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 renounced them.
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....
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
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....
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
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
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
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