Highlights from “The Social Contract” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

Published on April 14, 2023 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under (RSS feed).

Another part of my random, untargeted book highlight series—a result of being a (very) heavy reader—, here are some snippets from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762).

Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and my own edits, though marked, may be broad (and unacademic). Then, important: By sharing these highlights I neither implicitly endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that I know little of the authors, and that I have a nuanced view on the matter. (The only thing the highlights can tell is that—much like the books themselves—for some reason or other I found them of interest.) When a detailed understanding of my views is important, ask me.

The cover of “The Social Contract.”

If I were a prince or a legislator, I should not waste time in saying what wants doing; I should do it, or hold my peace.

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.

[…] the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from nature, and must therefore be founded on conventions.

The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family[.]

The family then may be called the first model of political societies: the ruler corresponds to the father, and the people to the children; and all, being born free and equal, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage.

Aristotle […] had said that men are by no means equal naturally, but that some are born for slavery, and others for dominion.

Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice perpetuated the condition.

The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.

Force is a physical power […]. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will […].

[…] the strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest.

Let us then admit that force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers.

To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man’s nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts.

Grotius and the rest find in war another origin for the so-called right of slavery. The victor having, as they hold, the right of killing the vanquished, the latter can buy back his life at the price of his liberty; and this convention is the more legitimate because it is to the advantage of both parties.

War then is a relation, not between man and man, but between State and State, and individuals are enemies only accidentally, not as men, nor even as citizens, but as soldiers; not as members of their country, but as its defenders.

No one has a right to kill an enemy except when he cannot make him a slave, and the right to enslave him cannot therefore be derived from the right to kill him. It is accordingly an unfair exchange to make him buy at the price of his liberty his life, over which the victor holds no right. Is it not clear that there is a vicious circle in founding the right of life and death on the right of slavery, and the right of slavery on the right of life and death?

The words slave and right contradict each other, and are mutually exclusive.

There will always be a great difference between subduing a multitude and ruling a society.

[…] where, unless the election were unanimous, would be the obligation on the minority to submit to the choice of the majority? How have a hundred men who wish for a master the right to vote on behalf of ten who do not? The law of majority voting is itself something established by convention, and presupposes unanimity […].

“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one—the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community […].

[…] each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody[.]

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

[…] the act of association comprises a mutual undertaking between the public and the individuals[.]

[…] there is a great difference between incurring an obligation to yourself and incurring one to a whole of which you form a part.

Duty and interest therefore equally oblige the two contracting parties to give each other help […].

In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked.

What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. […] we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will; and possession, which is merely the effect of force or the right of the first occupier, from property, which can be founded only on a positive title.

[…] the State, in relation to its members, is master of all their goods by the social contract, which, within the State, is the basis of all rights; but, in relation to other powers, it is so only by the right of the first occupier, which it holds from its members.

The right of the first occupier, though more real than the right of the strongest, becomes a real right only when the right of property has already been established.

Every man has naturally a right to everything he needs; but the positive act which makes him proprietor of one thing excludes him from everything else.

In general, to establish the right of the first occupier over a plot of ground, the following conditions are necessary: first, the land must not yet be inhabited; secondly, a man must occupy only the amount he needs for his subsistence; and, in the third place, possession must be taken, not by an empty ceremony, but by labour and cultivation, the only sign of proprietorship that should be respected by others, in default of a legal title.

Those of the present day more cleverly call themselves Kings of France, Spain, England, etc.: thus holding the land, they are quite confident of holding the inhabitants.

[…] in taking over the goods of individuals, the community, so far from despoiling them, only assures them legitimate possession, and changes usurpation into a true right and enjoyment into proprietorship. Thus the possessors, being regarded as depositaries of the public good, and having their rights respected by all the members of the State and maintained against foreign aggression by all its forces, have, by a cession which benefits both the public and still more themselves, acquired, so to speak, all that they gave up.

[…] the right which each individual has to his own estate is always subordinate to the right which the community has over all[.]

[…] instead of destroying natural inequality, the fundamental compact substitutes, for such physical inequality as nature may have set up between men, an equality that is moral and legitimate, and that men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right.

[…] houses make a town, but citizens a city.

[…] laws are always of use to those who possess and harmful to those who have nothing: from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much.

[…] the general will alone can direct the State according to the object for which it was instituted, i.e., the common good[.] It is solely on the basis of this common interest that every society should be governed.

[…] the power indeed may be transmitted, but not the will.

[…] for example, the acts of declaring war and making peace have been regarded as acts of Sovereignty; but this is not the case, as these acts do not constitute law, but merely the application of a law[.]

[…] truth is no road to fortune, and the people dispenses neither ambassadorships, nor professorships, nor pensions.

[…] the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. […] the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad.

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills […].

If, when the people, being furnished with adequate information, held its deliberations, the citizens had no communication one with another, the grand total of the small differences would always give the general will, and the decision would always be good.

It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts[.]

[…] no more by the law of reason than by the law of nature can anything occur without a cause.

[…] we cannot work for others without working for ourselves.

[…] what makes the will general is less the number of voters than the common interest uniting them[.]

[…] the social compact sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same rights. Thus, from the very nature of the compact, every act of Sovereignty, i.e., every authentic act of the general will, binds or favours all the citizens equally; so that the Sovereign recognises only the body of the nation […]. What […] is an act of Sovereignty? It is not a convention between a superior and an inferior, but a convention between the body and each of its members.

Instead of a renunciation, [individuals] have made an advantageous exchange: instead of an uncertain and precarious way of living they have got one that is better and more secure; instead of natural independence they have got liberty, instead of the power to harm others security for themselves, and instead of their strength, which others might overcome, a right which social union makes invincible. Their very life, which they have devoted to the State, is by it constantly protected; and when they risk it in the State’s defence, what more are they doing than giving back what they have received from it? […] All have indeed to fight when their country needs them; but then no one has ever to fight for himself.

The question is often asked how individuals, having no right to dispose of their own lives, can transfer to the Sovereign a right which they do not possess. The difficulty of answering this question seems to me to lie in its being wrongly stated. Every man has a right to risk his own life in order to preserve it.

The social treaty has for its end the preservation of the contracting parties. […] He who wishes to preserve his life at others’ expense should also, when it is necessary, be ready to give it up for their sake.

[…] every malefactor, by attacking social rights, becomes on forfeit a rebel and a traitor to his country; by violating its laws be ceases to be a member of it; he even makes war upon it. In such a case the preservation of the State is inconsistent with his own, and one or the other must perish; in putting the guilty to death, we slay not so much the citizen as an enemy.

[…] frequent punishments are always a sign of weakness or remissness on the part of the government. There is not a single ill-doer who could not be turned to some good.

The State has no right to put to death, even for the sake of making an example, any one whom it can leave alive without danger.

In a well-governed State, there are few punishments, not because there are many pardons, but because criminals are rare […]. Frequent pardons mean that crime will soon need them no longer, and no one can help seeing whither that leads.

[…] in default of natural sanctions, the laws of justice are ineffective among men[.]

In the state of nature, where everything is common, I owe nothing to him whom I have promised nothing; I recognise as belonging to others only what is of no use to me. In the state of society all rights are fixed by law, and the case becomes different.

[…] the whole minus a part cannot be the whole; and while this relation persists, there can be no whole, but only two unequal parts; and it follows that the will of one is no longer in any respect general in relation to the other.

But when the whole people decrees for the whole people, it is considering only itself; and if a relation is then formed, it is between two aspects of the entire object […]. In that case the matter about which the decree is made is, like the decreeing will, general. This act is what I call a law.

[…] law considers subjects en masse and actions in the abstract, and never a particular person or action. Thus the law may indeed decree that there shall be privileges, but cannot confer them on anybody by name.

[…] it can no longer be asked whose business it is to make laws, since they are acts of the general will[.]

I therefore give the name “Republic” to every State that is governed by laws […].

Laws are, properly speaking, only the conditions of civil association.

The individuals see the good they reject; the public wills the good it does not see. All stand equally in need of guidance.

[…] if great princes are rare, how much more so are great legislators? The former have only to follow the pattern which the latter have to lay down. The legislator is the engineer who invents the machine, the prince merely the mechanic who sets it up and makes it go. “At the birth of societies,” says Montesquieu, “the rulers of Republics establish institutions, and afterwards the institutions mould the rulers.”

The more completely these natural resources are annihilated, the greater and the more lasting are those which he acquires, and the more stable and perfect the new institutions; so that if each citizen is nothing and can do nothing without the rest, and the resources acquired by the whole are equal or superior to the aggregate of the resources of all the individuals, it may be said that legislation is at the highest possible point of perfection.

The legislator occupies in every respect an extraordinary position in the State.

[…] in the task of legislation we find together two things which appear to be incompatible: an enterprise too difficult for human powers, and, for its execution, an authority that is no authority.

The great soul of the legislator is the only miracle that can prove his mission.

Free peoples, be mindful of this maxim: “Liberty may be gained, but can never be recovered.”

[Peter] prevented his subjects from ever becoming what they might have been by persuading them that they were what they are not.

Every extension of the social tie means its relaxation; and, generally speaking, a small State is stronger in proportion than a great one.

Administration therefore becomes more and more burdensome as the distance grows greater; for, in the first place, each city has its own, which is paid for by the people: each district its own, still paid for by the people: then comes each province, and then the great governments, satrapies, and vice-royalties, always costing more the higher you go, and always at the expense of the unfortunate people.

[…] a body which is too big for its constitution gives way and falls crushed under its own weight.

It may be said that the reason for expansion, being merely external and relative, ought to be subordinate to the reasons for contraction, which are internal and absolute. A strong and healthy constitution is the first thing to look for; and it is better to count on the vigour which comes of good government than on the resources a great territory furnishes.

The men make the State, and the territory sustains the men; the right relation therefore is that the land should suffice for the maintenance of the inhabitants, and that there should be as many inhabitants as the land can maintain. In this proportion lies the maximum strength of a given number of people; for, if there is too much land, it is troublesome to guard and inadequately cultivated, produces more than is needed, and soon gives rise to wars of defence; if there is not enough, the State depends on its neighbours for what it needs over and above, and this soon gives rise to wars of offence.

No fixed relation can be stated between the extent of territory and the population that are adequate one to the other, both because of the differences in the quality of land, in its fertility, in the nature of its products, and in the influence of climate, and because of the different tempers of those who inhabit it […]. The legislator therefore should not go by what he sees, but by what he foresees[.]

Legislation is made difficult less by what it is necessary to build up than by what has to be destroyed; and what makes success so rare is the impossibility of finding natural simplicity together with social requirements.

If we ask in what precisely consists the greatest good of all […] we shall find it reduce itself to two main objects, liberty and equality—liberty, because all particular dependence means so much force taken from the body of the State and equality, because liberty cannot exist without it.

[…] in any case, a people is always in a position to change its laws, however good; for, if it choose to do itself harm, who can have a right to stop it?

[…] the strength of the State can alone secure the liberty of its members. From this second relation arise civil laws.

This forms the real constitution of the State, takes on every day new powers, when other laws decay or die out, restores them or takes their place, keeps a people in the ways in which it was meant to go, and insensibly replaces authority by the force of habit. I am speaking of morality, of custom, above all of public opinion; a power unknown to political thinkers, on which none the less success in everything else depends.

To be general, a will need not always be unanimous; but every vote must be counted: any exclusion is a breach of generality.

The agreement of two particular interests is formed by opposition to a third.” […] the agreement of all interests is formed by opposition to that of each.

Since, then, the founder of a Republic cannot help enmities arising, he ought at least to prevent them from growing into sects”[.]

To be legitimate, the government must be, not one with the Sovereign, but its minister.

If there were two neighbouring peoples, one of which could not do without the other, it would be very hard on the former, and very dangerous for the latter. Every wise nation, in such a case, would make haste to free the other from dependence.

If the object is to give the State consistency, bring the two extremes as near to each other as possible; allow neither rich men nor beggars. These two estates, which are naturally inseparable, are equally fatal to the common good; from the one come the friends of tyranny, and from the other tyrants.

“Any branch of foreign commerce,” says M. d’Argenson, “creates on the whole only apparent advantage for the kingdom in general; it may enrich some individuals, or even some towns; but the nation as a whole gains nothing by it, and the people is no better off.”

Every free action is produced by the concurrence of two causes; one moral, i.e., the will which determines the act; the other physical, i.e., the power which executes it.

When I walk towards an object, it is necessary first that I should will to go there, and, in the second place, that my feet should carry me.

The body politic has the same motive powers; here too force and will are distinguished, will under the name of legislative power and force under that of executive power. Without their concurrence, nothing is, or should be, done.

[…] the executive power cannot belong to the generality as legislature or Sovereign, because it consists wholly of particular acts which fall outside the competency of the law, and consequently of the Sovereign, whose acts must always be laws.

What then is government? An intermediate body set up between the subjects and the Sovereign, to secure their mutual correspondence, charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of liberty, both civil and political.

The government gets from the Sovereign the orders it gives the people, and, for the State to be properly balanced, there must, when everything is reckoned in, be equality between the product or power of the government taken in itself, and the product or power of the citizens, who are on the one hand sovereign and on the other subject.

If the Sovereign desires to govern, or the magistrate to give laws, or if the subjects refuse to obey, disorder takes the place of regularity, force and will no longer act together, and the State is dissolved and falls into despotism or anarchy.

[…] the relation between him and the Sovereign increases with the number of the citizens. From this it follows that, the larger the State, the less the liberty.

The government, then, to be good, should be proportionately stronger as the people is more numerous.

The government is on a small scale what the body politic which includes it is on a great one.

[…] let us rest content with regarding government as a new body within the State, distinct from the people and the Sovereign, and intermediate between them.

[…] often the government that is best in itself will become the most pernicious, if the relations in which it stands have altered according to the defects of the body politic to which it belongs.

The more numerous the magistrates, therefore, the weaker the government.

[…] the general will is always the weakest, the corporate will second, and the individual will strongest of all: so that, in the government, each member is first of all himself, then a magistrate, and then a citizen—in an order exactly the reverse of what the social system requires.

[…] the most active government is that of one man.

[…] the bigger the State grows, the more its real force increases, though not in direct proportion to its growth; but, the State remaining the same, the number of magistrates may increase to any extent, without the government gaining any greater real force; for its force is that of the State, the dimension of which remains equal.

[…] the government grows remiss in proportion as the number of the magistrates increases; and I previously proved that, the more numerous the people, the greater should be the repressive force. From this it follows that the relation of the magistrates to the government should vary inversely to the relation of the subjects to the Sovereign; that is to say, the larger the State, the more should the government be tightened, so that the number of the rulers diminish in proportion to the increase of that of the people.

[…] the force and the will of the government, which are always in inverse proportion[.]

[…] the Sovereign may commit the charge of the government to the whole people or to the majority of the people, so that more citizens are magistrates than are mere private individuals. This form of government is called democracy.

Or it may restrict the government to a small number, so that there are more private citizens than magistrates; and this is named aristocracy.

Lastly, it may concentrate the whole government in the hands of a single magistrate from whom all others hold their power. This third form is the most usual, and is called monarchy, or royal government.

[…] there is a point at which each form of government passes into the next[.]

There has been at all times much dispute concerning the best form of government, without consideration of the fact that each is in some cases the best, and in others the worst.

It is not good for him who makes the laws to execute them, or for the body of the people to turn its attention away from a general standpoint and devote it to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs […].

[…] luxury either comes of riches or makes them necessary; it corrupts at once rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness; it sells the country to softness and vanity, and takes away from the State all its citizens, to make them slaves one to another, and one and all to public opinion.

[…] no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government, because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is.

The first societies governed themselves aristocratically. The heads of families took counsel together on public affairs. The young bowed without question to the authority of experience. Hence such names as priests, elders, senate, and gerontes. The savages of North America govern themselves in this way even now, and their government is admirable.

There are then three sorts of aristocracy—natural, elective and hereditary. The first is only for simple peoples; the third is the worst of all governments; the second is the best, and is aristocracy properly so called.

In contrast with other forms of administration, in which a collective being stands for an individual, in this form [monarchy] an individual stands for a collective being […].

Kings desire to be absolute, and men are always crying out to them from afar that the best means of being so is to get themselves loved by their people. […] The power which comes of a people’s love is no doubt the greatest; but it is precarious and conditional, and princes will never rest content with it.

[…] princes naturally give the preference always to the principle that is more to their immediate advantage.

If, however, it is hard for a great State to be well governed, it is much harder for it to be so by a single man […].

The people is far less often mistaken in its choice than the prince; and a man of real worth among the king’s ministers is almost as rare as a fool at the head of a republican government.

It is easier to conquer than to rule. With a long enough lever, the world could be moved with a single finger; to sustain it needs the shoulders of Hercules.

[…] men have chosen rather to risk having children, monstrosities, or imbeciles as rulers to having disputes over the choice of good kings. It has not been taken into account that, in so exposing ourselves to the risks this possibility entails, we are setting almost all the chances against us.

Much trouble, we are told, is taken to teach young princes the art of reigning; but their education seems to do them no good. It would be better to begin by teaching them the art of obeying.

[…] the principle common to all ministers and nearly all kings is to do in every respect the reverse of what was done by their predecessors.

It is, then, wanton self-deception to confuse royal government with government by a good king. To see such government as it is in itself, we must consider it as it is under princes who are incompetent or wicked: for either they will come to the throne wicked or incompetent, or the throne will make them so.

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a simple government. An isolated ruler must have subordinate magistrates; a popular government must have a head.

Simple government is better in itself, just because it is simple. But when the executive power is not sufficiently dependent upon the legislative power, i.e., when the prince is more closely related to the Sovereign than the people to the prince, this lack of proportion must be cured by the division of the government […].

When the circulation is prompt and well-established, it does not matter whether much or little is paid; the people is always rich and, financially speaking, all is well. On the contrary, however little the people gives, if that little does not return to it, it is soon exhausted by giving continually: the State is then never rich, and the people is always a people of beggars.

[…] the more the distance between people and government increases, the more burdensome tribute becomes: thus, in a democracy, the people bears the least charge; in an aristocracy, a greater charge; and, in monarchy, the weight becomes heaviest. Monarchy therefore suits only wealthy nations; aristocracy, States of middling size and wealth; and democracy, States that are small and poor.

[…] instead of governing subjects to make them happy, despotism makes them wretched in order to govern them.

[…] despotism is suitable to hot countries, barbarism to cold countries, and good polity to temperate regions.

We must, as I have already said, take labour, strength, consumption, etc., into account.

The nearer you get to the equator, the less people live on. Meat they hardly touch; rice, maize, curcur, millet and cassava are their ordinary food. There are in the Indies millions of men whose subsistence does not cost a halfpenny a day. Even in Europe we find considerable differences of appetite between Northern and Southern peoples.

Luxury in clothes shows similar differences. In climates in which the changes of season are prompt and violent, men have better and simpler clothes […].

Hot countries need inhabitants less than cold countries, and can support more of them. There is thus a double surplus, which is all to the advantage of despotism.

The greater the territory occupied by a fixed number of inhabitants, the more difficult revolt becomes […]; but the more a numerous people is gathered together, the less can the government usurp the Sovereign’s place: the people’s leaders can deliberate as safely in their houses as the prince in council […].

The least populous countries are thus the fittest for tyranny: fierce animals reign only in deserts.

The question “What absolutely is the best government?” is unanswerable as well as indeterminate; or rather, there are as many good answers as there are possible combinations in the absolute and relative situations of all nations.

[…] everyone wants to answer it in his own way.

What is the end of political association? The preservation and prosperity of its members. And what is the surest mark of their preservation and prosperity? Their numbers and population. […] the government under which, without external aids, without naturalisation or colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most, is beyond question the best.

There are two general courses by which government degenerates: i.e., when it undergoes contraction, or when the State is dissolved.

Government undergoes contraction when it passes from the many to the few, that is, from democracy to aristocracy, and from aristocracy to royalty. To do so is its natural propensity. If it took the backward course from the few to the many, it could be said that it was relaxed; but this inverse sequence is impossible.

[…] the moment the government usurps the Sovereignty, the social compact is broken, and all private citizens recover by right their natural liberty, and are forced, but not bound, to obey.

When the State is dissolved, the abuse of government, whatever it is, bears the common name of anarchy. To distinguish, democracy degenerates into ochlocracy, and aristocracy into oligarchy; and I would add that royalty degenerates into tyranny […].

In the exact sense, a tyrant is an individual who arrogates to himself the royal authority without having a right to it. […] Tyrant and usurper are thus perfectly synonymous terms.

The body politic, as well as the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction.

It is not in men’s power to prolong their own lives; but it is for them to prolong as much as possible the life of the State, by giving it the best possible constitution.

The State subsists by means not of the laws, but of the legislative power.

[…] the stronger the government the more often should the Sovereign show itself.

[…] if the State cannot be reduced to the right limits, there remains still one resource; this is, to allow no capital, to make the seat of government move from town to town, and to assemble by turn in each the Provincial Estates of the country.

For every palace I see raised in the capital, my mind’s eye sees a whole country made desolate.

[…] in the presence of the person represented, representatives no longer exist.

In a country that is truly free, the citizens do everything with their own arms and nothing by means of money; so far from paying to be exempted from their duties, they would even pay for the privilege of fulfilling them themselves.

In a well-ordered city every man flies to the assemblies: under a bad government no one cares to stir a step to get to them, because no one is interested in what happens there, because it is foreseen that the general will will not prevail, and lastly because domestic cares are all-absorbing.

Good laws lead to the making of better ones; bad ones bring about worse.

As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State What does it matter to me? the State may be given up for lost.

Lacking the same advantages, how can you preserve the same rights?

Everything that is not in the course of nature has its disadvantages, civil society most of all.

As for you, modern peoples, you have no slaves, but you are slaves yourselves; you pay for their liberty with your own.

[…] the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no [longer] free: it no longer exists.

Were it possible for the Sovereign, as such, to possess the executive power, right and fact would be so confounded that no one could tell what was law and what was not; and the body politic, thus disfigured, would soon fall a prey to the violence it was instituted to prevent.

As the citizens, by the social contract, are all equal, all can prescribe what all should do, but no one has a right to demand that another shall do what he does not do himself.

There is only one contract in the State, and that is the act of association, which in itself excludes the existence of a second. It is impossible to conceive of any public contract that would not be a violation of the first.

It is, indeed, the peculiar advantage of democratic government that it can be established in actuality by a simple act of the general will.

[…] the institution of government is not a contract, but a law[.]

The opening of these assemblies, whose sole object is the maintenance of the social treaty, should always take the form of putting two propositions that may not be suppressed, which should be voted on separately.

The first is: “Does it please the Sovereign to preserve the present form of government?”.

The second is: “Does it please the people to leave its administration in the hands of those who are actually in charge of it?”

[…] there is in the State no fundamental law that cannot be revoked, not excluding the social compact itself[.]

Peace, unity and equality are the enemies of political subtleties. Men who are upright and simple are difficult to deceive because of their simplicity; lures and ingenious pretexts fail to impose upon them, and they are not even subtle enough to be dupes.

[…] when the social bond begins to be relaxed and the State to grow weak, when particular interests begin to make themselves felt and the smaller societies to exercise an influence over the larger, the common interest changes and finds opponents: opinion is no longer unanimous; the general will ceases to be the will of all; contradictory views and debates arise; and the best advice is not taken without question.

Finally, when the State, on the eve of ruin, maintains only a vain, illusory and formal existence, when in every heart the social bond is broken, and the meanest interest brazenly lays hold of the sacred name of “public good,” the general will becomes mute: all men, guided by secret motives, no more give their views as citizens than if the State had never been; and iniquitous decrees directed solely to private interest get passed under the name of laws.

Does it follow from this that the general will is exterminated or corrupted? Not at all: it is always constant, unalterable and pure; but it is subordinated to other wills which encroach upon its sphere.

The constant will of all the members of the State is the general will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free.

There are two general rules that may serve to regulate this relation. First, the more grave and important the questions discussed, the nearer should the opinion that is to prevail approach unanimity. Secondly, the more the matter in hand calls for speed, the smaller the prescribed difference in the numbers of votes may be allowed to become: where an instant decision has to be reached, a majority of one vote should be enough. The first of these two rules seems more in harmony with the laws, and the second with practical affairs.

If the people has no share in the government, the nobility is itself the people.

[…] a real democracy is only an ideal.

Those who had nothing at all, and could be numbered only by counting heads, were regarded as of absolutely no account […].

[…] the rich man found himself degraded to the class of the poor for making too much display of his riches.

[…] it is a highly necessary part of foresight to be conscious that everything cannot be foreseen.

It is wrong therefore to wish to make political institutions so strong as to render it impossible to suspend their operation.

As the law is the declaration of the general will, the censorship is the declaration of the public judgment: public opinion is the form of law which the censor administers […].

There is no people on earth the choice of whose pleasures is not decided by opinion rather than nature.

When legislation grows weak, morality degenerates […].

[…] censorship may be useful for the preservation of morality, but can never be so for its restoration. Set up censors while the laws are vigorous; as soon as they have lost their vigour, all hope is gone; no legitimate power can retain force when the laws have lost it.

[…] the public took no notice of a decision on a point on which its mind was already made up.

At first men had no kings save the gods, and no government save theocracy.

[…] two armies giving battle could not obey the same leader. National divisions thus led to polytheism, and this in turn gave rise to theological and civil intolerance, which, as we shall see hereafter, are by nature the same.

Political war was also theological; the provinces of the gods were, so to speak, fixed by the boundaries of nations.

Every religion, therefore, being attached solely to the laws of the State which prescribed it, there was no way of converting a people except by enslaving it, and there could be no missionaries save conquerors.

[…] the spirit of Christianity has everywhere prevailed. The sacred cult has always remained or again become independent of the Sovereign, and there has been no necessary link between it and the body of the State.

[…] no State has ever been founded without a religious basis[.]

Religion, considered in relation to society, which is either general or particular, may also be divided into two kinds: the religion of man, and that of the citizen.

We are told that a people of true Christians would form the most perfect society imaginable. I see in this supposition only one great difficulty: that a society of true Christians would not be a society of men.

[…] I am mistaken in speaking of a Christian republic; the terms are mutually exclusive. Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favourable to tyranny that it always profits by such a régime. True Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and do not much mind[.]

It is indeed only malefactors of all estates who prevent the citizen from being free.

Read the whole book: The Social Contract.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma. I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!