Rousseau: The Social Contract, II

The first two books of the Social Contract are the most important and enduring within Rousseau’s tract, though the fourth book is also important for understanding the establishment of civil religion and the French Revolution’s anti-Catholic militancy.  Nevertheless, the second book of the Social Contract continues to examine the relationship of sovereignty and general will which Rousseau had begun in the first book.  Book II deals with the relationship of sovereignty and general will, the relationship of sovereignty and general as it pertains to law and “the lawgiver,” and the relationship of the people (and civil laws) to the general will and the lawgiver.  Also, Rousseau’s secular Calvinism comes to creep out ever more in Book II before reaching fruition in Book IV (I will make a brief note about this in the summary).

BOOK II: Sovereign Will and Laws

Chapter 1-4: Sovereignty and its Relationship to General Will

We must again note that Rousseau’s general will is not the “will of the majority” or pure democratic rule.  Again, the general will is the common good that is embodied by all individuals as a result of their human nature.  Rousseau’s man is naturally free and equal in the state of nature and this cannot be forsaken, as Rousseau said Chapter 3 of Book I, “To renounce your freedom is to renounce your humanity.”  And no human has ever renounced their humanity, ergo their freedom, in the establishment of the social contract (herein again is Rousseau’s criticism of the social contract as laid out by the likes of Hobbes, Locke, Grotius, and Spinoza).  The general will is the common nature that leads to common good known to all humans because we all share in this nature of goodness, freedom, and equality before being corrupted by civilization and its social structures.

For Rousseau sovereign power, to be legitimate power, is tied to the general will.  “The first and most important consequence of the principles so far established is that the general will alone can direct the forces of the state in accordance with that end which the state has been established to achieve – the common good; for if conflict between private interests has made the setting up of civil societies necessary, harmony between those interests has been made possible.”  I want to draw our attention to something that most Rousseau scholars have long noted.  “If conflict.”  This returns us back to Chapter 1, where he questions how this transformation of man from his freedom and equality in the state of nature to becoming enslaved in society came about?  Rousseau says he does not know, but rather that he is attempting to explain how to make society legitimate.

Deep down Rousseau doesn’t believe the social contract theory in the way that most people think of the social contract – mostly in the Lockean or Hobbesian sense.  Rousseau’s social contract theory is both criticism of liberal contractarian theory as presented by Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke, and their company, while articulating a new contract theory wherein we redress the problems of political society.  We cannot go back to the state of nature in other words, even if that state of nature is one of pure goodness, equality, and freedom as Rousseau conceives of it.  Instead, we can only transform political society to make it more like the state of nature.  This is how you make it more “legitimate.”

Since sovereignty is inalienable sovereignty is our freedom.  This is tied together by the general will, for the general will forces the private will to be in conformity to the common good (goodness, selflessness, freedom, and equality).  Since human freedom is inalienable, in civil society our inalienable freedom is manifested in the general will which is the true expression of sovereignty.  As Rousseau said at top, “The first and most important consequence of the principles so far established is that the general will alone can direct the forces of the state in accordance with that end which the state has been established to achieve – the common good.”

Another key insight from Rousseau is that sovereignty is indivisible, having been brought together in union through the social contract.  This also means that the general will is indivisible and representative of all.  The general will is the universal will of all mankind.  As Rousseau specifies in one of his footnotes, “For the will to be general, it does not always have to be unanimous; but all the votes must be counted.  Any formal exclusion destroys its universality.” Sovereignty is therefore tied to a single entity, that entity is what Rousseau calls the force of the general will.

In his criticism of Grotius and Locke, you cannot divide sovereignty.  That is a blatant violation of the principle that sovereignty is both inalienable and indivisible.  For sovereign freedom to maintain itself it must be universal and uniform.  For Rousseau, part of the problem with the Anglo-Dutch liberal social contract tradition is that in dividing sovereignty among constitutive parts of government and society, this permits private wills to start taking advantage of other people and levers of political power to their own benefit.  Divided political government necessarily leads to certain segments of society taking control (since sovereign power has been divided and the common good destroyed) and bending the machinations of power to suit their own desires.  This is how a political society becomes illegitimate and the rise and disparity in power, wealth, and inequality commences which is a reneging on what the social contract was established to guarantee: Our individual freedom and equality by collective freedom and equality.

True politics, then, is always in accord with the general will because that is what politics serves: The general will (because the general will is about human freedom and equality).

Rousseau then pivots to an interesting discussion that has been dubbed “the instinctive wisdom of the people.”  This is common talk in modern democratic societies, “the wisdom of the people,” or the “goodness of the people.”  This is straight from Rousseau.  Because man is naturally good in Rousseau’s anthropological account, he only ever errs or makes “bad choices” when he is deliberately misinformed.  If the people had “the truth” before them, they would never err ergo the general will would never err.  The natural wisdom, and goodness, of the people is uncorrupted when they are not fed propaganda, in other words.  When the people have all the proper knowledge before them, they will always act in accord with the general will.

This is the foundation for the idea of the “enlightened republic” or “enlightened democracy.”  If a people were always well-informed, knew the truth, and understood the predicament that they find themselves in, their natural wisdom and goodness would always lead to the manifestation of the general will to “correct” whatever problems have arisen within political society and thereby return to the original social contract state which was established to defend and promote the common good.  In this manner the general will cannot err, for if the general will errs it is not the general will that errs it is private wills that err because of faulty information or knowledge which they possess.  What Rousseau is saying is rather simple: Individuals err, but the general will never errs.  When individuals err it is individuals who err and not the general will; do not confuse a multitude of erring individuals for the general will.

The fourth chapter is an engaging and deeply consequential discussion on the “limits of sovereign power,” which influenced Robespierre decision-making during the French Revolution.  When Rousseau writes, “Just as nature gives each man an absolute power over all his own limbs, the social pact gives the body politic an absolute power over all its members; and it is this same power which, directed by the general will, bears, as I have said, the name of sovereignty,” do not confuse this for totalitarianism.  It makes sense if you accept Rousseau’s anthropology and logic.  It only becomes totalitarian if we are in disagreement with Rousseau.

What Rousseau means is that since the social pact, which is directed by the general will, is about freedom and equality, the body politic has absolute power to enforce freedom and equality.  This was already established in the first book wherein Rousseau claimed that those who seek to separate from the general will, which is to reject the common good (freedom and equality), which is the rejection of one’s own humanity, the general will will enforce itself upon him and force him to be a free and equal.  The limits of sovereign power is the general will, in other words, freedom and equality serves as the limits to political overreach or negligence.  Now you can see how Robespierre was influenced by this portion of Rousseau’s writing.

The citizen, Rousseau also mentions, owes everything to the state when it is threatened because the state guarantees our life, liberty, and equality.  When it is threatened by internal, or external, forces, we are also threatened by it therefore we must do whatever is necessary to ensure its survival because our survival (and freedom and equality) depend upon it.  As Rousseau deftly remarks:

Whichever way we look at it, we always return to the same conclusion: namely that the social pact establishes equality among the citizens in that they all pledge themselves under the same conditions and must all enjoy the same rights.  Hence by the nature of the compact, every act of sovereignty, that is, every authentic act of the general will, binds or favors all the citizens equally, so that the sovereign recognizes only the whole body of the nation and makes no distinctions between any of the members who compose it.

What are the limits to sovereign power?  The social contract and the general will.  What does the social contract guarantee, and what does the general will manifest itself to enforce: Freedom and equality.  Ergo, the principles of freedom and equality limit sovereign power.  When power is used to destabilize freedom and equality, to enslave others, or to grow one’s own power and wealth, this is a violation of the use of power.

Rousseau also mentions that it is because humans are equal in the state of nature that they pledge, in equality, as equal individuals, to each other the covenant that is unbreakable.  That covenant is the covenant of the common good: Our common freedom and equality.  This social compact is not imposed top-down.  It is not even created bottom-up.  It is established from pure equality.  Rousseau is also criticizing, here, the theories of Divine Right as well as “bottom up” hierarchy.  In other words, there is no hierarchy in Rousseau’s metaphysics and ontology; as such there is to be no hierarchy in political society.

Chapters 5-7: Laws and the Lawgiver

The middle chapters of Book II deal with laws and the Lawgiver.  Rousseau is famous for having described the lawgiver as someone who is benevolent and benign.  Proper lawgivers are good people.

Rousseau argues that the aim of law is always life, never to take away life.  Even in death, death was an attempt to guarantee or preserve life.  As he famously and wittily remarks, those who jump out of a burning building did so because they hoped that it might save their life – they did not jump and die because they were embracing suicide.  The same logic is why the death penalty exists.  The rebel, traitor, or dangerous individual who threatens life must be removed as a public danger in order for our lives to continue.

Now, before we take that in, Rousseau flips the death penalty on its head.  He argues that no man is so bad not be used for something good or productive.  “No man should be put to death, even as an example, fir he can be left to live without danger to society.”  Welcome to the creation of mental health wards and new institutions where criminals and other lawbreakers go instead of being executed for the crimes.  For Rousseau, rehabilitation is the logical end of what law exists for: Which is life.  The taking away of life, even the lives of those who break the law, leads us into a perilous contradiction.  Law is about preserving life?  Can law be used to take away life?

Rousseau understands the dilemma and, as already mentioned, acknowledged how the death penalty is conceived as something that protects life – the life of others, by taking away the life of the lawbreaker who might take away our lives.  But that means the law breaker is having his life taken away from him.  Rousseau’s answer is to offer the rehabilitation idea of justice.  He also ends the fifth chapter by arguing that true humanity is moved to compassion, which moves us to pardoning offenders of the law and hoping to reintegrate them into society.

In dealing with what the law is Rousseau concludes that the law is the general will.  Law aims at freedom and equality because this is what the social contract is about.  Since the general will is also the manifestation of collective freedom and equality, the general will is what legislates law, which is to say that general will is the end to all law and is the law in of itself.  True law is the general will.  Any laws that do not rest in accord with the general will are not real laws.

To this end Rousseau gives us his famous definition of a republic.  Since a republic is the “public thing,” which means there has to be something in common we all share in order for a republic to be a republic by definition, Rousseau concludes that freedom and equality – being what all humans share in common with each other – is the basis of the republic.  Therefore, the general will guarantees that all legitimate governments are republics because the general will, as the manifestation of our common freedom and equality, ensures that government and its laws serve the common good.

The seventh chapter is yet another famous moment in Rousseau’s work.  In his dealing with the lawgiver Rousseau maintains that true lawgivers are benign because they have the interest of the people in the heart.  The human lawgiver is near or closest to God.  The lawgiver is incorruptible, in other words.  The lawgiver is the best of us, so to speak.

The goodness and selflessness of the lawgiver is seen in that he always doesn’t concern his power or his prestige with his actions.  The bestowing of the law is always to the benefit of the collective and the lawgiver submits himself to the interest of the collective in bestowing law.  And, more importantly, the lawgiver has no problem with this.  The lawgiver, in other words, is like God.  God is not compelled to do anything for us.  In much the same way this is true of the lawgiver.  But out of love and compassion, the lawgiver, like God, submits himself before the people.

Why does the lawgiver do this?  Because he loves his people.  The lawgiver is also omnipotent in the sense that the lawgiver knows what the individual wants: The preservation of his freedom and equality (and therefore life) even if the individual does not yet know this.  Thus, the lawgiver takes on semi-divine status as has all lawgivers throughout human history.  Those who “passed courageous” or “progressive” laws are always held up by society in divine light.  They are the best of us.

Rousseau ends the seventh chapter by discussing the historical relationship between religion and the state.  This is a theme also picked up and elaborated at length on by the German Romantics a generation later.  Rousseau notes how religion also served as the first cornerstone of societies and of politics.  The first laws in society were always religious laws.  In time religious laws became the model for secular laws while often moving away from the super explicit religious nature of certain laws.  But the religious prophet is always the first lawgiver.  What Rousseau is implying at the end of the seventh chapter is that there will come a time when political society doesn’t need formal religion anymore (he addresses this issue about how formal religion dissipates and civil religion takes its place in Book IV), wherein society can live and embody good religious ethics without the rigidity of religious practice and dogma.

In dealing with an esoteric theme that many scholars of Rousseau have long noted, that being his secular Calvinism and anti-Catholicism – this itself is a broader strand of political scholarship in political philosophy which sees Protestantism, in particular, Calvinism, as the genesis of progressive revolutionary and egalitarian movements, I addressed this issue as it relates specifically to America in this post – Rousseau says of his beloved John Calvin in a footnote in this chapter, “Those who think of Calving merely as a theologian do not realize the extent of his genius.  The codification of our wise edicts, in which he had a large share, does him as much credit as his Institutes [of the Christian Religion].  Whatever revolutions may take place in our church, the memory of that great man will not cease to be honored among the adepts of that religion [Calvinism] while the love of country and of liberty still lives among us.”  I will address Rousseau’s “secular” Calvinism in another post.  But I wanted to draw our attention to it now since this is a well-documented and written aspect of Rousseau’s political theory and the relationship between Calvinism and utopianism, progressivism, and the revolutionary traditions of Europe and America.

Of course, this leads us to a question that should be popping up in our heads.  Does Rousseau see himself as the lawgiver and prophet?  He had begun his treatise by talking about how political societies are illegitimate and how his treatise will make political society legitimate – under the presumption that people will read his work and take it to heart and begin to implement its theories.  For, as Rousseau also says, the lawgiver is not the same as the legislator.  Rousseau’s idea can be surmised as this: The King is dead!  Long Live the Lawgiver!

Chapters 8-10: On the People, their Education, and Preparedness for Law

Chapters 8-10 deal with the people and their readiness for the reception of the law.  This is where the lawgiver also shows us his great wisdom – the lawgiver must know when the right moment is to bestow the law onto his people.  If he fails to do this, like Rousseau claims of Peter the Great of Russia, this will have disastrous consequences for the future.

The future is everything, and this is why it is necessary to reach the youth and educate them in preparation for reception of the law.  If you reach out to people too late they will not heed your message.  If you reach out to people too young they will not be able to understand.  There is a middle ground which Rousseau sees as the youthful adolescent years, those formative years of the individual – say, ages 14-25.  This is the best time to reach people with a message and transform them.  It is at a particular age range where the people are ready to receive the law and have themselves “enlightened” to the truth.

Chapters 11-12: The Purpose of Laws

Rousseau ends the second book by discussing the purpose of laws in a political society.  He states that law aims at two things, and you already know what these two things are: Freedom and equality.  “The two main objects [of law are] freedom and equality.”  Here is where people get puzzled by Rousseau, for his definition of equality isn’t what everyone was probably anticipating it to be:

As for equality, this word must not be taken to imply that degrees of power and wealth should be absolutely the same for all, but rather that power shall stop short of violence and never be exercised except by virtue of authority and law, and, where wealth is concerned, that no citizen shall be rich enough to buy another and one so poor as to be forced to sell himself; this in turn implies that the more exalted persons need moderation in goods and influence and the humbler persons moderation in avarice and covetousness.  (Do you want coherence in the state?  Then bring the two extremes as close together as possible.)* [What I have in the parenthesis is a footnote written by Rousseau concerning his statement he just made.]

Equality, for Rousseau, is about not using our physical strength, or power, against one another.  And since men did not harm other men in the state of nature, this is why it can be said that all we free (having the faculties of bodily power and will to do as he so pleases) and free (by not harming others thereby allowing them to use their faculties of bodily power and will to do as they please).

Furthermore, as it relates to economics though, we are familiar with the implied logic that Rousseau does outline in his footnote: The idea that there should be some sort of cap on earnings and a minimal threshold, or guarantee, of earnings too.  In this manner one can engineer an economic equilibrium among everyone who lives and works in society.  Rousseau, in a sense, advocates for a living wage and also advocates for a cap on high income earnings.

Laws also ensure a certain degree of separation among individuals, while equally pushing individuals to see themselves as integral parts of a body.  Why is this?  Too much intimacy creates dependency and this robs man of his freedom as an individual.  At the same time we must be willing to sacrifice for the common good if the social compact is to have any bearing over us and the republic maintained – for without the willingness to sacrifice for the common good there is no general will and without the general will no guarantee of freedom and equality.  If man becomes too close, or attached, to others he loses his freedom.  But if man, in society, is not willing to defend the body politic which is established to defend his freedom and equality, then he will lose it by allowing himself (and his society) to be dominated by others.

This is the paradoxical libertarianism of Rousseau.  Again, I use the term libertarian not in its English-speaking context which is bastardized, but in its original context as having emerged in French leftwing thought in the mid and late 19th century.  For man to be free he must always remain independent of others.  Yet, since man finds himself in society, and he cannot go back to the state of nature, and since legitimate political society is the social contract of ensuring individual freedom and equality, man must be willing to defend this from either external forces or internal forces that threaten this covenant community.


The crux of Rousseau’s political philosophy emerges in Book II.  Rousseau claims that each individual, by his natural goodness, freedom, and equality, is sovereign.  In a community, all individuals are sovereign.  Individuals are sovereign, and in a society, they remain sovereign as individuals but together their sovereignty is now bound by “popular sovereignty.”  This popular sovereignty is the sovereign will which cannot be violated by the state.  (E.g. the state cannot violate one’s freedom and equality.)  When any state oppresses the sovereign will, the general will will manifest itself to counter this overreach of government and restore legitimate politics by forcing all to be free and equal as what the social contract is all about.

Proper laws are rooted in the general will.  The task of legitimate politics, since contemporary (or current) politics is illegitimate, is to heed the manifestation, or the call, of the general will and enact policies and laws that redress inequality and “un-freedom” in society.  This demarcates legitimate society from illegitimate society.  Legitimate societies respect and act in accord with the general will.  Illegitimate societies deviate and attempt to suppress, or oppress, the general will.  This is the elevation of the private will above the general will.

True sovereignty is held in the general will, and therefore legitimate political sovereignty is that which is acting in accord with the general will.  It is important to remember how Rousseau began the Social Contract.  Political societies are illegitimate.  Rousseau is writing about how political societies are to be made legitimate.  Political societies are legitimate only when they are acting in accord with the general will, or respective the freedom and equality of the society if such a society exists.  Law advances life.  Law also advances freedom and equality in the sense of restoring lost freedom and lost equality.  Law that doesn’t comply, or in accord with the general will, is no law at all and has no bearing over individuals because that is not what was agreed upon in the social compact to begin with.  In this way Rousseau offers a path for society to “redeem” itself in other words by heeding the manifestation of the general will and then acting in accord with it.  Readers familiar with Marx will see what Marx picked up from Rousseau with regard to how Marx understood freedom as doing what is necessary, that is, acting in accord with the Dialectic.  For Rousseau, freedom is doing what the general will has manifested itself to redress: Unfreedom and inequality.  By redressing this unfreedom and inequality, therefore making men free again, you are acting in accord with freedom.  As the Rousseau scholar Maurice Cranston said, Rousseau “came closest to defining freedom as the recognition of necessity.”

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