Read with me: The Social Contract, Part II

Welcome to Part II of my Read Along of Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s The Social Contract, published in 1762. It is perhaps one of Rousseau’s most memorable and influential works, and contributed significantly to the philosophy of the social contract — that is, the idea that, in a society, people consent to give up some freedoms for the security offered by participation in said society. This series will take a deep dive into Rousseau’s take on the issue, going section by section through his book and in each outlining Rousseau’s key ideas and arguments. I’ll then provide some commentary, thinking about how these ideas might work (or not) in our contemporary moment.

See Part I here.

Book II

Here Rousseau clarifies some of the concepts that he brought in in the previous book. His first point is to further define and describe the ‘general will’. He highlights a series of qualities about it. Firstly, the general will is not transferable; power to act in accordance to the will, however, can be delegated. Secondly, the general will is not divisible. While theorists may point to the divided functions and prerogatives of the sovereign, such as the division of executive and legislative, the separation of the right to raise taxes and to declare war, and so on, these are not the acts of a divided sovereign, but the powers of the sovereign separately delegated. Third, the general will is always “in the right” — that is, it tends to public welfare (so it is ‘right’ as in moral or legal right, rather than being, by definition, ‘correct’). The people can never be corrupted, Rousseau asserts, but they can be led to error. 

Here he finally defines the general will properly: it is the sum of individual wants, minus the excesses and insufficiencies. It is the lowest common denominator that is present in each person’s will; or, in his own words, “the common element remaining from the different desires is the general will”. This “common element” is best discerned when people are properly informed, and not swayed by “partial associations”. When wills become aligned with associations, society will tend to be made up of fewer and fewer of these, with peoples’ wills bound tighter and tighter, until one association becomes big enough to simply triumph. To properly ascertain the general will, there can be no partial segment of society. If there is partiality, then the segments (i.e., the number of associations) must be increased, and inequalities between them prevented.

  • The general will = (sum of individual wills) – (excesses + insufficiencies)

Rousseau then goes on to define the rights of the state (remembering that the state refers to the body when passive) and the limits of power. The state must have the right of coercion over its members: “just as nature gives each man absolute power over all his limbs, the social pact gives the body politic absolute power over its members”. A person joining the society transfers the power, goods, and freedom that is important for the community to use. The sovereign alone judges the degree of importance (remembering that the sovereign refers to the entire body politic when it’s active). 

  • state = body politic when passive
  • sovereign = body politic when active

The citizen owes all he can offer when the sovereign asks, while the sovereign cannot ask for anything useless to the community. When a person acts, they do so for themself as well as others; and when others act, they do so for that person. Action is therefore mutual and reciprocal; all are equal within and under the general will. Everyone submits to the conditions that he imposes on others.

Rousseau then goes on to define what constitutes an ‘act of sovereignty’. Such an act is an agreement between the body and each member. It is legitimate because it is based on the social contract; it is equitable because it applies to all; it is beneficial because its object can only be the general good; and it is firmly based because it is guaranteed by communal strength and supreme power. A sovereign cannot place a heavier burden on one subject over any other — that becomes a particular decision, and beyond the sovereign’s jurisdiction, because the general will can only tend to general things. With these factors in place, joining the contract can only be beneficial, for the participants exchange 

an uncertain and precarious mode of existence for a better and more secure one, natural independence for liberty, the power of hurting others for their own safety, and reliance on their own strength, which others might overcome, for a position of right that social unity makes invincible.

What does life and death mean under the contract? Well, given that “the purpose of the social treaty is the preservation of the contracting parties”, he who wills his life be preserved at the expense of others must be willing to give his life for them. If the state says that one must die for the state then he should, for his life is a conditional gift of the state. The rights of life and death extend into punishment, too. We consent to die for murder so that we might ourselves avoid being murdered. In violating the laws, we cease to be a part of society. Criminal actions put the state at risk, and so either the criminal or the state must perish. A criminal who is killed is killed as an enemy. The person acknowledges that they are a part of society by place of residence, and as such if they break a law they can be punished by death or exile. A constant use of the death penalty is, however, lazy government, and should only apply to a man whose life cannot be preserved without danger.

How are laws and legislation created? Legislation is necessary to give the body the ability to will and to move; convention and law are necessary to combine rights and duties. Laws establish reciprocal justice, meaning that everyone has to obey the laws for one another. A law is therefore a rule made by the whole people that the whole people must obey. It never relates to any particular individual, but to all individuals and their actions. It can define privileges or create classes, but cannot assign members by name (though it can establish qualifications for membership). It can, for example, define the body as a monarchy, but the law cannot name a leader. The laws are therefore the conditions of association. And yet people will not inherently know the best laws; the general will is not inherently enlightened. The will needs to be taught, trained, and guided by individual wills; this requires public engagement. It requires a legislator.

Legislative institutions shape future leaders. Therefore he who controls men should not control laws, and vice versa. Some societies, Rousseau asserts, have relied on outsiders to create their laws, but these must be consented to by the people. Nothing is in conformity with the general will until it is put to a free vote by the people. The laws might appeal to God’s laws, or the laws of an already established nation for their authority and legitimacy. Indeed, many legislators appeal to God so that people might accept the law. A good legislator does not just create good laws, but checks whether the people are fit to receive them. Some cultures are not fit to receive good laws. Just as people are only amenable when young, only a young society can be changed. This does not put change out the reach of the older societies, however, for youthfulness can be found in revolution. Yet there are only so many revolutions a society can go through.

Just how big can a society be? There is no hard and fast law regarding this, but there are natural limits: “the further the social bond is stretched, the weaker it gets; and in general a small state is proportionately stronger than a large one”. Distance makes administration difficult; the division of administration becomes burdened with the costs incurred at each level (e.g., local, regional, and national). Government becomes less swift, less able to administer justice, and more preoccupied with preventing sedition. Indeed, 

the people has less affection for its leaders, whom it never sees, for its country, which it regards as the whole world, and for its fellow-citizens, most of whom are strangers.

Some laws are inappropriate for different customs, while having different laws for different regions becomes confusing. The state becomes overly fixated on keeping itself afloat. And yet, despite the dangers of being too large, there still needs to be a minimum size. This will be achieved as smaller communities are drawn together, as if by centrifugal forces. The size of a body politic is measured by its territory and its population. The suitable size depends on the relationship between these two: superfluous land is difficult to defend, and might invite war; too many people and the land will not be able to feed them. It is difficult to affix any precise ration between land and population, however, for this depends on the quality and fertility of the land. 

The legislator also needs to pick the right time to legislate. If the laws are made during a time of crisis, for example, people will make decisions that the wouldn’t have made otherwise. The time for legislation is best when:

  • The people are united by bond or agreement, but without a true law
  • Their customs and superstitions are not deeply embedded
  • They have no fear of invasion, and are able to resist their neighbours
  • Each member is known to all
  • The society can do without other nations, and other nations can do without them
  • They are able to maintain themselves, and society is not too rich or too poor
  • They combine the solidity of an old nation with the malleability of the new

The main objective of legislation is liberty and equality. Liberty here means civil liberty, that is, freedom limited by the general will. Equality means that power should not be so great as to make violence possible, and should be exercised within the law; and that wealth and poverty should be as close together as possible, with none so rich that he could buy any other, and none so poor that he would be willing to sell himself. Why regulate equality, if inequality should happen naturally? It is because “the force of things always tends to destroy equality that the force of law should tend always to conserve it”. These aims and requirements should be modified for whatever comparative advantages a country’s land might give it. Natural relationships and laws should meet at the same points, otherwise the laws will be weak.

Finally, there are several relationships that one needs to consider when ordering state and society: that between the sovereign authority and the state, which is regulated by the ‘political law’, also called the ‘fundamental law’; and that between the members of the state, or between one member and the whole body — in this case, each citizen should be perfectly independent of all others, and extremely dependent on the state (the body politic in its passive form), and this is called civil law. There is also the criminal law, which regulates disobedience and administers punishments. Finally, there is the law that lies in the citizen’s hearts — the true constitution of the state, from which we understand moral standards, customs, and public opinions. Rousseau’s theory only cares about the first of these: the ‘political’ or ‘fundamental’ law.


As you might be able to tell, The Social Contract is structured in a way that resists understanding, rather than promoting it. I have left the ideas and concepts here in the order that they appear, rather than reordering them. If I were rewriting it, I would almost certainly put the last part of this book first, and at the start of the entire thing. It needs to be clear from the start exactly what it is that the theory is concerning itself with. It also would have been useful to have an outline at the beginning of what each of the theory’s elements will be, and how they interact, before proceeding to discuss them in depth. With that aside, Rousseau might have benefited from a broader restructuring that helped the separate chapters (the smaller sections of each book) flow more naturally into one another. Yet it is the purpose of this reading to interpret the ideas, rather than revise them.

Rousseau hints at some of the issues I raised in my reading of the first book. One of my key worries was whether someone could withdraw themselves from the contract. This he seems to answer early on in Book II. Though he does not broach this issue directly, he indicates that a will cannot be beholden to a particular want at a particular point in time because “it is absurd that the will should bind itself to the future”. This certainly seems that it might apply to people seeking to withdraw from the contract, though the practicalities of this await to be seen. Rousseau also indicates that association can be implied through choice of residence — though again it is not discussed whether someone has the right to secede. The clarification on the territorial boundaries, however, is welcome.

Interestingly, Rousseau also reveals his feelings about party politics here. In his discussion of ‘associations’ and how their presence serves to distort the general will by aggregating individual wills around limited interests, he brings up Machiavelli, referencing his thoughts on the evils of party. In doing this, Rousseau indicates the dangers of a two-party system — that one party’s will simply dominate the other — and puts forward a good case for multi-party systems. He does this in a somewhat conciliatory way, acknowledging associations as a sad fact of life, rather than as a good in themselves, or even as a necessary evil. Even still, the case for multiple and equal segmentations as less of an evil than fewer, unequal segmentations could apply to the British, American, and similar systems. He also makes a good case for decentralisation. Some of his observations — distance making administration difficult, burdensome costs, confusing and multiplicitous systems of law, and ill-defined or unclear heritage — might well apply to the United States, or to the European Union, or even to smaller unities like the United Kingdom.  

There are still unresolved issues with how to determine the general will. It’s great that Rousseau provides something of a formula to identify what the will is, although it is still unclear of how to measure it in any meaningful, practical sense. Less clear still is what to do with hold-outs, or people who are present in the territory, but who might disagree with all others on one or all articles of the contract. How do you deal with them? It becomes clearer and clearer as one reads on that the general will is likely to be incredibly narrow — people might be able to agree that murder should not be allowed, say. But even then, what if there is someone present who thinks that murder should be legal? There will only be a few rights that everyone can agree to.

Furthermore, the kind of society that Rousseau describes is unlikely to exist ever again. Such a society was unlikely to have existed at Rousseau’s time, really — the one example he has is of Corsica, though I suspect that even then this might not fulfil the criteria that Rousseau sets. Corsica was persistently under threat from the Italians and then the French. A society where everyone knows everyone, where they are not under threat from their neighbours, and where there are no laws already present… Such a society is unlikely to form. What Rousseau seems to be describing are small, isolated, independent, completely autarkic communes. Rousseau indicates here that he is generally sceptical of the benefits of trade, and promotes living and subsisting off the land, and is not taken by the idea of ‘progress’ that appears in other Enlightenment works. He portrays an idealised pre-industrial life. Yet such experimental societies might form, but they are unlikely to persist, or be able to resist an aggressive neighbour. 

There are also particular aspects of how the contract works that I find particularly unnerving. The idea that, by definition, one’s life belongs to the state is incredibly worrying — that the state, even if it is defined as the totality of people associated by the contract, can decide who should lay down their life for the ‘greater good’ is the basis for totalitarianism. Further, is it not possible that people, in forming the contract, could decide that there might be some alternative to this? Rousseau seems to assume that there are some universal articles that would be in this contract, without ever spelling it out; in defining the theoretical basis for how the contract works, it seems that he is by necessity including something in the contract.

Further to this, Rousseau establishes not just a political theory, but a moral theory, too. By asserting that what is right is what’s agreed to in the contract, Rousseau implies that systems of morality are culturally relative. By highlighting that laws should reflect local customs, he also dismisses any notion of universal rights (such that might be reasoned from a utilitarian or other consequentialist or religious philosophy) — the theoretical assumptions that underpin his own contracts that I’ve mentioned not withstanding. That the state should be allowed to sacrifice the lives of some of its citizens for the greater good of the others seems to be a moral position inbuilt into the social contract theory, however, and thus universal to all societies, even before they have managed to ascertain what the general will is.

So you might gather that, though I’m finding some of the ideas deeply interesting, I’m generally unimpressed with Rousseau’s theory of the social contract so far. Again, if I’ve gotten something wrong, left something important out, or missed anything, please let me know in the comments. I’m here for a discussion!

The copy I have is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Christopher Betts:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract, edited and translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 63-90.


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6 thoughts on “Read with me: The Social Contract, Part II

  1. Enjoyed the post, once again.

    I think perhaps the notion of general will would link up with the size of the state as well–smaller more homogeneous societies might lead to a relatively easier determination of general will as well; but looking at a lowest denominator perception, one could agree on basic aspects like security etc. but even rights (which should and shouldn’t be granted) are so debated that one wonders if there could be a general will on those aspects.

    Re the argument of giving one’s life to the state–a problematic one like you said, but it once again reminded me of Crito and Socrates’ argument that he had to stay and bear his punishment (hemlock) because he was part of the state/contract and thus had agreed to submit to its laws/decisions; so escape as Crito suggested would be a violation of that agreement/contract.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for reading! You’re right that homogeneity is likely to be a key factor – it would probably be generally obtainable in a small society that is reasonably isolated from others, but I imagine it would come with a degree of xenophobia too. The idea that a small society would never be under threat, from natural hazards or other societies, is unrealistic – and who’s to say that if a contract was agreed under perfect conditions, that it wouldn’t be revised in a crisis anyway? (Most constitutions that I am aware of have been amended.)

      Thank you for continuing to draw the parallels with the Greek thinkers – I haven’t read Crito or Socrates (yet!), so it’s great to see where Rousseau is getting his inspiration! Any particular books or passages you would recommend I look at in relation to Rousseau?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Covid and the mask/vaccination debate that one of the commenters had mentioned in the previous post would be a good example to consider in this discussion as well–how would one determine the general will there? Or submission to the state for the greater good?

        Honestly speaking, I read Crito back in college and seem to remember it better (than other things) because I remember referring to it in papers. But as to the rest of the Greeks–The Republic and Nichomachean Ethics have been on my TBR for ages but I am yet to read them properly.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, re. masks etc, Rousseau concerns himself principally (though it’s not clear until the end!) with the ‘fundamental law’, which I’m interpreting as the founding documents, i.e. a constitution – so that kind of thing is likely to be decided at a separate level. Plus the issue of masks relates to a crisis – precisely the time when Rousseau says that contractual (and I’m reading it as ‘constitutional’) issues shouldn’t be decided.


      • True, but it isn’t as if one could suspend the contract or that time either. I mean if one is part of the state, one is part of it in good and bad times, so how does one work out what we should and shouldn’t accept as part of the contract then?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Read with me: The Social Contract, Part III – Bucky's Book Reviews

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