The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Book 4, Chapters 4–9 | Summary



Book 4, Chapter 4: The Roman Comitia

The first of five chapters devoted to the Roman Republic begins with an analysis of the comitia, an institution Jean-Jacques Rousseau takes to contribute to the maintenance of the general will. After reviewing the basic makeup of the republic, Rousseau discusses the comitia, or lawfully assembled divisions of the people for the purpose of organized lawmaking.

When the assemblies, or comitia, were "lawfully summoned," three conditions had to exist in order "for their acts to have the force of law": First, the one who convened the assembly had to have the requisite authority. Second, the assembly occurred "on a day allowed by law; and [third] the auguries had to be favorable."

Three comitia—the Curiae, the Centuriate, and the Tribal—each had their drawbacks and benefits. Romulus founded the Curiae as a check on the Senate and people, and he maintained power over both. According to Rousseau, it failed because it did not include all citizens from the various classes of people. The Centuriate, favored by aristocrats, represented all the classes. The wealthiest, however, had the majority vote. Last, the Tribal Comitia inverted the flaw of the Centuriate. It excluded the aristocrats. Of them, Rousseau claims, the Centuriate came closest to aiming to advance the general will.

In the Roman Republic, voting was a matter of verbal declaration, which was noted by the clerk. The majority vote won. "This custom was good as long as honesty was triumphant among the citizens," and no one voted for an unjust law. Because of corruption, however, secret voting became the standard.

Book 4, Chapter 5: The Tribunate

The tribunate is "the defender of the laws." Rousseau states that its role in the Roman Republic was "to protect the Sovereign against the government," while its role as The Council of Ten in Venice was "to uphold the government against the people." In Sparta, the Ephors' role was to strike a balance between the two.

Rousseau declares the tribunate to be "the strongest support a good constitution can have." Its strength, however, cannot be "excessive," for then it "upsets the whole State." Nor can it be weak, for that is unnatural: weakness defeats its reason for being. For Rousseau, the veto power of the tribunate is key to its protection of the general will.

Book 4, Chapter 6: The Dictatorship

In the Roman Republic the dictator was an office institutionalized by constitution. It was active only during times of crisis and for six months—or longer, depending on the length of the crisis. The dictatorial power was virtually absolute.

Rousseau thinks a dictatorship is justified under only the most extreme circumstances, namely when the state's very existence "is at stake." These circumstances should be rare, and when they do occur, there must exist a provision, for the sake of public security, that entrusts the state to one who is "most worthy." In order to save the state, in other words, a dictator may be required. His sole role is to ensure that the state survives the crisis, and to this extent his actions are aligned with the general will.

Book 4, Chapter 7: The Censorship

"As the law is the declaration of the general will, the censorship is the declaration of the public judgment." Maintenance of the general will requires a virtuous citizenry, and a censor serves as the spokesman for public morality. The Court of Honor's role, consequently, is to maintain public virtue. More specifically, Rousseau thinks the regulation of judgment is conducive to the common good. The censor himself must be reputed as honorable. Here again, Rousseau derives the office from the Roman Republic.

Book 4, Chapter 8: Civil Religion

Religion was initially the foundation of society. After all, people are much more willing to be ruled by gods than other people. Moreover, Rousseau continues, there were multiple gods for multiple city-states. Political wars, Rousseau maintains, were effectively religious wars. What the Romans did when they conquered a territory was to incorporate the vanquished gods into the Roman pantheon, paganism.

The Catholic Church, Rousseau argues, clearly distinguished its theology from politics. When it gained immense power, Europe was left divided between religious and political authority. While Rousseau commends Thomas Hobbes for a strategy to reunite them, he thinks it is a mistake to believe such a reunification can be accomplished for this religion.

Rousseau proceeds to outline three ways to practice religion. The first he calls "the religion of man," and the second, the religion of the citizen. The third critiques for causing a duality in people's lives, demanding that they be loyal to two sets of laws, two rulers, and two countries, rendering "them subject to contradictory duties, and [making] it impossible for them to be faithful both to religion and to citizenship." This, he declares, is Catholicism. He doesn't much care for the second religion, either; it is a recipe for tyranny and imperialism. It is the first religion, the true Gospel, that Rousseau initially proposes as fitting for a civil state, for it reflects the values of the social contract. "Every one would do his duty"; at every level of society, people would be free from criminality, excess, corruption, cowardice, and vanity.

A Christian state is not, however, without its flaws. For example, Christians are not concerned with their earthly existence. Consequently, they would be susceptible to abuses of power. Moreover, Christians do not make for good soldiers; "they have no passion for victory; they know better how to die than how to conquer."

Having rejected Christianity as the religious basis for a civil society, Rousseau proposes a civil religion: "a purely civil profession of faith," whose creed ("social sentiments" rather than dogmas) is defined by the general will and aimed at helping individuals become good citizens.

Book 4, Chapter 9: Conclusion

Rousseau concludes The Social Contract with ideas to consider in support of his present work. These include international law and relations, economics, and war. These topics, however, extend beyond the scope of the current treatise.


Rousseau shows his appreciation for the Roman Republic in the final chapters of The Social Contract by reviewing, at times in detail, features of its organization he wishes to adopt in his political theory. These include the comitia, occasional tribunate, dictatorship, and public censor. The comitia, or assembly, is the gathering of citizens to debate and vote on legislation. It serves to check governmental encroachment into the Sovereign, and vice versa. A dictatorship may be required to save the state in dire circumstances but is not an indefinitely held office. Last, public morality is preserved and promoted through censorship.

Rousseau's discussion of religion in this last book is commonly viewed as the section that provoked authorities in Paris to ban The Social Contract. He argues that a civil religion is appropriate to a civil society. This religion is the one most in keeping with the features of the Sovereign already discussed. More specifically, it reflects the idea that the Sovereign's power is limited to public interests. How people worship (or not) is private. Publicly, however, the citizens must pledge allegiance to certain ideas: that God exists, that there is an afterlife, that one will promote universal justice, that one respects the "sanctity" of the social contract, and that one will reject intolerance. These pledges, according to Rousseau, promote public virtue and a stable state.
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