ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract [Book I-II]

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract [Book I-II]

Book I

  • Section 1 – Subject of the First Book
    • Rousseau sets out to inquire if there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration.
    • Although Rousseau acknowledges that his political opinions have a feeble influence on public affairs (how wrong he is!), he says that the right of voting makes it his duty to study political affairs and discuss them with others.
    • Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. What makes this slavery legitimate?
    • If we only take force into account, we would conclude that as long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as the people can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for regaining its liberty by the same right as it was taken away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it away.
    • The social order is a sacred right that is the basis of all other rights and does not come from nature; and therefore must be founded upon convention.
  • Section 2 – The First Societies
    • The most ancient society, and the only one that is natural, is the family. As soon as the children no longer need their father to preserve and provide for them, the bond dissolves. If they remain united, they continue so voluntarily, not naturally; and then the family is only maintained by convention.
    • The first law of nature is self-preservation. When a child reaches the age of discretion and can provide for his own preservation, he becomes his own master, and independent of his father.
    • The family is the first model of political society. The ruler corresponds to the father, and the people to the children. The difference is that the love of the father repays him for the care of the children and the pleasure of commanding repays the ruler for caring for the people.
    • Political philosophers such as Grotius and Hobbes believe that not all human power is established in favor of the governed. This opinion holds that the human species is divided into so many herds of cattle, each with its own ruler who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring them.
    • Aristotle said that men are by no means born equal naturally, but that some are born for slavery and others for dominion.
    • Rousseau writes that Aristotle was right, but mistook the effect for the cause. Force made the first slaves, and cowardice perpetuated their condition. Slaves lose everything in chains, even the desire of escaping from them. They begin to love their servitude.
  • Section 3 – The Right of the Strongest
    • To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will. Therefore how can physical power have a moral effect, such as might makes right?
    • If force creates right, then the effect changes with the cause. What kind of right is that which perishes when force fails? If we must obey perforce, then there is no need to obey because we ought or because it is right. Force does not make right. We are obliged only to obey legitimate powers.
  • Section 4 – Slavery
    • No man has a natural authority over one another, and force does not create right. Therefore, conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority amongst men.
    • A man might alienate his liberty and make himself a slave to a master. Alienate means to give or sell. A man sells himself to another in exchange for his subsistence. But what do a group of people sell themselves to a king in exchange for?
    • They do not exchange their freedom for their subsistence because the king’s subsistence is dependent upon the people, not theirs on him
    • Even if they exchange their freedom for civil tranquility, then what do they gain if the king’s ambition and avidity result in wars worse than the dissensions that would have arisen among the men in a state of nature. There is tranquility in a dungeon. What is tranquility worth? The Greeks lived tranquilly in the cave of the Cyclops awaiting their turn to be devoured.
    • They do not exchange their liberty for nothing; for that would be absurd and inconceivable from the mere fact that he who does it is out of his right mind.
    • To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man. To remove all liberty is to remove all morality from his acts.
    • Grotius argues that war can legitimize slavery because the vanquished can exchange their liberty for their life, which is to the advantage of both parties.
    • War is constituted by a relation between things, and not between persons. War cannot arise out of personal relations. Private war, or war between man and man, cannot exist in the state of nature where there is no constant property, nor in the social state where everything is under the authority of laws.
    • War is a relation between States. Individuals are enemies only accidentally. Each State can have as its enemy only another state; for there can be no real relation between things disparate in nature.
    • As soon as the defenders of an enemy State lay down their weapons, they become men again, they cease to be enemies or instruments of the enemy, and become once more men whose life no one has any right to take.
  • Section 5 – That We Must Always Go Back to a First Convention
    • There will always be a great difference between subduing a multitude and ruling a society.
    • Grotius states that a people may give themselves to a king. This assertion implies that the people exist before giving themselves to the king. Therefore, we must examine the origin of a people in order to determine the true foundation of society.
    • The law of majority voting is something established by convention; for how have 100 men who wish for a master the right to vote on behalf of ten men who do not?
  • Section 6 – The Social Compact
    • When men have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation offer greater resistance than the resources at their disposal in the state of nature, then men necessarily must change their manner of existence in order to perpetuate the species.
    • Because men cannot engender new forces, they must unite and direct existing forces with the assistance of other individuals working in concert.
    • Rousseau states that the Social Contract solves the problem of finding a form of association that will protect and preserve the common multitude while each individual may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.
    • The clause of this contract is the total alienation of each associate with all his rights to the whole community. If each gives himself absolutely, then the conditions are the same for all. This being so, no one has an interest in making the conditions burdensome.
    • If individuals retained certain rights that belonged to them in the state of nature, such as to be the judge in their own case, then the state of nature would persist.
    • Each man, giving himself to all, gives himself to no one; for there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields other over himself.
    • The Social Contract can be reduced to the following sentence: Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.
    • The act of association creates a moral and collective body
  • Section 7 – The Sovereign
    • Individuals, in making the social contract, are bound in a double capacity – as members of the Sovereign they are bound to the individuals, as members of the state they are bound to the Sovereign.  Sovereign is the active city, Republic, or body politic. State is the passive city, Republic, or body politic. Power is the city, Republic, or body politic in relation to others like itself.
    • The Sovereign cannot submit to another sovereign because it would be self-annihilation.
    • The Sovereign can have no contrary interests to the interests of the subjects. However, the subjects can have contrary interests to the interests of the Sovereign. The subject’s particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest. He may look upon what he owes to society as gratuitous, the loss of which would do less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to him. The continuance of such injustice would ruin the Republic.
    • Thus, the social contract implicitly includes the undertaking that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.
    • This is the key to the working of the political machine, and this alone legitimizes civil undertakings.
  • Section 8 –The Civil State
    • The passage from the state of nature to civil society produces a remarkable change in mankind – it substitutes justice for instinct, and gives his action the morality it lacked. Only then is man forced to listen to reason instead of instinct. Although he loses some advantages when he leaves the state of nature, he gains so much more in return – i.e. his faculties are so simulated and developed, his soul is uplifted and ennobled, he is raised from a stupid unimaginative animal to an intelligent being and man.
    • The mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.
  • Section 9 – Real Property
    • Every man naturally has a right to everything he needs.
    • The right of first occupier over a plot of land is established by 1) inhabiting unoccupied land, 2) occupying only the quantity of land required for his subsistence, 3) and taking the land, not by mere ceremony, but by labor and cultivation.
    • The Social Compact, instead of destroying natural inequalities as nature has set up between men, produces an equality that is moral and legitimate, and the men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become equal by convention and legal right.
    • 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 most advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much.

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.

The human species is divided into so many herds of cattle, each with its ruler, who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring them.

The Greeks imprisoned in the cave of the Cyclops lived there very tranquilly, while they were awaiting their turn to be devoured.

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 mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.

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.

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.

In Book 1 of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he sets out to inquire whether there is any sure and legitimate rule of administration. He states that men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains. This state of affairs has arisen because of force and cowardice – force created the first slaves, and cowardice perpetuated their condition. Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire to escape from them. They begin to love their servitude. This is a very provoking notion. I found myself wondering whether the subjects of modern nations are slaves, yet love their condition, and therefore refuse to even imagine that a better state of affairs on earth could exist between men.

Another interesting quote was about slavery being the mere impulse of appetite, and liberty being the obedience to a law which we prescribe ourselves. This idea reminded me of Locke’s argument that Laws do not hinder or limit freedom, but actually bestow liberty upon people; for liberty consists in being free from arbitrary force and violence, and this state can only exists where there is laws. The quote also is very insightful about the experience of helplessness before the hands of an insatiable desire arising from animalistic appetites. When I read this quote, I immediately thought about The Rape of Lucrece by William Shakespeare because of the submission of Tarquin’s reasoning faculty to his appetite for Lucrece. He became a slave to his appetite, and loss control of his own conduct. Desire became his pilot.

Book II

  • Section 1 – That Sovereignty is Inalienable
    • Only the general will can direct the state according to the goal for which it was erected – i.e. the common good. It is solely upon the basis of this common interest that every society should be governed
    • Sovereignty, being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated.
    • The particular will tends towards partiality, while the general will tends toward equality. Thus, the two wills will often conflict.
  • Section 2 – That Sovereignty is Indivisible
    • Sovereignty is indivisible because the will is either general or it is not. General means here majority, not unanimity.
    • Rousseau criticizes political theorists who divide the Sovereign into separate parts such as legislative and executive. He says that this is a mere conjuring trick whereby the theorists dismember the body politic and reassemble it we know not how.
    • The divisions of the Sovereign are illusions; the divisions are really subordinate powers to the supreme will of the body politic.
  • Section 3 – Whether the General Will is Fallible
    • The general will is always for the general good, but we are sometimes mistaken as to what the general good is. The people are never corrupted, but sometimes deceived.
    • If, when the people, being furnished with adequate information, held its deliberations, the citizens had no communication with one another, the small differences in particular wills would give way to the general will, and all decisions would be infallibly for the general good. However, when factions arise, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members. Thus, there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations. When one of these associations is so great that it prevails over the rest, then there is no longer a general will, but only the prevailing particular will.
    • If the general will is to be able to express itself, there ought to be no partial society within a State, and each citizen should think his own thoughts. If there are partial societies, it is best that there are a great quantity of them, and a relative equality amongst them.
  • Section 4 – The Limits of the Sovereign Power
    • Because the State is a moral person whose most important care is self-preservation, there must exist a universal and compelling force in order to move and dispose each part of the State as may be most advantageous to the whole. As nature gives man absolute power over all his members, the social compact gives the general will absolute power over all its members.
    • The social compact alienates only those powers, goods, and liberties of men that are important for the community to control. The Sovereign is sole judge of what is important.
    • Every service a citizen can render to the State he ought to render as soon as the Sovereign demands it; but the Sovereign cannot impose upon its subjects fetters that are useless to the community.
    • The undertakings which bind us to society are obligatory because they are mutual; in fulfilling them we cannot work for others without working for ourselves. The equality of rights, and the idea of justice which gives rise to such equality originates in man’s preference for himself. Thus the general will is always right, and acts according to the common good, unless it is deceived about what is the common good.
    • As soon as a question of particular fact or right arises on a point not previously regulated by general convention, the matter becomes contentious. It is a case where a group of people are one party, and the public another. It would be absurd to propose that the general will ought to arbitrate this contention because the decision would be regarded as particular to the defeated party, and that it inclined to injustice. Thus, the general will changes its nature when its object is particular, and ought not to pronounce upon a man or fact. The general will ought to act as Sovereign, not magistrate.
    • The social compact sets up an equality amongst citizens with regards to obligations and rights. Thus, every act of the Sovereign binds o favors all citizens equally.
    • The Sovereign never has the right to lay more obligations on one member/members of the society than others because then the question becomes particular, and ceases to be within its dominion of legitimate authority.
    • The Sovereign is legitimate because it is based upon the social compact; it is equitable because it is common to all; it is useful because it has no other goal but the common good; and it is stable because of the public force and supreme power.
    • Instead of an uncertain and precarious life in the state of nature, men receive a better and more secure one within civil society. Their very life, which they devote to the State, is constantly protected by it; and all men ought to fight in defense of their State when called upon because they receive their life and preservation from the State. What are they doing that they would not do more often and with greater danger in the state of nature, in which they would inevitably have to fight battles at the peril of their lives in defense of that which is the means of their preservation?
  • Section 5 – The Right of Life and Death
    • No man has a right to dispose of their own lives, but every man has a right to risk his life for his own preservation.
    • He who wills the end wills the means too. The social compact has for its end the preservation of the contracting party. Thus, if it is expedient for one member of the society to be put to death, then the individual ought to be put to death.
    • The death penalty is justified because in order to avoid being killed by an assassin, we consent to be killed if we become assassins.
    • By violating a society’s laws, a man ceases to be a member of it; he even makes war upon it. Thus, in putting the guilt to death, we do not slay so much a citizen as an enemy.
    • Frequent punishments are always a sign of weakness and remissness on the part of the government. There is not a single ill-doer that cannot be turned to some good. The State has no right to put to death anyone whom it can leave alive without danger.
    • The right of pardoning and exempting the guilty from a penalty imposed by law and pronounced by a judge belongs only to the Sovereign. This power ought to be used sparingly. In a well-governed State, there are few punishments, not because there are many pardons, but because there are few crimes. A State is in decay when there are a multitude of crimes, and frequent pardons mean that crime will soon no longer need them.
  • Section 6 – Law
    • The social compact gives the body politic existence. Legislation gives the body politic movement and will.
    • The object of laws is always general. Law considers subjects en masse and actions in the abstract, never a particular person or action. For example, laws can confer privileges, but never on a particular person by name. Laws can establish an hereditary monarchy, but cannot choose the king.
    • Every legitimate government is a Republic because it acts according to the interests of the public. Even a monarchy can be a Republic.
    • The general will is always in the right, but the judgment which guides it is not always enlightened. A legislator is necessary to bring the people’s wills into conformity with reason, and teach them what is necessary for fulfilling the interest of the public.
  • Section 7 – The Legislator
    • In order to discover the rules of society best suited to nations, a superior intelligence beholding all the passions of men without experiencing any of them would be needed. It would take gods to give laws to men.
    • Legislation is at its highest possible point of perfection where it has taken away the resources from men and gave them new ones, which are incapable of being used without the aid of other men. If each citizen can do nothing without the rest, and the resources acquired by the whole are equal to or superior to the aggregate of the resources of all individuals in the state of nature, then the legislation is operating perfectly.
    • He who holds command over men (executive power) ought not to have command over the laws. He who holds command over the laws (legislator) ought not to have command over men; for his laws would be the ministers of his passions and would often serve to perpetuate injustices.
    • Lycurgus resigned the throne before giving those excellent laws to Sparta. On the other hand, Rome suffered tyranny, and was brought to the verge of destruction when it placed the legislative and executive authority into one man’s hands.
    • The people must always consent to a newly drawn law by free vote. The people cannot deprive themselves of this incommunicable right.
    • If wise men try to speak their language to the common herd instead of its own, they cannot possibly make themselves understood. There are thousands of notions that are impossible to translate into popular language. Conceptions that are too general and goals that are too remote are equally out of its range.
    • Because of this difficulty, wise legislators must appeal to divine inspiration. The legislators put the laws they wish to impose upon the people into the words of the immortals, convincing the people of the rectitude of the pending law by this necessary prevarication. However, the legislator and his laws must possess wisdom, or they will not last.

Section 8 – The People

  • The legislator does not begin laying down laws good in themselves, but first investigates the fitness of the people to receive them.
  • When once customs have become established and prejudices inveterate, it is dangerous to attempt their reformation.
  • Liberty may be gained, but can never be recovered.

Section 9 – The People (continued)

  • In every body politic there is a maximum strength which it cannot exceed and which it loses by increasing in size. Generally speaking, a small state is stronger in proportion than a great one.
  • Long distance makes administration difficult.
  • The people have less affection for their ruler who they never see, less affection for their country which is indistinguishable from the entire world, and less affection for their fellow citizens who mostly are unknown to them. The same laws do not often suit diverse provinces with diverse customs, situated in different climates.
  • A state ought not to be too small; for they need sufficient strength to preserve itself against the shocks it will inevitably experience.
  • There is a mean most favorable to the preservation of the State which must be determined by a learned statesman on a case-by-case basis.
  • A strong and healthy constitution is the first thing to establish.
  • Section 10 – The People (continued)
    • A body politic may be measured two ways – by the extent of its territory, or the number of its citizens. There is a just proportion between these measures; for the men make the State, and the territory sustains the men. The right relation is that the land should suffice for the maintenance and preservation of the inhabitants, and that there should be as many inhabitants as the land can maintain and preserve.
    • If there is too much land, then it is troublesome to guard and inadequately cultivated; this gives rise to wars of defense. If there is too little land, then the State depends on its neighbors for what it requires; this gives rise to wars of offense.
  • Section 11 – The Various Systems of Legislation
    • The greatest goods of all, which are the ends of every legislative system, are liberty and equality.
    • Civil liberty has already been defined by Rousseau. It is to obey laws that we have prescribed to ourselves. By equality, Rousseau does not mean that the degree of power and riches ought to be absolutely identical for everybody, but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall be wealthy enough to buy another, and none so poor as to need to sell himself. There should be neither rich men, nor beggars; for they are both equally fatal to the common good.
    • Some argue that this type of equality is an unrealistic ideal. But Rousseau states that it is precisely because the force of circumstances tends to continually destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance.
    • Every nation has something in itself that gives them a particular application – the Jews and Arabs chief object was religion, Athenians letters, Carthage and Tyre commerce, Rhodes shipping, Sparta war, and Rome virtue.
    • What makes a constitution lasting is the due observance of what is proper for that particular nation.
  • Section 12 – The Division of Laws
    • There are many relations in a State. The first relation is between the whole and the whole, the State in relation to itself. Laws which regulate this relation are known as political or fundamental laws which determine the form of the government.
    • The second relation is between members of the society. Civil laws arise from this relation.
    • The third relation is between members and the law. Criminal laws arise from this relation.
    • The fourth type of law is one not written on tablets, but in the hearts of every citizen. It is the law of morality, of custom, and of public opinion. The success of the state depends upon these unwritten laws. The great legislator concerns himself with these laws in secret, though he seems to confine himself to particular regulations; for these laws form the immovable keystone of the governmental arch.

Truth is no road to fortune.

There are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations.

It is legitimate, because based on the social contract, and equitable, because common to all; useful, because it can have no other object than the general good, and stable, because guaranteed by the public force and the supreme power.

He who wills the end wills the means too.

IN order to discover the rules of society best suited to nations, a superior intelligence beholding all the passions of men without experiencing any of them would be needed. This intelligence would have to be wholly unrelated to our nature, while knowing it through and through; its happiness would have to be independent of us, and yet ready to occupy itself with ours; and lastly, it would have, in the march of time, to look forward to a distant glory, and, working in one century, to be able to enjoy in the next. It would take gods to give men laws.

Wise men, if they try to speak their language to the common herd instead of its own, cannot possibly make themselves understood. There are a thousand kinds of ideas which it is impossible to translate into popular language. Conceptions that are too general and objects that are too remote are equally out of its range: each individual, having no taste for any other plan of government than that which suits his particular interest, finds it difficult to realize the advantages he might hope to draw from the continual privations good laws impose.

When once customs have become established and prejudices inveterate, it is dangerous and useless to attempt their reformation; the people, like the foolish and cowardly patients who rave at sight of the doctor, can no longer bear that any one should lay hands on its faults to remedy them.

Liberty may be gained, but can never be recovered.

In book 2 of The Social Contract, Rousseau discusses whether the general will is infallible. This is very important to determine because the general will guides the actions of a society, the actions which are necessary for the preservation of the society. Rousseau state that the general will is able to express itself where there are no political factions, and citizens are adequately furnished with information and allowed to think for themselves rather than manipulated by other people.

When I compare the writings of Locke with Rousseau, I find that Locke is a much more insightful and convincing political thinker than Rousseau. Rousseau makes many assertions without much support. Locke, on the other hand, is very thorough and systematic in setting forth a proposition and supporting it with anecdotal evidence and appeals to logic and reason. However, Rousseau’s writings are much more colorful and entertaining to read. To conclude, Locke is like a rigid professor, while Rousseau is like an intelligent, outspoken teenager.

The Social Contract (Penguin Classics)

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