The Social Contract Book Summary - The Social Contract Book explained in key points
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The Social Contract summary

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

A cornerstone in modern political and social thought

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Brief summary

The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau is a political philosophy book that explores the origins of society and the foundations of political authority.
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    The Social Contract
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    States are only legitimate when citizens freely consent to live in them.

    Few books open with a more memorable line than The Social Contract.

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

    Just like that, Rousseau condemned the Europe of his day. The “chains” he refers to are the laws and conventions enforced on people by society, which restrict their freedom.

    Now, restrictions on human freedom might be justified if it means people receive some benefit from society in return. But, alas, as is too frequently the case, laws serve mainly just to reinforce the position of the rich and powerful at the expense of everybody else.

    So, from the point of view of the average person, living in society might seem like a pretty raw deal. This is the problem Rousseau had in mind when he undertook to write The Social Contract. What he wanted to know was: what exactly gives rulers the right to limit the freedom of their subjects? Or, in other words: when is living in society actually worth it for the people being ruled? 

    The key message here is: States are only legitimate when citizens freely consent to live in them.

    In his quest to determine what makes political authority legitimate, the first option Rousseau considers is that rulers are simply superior to their subjects by nature. As an analogy, he suggests the relationship between rulers and subjects might be akin to that between parents and children. Parents have legitimate power over their children because they’re more developed and capable. 

    Rousseau promptly rejects that rulers are analogous to parents, not just because there have been many hopelessly incapable leaders throughout history. No, he points out that political authorities don’t spring up out of nature spontaneously. They ascend to the top through overt acts of power.

    Thus, the second option Rousseau considers is whether rulers are legitimate because they’re the most powerful, and therefore most capable of subduing a population.

    Again, Rousseau rejects the idea that power alone can produce legitimacy. Instead, he argues that for a political body to be legitimate, citizens themselves recognize its value and submit to it willingly. But, if people obey rulers only because they’re forced to, they have no choice in the matter, and therefore don’t possess the freedom to submit willingly.

    Finally, then, Rousseau concludes that for a state to have legitimacy, the people must submit to it freely. Thus, we arrive at the idea of the social contract. A state is formed legitimately when a number of people band together and agree to cooperate for the sake of their mutual benefit.

    Under the social contract, people are willing to accept constraints on their freedom because, in return, they enjoy greater peace, security, and prosperity than they otherwise would alone.

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    What is The Social Contract about?

    The Social Contract (1762) is a seminal work of political and social theory, and is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s most important and influential text. In the book, Rousseau lays out the conditions required for the legitimate founding and governing of a nation state. Playing a role in both the French Revolution and the founding of the US Constitution, The Social Contract is a cornerstone of modern political thought and essential reading for anyone interested in political theory.

    The Social Contract Review

    The Social Contract (1762) delves into the foundations of political authority and its impact on society. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It offers a thought-provoking analysis of the relationship between individuals and governments.
    • The book's ideas have significantly influenced modern political thought and inspired democratic movements.
    • It encourages readers to reflect on the importance of social cohesion and collective decision-making.

    Enhance your understanding of political philosophy with The Social Contract.

    Who should read The Social Contract?

    • Students looking for an introduction to Rousseau
    • Politics buffs interested in the foundational texts of liberalism
    • Life-long learners who want to know all the classics of Western thought

    About the Author

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer living in 18th-century Europe. He made important contributions to multiple disciplines, including musicology and theory of education, but is most remembered today for his works of philosophy and political theory. His other notable works include Discourse on Inequality and On the Origin of Languages. In 1794, Rousseau’s body was interred in the Panthéon in Paris as a national hero. 

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    The Social Contract FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Social Contract?

    The Social Contract explores the origins of society and the principles that underlie political authority.

    How long does it take to read The Social Contract?

    Reading The Social Contract typically takes around 6 hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in about 15 minutes.

    Is The Social Contract a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Social Contract is a thought-provoking and influential book on political philosophy, making it a worthwhile read.

    Who is the author of The Social Contract?

    The author of The Social Contract is Jean Jacques Rousseau.

    How many chapters are in The Social Contract?

    The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau has four books, each divided into several chapters. The chapters are as follows:

    Book I:

    1. Subject of the First Book
    2. The First Societies
    3. The Right of the Strongest
    4. Slavery
    5. That We Must Always Go Back to a First Convention
    6. The Social Compact
    7. The Sovereign
    8. The Civil State
    9. Real Property

    Book II:
  • That Sovereignty is Inalienable
  • That Sovereignty is Indivisible
  • Whether the General Will is Fallible
  • The Limits of the Sovereign Power
  • The Right of Life and Death
  • Law
  • The Legislator
  • The People
  • The People (continued)
  • The People (continued)
  • The Various Systems of Legislation
  • The Division of the Laws

    Book III:
  • Government in General
  • The Constitutive Principle of the Various Forms of Government
  • The Division of Governments
  • Democracy
  • Aristocracy
  • Monarchy
  • Mixed Governments
  • That All Forms of Government Do Not Suit All Countries
  • The Marks of a Good Government
  • The Abuse of Government and Its Tendency to Degenerate
  • The Death of the Body Politic
  • How the Sovereign Authority Maintains Itself
  • The Same (continued)
  • The Same (continued)
  • Deputies or Representatives
  • That the Institution of Government is Not a Contract
  • The Institution of Government
  • How to Check the Usurpations of Government

    Book IV:
  • That the General Will is Indestructible
  • Voting
  • Elections
  • The Roman Comitia
  • The Tribunate
  • The Dictatorship
  • The Censorship
  • Civil Religion
  • Conclusion
  • How many pages are in The Social Contract?

    The Social Contract has approximately 180 pages.

    When was The Social Contract published?

    The Social Contract was published in 1762.

    What to read after The Social Contract?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Social Contract, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson
    • A Theory of Justice by John Rawls
    • The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
    • The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
    • Second Treatise of the Government by John Locke
    • The Republic by Plato
    • Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky
    • The Analects by Confucius
    • Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
    • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman