The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 4, Chapters 1–3 | Summary



Book 4, Chapter 1: That the General Will is Indestructible

The general will, Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims, is indestructible. It may be subverted, silenced, or sold, but it cannot be destroyed. Promoting and protecting it is the supreme civic duty. Rousseau takes up this topic in the remaining chapters in his final book.

He declares that the "upright and simple" individual facilitates the general will, because this morally acute person is difficult to deceive. In addition, the management of the Sovereign is essential to the health and well-being of the general will.

Book 4, Chapter 2: Voting

Rousseau maintains the voting right is an inalienable right of every citizen. It is through voting that the general will is exercised and actualized through legislation. This is most efficiently accomplished through unanimous agreement. "The more concert reigns in the assemblies ... the greater is the dominance of the general will."

Such unanimity is, in practice, almost impossible to achieve. Moreover, it is not even desirable. To the extent that unanimity can be achieved by corrupt means, it does not reflect the general will. It is, consequently, not a requirement for legislation. It is, however, a requirement for the social contract. Everyone who enters into a civil society must do so freely.

The majority of votes wins the day. Rousseau recognizes a potential problem with this approach to voting: "But it is asked how a man can be both free and forced to conform to wills that are not his own." His solution is to return to the conceptual starting point of the social contract, namely the agreement to "consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition." Moreover, each citizen is to vote in accordance to the general will. Consequently, Rousseau takes a minority vote to be an error: "I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so."

Book 4, Chapter 3:Elections

Rousseau moves on in Chapter 3 to consider elections. Elections by choice or vote are best suited to an aristocracy, while elections by lot are more suited to a democracy. Because the government's role is to implement the general will through its laws, it is important that those elected serve the common good. In a democracy, such service is considered a burden—no one's special interests are served, power is not exploited—which is the reason for election by lot.

Rousseau thinks most governments will be a mixture of election by choice and by lot. Consequently, because the offices to be filled should be elected on the basis of specific skills (such as military service), election by choice is appropriate. Where an office requires merely "good sense, justice, and integrity," election by lot is preferred. In a monarchical government, neither approach "has any place."


The general will can be abandoned but never destroyed. That is because, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is that alone which aims at the common good. The exercise of that will occurs by voting. Here again, the imperative of each citizen to participate as a member of the Sovereign is highlighted. While the individual will may not coincide with the general will, it is the latter that wins the vote. Insofar as the individual citizen has already agreed to promote the common good through the general will, that individual still "wins," even if he voted otherwise.

The reader can imagine someone who, for example, has a financial interest in a company that engages in poor environmental practices. Perhaps they pollute the water or air during the process of manufacturing their product. That individual's interest conflicts with the common good of clean water or air. At the same time, clean water or air is also good for the individual. If that citizen votes against the common good, they also vote against their own, more fundamental interest. Consequently, if the general will is, in this example, to create environmental protection laws, the good of all is promoted.

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