The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 3, Chapters 1–6 | Summary



Book 3, Chapter 1: The Government in General

Jean-Jacques Rousseau begins Book 3 with a comparison between an individual and the state. Free action in the individual, Rousseau explains, involves a moral and a physical component. The moral component consists in "the will which determines the act;" the physical component consists in "the power which executes" what the will has determined to do. Similarly, "the body politic has the same motive powers."

Rousseau reviews the relevant idea from previous chapters: the people have "the legislative power" that embodies the general will. In this chapter Rousseau presents the executive branch as the government or "supreme administration"; it carries out the general will. He defines government as "an intermediate body set up between the subjects and the Sovereign, to secure their mutual correspondence." Its mission is to execute laws and maintain civil and political liberty. This body consists of magistrates, kings, or governors. The governmental body as a whole, Rousseau calls prince. It is this individual "entrusted with" administering the government.

The government holds "the intermediate forces" that bind the Sovereign with the state, or the people to themselves as the state. It effectively carries out the general will, and as such holds the subjects, the people, to their own will. Hence, government is "the legitimate exercise of executive power."

Book 3, Chapter 2: The Constituent Principle in the Various Forms of Government

Just as he distinguished, in principle, between the state and the Sovereign, Rousseau here distinguishes "between government and its principle." There is proportionality between the number of subjects and Sovereign, but because "the total force of the government" is "invariable," greater numbers of magistrates weakens it. Rousseau explains how this works in terms of the "will." The magistrate represents, essentially, three different wills. There is the private will of the individual. This will tends exclusively to its own advantage. There is also the magistrates' common will. This will, which Rousseau also calls the "corporate will," is connected with that which is advantageous to the "prince"—the person or body that controls the state day to day. Lastly, there is "the will of the people or the sovereign will," which Rousseau thinks is the most general will of the state as a whole, and the government, which is part of the whole.

According to Rousseau, a "perfect act of legislation" involves the subordination of these wills. More specifically, the individual will should be negligible, because the point of legislation is to guarantee the good of all, and the individual will does not share interests with any others. It is, then, subordinate to "the corporate will," which consists of individuals—magistrates—with shared interests. The corporate will, in turn, is subordinate to the sovereign or general will, which reflects the common interests of the citizenry.

Magistrates can be influenced by either of the two subordinate wills, the individual one of which is naturally the strongest. Each person wants legislation favorable to their individual interests. Secondarily, factions that constitute a corporate will are interested in laws that serve their institutional interests.

A related topic is the efficiency of the government. A small one is more flexible and nimbler; a single ruler, for example, is most efficient, for "promptitude in execution diminishes as more people are put in charge of it." Efficiency is not, however, identical with "rectitude."

Book 3, Chapter 3: The Division of Governments

In Chapter 2 Rousseau distinguished the "kinds or forms of government" by the number of their members. In this chapter he sets out "to discover how the division is made." He lists three possible divisions: the government or executive branch can be democratic, by the whole or majority of the people; it can be aristocratic, by a restriction of "the government to the hands of a small number"; or it can be a monarchy, in which power is concentrated in a single individual. Rousseau points out that no one form is best but that the context determines which one is most suited to the situation.

Book 3, Chapter 4: Democracy

Having laid out the three commonest forms of government, Rousseau spends the next three chapters discussing each. The first, democracy, like the others, has strengths and weaknesses. A democratic government is not the same as the general will. Rousseau has already pointed out that sovereignty, or the general will, makes law, and the executive branch, or government, carries it out.

Rousseau notes three problems with a democratic form of government. First, there is no separation of powers between the Sovereign (legislative branch) and the government (executive branch). Consequently, there is no mechanism whereby citizens are accountable to the general will. Second, a lack of separation also undermines the aforementioned priority of the general over the particular will. "Nothing," Rousseau writes, "is more dangerous that the influence of private interests on public affairs," which are corrupted by it. Third, there is a practical problem: administration of the government is intractable with many people involved.

Nevertheless, Rousseau does recommend this form of government under certain conditions. First, the state must be small. He has already pointed out the importance of a manageable size, as it facilitates citizens knowing every other citizen, thereby increasing the propensity of promoting the general will. People are likely to be more considerate and more concerned about each other when these others are known. In addition, a small state is more likely to cultivate virtue than a large one.

Second, a democratic government should maintain a "simplicity of manners" in order not to become bogged down in the complexities of multiple interests. Third, a democracy cannot allow inequality, specifically in terms "of rank and fortune." Fourth, and last, a democracy must eschew luxury, because "it corrupts at once rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness." In short, luxury is contrary to morality.

Book 3, Chapter 5: Aristocracy

An aristocracy, or rule of the few, Rousseau explains, is the best form of government. Sovereignty is vested in the people, but given the practicalities of running a government, an aristocracy is the most efficient. It is, he asserts, the oldest. Traceable to the first civilizations, aristocracy is akin to familial societies, where a father rules over his children, guided by his natural love for them. This initial situation changes, Rousseau maintains, as the society grows. Elective rule eventually consolidates into the hands of the wealthy and powerful, who then transfer it by heredity. Hereditary aristocracy, Rousseau thinks, is "the worst of all governments."

According to Rousseau, natural aristocracy, elected aristocracy, and hereditary aristocracy each provide particular benefits and share some common characteristics. For example, an aristocratic government is easily convened, and discussion is both more orderly and effective and thereby efficient. Rousseau also asserts that an aristocratic government is respected more by other states than the alternative forms of government. A small society, however, is essential to maintaining it.

Of the three forms of aristocracy, Rousseau favors elected government. He points out, however, that the election of magistrates is legitimate when the criteria for choosing them do not include wealth and power but instead their morals, "enlightenment," and "experience." Moreover, while an aristocracy should be larger than a democracy, it should not be large enough for magistrates to exert their individual wills. An aristocracy can also sustain more inequality than can a democracy, but there should still be "moderation on the side of the rich and contentment on that of the poor." Such inequality, Rousseau maintains, facilitates the magistrates' work on behalf of its citizens.

Book 3, Chapter 6: Monarchy

A monarchy is, according to Rousseau, the least desirable form of governments. A monarchy is a form of government in which there is a single head. Its single asset is its efficiency, because "all the springs of the machine are in the same hands" and are oriented toward the same end.

It is, however, a form of government with three significant flaws: One is that it relies on the oppression of a weak people "unable to resist" the monarch who seeks absolute power. The second is that monarchs are typically "merely petty blunderers, petty swindlers, and petty intriguers"; as such, they are "inept." The third is that a monarchy is naturally unstable. A monarchy is maintained through succession; when one king dies, there may be a gap in time before another ruler is elected. During that time, Rousseau contends, "intrigue and corruption" dominate the citizenry, leading to instability.


In Books 1 and 2 Rousseau is concerned with articulating the basic principles whereby liberty and equality are preserved in a civil society. Sovereignty and law together maintain both, which exist and function universally, rather than at the level of particularity. Consequently, they serve everyone and no one in particular.

In Book 3 Rousseau turns his attention from the founding of the state to its governance. The government is distinct from the Sovereign, which is constituted by the citizens. It is the government's role to enforce the general will, which is associated with right. In other words, it is the government's role to implement the laws created to protect the common good. "The members of [the government] are called magistrates or kings, that is to say governors;" the name prince belongs to the whole governmental body. (The term is adopted from Niccolò Machiavelli and refers simply to those who govern.)

Rousseau is interested in advising readers on various political institutions: democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. He is also interested in offering advice on tempering governmental intrusion into Sovereignty. Though he is convinced that no state lasts forever—one need only look to the Roman Republic, for example—he does think there are strategies for maintaining a healthy state for as long as possible.

Rousseau takes seriously the tension between the government and the Sovereign. The former will always be ready to impede upon the latter, so it is imperative that the citizens remain vigilant. The general will cannot be maintained if a particular will, or faction of wills (corporate wills), dominates.

For this reason Rousseau favors an aristocracy over a democracy or a monarchy. Both a direct democracy (Rousseau disdains representative democracy as heralding the death of the Sovereign) and a monarchy eliminate the distinction between the legislative and executive branches (i.e., collapses the Sovereign and the government into one). The first is impractical—too many voices or cooks in the kitchen means nothing gets done. The second precludes the possibility of a general will.

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