Summary of Book 1 of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract

In Book I of the In the Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau starts by defining his project. It is a question of finding a rule of administration which is legitimate and sure.

Preventing the critics who would question the legitimacy of his approach, Jean-Jacques Rousseau correction that it is as a citizen that he has the right to be interested in Politics.

Summary Chapter I – Subject of this first Book, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is astonished:

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in irons.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I,

It is this paradoxical observation which pushes Jean-Jacques Rousseau to explain how man, whereas he was born free and without hindrance, could chain himself during his life, in a systematic way.

Summary Chapter II – Of the first Societies, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau sees in the family “the oldest of all societies and the only natural one”. This chapter is notably the occasion for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as he will do it several times thereafter, to criticize the theses of the authors who precede him, like Grotius, Hobbes, or Aristotle.

Abstract Chapter III – On the right of the strongest, on the Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The strongest is never strong enough always to be the master, if he does not transform his strength into right and obedience into duty.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I,

To subsist, force must be converted into right, and obedience into duty. Jean-Jacques Rousseau tries to understand in this chapter what is meant by the expression “right of the strongest”. His conclusion is that one is obliged to obey only the legitimate powers.

→ The best legislation in the world? The French motto! – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Summary Chapter IV – On slavery, From the Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

From a double observation:

  1. No man has natural authority over another
  2. Force produces no rights

Jean-Jacques Rousseau draws the principle that only convention can constitute a legitimate authority.

No one alienates himself, makes himself a slave, voluntarily, that would be against common sense. Or else only the insane do it, but in this case they are not slaves in the law, because “madness does not make law”.

→ Criticisms and Defects of Democracy

Summary Chapter V – That we must always go back to a first convention, Du Contrat social, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Before knowing how kings are instituted, it is necessary to understand “The act by which a people is a people”. It is in this case by the convention.

Summary Chapter VI – On the Social Pact, On the Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This is the key chapter of the Social Contract. Jean-Jacques Rousseau really explains here how the social pact is formed, and what it is. The problem to be solved is the following, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s words:

To find a form of association which defends and protects with all the common force the person and property of each associate, and by which each one uniting with all yet obeys only himself and remains as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem for which the social contract provides the solution.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Book I,

The solution is thus found in the social contract, which requires the cooperation of many. It is “the total alienation of each associate with all his rights to the whole community”.

→ There never has been and there never will be democracy! – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

For all that, it is not only an act of submission, each associate comes out a winner:

Finally, each one giving himself to all gives himself to no one, and as there is no associate on whom one does not acquire the same right as one gives him on oneself, one gains the equivalent of all that one loses, and more strength to keep what one has.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I,

what was once called the City now becomes the Republic, or body politic.

This body politic is designated in three different ways, depending on whether it is

  • passive: State
  • active: Sovereign
  • comparable to his fellow men: Power

Summary Chapter VII – On the Sovereign, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The sovereign, therefore the political body insofar as it is active, cannot violate the act of the contract that instituted it.

Moreover, to attack a part of the political body is to attack the political body as a whole, and vice versa.

Finally, when personal interests diverge from the common interest, then one has the right to force the one who opposes it: “which means nothing else but that one will force him to be free”.

Summary Chapter VIII – On the Civil State, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state entails several changes:

  • Instinct is replaced by justice
  • Actions devoid of morality now have morality.
  • Man listens to his reason rather than his inclinations.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau speaks of that “happy moment” that “from a stupid and narrow-minded animal, made an intelligent being and a man”.

Two types of freedom are then distinguished:

  1. Natural liberty, which has for limits only the forces of the individual.
  2. The civil freedom, which has for limits the general will.

It is also necessary to establish another distinction between possession, made by force, and property, which is legitimate and regulated by law.

Summary Chapter IX – On the Real Estate, The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In the case of a new piece of land, there is a right of the first occupant, which generally meets three conditions:

  1. The land is not inhabited by anyone.
  2. He who claims it takes only the quantity that is necessary for him.
  3. It must be taken possession of by work and culture, which are signs of property

Jean-Jacques Rousseau concludes Book I of the Social Contract by emphasizing that the natural equality of men has not been destroyed; but it has been replaced by another equality, which is a moral and legitimate equality.

While nature could give rise to inequalities “in force or in genius”, the social contract establishes equality by “convention and by right”.

More articles on Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

  1. 3 kinds of education, purpose and origins – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  2. The Family, the oldest of societies – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  3. A state of nature in Jean-Jacques Rousseau?
  4. The most useful and important rule for raising a child – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

General Knowledge: Democracy

7 thoughts on “Summary of Book 1 of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract

  1. Is an interesting job. Would you summarize the following books? THANKS.

  2. Hello, I heard that it is very important to know the theories developed in The Social Contract. luckily, Book I is on the site. Would you summarize the following books? THANKS.

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