Literature Study GuidesThe Social ContractBook 3 Chapters 7 11 Summary

The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 3, Chapters 7–11 | Summary

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Summary

Book 3, Chapter 7: Mixed Governments

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's discussion of a monarchical form of government is followed by a caveat in Chapter 7: A king always has a number of subordinates to carry out a variety of tasks. There is, in other words, "no such thing as a simple Government." That said, a simple government, by virtue of its simplicity, is best, although the best government, as with any form of government, depends on the empirical conditions.

Rousseau spends the remainder of the chapter discussing two opposite problems for any state: too much strength and too little strength. A government that is too strong interferes with the general will. In this case, the executive branch's power is not sufficiently dependent on the legislative branch. By distributing authority across multiple magistrates, the problem is ameliorated. The opposite problem, a government that is too weak, results in anarchy. To avoid this, Rousseau proposes the establishment of special courts "to concentrate" strength in terms of enforcing order.

Book 3, Chapter 8: That All Forms of Government Do Not Suit All Countries

In Chapter 8 Rousseau returns to the topic of liberty. As with his discussions of the organization of the state and its government, Rousseau acknowledges that conditions influence a society's liberty. Citing Montesquieu, Rousseau claims liberty is not "a fruit of all climates."

More specifically, land "where the surplus of product over labor is only middling [is] suitable for free peoples." This is because fertile soil not only produces luxury, which erodes virtue, but also, by producing more food than needed, tempts a monarch to confiscate it. Consequently, a resource-rich territory is more suitable to a monarchy than another form of government. "Unfriendly and barren lands," on the other hand, should be populated by "savages." That is because civilization is impossible among this class of people.

Book 3, Chapter 9: The Marks of a Good Government

While Rousseau maintains there is no such thing as "the best government," there are myriad workable arrangements. He does think there is such a thing as a good government. People disagree on what constitutes such, because "moral qualities do not admit of exact measurement." Nevertheless, the point of society is "the preservation and prosperity of its members." Consequently, "the government under which without external aids ... the citizens increase and multiply most, is beyond question the best." The maintenance and growth of the population is key to all of society's other goods.

Book 3, Chapter 10: The Abuse of Government and Its Tendency to Degenerate

The continual tension between the individual and general wills, Rousseau claims, ultimately leads to a government's end. Rousseau identifies two ways in which a government "degenerates." One is its contraction, as "when it passes from the many to the few," be it "from democracy to aristocracy, [or] from aristocracy to royalty." These movements, Rousseau maintains, are natural. The other degeneration of the government occurs when the state itself dissolves.

The state can dissolve, according to Rousseau, in two ways. One is when, in a monarchy, "the prince ceases to administer the State in accordance with the laws," thereby usurping sovereign power. Another state is formed as a result, where a "master and tyrant" rules the people. Here, a monarchy degenerates into a tyranny.

The same situation can occur when several members of the government usurp the laws. Here, the aristocracy degenerates into an oligarchy, whereas a democracy degenerates into mob rule ("ochlocracy"). Common to each is the usurpation of Sovereignty, whereby the people's legislative power is stolen.

Book 3, Chapter 11: The Death of the Body Politic

Looking back to fallen Greek states, Rousseau declares death as "the natural and inevitable tendency of the best constituted governments." Likening the political to the individual body, Rousseau asserts that "the body politic ... begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction."

Continuing the analogy, Rousseau writes that the "life principle" of the body politic is found in the authority of the sovereign's "legislative power." This, he maintains, is the state's heart, while the executive branch, as the brain, "causes the movement of all the parts." Like in a human body, the brain may cease to function normally, but the rest of the body can live on. If the heart stops beating, however, "the animal is dead."

The state, Rousseau reminds his reader, is not sustained by laws but by legislation. Laws change, depending on the general will, but "legislative power" is not. Old laws that persist do so because the people, the legislative body, the Sovereign, continue to respect them. There is "tacit consent" to them.

Analysis

Jean-Jacques Rousseau has previously asserted the basic idea that a one-size-fits-all societal structure is doomed to fail. Various factors, from geography to climate to population, have to be considered in determining what sort of government to adopt. It is interesting that Rousseau focuses on climate and geography as conducive to certain forms of government, rather than impose a form. In this, he seems to anticipate Marx's view that economic relations are derived from the conditions on the ground.

Marx's theory could be said to have some basis at a time when economic and social structures had such a firmly agricultural base as they did in the 18th century, when Rousseau was writing. Of course, a nation that produced cotton would differ in nature and outlook from a nation that produced meat or cheese. However, the extension of his ideas to such concepts as racial attitudes embedded in coastal people or people of warm versus cold blood smacks of racism and becomes much less relevant as societies transform from agricultural to industrial and then from industrial to information and service-based economies.

It is also worth noting Rousseau's emphasis on population growth as the mark of a good government. He appears to have in mind the idea that a robust population will be best able to care for the basic needs to the society, thereby supporting a stable government. These types of arguments show how Enlightenment thinkers relied on rational thought to develop their ideas.

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