Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social, “Avertissement”

Du contrat social


Ce petit traité est extrait d’un ouvrage plus étendu, entrepris autrefois sans avoir consulté mes forces, et abandonné depuis longtemps. Des divers morceaux qu’on pouvait tirer de ce qui était fait, celui-ci est le plus considérable, et m’a paru le moins indigne d’être offert au public. Le reste n’est déjà plus.

Of/From the Social Contract


This little tract is extracted from (d[e]) a more extended work, undertaken at another time without having consulted my strengths, and long since abandoned. From the (des) diverse pieces that one could draw from (de) what was done, this one here is the most considerable, and appeared to me the least unworthy of being offered to the public. The remainder is no longer.

1. The most reasonable translation of the title Du contrat social is Of/On the Social Contract, as it follows that familiar form in which the title announces the subject matter. Immediately following the title, Rousseau supplies a notice, in which we learn that the document we hold is incomplete. In this notice, the preposition de is used three times of the document, each of which is best translated as “from” rather than “of.” One could, therefore, read the title as announcing the fragmentary nature of the text, i.e. as From the Social Contract.

2. The title From the Social Contract in the first places indicates that the document that follows is a fragment of a larger, incomplete work. This fragment does not begin in media res, but does end with a remark on what remains to be discussed, but is not. The theme is “external relations,” including, in the last place, treaties (les traités). This same word is translated as “tract” in the “Notice.” Rousseau thus omits from his work a discussion such documents as his work (cf. IV.1.7, IV.2.1).

3. The French traité and contrat both derive from the Latin trahō (from the Greek τρέχω). But for Rousseau, their relation is more than linguistic. Rousseau reserves the word traité for external relations (cf. I.4.13, II.2.2). When he uses the phrase le traité social, it is always in the context of breaking (rompre) that traité (cf. III.10.1, III.18.6).

4. As an aside, the most interesting uses of traité occur in II.5.

5. To continue, forms of contrat are so ubiquitous as to be cumbersome to go through here. Rousseau’s first use, however, suffices to indicate its more general usage: “‘To find a form of association, which defends and protects with all the common force the person and the goods of each associate and through which each one, uniting himself to all, still obeys only himself and also remains (reste) free as before.’ Such is the fundamental problem, of which the social contract gives the solution” (I.6.4; cf. III.6).

6. To draw points three and five together, let us simply note that the prefix con– appears to denote a successful solution to this fundamental problem.

7. Of course, that the problem is fundamental suggests that no solution is forthcoming, and so indicates why Rousseau’s traité remains incomplete. No traité, Rousseau would be saying, rises to the level of a contrat. They are du contrat not in the sense of “of the contract,” but of “from the contract,” “the remainder [of which] is no longer” (le reste n’est déjà plus). Thus no traité successfully “defends and protects with all the common force the person and the goods of each associate,” but rather remains in a state of war with that person (cf. mes forces in the “Notice”). The title Du contrat social thus indicates Rousseau’s fundamental agreement with Plato’s teaching in Republic VII, where Socrates gives the famous allegory of the cave.