Modern History Sourcebook:
Jean Jacques Rousseau:
The Social Contract, 1763
Jean-Jacques Rousseau stresses, like John Lockem the idea of
a social contract as the basis of society. Locke's version emphasised
a contact between the governors and the governed: Rousseau's was
in a way much more profound - the social contract was between
all members of society, and essentially replaced "natural"
rights as the basis for human claims.
Origin and Terms of the Social Contract
Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains. This man believes
that he is the master of others, and still he is more of a slave
than they are. How did that transformation take place? I don't
know. How may the restraints on man become legitimate? I do believe
I can answer that question....
At a point in the state of nature when the obstacles to human
preservation have become greater than each individual with his
own strength can cope with . . ., an adequate combination of forces
must be the result of men coming together. Still, each man's power
and freedom are his main means of selfpreservation. How
is he to put them under the control of others without damaging
himself . . . ?
This question might be rephrased: "How is a method of associating
to be found which will defend and protect-using the power of all-the
person and property of each member and still enable each member
of the group to obey only himself and to remain as free as before?"
This is the fundamental problem; the social contract offers a
solution to it.
The very scope of the action dictates the terms of this contract
and renders the least modification of them inadmissible, something
making them null and void. Thus, although perhaps they have never
been stated in so man) words, they are the same everywhere and
tacitly conceded and recognized everywhere. And so it follows
that each individual immediately recovers hi primitive rights
and natural liberties whenever any violation of the social contract
occurs and thereby loses the contractual freedom for which he
The social contract's terms, when they are well understood, can
be reduced to a single stipulation: the individual member alienates
himself totally to the whole community together with all his rights.
This is first because conditions will be the same for everyone
when each individual gives himself totally, and secondly, because
no one will be tempted to make that condition of shared equality
worse for other men....
Once this multitude is united this way into a body, an offense
against one of its members is an offense against the body politic.
It would be even less possible to injure the body without its
members feeling it. Duty and interest thus equally require the
two contracting parties to aid each other mutually. The individual
people should be motivated from their double roles as individuals
and members of the body, to combine all the advantages which mutual
aid offers them....
Individual Wills and the General Will
In reality, each individual may have one particular will as a
man that is different from-or contrary to-the general will which
he has as a citizen. His own particular interest may suggest other
things to him than the common interest does. His separate, naturally
independent existence may make him imagine that what he owes to
the common cause is an incidental contribution - a contribution
which will cost him more to give than their failure to receive
it would harm the others. He may also regard the moral person
of the State as an imaginary being since it is not a man, and
wish to enjoy the rights of a citizen without performing the duties
of a subject. This unjust attitude could cause the ruin of the
body politic if it became widespread enough.
So that the social pact will not become meaningless words, it
tacitly includes this commitment, which alone gives power to the
others: Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be forced
to obey it by the whole body politic, which means nothing else
but that he will be forced to be free. This condition is indeed
the one which by dedicating each citizen to the fatherland gives
him a guarantee against being personally dependent on other individuals.
It is the condition which all political machinery depends on and
which alone makes political undertakings legitimate. Without it,
political actions become absurd, tyrannical, and subject to the
most outrageous abuses.
Whatever benefits he had in the state of nature but lost in the
civil state, a man gains more than enough new ones to make up
for them. His capabilities are put to good use and developed;
his ideas are enriched, his sentiments made more noble, and his
soul elevated to the extent that-if the abuses in this new condition
did not often degrade him to a condition lower than the one he
left behind-he would have to keep blessing this happy moment which
snatched him away from his previous state and which made an intelligent
being and a man out of a stupid and very limited animal....
In dealing with its members, the State controls all their goods
under the social contract, which serves as the basis for all rights
within the State, but it controls them only through the right
of first holder which individuals convey to the State....
A strange aspect of this act of alienating property rights to
the state is that when the community takes on the goods of its
members, it does not take these goods away from them. The community
does nothing but assure its members of legitimate possession of
goods, changing mere claims of possession into real rights and
customary use into property.... Through an act of transfer having
advantages for the public but far more for themselves they have,
so to speak, really acquired everything they gave up....
Indivisible, Inalienable Sovereignty
The first and most important conclusion from the principles we
have established thus far is that the general will alone may direct
the forces of the State to achieve the goal for which it was founded,
the common good.... Sovereignty is indivisible ... and is inalienable....
A will is general or it is not: it is that of the whole body of
the people or only of one faction. In the first instance, putting
the will into words and force is an act of sovereignty: the will
becomes law. In the second instance, it is only a particular will
or an administrative action; at the very most it is a decree.
Our political theorists, however, unable to divide the source
of sovereignty, divide sovereignty into the ways it is applied.
They divide it into force and will; into legislative power and
executive power; into the power to tax, the judicial power, and
the power to wage war; into internal administration and the power
to negotiate with foreign countries. Now we see them running these
powers together. Now they will proceed to separate them. They
make the sovereign a being of fantasy, composed of separate pieces,
which would be like putting a man together from several bodies,
one having eyes, another arms, another feet-nothing more. Japanese
magicians are said to cut up a child before the eyes of spectators,
then throw the pieces into the air one after the other, and then
cause the child to drop down reassembled and alive again. That
is the sort of magic trick our political theorists perform. After
having dismembered the social body with a trick worthy of a travelling
show, they reassemble the pieces without anybody knowing how....
If we follow up in the same way on the other divisions mentioned,
we find that we are deceived every time we believe we see sovereignty
divided. We find that the jurisdictions we have thought to be
exercised as parts of sovereignty in reality are subordinate to
the [one] sovereign power. They presuppose supreme wills, which
they merely carry out in their jurisdictions . . . .
Need for Citizen Participation, Not Representation
It follows from the above that the general will is always in the
right and inclines toward the public good, but it does not follow
that the deliberations of the people always have the same rectitude.
People always desire what is good, but they do not always see
what is good. You can never corrupt the people, but you can often
fool them, and that is the only time that the people appear to
will something bad....
If, assuming that the people were sufficiently informed as they
made decisions and that the citizens did not communicate with
each other, the general will would always be resolved from a great
number of small differences, and the deliberation would always
be good. But when blocs are formed, associations of parts at the
expense of the whole, the will of each of these associations will
be general as far as its members are concerned but particular
as far as the State is concerned. Then we may say that there are
no longer so many voters as there are men present but as many
as there are associations. The differences will become less numerous
and will yield less general results. Finally, when one of these
associations becomes so strong that it dominates the others, you
no longer have the sum of minor differences as a result but rather
one single [unresolved] difference, with the result that there
no longer is a general will, and the view that prevails is nothing
but one particular view....
But we must also consider the private persons who make up the
public, apart from the public personified, who each have a life
and liberty independent of it. It is very necessary for us to
distinguish between the respective rights of the citizens and
the sovereign and between the duties which men must fulfill in
their role as subjects from the natural rights they should enjoy
in their role as men.
It is agreed that everything which each individual gives up of
his power, his goods, and his liberty under the social contract
is only that part of all those things which is of use to the community,
but it is also necessary to agree that the sovereign alone is
the judge of what that useful part is.
All the obligations which a citizen owes to the State he must
fulfill as soon as the sovereign asks for them, but the sovereign
in turn cannot impose any obligation on subjects which is not
of use to the community. If fact, the sovereign cannot even wish
to do so, for nothing can take place without a cause according
to the laws of reason, any more than according to the laws of
nature [and the sovereign community will have no cause to require
anything beyond what is of communal use]....
Government . . is wrongly confused with the sovereign, whose agent
it is. What then is government? It is an intermediary body established
between the subjects and the sovereign to keep them in touch with
each other. It is charged with executing the laws and maintaining
both civil and political liberty.... The only will dominating
government ... should be the general will or the law. The government's
power is only the public power vested in it. As soon as [government]
attempts to let any act come from itself completely independently,
it starts to lose its intermediary role. If the time should ever
come when the [government] has a particular will of its own stronger
than that of the sovereign and makes use of the public power which
is in its hands to carry out its own particular will-when there
are thus two sovereigns, one in law and one in fact-at that moment
the social union will disappear and the body politic will be dissolved.
Once the public interest has ceased to be the principal concern
of citizens, once they prefer to serve State with money rather
than with their persons, the State will be approaching ruin. Is
it necessary to march into combat? They will pay some troops and
stay at home. Is it necessary to go to meetings? They will name
some deputies and stay at home. Laziness and money finally leave
them with soldiers to enslave their fatherland and representatives
to sell it....
Sovereignty cannot be represented.... Essentially, it consists
of the general will, and a will is not represented: either we
have it itself, or it is something else; there is no other possibility.
The deputies of the people thus are not and cannot be its representatives.
They are only the people's agents and are not able to come to
final decisions at all. Any law that the people have not ratified
in person is void, it is not a law at all.
Sovereignty and Civil Religion
Now then, it is of importance to the State that each citizen should
have a religion requiring his devotion to duty; however, the dogmas
of that religion are of no interest to the State except as they
relate to morality and to the duties which each believer is required
to perform for others. For the rest of it, each person may have
whatever opinions he pleases....
It follows that it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles
of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but
as sentiments of social commitment without which it would be impossible
to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject.... While the
State has no power to oblige anyone to believe these articles,
it may banish anyone who does not believe them. This banishment
is not for impiety but for lack of social commitment, that is,
for being incapable of sincerely loving the laws and justice or
of sacrificing his life to duty in time of need. As for the person
who conducts himself as if he does not believe them after having
publicly stated his belief in these same dogmas, he deserves the
death penalty. He has lied in the presence of the laws.
The dogmas of civil religion should be simple, few in number,
and stated in precise words without interpretations or commentaries.
These are the required dogmas: the existence of a powerful, intelligent
Divinity, who does good, has foreknowledge of all, and provides
for all; the life to come; the happy rewards of the just; the
punishment of the wicked; and the sanctity ol` the social contract
and the laws. As for prohibited articles of faith, I limit myself
to one: intolerance. Intolerance characterizes the religious persuasions
we have excluded.
From JeanJacques Rousseau, Contrat social ou Principes
du droit politique (Paris: Garnier Frères 1800), pp.
240332, passim. Translated by Henry A. Myers.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997