Containing The Social Contract, Considerations on the Government of Poland, and PART 1 of the Constitutional Project for Corsica

Translated and edited by


Professor of Political Science Yale University



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First Published 1953

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Editor's Introduction ..... ix

Editorial Note ...... xxxv

Chronological Table ..... xxxix

Bibliographical Note ..... xl



I: The Subject of the First Book .. 3

II: The First Societies .... 4

III: The Right of the Strongest ... 6

IV: Slavery ...... 8

V: That we must always go back to a First Convention .... 13

VI: The Social Compact .... 14

VII: The Sovereign ..... 17

VIII: The Civil State ..... 19

IX: Real Property ..... 21


I: That Sovereignty is inalienable .. 25

II: That Sovereignty is indivisible .. 26

III: Whether the General Will is subject to Error ...... 28

IV: The Limits of Sovereign Power .. 30

V: The Right of Life and Death .. 35

VII: Law ....... 37

VII: The Legislator .....41

VIII: The People ..... 46

IX: The same continued .... 48

X: The same continued .... 51

XI: The various Systems of Legislation . 54

XII: The various Types of Law ... 57


I: Government in general ... 59

II: The Constituent Principle of the various Forms of Government ... 66

III: The Classification of Governments .. 69

IV: Democracy ..... 71

V: Aristocracy ..... 73

VI: Monarchy ...... 76

VII: Mixed Governments .... 82

VIII: That no Form of Government is suitable to all Countries .... 84

IX: The Signs of a good Government .. 90

X The Abuse of Government and its Tendency to degenerate ... 92

XI: The Death of the Body Politic .. 96

XII: How the Sovereign Authority is maintained ...... 98

XIII: The same continued .... 99

XIV: The same continued .... 101

XV: Deputies or Representatives ... 102

XVI: That the Establishment of Government is not a Contract .... 106

XVII: The Establishment of Government ... 108

XVIII: Means of forestalling Usurpations of Government ..... 109


I: That the General Will is indestructible . 113

II: Voting Procedures .... 115

III: Electrons ...... 119

IV: The Roman Assemblies ... 121

V: The Tribunate ..... 134

VI: Dictatorship ..... 136

VII: The Censorship ..... 140

VIII: Civil Religion ..... 142

IX: Conclusion ...... 155


I: The Nature of the Problem ... 159

II: The Spirit of the Institutions of Antiquity 162

III: Application ..... 167

IV: Education ...... 176

V: The Radical Defect .... 181

VI: The Question of the Three Orders ... 183

VII: Means of maintaining the Constitution .. 187

VIII: The King ...... 206

IX: Specific Causes of Anarchy ... 212

X: Administration ..... 219

XI: The Economic System ..... 223

XII: The Military System .... 236

XIII: Plan for a Sequence of Official Promotions embracing all Members of the Government ...... 245

XIV: The Election of Kings .... 257

XV: Conclusion ...... 267


Foreword ....... 277

Part I ........ 279


ALTHOUGH nearly two centuries have passed since the publication of the Social Contract, Rousseau still holds his place as one of the most stimulating and controversial of political theorists. The continuing interest of his work comes from the fact that the problem to which he addressed himself has been recognised in ever increasing measure as the crucial issue of modern politics. In the middle of the eighteenth century, social conditions were, or at least appeared to be, comparatively stable. This made it possible for most of Rousseau's contemporaries to take the existence of society for granted, and to focus their attention on the relations between society and government. For Rousseau, however, the basic problem was to secure the voluntary integration of individual and social action. In the twentieth century, with its unprecedentedly rapid social changes, this problem has become peculiarly acute. Liberals and totalitarians, in their respective ways, are equally preoccupied with the task of causing people to identify their individual interests with collective institutions. As a highly gifted pioneer in this particular field of investigation, Rousseau is still capable of throwing revealing light on the problems of twentieth-century politics. General recognition of the importance of his work has not led, however, to any corresponding agreement as to the nature of his influence. For many authoritarians, Rousseau is the evil spirit of the modern world, a reckless libertarian whose siren voice has lured successive generations along the path of undisciplined individualism and self-indulgence. An increasing number of liberals regard him, on the contrary, as the prophet of all that is most distasteful in the individual-destroying excesses of totalitarian government. Diametrically opposed as these interpretations are, both can be supported by a judicious selection of quotations from Rousseau's own writings. After some two hundred years of continuous study Rousseau still continues, therefore, to be one of the most bitterly controversial figures in the history of political thought. This stands as a tribute both to the importance and to the complexity of his approach to the problem of politics.

The difficulty of interpreting him arises, in my opinion, from the fact that most students insist on crediting him with a degree of logical consistency which is not in fact characteristic of his writings. The true nature of his work can be appreciated only if the reader recognises from the beginning that its underlying unity is psychological rather than logical in character. The nature of the human mind is such that people generally begin by making a number of mutually exclusive demands upon the universe. They want to be both loved and feared, both co-operative and autonomous. With increasing experience the logical incompatibility of many of these demands becomes apparent, and an attempt is made to reconcile them in some sort of consistent system. Political theorists are for the most part men with a highly developed logical faculty. In the interest of consistency, they are apt to abstract from the complex unity of human nature some particular psychological trait, and to follow it to its logical conclusion at the expense of every other aspect of experience. Hobbes with his emphasis on the fear of death, and Bentham with his vision of man as a hedonistic calculating-machine, are extreme examples of this tendency.

Rousseau was an entirely different sort of person, and the strengths and weaknesses of his thought are correspondingly distinct from those of most political theorists. Though endowed by nature with no great gifts of analytical clarity, he perceived the political and social motivations of men with uncommon intuitive insight. Because of the contradictions inherent in his own personality, he found it necessary to make room in his political theory for psychological complexities unknown to the systematic constructions of more strictly logical thinkers. Since he himself was unable to reduce his thought to a logically consistent whole, it is futile to impose a system upon him by following any one of his several insights to its logical conclusions. The value of his work lies in the fact not that he was able to resolve, but that he was able to perceive, some of the basic perplexities and contradictions of modern political life. Any useful interpretation of his writings must begin, therefore, with an understanding of the psychological factors which enabled him to take so comprehensive a view of the problem of politics.

The basic feature of Rousseau's personal experience, which goes far to explain the direction of his political thought, is the fact that nature and circumstances had conspired to make him a tragic social misfit. Born with an unstable temperament which led, in the closing years of his life, to actual paranoia, he was a man who, even under the most favourable circumstances, would have found no little difficulty in meeting the requirements of normal social life. Unfortunately the circumstances of his early years were such as to aggravate the problem. The career to which he was destined by family tradition, and for which family precept and example ought to have prepared him, was that of a skilled workman in the sober and God-fearing city of Geneva. By the death of his mother and the desertion of his father he was early abandoned, however, to the well-intentioned but rather casual care of relatives who showed no great skill in imposing an effective discipline upon so difficult a child. The result was that, after a series of unhappy apprenticeships, he ran away and spent the formative years of youth and early manhood in a life of indolent and irresponsible vagabondage. In the long run native talent triumphed over faulty training, and won him an enviable place in the literary and intellectual circles of Paris. For a person of his temperament, however, it was then far too late to acquire the necessary modicum of social skills required for the enjoyment of success. The art of getting along happily with other people was one that he never succeeded in mastering. To the distress of his many faithful and influential friends, shyness and suspicion led him to prefer a life of self-imposed isolation. Thus Rousseau was, to a positively pathological degree, a man cut off from the normal pleasures of social life. For him the conflict between society and the individual was no cold theoretical problem, but a matter of tragic personal experience. This was the immediate source of that passionate interest in social and political questions which formed so large a part of his total life and work.

In view of the nature of his interest, it is psychologically by no means surprising to discover that Rousseau's attitude toward society was basically ambivalent. When people suffer a profoundly frustrating experience, their attitude toward the source of their difficulties is apt to be inextricably compounded of attraction and repulsion. In his reaction to the tragedy of social frustration, Rousseau followed the classic pattern. When he remembered the discomforts of social life, his only thought was to escape; but when he considered the loneliness of his isolation, he yearned for society with all the passion of unrequited love. This led him to adopt two logically incompatible, but psychologically complementary, points of view. He felt, on the one hand, that society, in so far as it runs counter to the will of the individual, is an unmitigated evil. This finds expression in the liberal aspect of his thought, with its extreme emphasis on the subordination of social action to the requirements of the individual. But he also felt, on the other hand, that social action was the highest form of individual satisfaction, and that no price would be too high to pay for the creation and maintenance of a society in which the desires of the individual were so perfectly adjusted to the requirements of the group that there could be ho possible conflict between them. This finds expression in the totalitarian aspect of his thought, with its extreme emphasis on the value of social discipline. Although the first aspect is more prominent in his non-political writings, and the second in his political works, both are important throughout. Without an appreciation of this psychological ambivalence, the significance of his thought can hardly be understood.

A second feature of Rousseau's personal background, which also needs to be kept in mind, is the fact that he was Swiss. Considering that Geneva was the scene of his earliest frustrations, and the first of the many societies from which he fled, it may seem surprising that he should have retained any great affection for his native land. But early experiences, especially when unpleasant, are apt to exert a powerfully formative influence. Later successes in other lands could never wholly quench Rousseau's feeling of guilt for his youthful failure in Geneva. A pathetic desire to re-establish himself in the eyes of his fellow-citizens is visible, for example, in the dedication of the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, with its fulsome praise of Geneva's worthy magistrates. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, who were fully reconciled to the absolutist realities of eighteenth-century politics, and pinned their hopes on enlightened despotism, Rousseau never abandoned the republican ideals of his native city. His extensive acquaintance with the writings of classical antiquity likewise helped to strengthen him in the view that a small, compact community run by a politically active citizen body was the only acceptable form of government. An idealised version of Geneva, reinforced by the classical tradition of the ancient city state, was the foundation of his whole conception of politics.

Rousseau's devotion to the republican ideal was further strengthened by yet another aspect of his Genevan heritage, the Calvinist tradition. Since he himself was far from being an orthodox Calvinist, this element in his thought is often overlooked. But the spirit of Calvin, though already much relaxed and secularised, was an all-pervasive force in the Geneva of Rousseau's youth, and there is much in his later writings which becomes intelligible only in the light of that early influence. From the point of view of politics, the most important characteristic of Calvinism is its emphasis on inner-worldly asceticism. The ideal Calvinist society was a community of saints, austerely and tirelessly devoted to the task of ensuring that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The good life for them was a life not of worldly pleasure but of strict simplicity and unremitting duty. Although the theological foundations of this way of life, even in Geneva, had been greatly weakened by the end of the seventeenth century, the sober and puritanical habits it had engendered continued long thereafter to dominate the Genevan atmosphere. This was the air that Rousseau breathed in his earliest years, and it remained as one of the major influences on his subsequent thought.

Without some knowledge of this background it is hard to appreciate the intensely moralistic character of Rousseau's political writings. The widespread illusion that he was an immoralist is largely due to the fact that many of those who have commented on his work have been Catholics or other non-Calvinists who were unable or unwilling to recognise the moral character of an essentially Calvinist position.

The Calvinist influence is most clearly shown, perhaps, in his rejection of hedonism. At a time when most of his contemporaries were appealing to the pleasure-pain principle as a basis for social and political reform, Rousseau inveighed against the evils of luxury and pleasure with all the fervour of an old-style presbyterian elder. When lax Genevans actually suggested that a theatre be established in their godly city, the expatriate's rage knew no bounds.1 Alienation from his native land, and from the principles of Calvinist orthodoxy, did nothing to modify his devotion to the ascetic Calvinist ideal of plain living and hard work.

Asceticism was not, however, the most important aspect of the Calvinist tradition, nor was it the one which had the deepest influence on the development of Rousseau's political thought. The essence of the Calvinist heritage consists in a peculiar form of moral activism, of which puritanism is no more than a superficial manifestation. This activism is the product of a psychological ambivalence which is curiously parallel to the ambivalence of Rousseau's own attitude toward society. Logically speaking, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination might have been expected to lead to an extreme form of individualism, and to the mystical withdrawal of all true believers from worldly preoccupations. If the elect are chosen directly by God, and if the church is unable to improve the other-worldly prospects either of saints or of sinners, there would seem to be no reasonable motive for social action on the part of Calvinists. The inner tension which resulted from their faith was such, however, that they in fact became the most fanatical of social reformers. Contemplating the awful majesty of an omnipotent and inflexible God, many lived under the shadow of a constant dread that they might not in fact be among the chosen saints. The only way for such people to show that they were on God's side, and thus presumably of the elect, was to work unceasingly for the accomplishment of God's will on earth. In the case of those other, and more fortunate Calvinists who felt sure of their own election, awe and gratitude led to a similar sense of obligation. God willed that all men, saints and sinners alike, should lead lives of sober austerity. To establish the rule of the saints, and to repress the wickedness of sinners, was therefore an all-important duty. Thus the attitude of the Calvinists toward the world, like Rousseau's attitude toward society, was basically ambivalent. As individuals enjoying the free gift of God's grace, they loathed the world as a place of sin and corruption; as saints dedicated to the greater glory of God, they could not rest until they had made the world their own. This last could be accomplished only by energetic and concerted action. In spite of its individualistic premises, therefore, Calvinism everywhere pressed toward the establishment of theocracies which were virtually totalitarian in their insistence on social discipline. Intense moral activism was its ultimate political consequence.

This aspect of the Calvinist tradition is reflected in the moral activism which permeates the whole of Rousseau's political thought. It is true that he rejected the aristocratic implications of Calvinist orthodoxy, with its sharp distinction between the elect, who bear the responsibility of ruling, and the damned, who have only to obey. His repudiation of the doctrine of original sin left no room for any such distinction. The rejection of Calvinist theology, however, did not lead him to abandon, but rather to intensify and universalise, the Calvinist political ethic. Classical antiquity provided him with the example of a society in which the assumption of political responsibilities was regarded not as a duty assumed by the chosen few for the greater glory of God, but as a natural condition of human perfection. Rousseau's respect for the ancient philosophers helped, therefore, to reinforce his inherited belief in the principle of moral activism, and encouraged him to reaffirm it on a purely secular and humanistic basis. The resulting merger of classical and of Calvinist influences gave rise to an attitude of moral strenuousness which is one of the most distinctive features of his political theory, and serves above all else to distinguish his work from that of most of his contemporaries. The latter, though likewise under the influence of classical humanism, were willing to accept any form of government, however despotic, which seemed capable of achieving desirable results. For Rousseau no government, however efficient, was morally justified unless it rested on the active participation of all its citizens. Political life, in his view, was an unremitting struggle to subdue selfish impulses in the interest of the common good. No man was a fully developed moral being unless he participated in this struggle. All this is a reaffirmation, in humanistic terms, of the Calvinist tradition of moral activism. Rousseau's ideal state is a secular kingdom of saints, which differs from its prototype in that the duty of political action is no longer confined to the elect, but is transformed into a general burden on the conscience of all mankind.

The moralistic core of his thought is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in his curiously ambivalent attitude toward the state of nature. This is one of the points on which his work is most readily open to misinterpretation. Rousseau is often regarded as an admirer of the 'noble savage', and it is true that he paints a rather idyllic picture of the pre-political condition of man. In many cases, however, his praise of the primitive has reference not to the state of nature, but to such early political societies as Rome or Sparta. And in the Social Contract, at least, he is perfectly explicit in stating that the transition from the state of nature to civil society is a necessary forward step in the history of mankind. The reasons he advances in support of this proposition are of a characteristically moral kind. In the state of nature man's contact with his fellow men is so infrequent and discontinuous that mere instinct is a sufficient guide to conduct. Without the experience of organised social life, he has no occasion to discipline his natural appetites in the interest of common action. Thus reason and morality do not exist in the state of nature; they are products of civil society. But man without reason and morality is no man at all; he is simply a beast. The civil state is necessary, therefore, to the full development of men, and even though the corruptions to which it is subject may make life far more wretched than it was in the state of nature, this must be accepted as one of the risks implicit in the assumption of moral responsibilities. The civil state may be unpleasant, but it provides an indispensable occasion for the development of a sense of duty. This is the moral ground, characteristically austere and anti-hedonist, on which Rousseau tries to demonstrate the superiority of society to the state of nature.

If the civil state is to be justified on these grounds, however, political life must be so organised as to provide men with an opportunity for the assertion of moral responsibility. This is the main significance of Rousseau's theory of the general will. Although this is the central concept of his political theory, its exact meaning is never clearly defined by the author himself, and the resulting obscurities leave room for many legitimate differences of interpretation. Rousseau's general purpose in introducing it is, however, clear. His own frustrated desire to participate in social life had left him with the feeling that the primary purpose of society was to provide its members with an occasion for voluntary social action. This feeling was reinforced by the inherited Calvinist belief that the good life was a life of conscious moral action. Personal experience and Calvinist background both led to the conclusion that the only legitimate form of government is one which rests on the continuous moral participation of all men. There can be no moral responsibility for acts which do not proceed from the will of the acting agent. In asserting that every citizen must participate in the formation of a general will, and that this general will is the sole legitimate source of political action, Rousseau was stating his conviction that the only justification of society is to provide an opportunity for the moral self-development of men.

The extreme to which he carried the principle of moral responsibility is shown with particular clarity in his curious treatment of the problem of contract. For several centuries before his time, the opponents of political absolutism, inspired by such medieval precedents as Magna Carta, had been relying on various forms of contract, social or governmental, to safeguard the rights of individuals. Rousseau followed this tradition to the extent of calling his major political work the Social Contract, and of using the term to designate the primary act of association necessary to the creation of a legitimate political order. The idea of contract was actually incompatible, however, with the moral implications of the general will. It was therefore modified to the point of extinction in Rousseau's political system. The difficulty was that a contract, if it is to have any significance at all, must be capable of obliging men to act against their will. If I promise today to do something tomorrow, it is in recognition of the fact that when tomorrow comes I may wish, and may even feel morally bound, to do something quite different. Contractual obligations are therefore incompatible with continuous moral responsibility, since they have the effect of confining the period of responsible action to the moment when the Contract is being made. For Rousseau, however, continuous moral responsibility was the essence of political legitimacy. He was accordingly forced to reduce the contractual element in his theory to the barest possible minimum. He therefore denied that there could be any sort of contractual obligation between society and government, asserting that society was free at any time to set up any kind of government it pleased. What then of the relationship between the individual and society? Although Rousseau retained the term contract to describe this relationship, he phrased the contract itself in such a way that it ceased to be contractual in anything but name. In his version of the matter, the individual agrees to give up all his rights to the community, which means that he has no contractual claims to assert against it. The community, on the other hand, can make use of these rights only in accordance with the general will, in the formation of which each individual participates. In other words, the specific rights and duties of the individual are determined not by the terms of the social contract itself, but by the continuing moral consensus of the individuals who are parties to it. But a promise to do tomorrow what you want to do tomorrow imposes no obligation on the will. By putting the matter in this form, Rousseau postulated a social contract which was not in fact a contract. To have done otherwise would have been to impair the integrity of his principle that continuous moral responsibility is the basis of political legitimacy. Rousseau's desire to preserve the individual as a morally responsible agent gave rise, however, to a difficult political problem. If he had been a pure individualist, it would have been easy for him to adopt an anarchist position and assert with Godwin and others that society should be maintained on a basis of pure consent. But Rousseau was too much concerned with the maintenance of social order, and too keenly aware of the obstacles to social action, to adopt so unrealistic a solution. Although his concept of the general will was designed to protect the moral freedom of the individual, he recognised that individuals in a state of perfect freedom might well commit acts incompatible. with the existence of society. If society is a necessary condition for the exercise of human freedom, it follows that socially disruptive behaviour must be repressed in the interest of freedom itself. Rousseau accepted this conclusion. As he himself said, in a well-known passage, men must be forced to be free. But if the legitimacy of coercion is recognised, what becomes of the attempt to eliminate personal frustration and to maximise moral responsibility? Can an individual who is being coerced remain in any meaningful sense of the term a responsible moral agent? This is the crucial issue of Rousseau's political thought.

His own solution of the problem is contained in his distinction between the general and the particular will. Although this all-important distinction is nowhere clearly defined, its general tenor emerges in the course of his writings. Rousseau in this connexion is clearly referring to the psychological fact that men, in defiance of logic, are capable of willing simultaneously two or more mutually incompatible ends. The desire to have cake and eat it too is as old as human nature. The same principle applies to the relationship of the individual to the community. In so far as the individual shares the purposes, and is thus a morally responsible member, of any social group, he wills that the life and activity of that group should be effectively preserved. Individuals who share a common or general will of this sort constitute a single voluntary community; individuals who do not share it are no part of the community, and remain unbound by any sort of moral obligation. When Rousseau says, therefore, that it is only in accordance with the general will that men can be forced to be free, he is maintaining the essentially individualist proposition that a man can only be bound by decisions with which he himself is in moral agreement. But a man is not merely a citizen; he is also a private individual, with interests and purposes of his own. The private or particular will which directs him toward these latter objects may well come in conflict with the general will which he shares with other members of his group. A man who believes, for example, that tax evasion or murder are incompatible with the public interest may still be tempted for private reasons to file dishonest tax returns or to eliminate an unattractive wife. Although the application of coercive sanctions under such circumstances is undoubtedly frustrating to the particular will of the individual concerned, the event may be described in a very real sense as an expression of his own moral judgment. By distinguishing, therefore, between the general and the particular will, Rousseau is able to combine individual responsibility and social coercion within his political system.

Though expressed in rather novel terms, this aspect of Rousseau's thought is by no means wholly original. It places him, indeed, in the tradition of ethical rationalism which proceeds from the Stoic idea of natural law to the Kantian categorical imperative. The basic principle of the rationalist school is that the human mind, by a process of generalisation, is capable of discovering the basic rules of human sociability. Experience shows, so the argument runs, that there are certain forms of self-assertion which, by running counter to the like self-assertion of others, lead to social conflict, and thus to the negation of man's desire for peaceful association with his fellows. Reason enables men to maximise their social satisfactions by teaching them to make only such demands as prove to be compatible with the like demands of others. Rational morality consists, therefore, in the formulation of generally applicable rules of conduct, and in the repression of all selfish impulses which run counter to those rules. Rousseau's statement of the relationship of the general to the particular will is essentially a restatement of this well-known position. It is true that the rationalistic element is somewhat obscured by his emphasis on will. When he says that the general will is always right, it is not immediately clear whether he means that it is right because it is general, or general because it is right. Emphasis on the former possibility has led many interpreters to see Rousseau as an apostle of pure moral relativism. This interpretation is hard to reconcile, however, with his repeated statements that the general will is not the will of all, and that the decisions of a social group, even when unanimous, have no necessary claim to rightness. Something more than consensus is clearly implied in Rousseau's concept of the general will. Conformity to the rationally discoverable conditions of human sociability is also required. This rational element is particularly clear in his treatment of the legislator, as we shall see hereafter. It is also implicit in his rigorous insistence that the general will can only be expressed in the form of general legislation. Thus his concept of the general will belongs in the main stream of Western rationalism, and is closely related, as Kant himself felt, to the principle of the categorical imperative. His subordination of the particular to the general will is just another version of the old proposition that social harmony depends on the maintenance of general rules of sociability at the expense of selfish impulses.

The real novelty of Rousseau's theory is his attempt to apply the principles of natural morality to the determination of political legitimacy. In this attempt he was by no means wholly successful. The difficulty, as usual, was to find a reliable point of contact between abstract moral principles and concrete political institutions. Many medieval thinkers tried to solve the problem by appealing to the institutions of an infallible church as an agency for the enforcement of natural law. Rousseau needed, but was unable to discover, an equally authoritative exponent of the general will. It is true that his general principles led him to a number of negative conclusions. Since the purpose of the state was to provide men with an opportunity for the exercise of political responsibility, it followed that there could be no valid expression of the general will without the personal participation of the entire citizen body. No part of the whole, not even a representative assembly, could be relied upon for this purpose, and if circumstances arose, as in Poland, where representative institutions were unavoidable, their value would be directly proportional to the rigour with which they were subjected to the control of the electorate. All this sounds very much like a plea for direct popular democracy, and Rousseau is often presented as an exponent of absolute majority rule. He himself was too conscious of the difficulty of the problem, however, to commit himself to the proposition that a majority of the electorate, or any other determinate political institution, was necessarily capable of expressing the general will. His repeated statements, in the Social Contract and elsewhere, that bare majorities should be used only for relatively minor or unusually pressing decisions, and that larger majorities, up to and even including unanimity, might be required for more important acts of legislation, are a sufficient proof that he placed no unlimited confidence in the justice of majority decisions. Even a unanimous decision might, in his view, be mistaken as to the true interests of society, and thus no proper expression of the general will. His theory ends, therefore, with the rather unsatisfactory conclusion that no government is legitimate unless it rests on the general will, and that there is no reliable way of telling what the general will may be. By following his principles it is possible to say that a given government is not, but never that it is, legitimate.

With all its weaknesses, however, Rousseau's concept of the general will deserves to rank as a basic contribution to the theory of constitutional government. The very fact, indeed, that he failed to institutionalise it is one of its chief virtues. The institutions of constitutional democracy, like those of any other living form of government, are constantly changing in response to fresh experience. If Rousseau had insisted on ascribing final legitimacy to any particular type of political machinery, his work would soon have been hopelessly dated. This has actually been the fate of those few specific conclusions, such as the rejection of representative institutions, which do emerge from his writings. The lasting value of his concept of the general will is that it sets forth, however obscurely, the basic and frequently forgotten principles which alone can explain the institutions and usages of constitutional democracy. For the modern constitutionalist, as for Rousseau, respect for the moral responsibility of individual citizens is the foundation of all political legitimacy. Coercion is justified only in so far as it is based on some sort of general agreements Constitutional government assumes that all the citizens of a particular state, no matter how divided they may be in their personal opinions, are so firmly agreed in their desire to share a common political existence that they are willing to repress their particular views in the interest of common action. The skill of constitutional statesmanship consists in limiting the demands of collective action to the area of actual or potential agreement. If this proves impossible, minority groups may come to feel that the values of the community are less important to them than the particular interests they are asked to sacrifice on its behalf. When this happens, there ceases to be any constitutionally legitimate basis for coercion, and a proper constitutional government must either relax its demands in such a way as to win back the disaffected minority, or else recognise the right of the latter to set themselves up as an independent political society. The repeal of national prohibition in America, and the abandonment of post-Civil-War attempts to impose racial equality on the Southern United States, are characteristic examples of the first approach; the second is well illustrated by the separation of Norway from Sweden by mutual agreement, and by the progressive elimination of compulsory ties within the British Commonwealth. Such episodes can only be justified on the principle, first set forth by Rousseau, that no coercion is legitimate unless it is based on a general will. And just as Rousseau himself was unable to discover any reliable means of identifying the general will, modern constitutionalists have likewise been forced in practice to admit that the general will is, in the last analysis, an extra-legal force. Although bills of rights and other institutional devices may help to keep constitutional governments from overstepping the limits of common agreement, they can never provide any final answer to the problem. Even the American process of constitutional amendment, which goes to uncommon lengths in its attempt to safeguard minority interests, has not always been successful in preventing the legal adoption of measures which proved to be unacceptable. Constitutionalism, in the last analysis, is a moral principle, an appeal to the individual conscience. Moral principles can never be wholly embodied in, but must always serve as an external check upon, political institutions. The greatness of Rousseau as a constitutional theorist rests on his profound feeling for this all-important fact.

Now that the liberal aspect of Rousseau's thought has been considered, we must turn our attention to the totalitarian aspect. For him, as for most totalitarians, extreme pessimism was the basis for an ultimate rejection of constitutional principles. A thorough and consistent liberal must believe not only that ordinary people ought to assume responsibility for their own political destinies, but also that they are able, on the basis of their own reason and experience, to maintain social order. Although Rousseau was enough of an individualist to accede to the first of these propositions, his view of human nature was too pessimistic to allow him to accept the second. His attitude here is closely parallel, indeed, to that of orthodox Calvinism. For the Calvinist, unredeemed human nature is hopelessly corrupt and sinful. The maintenance of a decent human society depends, therefore, on the intervention of divine grace, as embodied in the rule of the saints. While Rousseau rejected the idea of original sin, and believed in the natural goodness of man, his view of the social capacities of ordinary men was equally despairing. In his theory natural circumstances and social traditions took the place of sin as the source of an almost universal corruption against which the unaided reason of the unenlightened could never hope to prevail. No amount of effort or good will could enable men living in an unfavourable geographical environment, or under unsatisfactory economic and social conditions, to create a good political system. Even under the most favourable circumstances, moreover, simple people could not by themselves hope to discover workable institutions. Only a man of outstanding moral and intellectual attainments would be capable of such an achievement. Rousseau rather fancied himself in this role, and the major part of his political writing is actually devoted to an investigation of the geographic, social, economic and other conditions necessary for the establishment of a successful political order. In this aspect of his work he clearly belongs in the tradition of those who, like Plato, Machiavelli and Marx, have looked to social science for the liberation and instruction of mankind. Just as the Calvinists felt that sinful men were helpless without the intervention of the elect, Rousseau believed that ignorant men were helpless without the aid of a scientifically competent elite. The totalitarian aspect of his thought is derived from this conviction.

The resulting mixture of liberal and authoritarian principles is curiously exemplified in Rousseau's theory of the legislator. The idea itself is derived in part from Plato's theory of the philosopher-king, and in part from the experience of such historical or semi-historical figures as Moses, Numa, Lycurgus and Calvin. Like his prototypes, Rousseau's legislator was a person of outstanding moral and intellectual genius. His function was to perceive the optimum conditions of sociability as they existed at a given time and place, and to devise institutions which would enable men to live accordingly. He was unlike the philosopher-king or a modern dictator, however, in that he was supposed to refrain entirely from the use of coercive power. For all his pessimism as to the political creativeness of ordinary men, Rousseau was too firmly wedded to the principle of individual responsibility to admit the legitimacy of pure coercion under any circumstances whatsoever. He therefore insisted that the legislator, though justified in using lies and other forms of deception for the attainment of his purposes, would have to persuade rather than force ordinary people to accept his proposals. Enlightened leadership rather than enlightened despotism was Rousseau's solution to the problem of transcending the moral and intellectual limitations of ordinary men.

The institutions to be accepted on this basis were, however, strictly totalitarian in character. This fact is made sufficiently clear in the Social Contract, and is strongly underlined in the essays on Poland and Corsica. As a political scientist, though not as a political philosopher, Rousseau's principal claim to fame rests, indeed, on his skill in discovering most of the basic principles and practices of what later came to be known as integral nationalism. Since ordinary men by their own efforts were incapable of appreciating the rational needs of society, the task of Rousseau's all-wise legislator was to remove every conceivable temptation to antisocial action. This called for the minimisation of private interests and activities, and for the complete absorption of the individual in the collective life of the state. All forms of private association were to be discouraged as inimical to the general will. Private property likewise was a danger, and ought in principle to be abolished; since that seemed impracticable, the duty of the legislator was to regulate it in such a way that economic rivalries would never emerge to distract men from their common allegiance. Private religion, though grudgingly admitted as one of the unfortunate consequences of Christianity, was to be kept rigidly subordinate to a civil profession of faith. Rousseau even believed that private amusements were destructive of social unity, and should therefore be replaced by an endless series of public games and ceremonies. Although he recognised that no single pattern of life would be appropriate to all times and places, and that the legislator would have to modify his proposals in the light of particular circumstances and prejudices, the over-all purpose is clear. It is to create a citizen body so firmly habituated to the requirements of collective action that the natural impulse to individual selfishness will be minimised. Such is the essentially totalitarian outcome of Rousseau's distrust of ordinary human nature.

For Rousseau, as for all proponents of integral nationalism, the ultimate effect of this pessimism was to destroy all hope of achieving any comprehensive form of human sociability. This stands in marked contrast to the liberal position. If human beings are capable, through their own experience, of discovering rational grounds for co-operation, there is no reason why the area of voluntary social action should not be indefinitely extended. Thus a liberal faith in the inherent rationality of men encourages the hope of attaining ever wider forms of social collaboration. Kant's vision of eternal peace through world federation is the classic statement of this particular aspect of the liberal ideal. That Rousseau himself, in his more liberal moments, was somewhat attracted by this line of thought is shown by his friendly though critical discussion of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre's proposal for the federation of Europe, and by the federal elements he incorporated in his own plans for the governments of Poland and Corsica. He tells us that the Social Contract was originally intended to include an extensive discussion of the problem of federalism, and there is some evidence that a part of this work, now lost, was actually completed. It is easy to see, however, why he never succeeded in getting it ready for publication, for the fact is that the totalitarian aspects of his thought were logically incompatible with the very idea of federalism. Federalism involves the supposition that men are capable of owing loyalty simultaneously to two or more units of political action. This was one of the things that the totalitarian Rousseau could never admit. If men's irrational selfishness was such that they could not be trusted to form private associations within a single state, how could they possibly be expected to form member states within a wider confederation? As a proper totalitarian, Rousseau believed that man's anti-social tendencies could be overcome only by inspiring him with an irrational and all-absorptive devotion to the institutions of a particular state. Complete uniformity is most readily obtained in a small society completely cut off from contact with the outside world. Rousseau was therefore an outspoken enemy of all cosmopolitan tendencies, and emphasised the importance of giving a people manners and customs so completely distinctive that it would be impossible for them to communicate with outsiders. Economic autarky and cultural isolation were as dear to him as to any modern dictator. But if the formation of an operative general will depends on total dedication to the interests of a particular state, it is hard to see how there could be any bonds, other than those of conquest and coercion, to unite the members of several such states in a larger political whole. Since Rousseau, unlike modern dictators, rejected coercion as a basis of legitimate authority, he was left with no effective means of achieving anything beyond the narrowest forms of political co-operation.

In terms of its own objectives, Rousseau's political thought was a failure. This was inevitable in view of the conflicting liberal and totalitarian assumptions on which it was based. As a liberal, Rousseau was unwilling to admit any element of coercion that would in the slightest degree detract from the moral responsibility of the individual. This made it impossible for him to accept any practicable form of elitist authoritarianism. As a totalitarian pessimist, on the other hand, he was unable to believe in the creative potentialities of ordinary individuals. The result was to leave him with little more to offer than a political ideal which, as he himself was the first to see, was virtually unrealisable. At a time when city states like Geneva were already a hopeless anachronism, and the whole trend of politics lay in the direction of larger political units, he believed that the possibilities of legitimate government were inversely proportional to the size of states. Living in the early stages of an industrial and commercial revolution that was already beginning to transform Europe from a rural to an urban economy, he felt that political virtue was incompatible with any but the simplest agrarian societies. Discouragement under these circumstances was unavoidable, and the final outcome of Rousseau's investigations was to leave him with a profound conviction that mankind was doomed to a future of progressive corruption and decay. It is true that there were certain regions on the periphery of Europe where conditions were not yet entirely hopeless. In Poland and, above all, in Corsica, he thought that there were people who still retained enough of the primitive virtues to offer a promising field of action for a properly qualified legislator. In one brief and isolated passage of the Social Contract he also held forth the dim and tenuous hope that other peoples might, in some future revolutionary crisis, be sufficiently shaken from their evil ways to accept true principles of legislation. He constantly emphasised, however, that the appearance of a genuine legislator is an event so rare as to be truly miraculous. Since the moments when men are willing to listen to a legislator are equally rare, his hopes of reformation depended on the occurrence of a double miracle. And even if, in defiance of the laws of probability, a legislator did in fact succeed in establishing a legitimate political system, the inevitable processes of time and decay would ultimately undo his work. Conservative pessimism was the end result, therefore, of Rousseau's political writing. Old-established institutions, for all their imperfections, are the product of a past which was simpler and less corrupt than the present. To abolish such institutions in the hope of finding anything better is to take an irresponsible risk. Except in the rarest cases, therefore, Rousseau's advice was that peoples should cleave to their existing traditions. In its final outcome his theory is rather more conservative, and far less hopeful, than the traditionalism of Edmund Burke.

Rousseau's failure to solve the problem of political legitimacy should not be allowed to blind us, however, to the peculiar merits of his approach to the problems of politics. It is all too easy to achieve logical consistency at the expense of experience. Most of the fallacies of contemporary political controversy are due to this very fact. Starting from the proposition that man is a rational animal, and following it to its extreme conclusions, liberals are apt, as in many of the current plans for world federalism, to underestimate the difficulties of voluntary co-operation. By leading men to expect unrealisable prodigies of non-coercive action, such theories can only lead to disillusionment and to an unnecessary denigration of the actual achievements of constitutional government. An equally logical system, based on the assumption that man is essentially irrational, leads to totalitarian coercion and to the needless destruction of liberal values. The highest type of political theorist is one who is able to appreciate human nature in its manifold aspects, and to create a system without doing violence to any phase of human experience. Although Rousseau had few gifts as a systematic thinker, he had an extraordinary range of political insight, and an even more extraordinary courage in refusing to sacrifice any part of that insight in the interest of superficial consistency.

That is why, after some two hundred years, he still retains an honourable place as one of the most stimulating figures in the history of political thought.

Editorial Note

The most important document for the study of Rousseau's political theory is the Social Contract, first published in 1762. Because of its largely theoretical and abstract character, however, it gives a rather onesided impression of the nature and scope of the author's interests in this field. This difficulty can best be remedied by considering it in conjunction with two other works, the Considerations on the Government of Poland and the Constitutional Project for Corsica. Neither of these writings was published during the author's lifetime, and the second is no more than a fragmentary and unfinished sketch. But in spite of their manifest inferiority to the Social Contract, they are important for the light they throw on the more famous work. Both are attempts by the author himself to apply his abstract theoretical principles to the solution of concrete political problems. This forced him to deal, far more fully than in the Social Contract itself, with the practical implications of his political theory. The result is to clarify the theory itself in many important particulars.

The more rewarding of these secondary works is the Considerations on the Government of Poland. Completed in 1772, it is one of the last of Rousseau's productions, and may be taken as representing his final position in the field of politics. The circumstances which led to its composition were peculiarly challenging. The Republic of Poland was on the eve of the first of the three partitions which led, in the period between 1772 and 1795, to the disappearance of that country from the map of Europe. This tragic phase in the life of a once powerful people had begun in 1764 with the election, under Russian pressure, of Stanislas Poniatowski, a former lover of Catherine the Great, to the recently vacated throne of Poland. For a time it seemed that Poland was about to be absorbed, without effective protest, by the expanding Russian Empire. Russia became involved, however, in a war with Turkey. This gave the Poles a final opportunity for resistance. Anticipating the event, the landowners of Podolia, following the old Polish custom of direct political action, banded together in 1768 to form the Confederation of Bar, an ad hoc organisation dedicated to the reassertion of Polish independence. In spite of Russia's military intervention on behalf of its puppet government, the influence of the Confederation increased, and in 1769 it was able to convene an assembly with representatives from every section of the Republic. Recognising that extensive reforms would be needed if Poland was to survive as a modern state, this assembly included among its acts a resolution that foreign political theorists be asked to lend their advice. Count Wielhorski, one of the members, was commissioned to approach Rousseau on the matter. Although Rousseau had always been sceptical as to the possibility of reforming a corrupt society, he could not resist the appeal of a people engaged in a life and death struggle against despotism. On the basis of information on Polish conditions supplied to him by Count Wielhorski, he accordingly undertook to suggest means whereby the healthier elements of the Polish national tradition might be strengthened and a truly viable republic established. The Considerations on the Government of Poland, a manuscript intended not for publication but for private circulation among leaders of the reformist party, was the outcome of this undertaking. It is interesting as a serious and sustained attempt to apply the principles of the Social Contract under conditions which Rousseau himself, though he tried to put up a brave front, was bound to regard as relatively unpromising.

The Constitutional Project for Corsica was the outcome of a similar appeal for practical assistance in an even more desperate struggle against despotism. In 1735 the people of Corsica, long a cruelly exploited colonial dependency of the Republic of Genoa, had rebelled against their masters, and driven them from most of the island. Although Genoese rule was restored in 1748 by foreign intervention, the rebellion was resumed in 1752, and soon found an uncommonly gifted leader in the person of Pasquale Paoli. The successful resistance of this spirited and primitive people aroused the admiration of Rousseau. In 1762 he had, in the Social Contract, expressed the opinion that Corsica, alone among the lands of Europe, was ripe for the services of a true legislator. Two years later a distinguished Corsican soldier in the French service, Buttafuoco, acting perhaps as agent for Paoli, requested that Rousseau himself should undertake the work of drafting a constitution for the new republic. On the condition that he be supplied with the fullest possible information on the local situation of Corsica, Rousseau accepted the proposal. Unfortunately this was the precise moment when the popular and official persecution of Rousseau, occasioned by the public furore surrounding the publication of the Social Contract and other works, was reaching its climax. Although he found time in 1765, in one of his places of all-too-temporary exile, to make a substantial beginning, he never had the leisure to complete the undertaking. After 1768, when France bought the island from Genoa and suppressed the rebellion, there was no further ground to hope for the establishment of a Corsican republic, and the work was abandoned as an unfinished fragment among the author's unpublished papers. Unsatisfactory as its present state may be, however, the Constitutional Project for Corsica is significant as Rousseau's only attempt to apply the principles of the Social Contract in a social and political context which he himself regarded as being virtually ideal. As far as it goes, it provides the clearest possible demonstration of the practical implications of his political thought.

The purpose of the present edition is to make these works available, in English translation, in a form convenient for the use of students. The Social Contract and the Considerations on the Government of Poland are presented in their entirety. Of the Constitutional Project for Corsica, Part I, which forms a fairly continuous whole, is given complete; Part II, which consists only of scattered fragments, has been omitted. In preparing the translations the editor has relied on the French text as established in C. E. Vaughan, The Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge, 1915, 2 vols.). All footnotes, unless expressly attributed to the editor, are by Rousseau.

The editor wishes to acknowledge a profound debt of gratitude to his colleague, Miss Norah M. Lenoir of McGill University, who generously undertook the task of comparing the translation with the original texts, and eliminated many of the inaccuracies of the original manuscript. Since her advice was not always followed, the editor himself must assume responsibility for whatever flaws remain in the final version.

McGill University, Montreal, 1951.


1. See the Letter to M. d'Alembert. It is perhaps worth noting in this connexion that Rousseau's own first great success in Paris was with an opera, Le Devin du village. Bad conscience may have had something to do with the virulence of his subsequent hostility towards the stage.


1712, 28 June. Born in Geneva.

1728-41 Wanderings and casual employment in Italy, France and Switzerland.

1741-62 Chiefly in Paris and its environs.

1742, Dissertation sur la musique moderne.

1743-4, in Venice as secretary to the French Embassy.

1745, Les Muses galantes.

1749, articles on music in the Encyclopédie. Essai sur l'origins des langues.

1751, Discours sur les sciences et les arts.

1752, Narcisse. Le Devin du village.

1753, Lettre sur la musique française.

1754, visit to Geneva.

1755, Discours sur l'inégalité. Article on "Economie politique", Encyclopédie.

1758. Lettre à M. d'Alembert.

1761. La nouvelle Heloïse. La paix perpétuelle. Polysynodie.

1762, Du contrat social. Emile.

1762-67 In exile, chiefly in Switzerland and England.

1762-65, in Neuchâtel.

1762, Lettre à M. de Beaumont.

1764, Lettres écrites de la montagne.

1765, Projet pour la Corse (unpublished).

1766-67, in England. Quarrel with Hume.

1767-78 In France, chiefly in Paris.

1767, Dictionnaire de la musique.

1772, Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne (unpublished).

1778, Reveries du promeneur solitaire. Les confessions (published 1781-90).

1778, 2 July. Died in Ermenonville.


THE literature on Rousseau in general, and on his political thought in particular, is so voluminous that it would be neither possible nor desirable, within the framework of the present volume, to attempt anything in the way of a comprehensive bibliography. The following suggestions are intended merely as an aid to those students who may wish some preliminary guidance in the field.

The best critical text of the political writings of Rousseau is to be found in the Vaughan edition, to which reference has already been made. In addition to its exhaustive discussion of the early editions and manuscripts, this valuable work also contains a useful commentary on Rousseau's political thought.

The political aspects of Rousseau cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of his general background and influence. Though in some respects outmoded by subsequent scholarship, John Morley, Rousseau (2nd ed. London, 1883, 2 vols.) still retains its place as the best biography available in English. A particularly useful discussion of Rousseau's intellectual background is to be found in C. W. Hendel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moralist (London and N.Y., 1934). To this should be added two important works recently published by Robert Derathé, Le Rationalisme de J.-J. Rousseau (Paris, 1948) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la science politique de son temps (Paris, 1950). Both Hendel and Derathé lay considerable emphasis, as does the present editor, on the close relationship between Rousseau's thought and the rationalistic traditions of Western ethical and political thought. For a contrary view see Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (Boston, 1919).

A brief but penetrating study of the main currents of eighteenth-century thought, with some consideration of Rousseau's anomalous position among his contemporaries, is to be found in Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-century Philosophers (New Haven, 1932). Ernst Cassirer, Rousseau, Kant, Goethe (Princeton, 1945), throws interesting light on the relationship between Rousseau and Kant.

Some discussion of Rousseau's political ideas, and of their place in the main currents of Western theory, is to be found in all the general histories of political thought. For this kind of treatment see G. H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory (2nd. ed. New York, 1950) and F. M. Watkins, The Political Tradition of the West: A Study in the Development of Modern Liberalism (Cambridge, Mass., 1948).

There are also a number of books on special topics which devote a substantial amount of attention to Rousseau. Among the more notable are Otto Gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society: 1500 to 1800 (Cambridge, 1934, 2 vols.) and J. W. Gough, The Social Contract: A Critical Study of its Development (Oxford, 1936). The subject of Rousseau's contribution to modern nationalism is discussed in Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in its Origins and Background (New York, 1944). For his ideas on international organisation, see C. J. Friedrich, Inevitable Peace (Cambridge, Mass., 1948). On the difficult question of interpreting Rousseau's concept of the general will, the editor still knows of no work that is more helpful than T. H. Green, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (London and New York, 1895).

Of the studies more strictly limited to the analysis of Rousseau's political thought, particularly worthy of mention are Alfred Cobban, Rousseau and the Modern State (London, 1934), A. M. Osborn, Rousseau and Burke: A Study of the Idea of Liberty in Eighteenth-century Political Thought (New York, 1940), and E. H. Wright, The Meaning of Rousseau (London, 1929).

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