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

The Social Contract summary

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

A cornerstone in modern political and social thought

Listen to the first key idea

Key idea 1 of 6
4.5 (262 ratings)
21 mins
6 key ideas
Audio & text

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.

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. 

Table of Contents
    Key idea 1 of 6

    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.

    Want to see all full key ideas from The Social Contract?

    Key ideas in The Social Contract

    More knowledge in less time
    Read or listen
    Read or listen
    Get the key ideas from nonfiction bestsellers in minutes, not hours.
    Find your next read
    Find your next read
    Get book lists curated by experts and personalized recommendations.
    Shortcasts New
    We’ve teamed up with podcast creators to bring you key insights from podcasts.

    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

    Categories with The Social Contract

    What our members say

    Sven O.

    It's highly addictive to get core insights on personally relevant topics without repetition or triviality. Added to that the apps ability to suggest kindred interests opens up a foundation of knowledge.

    Thi Viet Quynh N.

    Great app. Good selection of book summaries you can read or listen to while commuting. Instead of scrolling through your social media news feed, this is a much better way to spend your spare time in my opinion.

    Jonathan A.

    Life changing. The concept of being able to grasp a book's main point in such a short time truly opens multiple opportunities to grow every area of your life at a faster rate.

    Renee D.

    Great app. Addicting. Perfect for wait times, morning coffee, evening before bed. Extremely well written, thorough, easy to use.

    Start growing with Blinkist now
    25 Million
    Downloads on all platforms
    4.7 Stars
    Average ratings on iOS and Google Play
    Of Blinkist members create a better reading habit*
    *Based on survey data from Blinkist customers
    Powerful ideas from top nonfiction

    Try Blinkist to get the key ideas from 5,500+ bestselling nonfiction titles and podcasts. Listen or read in just 15 minutes.

    Start your free trial