The Social Contract is Rousseau’s attempt to resolve the question of how one might submit to the will of the state while remaining a free man. It’s bit of a political philosophy brain teaser, and if it isn’t one that’s kept you up at night, it’s a slim enough volume that you won’t regret the time you spent on it. His answer to the question is both subtle and profound, and definitely influenced the way I think about political power and civic participation. All I got from Aristotle were some lousy body-part analogies.
Rousseau answers the question almost straight away with the following:
Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole
According to Rousseau, in a savage state there is no right to property other than might, which obviously won’t do, so men create a social contract in order that such rights can be agreed to and enforced. We submit to the common will of the social contract as the only way we can elevate ourselves from the savage state. In making the social contract—i.e., a constitution and some laws—a man at once surrenders all his possessions to the state and simultaneously garners the rights of citizenship, including his right to own those possessions. That is how he can submit to the state and still be free, because he is the state, an indivisible part of its magnificent whole. It’s a bit of a conceptual two-step, but it gets the job done.
Rousseau provides an architecture for the government that the social contract gives rise to, pointing out the pros and cons of different configurations for different kinds of states. The center of the social contract is the creation of the Sovereign, the collective will of the people that rules over them all, even in the case where there is a king or whatever. It is from the Sovereign that everything flows, and each member of the society is a part of that Sovereign, even if he’s the lowest guttersnipe.
Once the Sovereign exists, it must exert its will, and there Rousseau breaks things into two parts: the making of laws which represent the will of the Sovereign, and the execution of those laws by the Sovereign’s representative, the prince. One voices the will of the people and the other enforces it. Pretty straightforward stuff, until you get into the details.
Rousseau maps out the different kinds of governments at some length, talking about the reasons one might be preferable to another in different circumstances. He makes it quite clear that these states should be about fifty thousand people max, so I don’t know what he’d make of the modern state, but in all other ways he seems quite amenable to different forms arising, from democracy to aristocracy to monarchy. He says that the more people and the further spread out they are, the more power the prince has, and the smaller and denser the country, the more power the lawmaker has. It’s all about how easy it is for people to talk to each other, one gathers.
Rousseau is pretty grim on the inevitability of corruption and degeneration from the founding ideals, stating flatly:
And it is by this simple means [preventing the assembly from meeting] that all the governments of the world, once armed with the public force, sooner or later usurp the public authority.
I other words, he would view the calamity currently taking place in Washington as inevitable, like snow in winter. Happily, Rousseau makes it clear that it is always well within the citizen’s rights to dissolve the state, regain his natural liberties along with all his possessions, and take his chances in the natural world. Barring that he should, you know, vote.
Overall, The Social Contract was a very engaging read, and it was nice to get a taste of more recent political philosophy, whetting my appetite for some of the founding fathers’ materials on the list. Overall, it seems like the whole thing boils down to an incredibly simple and basic proposition: We create the state so that people can’t steal our stuff.
Seems like it ought to be more complicated than that, but I don’t think that it really is.
SOVEREIGNTY, for the same reason as makes it inalienable, is indivisible; for will either is, or is not, general; it is the will either of the body of the people, or only of a part of it. In the first case, the will, when declared, is an act of Sovereignty and constitutes law: in the second, it is merely a particular will, or act of magistracy—at the most a decree.
But our political theorists, unable to divide Sovereignty in principle, divide it according to its object: into force and will; into legislative power and executive power; into rights of taxation, justice and war; into internal administration and power of foreign treaty. Sometimes they confuse all these sections, and sometimes they distinguish them; they turn the Sovereign into a fantastic being composed of several connected pieces: it is as if they were making man of several bodies, one with eyes, one with arms, another with feet, and each with nothing besides. We are told that the jugglers of Japan dismember a child before the eyes of the spectators; then they throw all the members into the air one after another, and the child falls down alive and whole. The conjuring tricks of our political theorists are very like that; they first dismember the Body politic by an illusion worthy of a fair, and then join it together again we know not how.
This error is due to a lack of exact notions concerning the Sovereign authority, and to taking for parts of it what are only emanations from it. Thus, for example, the acts of declaring war and making peace have been regarded as acts of Sovereignty; but this is not the case, as these acts do not constitute law, but merely the application of a law, a particular act which decides how the law applies, as we shall see clearly when the idea attached to the word law has been defined.
If we examined the other divisions in the same manner, we should find that, whenever Sovereignty seems to be divided, there is an illusion: the rights which are taken as being part of Sovereignty are really all subordinate, and always imply supreme wills of which they only sanction the execution.
It would be impossible to estimate the obscurity this lack of exactness has thrown over the decisions of writers who have dealt with political right, when they have used the principles laid down by them to pass judgment on the respective rights of kings and peoples. Every one can see, in Chapters III and IV of the First Book of Grotius, how the learned man and his translator, Barbeyrac, entangle and tie themselves up in their own sophistries, for fear of saying too little or too much of what they think, and so offending the interests they have to conciliate. Grotius, a refugee in France, ill-content with his own country, and desirous of paying his court to Louis XIII, to whom his book is dedicated, spares no pains to rob the peoples of all their rights and invest kings with them by every conceivable artifice. This would also have been much to the taste of Barbeyrac, who dedicated his translation to George I of England. But unfortunately the expulsion of James II, which he called his “abdication,” compelled him to use all reserve, to shuffle and to tergiversate, in order to avoid making William out a usurper. If these two writers had adopted the true principles, all difficulties would have been removed, and they would have been always consistent; but it would have been a sad truth for them to tell, and would have paid court for them to no one save the people. Moreover, truth is no road to fortune, and the people dispenses neither ambassadorships, nor professorships, nor pensions.
Public Domain. Translated by G.D.H. Cole.