Chapter 1 & The Right of the Strongest

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Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

Chapter 1 & The Right of the Strongest

  1. Rousseau is giving us his view of government based on force and rights based on force. What does he think of such governments and such rights?

  1. Imbedded within that discussion of force and rights based on force, Rousseau gives us a couple glimpses of what he is seeking:

    • p. 225 “But the right of the social order is a sacred right which serves as a foundation for all others. This right however, does not come from nature. It is therefore based on conventions. The question is to know what these conventions are.”

- What do you think this means?

      • How does this compare with what Hobbes and Locke said about human rights? (Which one does Rousseau agree with?)

    • p. 226 “Let us agree, then, that might does not make right, and that we are bound to obey none but lawful authorities. Thus my original question ever recurs.”

      • This is what he is looking for. What is it?!

The Social Pact

  1. This should sound very familiar by now. Compare what Rousseau is saying here to what Hobbes and Locke said earlier.

  1. But Rousseau is looking for something different: “To find an association which may defend and protect the whole force of the community the person and property of every associate, and by means of which each, coalescing with all, may nevertheless obey only himself, and remain as free as before.” Such is the fundamental problem of which the social contract furnishes the solution.” (226) What do you think this means?

  1. Top of page 227: what does Rousseau mean by his distinction between natural liberty and conventional liberty? What do you think of this distinction? (Keep in mind, this is part of his solution to the problem stated in question #4.)

  1. Look carefully at the next four paragraphs. This is Rousseau’s scheme for solving the dilemma our political theorists have been struggling with. (What rights do we have once we enter into society? Keep Hobbes’ and Locke’s answers in mind.) Explain as clearly as you can how Rousseau’s scheme works.

The Sovereign

  1. Who is the sovereign in Rousseau’s social contract?

  1. Middle of 228: “Now, the sovereign, being formed only of the individuals that compose it, neither has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs; consequently the sovereign power needs no guarantee towards the subjects, because it is impossible that the body should wish to injure all its members; and we shall see hereafter that it can injure no one as in individual. The sovereign, for the simple reason that it is so, is always everything that it ought to be.”

      • How is this almost identical to Hobbes?

      • Yet what makes it different?

      • Rousseau thinks this difference is profound. Do you?

  1. What are the two roles (and the two duties) of every member of the social pact?

- How can each member of the body politic be both a member of the

Sovereign and a subject of the Sovereign?

  1. What does Rousseau demand in the way of obedience of subjects to the sovereign? This may look a lot like Hobbes again. Why would Rousseau insist that is totally different from Hobbes?

11. Rousseau writes, “the sovereign power . . . can injure no one as an individual.” Explain.

12. Why is it that the reverse can be true: that a subject can act in a way that injures the

sovereign power?

13. Bottom of 228: “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so

by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free”

(Does this mean that in order to be free, man must be in chains?!)

      • What does this mean?

      • How does the nature of Rousseau’s sovereign make this reasonable? (Do you find it reasonable?)

The Civil State

14. What do people lose when they join the civil state? What do they gain?

Whether the General Will Can Err

15. In the last paragraph on page 229/484 (“There is often a great deal . . .”), Rousseau

explains the difference between the will of all and the general will. Please explain this difference in your own words. How does this help to make sense of Rousseau’s assertion that the general will is always right?
16. What are partial associations and why are they dangerous?
The Limits of the Sovereign Power

17. What determines which powers, properties and liberties an individual gives up (and

which ones s/he retains) when joining the social compact?
18. Hobbes and Locke wrote about the equality that exists in the state of nature.

Rousseau writes about the equality that exists in the social compact. Why is that equality

essential to Rousseau’s “general will’? (See p. 231/486, first column, paragraph that

begins “By whatever path. . .” if you are having trouble.)

19. Rousseau doesn’t talk about dissolving the government or the social compact. Why


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