Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau Paper

Jake Maxmin

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the greatest philosophers of the 18th century. Rousseau was a philosopher, writer, composer, and influenced both the French Revolution as well as the development of modern thought. Rousseau’s work, The Social Contract  is a book filled with ideas about how Rousseau believes a society should be run. He gives us ideas and suggestions in The Social Contract, but no concrete decisiveness. Rousseau was a strong believer in what is called Social Contractarianism: the idea that all societies should be governed by a social contract agreed upon by all the citizens of a sovereign nation. Rousseau‘s social contract defines what he sees as legitimate government and discusses the roles of religion, education, citizenship, and community within a society. Rousseau suggests that a social contract is the only way for an authority or government to be legitimate. This is because the social contract entails that all members of a society share common goals and values. To be free and live together we must recognize that we are all part of the same society and that we all share common goals for the achievement of our sovereign state. This phenomenon can occur when a society lives under the structure of something similar to a social contract.

Rousseau begins his The Social Contract by defining the concept of sovereign. The sovereign is defined as the general will, an authority that only has power over public affairs.  According to Rousseau,

“This formula shows us that the act of association comprises a mutual undertaking between the public and the individuals, and that each individual, in making a contract, as we may say, with himself, is bound in a double capacity; as a member of the Sovereign he is bound to the individuals, and as a member of the State of the Sovereign.”



Rousseau discusses the roles that citizens play in being members of the sovereign. Rousseau makes the point that being a member of the sovereign—and living under the social contract –is an important responsibility. He believes that anyone who violates the social contract should be executed. The contract is vital to the well-being of the society, so one must know where they stand within their community and within the sovereign in order to contribute to society. Rousseau’s contract also talks about religion and its importance in independence. Rousseau believes that everyone should be able to practice their own religion. He does not believe that the state should have a common religion. Rousseau states the following:

“Now that there is and can be no longer an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship.”



This is an important quote because it favors freedom of religion, but it also favors aspects of religion that bring people together and unite them under common beliefs…an important part of a flourishing society.

The 21st century representative democracy of America is close to the ideals of the society that Rousseau describes in the Social Contract. The gap in our society comes from our class division. The biggest difference that can be seen between modern day America and Rousseau’s work is the social class system. Rousseau would say that the gap between the rich and poor in America is too great, and the society cannot truly flourish while this gap exists. Rousseau speaks strongly on this point. “The will of the people, the will of the prince, the public force of the state, and the particular force of the government, all answer to a single motive power” -pg.49 Rousseau believes we must have one power that motivates and binds us all to common goals and ideals. Currently, this does not exist for all American citizens. The opportunities and lives of our citizens do not represent an equal motive power.

Another important aspect of the social contract is the definition of territory. This is an important aspect because it talks not simply about territory, but what makes up territory, and how to maintain it. People dwell within the state’s lands. Citizens make the sovereign state their home and define the state itself. The citizens are a crucial factor. To maintain citizens the state must have territory— and Rousseau recognizes this. In the book, Rousseau relates that

“The men make the State, and the territory sustains the men; the right relation therefore is that the land should suffice for the maintenance of the inhabitants, and that there should be as many inhabitants as the land can maintain.”



Rousseau speaks about and defines in his social contract is important. His ideals are important to societies and all members of communities and states around the world. His ideas were straightforward and his views on the correct society are not far off from what we have today. Most importantly, what Rousseau brings to the attention of the modern day reader are the flaws in modern day society. Rousseau shows the reader where and how our American government has gone wrong.

Many scholars can take opposing view points about the different roles that Rousseau has played throughout history

. Some say he is the father of extreme nationalism and Nazism, while at the same time also being the father of the hippie movement. Rousseau believed that we are all born free as individuals, and that society puts us in chains. This is an idea that can capture both the good and the bad aspects of human nature. Some might interpret that freedom as a justification for movements or purging of a nation. They might believe that their freedom is better than others’, or perhaps that their freedom is being subdued by the greatness of others. During the sixties many people took these ideas literally and took to living in alternate societies outside of the normal social boundaries. They could live free and healthily lives without the restrictions of 1960’s culture, and influenced by such thinkers such as Rousseau. However, it is very interesting to note that according to scholars, Rousseau had no clear ideas for what a society should be.

The world we live in today is susceptible to many forms of social and political thought. Jean Jacques Rousseau is someone who could identify the general will of the people and write to reflect their interests. Today, in 21st century America. The general will of the people is not being heard, and that is one of our greatest problems. We cannot feed many of the people who live in our society, and many of our citizens have lost the ideals of community. How we act within our society is going to be what determines if our society can continue to be successful or not.  Right now our society is struggling with success because we are lacking fundamental values of community and pride. We let our lower class slip further and further into decline while our 1% (the highest earners & biggest spenders) continue to prosper. This is the problem that Rousseau would see with our society today: the stifling of the true general will of our population. Not all of us are receiving our basic human rights. This is the area where we have to focus our attention. We need to mend the gaps in today’s society.


Although we are close to what Rousseau describes as an ideal society, we are not there yet. The lack of structure and restrictions around our capitalist trickle-down economy would not be something that he would support. Rousseau believes a society governed by a king (a monarchy) is closer to fulfilling the general will of the sovereign than a society that is run by corrupted individuals distorted by society. Today, the men who are leading our corporations and are in charge of our nation’s wealth are those who have been corrupted. Rousseau would rather have us live in a monarchy than to be in the position we seem to be in today. To have a flourishing society, we cannot be split down the middle and we cannot have rulers corrupted by society.

What we are doing isn’t right. The gap in our society between socio-economic classes will eat our society away from the inside out. We can be free and live together in this world by understanding that we all come from and are part of the same nation. We are all fighting for the same goals and we are all members of the same society.  If we can all recognize what we have in common we will begin the journey down the road to freedom and improvement.

There is obviously no chance that 21st century America is going to be ruled by a king. However, there is a chance that our trickle down, unregulated, and capitalistic market places might one day stop breeding socially screwed up leaders. The one chance we have as a nation is to at least recognize what we are going through. If we can come together under one general will, one will influenced by data, structure, and community, we will have the means to move forward as a world. As long as we continue to stay separated and see our nation in two different ways, we will find ourselves against a wall. Finding our sense of community, and our one common will to succeed and be equal will bring us on the path toward true freedom.




1 “Jean Jacques Rousseau.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2012. <>.

2 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract [Unabridged] [Paperback].” Maestro Reprints, n.d. Web. 23 May 2012. <>. Page 9

3 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract [Unabridged] [Paperback].” Maestro Reprints, n.d. Web. 23 May 2012. <>. Page 97

4 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract [Unabridged] [Paperback].” Maestro Reprints, n.d. Web. 23 May 2012. <>. page 31

5 “ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques (1712-78).” ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques (1712-78). N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2012. <>.

One Comment

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