage surrender of all (Hobbes) or some (Locke) rights and powers to an external authority as cost of living a social life. Rousseau resolves the duality by conceptualizing popular sovereignty into collectivity of the people. In ordinary (i.e. civilized) societies people have split personalities with “self’s sense of right” and self’s sense of self interest.Corresponding to the self’s sense of self interest and its sense of justice, individuals in the civil society have self-concerning, particular will and socially concerned real will. The General Will is sum total of real will. “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” Thus what one gives from one hand as a solitary individual receives from other hand as equal, integral part of collectivity. Rousseau conceptualizes an active citizenry involved in the developing process of the government  — all the citizens should meet and collectively decide the best for the community and enact appropriate Laws. He does away with the distinction of governed and the governor. The governed is the governor among the community of equals. Root cause of miseries on the earth, the inequality is replaced by fraternal solidarity.Rousseau

The General Will

In his radical alternative of people’s self-governance, Rousseau transported the liberty from individual to society as individuals do not exist as individuals but ‘in and through society. It squarely holds the society responsible for “chaining” the “born free”. In Social Contract, he undertakes the task of finding an association where natural freedom can be restored by transforming the ‘chaining’ institution, the society. To be free one has to free the society. In an unfree society, the idea of the freedom is an illusion. Rousseau’s emphasis on “as free as before” looks paradoxical, as in his state of nature, man is not yet man but potentially man, an innocent being with natural attributes of compassion, self-preservation and self-improvement. Other human specific attributes are latent to be actualized in society. In state of nature the solitary being does not know what freedom or unfreedoms is. Rousseau’s incoherence is made up by his intentions of theorizing a non-coercive state free from exploitation and inequality. At the outset of the Social Contract he makes his intention clear. “My purpose is to consider if, in political society, there can be legitimate and sure principle of the government, taking the men as they are and the laws as they might be. In this inquiry, I shall try always to bring together what right permits with what interest prescribes so that justice and utility are in no way divided.”[45]By “taking men as they are”, Rousseau admits the fact that self-interest had become fact of life and cannot be totally done away with. Freedom of State of the state of Nature is permanently lost.

Rousseau thus dubs the liberal and naturalist notions of liberty as merely independence and contrasts it with his newly drawn definition of liberty, “two things so essentially different, that they reciprocate in excluding each other”. Liberty is intimately connected with equality: acting at pleasure might displease others; and “this is not properly called a free state. Liberty consists less in acting according to one’s own pleasure, than in not being subject to the will and pleasure of other people. It consists also in our not subjecting the wills of other people to our own. Whoever is the master over others, is not free himself and even to reign is to obey”.  They obey the will of ‘vices’ created by society thriving on the principles of inequality. Linking equality with Liberty Rousseau’s Social Contract “establishes equality among the citizens in that they …… must all enjoy the same rights”[46]. Rousseau clearly demarcates the   executive – the government – from the legislature. People form the legislative assembly, the sovereign whose laws are executed by the government.

For Rousseau, the popular government, i.e. the self-government is an end in itself that leads to the formation of a society in which the affairs of the state are integrated into the affairs of ordinary citizens. Rousseau’s contract is aimed at creating a social-political order in which the liberty and equality of citizens can be established and sustained. The citizens must create and be bound by ‘the supreme direction of the General Will’ – different from the will of all — the publicly generated conception of common good[47], and not the mere aggregate of the personal fancies and individual desires[48]. In this contract the citizens are not obliged to abide by the supreme direction of some Artificial Man, an impersonal, overawing Leviathan (Hobbes) or a constitutional Sovereign separate from the civil society created for the protection of the pre-social, pre-political natural rights (Locke). They abide by their own collective will – The General Will. They abide by only those laws they have prescribed to themselves with the public good in mind[49].

Rousseau’s solution to a real problem – the evil – caused by the institutionalization of property and inequality is an ambiguous moral entity — the General Will – the collective will of all the people.  As the ‘evil’ is caused by the society, the responsibility of ‘redemption’ lies with it, it has to transform itself. Fault of logical incoherence and practical problems of construction are pointed regarding the General Will, what makes it important is Rousseau’s intention and commitment as a spokesperson of common man and a bearer of common sense. Rousseau not only changed the terms of the reference in political theory but also proposed a future paradigm of analysis and left it to be worked out by the posterity for whom he was theorizing.  Like Marx after him, whom he not only preceded but anticipated also[50], Rousseau was an activist thinker who was not only interested in interpreting but changing the world. He is quite unambiguous in stressing that the revolution was both necessary and possible. Dismissing the Hobbesian fear against revolutions he sides with it and proposes to do away with the distinction between the ruler and the ruled in a model of participatory democracy, a system of self-regulation and self-governance. His solution is not ‘back to nature’, that is a historical impossibility. He finds the existing societies corrupt and exploitative and wants to transform them into a form of human association in which people are as ‘free as before’. He merges the self’s sense of self-interest with the self’s sense of right.

Without going into the details of the constitution and attributes of General Will and its implications for the history of political theory, let us have a glance at how he defines the term.

According to Rousseau, every individual has two wills: particular will that he has by virtue of being a man; and a constant or common will which he has by virtue of being a citizen. The Particular Will, according to him, is self-oriented, driven by individual-private desires, selfish, unstable and momentary. The common will, which Rousseau calls the Real Will, is rational, eternal and socially oriented on the basis of an understanding of the common good of the whole community. The General Will   is not the Will of All but a sum total of real wills of all the citizens in the publicly generated common interest.

There is often a great difference between the will of all and the General Will,  the latter regards only the common interest; the former has regard to the private interest, and merely is a sum of particular interests[51].

[1] Social Contract,  p. 49

[2] SC p 55

[3]ईश मिश्र, समता का इतिहास (समाजवाद पर लेखमाला–1) समयांतर (नई दिल्ली), मार्च 2017 (पृ.39-43)

[4]Discourse on Inequality quoted in LucioColletti, From Rousseau to Lenin, OUP, 1978, pp. 154-55

[5] CB Macpherson, Political Theory of Possessive Individualism

[6]Voltaire from appendices of 2nd discourse

[7] McClelland, The Great Political Thinkers,  p 250

[8]A brief note.

[9] Cranston, Maurice, ‘Introduction’ to Rousseau, Jean Jacques, Social Contract (translated & edited by Maurice Cranston), Penguin, New York, 1968, p 10

[10]A note on system of settling the issues through duel.

[11] McClelland, David, The Great Political Thinkers, p.250

[12]Cranston, op.cit.

[13] Social Contract (SC)

[14] A note

[15]  A note on Baconian philosophy

[16]  Preface, Encyclopedia

[17] 1st Discourse

[18]1st Discourse.

[19] Few quotations from SC and 2nt Discourse.

[20]McClelland. Op.cit.  p 250

[21] A note on Enlightenment

[22]Kaviraj Social Scientis

[23]Kaviraj, Social Scientist

[24] Preface to the SC

[25] Note

[26] Voltaire ,

[27] Colletti

[28] 2nd Discourse  (Colletti, 145)

[29]Colleti (149)

[30] Ibid

[31] SC

[32] 2nd Discourse

[33] SC

[34] Smith Adam, Wealth of Nations

[35] SC 6

[36] Caudwell, Studies and further Studies in a Dying Culture

[37]SC 58

[38] 2nd Discourse

[39] SC p. 47

[40] SC p.49

[41] ibid

[42]Cranston op.cit. p 30

[43] Held, Davis, The Idea of Modern State, p. 48

[44] SC, p. 60

[45] SC  p.49

[46] SC  p.46

[47] SC pp. 60-61

[48] SC pp. 72-73; 75

[49] SC p. 65

[50]Colletti, op.cit.

[51] SC parts  II & III

 Ish Mishra , Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Hindu College, University of Delhi


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