I need some help my to write paragraph ( my opinion ) about one of subjects for me . I prefer to choose the first subject . I want it ASAP .rousseau_s_social_contract.pdfThe Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Copyright ©2010–2015 All rights reserved. Jonathan Bennett
[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as
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First launched: December 2010
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Contents
BOOK 1
1. The subject of the first book . . . . . . . . . .
2. The first societies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3. The right of the strongest . . . . . . . . . . . .
4. Slavery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5. We must always go back to a first agreement
6. The social compact . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7. The sovereign . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
8. The civil state . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
9. Real estate . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
BOOK 2
1. Sovereignty is inalienable . . . . . . . . . .
2. Sovereignty is indivisible . . . . . . . . . .
3. Can the general will be wrong? . . . . . . .
4. The limits of the sovereign power . . . . .
5. The right of life and death . . . . . . . . . .
6. The law . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7. The law-maker . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
8. The people . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
9. The people (continued) . . . . . . . . . . . .
10. The people (further continued) . . . . . .
11. Differences among systems of legislation
12. Classifying laws . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
BOOK 3
1. Government in general . . . . . . . . . .
2. The source of the variety among forms of
3. Classifying governments . . . . . . . . .
4. Democracy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5. Aristocracy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
6. Monarchy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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1
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2
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3
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6
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6
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8
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9
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12
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26
27
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. . . . . . . .
government
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29
. 29
. . 31
. 33
. . 34
. 35
. 36
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.
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
7. Mixed governments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
8. No one form of government suits all countries . . . . . .
9. The signs of a good government . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
10. How government is abused. Its tendency to degenerate
11. The death of the body politic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
12. How the sovereign authority is maintained . . . . . . .
13. How the sovereign authority is maintained (continued)
14. How the sovereign authority is maintained (continued)
15. Deputies or representatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
16. What establishes government isn’t a contract . . . . .
17. What does establish government . . . . . . . . . . . . .
18. How to protect the government from being taken over
Book 4
1. The general will is indestructible
2. Voting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3. Elections . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4. The comitia in ancient Rome . .
5. Tribunes . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
6. Dictatorship . . . . . . . . . . . .
7. Censorship . . . . . . . . . . . .
8. Civic religion . . . . . . . . . . .
9. Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . .
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54
. . 54
. 55
. . 57
. 58
. 63
. 65
. 66
. . 67
. 73
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39
40
43
44
46
46
47
48
49
51
51
52
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Glossary
agreement: The item that Rousseau calls a convention is
an event, whereas what we call ‘conventions’ (setting aside
the irrelevant ‘convention’ = ‘professional get-together’) are
not events but enduring states of affairs like the conventions
governing the meanings of words, the standards of politeness,
etc. So ‘convention’ is a wrong translation; and ‘agreement’
is right.
alienate: To alienate something that you own is to bring it
about that you no longer own it; in brief, to give it away or
sell it,
arbitrary: It means ‘brought into existence by the decision
of some person(s)’. It’s no part of the meaning here (as it is
today) that the decision was frivolous or groundless.
censorship: This translates Rousseau’s censure. It doesn’t
refer to censorship as we know it today; censure didn’t have
that meaning until the 19th century. Rousseau’s topic is a
role that certain officials had in some periods of the Roman
republic, namely as guardians of, and spokesmen for, the
people’s mœurs (see below). They could be thought of as an
institutionalising of the ‘court of public opinion’. On page 67
we see him stretching the original sense.
compact, contract: These translate Rousseau’s pacte and
contrat respectively. He seems to mean them as synonyms.
constitution: In this work a thing’s ‘constitution’ is the
sum of facts about how something is constituted, how its
parts hang together and work together (so the constitution
of a state is nothing like a document). Items credited
with ‘constitutions’ are organisms and political entities; the
mention on page 66 of the constitution of a people seems
aberrant.
magistrate: In this work, as in general in early modern
times, a ‘magistrate’ is anyone with an official role in government. The magistracy is the set of all such officials, thought
of as a single body.
mœurs: The mœurs of a people include their morality, their
basic customs, their attitudes and expectations about how
people will behave, their ideas about what is decent. . . and so
on. This word—rhyming approximately with ‘worse’—is left
untranslated because there’s no good English equivalent to
it. English speakers sometimes use it, for the sort of reason
they have for sometimes using Schadenfreude.
moral person: Something that isn’t literally person but is
being regarded as one for some theoretical purpose. See for
example pages 9 and 36.
populace: Rousseau repeatedly speaks of a ‘people’ in the
singular, and we can do that in English (‘The English—what a
strange people!’); but it many cases this way of using ‘people’
sounds strained and peculiar, and this version takes refuge
in ‘populace’. On page 4, for instance, that saves us from ‘In
every generation the people was the master. . . ’.
prince: As was common in his day, Rousseau uses ‘prince’
to stand for the chief of the government. This needn’t be a
person with the rank of Prince; it needn’t be a person at all,
because it could be a committee.
sovereign: This translates souverain. As Rousseau makes
clear on page 7, he uses this term as a label for the person
or group of persons holding supreme power in a state. In
a democracy, the whole people constitute a sovereign, and
individual citizens are members of the sovereign. In Books 3
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
and 4 ‘sovereign’ is used for the legislator (or legislature) as
distinct from the government = the executive.
able’, rather more strongly than whatever it is that you and I
mean by ‘wise’.
subsistence: What is needed for survival—a minimum of
food, drink, shelter etc.
you, we: When this version has Rousseau speaking of what
‘you’ or ‘we’ may do, he has spoken of what ‘one’ may do. It
is normal idiomatic French to use on = ‘one’ much oftener
than we can use ‘one’ in English without sounding stilted
(Fats Waller: ‘One never knows, do one?’).
wise: An inevitable translation of sage, but the meaning in
French carries ideas of ‘learned’, ‘scholarly’, ‘intellectually
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
1 2.
The first societies
BOOK 1
This little treatise is salvaged from a much longer work that I abandoned long ago, having started it without thinking about
whether I was capable of pulling it off. Of various bits that might be rescued from what I had written of that longer work, what I
offer here is the most substantial and, it seems to me, the least unworthy of being published. None of the rest of it is.
I plan to address this question: With men as they are and
with laws as they could be, can there be in the civil order
any sure and legitimate rule of administration? In tackling
this I shall try always to unite •what right allows with •what
interest demands, so that •justice and •utility don’t at any
stage part company.
I start on this without showing that the subject is important. You may want to challenge me: ‘So you want to write on
politics—are you then a prince [see Glossary] or a legislator?’ I
answer that I am neither, and that is why I write on politics.
If I were a prince or a legislator I wouldn’t waste my time
saying what should be done; I would do it, or keep quiet.
As I was born a citizen of a free state, and am a member
of its sovereign [see Glossary], my right to vote makes it my
duty to study public affairs, however little influence my voice
can have on them. Happily, when I think about governments
I always find that my inquiries give me new reasons for loving
the government of my own country!
If I took into account nothing but force and what can be
done by force, I would say:
‘As long as a people is constrained to obey, it does
well to obey; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, it
does even better to shake it off. ·If its right to do so is
challenged, it can answer that·: it gets its liberty back
by the same ‘right’—·namely, force·—that took it away
in the first place. Any justification for taking it away
equally justifies taking it back; and if there was no
justification for its being taken away ·no justification
for taking it back is called for·.’
But the social order ·isn’t to be understood in terms of force;
it· is a sacred right on which all other rights are based. But it
doesn’t come from nature, so it must be based on agreements.
Before coming to that, though, I have to establish the truth
of what I have been saying.
1. The subject of the first book
The most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one,
is the society of the family. Yet the children remain attached
to the father only for as long as they need him for their
preservation; as soon as this need ceases, the natural bond
is dissolved. The children, released from the obedience they
owed to the father, and the father, released from the care he
owed his children, return equally to independence. If they
remain united, this is something they do not •naturally but
2. The first societies
Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Here’s
one who thinks he is the master of others, yet he is more
enslaved than they are. How did this change come about? I
don’t know. What can make it legitimate? That’s a question
that I think I can answer.
1
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
1 3.
The right of the strongest
•voluntarily, and the family itself is then maintained only by
agreement.
This common liberty is an upshot of the nature of man.
His first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first
cares are those he owes to himself; and as soon as he can
think for himself he is the sole judge of the right way to take
care of himself, which makes him his own master.
You could call the family the prime model of political
societies: the ruler corresponds to the father, and the people
to the children; and all of them—·ruler, people, father,
children·—because they were born free and equal don’t give
up their liberty without getting something in return. The
whole difference is that •in the family the father’s care for
his children is repaid by his love for them, whereas •in the
state the ruler’s care for the people under him is repaid not
by love for them (which he doesn’t have!) but by the pleasure
of being in charge.
Grotius denies that all human power is established in
favour of the governed, and cites slavery as a counterexample.
His usual method of reasoning is to establish •right by
•fact [meaning: . . . ‘to draw conclusions about what should be the case
from premises about what is the case’]. Not the most logical of
argument-patterns, but it’s one that is very favourable to
tyrants.
. . . .Throughout his book, Grotius seems to favour—as
does Hobbes—the thesis that the human species is divided
into so many herds of cattle, each with a ruler who keeps
guard over them for the purpose of devouring them.
Philo tells us that the Emperor Caligula reasoned thus:
As a shepherd has a higher nature than his flock does,
so also the shepherds of men, i.e. their rulers, have a
higher nature than do the peoples under them;
from which he inferred, reasonably enough, that either kings
were gods or men were beasts.
This reasoning of Caligula’s is on a par with that of
Hobbes and Grotius. Aristotle, before any of them, had
said that men are not naturally equal because some are born
for slavery and others for command.
Aristotle was right; but he mistook the effect for the cause.
Every man born in slavery is born for slavery—nothing is
more certain than that. Slaves lose everything in their chains,
even the desire to escape from them: they love their servitude,
as Ulysses’ comrades loved their brutish condition ·when the
goddess Circe turned them into pigs·. So if there are slaves
by nature, that’s because there have been slaves against
nature. Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice kept
them as slaves.
I have said nothing about King Adam; or about Emperor
Noah, the father of three great monarchs who shared out
the universe (like Saturn’s children, whom some scholars
have recognised in them). [In Genesis 9 it is said that after the
flood Noah’s three sons ruled the world.] I hope to be given credit
for my moderation: as a direct descendant of one of these
princes—perhaps of the eldest branch—I don’t know that a
verification of titles wouldn’t show me to be the legitimate
king of the human race! Anyway, Adam was undeniably
sovereign of the world, as Robinson Crusoe was of his island,
as long as he was its only inhabitant; and this empire had
the advantage that the monarch, safe on his throne, had
nothing to fear from rebellions, wars, or conspirators.
3. The right of the strongest
The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master
unless he transforms •strength into •right, and •obedience
into •duty. Hence ‘the right of the strongest’—a phrase that
one might think is meant ironically, but is actually laid down
2
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
1 4.
Slavery
4. Slavery
as a basic truth. But will no-one ever explain this phrase?
Force is a physical power; I don’t see what moral effect it
can have. Giving way to force is something you have to do,
not something you choose to do; ·or if you insist that choice
comes into it·, it is at most an act of •prudence. In what
sense can it be a •duty?
Since no man has a •natural authority over his fellow, and
•force creates no right, we are left with •agreements [see
Glossary] as the basis for all legitimate authority among men.
Grotius says:
If an individual can alienate [see Glossary] his liberty
and make himself the slave of a master, why couldn’t
a whole people alienate its liberty and make itself
subject to a king?
This contains several ambiguous words that need to be
explained, but let us confine ourselves to ‘alienate’. To
alienate something is to give or sell it. Now, a man who
becomes the slave of another does not give himself—he
sells himself at the rock-bottom price of his subsistence [see
Glossary]. But when a people sells itself what price is paid?
·Not their subsistence:· Far from providing his subjects with
their subsistence, a king gets his own subsistence only from
them. . . . Do subjects then give their persons on condition
that the king takes their goods also? I fail to see what they
have left to preserve.
‘The despot guarantees civic peace in the state’, you may
say. Granted; but what do the people gain if
•the wars his ambition brings down on them,
•his insatiable greed, and
•harassments by his ministers
bring them more misery than they’d have suffered from their
own dissensions ·if no monarchy had been established·?
What do they gain if this peace is one of their miseries? You
can live peacefully in a dungeon, but does that make it a
good life? The Greeks imprisoned in the cave of the Cyclops
lived there peacefully while waiting for their turn to be eaten.
To say that a man gives himself ·to someone else, i.e.
hands himself over· free, is to say something absurd and
Suppose for a moment that this so-called ‘right ·of the
strongest·’ exists. I maintain that we’ll get out of this
nothing but a mass of inexplicable nonsense. If force makes
right, then if you change the force you change the right
(effects change when causes change!), so that when one force
overcomes another, there’s a corresponding change in what
is right. The moment it becomes possible to disobey •with
impunity it becomes possible to disobey •legitimately. And
because the strongest are always in the right, the only thing
that matters is to work to become the strongest. Now, what
sort of right is it that perishes when force fails? If force
makes us obey, we can’t be morally obliged to obey; and
if force doesn’t make us obey, then ·on the theory we are
examining· we are under no obligation to do so. Clearly, the
word ‘right’ adds nothing to force: in this context it doesn’t
stand for anything.
‘Obey the powers that be.’ If this means submit to force,
it is a good precept, but superfluous: I guarantee that it will
never be violated! All power comes from God, I admit; but
so does all sickness—are we then forbidden to send for the
doctor? A robber confronts me at the edge of a wood: I am
compelled to hand over my money, but is it the case that
even if I could hold onto it I am morally obliged to hand it
over? After all, the pistol he holds is also a power.
Then let us agree that force doesn’t create right, and that
legitimate powers are the only ones we are obliged to obey.
Which brings us back to my original question.
3
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
inconceivable; such an act is null and illegitimate, simply
because the man who does it is out of his mind. To say the
same of a whole people is to suppose a people of madmen;
and madness doesn’t create any right.
Slavery
mine; and it doesn’t make sense to speak of my right against
myself.
Grotius and company cite war as another source for the
so-called right of slavery. The winner having (they say) the
right to kill the loser, the latter can buy back his life at the
price of his freedom; and this agreement is all the more
legitimate in being to the advantage of both parties.
Even if each man could alienate himself, he couldn’t
alienate his children: they are born men, and born free;
their liberty belongs to them, and no-one else has the
right to dispose of it. While they are too young to decide
for themselves, their father can, in their name, lay down
conditions for their preservation and well-being; but he can’t
make an irrevocable and unconditional gift of them; such
a gift is contrary to the ends of nature, and exceeds the
rights of paternity. So an arbitrary [see Glossary] government
couldn’t be legitimate unless in every generation the populace
[see Glossary] was the master who was in a position to accept
or reject it; but then the government would no longer be
arbitrary!
But this supposed right to kill the loser is clearly not
an upshot of the state of war. Men are not naturally one
anothers’ enemies. [The next sentence is expanded in ways that the
·small dots· convention can’t easily handle.] Any natural relations
amongst them must exist when they are living in their
primitive independence without any government or social
structure; but at that time they have no inter-relations that
are stable enough to constitute either the state of peace or
the state of war. War is constituted by a relation between
things, not between persons; and because the state of war
can’t arise out of simple personal relations but only out
of thing-relations, there can’t be a private war (a war of
man against man) in the state of nature, where there is no
ownership, or in the state of society, where everything is
under the authority of the laws.
To renounce your liberty is to renounce •your status as a
man, •your rights as a human being, and even •your duties
as a human being. There can’t be any way of compensating
someone who gives up everything. Such a renunciation
is incompatible with man’s nature; to remove all freedom
from his will is to remove all morality from his actions.
Finally, an ‘agreement’ to have absolute authority on one
side and unlimited obedience on the other—what an empty
and contradictory agreement that would have to be! Isn’t it
clear that if we are entitled to take anything and everything
from a person, we can’t be under any obligation to him? And
isn’t that fact alone—the fact that there is no equivalence,
nothing to be exchanged, between the two sides—enough
to nullify the ‘agreement’? What right can my slave have
against me? Everything that he has is mine; his right is
1
1 4.
Individual combats, duels and encounters are acts that
can’t constitute a state. As for the private wars that were
authorised by Louis IX of France. . . ., they were abuses of
feudal government, which was itself an absurd system if ever
there was one—contrary to the principles of natural right
and to all good government.
So war 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 belonging to their country but as defenders of it.1 And
The Romans, who understood and respected the right of war more than any other nation on earth were so scrupulous about this that a citizen wasn’t
4
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
the only enemies a state can have are other states; not men,
because there can’t be a real settled relation between things
as radically different as states and men.
1 4.
Slavery
kill an enemy except when he can’t make him a slave, so the
right to enslave him can’t be derived from the right to kill
him: it’s not fair dealing to make him spend his freedom so
as to keep his life, over which the victor holds no right. Isn’t
it clear that there’s a vicious circle in basing the right of life
and death on the right of slavery, and the right of slavery on
the right of life and death?
Even if we assume this terrible right to kill everybody, I
maintain that someone enslaved in war isn’t committed to
do anything for his master except what he is compelled to do;
and the same goes for a conquered people. [Rousseau’s point
This principle squares with the established rules of all
times and the constant practice of all civilised peoples.
Declarations of war don’t give notice to •powers as much
as to •their subjects. A foreigner—whether king, individual,
or whole people—who robs, kills or detains the subjects ·of
a country· without first declaring war on their prince is not
an enemy but a bandit. When a full-scale war is going on, a
prince is entitled to help himself to anything in the enemy
country that belongs to the public, but if he is just he will
respect the lives and goods of individuals—he will respect
rights on which his own are based. The purpose of the war
is to destroy the enemy state, so we [see Glossary] have a right
to kill its defenders while they are bearing arms; but as soon
as they lay down their weapons and surrender, they stop
being enemies or instruments of the enemy and resume their
status as simply men, and no-one has any right to take their
lives. Sometimes it is possible to kill a state without killing
any of its members; and a war doesn’t give any right that
isn’t needed for the war to gain its objective. These principles
are not those of Grotius: they aren’t based on the authority
of poets, but are derived from the nature of things and are
based on reason.
here is that the enslaved individual or the conquered people doesn’t owe
By taking an equivalent for his life,
the winner hasn’t done him a favour; instead of killing him
without profit, he has killed him usefully. He is indeed so
far from getting any •authority over the slave in addition to
his •power over him, that the two are still in a state of war
towards one another: their master/slave relation comes from
that, and this enforcement of a right of war doesn’t imply
that there has been a peace-treaty! They have reached an
agreement; but this agreement, far from ending the state of
war, presupposes its continuance.
Whatever angle we look at it from, therefore, the ‘right
of slavery’ is null and void—not only as illegitimate but also
as absurd and meaningless. The words ‘slave’ and ‘right’
contradict each other, and are mutually exclusive. It will
always be crazy to say to a man, or to a people: ‘I make an
agreement with you wholly at your expense and wholly to
my advantage; I shall keep it as long as I like, and you will
keep it as long as I like.’
the conqueror anything.]
What about the ‘right of conquest’? The only basis for
that is ‘the law of the strongest’! If war doesn’t give the
winner the right to massacre the conquered peoples, you
can’t cite that right—a ‘right’ that doesn’t exist—as a basis
for a right to enslave those peoples. No-one has a right to
allowed to serve as a volunteer without explicitly agreeing to serve against such-and-such a named enemy. [Rousseau throws in an anecdote about
a soldier whose military oath had to be renewed because etc. He continues:] I know that the siege of Clusium and other isolated events can be cited
against me; but I’m talking ·not about individual episodes, but· about laws and customs. The Romans obeyed their laws more than any other people,
and they had better laws than any other people.
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The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
5. We must always go back to a first agreement
1 6.
The social compact
6. The social compact
Let us take it that men have reached the point at which the
obstacles to their survival in the state of nature overpower
each individual’s resources for maintaining himself in that
state. So this primitive condition can’t go on; the human
race will perish unless it changes its manner of existence.
Now, men can’t create new forces; they can only •bring
together ones that already exist, and •steer them. So their
only way to preserve themselves is to unite a number of
forces so that they are jointly powerful enough to deal with
the obstacles. They have to bring these forces into play in
such a way that they act together in a single thrust.
For forces to add up in this way, many people have to
work together. But each man’s force and liberty are what he
chiefly needs for his own survival; so how can he put them
into this collective effort without harming his own interests
and neglecting the care he owes to himself? This difficulty,
in the version of it that arises for my present subject, can be
put like this:
Find a form of association that will bring the whole
common force to bear on defending and protecting
each associate’s person and goods, doing this in such
a way that each of them, while uniting himself with
all, still obeys only himself and remains as free as
before.’
There’s the basic problem that is solved by the social contract.
[For ‘agreement’ see Glossary.] Even if I granted everything that I
have refuted up to here, the supporters of despotism would
be no better off. Ruling a society will always be a quite
different thing from subduing a multitude. If any number of
scattered individuals were successively enslaved by one man,
all I can see there is a master and his slaves, and certainly
not a people and its ruler. It’s a •cluster, if you will, but
not an •association; there’s no public good there, and no
body politic. This man may have enslaved half the world
but he is still only an individual; his interest, apart from
that of others, is never anything but a purely private interest.
When this man dies, the empire he leaves behind him will
remains scattered and without unity, like an oak that falls
into a fire and dissolves into a heap of ashes when the fire
has consumed it.
A people, says Grotius, can give itself to a king; so he
must hold that a people is a people before it gives itself to a
king. This gift is itself a civic act, which has to arise from
public deliberation. Before we examine (2) the act by which
a people gives itself to a king, let’s examine (1) the act by
which the people became a people; for (1) must occur before
(2), so that (1) is the true foundation of society.
[This is the work’s first occurrence of that phrase.]
Indeed, if there were no prior agreement, what would give
the minority any obligation to submit to the choice of the
majority (unless the election was unanimous)? A hundred
men want to have a master; what gives them the right to vote
on behalf of ten who don’t? The law of majority voting is itself
something established by agreement, and it presupposes
that on at least one occasion there was a unanimous vote.
The clauses of this contract are so settled by the nature
of the act that the slightest change would make them null
and void; so that although they may never have been explicitly stated, they are everywhere the same and everywhere
tacitly accepted and recognised, until the social compact [see
Glossary] is violated and each individual regains his •original
6
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
rights and resumes his •natural liberty, while losing the
liberty-by-agreement which had been his reason for renouncing •them.
Properly understood, these clauses come down to one—
the total alienation [see Glossary] of each associate, together
with all his rights, to the whole community. ·This may
seem drastic, but three features of it make it reasonable·.
(i) Because each individual gives himself entirely, what is
happening here for any one individual is the same as what
is happening for each of the others, and, because this is
so, no-one has any interest in making things tougher for
everyone but himself.
(ii) Because the alienation is made without reserve, ·i.e.
without anything being held back·, the union is as complete
as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand.
·To see why the association has to be done in this way,
consider· what the situation would be if the individuals
retained certain rights. In the absence of any superior to
decide issues about this, each individual would be his own
judge in the first case that came up, and this would lead
him to ask to be his own judge across the board; this would
continue the state of nature, and the association would
necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.
(iii) Each man in giving himself to everyone gives himself
to no-one; and •the right over himself that the others get is
matched by •the right that he gets over each of them. So he
gains as much as he loses, and also gains extra force for the
2
1 6.
The social compact
preservation of what he has.
Filtering out the inessentials, we’ll find that the social
compact comes down to this:
’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.’
[This is the first occurrence in this work of the phrase ‘the general will’.]
This act of association instantly replaces •the individualperson status of each contracting party by •a moral and
collective body, composed of as many members as the
assembly has voix [= ‘voices’ or ‘votes’]; and receiving from this
act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will. This
public person that is formed by the union of all the other
persons used to be called a ‘city’,2 and these days is called a
‘republic’ or a ‘body politic’. Its members call it
•a ‘state’ when thinking of it as passive,
•a ‘sovereign’ when thinking of it as active, and
•a ‘power’ when setting it alongside others of the same
kind.
Those who are associated in it are collectively called ‘a
people’, and are separately called ‘citizens’ (as sharing in the
sovereign power) and ‘subjects’ (as being under the state’s
laws. But these terms are often muddled and confused with
one another: it is enough to know how to distinguish them
when they are being used with precision.
The real meaning of ‘city’ has been almost wholly lost in modern times; most people mistake a town for a city, and a townsman for a citizen. They
don’t know that houses make a town, but citizens a city. . . . I have never read of the title ‘citizens’ being given to the subjects of any prince, not even
the ancient Macedonians or the English of today, though they are nearer liberty than anyone else. Only the French casually adopt the label ‘citizens’;
that’s because they have no idea of its real meaning (you can see that from their dictionaries!). . . . They think of the name as expressing •a virtue
rather than •a right. When Bodin was trying to talk about our citizens and our townsmen, he blundered badly by confusing these two classes with
one another. M. d’Alembert avoided that error in his article on Geneva, clearly distinguishing the four orders of men (or even five, counting mere
foreigners) who dwell in our town, of which only two make up the republic. I don’t know of any other French writer who has understood the real
meaning of the word ‘citizen’.
7
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
7. The sovereign
1 7.
The sovereign
But the body politic, i.e. the sovereign, owes its very
existence to the sanctity of •the contract; so it can never
commit itself, even to another state, to do anything that
conflicts with •that original act—e.g. to alienate any part of
itself, or to submit to another sovereign. ·I’m saying not that
the sovereign ought not to do such a thing, but that it can’t
do so·: violation of the act ·of contract-making· by which it
exists would be self-annihilation; and nothing can be created
by something that has gone out of existence!
As soon as this multitude is united into one body in this
way, any offence against one of the members is an attack on
the body, and any offence against the body will be resented
by the members. Thus, the two contracting parties—the
individual member and the body politic—are obliged by duty
and by self-interest to give each other help. . . .
Now, because the sovereign is made out of nothing but its
constituent individuals, it doesn’t and can’t have any interest
contrary to theirs; so there’s no need for it to provide its
subjects with guarantee ·of treating them well·, because •the
body can’t possibly wish to hurt all its members, and—as
we’ll see later on—•it can’t hurt any individual one of them
either. The sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always
what it ought to be.
But the situation is different with respect to the relation of
the subjects to the sovereign: despite their common interest,
the sovereign would have no security that the subjects would
behave as they have committed themselves to behaving
unless it found some way to be assured of their fidelity.
The fact is that each individual •as a man can have
a particular will that doesn’t fit, and even conflicts with,
the general will that he has •as a citizen. His individual
self-interest may speak to him quite differently from how the
common interest does. He looks at the situation in this way:
This formula shows us that •the act of association involves a
two-way commitment between the public and the individuals
·belonging to it·, and •that each individual, in making a contract with himself (so to speak), acquires two commitments:
(a) as a member of the state he has a commitment to the
sovereign, and (b) as a member of the sovereign [see Glossary]
he has a commitment to each of the individuals, he being
one of them. There is a maxim of civil law that no-one is
bound by undertakings he has made to himself, but that
doesn’t apply here, because the present topic is incurring an
obligation to •a whole of which one is a part, and that is very
different from incurring an obligation to •oneself.
The proceeding I have been describing can’t give the
sovereign a commitment to itself. As I have just pointed
out, an individual subject can have a commitment to himself
in this sense: as an individual he has a commitment to
the sovereign, and as a member of the sovereign he has
a commitment to himself. But the sovereign can’t have a
commitment to itself; it doesn’t have two distinct roles ·such
that a commitment could go from it in one role and towards it
in the other·. For the sovereign to have a commitment to itself
would be like an individual person having a commitment to
himself; it just isn’t possible. And so it is against the nature
of the body politic for the sovereign to impose on itself a law
that it can’t infringe: there isn’t and can’t be any kind of
basic law that is binding on the body of the people—even
the social contract itself can’t do that. This doesn’t mean
that the body politic can’t enter into commitments with
others [i.e. with other states]. . . . It can do that, because in
relation to what is external to it—·i.e. in relation to other
states or sovereigns·—the sovereign is just a simple being,
an individual.
8
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
1 8.
The civil state
that they formerly lacked. The voice of duty has taken over
from physical impulses and ·a sense of what is· right has
take over from appetite; and now—only now—the man who
has until now considered only himself finds himself forced to
act on different principles and to consult his reason before
listening to his inclinations. In this ·civil· state he is deprived
of many advantages that he got from nature, but he gets
enormous benefits in return—his faculties are so stimulated
and developed, his ideas are extended, his feelings ennobled,
and his whole soul uplifted. All this happens to such an
extent that if the abuses of this new condition didn’t often
pull him down to something lower than he was in •the state
of nature, he would be bound to bless continually the happy
moment that took him from •it for ever, and out of a dull and
limited animal made a thinking being, a man.
Let us get a statement of profit and loss in terms that
make it easy to compare the two sides. What man loses by
the social contract is
•his natural liberty and
•an unrestricted right to anything he wants and can
get.
What he gains
•civil liberty and
•the ownership of everything he possesses.
If we’re to weigh these up accurately, we must distinguish
•natural liberty, which is limited only by the individual’s powers, from
•civil liberty, which is limited by the general will.
And we must distinguish
•possession, which is merely the effect of force or the
principle of ‘first come, first served’, from
•property, which can only be based on a positive title.
We could add on the ‘profit’ side the fact that in the civil state
a man acquires moral liberty, which alone makes him truly
’I have an absolute and naturally independent existence; ·I’m not something that exists only because
certain items have come together in an association·.
So what I am said to ‘owe’ to the common cause—·i.e.
to the body politic or sovereign whose existence is in
that way dependent on the conduct of its members·—
is really a gift, a hand-out; if I withhold it, that won’t
harm anyone else as much as it will benefit me. As
for the ‘moral person’ that constitutes the state, that’s
not a man but a mere mental construct.’
So he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without
being ready to fulfill the duties of a subject; and if that went
on for long enough it would destroy the body politic.
To protect the social compact from being a mere empty
formula, therefore, it silently includes the undertaking that
anyone who refuses to obey the general will is to be compelled
to do so by the whole body. This single item in the compact
can give power to all the other items. It means nothing less
than that each individual will be forced to be free. ·It’s
obvious how forcing comes into this, but. . . to be free? Yes·,
because this is the condition which, by giving each citizen
to his country, secures him against all personal dependence,
·i.e. secures him against being taken by anyone or anything
else·. This is the key to the working of the political machine;
it alone legitimises civil commitments which would otherwise
be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to frightful abuses.
8. The civil state
This passage from •the state of nature to •the civil state
produces a very remarkable change in man: the role that
instinct used to play in his conduct is now taken over by ·a
sense of· justice, and his actions now have a moral aspect
9
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
master of himself; for the drive of sheer appetite is •slavery,
while obedience to a law that we prescribe to ourselves is
•liberty. But I have said too much about this in other places;
and the philosophical meaning of the word ‘liberty’ doesn’t
concern us here.
1 9.
Real estate
something his property excludes him from everything else.
Having acquired share, he ought to limit himself to that,
and can’t have any further claim on the community. That’s
why the first-occupier right, which is so weak in the state of
nature, claims the respect of every man in civil society. What
a man respects in this right is not so much •what belongs to
someone else as •what doesn’t belong to him.
In general, to authorize a first occupier’s right over any
bit of ground three conditions must be satisfied:
•the ground wasn’t already occupied by someone else;
•he occupies only as much as he needs for his subsistence;
•he takes possession of this ground not by an empty
ceremony but by labour and cultivation.
His work on the land is the only sign of ownership that others
should respect if he doesn’t have a legal title.
In allowing the right of first occupancy on condition that
the land was needed and was worked on, aren’t we stretching
that right as far as it can go? Could such a right be left with
no limits or restrictions? To claim to be the master of a plot
of common ground will it be enough merely to set foot on
it? If a man has the strength to expel others for a moment,
does that deprive them of any right to return? If a man or
a people seize an immense territory and shut out the rest
of the world, won’t this be merely a grab that ought to be
punished? ·The answer is surely ‘yes’·, because such an act
steals from others the living-space and means of subsistence
that nature gave them in common. When Balboa stood on
the sea-shore and took possession of the south seas and the
whole of South America in the name of the Spanish crown,
was that enough to dispossess all their actual inhabitants
and to shut out from those territories all the princes of the
world? If so, there’s no need for all these ceremonies; the
Catholic King can take possession of the whole universe all
9. Real estate
At the moment when the community comes into existence,
each of its members gives himself to it—himself just as he is,
with any powers that he has, including all his possessions.
It is not the case that this transfer of all his goods changes
them from being •possessions in his hands to being •property
in the hands of the sovereign; but because the city’s powers are incomparably greater than any individual’s, public
possession is stronger and more irrevocable, without being
any more legitimate. [The rest of this paragraph is expanded in ways
that the ·small dots· convention can’t easily signify.] Actually, from
the point of view of the members of this state its possession
of each member’s goods [is legitimate, because the state is
the master of all their goods by the social contract which is
the basis of all rights within the state. But it’s not legitimate
from the point of view of a foreigner, because from that point
of view this state has its possessions only through the ‘first
come, first served’ principle as applied to its members and
then passed on from them to the state.
Of the two ways of getting a right to something in the
state of nature, namely
(i) being the first occupier of it, and
(ii) being the strongest,
(i) provides a right—‘·first come, first served·’—that is more
real than (ii) does; but it doesn’t become a true right until
property-rights are established. Every man has naturally a
right to everything he needs; but the positive act that makes
10
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Real estate
public good has been entrusted, and •having their rights
respected by all the state’s members and maintained against
foreign aggression by all its forces, have made a transfer that
benefits both the public and still more themselves, thereby
acquiring (as it were) everything that they gave up. This
paradox is easily explained by distinguishing the sovereign’s
right from the owner’s rights over the same estate—as we
shall see later on.
at once, tacking on a rider excluding from his claim any
territories that were already possessed by other princes!
We can imagine •how adjacent pieces of land belonging
to individuals become, when they are combined, public
territory, and •how the right of sovereignty over the subjects comes to be extended to being a right over their real
estate. This makes the land-owners even more dependent
·on the sovereign·; ·they have more to lose if things go wrong
between them and the sovereign; and· this is a guarantee
of their fidelity. The advantage of this apparently wasn’t felt
by ancient monarchs, who called themselves kings of the
Persians, the Scythians, or the Macedonians, apparently
regarding themselves as rulers of men rather than as masters
of a country. Today’s kings are cleverer: they call themselves
kings of France, of Spain, of England and so on. Holding
the land in this way, they are quite confident of holding the
inhabitants.
This alienation in which individuals transfer their goods
to the community has a special feature, namely that far from
•depriving the individuals of their goods it •assures them of
legitimate possession, changing
•‘I have taken possession of this (somehow)’ into ‘I have
a genuine right to this’, and
•’I have the enjoyment of this’ into ‘I own this’.
Thus the possessors, •in their role as those to whom the
3
1 9.
It can also happen that men •begin to unite before they
possess anything, •subsequently occupy a tract of land that
is enough for them all, and then •enjoy it in common, or
share it out among themselves (either equally or in proportions fixed by the sovereign). But however the acquisition
is made, each individual’s right to his own estate is always
subordinate to the community’s right over everyone’s estate;
without this, the social tie would be fragile and the exercise
of sovereignty would be feeble.
To bring this chapter and this book to an end, I’ll remark
on a fact that should be the basis for any social system,
namely: The basic compact doesn’t destroy natural inequality; rather, it replaces •such physical inequalities as nature
may have set up between men by •an equality that is moral
and legitimate, so that men who may be unequal in strength
or intelligence become equal by agreement and legal right.3
Under bad governments, this equality is only apparent and illusory: all it does is to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position
he has usurped. Laws in fact are always useful to those who have possessions and harmful to those who don’t; from which it follows that the social
state is advantageous to men only when everyone has something and no-one has too much.
11
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
2 2.
Sovereignty is indivisible
BOOK 2
1. Sovereignty is inalienable
because it’s absurd for the will to bind itself for the future,
and no will is obliged to consent to anything that isn’t for
the good of the being whose will it is. If then the populace
promises simply to obey, by that very act it dissolves itself
and loses what makes it a people; the moment a master
exists, there is no longer a sovereign, and from that moment
the body politic has ceased to exist.
This isn’t to deny that rulers’ commands can count as
general wills, if the sovereign is free to oppose them and
doesn’t do so. In such a case, universal silence should be
taken to show the people’s consent. I’ll explain this fully later
on.
The first and most important consequence of the principles I
have laid down is that the directing of the state in the light of
the object for which it was instituted, i.e. the common good,
must be done by the general will. The •clashing of particular
interests made it •necessary to establish a society, and the
•agreement of those same interests made it •possible to do
so. It’s the common element in these different interests that
forms the social tie; and if there were there nothing that they
all had in common, no society could exist. It is solely by this
common interest that every society should be governed.
I hold then that sovereignty, being nothing less than
the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated [see
Glossary], and that the sovereign, which is nothing but a
collective being, can’t be represented except by itself: the
power indeed may be transmitted, but not the will.
Perhaps a particular will could agree on some point with
the general will, but at least it’s impossible for such an
agreement to be lasting and constant. Why? Because
it’s of the very nature of a particular will to tend towards
•favouritism, be •partial [i.e. to favour some people over others],
whereas the general will tends towards •equality. It is even
more impossible to have any guarantee of this agreement;
for even if it did always exist that would be the effect not of
skill but of chance. The sovereign may indeed say:
‘Right now I will what that man wills (or at least what
he says he wills)’,
but it can’t say
’What that man wills tomorrow, I too shall will’,
4
2. Sovereignty is indivisible
For the same reason that makes it inalienable, sovereignty
is indivisible. Here is why. Either will (a) is general4 or it (b)
isn’t; it is the will either of (a) the body of the people or of (b)
only a part of it. When it is declared, then, either (a) it is an
act of sovereignty and constitutes law, or (b) it is merely a
particular will or
the rest of the sentence: un acte de magistrature ; c’est un
décret tout au plus.
which literally means: an act of magistracy—at the most a
decree.
what Rousseau was getting at: regulations laid down by
high-level bureaucrats, not basic laws issuing from the
legislature, the sovereign. [Re ‘magistracy’, see Glossary.]
But our political theorists, unable to divide sovereignty on
To be general, a will need not always be unanimous; but every vote must be counted: any exclusion is a breach of generality.
12
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
the basis of its •source, divide it according to its •object.
They divide it into
•force and will,
•legislative power and executive power,
•rights of taxation, justice and war,
•internal affairs and foreign relations.
Sometimes they run these sections together and sometimes
they separate them; they turn the sovereign into a fantastic
being composed of several connected pieces: it is as if they
were making man of several bodies, one with eyes, one with
arms, another with feet, and each with nothing else! We’re
told that the jugglers of Japan dismember a child before
the eyes of the spectators; then they throw the pieces into
the air one after another, and the child falls down alive and
whole. The conjuring tricks of our political theorists are
pretty much like that: having dismembered the body politic
by a huckster’s trick they then re-asssemble it. . . somehow!
This error comes from a failure to think precisely about
the sovereign authority, regarding as different •parts of it
what are really just different •emanations from it.
2 2.
Sovereignty is indivisible
If we track the other divisions in the same way, we
would find that whenever anyone takes sovereignty to be
divided there is a mistake: the rights that are taken as being
part of sovereignty are really all subordinate, and always
presuppose the existence of supreme wills that they are
merely applying.
This lack of exactness has thrown a cloud of obscurity
over the conclusions of writers on political right who have
laid down principles on the basis of which to pass judgment
on the respective rights of kings and peoples. When I try to
say how much obscurity, words fail me! Everyone can see in
Grotius’s work (Book 1 chapters 3 and 4) how the learned
man and his translator, Barbeyrac, entangle and confuse
themselves with in their own sophistries, for fear of saying
too little or too much of what they think, and so offending
the interests they have to placate. Grotius, a refugee in
France, discontented with his own country [Holland], and
wanting to pay court to Louis XIII, to whom his book is
dedicated, will go to any lengths to strip the peoples of all
their rights and clothe kings in them with every conceivable
decoration. This would also have been much to the taste
of Barbeyrac, who dedicated his translation to George I of
England. But unfortunately ·for him· the expulsion of James
II, which Barbeyrac called his ‘abdication’, compelled him
to be on his guard, to shuffle and switch positions, in order
to avoid making William ·of Orange, who succeeded James
on the throne· a usurper. If these two writers had adopted
the true principles, all ·their· difficulties would have been
removed, and they would have been always consistent; but
they’d have told the truth sadly, and they wouldn’t have
been paying court to anyone except the people. Well, the
truth is no road to fortune, and the populace doesn’t give
out ambassadorships, university chairs, or pensions.
[Rousseau seems to mean that they are just different actions that are performed under the authority of the sovereign. In distinguishing (a) parts of
the sovereign authority from (b) actions performed not by the sovereign
authority but by subordinate governmental agencies, he may be
distinguishing parts of x from actions of x, or
distinguishing the sovereign’s actions from those of subordinate
agencies.
In fact he seems to be thinking only of the second of these distinctions.
Thus, for example, the acts of declaring war and
making peace have been regarded as acts of sovereignty, but
they aren’t. None of them are laws; each of them simply
applies a law to a particular case, involving a decision ·not
about what the law is to be, but only· about how the law
applies in this case. This will be clear when the idea attached
to the word ‘law’ has been fixed.
Read on.]
13
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
3. Can the general will be wrong?
2 4.
The limits of the sovereign power
general will of its members—is still a particular [particulière]
will so far as the state is concerned; so that it can then be
said that as many votes as there are men is replaced by as
many votes as there are associations. The particular wills
become less numerous and give a less general result. And
when one of these associations is so great as to prevail over
all the rest, the result is no longer a sum of small particular
wills but a single particular will; and then there is no longer a
general will, and the opinion that prevails is purely particular
[particulier ].
If the general will is to emerge clearly it’s important that
there should be no partial society within the state, and that
each citizen should think only his own thoughts:6 which
was indeed the sublime and unique system established by
the great Lycurgus. And if there are partial societies, it’s
best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from
becoming unequal, as was done by Solon, Numa and Servius.
These precautions are the only ones that can ensure that
the general will is always enlightened and that the populace
is never in error.
It follows from all this that the general will is always in the
right and always works for the public good; but it doesn’t
follow that the people’s deliberations are always equally
correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we don’t
always see what that is; the populace is never corrupted,
but it is often deceived, and then—but only then—it seems
to will something bad. [The French for Rousseau’s endorsement of
the general will is toujours droite, which has been translated as ‘always
right’ and also as ‘always within its rights’; the matter is controversial.
The rendering ‘in the right’—here and twice more—is a cowardly compromise.]
The •will of all is very different from the •general will; the
latter looks only to the common interest, while the former
looks to private interest and is no more than a sum of
particular wills: but remove from these same wills the pluses
and minuses that cancel one another5 and what is left of
the particular wills adds up to constitute the general will. [In
that sentence, and four times in the next paragraph, ‘particular will(s)’
translates Rousseau’s différence(s)’, which in this one context he uses in
an oddly non-relational way.]
4. The limits of the sovereign power
If the populace held its deliberations (on the basis of
adequate information) without the citizens communicating
with one another, what emerged from all the little particular
wills would always be the general will, and the decision
would always be good. But when plots and deals lead to
the formation of •partial associations at the expense of •the
big association, the will of each of these associations—the
5
6
If the state or city is nothing but a moral person whose life
consists in the union of its parts, and if its most important
concern is for its own preservation, it must have a universal
force to move and place each part in the way that is most
advantageous to the whole. Just as nature gives each man
absolute power over all his members, the social compact
‘Every interest’, says the Marquis d’Argenson, ‘has different principles. What brings two particular interests into agreement is their ·shared·
opposition to a third.’ He could have added that what brings all interests into agreement is their ·shared· opposition to each. If individual interests
didn’t differ from one another, the common interest would have nothing to bump up against, and so it would hardly be felt. . . .
‘In fact,’ says Machiavelli, ‘some divisions are harmful to a republic and some are advantageous. Those that stir up sects and parties are harmful;
those attended by neither are advantageous. So, since the founder of a Republic can’t help enmities arising, he ought at least to prevent them from
growing into sects’ (History of Florence, Book 7).
14
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
gives the body politic absolute power over all its members;
and I repeat that it is this power which, under the direction
of the general will, is called ‘sovereignty’.
But as well as the public person, we have to consider the
private persons who compose it, and whose life and liberty
are naturally independent of it. So now there’s the matter of
clearly distinguishing
•the citizens’ rights from the sovereign’s,7 and
•the citizens’ duties as subjects from their natural
rights as men.
Agreed: each man alienates by the social compact only
the part of his powers, goods and liberty that it is important
for the community to control. But something else should also
be agreed: the sovereign is sole judge of what is important.
Any service a citizen can give to the state should be
performed as soon as the sovereign demands it; but the
sovereign on its side can’t impose upon its subjects any
fetters that are useless to the community. Indeed it can’t
even want to do so, because ·there’s no reason for it to want
to, and· ‘Nothing can happen without a cause’ applies under
the law of reason as much as it does under the law of nature.
The undertakings that bind us to the social body are
obligatory only because they go both ways; and their nature
is such that in fulfilling them we can’t work for others without
working for ourselves. Why is the general will always in the
right, and why do •all continually will the happiness of •each?
It can only be because there’s not a man who doesn’t think
of ‘each’ as meaning him, and considers himself in voting for
all? This shows that equality of rights, and the idea of justice
arising from it, originate in •the preference each man gives to
himself, and accordingly •in human nature. It shows •that
the general will, to be really general, must be
7
2 4.
The limits of the sovereign power
general in its object as well as its essence; i.e. must
come from all and apply to all;
and •that when it is directed to some particular and determinate object it loses its natural rightness, because in such a
case we—·the joint owners of the general will·—are judging
of something foreign to us, so that we don’t have any genuine
standards to guide us.
Indeed, as soon as a question of particular fact or right
arises in some context that hasn’t already been regulated
by a general agreement, the matter becomes contentious.
It is a case—·like a trial in a court of law·—where the
individuals concerned are on one side and the public are
on the other; but I can’t see what law should be followed or
what judge should decide. Couldn’t we ask the general will
for an explicit decision on this matter? That is an absurd
proposal: the deliverance of the general will can only be the
conclusion of one of the sides and will therefore be seen by
the other as merely an external and particular will that is
subject to error and has on this occasion fallen into injustice.
Thus, just as a particular will can’t represent the general
will, the general will. . . .—just because it is general—can’t
pronounce on a particular man or fact. When for instance
the Athenian populace nominated or displaced its rulers,
decreeing honours for one and penalties for another, and
by hosts of particular decrees exercised all the functions of
government indiscriminately, it no longer had a general will
in the strict sense; it was acting no longer as sovereign, but
as magistrate [see Glossary]. This will seem contrary to current
views; but you should give me time to expound my own.
So you can see that what makes the will general is less
the number of voices than the common interest uniting them;
for under this system each person necessarily submits to
Attentive readers, please don’t rush in with the charge that I am contradicting myself. The poverty of the language has forced this on me; but wait
and see.
15
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
the conditions he imposes on others; and this admirable
alignment of •interest with •justice gives to the common
deliberations a quality of fairness, evenness of balance,
which is visibly absent from the discussion of any particular
issue, in the absence of a common interest that would bring
unity. . . .
From whatever direction we approach our principle, we
always reach the same conclusion: the social compact creates an equality among the citizens so that they all commit
themselves to observe the same conditions and should all
have the same rights. Thus, from the very nature of the
compact, every act of sovereignty—i.e. every authentic act of
the general will—obliges or favours all the citizens equally; so
that the sovereign recognises only the body of the nation and
doesn’t distinguish among the individuals of whom it is made
up. Then what strictly speaking is an act of sovereignty? It’s
not an agreement between a superior and an inferior, but an
agreement between the body and each of its members—an
agreement that is
•legitimate, because it is based on the social contract,
•equitable, because everyone takes part in it,
•useful, because the only object it can have is the
general good, and
• stable, because guaranteed by the public force and
the supreme power.
So long as the subjects have to submit only to agreements
of this sort, they don’t obey anyone—only their own will;
and to ask how far the respective rights of the sovereign
and the citizens extend is to ask ·not two questions but
only one, namely·: Up to what point can the citizens make
commitments to themselves, each to all and all to each?
This shows •that the sovereign power—utterly absolute,
sacred and inviolable as it is—doesn’t and can’t cross the
boundaries set by general agreements, and •that every man
2 4.
The limits of the sovereign power
can do what he likes with any goods and liberty that these
agreements leave him; so that it is never right for the
sovereign to burden one subject more heavily than another,
because that involves a particular decision and ·therefore·
isn’t within the range of the sovereign’s legitimate activity.
Once these distinctions are admitted, it is ·seen to be·
false that the social contract involves any real renunciation
on the part of the individuals; so false that the situation that
the contract puts them into is really preferable to the one
they were in before. Instead of an alienation [see Glossary],
they have made an advantageous exchange, trading in
•an uncertain and precarious way of living for •one
that is better and more secure;
•natural independence for •liberty,
•the power to harm others for •security for themselves,
and
•their strength, which others might overcome, for •a
right that social union makes invincible.
Even their life, which they have dedicated to the state, is
constantly protected by it; and when they risk it in the state’s
defence, aren’t they just giving back what they have received
from it? What are they doing that they wouldn’t do oftener
and more dangerously in the state of nature, in which they
would inevitably have to risk their lives in battles in defence
of their means of survival? Everyone does indeed have to
fight when his country needs him; but then no-one ever has
to fight for himself. We may have to run certain risks on
behalf of the source of our security; the alternative is to lose
our security and run greater risks on behalf of ourselves;
haven’t we profited by this exchange?
16
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
5. The right of life and death
2 5.
The right of life and death
survival is inconsistent with his survival, and one of the two
must die; when we put the guilty to death, we’re doing this
not so much to a citizen as to an enemy. He has broken the
social treaty—the investigation and trial show this, and the
judgment declares it—so he is no longer a member of the
state. But he has recognised himself as a member if only by
living there; so he must be lopped off
by exile, as a violator of the compact, or
by death, as a public enemy.
Such an enemy isn’t a •moral person [see Glossary], he’s a
•man; and in such a case the right of war is to kill the
vanquished.
You’ll say ‘But the condemnation of a criminal is a particular act ·and is therefore, according to your chapter 4 of this
Part, not something that the sovereign can do·. Right! But
this condemnation is not something the sovereign does; it’s
a right the sovereign that can confer without being able itself
to exert it. All my ideas hang together, but I can’t expound
them all at once.
We may add that frequent punishments [supplices = ‘punishments involving death or torture’] are always a sign that the
government is weak or lazy. Every wrong-doer could be
turned to some good. There’s no right to put to death, even
for the sake of making an example, anyone who could safely
be left alive.
The right of pardoning a guilty man, or letting him off
from a penalty imposed by the law and pronounced by the
judge, belongs only to the authority that is above the judge
and the law, i.e. the sovereign; and even its right in this
matter is far from clear, and it’s hardly ever called for. A
well-governed state has few punishments, not because there
are many pardons, but because criminals are rare: it’s easier
to get away with crimes when there are a great many of
them and the state is terminally ill. In the Roman republic
This question has been raised: ‘Given that individuals have
no right to dispose of their own lives, how can they give
that right to the sovereign, transferring something that they
don’t possess?’ This looks hard to answer only because it is
wrongly stated. Every man has a right to risk his own life in
order to preserve it. A man who jumps from a high window
to escape from a fire—is he ever said to be guilty of suicide?
Has that crime been alleged against anyone perishes in a
storm that he knew, when he went on board, had some
probability of occurring?
The social treaty aims for the preservation of the contracting parties. He who wills •the end also wills •the means, and
the means must involve some risks, and even some losses.
Someone who is willing to save •his life at others’ expense
should also be ready to give •it up for their sake, when there
is a need for this. Now, the citizen is no longer the judge of
the risks that the law wants him to run, and when the prince
says to him: ‘It is expedient for the state that you should die’,
he ought to die. Why? Because his life is no longer merely a
natural good, but is a gift made conditionally by the state;
·it is conditional on his always meeting the state’s demands,
and· it’s only on that condition that he has been living in
security up to the present.
The death-penalty for criminals can be seen in much the
same light: it is in order to save ourselves from assassins that
we consent to die if we become assassins. In this treaty—·this
social contract·—so far from disposing of our own lives, we
think only of securing them; and it isn’t to be assumed that
any of the parties then expects to get himself hanged!
Every criminal by attacking social rights becomes a rebel
and a traitor to his country; by violating its laws he stops
being a member of it—he even makes war on it. The state’s
17
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
neither the senate nor the consuls ever offered to pardon
·anyone·; nor did the populace, though it sometimes revoked
its own decision. Frequent pardons are an announcement
that before long crime will pay, and anyone can see where
that leads. But I feel my heart protesting and restraining
my pen; let us leave these questions to the just man who
has never offended and would himself never stand in need
of pardon!
2 6.
The law
someone tells us what a law of nature is, that won’t bring us
any nearer to knowing what a law of the state is.
I have already said [page 15] that there is no general
will directed to a particular object. [Rousseau’s proof of that,
which follows, is severely compressed. The present version eases it out
in ways that the ·small dots· convention can’t easily signify.]
We are
to suppose that the general will of populace x dictates that
(for example) individual person y is to be given a pension.
Either y is a member of x or he isn’t. (i) If he isn’t, then
x’s will doesn’t count as a general will in relation to him—it
may have absolutely nothing to do with y’s own will. (ii)
If y is a member of x, i.e. a part of x, then x’s will that y
receive a pension is a relation between whole and part that
makes them two separate beings, •x-without-y and •y. But
x-without-y isn’t the whole; and while this relation persists
it’s a relation between 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 ·not looking outside itself, but· considering only itself; and
if a relation is then formed, it is ·not between two separate
objects, but only· between two aspects of a single entire
object, with no need to split it into two parts. 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.
When I say that the object of laws is always general, I
mean that law considers subjects collectively and considers
kinds or actions, never a particular person or action. Thus
the law can decree that there shall be privileges, but it can’t
name anyone who is to get them. It can set up different
classes of citizens, and even stipulate the qualifications for
belonging to each of these classes, but it can’t pick out any
individuals as belonging to this or that class. It can establish
a monarchy with hereditary succession, but it can’t choose
6. The law
By the social compact we have given the body politic
•existence and •life; now it is up to legislation to give it
•movement and •will. The basic act that forms the body and
pulls it together does nothing to settle what it must do in
order to survive.
It’s the nature of things that makes an item good and in
conformity with order—human agreements don’t come into
it. All justice comes from God, who is its sole source; but if
we knew how to draw it from that high source we wouldn’t
need government or laws! No doubt there is a universal
justice emanating from reason alone, but this justice can
be admitted among us only if it is mutual. In the absence
of natural sanctions. . . .the laws of justice are ineffective
among men. . . . Agreements and laws are needed to join
rights to duties and relate justice to its object. In the state of
nature where everything is common, I don’t owe anything to
someone to whom I haven’t promised anything; I recognise
as belonging to others only what is of no use to me. It’s not
like that in the state of society, where all rights are fixed by
law.
But what, when we come down to it, is a law? As long as
we settle for attaching only metaphysical ideas to the word,
we’ll go on arguing without understanding one another. If
18
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
a king or name a royal family. In short, any action that has
an individual object falls outside the scope of the legislative
power.
We see at once that on this account of things certain
questions can be laid aside. ‘Whose business it is to make
laws?’ (They are acts of the general will.) ‘Is the prince is
above the law? (·No·, because he is a member of the state.)
‘Can the law be unjust?’ (·No·, because nothing is unjust
towards itself.) ‘How can we be both •free and •subject to the
laws? (·There’s no problem about this·, because the laws are
nothing but records of our volitions.)
We see further that because the law unites universality
of will with universality of object, nothing that a man—any
man—commands on his own initiative can be a law. That
holds even for the sovereign: what he or it commands with
regard to a particular matter is not a law but a decree, an
act not of sovereignty but of magistracy.
So I give the name ‘republic’ to any state governed by laws,
whatever form its administration takes; for only when the
laws govern does the public interest govern, and the public
thing is something real. [Rousseau expected his readers to recognize
The law
foresight to formulate and announce its acts in advance?
or how is it to announce them in the hour of need? How
can a blind multitude, which often doesn’t know what it
wills because it rarely knows what is good for it, carry out
for itself such a great and difficult enterprise as a system
of legislation? The populace left to itself always wills the
good, but left to itself it doesn’t always see what that is. The
general will is always in the right, but the judgment that
guides it isn’t always enlightened. It ought to be
•made to see objects as they are, and sometimes as
they ought to appear to it;
•shown the good road it is in search of,
•secured from the seductive influences of individual
wills,
•taught to look carefully at other places and times, and
•made to weigh the attractions of present and sensible
advantages against the danger of distant and hidden
evils.
Individuals see the good that they reject; the public wills the
good that it doesn’t see. Both need guidance. Individuals
must be made to bring their wills into line with their reason;
the populace must be taught to know what it wills. If
that is done, public enlightenment leads to the union of
understanding and will in the social body: the parts are
made to work exactly together, and the whole is raised to its
highest power. For this there has to be a law-maker.
that chose publique (= ‘public thing’) is in Latin res publica, which is the
Every legitimate government is
what government is I will explain later on.
Laws are really only the conditions of civil association.
Because the populace is subject to the laws, it ought to
be their author: the conditions of •the society ought to be
regulated solely by those who come together to form •it. But
how will they do this? By a common agreement? By a sudden
inspiration? Does the body politic have an organ—·like vocal
cords and a tongue·—to declare its will? Who can give it the
origin of république (= ‘republic’).]
republican;8
8
2 6.
I apply this word not merely to aristocracies and democracies but quite generally to any government directed by the general will, which is the law.
To be legitimate, the government must be not identical with the sovereign, but its minister; so even a monarchy can be a republic. I’ll clarify this in
Book 3.
19
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
7. The law-maker
10
The law-maker
[In the French, as in this version, it’s clear that Rousseau is presenting
these not as three tasks but as three ways of looking at one task.]
In short, he must deprive man of •his own resources, replacing them by •new ones that are alien to him and that he
What would be needed to discover the best rules of society. . . .is a superior intelligence that could see all men’s
passions without having any of them. This intelligence would
have to meet these conditions:
•it is wholly unrelated to our nature, while knowing it
through and through;
•its happiness is doesn’t depend on us, yet it concerns
itself with our happiness; and lastly
•it can take the long view, working in one century for
something to be enjoyed in the next.9
It would take gods to give men laws!. . . . But if a great prince
is a rare kind of man, what will a great legislator be? All the
prince has to do is to follow the pattern that the law-giver has
to lay down in the first place. The law-giver is the engineer
who invents the machine; the prince is 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 then the institutions mould the rulers’ (The Greatness
and Decadence of the Romans, ch. 1.)
Someone who ventures to tackle the task of making a
people needs to have a sense of being able
•to change human nature, so to speak—to transform
each individual, who on his own is a complete and
solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which
he in a way receives his life and his being;
•to alter man’s constitution in order to strengthen it;
•to replace the physical and independent existence that
nature gave us by a partial and moral existence.
9
2 7.
can’t employ without help from others. The more completely
those natural resources are annihilated, the greater and
more lasting are the new ones that he acquires, and the
more stable and perfect are the new institutions. ·If you find
that last statement extravagant, consider·: If each citizen is
nothing and can do nothing without all the others, and if the
resources acquired by the whole are equal or superior to the
natural forces of all the individuals put together, it can be
said that legislation is at the highest point of perfection.
The law-giver is an extraordinary man in the state. If
his intellectual abilities make him so, his office [here = ‘job’]
does also. It’s not magistracy or sovereignty. This work
that •constitutes the republic isn’t part of its •constitution;
it is an individual and superior role that has nothing in
common with human power; for if anyone who commands
men oughtn’t to have command over the laws, then anyone
who has command over the laws oughtn’t to have it over men;
for if he did, his laws would be the servants of his passions
and would often merely perpetuate his injustices; his private
aims would inevitably mar the sanctity of his work.
When Lycurgus gave laws to his country, he began by
abdicating as king. It was the custom of most Greek towns to
have foreigners establish their laws. The republics of modern
Italy in many cases followed this example; Geneva did the
same and profited by it.10 Rome was at its most prosperous
A people becomes famous only when its legislation begins to decline. We don’t know for how many centuries the system of Lycurgus made the
Spartans happy before the rest of Greece took any notice of it.
Those who know Calvin only as a theologian much under-estimate the extent of his genius. The codification of our wise edicts, in which he played
a large part, does him great honour. . . . Whatever revolution time may bring in our religion, so long as the spirit of patriotism and liberty still lives
among us the memory of this great man will be for ever blessed.
20
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
when it suffered a revival of all the crimes of tyranny and
came close to death, because it put the legislative authority
and the sovereign power into the same hands.
2 7.
The law-maker
the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have
to become the cause! The social spirit that is to be created
by these institutions would have to preside over their very
foundation; and men would have to be, •in advance of the
laws, what they should become •by means of the laws. So
the law-maker, being unable to appeal either to •force or to
•reason, must resort to an authority of a different order that
can •constrain without violence and
[In the next sentence, Decemviri = ‘ten men’, referring to the men
who in the 5th century BCE were delegated to draw up a code of laws for
Nevertheless, the Decemviri themselves
never claimed the right to pass any law merely on their own
authority. ‘Nothing we propose to you’, they said to the
people, ‘can pass into law without your consent. Romans,
be yourselves the authors of the laws that are to make you
happy.’
So he who draws up the laws doesn’t or shouldn’t have
any right to legislate; and the populace can’t deprive itself
of this non-transferable right, even if it wants to, because
according to the basic compact the only thing that can bind
individuals is the general will, and the only way to be sure
that a particular will is in conformity with the general will is
to put it to a free vote of the people. I have already said this,
but it’s worth repeating it.
Thus in the task of law-giving we find two things together
that seem incompatible: an enterprise that surpasses human
powers, and for its execution an authority that isn’t anything!
Another difficulty deserves attention. Wise [see Glossary]
men who try to speak in their language to the common herd,
instead speaking as the herd does, have no chance of being
understood. There are countless kinds of ideas that can’t
possibly be translated into •the language of the people. Views
that are too broad and objects that are too distant are equally
out of •its range: each individual, having no taste for any
plan of government that doesn’t suit his particular interests,
can’t easily see the advantages he would get as payback for
the continual privations that good laws impose on him. For
a populace that is just coming into being ·as a body· to be
able to relish sound principles of political theory and follow
the Roman republic.]
Rousseau’s next three words: persuader sans convaincre.
flatly translated: persuade without convincing.
probable meaning: get people on-side without giving them
reasons for this.
That’s what has down the centuries compelled •the fathers
of the nations to appeal to divine intervention and credit
the gods with •their own wisdom, in order that the peoples—
submitting to the laws of the state as to the laws of nature,
and recognising the power that formed the city as the very
one that formed mankind—might obey freely, and bear with
docility the yoke of the public happiness.
What the legislator puts into the mouth of the immortals
are decisions based on a high-flying reason that is far above
the range of the common herd, the aim being to constrain
by divine authority those who can’t be moved by human
prudence. But it’s not just anyone who can make the gods
speak, or be believed when he claims to be their interpreter.
The only miracle that can prove a legislator’s mission is his
great soul. Any man can
•engrave words on tablets of stone, or
•purchase the services of an oracle, or
•fake secret communication with some god, or
•train a bird to whisper in his ear, or
find other crude devices for imposing on the people. Someone
who can’t do better than that may perhaps gather round
21
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
him a band of fools; but he’ll never found an empire, and
whatever crazy thing he does found will die soon after he
does. Idle tricks create a temporary bond; only wisdom can
make it permanent. The Judaic law, which still survives, and
Islamic law that has ruled half the world for ten centuries,
still today proclaim the great men who laid them down; and
while •proud philosophy and •the blind spirit of political
partisanship sees those men as nothing but lucky impostors,
the true political theorist admires in the institutions they set
up the great and powerful genius that presides over durable
political structures.
The right conclusion to draw from all this is not. . . .that
among us politics and religion have a common object, but
that when nations are first starting up religion is used as an
instrument for politics.
2 8.
The people
populace can’t stand having anyone touch its faults, even to
remedy them; it’s like the foolish and cowardly patients who
tremble at sight of the doctor.
I’m not denying that there are times in the history of
states when. . . .violence and revolutions jolt the populace
into remembering the past, so that the state, set on fire by
civil wars, is so to speak born again from its ashes, and with
a renewed vigour of youth springs from the jaws of death.
Examples: Sparta at the time of Lycurgus, Rome after the
Tarquins, and in our own day Holland and Switzerland after
the expulsion of the tyrants.
But such events are rare; they are exceptions, always
to be explained in terms of the particular constitution [see
Glossary] of the exceptional state. They can’t even happen
twice to the same people, for a populace can make itself free
as long as it is merely uncivilized, but not when the civic
spring has wound down. Then disturbances can destroy
it, but revolutions can’t rebuild it: it needs a master, not a
liberator. Free peoples, remember this maxim: ‘Liberty can
be gained, but it can never be recovered.’
Youth is not infancy. For nations, as for men, there is a
period of young adulthood—we may call it ‘maturity’—before
which a nation shouldn’t be made subject to laws; but it isn’t
always easy to recognise a people’s maturity, and if political
developments are set going before that, the developments will
fail. One people is amenable to discipline from the beginning;
another, not after ten centuries. The Russians will never be
really civilised, because they were ‘civilised’ too soon. Peter
·the Great· had a genius for imitation, but he didn’t have
the true creative genius that makes everything from nothing.
Some of the things he did were good, but most of them were
wrong for that time and place. He saw that his populace was
barbarous, but didn’t see that it was not ripe for civilisation:
he wanted to civilise it when all it needed was to be prepared
8. The people
Before putting up a large building, the architect surveys and
tests the ground to see if it can support the weight; and in the
same way the wise legislator doesn’t start by laying down his
good laws but by investigating whether the populace they are
intended for is in a condition to receive them. Plato refused
to legislate for the Arcadians and the Cyreniens because he
knew that both peoples were rich and couldn’t put up with
equality; and Crete had good laws and bad men because all
Minos had done was to impose discipline on a people already
burdened with vice.
A thousand nations that shone around the earth couldn’t
endure good laws for long, and most couldn’t have endured
them at all. Most peoples, like most men, are teachable only
in youth; as they grow old they become impossible to correct.
Once customs have become established and prejudices are
dug in, trying to reform them is dangerous and useless; the
22
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
for war. At first he wanted to make Germans, Englishmen,
when he ought to have started by making Russians; he
blocked his subjects from ever becoming what they could
have been, by persuading them that they were what they are
not. This was like a French teacher who shapes his pupil to
be an infant prodigy, and for the rest of his life to be nothing.
The empire of Russia will try to conquer Europe, and will
itself be conquered. The Tatars, its subjects or neighbours,
will become its masters and ours, by a revolution that seems
to me inevitable. Indeed, all the kings of Europe are working
together to speed it along.
2 9.
The people (continued)
you go, and always at the expense of the unfortunate people!
Last of all comes the supreme administration, which swamps
all the rest. These costs are a continual drain on the subjects;
and far from being better governed by all these different levels
of government they’re much worse governed than they would
be if they had only a single authority over them. And with all
this going on, there are hardly any resources remaining to
meet emergencies; and whenever these are needed the state
is on the brink of destruction.
(2) ·The effectiveness of government:· When part of a
nation is far distant from the seat of government, this has
bad effects on both sides. On the one hand, the government
is weaker and slower
•in law-enforcement there,
•in preventing people from ill-treating one another
there,
•in correcting abuses there,
• guarding against seditious undertakings begun there;
and on the other hand the populace of that region has less
affection for
•its rulers, whom it never sees,
•its country, which to its eyes seems like the world,
and
•its fellow-citizens, most of whom are unknown to it.
The same laws can’t suit so many diverse provinces with
different mœurs [see Glossary] and utterly different climates,
differing also in what kind of government they can put up
with. ‘·Well, then, let the government have different laws for
different provinces.’ No, because· different laws lead only
to trouble and confusion among populations which—living
under the same rulers and in constant communication with
one another—intermingle and intermarry, and when they
come under the sway of new customs don’t know whether
they can call their family fortune their own. Among such
9. The people (continued)
Just as nature has set limits to the size of a well-made
man, and outside those limits makes only giants and dwarfs,
so also for the constitution of a state to be at its best,
there are upper and lower bounds to the size of the state
if it isn’t to be too large for good government or too small
for self-maintenance. Every body politic has a maximum
strength that it can’t exceed, and that it won’t even reach
that maximum if it becomes too large. Every extension of the
social tie slackens it; and generally speaking a small state is
stronger in proportion than a great one. There are countless
reasons why this is so. ·I shall present one of them, and
then a cluster of others·.
(1) ·The burden of government:· Long distances make
administration more difficult, just as a weight becomes
heavier at the end of a longer lever. The further up the
hierarchy you go, the more burdensome the administrations
is. First, each •city has its own ·government·, which is
paid for by the people; so does each •district, still paid
for by the people; then each •province, then the •great
governments. . . .and so on, always costing more the higher
23
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
a multitude of men who don’t know one another, crammed
together at the seat of the central administration, talent is
buried, virtue unknown and vice unpunished. The leaders,
overwhelmed with business, don’t see anything for themselves; the state is governed by bureaucrats. Finally, the
measures that have to be taken to maintain the general
authority, which all these distant officials wish to evade or
abuse, absorb all the governmental energy, so that there’s
none left for the happiness of the people, and barely enough
to defend it when need arises. That’s what happens when
a body is too big for its constitution: it cracks, and falls
crushed under its own weight.
On the other hand, ·it’s bad for a state to be too small·.
A state needs a secure base if it is to be stable—not shaken
to pieces by •the shocks that are bound to come its way or
by •the efforts it will be forced to make to maintain itself. All
populations have a kind of centrifugal force by which they
•continually act against one another, and •tend to enlarge
themselves at their neighbours’ expense—like Descartes’s
vortices! Thus the weak run the risk of being soon swallowed
up; and it is almost impossible for any one ·state· to survive
except by putting itself in a sort of equilibrium with all ·the
others· so that the pressure on all sides is about equal.
So you can see that there are reasons for contraction
and reasons for expansion; and it’s no small part of the
statesman’s skill to balance out the two sides in the way that
is best for the preservation of the state. It can be said that
the reasons for expansion, being merely external and
relative,
should 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 v…
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