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On The Social Contract
or, Principles of Political Right

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

(Geneva, 1762)

Born in 1712 at Geneva, one of Europe's few enduring democratic enclaves, Rousseau, by way of spells as a notary, a coppersmith and a musical composer, fell in among the Enlightenment thinkers of Paris. His ideas on education angered the French parliament and his advocacy of freedom of religion led to physical attacks. But it was The Social Contract which presented the wild and dangerous idea that it is the people who make up a State, the inalienable Sovereign Body Politic, who, alone, should take responsibility for their own government. It played a great part in setting The West aflame in violent revolution, so that Napoleon, musing before Rousseau's tomb, is said to have wondered whether it might not have been better for the world if neither of them had ever been born.
Such espousal of individual freedom has not always made Rousseau popular - his books have been banned by the church from 1766, in the USA from 1929, and the Soviet Union from 1935.
Abridged: GH

On The Social Contract
or Principles of Political Right

Foederis æquas Dicamus leges.
[Let us set equal terms for the truce,
- Virgil, The æneid]

This little treatise is the least unworthy part of a longer work, which I began years ago, without then realising my limitations.

I MEAN to inquire if there can be any sure and legitimate method of civil administration, which will take men as they are, and laws as they might be; uniting justice and necessity. If I were a Prince or a Legislator, I should not waste time in words; I should do it. But, as I was born a citizen of a free State, I feel that my right to vote makes it my duty to study laws, and reflecting upon governments, I find always new reasons to love that of my own country.

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in irons. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this come about? If I took into account only the effects of force, I should say: "When a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; but when it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better." The social order is a sacred and basic right, but it does not come from nature, it is founded on convention.

The family may be called the natural model of political societies: the ruler being he father, the people, the children. Grotius and Hobbes, however, write about the human species as like herds of cattle, Caligula concluded that either kings were gods, or that men were beasts, and Aristotle said that men are not equal naturally; some are born for slavery, and others for dominion.

But strength alone is never enough to make a man master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. To yield to physical force is an act of prudent necessity, not of will. If a brigand with a pistol demands my purse, I will surrender it. But if I could withstand him, am I still conscience-bound to give it up? Force does not create right; we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers.


SINCE no man has natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that legitimate authority comes only from agreed conventions between men. If an individual, says Grotius, can alienate his liberty and make himself a slave, why could not a whole people do the same and make itself subject to a king? But a man who becomes a slave does not give himself, he sells himself, at least for his subsistence: but what could a people sell itself for? Far from giving his subjects sustenance, a King takes his from them. Perhaps the despot offers security, but what when his ambition leads to wars? Tranquillity is found in dungeons; but does that make them desirable places to live? To say that a man gives himself gratuitously, is to say that he is mad, and madness creates no right.

Even if a man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children. To renounce liberty is incompatible with man's nature; To subdue a multitude is not to rule a society.


MEN, in the State of Nature, must have reached some point when the obstacles to maintaining their state exceeded the ability of each individual. The human race must then perish, or change. But, as men cannot create new forces, only unite and direct existing ones, they can preserve themselves only by combining.

The problem then is to find a form of association which "Will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate, yet in which each may still freely obey himself alone." The solution to this fundamental problem is the Social Contract. The clauses of this contract may be reduced to one- the total giving of all the rights of every individual to the community, in the knowledge that, because the same condition applies to everyone, no one has any interest in making them harsh, and no associate has anything more to demand.

Such an association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the people assembled. This public person, formed by the union of many, is called a city, or a Republic or Body Politic, its people citizens, the members of, and collective owners of, The Sovereign power.

But, in order then that the Social Contract may not be an empty formula, it asserts that whoever refuses to obey the General Will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free. In this lies the key to the political machine, this alone legitimises civil undertaking.

The passage from the State of Nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man; by substituting justice for instinct, and duty for physical impulses, it gives his actions a morality they formerly lacked. What man loses by the Social Contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of his possessions.


I hold then, that Sovereignty, being the exercise of the General Will, can never be alienated, and that the Sovereign, who is actually a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself.

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 correct. The people is never corrupted, but is often deceived.

It is therefore essential, if the General Will is to express itself, that there should be no partial factions within the State, that each citizen should think only his own thoughts. But if there are partial societies, it is best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from being unequal, as was done by Solon.

Each man alienates, by the Social Contract, only such of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control. It is not a convention between a superior and an inferior, but a convention between the body and each of its members. It is legitimate, because it is based on the Social Contract. It is equitable, because it is common to all. It is useful, because it can have no other object than the general good, and it is stable, because it is guaranteed by the supreme power.

Thus it is clear that the Social Contract does not involve any real renunciation by individuals, rather, the contract gives them the advantage of security and protection.


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. But I feel my heart restraining my pen; let us leave these questions to the just man who has never offended.


All justice comes from God, and if we knew how to receive such high inspiration, we should need neither government nor laws.

In the State of Nature, where everything is common, I owe nothing to him whom I have promised nothing. But in a society, rights are fixed by law. But what, in society, is a law?

I give the name "Republic" to every State governed by laws, no matter what its form of administration. Now, the people, being subject to the laws, ought to be their author, but how? But how can a blind multitude, often ignorant even of its own good, carry out the great and difficult enterprise of legislation?

To discover the rules best suited to a nation would need an extraordinary intellect, able to understand human nature and human happiness, yet not be part of it, to be able to work in one century for the benefit of the next. In short, it would take gods to give men laws. Legislators therefore, in all ages, have claimed that the gods direct their wisdom. But it is not anybody who can make the gods speak. Any man may carve tablets of stone, or bribe an oracle. He may perhaps gather a band of fools; but he will never found an empire. We should not conclude that politics and religion have the same purpose, but that, when nations arise, the one is used as an instrument for the other.


Just as an architect surveys the site to see if it will bear the weight of the building, so the wise Legislator begins by investigating the fitness of the people. Most peoples, like most men, are docile in youth; but become incorrigible as they grow old. Once customs have become inveterate, reform is dangerous or useless. Thus, Russia will never really be civilised, because Peter the Great tried to make his barbarous people into Germans or Englishmen, when he ought to have been making Russians. The period at which a State is first established is the moment when it is most vulnerable. Usurpers always choose troublous times to pass destructive laws, which is one of the surest means of distinguishing the Legislator from the tyrant.

What people are ready for new legislation? One bound by common or interests, but unaware of the yoke of law. One that is secure, but without ingrained superstitions. These conditions are rarely found united, thus few States have good constitutions.

If we ask what great good should be the end of legislation, we shall answer liberty and equality. To this end, every good legislative system need modifying to local situations. If, for instance, the soil is unproductive, or the land crowded, the people should turn to crafts, and exchange manufactures for the commodities they lack. If they dwell in fertile lands, or lack inhabitants, they should attend to agriculture. If a nation dwells on a convenient coast, let it cover the sea with ships and foster commerce and navigation. It will have a life that will be short, but glorious.

Thus, among the Jews and the Arabs, the chief object was religion; among the Athenians, letters; at Carthage, commerce; at Rhodes shipping; at Rome, virtue.

If the commonwealth is to be put into the best possible shape, there are various relations to be considered. There is the action of the Body Politic body upon itself, there is the civil law and the criminal law. With these three goes a fourth law, which is not graven on marble or brass, but on the hearts of the citizens. I am speaking of morality, of custom, above all of public opinion; a power unknown to political thinkers, yet on which everything else depends.


Government is an intermediate body set up between the subjects and the Sovereign, whose members are called magistrates, kings or governors, and the whole body bears the name Prince. Good government should be proportionately stronger as the people is more numerous. But, as the State grows, the number of magistrates may increase to the extent that the relative force or activity of the government decreases. From this it follows that 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.


Strictly, there never has been a real democracy, and never will be. It is against nature for the many to govern the few, and it is unimaginable that the whole people should be forever assembled to consider public affairs. A true democratic government requires a very small, simple, State, where the people can readily be got together, where each citizen can know all the rest, and where there are few inequalities.

No government is so subject to civil wars and divisions as democratic government, because none is so prone to change. Under such a constitution the citizen should arm himself with strength and constancy, and say, every day of his life; "Better freedom with danger than peace with slavery". Were there a nation of gods, their government would be democratic. Such perfect government is not for men.

Hereditary aristocracy is the worst of all governments; but elective aristocracy is the best, and is an aristocracy properly so called. Assemblies are more easily held, and the credit of the State is better sustained. It is the best and most natural arrangement that the wisest should govern the many, as long as they govern for its profit, and not for their own.

Monarchy is really suitable only for large States, and Royal government is clearly the strongest. But if, according to Plato, the "king by nature" is such a rarity, and as royal education seems only to corrupt, what is to be hoped from men brought up to reign? Kings will come to the throne wicked or incompetent, or the throne will make them so.


Liberty, as Montesquieu held, not being a fruit of all climates, is not within the reach of all peoples.

Government produces nothing; it takes only from the land and the people. Thus we find, in every climate, natural causes for the form of government; barren lands remain uncultivated, or are peopled by savages; lands yielding mere subsistence are inhabited by barbarians. Lands with a moderate surplus suit free peoples; those abundant and fertile call for monarchical government, with the surplus being consumed by the luxury of the Prince: which is preferable to it being dissipated among individuals.

Yet, to get an equal product, what a difference there must be in tillage: in Sicily, there is only need to scratch the ground; in England, how men must toil! Persia abounds less in commodities because the inhabitants need less. Chardin says that "They are very proud of their manner of life, pointing out how their complexion excels that of Christians. Their skins are fine and smooth; while their subjects, the Armenians, who live the European way, are rough and blotchy." In India, there are millions whose subsistence does not cost a halfpenny a day. Even in Europe, a Spaniard will live for a week on a German's dinner.

To all these points may be added another, that hot countries need inhabitants less than cold countries, yet can support more of them. Such a double surplus is all to the advantage of despotism.


AS the individual will acts against the General Will, so government continually opposes Sovereignty. This unavoidable defect tends ceaselessly to destroy it, as age and death destroy the human body.

If Sparta and Rome perished, what State can hope to endure for ever? We must not attempt the impossible in trying to set up eternal government, nor try to endow man with a stability which is beyond humans. The Body Politic begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction.


IT is not enough for the assembled people to fix the constitution of the State; they must hold assemblies on fixed and known dates, properly summoned by the appointed magistrates in accordance with established laws.

Such assemblies, which are the aegis of the Body Politic and the curb on government, terrify rulers, who take any chance they can to stop them.

The people of England thinks itself free; but it is free only during the parliamentary elections. As soon as they are over, slavery overtakes them, and they are nothing. The use they make of the brief moments of liberty shows indeed that it deserves to lose it.

The idea of representation is modern. In Greece, all that the people had to do, it did for itself; by assembling in the public square; but they had a generous climate, no natural greed, and slaves to do their work for them. Without the same advantages, how can you preserve the same rights? Is liberty to be maintained only by slavery? It may be so. Extremes meet.

As for you, you modern peoples, you have no slaves, but you are slaves yourselves. I do not mean to encourage slavery, merely show why modern peoples, believing themselves to be free, have representatives, while ancient peoples had none.


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 with the State, and that is the act of association, which in itself excludes the existence of any other contract.

The institution of government is a law, not a contract. The holders of executive power are the people's officers, not its masters; for them there is no question of contract.

When therefore the people sets up an hereditary government, monarchical or aristocratic, the administration is provisional, until the people chooses to order it otherwise. But changes are always dangerous, established government should be touched only when it fails the public good. Change must be measured, lest the Prince, under the pretext of keeping the peace, tries to extend his powers,

The periodical assemblies of which I have spoken are designed to prevent or postpone this calamity, above all when they need no formal summoning; so the Prince cannot stop them without declaring himself a law-breaker.


IT may be seen that the way in which general business is managed gives an indication of the health of the Body Politic. Long debates, dissension and tumult proclaim the ascendancy of individual interests and the decline of the State. At the other extreme, unanimity recurs when the citizens, having fallen into servitude, use their votes out of fear or flattery; deliberation ceases, and only worship or malediction is left.

Now, a difference of one vote destroys equality; but there are several grades of unequal division, which may be regulated by two general rules. First, the more grave and important the questions discussed, the nearer should opinion approach unanimity. Secondly, the more a matter calls for speed, the smaller the difference in the numbers of votes may be allowed; where an instant decision is needed, a majority of one should suffice.

There are two possible methods to choose the Prince and the magistrates; choice and lot. Both have been employed in various republics, and a mixture of the two still survives in the election of the Doge at Venice.

"Election by drawing lots is natural to democracy..." says Montesquieu, it is "unfair to nobody, and gives each citizen some hope of serving his country." Election by lot would have few disadvantages in a real democracy, but I have already said that real democracy is only an ideal. When choice and lot are combined, positions that require special talents, such as military posts, should be filled by the former; the lottery for cases such as judges, in which good sense, justice, and integrity are enough.

I should now speak of the methods of counting opinions in the assembly of the people; but perhaps an account of the Roman constitution will better illustrate my point.


Voting, among ancient Romans, was simple; each man declared himself aloud. But, when the people grew corrupt, each man was allowed to privately record his preference on a tablet, though the honesty of the counting officers remained suspect. Edicts were issued to prevent the buying of votes, but their very number proves how useless they were.

THE inflexibility of the laws, may, in certain cases, bring about, at a time of crisis, the ruin of the State. In these rare and obvious cases, provision is made for public security by a particular act entrusting it solely to one, worthy Dictator. Whenever this important trust is conferred, it is important that its duration should be fixed at a very brief period, incapable of being prolonged, lest the dictatorship become either tyrannical or idle. At Rome, the dictators held office for six months only; time enough to provide against the need that had caused him to be chosen; but insufficient to invent new tyrannies.

JUST as the law is the declaration of the General Will, so the Censorship is the declaration of public judgement. Men always love what is good; it is in judging what is good that they go wrong. A Censorship upholds morality by preventing opinion from growing corrupt, by preserving it through wise applications, and sometimes simply by defining it.

It is impossible to admire too much the art with which this resource, wholly lost today, was employed by the Romans and the Lacedæmonians. A man of bad morals having once presented a good proposal in the Spartan Council, the Ephors ignored it, and had a virtuous citizen make the same proposal. What an honour for the one, and what disgrace for the other, without praise or blame of either! No actual punishment would have been so severe.


AT first men had no kings save gods, and no government save priests. But, when Jesus set up a spiritual kingdom, he separated the theological from the political; the State was no longer one, and thus began the divisions that trouble Christianity still.

We are told that true Christians would form a perfect society. Yet, if all the citizens were good Christians, a single self-seeker, a Catiline or a Cromwell, would soon get the better of them. To drive out the usurper, violence would have to be employed, which accords ill with Christian meekness. Christianity preaches servitude and dependence, a spirit entirely favourable to tyranny. True Christians are made to be slaves.

But, let us come back to our point. It is important to the community that each citizen should have a religion that will make him love his duty. There is a sort of purely non-religious faith, which the Sovereign should fix. While it can compel no one to believe, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe- not for impiety, but as an anti-social being.

The dogmas of this civil religion ought to be few and simple, without explanation or commentary: The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the Social Contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance is to be forbidden.

Tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship. Whoever dares to say: "Outside the Church there is no salvation", ought to be driven from the State.


HAVING laid down the true principles of political right, and tried to give basis to the State, I ought next to look to the laws between nations. But this is too vast a subject.

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