In book I chapter 4 of Rousseau's social contract. While discussing the topic of right to conquest I didn't quite understand what Rousseau meant by saying that individuals are in constant state of war and that slavery is associated with rights and can not be legitimatize. I would hope for some explanation regarding this topic.


Rousseau does not hold, presuppose or imply that 'individuals are in a constant state of war' in SC I.4 or elsewhere. In I.4 section 9 he goes out of his way to deny that war can take place between individuals: 'War is then not a relationship between one man and another, but a relationship between one State and another' (Rousseau, The Social Contract, tr. V. Gourevitch, Cambridge: CUP, 2012: 46). So individuals, as distinct from states, cannot be in a state of war - let alone a constant state of war.

The entire chapter is a systematic survey of the conditions which might be supposed to justify slavery but which in fact can never do so. Slavery is never a justifiable condition. Even in a just war, with the right of conquest, the victor has no right to enslave: 'If war does not give the victor the right to massacre vanquished people, then this right which he does not have cannot be the foundation of the right to enslave them' (Gourevitch: 47).

Short of war, an individual who supposedly gives himself up voluntarily to slavery does something which is 'absurd and inconceivable' - any such renunciation of his freedom is 'illegitimate and null'. An individual who did this 'is not in his right mind' and even if he were in his right mind he would per impossibile cease to be a human agent: 'To renounce one's freedom is to renounce one's quality as a man, the rights of humanity, and even ts duties. There can be no possible compensation for someone who renounces everything. Such renunciation is incompatible with the nature of man' (sections 4 -6).

Hope this clarifies a chapter which is, unusually for Rousseau, rather convolutedly presented.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.