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Social Contract in Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Philosophy

Social Contract in Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Philosophy.


          Social contract like other philosophical concepts has attracted varied opinions and acute treatment from different philosophers down the ages. This long essay, attempts to inquire if social contract is made for man or man made for social contract, and to take a critical look at Jean Jacques Rousseau’s approach to the issue with the view of bringing its relevance in our society, especially now that Nigerian situation knows no value of contract devoid of the availabilities that enhance our social spirits in contract or agreement with one another.

          In addition to this, the views of some philosophers on the subject will be discussed in details. Therefore, his social contract theory is what we shall dwell on in this long essay, starting from the introduction, general meaning of social contract and thesis statement in chapter one as already seen. Then, the literature review in chapter two, and his social contract in chapter three. This will be logically followed finally by the relation of Rousseau’s social contract theory to Nigerian situation, and then, evaluation and conclusion in chapter four and five respectively.




“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chain. One thinks himself the master of others and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.”1

Jean Jacque Rousseau in the course of his political theory portrays humanity in the state of nature and humanity in the state of a civil society. He admits that he cannot give a specific account of how the transition from the earlier condition of state of nature to the subsequent membership in a political/civil society occurs, but he can show what makes this transition valid; thus, the above quote, which begins his social contract theory.

The theory of social contract is an indispensable one in social and political philosophy. Some social theories have advocated that society should be predicated on a sort of contract between the rulers and citizens. The theory attained the most sophisticated level in Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. These three figures brought the theory into the forefront of political philosophy. Before these, some philosophers like Plato, Thomas Aquinas and others had their views that a stable society emerges as a product of “contract” or “agreement” entered into by the members of the society. These theorists mentioned above posited their various theories on social contract, which we shall see in the subsequent chapters.

          It might interest one to know that you cannot talk of   Rousseau’s social contract without first making mention of his predecessors – Hobbes and Locke whose social contract theories influenced Rousseau a lot. Thus, Hobbes invites us to look upon political and social orders as fragile and imperiled.2

          However, Rousseauan social contract starts also with the state of nature as a rational being would come to realize the futility of the struggle in the state of nature as that of his predecessors, Hobbes and Locke. Hobbes argued that:

The social contract is set up because man as a rational being come to realize the futility of the struggle in the state of nature. This will necessarily force them to an agreement or in social contract in which each man would give up his natural right in the state of nature and each would “authorize and give up his right in governing,” to a man or assembly of men. But this is on the condition that every other person does that. 3

From the above assertion we can notice that state of nature for Hobbes is chaotic and anarchical one because of equality of men. John Locke on his side has it as:

A state of equality, where in all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of same facilities, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination, unless the lord and master of them all should by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.4

That is, a state of order where all men are equal and live in separate units and social contract comes in as the preservation of property.

          Finally, Rousseau believes that man in the state of nature is a natural and happy being. For him, in the state of nature man lived peacefully in his innocence, he was happy and had few needs. 5 The only good he recognizes in the universe are food, female and sleep and the only evil he hears are pain and hunger. For man is good by nature, it is the society that corrupts him.6 Evil originated with an organized society which itself originated with the possession of private property, which brought about the state of inequality among men or rather civil society. With this man’s natural liberty just lost, man though born free is everywhere in chains. What then is the remedy? For it is no longer possible to go back to the state of nature. And the problem is to find a form of human association in which the members are as free as before. Being convinced about its workability, Rousseau proposes a solution with his theory of social contract and strongly recommends it.

          The principal idea behind the social contract is that the state is the result of an agreement entered into by men who originally had no governmental organization. It is this idea of social contract that in the thoughts of Rousseau that we have set out to explore in this essay.


          Every body, it is said comprehends what a contract is. According to Oxford Advance Learner’s Dictionary, “Contract is an official legal agreement with a service or formal agreement to have a particular relationship.”7

          New Catholic Encyclopedia states that:

The contract is usually deduced from some conception of natural law, which serves as the basic reason and ultimate sanction for the agreement, although it has also been put forth on utilitarian grounds to explain political authority in purely conventional terms.8

And the word ‘Social’ concerns organizations of and relations between people and communities. It also means living in the group not separately; Man is a social animal.9

          Then, the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy has social contract as an agreement either between the people and their ruler or among the people in a community.10 The idea of a social contract has been used in arguments that differ in what they aim to explain. For example, the state’s conception of justice. What they take the problem of justification to be or purport to be a moral theory. The common wealth leaders have argued it as a justification for executing a king as it were in seventeenth-century England; it has been argued as a justification of limited government as it was by Locke. It has been argued as a justification for some kind of revolution as it was by Rousseau, and John Rawls argued a social contract case for treating blacks decently.11

         However, it can be used to argue anything, but the fundamental plausibility of social contract theorizing is sometimes given as the reason for its remarkable persistence. And social contract theory is typically used to elucidate why men should obey the state or the law. What could be more natural than to say that men are obliged to obey the state or the sovereign, because they promised to obey? In ordinary life, everyone knows that promises create obligations. (Why should I do that? Because I promised I would).


          The French philosopher, social and political theorist, musician, botanist and one of the most eloquent writers of the Age of Enlightenment, Jean Jacque Rousseau, was born in Calvinist Geneva Switz, on June 28, 1712. Following the death of his mother a few days after his birth, he was left at the care of an aunt and uncle who raised him. His father a watchmaker, taught him to read when he was about five, and left him (died) when he was only ten. His formal education came to an end at the age of twelve. He was apprenticed at the age of 13 to an engraver of watchcase, but after three years, he ran away for harsh treatment in 1728.

He left Geneva and wandered from place to place, meeting series of people who sporadically helped him make a meager living, or referred him to some other potential benefactors. He read books along the way and developed his skill in music. He appealed for charity to a catholic priest in Savoy, who recommended him to a wealthy and charitable woman, Madame Louise de Warens, who had a profound influence on Rousseau’s life and writings. Later, Rousseau became her secretary and companion. Aided by her, Rousseau went to Turin and presented himself to a hospice where he was provided with food and lodging for nine days while being instructed in the catholic faith.

Rousseau was a precocious child and learned to read at an early age, which helped him a lot. In his twenties, he read portions of the classic works of Plato, Virgil, Horace, Montaigne, Pascal and Voltaire, which in their varieties strongly influenced his imagination. In 1742, Rousseau went to Paris, where he earned his living as a music teacher, music copyist, and political secretary. He became a close friend of the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who commissioned him to write articles on music for the French Encyclopedia.

By 1743, he had settled in Paris. In 1746 he eventually formed a lifelong relationship with Therese le Vasseur, a plain and inexperienced young hotel girl servant, whom he finally married in 1768.

However, his literary career began with his prize-winning essay entitled “Discourse on the Arts and Science” in 1750. He published many works some of which include Le Devin du Village 1752, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 1755 (which appeared in the Encyclopedia), Discourse on Political Economy 1755 (`which appeared in the Encyclopedia), Julie Ou la Nouvelle Heloise 1761, Emile 1762, and The Social Contract 1762, et cetera. In the same year (1762), he published his famous work, “The Social Contract”, in which he sort to explain the passage from the “state of nature” to the civil state and answer why it is that laws governing people are legitimate. In 1767, he returned to Paris from his visit to England on Hume’s invitation.

His last days were unhappy as he was in failing health and suffered from profound paranoia. Moreover, his books were severely criticized by the leaders of both the church and the state. Following a threat that he would be apprehended and brought to the Concierge prison, in the Palace (for judgment), he became a fugitive. At Hume’s invitation, he went to England, where he spent sixteen months, but returned to France convinced that his enemies were planning to defame him. He passed on in the year 1778 at the age of sixty-six.


Title page:   .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .i

Certification:        .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .ii

Dedication:           .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .iii

Acknowledgment: .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .iv

Table of contents: .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .vii

A Profile of Jean Jacque Rousseau:  .         .         .         .         .ix



1.0     Introduction:        .         .         .         .         .         .         .1

1.1     General meaning of social contract:  .         .         .         .4





2.0     Literature Review:                   .         .         .         .         .         .8

2.1     Plato’s Conception of Social Contract:      .         .         .8

2.2     Thomas Aquinas’ View:         .         .         .         .         .         .10

2.3     Thomas Hobbes’ Conception. .         .         .         .         .12

2.4              John Locke on Social Contract:                  .         .         .        .16

2.5              Spinoza’s View on Social Contract :          .         .         .        .19



3.0              Rousseau’s View on Social Contract:        .         .        .         .25

3.1     Social Contract:   .         .         .         .         .         .         .25

3.2     Aim and Essence of Social Contract:          .         .         .         .28

3.3     Social Contract and Liberty:   .         .         .         .         .29

3.4     Social Contract and Civil Society:    .         .         .         .30

3.5     The Sovereign or Body Politic:         .         .         .         .         .31

3.6     General Will and Will of All:   .         .         .         .         .33

3.6.1  General Will and Liberty:        .         .         .         .         .36

3.6.2          General Will and Sovereignty: .         .         .         .         .37

3.7              The State and Just Law: .         .         .         .         .         .39

3.8              Rousseau and Government:    .         .         .         .         .42

3.9              Man in the State of Nature:     .         .         .         .         .45

3.9.1           State of Inequality:        .         .         .         .         .         .             .48

3.9.2           Causes of Inequality:     .         .         .         .         .         .49



4.0              Evaluation and Conclusion:    .         .         .         .     .  .51

4.1              Social contract in Nigeria Situation: .         .         .         .51

4.2              Evaluation:           .         .         .         .         .         .         .57

4.3              Conclusion:           .         .         .         .         .         .         .62

Bibliography:       .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .65


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1 J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract. Book 1, London: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1952, p.387.

2 J.S. McClelland, History of Western Political Thought. New York: Routledge Publishers, 2000, p.258.

3 D. Irele, Introduction to Political Philosophy. Ibadan: University Press, 1988, p.42.

4 J. Locke, Second Essay on Civil Government. D. Appleton-Century Company Inc., 1937, pp. 25-26.

5 F. Copleston, History of Modern Philosophy. New York: Image Books, 1994, pp. 83-84.

6 Ibid. p. 86

7 A.S. Hornby, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Fifth edition, p.251.

8 New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. xiii, Washington D.C., Catholic University Press, 1967, p.314.

9 Ibid., p.1127.

10 R. Audi, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd edition, U.S.A.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

11 J.S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000, p.172.


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