The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 2, Chapters 1–6 | Summary



Book 2, Chapter 1: That Sovereignty Is Inalienable

The point of the social contract is the common good. Consequently, "the general will alone can direct the State according to the object for which it was instituted." Sovereignty, Rousseau declares, is "nothing less than the exercise of the general will." The "collective being" known as the Sovereign—the passive condition of the term—asserts its will through the actions of its members. The people as a whole, not a subdivision, for example, express the general will. That will, in turn, is expressed in law, which is the result of the Sovereign's activities. How that law is applied is the expression of a particular will. Thus, the particular will "tends, by its very nature, to partiality, while the general will tends to equality." The individual, or particular will, privileges a part of society, while the general will privileges the whole.

The particular and general wills do not always coincide; they can (however rare that alignment is). Consequently, Rousseau maintains that their coincidence cannot be guaranteed. Consequently, only obedience to the general will is possible; one cannot obey this or that authority, because it is nothing other than a particular will. The moment a citizen hands over their liberty to an authority, the Sovereign is dead.

Book 2, Chapter 2: That Sovereignty Is Indivisible

Sovereignty is, in addition to being inalienable, is also indivisible. Its indivisibility derives from two sources: first, the entire body of citizens that generates the general will, which requires that "all votes be counted," without formally excluding anyone. Second, Sovereignty cannot be divided into types of power, branches of government, and so forth. There are "emanations from it." In other words, the Sovereign's powers are not equivalent to the powers derived from it. Consequently, the Sovereign's powers cannot be divided. This is just what thinkers such as Hugo Grotius propose, however, when investing power in a ruler.

Rousseau provides an example of the difference between Sovereignty and the powers derived from it. Declarations of war and peace, he maintains, are not exercises of sovereignty but the application of law generated by it. The law provides instruction for the appropriate declarations and authorization of the power to make them, but these are not themselves law.

Book 2, Chapter 3: Whether the General Will Is Fallible

Rousseau argues that the general will is infallible. Rousseau reminds the reader of a previous claim, namely that the general will tends toward the common good. It does not follow from this, however, "that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct." People can be deceived or may fail to correctly identify the good. The general will cannot. Moreover, the general will is distinguished from the "will of all," which considers "private interest," while the general will does not. Consequently, the "will of all" is simply the "sum of particular wills."

The general will accounts for everyone—no one is formally prevented from a vote. Consequently, Rousseau thinks, when informed citizens deliberate on what to do, without influencing each other in any way, the general will will emerge. Citizens may differ in terms of their particular wills, but, because these "private wills" clash, it is easy to see they do not represent the general will—an individual's private interests are not likely identical with everyone else's. When factions form, however, the distinction between the private and general wills is harder to discern. These are precluded, and public discourse protected from corruption, Rousseau thinks, by preventing citizens from communicating during deliberation on proposed public policies. Thinking for oneself is the order of the day.

Book 2, Chapter 5: The Limits of Sovereign Power

Rousseau continues the metaphor of the Sovereign as a body in Chapter 4. The state is, more specifically, "a moral person whose life is in the union of its members." This arrangement does not eliminate the individual, insofar as the state's absolute authority over him does not extend to every particular of his life. The state cannot, for example, take more from a citizen than is required. In addition, the state speaks for the citizen to the extent that it is relevant to society as a whole; that is, in terms of what is relevant to the common good. Otherwise, the citizen pursues their own interests.

Book 2, Chapter 5: The Right of Life and Death

The Sovereign's right extends to life and death. In other words, the state has the authority to implement the death penalty in order to preserve the social contract. One violates the social contract when one violates sovereign laws. Consequently, "he must be removed by exile as a violator of the compact, or by death as a public enemy." That individual is an enemy because, according to Rousseau, "such an enemy is not a moral person, but merely a man." Recalling the right of war, Rousseau concludes the vanquished enemy is to be killed.

Book 2, Chapter 6: Law

Having articulated the origin of the social contract, Rousseau turns his attention to how the body politic, or the Sovereign, is maintained. The social contract brings the "body politic" to life; laws, Rousseau maintains, "give it movement and will."

Laws are required to protect members of society from those who would do others harm. According to Rousseau, "the object of laws is always general": laws consider subjects as a whole and their actions as "abstract, never a particular person or action." Moreover, "the law unites universality of will with universality of object." Consequently, laws aim at the common good.


"Sovereignty" and "the general will" can be taken as synonymous terms. Indeed, people are sovereign—in their collective voice is vested authority—when they speak with one voice; that is, when they express the general will.

The general will is infallible. Jean-Jacques Rousseau has already claimed that by the mere fact it exists, the Sovereign is always everything it ought to be. Particular wills can and do conflict with the general will; that is, individuals are inclined to pursue their self-interests rather than those common to all. These common interests include safety, clean water, and food. For Rousseau common interests are reflective of equality, while individual interests are reflective of partiality. Consequently, when one goes against the common interest, one goes against equality, for one does not take everyone else into account. When one realizes the superiority of the general will over the particular will, one realizes that in the general will, one's own most important interests are respected. Error occurs, then, when one exerts one's will contrary to the general will.

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