What point was Rousseau trying to make in "The Social Contract"? I know that it has to do with a contract between the people. I have read The Social Contract. It is very hard for me to understand. I have tried to research on the Internet using both scholarly sources and things such as Wikipedia and so forth. But I'm still not understanding. I have found that it may be an unwritten contract between the people and the government stating that the people will decide/vote on the laws that are fit for their society.

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    I did read it. What I'm getting from it is that it is An unwritten contract between the people and the government that Basically It is the people who vote/decide on laws. I'm not sure if what I was getting out of it is correct Which is why I asked the question. This is my 1st time using this site. – Jessica Tryon Feb 11 '18 at 19:23
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    I have done that. I have read the social contract. I have it printed out and have read it numerous times. It is very hard for me to understand. I have tried to research on the Internet using both scholarly sources and things such as wikapedia and so forth. But I'm still not understanding. If I understood I wouldn't have asked the question..... so now I'm feeling very stupid. Because I feel as though at this point your saying that I should have gotten my answer through these sources..... however I still don't get it. I was just asking for a little help to get someone else's opinion. – Jessica Tryon Feb 11 '18 at 19:29
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    I fixed my original post..... Is this how you do it???? Like I said this is my first time 😔 – Jessica Tryon Feb 11 '18 at 19:32
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    My sincere apologies for the implied insult - not at all my intent. We get a lot of questions from people who don't do the research that you did. I struggle with a polite way to tell the difference between the people who did the research (you), and the people who asked the question without consulting google or Wikipedia. Apparently I fell short of the goal this time. I'm going to edit your question to include some of the information you provided in comments just to keep the conversation on topic – MCW Feb 12 '18 at 13:33
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    In my experience, truly stupid people never feel stupid. – T.E.D. Feb 12 '18 at 14:41

From your comments, "What I was getting out of the social contract was that the government is ruled by the will of the governed/people. Even in an empire, because if you're not governing well you will get overthrown" is, in the broadest sense, a correct interpretation of Rousseau's Social Contract (1762).

The trick here is to ask, what exactly do we mean when we say, "governing well"? Should governments grant the wish of every individual citizen? Is this even feasible?

If not every individual's personal wish, perhaps the government should at least follow the will of the majority? Which leads to, what if the majority of the populace wants to eradicate a certain ethnic group or maybe people with specific disability, should the government actually do this?

These are ethical and moral considerations, which, fortunately (for me at the very least), we should not get into with this answer because these are questions of political philosophy.

Historical Explanation

Instead, I will adopt a historical approach and try to answer your stated question, "What point was Rousseau trying to make in "The Social Contract (1762)"? in your original post.

The simplest approach is to view The Social Contract (1762) chronologically because Rousseau wrote two earlier essays (also known as First Discourse in 1750 and Second Discourse in 1754, see below).

His first and second Discourse was somewhat anthropological because he argued, in the First Discourse, individuals were living blissful lives in isolation and they 'progressed' to a community/society that was corrupted by jealousy (especially by the introduction of private property), in the Second Discourse.

Chronology of Rousseau's philosophical work (not exhaustive):

  1. First Discourse - Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750)
  2. Second Discourse - Discourse on Inequality (1754) (or even longer name "Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men")
  3. The Social Contract (1762) - is a continuation, 8 years later, of his Second Discourse because it was meant to explain how societies should live together (see below).

The Second Discourse was an essay entry to answer the question: "What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law?" by Academy of Dijon (founded in 1725 and still exists today). This 1754 essay focused mainly on natural vs artificial inequalities, i.e. an explanation of why it existed (descriptive).

To put it another way, The Social Contract (1762) tried to explain how we/people in a community SHOULD live together (i.e. a normative argument) and it is a continuation of his Second Discourse because in this 1754 essay, he explained (descriptively), what was wrong with modern society (his time).

By the way, to read and understand works of philosophy, one of the most basic distinction is an argument/idea that is normative, as opposed to descriptive. If this distinction is unclear, have a look at this: Descriptive versus Normative Claims.

So, in sum, The Social Contract (1762) was Rousseau's attempt to explain how societies SHOULD live together (normative) after his detailed essays of what has happened to societies as they 'progressed' from a simple community to a a more complex society (First and Second Discourse, which were descriptive arguments).

Political Philosphy

Getting back to your understanding, from a perspective of political philosophy, I would recommend that your reading at least cover the concept of Social Contract Theory because the context of this work (The Social Contract, 1762) should be understood as a continuation of arguments/discussions between philosophers or prevailing philosophy of the period.

In my opinion, Wikipedia's entry does not do a good job of explaining this. A better one is The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) on the Social Contract Theory, with particular focus on the section of Modern Social Contract Theory (i.e. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau). In particular, note Rousseau's opinion of human nature viz that of Hobbes (State of Nature).

Finally, to help finalise your reading on meaning of social contracts but with expectation you have prior reading (especially the IEP), Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) might be helpful here if you read Contractarianism.

  • +1 Wish I could +2! I'll have to study your answer myself, it's a long time since I read your Rousseau! – TheHonRose Feb 17 '18 at 13:15

I'm sorry you feel that you've been made to feel stupid - I don't think anyone meant that. Its a very long time since I read it, and I might get shot by the moderators for an ahistorical answer, but I'll try to help.

You suggest it is an unwritten contract between "the people " and "the government ", and I think that's where your confusion arises. Because Rousseau posits a state of nature where there is no "government" and everyone acts as they see fit. This would be anarchy and the weak would suffer.

Let's use an example - a ship full of passengers is wrecked on an island: there is food and water - what do they do?

  • each fend for themselves;
  • the strong dominate the weak;
  • leave all decisions to the captain, as the "authority figure".

Or they can come together, make rules as to how they are to survive as a group, which, whilst limiting each individual's freedom will free the community from domination. This Contract may include choosing some people as leaders - the Government - but the Government owes its validity to the community, not because it's richer, stronger, high-born etc. Each individual sacrifices some autonomy, for the good of, and strength in, the community.

This is a very crude example, and others better versed in political science will probably be tearing their hair out (sorry!). But I just hope it might offer you a "way in" to the text. Hope it helps a bit.

  • Anarchy or anomia? Please indicate whether this is meant as Rousseau's direct terminology, interpretation of his writings or alluding to current theory definitions resp. current colloquial usages. – LаngLаngС Feb 12 '18 at 21:43
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    @LangLangC Neither! As I thought I made clear, my "answer" was a very broad-brush attempt to clarify the OP's question, emphatically not a critique of Rousseau, which I am utterly unqualified to attempt, even if it were appropriate to the SE format. With respect, I don't think (fairly abstruse) quibbles about terminology particularly helpful in this instance. – TheHonRose Feb 12 '18 at 22:44

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