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On the Social Contract (1762)

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,594411,831 (3.6)39
'Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains' These are the famous opening words of a treatise that has not ceased to stir debate since its publication in 1762. Rejecting the view that anyone has a natural right to wield authority over others, Rousseau argues instead for a pact, or 'social contract', that should exist between all the citizens of a state and that should be the source of sovereign power. From this fundamental premise, he goes on to consider issues of liberty and law, freedom and justice, arriving at a view of society that has seemed to some a blueprint for totalitarianism, to others a declaration of democratic principles. Translated and Introduced by Maurice Cranston… (more)

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If you're building a new nation state there are better books for you to read - for example any history book. This is interesting analysis but based on nothing other than author's opinions and imaginings validated neither by science nor by observation. ( )
  Paul_S | Dec 23, 2020 |
Okuması zor bir kitap oldu bennim için. Kitabın en az yarısında anlatılanı kavrayamadım ama anladığım kısımlar benim için çok faydalı oldu. Kitapta bahsedilen konular üzerine kapsamlı bir araştırma yaptıktan sonra kitabı tekrar okumayı planlıyorum. ( )
  Tobizume | Jun 9, 2020 |
An update to the previous...

Rousseau probably has the most recognized opening line in political theory/philosophy.

"Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains."

The idea of the social contract is to move man from the state of nature (with unlimited freedom and limited security) to a society. The society is a compromise where a man gives up his unlimited freedom and receives security in exchange. Giving up freedom never sounds like a good idea, but Rousseau makes his point. In the state of nature, a man devotes much of his time protecting his stuff. If someone takes you stuff you are free to punish the offender (if you are capable). In society, you lose the right to punish offenders and forfeit that right to a legal system. There are rules that are enforced by law so one does not need to spend all his time guarding his stuff. There is an exchange of freedom -- a loss counteracted with a gain i.e. freedom to do something other than guarding your stuff.

Rosseau promotes the idea of a general will. Society, all its members, provide a voice for direction. It is all the voices that determine the general will. Although not always practical many societies result to representative legislatures, Although this limits the individual voices, it can work unless:

1) Factions are formed (political parties...especially when there are only two)
2) Members of the legislature coming under the influence of interests (rich, corporations, musket lobby)

Rousseau writes much in the way of a democratic society always doing the right thing by following the general will -- the majority view, which should be very large since every voice is heard as an individual. You are not limited only two opinions or parties. Society should move along very well and move along in the utmost of fairness and justice. Rousseau is often cited as the father of modern democracy.

Rousseau is also credited as the Father of modern totalitarianism. The general will idea plays well into the hands of tyrants. Look how many dictators get elected and reelected with 97% of the vote. General will all the way! Perhaps a bit more chilling is Rousseau comments on what happens if you disagree with the general will. Rousseau states rather simply that, everyone makes mistakes. It's OK. It happens. Society will simply force you to be free.

I totally made up the "musket lobby" but I imagine the reader gets the jest of it. ( )
1 vote evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract:
or Principles of Political Right

Wordsworth Classics, Paperback [1998].

12mo. xvi+139 pp. Translated by H. J. Tozer. Introduction by Derek Matravers [ix-xv]. Cover: Fontaine des Innocents (oil on canvas) by Beatrice Boissegur (1956–).

First published in French as Du contrat social, 1762.
This translation first published, 1895.
This edition first published, 1998.



Prefatory Note
Introductory Note

Book One
1. Subject of the First Book
2. Primitive Societies
3. The Right of the Strongest
4. Slavery
5. That it is Always Necessary to go Back to a First Convention
6. The Social Pact
7. The Sovereign
8. The Civil State
9. Real Property

Book Two
1. That Sovereignty is Inalienable
2. That Sovereignty in Indivisible
3. Whether the General Will Can Err
4. The Limits of the Sovereign Power
5. The Right of Life and Death
6. The Law
7. The Legislator
8. The People
9. The People (continued)
10. The People (continued)
11. The Different Systems of Legislation
12. Division of the Laws

Book Three
1. Government in General
2. The Principle which Constitutes the Different Forms of Government
3. Classification of Governments
4. Democracy
5. Aristocracy
6. Monarchy
7. Mixed Governments
8. That Every Form of Government is Not Fit for Every Country
9. The Marks of a Good Government
10. The Abuse of the Government and its Tendency to Degenerate
11. The Dissolution of the Body Politic
12. How the Sovereign Authority is Maintained
13. How the Sovereign Authority is Maintained (continued)
14. How the Sovereign Authority is Maintained (continued)
15. Deputies or Representatives
16. That the Institution of the Government is Not a Contract
17. The Institution of the Government
18. Means of Preventing Usurpations of the Government

Book Four
1. That the General Will is Indestructible
2. Voting
3. Elections
4. The Roman Comitia
5. The Tribuneship
6. The Dictatorship
7. The Censorship
8. Civil Religion
9. Conclusion


What a contrast with Confessions! Rousseau’s autobiography is long, verbose and rhetorical. The Social Contract is short, concise and virtually devoid of rhetoric. The famous first sentence is almost the only piece of rhetorical excess: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is chains.” Both books were notorious at the time of their first publication and, in many ways, remain so two and a half centuries later. That’s the only thing they share apart from the author’s name on the cover and his pointed wit on the pages.

As you can see from the table of contents above, which I have copied diligently for your as well as my benefit, Rousseau covers a lot of ground in this little book. He begins with characteristic frankness and sense of humour. He admits that the present book is part from a much larger work which proved to be beyond his powers, was abandoned and no longer exists. He replies hilariously to the obvious question he anticipates. Is he a politician or a legislator that he should write on the subject of governments? No, he is not. If he were, he wouldn’t write about what ought to be done. He would do it.

The slimness of the volume is surprising, and quite a bit misleading. The whole work takes only 139 pages in this edition. Some of them are mostly empty because each new chapter begins on a new page. So, this is a very short book. But don’t kid yourself it’s an easy read. Far from it! Rousseau’s admonition in the beginning of Book Three, Chapter 1 (III, 1), is valid for the whole work:

I warn the reader that this chapter must be read carefully, and that I do not know the art of making myself intelligible to those that will not be attentive.

Rousseau does try to make it easier for his readers. But he doesn’t always succeed. Though his prose is lucid and concise, his arguments are sometimes inconsistent and even contradictory. He seems aware of this, but characteristically blames everything but himself. At one place he blames the complexity of the subject (II, 5): “All my ideas are connected, but I could not expound them all at once.” At another place he laments the ambiguity of language (II, 4): “Attentive readers, do not, I beg you, hastily charge me with contradiction here. I could not avoid it in terms owing to the poverty of the language, but wait.” I did, but nothing happened.

Rousseau could easily have avoided the need for such lame excuses by revising carefully his old material. I don’t think he lacked the capacity, but I do suspect he lacked the industry. Apparently the only revision he carried out was to add a number of footnotes, mostly with quotes from Tacitus, Machiavelli and others, but hardly illuminating the main text. Had he taken more trouble with his text, Rousseau would have avoided passages like this which, I frankly confess, I don’t understand (II, 3):

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter regards only the common interest, while the former has regard to private interests, and is merely a sum of particular wills; but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses which cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.

This “general will” is much the most discussed concept on these pages. Derek Matravers calls it “Rousseau’s greatest contribution to political thought”. I don’t know about that. I would call the general will Rousseau’s god. He never defines it. But he worships it.

The general will, according to Rousseau, is inalienable (II, 1), indivisible (II, 2), indestructible (IV, 1) and infallible (II, 3). In one of the few really useful footnotes, he declares that it doesn’t have to be unanimous, “but it is necessary that all votes should be counted; any formal exclusion should destroy the generality” (II, 2). Rousseau presumably excludes children, but he mentions no other exceptions (e.g. women, uneducated, prisoners) and he does seem to identify his personal god with the opinion of the majority.

In view of this, we may grant that the general will is indeed inalienable, indivisible and perhaps indestructible so long as the people are around. But the perfect judgement is much more slippery. I should think it would depend a lot on the number and mental capacity of the people. Rousseau usually calls them “the body politic” or, most confusingly, “the sovereign”. He has few illusions about them. He knows they “always desire their own good, but do not always discern it”. He knows they are “never corrupted, though often deceived” (I, 3). This predictably leads him into the contradiction quoted above.

Most important of all, at least in theory, the general will cannot be applied to matters of particular interest. For then it ceases to be the unerring voice of the people and becomes the highly fallible voice of a clique: it doesn’t tend to the public good but to personal advantage. But how can we ever achieve that? How can we hope to succeed where even the ancient Greeks apparently failed (II, 4)?

When the people of Athens, for instance, elected or deposed their chiefs, decreed honours to one, imposed penalties on another, and by multitudes of particular decrees exercised indiscriminately all the functions of government, the people no longer had any general will properly so called; they no longer acted as a sovereign power, but as magistrates.

The difference Rousseau makes between acts of the general will and of mere magistracy, and by extension between genuine laws and mere decrees, strikes me as tenuous. It is seldom easy to distinguish between personal and general interest. When a judge and a jury sentence a murderer to death or at least to life imprisonment, they do so not so much because he has murdered, but rather that he should not murder again. This is useful for society. Since neither the judge nor anybody from the jury can be sure they won’t be the next victim otherwise, it is useful for them personally as well.

I am often at sea whether Rousseau, to quote Mr Matravers again, “is discussing principle or practicality”. The affair of the general will sounds hopelessly utopian. So does the social contract. Rousseau also calls it “compact” or “treaty”, but it’s always the same thing and, at least in theory, quite simple. The idea (I, 9) is to substitute “moral and lawful equality for the physical inequality which nature imposed upon men, so that, although unequal in strength or intellect, they all become equal by convention and legal right.” It would be difficult to put the matter with greater precision.

But is it possible to realise such social contract at all? Or is it merely a thought experiment for a few idle hours? Rousseau doesn’t sound too convinced in the practical value of his own ideas. He keeps hinting that man isn’t really good enough. The concept of the general will seems to indicate direct democracy. But Rousseau doesn’t think much of that (III, 4): “If there were a nation of gods, it would be governed democratically. So perfect a government is unsuited to men.” The nature of the legislator (II, 7), one of Rousseau’s finest moments, has a similar divine sting in the tail:

In order to discover the rules of association that are most suitable to nations, a superior intelligence would be necessary who could see all the passions of men without experiencing any of them; who would have no affinity with our nature and yet know it thoroughly; whose happiness would not depend on us, and who would nevertheless be quite willing to interest himself in ours; and, lastly, one who, storing up for himself with the progress of time a far-off glory in the future, could labour in one age and enjoy in another. Gods would be necessary to give laws to men.

This point should be obvious, yet a surprisingly large number of presumably educated people in presumably civilised countries miss it. Laws are made by men; like men, they are born, live, age and die; and when they are dead, they are best buried. Laws should be examined critically at regular periods of time and modified accordingly. The slavish attitude “This is the law!” leads nowhere worth going. Later (III, 11), Rousseau has some harsh things to say about the bondage of ancient laws.

It is hard to say what kind of government Rousseau thinks best for his imaginary state. He seems to incline to “elective aristocracy” (III, 5), but he is vague how this ruling minority would be elected and he is quite aware that it might be easily corrupted (i.e. come to represent personal and corporate wills far removed from the general one). And really, come to think of it, what is the difference between this “elective aristocracy” and the representative lunacy common nowadays that passes for “democracy”? So far as I can see, none whatsoever. Both are forms of government by representatives. This is something Rousseau later demolishes completely (III, 15):

So soon as the service of the state ceases to be the principal business of the citizens, and they prefer to render aid with their purses rather than their persons, the state is already on the brink of ruin. Is it necessary to march to battle, they pay troops and remain at home; is it necessary to go to the council, they elect deputies and remain at home. As a result of indolence and wealth, they at length have soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the time for direct democracy has come technologically, but not psychologically. I think Rousseau would have loved to live in our times. He would have been online all the time. But he was being naive, indeed, to think (III, 12-4) that direct democracy by assemblies, as it was in the city-states of the ancient Greeks or in the Roman Republic of which he is inordinately fond, would ever be possible again. Size does matter, and it is literally a big problem in this case. But a much bigger problem, as it was in ancient Greece and Rome as well, is that people assembled together form a crowd. This is a most peculiar entity. It is ruled by emotion and emotion alone. It knows nothing of reason. It has no general will whatsoever. It has merely the corporate will of the party, or even the personal will of the demagogue, currently in vogue.

Rousseau’s ideal state is a secular one. About this there is no doubt. He positively massacres Christianity. I am not going to pretend I didn’t enjoy his battleaxe. It is sharp and deadly (IV, 8):

But I am mistaken in speaking of a Christian republic; each of these two words excludes the other. Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is too favourable to tyranny for the latter not to profit by it always. True Christians are made to be slaves; they know it and are hardly aroused by it. This short life has too little value in their eyes.

Rousseau must be given some credit for intellectual honesty. He was a deist, but also a sensible and practical man (I, 6): “All justice comes from God, he alone is the source of it; but could we receive it direct from so lofty a source, we should need neither government nor laws.” Rousseau considers even “the true theism [...] the religion of man or Christianity, not that of today, but that of the Gospel, which is quite different” (IV, 8) to be at least useless, if not indeed harmful, to the ideal state he imagines. For this religion is socially dead. It is contrary to the social spirit. It detaches people from everything earthly. The passage I have just quoted refers to this type of highly fictional Gospel Christianity.

(In the same chapter on “Civil Religion”, Rousseau defines two further types of Christianity, both of them organised, dogmatic, militant and toxic. He chops both far more thoroughly than the “true theism”. But that’s another story!)

Sometimes, of course, Rousseau is not naive, utopian or confused at all, much less insightful or stimulating. Sometimes he writes nonsense pure and simple. When he believes that women are “more fecund” in the mountains than in the plains (II, 10) or claims that “liberty, not being a fruit of all climates, is not within the reach of all people” (III, 8), Rousseau raises superficiality to the level of stupidity. It is hard to believe any fairly intelligent and educated person, even in the 18th century, could buy that. Then again, Rousseau is the first to admit that the Climatological Theory of Liberty was formulated by Montesquieu – hardly uneducated or unintelligent man! They did have some strange ideas in the 18th century. If Rousseau could see much of Africa and south-east Asia today, he might have changed his opinion that increased population is the most reliable index of the flourishing society (III, 9).

The book is somewhat digressive and rather uneven. I don’t mind the digs at Machiavelli (III, 6), Grotius (II, 2) or Aristotle (I, 2). They are fun and even thought-provoking. But I could have done without the lengthy bit of Roman history (IV, 4) that is neither here nor there. The whole book about government (III) is disappointingly pedestrian. Government itself is defined in the same idealistic and totally unrealistic way like the legislator (III, 1): “an intermediate body established between the subjects and the sovereign for their mutual correspondence, charged with the execution of the laws and with the maintenance of liberty both civil and political.” I can’t quite imagine how this would work in practice. Rousseau never makes it clear, but I suspect his ideal government is made of gods.

It seems like a cruel thing to say that so short a book is too long, but it happens to be true. I would have been sorry to miss some of the most irrelevant bits, though. The one about Corsica is a gem (II, 10). To say that Rousseau is unwittingly prophetic would be a huge understatement: “I have some presentiment that this small island will one day astonish Europe.” Little did he know! I have no idea whether Corsica ever astonished Europe with some glorious feat of legislation, as Rousseau expected, but it certainly did with the birth of Napoleon seven years after The Social Contract was first published.

But, on the whole, I find Rousseau’s opinions more complex and less dogmatic than I expected, having been misled by his commentators. The death penalty (II, 5) is perhaps the best example. “Live and let live” is a principle Rousseau would have nothing to do with; rightly so, for it is not suitable to society. Rousseau rather says “judge and be judged by the same standard”; and here I concur completely, too. As he puts it very well: “it is in order not to be the victim of an assassin that a man consents to die if he becomes one.” And yet, vital though it is, the death penalty must be used with care. Rousseau’s conclusion might be surprising to some of his bloodthirsty detractors, but there it is:

Again, the frequency of capital punishments is always a sign of weakness or indolence in the government. There is no man so worthless that he cannot be made good for something. We have a right to kill, even for example’s sake, only those who cannot be preserved without danger.

On the other hand, pardons shouldn’t be too numerous either. “Frequent pardons proclaim that crimes will soon need them no longer, and everyone sees to what that leads.” Quite so!

I don’t really know how Rousseau came to be regarded as one of the patron saints of totalitarianism. You can make a case about that, it seems to me, only by very selective or very misguided reading of The Social Contract. But if you do, you will be in very good company. Even Bertrand Russell did it. This is how he finished his Rousseau chapter from History of Western Philosophy (1946):

The Social Contract became the Bible of most of the leaders in the French Revolution, but no doubt, as is the fate of Bibles, it was not carefully read and was still less understood by many of its disciples. It reintroduced the habit of metaphysical abstractions among the theorists of democracy, and by its doctrine of the general will it made possible the mystic identification of a leader with his people, which has no need of confirmation by so mundane an apparatus as the ballot-box. Much of its philosophy could be appropriated by Hegel in his defence of the Prussian autocracy. Its first fruits in practice were the reign of Robespierre; the dictatorships of Russia and Germany (especially the latter) are in part an outcome of Rousseau’s teaching. What further triumphs the future has to offer to his ghost I do not venture to predict.

The Russellian wit is always a welcome bonus, but what is one to make of the rest? Rousseau was unfortunately obscure about his pet concept. But that’s no license to make anything out of it. I am not surprised that a muddleheaded mystic like Hegel, as Russell tells us in a footnote, chose for special praise the passage about the difference between the general will and the will of all people I have quoted in the beginning. Russell himself quotes it, but then he offers merely a paraphrase: “[the general will] must represent the largest collective satisfaction of self-interest possible to the community.” Making Rousseau responsible, if only in part, for Hitler and Stalin is like making Wagner responsible for The Final Solution because he was a rabid anti-Semite, or indeed making Liszt a Nazi because Les Préludes was used in Nazi newsreels.

I do believe Rousseau’s general will is a chimera. But it’s not an ignoble ideal to pursue. To obtain “a clear declaration of the general will”, Rousseau maintains (I, 3), “every citizen should express only his own opinion”. People should be “adequately informed” and not subjected to the propaganda of factions which are merely particular wills. This is pretty much what our modern democracies try – and lamentably fail – to do. Rousseau does say that (I, 7) “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body”. But this is essentially the same thing as living, as we all do, in societies in which we are compelled to respect the laws. The great difference is that our laws, not having proceeded from the general will, are not necessarily good or right or wise or call them what you will.

So, in a way, we don’t know whether or not Rousseau is wrong because we cannot realise his ideal. Certainly, however, reducing The Social Contract merely to a handbook for dictators is way wide of the mark. The book is far richer and more ambiguous than that. Read it and see for yourself. Read it as slowly and carefully as you can. It is not an easy read, I repeat. It is closely and sometimes densely argued. But I guarantee you will not consider your time wasted after the last page. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Oct 1, 2019 |
"Conduzir sem violência, persuadir sem convencer" ( )
  adsicuidade | Sep 8, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rousseau, Jean-Jacquesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Burgelin, PierreIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cole, G. D. H.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roermund, G. vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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My purpose is to consider if, in political society, there can be any legitimate and sure principle of government, taking men as they are and laws as they might be.
Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.
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'Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains' These are the famous opening words of a treatise that has not ceased to stir debate since its publication in 1762. Rejecting the view that anyone has a natural right to wield authority over others, Rousseau argues instead for a pact, or 'social contract', that should exist between all the citizens of a state and that should be the source of sovereign power. From this fundamental premise, he goes on to consider issues of liberty and law, freedom and justice, arriving at a view of society that has seemed to some a blueprint for totalitarianism, to others a declaration of democratic principles. Translated and Introduced by Maurice Cranston

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Editions: 0140442014, 0141018887


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