Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Political Philosophy

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

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland. He fled from Geneva at the age of 16, and he had no fixed place and job for the remaining 16 years. He moved to France in 1744. In 1750, he wrote his first philosophic work for an essay competition. The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences was the first discourse of Rousseau. This prize winning essay brought Rousseau to fame. He published his second essay The discourse on the origin of Inequality (Second Discourse) in 1755. He is known as a “Thinker of Paradoxes”. His ideas inspired French Revolution. He was a critique of enlightenment. His philosophy is totally different from the ideas of Hobbes and Locke. Rousseau gave the concept of popular sovereignty. He was against representative democracy, and he was the supporter of direct democracy. He was an inspiration for Liberals as well as socialist, democrats and totalitarians.

Rousseau discusses the state of nature and the evolution of society in “the Second Discourse”. In addition, he talks about general will and popular sovereignty in his work “the Social Contract”.

Rousseau’s State of Nature

Rousseau’s state of nature is different from the state of nature of Hobbes and Locke. According to Jean Jacques Rousseau, there is neither government nor society in the state of nature. There is neither conflict nor cooperation in the state of nature. In addition, there is neither virtue nor vice. Similarly, there is neither scarcity nor plenty. Further, there is neither happiness nor unhappiness in the state of nature according to Rousseau. Moreover, for Rousseau, the state of nature is a morally neutral and peaceful condition in which solitary individuals act according to their basic urges as well as their natural desire for self-preservation. Rousseau believes that man, by nature, is good. He believed that people in the state of nature were corrupted by the unnaturalness of civilization. Human nature is good, but when people come together, they corrupt themselves. People in the state of nature are in a state of bliss. They are isolated, timid, peaceful and mute. In addition, they have no worry for future. Rousseau presents a positive image of state of nature.

According to Rousseau, man in the state of nature have two qualifications which separates him from animals. These two qualifications are freedom and pity or compassion. Freedom is the ability to decide for oneself, and pity or compassion is the ability to feel pain for the near ones. According to Jean Jacques Rousseau, when men became civilized, these qualities get corrupted. Arrival of private property marks the beginning of society. Rousseau is of the view that private property has resulted in the shift from state of nature to society. “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.”

Desire for private property has caused inequality and dependence. According to Rousseau, people desire for private property by self-love and not by material needs. They desire to be respected and recognised by others, and they desire to have more than others.

From State of Nature to State of War

Property is the root cause of all evils. It has caused inequality, and it has caused dependence. Natural feeling of compassion is replaced by envy and competition, and this in turn, results in the state of war. In order to end the state Of War, society and people need social a contract.

First Social Contract: an Illigitimate Contract

the state of war and disorder damaged the interests of those people who had property. So, rich and property awning class convince everyone else to form a government. In order to protect their life, people agree for a social contract. Poor people agree for a social contract in order to protect and preserve their life, but this contract is made by the rich and powerful for their own interest. Problem of inequality and dependence remains intact.

Rousseau’s Second Social Contract

Rousseau states that in the state of nature, there was freedom and equality. However, the present condition is of dependence and inequality. We cannot go back to the state of nature, but even while staying in society we can be as free as we were in the state of nature. This is only possible by having this social contract.

Aim of Social Contract

The basic aim of social contract is the protection of life and property of each member. By forming the social contract, each person obeys only himself and one remains as free as they were before.

General Will

General will is the collective interest of all the individuals living in a society. It is what is good and best for the society as a whole. An individual has three types of will- General will, Corporate will, and Private will.

Rousseau says that private and corporate will must coincide with the general will. Rousseau argues that freedom and authority are not contradictory, because legitimate laws are founded on the general will of the citizens. manifestation of the general will in a healthy state comes in the form of law. To Rousseau, laws should always record what the people collectively desire and should always be universally applicable to all the members of the state. It should exist to ensure that people’s individual freedom is upheld.

Social Contract and General Will

Through the social contract, general will of the community is decided. The general will is not an individual. It is not a third party, and it is not an agency. People decide to obey the general will. They give up their rights and freedom to the community as a whole. Following general will is like following oneself, so people are as free as before.

Rousseau’s Concept of Government

Rousseau makes his ‘general will’ the sovereign. Laws are made by the people together on the basis of general will, and then government is appointed as an agency to enforce those laws. According to Rousseau, government has only executive and judicial functions. Government is an agency appointed to enforce the general will. Government cannot make laws. in such a society people follow the laws made by themselves. So, they obey no one but themselves. Hence, they are free and equal.


In short, Rousseau was a supporter of direct democracy. He is known for his social contract. He died on July 3, 1778.