Summary and quotes of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract

Rousseau's The Social Contract.
In summarising this political masterpiece, the four-part division is maintained and is referred to as Book I through to book IV. Book I seeks to make us understand how man graduated from being self-serving to being civil, why there was a need for the change and what political benefits necessitated it.
Book II tries to expose what kept sovereignty, its alienability, indivisibility and limits. The source of power of every sovereignty, which was in its laws as agreed upon by all was also examined and who the lawgiver was and how he came about with its different but important systems. Finally the people, their motivation and composition was glimpsed at.
Book III demystified government, its forms, institutions, preservation, classes and intersections. It also went further to show why different government are suitable for different countries and people.
Book IV explains the indestructibility of the general will and its motivations. It also ran an expose of the roman government, its build up, mainstay and peculiarities.

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote the timeless piece “The Social Contract” in a bid to stoke the embers of self-rule and freedom in France and in the French. He aimed to decipher what right permits with what interest prescribes. (p.1) He was not a prince or a legislator otherwise he wouldn’t waste time saying what ought to be done when he could as well do it. (p. 1) The social contract’s main theme is that “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” (p.1)  These bondage arises from political brigandage (for the masses) and political supremacy (for the elites) because according to the author “those who think themselves the master of others are indeed greater slaves than they” (p.2)

Rousseau drew an analogy between family life and political societies. He stated that children’s allegiance to the family and its structure was strengthened for as long as they need the family for preservation. Citizens’ responsibility to the tstate was freely given for as long as the state could promise the citizens preservation. Although Grotius disputed the ideology that “all human governments were instituted for the governed.” (p.3) citing slavery as his example. Grotius, Philo, and Aristotle in different ways highlighted the seeming superiority of rulers over their subjects or euphemistically governed.

“Force made the first slaves and their cowardice perpetuates their slavery.” (p.4) Slavery is an act of necessity and not of will; (p.5) It therefore cannot be construed as a moral duty since might does not make right. This duty of obedience is coerced and not legitimately derived.  For legitimate authority to be acquired it must be by covenants. Still quoting Grotius, it is possible for a whole people to alienate their freedom and become subject to a king, but Jean Jacques Rousseau contested this because of the parasitic nature of the relationship; kings draw nourishment from the people but what do the people get in return? Civil tranquility? This is of no more consequence if the tranquility benefits only one man, the king. Such peace is likeable to the one found in dungeons. Yet despite the peace found in them dungeons are not desirable. (p.7) The perpetuity of such a relationship stated above cannot be guaranteed because although a man can “sell” his freedom he cannot (or maybe should not) “sell” that of his children. What then is the authority or legitimacy of a government that cannot succeed a generation?

Despite the arguments of Grotius et al, slavery is not a government because there is no reciprocity in the covenant. Right or covenant and slavery are two contradictory words. There is no right or covenant in slavery. This is the misconceived ‘right of the strongest” and the promulgation of the jungle “survival of the fittest.” Without a covenant and the people freely giving themselves over to a ruler there can be no just governance because “the people must first be a people” (p.13) before being capable of submitting to a king. Being a people and submitting to a king are acts of agreement including the agreement that gave rise to majority winning the vote as there are hardly unanimity where there are hundreds of people gathered together. “What right has the 100 who wants to have a master to vote on behalf of the 10 who do not?”

The agreement or social pact is the result of attaining a level where the need for group preservation becomes greater than that of self-preservation. The social pact is the harbingerof the republic. Referred to as the state in its passive state and the sovereign in its active state. When being compared, it is referred to as power and the people associated with it are called “a people individually referred to citizens and subjects when under the laws of the state (p.16 & 17) although these words are used interchangeably in everyday language.

For this social pact to stand as a sovereign with authority and the ability to subject and individual will to the general will, there shall be the application of force by the whole body, an occasion that shall be previously agreed upon, thereby forcing the individual to be free. (p. 19)
The beauty of a sustained pact is the graduation from the erstwhile state of nature to the civil society, upholding justice in place of nature and instinct. In this civil society, man begins to think, not only of himself, but for others, and is compelled to act on principles instead of impulse. In this higher level of society, he trades his natural liberty and absolute right for civil liberty and the legal right of property that is the right in what he possesses. (p.21) The right of the strongest is transmuted to the right of the first occupant although this latter right was weak in the state of nature but it is very strong in the civil society. What this right makes one aware of is less what belongs to others than what does not belong to oneself. There are salient rules that must be observed for this right to be respected such as (1.) there must not be a previous occupant. (2.) that he occupies what he needs for subsistence and (3.) that he takes possession by actually cultivating the soil. (p.22) In closing book I, Rousseau observed that the social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality that nature may have imposed on Mankind; so that however unequal instrength and intelligence, men become equal by coveneant and by right. (p.25)
Book 2
It is noteworthy that the general will synchronises the energies that brings about the common good, for harmony between private interests made the setting up of civil societies possible. Society was birthed at the point where the different private interests coincided. This therefore warrants the inalienability of sovereignty. However, although the private will coincides at times with the general will, it is not regular and enduring “because the private will inclines by its very nature towards partiality and the general will towards equality.” (p. 26) The sovereign may be able to guarantee what a citizen want now but can never guarantee what he will want tomorrow. Sovereignty is indivisible in that “either the will is general or it is not.” (p.28) however political juggernauts, unable to divide the principle of sovereignty, divide it in its purpose; such as power and will, executive and legislative, domestic and foreign jurisdiction etc This dichotomy results that they take the manifestation of sovereignty‘s authority to be parts of the authority. Such people like Grotius wrote their expose in bias. Grotius was granted refuge in the French court by Louis XIII and dedicated his book to him but did not hesitate to divest the  people of their rights. Barbeyrac, his translator, in turn dedicated his translation to King George I of England. They couldn’t tell the truth because “the truth brings no man a fortune.” (p. 30)
The general will can err but not out of their will but unknowingly. “The people is never corrupted but can be misled.”(p. 30) only under such circumstances does the general will err. The aggregate of the individual will differs from the general will because the later seeks the common good while the former studies private wills. The general wills can also be contaminated when there are different sectional groups because the votes will no longer be in relation to the number of men but rather to the number of groups. So if one of the groups is now so large that its interest and votes outweighs the other groups then the general will is decimated and then ceases to exist. For the general will to thrive there should not be sectional groups, or if there be their numbers should be multiplied to prevent inequality among them.
Sovereignty can have boundaries and this occurs when although it springs from all it no longer applies to or benefits all; for sovereignty derives its power from the people and every man in his voting always thinks of himself first. So when the general will is not general in its purposes it loses its strength. When considering the above, it should be noted that “the general will derives its generality less from the number of votes than from the common interest which unites them.” (p.34) Sovereignty should bind and benefit all the citizens equally and should recognize the body as a whole and not in parts of its composition. The sovereign has no power to impose more burdens on one subject than on another. Sovereignty should be legitimate, equitable, useful and durable.
If individuals do not have the right to take their own lives how then do they transfer the rights to the sovereign to defend it? “because every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it.” (p. 37) self-preservation is the first priority of any being including the social pact. In achieving this aim, certain casualties may not be unavoided during the process because “whoever wishes to preserve his own life at the expense of others must give his life for them when necessary.”  (p. 37)
The general will gives life and existence to the body politic, while the law gives it the power of movement. “The law considers all subjects collectively and all actions in the abstract. “(p. 41) the law may rule for a class or position or issue but cannot nominate an individual for that benefit. Laws are acts of the general will and so we can no longer ask who makes the laws; nobody can be above the law because everybody is part of the state whereupon the law governs. The law can never be unjust because no one is unjust to himself. The laws are never binds nor does it curtail our freedom because it is an expression of our desires.
“The right of laying down the rules of society belongs only to those who form the society; but how can they exercise it?” (p. 43) Is it by common agreement or sudden aspiration? This brings into question the lawgiver. An ideal lawgiver should be of superior intelligence because “by themselves the people will what is good but by themselves they do not always discern it.” (p. 43) the lawgiver should understand men’s passion but should be above it. He should know men’s nature but should have no attachment to it. His happiness should also be independent of men’s but he should make it his chief aim. And he should have the perseverance to labour now and enjoy the benefits in the future. Gods are needed to be lawgivers because if great princes are hard to come by how about great lawgivers? In being lawgivers, men must divest themselves of their powers and assume external powers. While men’s natural power decreases, his assumed powers should increase peaking them to the highest point in lawgiving. It should be known that “he who has command over laws must not have command over men otherwise the laws would merely perpetuate injustices. Since the lawgiver cannot therefore use neither force nor arguments, he must have recourse to another authority of another order that can “compel without violence and persuade without convincing” (p. 47)
The people are the substrate upon which civil societies are raised. They ought to be taught and directed from infancy because “once customs are established and prejudices noted, reform is a dangerous and fruitless enterprise” (p.49) Leaders should endeavour to make the people into what they ought to be instead of imitating other people and their cultures. Administration and government becomes difficult and more ineffective over great distances and large areas. The people are burdened by orders they cannot easily relate with and financial changes that do not immediately benefit them. In comparison “the strength which comes from good governance is more reliable than the resources which large territories yield.” (p.54) The metrics of measuring a body politic are two; by land and by the number of people. There must be an optimalmix between these two to get the best result because too much land and too little people is the cause of defensive wars while the opposite is the cause of offensive wars; Both are expensive and destructive. A people should watch carefully the moment that the lawgiver chooses to give them the law; this separates tyrants from a lawgiver.
The two objectives of law is freedom and equality. The former “because any individual dependence means much strength withdrawn from the body of the state and equality because freedom cannot survive without it.” (p. 58) Equality here does not prescribe socialism or communism but a control over extremes, that is too much wealth in some and too little in others.
Book 3
Government, according to Jean Jacques Rousseau, is different from the sovereign despite people using them interchangeably. The government is the interface between the sovereign and the people. They execute laws and maintain existing freedom. Government legitimately exercises executive powers. The government receives order from the sovereign and passes it across to the people. In a balanced society “the product of the power of the citizens multiplied by itself should equal the product of the power of the citizens.” (p. 66) and as the state population is increased, the more power the government needs to control the people and consequently, the more power the sovereign needs to control the government. This goes further to state that the different kinds of government are directly proportional to the different sizes of the state. The difference being that the latter is independent of the sovereign while the former exists through the sovereign.  The sovereign and the prince (The key person in a government or the person charged with administering governance, Rousseau referred to as the prince or magistrate.) should act in concert respecting each other’s boundaries. But when the prince resolves to perform his own will the unity in the union begins to weaken and when the prince authorise the unlawful use of the public force or authority at its disposition, it creates two sovereigns; one de jure and the other de facto. This development will break the social bond and destroy the body politic. The need for the government to preserve itself is innate. It must therefore enact laws and find a way for its members to work unitedly to be able to uphold the purpose and ideals of the government creations and also create an identity or ego which will ultimately tend to its preservation. The ability of the government to relate with the state or other externalities and keep this identity is crucial to preventing its being corrupted.
A magistrate is composed of three wills. First, the private will as an individual. Secondly, the corporate will tending towards the prince and thirdly the sovereign’s will. However this order is usually found reversed in the magistrate as the individual will which should come last comes first while the sovereign will which should comes first comes last. Therefore, if the government is an individual as in monarchy, the personal will and corporate will will be merged and the corporate will highly portrayed. This makes the one-man government the most active form of government. But if the corporate will and the general will is joined together by merging, then the personal or private will will command authority because a magistrate is more active within the government than a citizen is within the state. Hence, the personal will has more influence within the government than within the state or sovereign.
Some relationships in governments that must be understood are (1.) the more the magistrates the slower administration becomes (2.) The more numerous the people, the more repressive force is needed by the government (3.) The ratio of magistrates to government should be inversely proportional to the ratio of subjects to sovereign. Finally, (4.) the more numerous the magistrates the closer the corporate will becomes to the general will, while for a single magistrate the corporate will is only a reflection of his personal will. (p.74) Democracy is when the government is in the hands of the whole people or at worse, majority of them. In aristocracy, government is in the hands of a few but when government is concentrated in the hands of one single magistrate we have a monarchical government. These three are the broadest classifications of government, although there may be different variations to achieve the optimal mix that could give the best form of government for any state. There is no stereotypic “best form of government” as any  of these three or their variations could be suitable at different times in different  places.
There is also no simple form of government. “Sometimes, the many submit to the few and sometimes the few submit to the many.” (p.90) If there was to be a simple form of government it would have been the best because it is simple. The executive power should be subordinate to the legislative power because if not it could lead to ineffective administration. This can be rectified by dividing the government so that then the government will be less powerful against the sovereign although their authority over the subjects will not diminish. Or “separate” magistrates to balance the two powers will be created. Then the government is not mixed but tempered.(p.91)
“Freedom is not the fruit of every climate and it is not therefore within the capacity of every people” (p.91) – Montesquieu. It should be known that all forms of government do not suit all countries. The state consumes everything but produces nothing. It benefits from the production of people and since production differs in different climes and the rate of consumption of governments differs from one to the other the people in a place may be more overburdened than in another. The burden is heightened not more by the level of consumption but by the distance the circle of return goes. That is from place of production to place of consumption and back to place of production. However, no matter how little the people gives if it does not return it soon exhausts and the people are consequently made penurious. “In democracy, the people are least burdened, in an aristocracy more burdened and in a monarchy it bears the greatest weight of all.” (p.92)
Determining the best government is a difficult, if not indeterminate quest, although not easily answered if it becomes about the signs of governance. People want different things from government and they want it in different ways. Subjects want public tranquillity, citizens want freedom of individuals. Subjects think severe government is best, citizens think mild government is. Subjects want crimes to be punished, citizens want them prevented. Subjects want to be feared by their neighbours, citizens want to be ignored. Subjects are happy when money circulates; citizens want the people to have “bread.” The crucial sign is simple and it is that numbers should be protected and should prosper and the best metric is the number of population. “All things being equal, the government under which, without external aids like naturalization and immigration, the citizens increase and multiply most, is infallibly the best government.” (p. 99)
The abuse of government results when the personal will acts against the general will unceasingly. The prince eventually oppresses the sovereign and breaks the social treaty. Just like old age destroy a man, this is the inherent and inevitable defect of a political body.
A government degenerates when it contracts or it dissolves. It contracts when its members reduce in numbers that is from democracy to aristocracy or from aristocracy to monarchy. A state’s dissolution occurs in two ways 1. When the constitution is upturned and the power of the sovereign is usurped. 2. When members of government act independently instead of as a body thereby creating as many princes as there are magistrates.
An abused government always dissolves into anarchy. A democracy into ochlocracy, aristocracy into oligarchy and a monarchy into tyranny. Every nation, no matter how great, must surely come to an end. Rome and Sparta are our best examples. Just like a man, the body politic begins to die as soon as it is born. However, although the preservation of a man’s life is not within its power, men have the capacity to preserve the state for as long as possible. It is not the law but legislative power that keeps a state alive.
Book IV
The general will is cannot be annihilated or corrupted but it can be subjected to the other wills especially individual wills. When a man starts selling his votes for the good of this or that man instead of the general society then the general will is subjugated. “Upright and simple men are difficult to deceive precisely because of their simplicity.” (p.122) and their administration of government matters may be peasantly and laughable but its success sure makes mockery of the refinements of other nations.
The health of the body politic can sufficiently be ascertained from the way the public affairs are run. The ease by which unanimous votes are reached is indicative of a dominant general will. Servitude, however, is on the extreme side of the scale where the wills of the people are suspended.
A man becomes a member of the state by residence (especially in Free states) which implies concurrence with the laws of the state. During voting what is being asked of each man is to adduce if the general will is for or against the proposition being laid down. The majority is a reflection of what the general will is and the man who voted against the majority is believed not to have an accurate knowledge of what the general will is for that particular case.
In determining the right size of majority, there are times that a majority of one may not suffice and there are times when they could. In the enactment of laws, the votes should approach unanimity while in the dispatch of administration the prescribed majority may be reduced. Elections of public office holders are either done by lot or by choice depending on the type of government. Democracy favours the former while aristocracy favours the latter. A change in the electioneering method can result to a change in government type.
The tribunate, a term used by Rousseau, is a distinct body that could be set up to maintain balance or serve as a buffering middle between the prince and the people or between the prince and the sovereign. It serves as a protection against any form of overbearing authority of one against the other. The “powers” of this “tribunate” is great because it is not a constitutive part of the Republic and it is devoid of any part of legislative or executive power. “Although, it can do nothing, it can prevent anything from being done.” (p.145) but like the government, the powers of the tribunate can be weakened by multiplication of its members. To therefore prevent either its corruption or its usurpation, the tribunate should  have periods when they should be suspended, although, such intervals should not be long.
The preservation of any law is in its intrinsic ability to be rigid; not malleable to every intelligent device. But the lawgiver never puts into consideration the mishmash of nature and the political climate. There are times when the laws are inadequate and the slow procedures of formalities unsuitable to resolve present circumstances. This brings into necessity the need for a dictator. In dictatorship, it “is not the authority of the laws which is being diminished, but only the form of administration… thus the suspension of the legislative authority does not abolish it; the magistrates who silences it cannot speak for it; he [the dictator] dominates it, without having the power to represent it; he can do everything except make laws.” (p.148)
Censors are important in preserving morals but not in restoring them. The censorial tribunate was created as the only spokesperson for the people’s will “just as the general will is declared by law, so is the public judgement declared by the censorial office.” (p. 151) the censorial office works by preventing the corruption of morals by preventing the integrity and sometime by settling points on which opinion is uncertain.
Kings are gods or alteratively the people are animals. – Emperor Caligula
Men are not at all equal by nature, since some were born for slavery and others born to be masters. – Aristotle.
Force made the first slaves; their cowardice perpetuates their slavery.
The strongest man is never strong enough to be master all the time unless he transforms force into right, and duty into obedience.
All powers comes from God, I agree; but so does every disease, and no one forbids us to summon a physician.
There is peace in dungeons, but that is not enough to make dungeons desirable?
He who is entitled to demand everything owes nothing.
For what right can my slave have against me? If everything he has belongs to me, his right is my right, and it would be nonsense to speak of my having a right against myself.
No nation has broken its own laws less frequently than the Romans, and no nation has ever had such excellent laws.
It is sometimes possible to destroy a state without killing a single one of its member, and war gives no right to inflict any more destruction than is necessary for victory.
I hereby make a covenant with you which is solely at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I will respect it so long as I please and you shall respect it so long as I wish.
To be governed by appetite alone is slavery.
In truth, laws are always useful to those with possessions and harmful to those who have nothing.
If conflict between private interests has made the setting up of civil societies necessary,, harmony between those same interests has made it possible.
The people is never corrupted but it is often misled.
Harmony between two interests is created by opposition to a third.
The harmony of all interests is created by opposition to those of each.
A man cannot work for others without at the same time working for himself.
Every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it.
Whoever wills the end wills also the means, and certain risks, even certain casualties are inseparable from these means.
Whoever wishes to preserve his own life at the expense of others must give his life for them when necessary.
Frequent punishments are a sign of weakness or slackness in the government.
There is no man so bad that he cannot be made good for something.
By themselves the people always will what is good, but by themselves they do not always discern it.
Individuals see the good and reject it; the public desires the good but do not see it.
Gods would be needed to give men laws.
At the birth of political societies it is the leaders of the republic who shape the institutions but that afterwards it is the institutions which shape the leaders of the republic.
For he who has command over men must not have command over laws, neither must he who has command over m=laws have command over men; otherwise, the laws, being offspring of the legislators passions, would often merely perpetuate his injustices, and partial judgements would inevitably vitiate the sanctity of his works.
Worthless tricks may set up transitory bonds but only wisdom makes lasting ones.
Nations, like men, are teachable only in their youth; with age they become incorrigible.
Liberty can be gained but never regained.
Peter the Great urged his subjects to be what they were not and so prevented them from becoming what they might have been.
The strength which comes from good governance is more reliable than the resources which large territories yield.
At the end of their greatness lay the inevitable moment of their fall.
He must make his decisions in the light not of what he sees, but of what he foresees.
Usurpers always choose troubled times to enact, in the atmosphere of general panic, laws which the public would never adopt when passion were cool.
One of the surest ways of distinguishing the work of a lawgiver from that of a tyrant is to note the moment he chooses to give a people its constitution.
The force of circumstances tend always to destroy equality, the force of legislation ought always to tend to preserve it.
When a paralytic resolves to run and when a fit man resolves not to move, both stay where they are.
We can make the same distinction between will and strength, the former is legislative power and the latter executive power.
Different governments may not be good for differeent peoples, but good for the same poeple at different times.
There is no doubt that the dispatch of public business becomes slower in proportion as there are more persons responsible for it; attaching too much importance to prudence, large bodies attach too little to luck; they miss opportunities, and they deliberate so long that they lose the profits of deliberation.
He who makes the law knows better than anyone how it should be executed and interpreted.
If there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men.
Better freedom with danger than peace with slavery.
With enough leverage, a finger could overturn the world; but to support the world, one must have the shoulders of Hercules.
It is difficult for one to whom the state has been sold not to sell it in his turn, and recover from the weak the gold which the strong have extorted from him.
When someone is brought up to command others, everything conspires to rob him of justice and reason.
A born king is a very rare being – Plato
Freedom is not the fruit of every climate, and it is not therefore within the capacity of every people – Montesquieu
In every government of the world, the public person consumes but does not produce anything.
Despotism, instead of governing the people to make them happy, makes them miserable in order to govern them.
A usurper against royal authority is called a tyrant and the usurper of the sovereign power is a despot.
Why then do ancient laws command so much respect? Precisely because they are ancient. We must believe that it is the excellence of such laws that has enabled them to last so long.
Base minds do not believe in great men; low slaves jeer in mockery at the word “freedom.”
The walls of towns are made only from the debris of rural houses.
In the presence the represented there is no longer any representation.
Good laws lead men to make better ones; bad laws lead to worse.
As soon as someone says of the business of the state – “What does it matter to me?” – then the state must be reckoned lost.
Upright and simple men are difficult to deceive because of their simplicity.
To assert that the son of a slave is born a slave is to assert that he is not born a man.
Just as the diet of healthy people is unsuited to the sick, so one should not try and give to a corrupt people the laws as those which suit a virtuous people.
For although the Tribunate can do nothing, it can prevent anything from being done.
Towards the end of the Republic, the Romans, becoming now circumspect, were as sparing in their use of dictatorship as they had once been prodigal, and with as little reason.
Among all the peoples of the world, it is not nature but opinion which governs the choice of their pleasures.
Reform the opinions of men, and their morals will be purified of themselves.
Nothing legitimate has any force once the laws have force no longer.


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