Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Cooperative Contracts


Your principal decides she’s going to hold a meeting to get student feedback on how to improve the school. She decides it will be at three o’clock on Wednesday. Unfortunately, at that time, the swim team is at a competition, the drama club is running lines, and the robotics team is already at their workshop. It turns out the only extracurricular that doesn’t have anything planned is the book club. Would you be surprised if on Thursday your principal announced that all English classes would be assigning more books to read?


Probably not. After all, the only group present at the meeting was avid book-lovers; of course, the improvements discussed are going to appeal to them. Those in power will perpetuate rules that benefit them. The ruling class will end up taking power away from other groups not represented, whether they initially intend to or not. For equal protection to exist in any community, rules need to be made by everyone who is a part of that community. Enlightenment thinker Rousseau made such a claim in one of his many papers.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. Many historians claim his influence marked the end of the Age of Reason. His critiques on the inequalities in any society’s laws developed into a call for reform in The Social Contract. Meanwhile, his novel Julie; or, The New Eloise became a best-seller and international hit for its ability to convey and inspire authentic emotions in readers.

The History

It’s worth noting that while Rousseau didn’t compose many works, he was highly influential in the music field. His opera The Village Soothsayer (Le Devin du village) earned him several admirers, including King Louis XV and his court. He helped Italian music gain popularity over the older French style. Rousseau insisted that the creative spirit was more important than strictly adhering to rules and traditions. His work and beliefs inspired later artists such as Beethoven. However, Rousseau purposely avoided working in theatre out of a firm conviction that he should devote himself to literature and philosophy.

His writings became foundational to current day political and social thoughts. Rousseau believed that people are good by nature. Civilization corrupts everyone in a society, but it isn’t an inherently evil institution. Rather, the push for further sophistication is to blame. Rousseau wrote a whole discourse on the subject, titled Discourse on Inequality (Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes), in which he explained how sophistication created an unequal and therefore unjust society. Since the ruling society makes the laws, the legislature ends up protecting the morally corrupt status quo.

It wasn’t until seven years after this discourse’s publication that Rousseau found a solution to this problem. In 1762, Rousseau released The Social Contract (Du Contrat social). The titular social contract required individuals to give up freedom to achieve liberty. Together these individuals formed a civil society bound by a single collective will or volonté générale. The general will could conflict with personal ones, but since it was carried by the entire population, the general will could not falter. All these ideas had been expressed before Rousseau wrote them down, but his work popularized them. 

A civil society existed to defend its people’s civil rights. An individual cannot adequately protect their natural rights; they are one person against many. Civil rights, however, depend on the collective’s ability to enforce them through law, not the individual. True law is made by everyone for everyone. Individuals are motivated to keep the law fair since it applies to them as well as their neighbors and everyone has a say in creating the law. Such motivations ensure that the law remains just and protects all members of society. Rousseau did insist that any society would need a distinct lawmaker rather than allowing the people to create their laws directly. 

While Rousseau’s essays directly influenced the political sphere, his fiction work hugely impacted literature. His novel Julie; or, the New Eloise ( Julie; ou, la nouvelle Héloïse) enjoyed immediate success upon its publication in 1761. Julie tells the story of a forbidden love between classes that could never work but could never be forgotten. Scholars have pointed out how the novel’s characters find joy in their domestic rather than public life and their families over their governments. It also expressed that while men should rule the public world, women should rule the private one. Julie freely expresses emotion, which caused readers to write to Rousseau in droves. His book profoundly influenced the Romanticism movement and subsequent literary developments. 

So What?

Rousseau lived a complicated life. While his fiction and musical works earned him praise, his political writings earned him scorn. He had to flee his homeland of Geneva and revoke citizenship. His works were burned, and several leaders from Geneva and Paris called for his arrest. Rousseau became a fugitive early on and was forced to wander for the rest of his life. His beliefs would later influence both the American and French Revolution.

Likewise, Rousseau is a complex enlightenment figure. He was an acclaimed composer but deliberately stayed away from his passion to devote himself to bettering society. While other enlightenment thinkers preached skepticism, the novel Julie contained individuals’ emotions and personal convictions as guides. Rousseau insisted religion served an essential role in society and need not conflict with governing. Humankind was inherently good but also the creators of its own evils.

We see this reflected today. As Rousseau insisted, laws should be just. Too often, they defend the status quo rather than people. If we want to live in a society that we can enjoy, we have to stick up for our fellow human beings.

Think Further

  1. What ideas of Rousseau’s do you see reflected in the French Revolution? The American Revolution?
  2. What concrete actions can you take to ensure local laws are just?
  3. Which of Rousseau’s works do you think is most influential and relevant today? Why? 


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Learn More

  1. Damrosch, Leo. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. First Mariner Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-618-87202-2.
  2. Douglass, Robin. “Free Will and the Problem of Evil: Reconciling Rousseau’s Divided Thought.” History of Political Thought, vol 31, no 4, pp 639-655, Winter 2010. 
  3. Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract & Discourses. Trans G. D. H. Cole, edit Ernest Rhys, London & Toronto, J. M. Dents & Sons, 1920.
  4. Siroky, David S. and Hans-Jörg Sigwart. “Principle and Prudence: Rousseau on Private Property and Inequality.” Polity, vol 46, no 3, pp 381-406, July 2014.
  5. Strong, Tracy B. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Politics of the Ordinary. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1994. ISBN: 0-7425-2142-7.