Until Rousseau’s time, the sovereign in any given state was regarded as the central authority in that society, responsible for enacting and enforcing all laws. Most often, the sovereign took the form of an authoritative monarch who possessed absolute dominion over his or her subjects. In Rousseau’s work, however, sovereignty takes on a different meaning, as sovereignty is said to reside in all the people of the society as a collective. The people, as a sovereign entity, express their sovereignty through their general will and must never have their sovereignty abrogated by anyone or anything outside their collective self. In this regard, sovereignty is not identified with the government but is instead opposed against it. The government’s function is thus only to enforce and respect the sovereign will of the people and in no way seek to repress or dominate the general will.
Rousseau's argument was controversial, and drew a great number of responses. One from critic Jules Lemaître calling the instant deification of Rousseau as 'one of the strongest proofs of human stupidity.' Rousseau himself answered five of his critics in the two years or so after he won the prize. Among these five answers were replies to Stanisław Leszczyński , King of Poland, M. l'Abbe Raynal , and the "Last Reply" to M. Charles Bordes. These responses provide clarification for Rousseau's argument in the Discourse, and begin to develop a theme he further advances in the Discourse on Inequality – that misuse of the arts and sciences is one case of a larger theme, that man, by nature good, is corrupted by civilization. Inequality, luxury, and the political life are identified as especially harmful.
Rousseau reached Paris in 1742 and soon met Denis Diderot, another provincial man seeking literary fame. They formed the core of the intellectual group, the 'Philosophes'. Eschewing an easy life as a popular composer, in 1750 he published his first important work 'A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts' (1750). Its central theme was that man had become corrupted by society and civilisation. In 1755, he published 'Discourse on the Origin of Inequality'. He claimed that original man, while solitary, was happy, good and free. The vices dated from the formation of societies, which brought comparisons and, with that, pride. 'The Social Contract' of 1762 suggested how man might recover his freedom in the future. It argued that a state based on a genuine social contract would give men real freedom in exchange for their obedience to a self-imposed law. Rousseau described his civil society as united by a general will, furthering the common interest while occasionally clashing with personal interest.