Literature Study GuidesThe Social ContractBook 3 Chapters 12 18 Summary

The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 3, Chapters 12–18 | Summary



Book 3, Chapter 12: How the Sovereign Authority Maintains Itself

The Sovereign's power or force is nothing but "the legislative power, [so that it] acts only by means of the laws." Consequently, "the Sovereign cannot act save when the people is assembled." Rousseau points to the Roman practice of assembling regularly, despite a "vast population." He looks even further back in history, in which he finds "most ancient governments, even those of monarchical form ... had similar councils." He concludes the brief chapter by asserting that this evidence (that is, what actually was the case) means that it is possible in contemporary states.

Book 3, Chapter 13: The Same (continued)

Not only is regular assembly a crucial component of a state's continued existence but also "fixed periodical assemblies" attended without summons. While Rousseau does not prescribe a calendar for such assemblies, he does suggest that frequent assemblies correspond to a strong government. In addition, nothing should interfere with them, and if something does, the state is damaged.

Book 3, Chapter 14: The Same (continued)

Rousseau concludes the three chapters on maintaining sovereign authority with Chapter 14. In it he focuses on its vulnerabilities. The power of the assembled people is such that "the executive power is [thereby] suspended, and the person of the meanest citizen is as sacred and inviolable" as that of the highest official.

While it is the government's (i.e., the executive branch's) role to serve the general will, when that will is exercised, the government's purpose is suspended. The government responds, Rousseau points out, with some anxiety. It is, after all, a "curb on the government," which is interested in preserving its own power. A state's downfall is heralded by a "greedy, cowardly, and pusillanimous" citizenry that, over time, gives in to the promises of an equally greedy ruler. They abdicate their freedom for temporary luxury.

Book 3, Chapter 15: Deputies or Representatives

"As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens," preferring to pay someone else to do their civic duties, "the State is not far from its fall." According to Rousseau, "idleness and money," in the form of a representative government, render citizens apathetic, so that the general will is never realized.

Rousseau argues, based on his previous relevant concepts, that "Sovereignty, for the same reason as makes it inalienable, cannot be represented." Sovereignty cannot be transferred, as would be the case if one pays someone to represent them.

The origin of representative government, Rousseau argues, is the feudal system. It, Rousseau claims, is "that iniquitous and absurd system which degrades humanity and dishonors the name of man." While it may have been the case in ancient Greece and Rome that slavery afforded citizens the time required to participate in politics, representative government, Rousseau contends, creates a version of slavery all its own. Given that the purpose of legislation is to declare the general will, any version of representation delegitimizes the state.

Book 3, Chapter 16: That the Institution of Government Is Not a Contract

Rousseau claims that there is no contract between the people and the government, or executive branch. No contract exists between citizens and magistrates, for such would be a surrendering of their freedom. Because inequality exists between magistrates and citizens, no contract, which implies obligations, can be entered into. Instead, contracts are made between equals; as Rousseau points out, "There is only one contract in the State, and that is the act of association."

Book 3, Chapter 17: The Institution of Government

Rousseau was clear in Chapter 16 that the government is not contracted—it is not an agreement between Sovereign and magistrates. Instead, Sovereign law institutes the governing body; the people nominate the magistrates. "This nomination, being a particular act, is clearly ... a consequence of the first and a function of government"—not a second law.

The order of operations is clear. No government exists prior to its legislation by the Sovereign, that is, the general will. The form of government (e.g., an aristocracy) is legislated. Once constituted, the government must be populated accordingly. This, then, becomes the second step. Though the Sovereign only legislates and the nomination of magistrates is a particular act (because at this moment the instituting of the government is incomplete), the people act, however briefly, as a democracy.

Book 3, Chapter 18: How to Check the Usurpations of Government

Rousseau completes his thread on the institution of governments in Chapter 18 with a summary of what has been argued thus far. Because the government is not equivalent to the state, there is no contracting with it. Instead, the government is an institution of law. Those executives of the government "are not the people's masters" but instead are their "officers." The government is to obey the general will, which can alter or dismantle that government "when it likes." Finally, when one serves in the capacity of an executive, one thereby fulfills one's duty as a citizen.

He also argues that the government should not be modified "except when it comes to be incompatible with the public good." Though the government—class rule by aristocracy, for example—is "provisional" and as such subject to change, any adjustment is "dangerous," as it is disruptive to the common good.

Rousseau concludes Book 3 with two prescriptions for all assemblies. These reflect the importance of the general will, which is not bound by any external force to continue in its present form. First, "does it please the Sovereign to preserve the present form of government?" Second, "does it please the people to leave its administration in the hands of those who are actually in charge of it?"


As Jean-Jacques Rousseau has already pointed out, the Sovereign and government are in continual tension. What he focuses on in Chapters 12 through 14 are, respectively, the state's assembly, the regularity of that assembly, and the state's vulnerabilities. The general will is the body politic or Sovereign, and is articulated in law. The practicalities of that articulation—how the Sovereign's voice is heard—are explained by assemblies. All citizens must convene to discuss, debate, and legislate. Rousseau also emphasizes the importance of regular assemblies to protecting the Sovereign's authority. Without them the government can exert its will without impediment. For Rousseau, then, the duties of citizenship are essential to the survival of the body politic. For that reason they cannot be transferred.

Chapters 16 and 17 focus, respectively, on what the government is not, and what it is. The government is not a contract between political authority and citizens. It is, rather, instituted by the Sovereign decree. The people, by law, decree a form of government, and they "nominate the rulers who are to be entrusted with the government that has been established."

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