Introduction: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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PKU3 GOVERNANCE 7 Rousseau on states and sovereigns
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: On States and Sovereigns

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment, one who announced the coming of romanticism as an emerging phase of Western modernity [link: romanticism]. He persistently contrasts the state of nature, which he finds to be innocent and good, and the state of civilization, which leads humans into decadence and corruption. He argues that a Social Contract is the only basis for a political authority which incorporates respect for the natural human situation of freedom.
To keep in mind as you read: What are the origins and associations of contract in social contract? Why were Rousseau’s writings often outlawed during his lifetime in pre-Revolutionary France?
411 portrait of j j rousseau by de latour as on p 83

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

[Source:, 111229]
Text: The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, Book I (1762):

I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be. In this inquiry I shall endeavor always to unite what right (principle) sanctions with what is prescribed by interest (material advantage), in order that justice and utility may in no case be divided.

I enter upon my task without proving the importance of the subject. I shall be asked if I am a prince or a legislator, to write on politics. I answer that I am neither, and that is why I do so. If I were a prince or a legislator, I should not waste time in saying what wants doing; I should do it, or hold my peace.

As I was born a citizen of a free State (The Republic of Geneva, later part of the Swiss Confederation), and a member of the Sovereign (its people), I feel that, however feeble the influence my voice can have on public affairs, the right of voting on them makes it my duty to study them: and I am happy, when I reflect upon governments, to find my inquiries always furnish me with new reasons for loving that of my own country.

1 Mankind is Born Free

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer. . . .
2 The First Societies

The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family: and even so the children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved. The children, released from the obedience they owed to the father, and the father, released from the care he owed his children, return equally to independence. If they remain united, they continue so no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention (habit subject to mutual agreement).

This common liberty results from the nature of man. His first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself; and, as soon as he reaches years of discretion, he is the sole judge of the proper means of preserving himself, and consequently becomes his own master.

The family then may be called the first model of political societies: the ruler corresponds to the father, and the people to the children; and all, being born free and equal, alienate (transfer) their liberty only for their own advantage. . . .

3 Force Does Not Create Right

The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. . . .

Let us then admit that force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers. . . .

Even if each man could alienate (sell) himself, he could not alienate his children: they are born men and free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they have the right to dispose of it. Before they come to years of discretion, the father can, in their name, lay down conditions for their preservation and well-being, but he cannot give these irrevocably and without conditions: such a gift is contrary to the ends of nature, and exceeds the rights of paternity. It would therefore be necessary, in order to legitimize an arbitrary government, that in every generation the people should be in a position to accept or reject it; but, were this so, the government would be no longer arbitrary.

To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts [link: Western morality]. . . .
4 The Social Compact (Contract)

If then we discard from the social compact (contract) what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms:

“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.”

At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will. This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons, formerly took the name of city, and now takes that of Republic or body politic [link: text]; it is called by its members State when passive, Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and severally (as a group) are called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State.

5 Whether the General Will Is Fallible

It follows from what has gone before that the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is. The people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad.

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills. But take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.

If, when the people, being furnished with adequate information, held its deliberations, the citizens had no communication one with another, the grand total of the small differences would always give the general will, and the decision would always be good. But when factions arise, and partial associations (political parties) are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State: it may then be said that there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations. The differences become less numerous and give a less general result. . . .

6 The Marks of a Good Government

The question “What absolutely is the best government?” is unanswerable as well as indeterminate; or rather, there are as many good answers as there are possible combinations in the absolute and relative situations of all nations.

But if it is asked by what sign we may know that a given people is well or ill governed, that is another matter, and the question, being one of fact, admits of an answer.

It is not, however, answered, because everyone wants to answer it in his own way. Subjects extol public tranquility, citizens individual liberty; the one class prefers security of possessions, the other security of person; the one regards as the best government that which is most severe, the other maintains that the mildest is the best; the one wants crimes punished, the other wants them prevented; the one wants the State to be feared by its neighbors, the other prefers that it should be ignored; the one is content if money circulates, the other demands that the people shall have bread. . . .

What is the end of political association? The preservation and prosperity of its members. And what is the surest mark of their preservation and prosperity? . . . The rest being equal, the government under which, without external aids, without naturalization or colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most, is beyond question the best.

[Source:, 111229, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right, translated by G. D. H. Cole, modified.]

Study questions:

1. The opening line is “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” What do you understand Rousseau to mean by these startling words and how do his ideas propose to change that?

2. Compare and contrast Rousseau’s idea of the family and those of Kongzi [link: text] and Mengzi [link: text]. Would Rousseau be likely to value xiao [link: text]?

3. Concerning Section 2, what makes some powers legitimate?

4. Compare Rousseau’s estimate of the general will with that of Aristotle [link: text].

5. In section 4, what is the difference between a subject and a citizen?

6. In the last line of section 6, Rousseau looks to population increase as his final test for good government. On the basis of Chinese experience, would you agree or disagree [link: population issues]?

7. Would Rousseau, if he had the choice, be likely to prefer fazhi, lizhi, or renzhi as governing principle [link: Chinese governance]?
Excerpted from Western Civilization with Chinese Comparisons, 3rd ed, (Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 2010), pp 411-14.

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