Jean Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract

PUBLISHED in 1726 at Amsterdam to escape French censorship, Rousseau's Social Contract is one of the most influential treatises on politics ever written. It is an endeavour to place all government on the consent, direct or implied, of the governed. Rousseau's ideal state is founded on man's universal desire for freedom, which can only be secured by a contract which each makes with all, and in which each surrenders his will to receive it back again as part of the whole. Logically, the Social Contract is full of gaping flaws, and as a political essay it is a tissue of fantastic arguments, based on unreal hypotheses, but it set men's made on fire, and was the literary inspiration of one of the most tremendous events in history--the French Revolution.


MY object is to discover whether in civil polity there is any legitimate and definite canon of government, taking men as they are and laws as they might be. In this inquiry I shall uniformly try to reconcile that which is permitted by right with that which is prescribed by interest so as to avoid the clash of justice with utility.

Man is born free, and yet is everywhere in fetters. He is governed, obliged to obey laws. What is it that legitimises this subjection to government? I think I can solve the problem.

It is not merely a matter of force; force is only the power of the strongest and must yield when a greater strength arises; there is here no question of right, but simply of might. But social order is a sacred right that serves as a base to all others. This right, however, does not come from nature; it is founded upon conventions.

The explanation of social order is not to be found in the family tie, since when a child grows up it escapes from tutelage; the parent's right to exercise authority is only temporary. Nor can government be based on servitude. An individual man may sell his liberty to another for sustenance; but a nation cannot sell its liberty--it does not receive sustenance from its ruler but, on the contrary, sustains him. The gift is a civil act which presupposes a public deliberation. Before, then, we examine the act by which a people chooses a king, it would be well to examine the act by which a people becomes a people.

Let it be assumed that the obstacles which prejudice the conservation of man in the state of nature have prevailed by their resistance over the forces which each individual is able to employ to keep himself in that state. The primitive condition can then no longer exist; mankind must change it or perish.

The problem with which men are confronted in these circumstances may be stated as follows: 'To find a form of association that defends and protects with all the common force the person and property of each partner, and by which each partner, uniting himself with all the rest, nevertheless obeys only himself, and remains as free as heretofore.' To this problem the social contract affords a solution.

The essence of the pact is the total and unreserved alienation by each partner of all his rights to the community as a whole. No individual can retain any rights that are not possessed equally by all other individuals without the compact being thereby violated. Again, each partner, by yielding his rights to the community, yields them to no individual, and thus in his relations with individuals he regains all the rights he has sacrificed.

The compact, therefore, may be reduced to the following terms: 'Each of us places in common his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will, and we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.'

By this act is created a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the society has voices, receiving from this same act its unity, its common 'I,' its life and its will. This body is the republic, called by its members the state when passive, the sovereign when active. The partners are collectively called the people; they are citizens, as particpants in the sovereign authority, and subjects, as under obligations to the laws of the state.

BY passing through the compact, from the state of nature to the civil state man substitutes justice for instinct in his conduct and gives to his actions a morality of which they were formerly devoid. What man loses by the contract is his natural liberty and an illimitable right to all that tempts him and that he can obtain; what he gains is civil liberty and a right of secure property in all that he possesses.

I shall conclude this chapter with a remark which should serve as a basis for the whole social system. It is that in place of destroying natural liberty, the fundamental pact substitutes a moral and legitimate equality for the natural physical inequality between men, and that, while men may be unequal in strength and talent, they are all made equal by convention and right.


THE first and most important consequence of the principles above established is that only the general will can direct the forces of the state towards the aim of its institution, which is the common good; for if the antagonism of particular interests has rendered necessary the establishment of political societies, it is the accord of these interests that has rendered such societies possible.

I maintain, then, that sovereignty, being the exercise of the general will, cannot be alienated and that the sovereign, which is simply a collective being, cannot be represented save by itself; it may transfer its power, but not its will.

For the same reason that sovereignty is inalienable it is indivisible. For the will is either general, or it is not. If it is general, it is, when declared, an act of the people and becomes law; if it is not general, it is, when declared, merely an act of a particular person or persons, not of the sovereign.

A law is an expression of the general will and must be general in its terms and import. The sovereign cannot legislate for part of the individuals composing a state, for it it did so the general will would enter into a particular relation with particular people, and that is contrary to its nature. The law may thus confer privileges, but must not name the persons to whom the privileges are to belong; it may establish a royal government, but must not nominate a king. Any function relating to an individual object does not appertain to the legislative power.

As a popular assembly is not always enlightened in its judgements--though the general will, when properly ascertained, must be right--the service of a wise legislator is necessary to draw up laws for the sovereign's approval.

The legislator, if he be truly wise, will not begin by writing down laws that are good in the abstract, but will first look about to see whether the people for whom he intends them is capable of upholding them. He must bear in mind many considerations--the situation of the country, the nature of the soil, the density of the population, the national history, occupations and aptitudes.

Among these considerations one of the most important is the area of the state. As nature has given limits to the stature of a normal man, beyond which she makes only giants or dwarfs, there are also limits beyond which a state is, in the one direction, too large to be well governed, and, in the other, too small to maintain itself. There is in every body politic a maximum of force which cannot be exceeded, and from which the state often falls away by the process of enlarging itself. The further the social bond is extended, the slacker it becomes; and, in general, a small state is proportionately stronger than a large one.

It is true that a state must have a certain breadth of base for the sake of solidity and in order to resist violent shocks from without. But, on the other hand, administration becomes more troublesome with distance. It increases in burdensomeness, moreover, with the multiplication of degrees. Each town, district and province has its administration, for which the people must pay. Finally, overwhelming every-thing, is the remote central administration.

Again, the government in a large state has less vigour and swiftness than in a small one; the people have less affection for their chiefs, for their country and for each other--since they are, for the most part, strangers to each other. Uniform laws are not suitable for diverse provinces; yet diverse laws among people belonging to the same state breed weakness and confusion.

The greatest good of all, which should be the aim of every system of legislation, may on investigation be reduced to two main objects--liberty and equality: liberty, because all dependence of individuals on other individuals is so much force taken away from the body of the state; equality, because without it liberty cannot exist.

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