Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/The Social Contract

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 4
The Social Contract

by George Michael Julius Louis Sauvage

Du Contrat Social, ou Principes du droit politique, is the title of a work written by J.J. Rousseau and published in 1762. From the time of his stay at Venice, about 1741, Rousseau had in mind a large treatise dealing with "Les institutions politiques". The Contrat Social is but a fragment of this treatise.


Book I

The Contrat Social is divided into four books. The first treats of the formation of societies and the social contract. Social order is a sacred right which is at the foundation of all other rights. It does not come from nature. The family is the most ancient and the most natural of all societies; but this association of parents and children, necessary as long as these cannot provide for themselves, is maintained afterwards only by convention. Some philosophers have said that among men some are born for slavery, others for domination; but they confound cause and effect; if some are slaves by nature, it is because there have been slaves against nature. Again, social order is not based on force, for the strongest is not strong enough to retain at all times his supremacy unless he transforms force into right, and obedience into duty. But in that case right would change places with force. If it is necessary to obey because of force, there is no need of obeying because of duty; and if one is not forced to obey there is no longer any obligation.

All legitimate authority among men is based on an agreement. This argument, according to Grotius, has its foundation in the right of a people to alienate its freedom. But to alienate is to give or to sell. A man does not give himself; at most he sells himself for a living; but for what should a people sell itself. To give itself gratuitously would be an act of folly and therefore null and void. Moreover, even if a man has the right to give himself, he has no right to give his children who are born men and free. Grotius, again, in order to legitimize slavery, appeals to the right of the conqueror to kill the conquered or to spare his life at the price of his freedom. But war is a relation between State and State, and not between man and man. It gives the right to kill soldiers so long as they are armed, but, once they have laid down their arms, there remain only men and no one has the right to kill them; besides, no one has the right to enslave men. The words slavery and right are contradictory.

The social order originates in an altogether primitive and unanimous agreement. When men in the state of nature have reached that stage where the individual is unable to cope with adverse forces, they are compelled to change their way of living. They cannot create new forces, but they can unite their individual energies and thus overcome the obstacles to life. The fundamental problem is, then, "to find a form of association which defends and protects with the whole common energy, the person and property of each associate, and by which each individual associate, uniting himself to all, still obeys only himself and remains as free as before". The solution is a contract by which each one puts in common his person and all his forces under the supreme direction of the "general will". Where results a moral and collective body formed of as many members as there are persons in the community. In this body the condition is equal for all, since each gives himself wholly; the union is perfect, since each gives himself unreservedly; and finally, each, giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody. This body is called the "State or Sovereign"; the members, who, taken together, form "the people" are the "citizens" as participating in the supreme authority, and "subjects" as subjected to the laws. By this contract man passes from the natural to the civil state, from instinct to morality and justice. He loses his natural freedom and his unlimited right to all that he attempts or is able to do, but he gains civil liberty and the ownership of all that he possesses by becoming the acknowledged trustee of a part of the public property.

Book II

The second book deals with sovereignty and its rights. Sovereignty, or the general will, is inalienable, for the will cannot be transmitted; it is indivisible, since it is essentially general; it is infallible and always right. It is determined and limited in its power by the common interest; it acts through laws. Law is the decision of the general will in regard to some object of common interest. But though the general will is always right and always desires what is good, its judgment is not always enlightened, and consequently does not always see wherein the common good lies; hence the necessity of the legislator. But the legislator has, of himself, no authority; he is only a guide. He drafts and proposes laws, but the people alone (that is, the sovereign or general will) has authority to make and impose them.

Book III

The third book treats of government and its exercise. In the State it is not sufficient to make laws, it is also necessary to enforce them. Although the sovereign or general will has the legislative power, it cannot exercise by itself the executive power. It needs a special agent, intermediary between the subjects and the sovereign, which applies the laws under the direction of the general will. This is precisely the part of the Government which is the minister of the sovereign and not sovereign itself. The one or the several magistrates who form the Government are only the trustees of the executive powers; they are the officers of the sovereign, and their office is not the result of a contract, but a charge laid upon them; they receive from the sovereign the orders which they transmit to the people, and the sovereign can at will limit, modify, or revoke this power.

The three principal forms of government are: democracy, a government by the whole, or the greater part, of the people; aristocracy, government by a few; monarchy, government by one.

  • Democracy is in practice impossible. It demands conditions too numerous and virtues too difficult for the whole people. "If there were a people of gods, its government would be democratic, so perfect a government is not for men."
  • Aristocracy may be natural, hereditary, or elective. The first is found only among simple and primitive people; the second is the worst of all governments; the third, where the power is given to the wisest, to those who have more time for public affairs, is the best and the most natural of all governments whenever it is certain that those who wield power will use it for the public welfare and not for their own interest.
  • No government is more vigorous than monarchy; but it presents great dangers; if the end is not the public welfare, the whole energy of the administration is concentrated for the detriment of the State. Kings seek to be absolute, and offices are given to intriguers.

Theoretically, a government simple and pure in form is the best; practically, it must be combined with, and controlled by, elements borrowed from other forms. Also, it is to be remarked that not every form of government is equally suitable to every country; but the government of each country must be adapted to the character of its people. "All things being equal, the best form of government for a country is the one under which the citizens, without any outside means, without naturalization or colonies, increase and multiply." In order to prevent any usurpation on the part of the government, some fixed and periodical meetings of the people must be determined by law, during which all executive power is suspended, and all authority is in the hands of the people. In these meetings the people will decide two questions: "Whether it pleases the sovereign to preserve the present form of government, and whether it pleases the people to continue the administration in the hands of those who are actually in charge." Intermediary between the sovereign authority and the Government there is sometimes another power, that of the deputies or representatives. The general will, however, cannot be represented any more than it can be alienated; the deputies are not representatives of the people, but its commissioners; they cannot decide anything definitively; hence, any law which is not ratified by the people is null. The institution of the Government, therefore, is not based on a contract between the people and the magistrates; it is a law. Those who hold power are the officers, not the masters, of the people; they have not to make a contract, but to obey; by fulfilling their functions they simply discharge their duties as citizens.

Book IV

In the fourth book, Rousseau speaks of certain social institutions. The general will is indestructible; it expresses itself through elections. As to different modes of elections and institutions, such as tribunate, dictatorship, censure, etc., the history of the ancient republics of Rome and Greece, of Sparta especially, can teach us something about their value. Religion is at the very foundation of the State. At all times it has occupied a large place in the life of the people. The Christianity of the Gospel is a holy religion, but by teaching detachment from earthly things it conflicts with the social spirit. It produces men who fulfil their duties with indifference, and soldiers who know how to die rather than how to win. It is important for the State that each citizen should have a religion that will help him to love his duty; but the dogmas of this religion are of no concern to the State except in so far as they are related to morality or duties towards others. There must be, therefore, in the State a religion of which the sovereign shall determine the articles, not as dogmas of religion, but as sentiments of sociability. Whosoever does not accept them may be banished, not as impious, but as unsociable; and whosoever, after having accepted them, will not act according to them shall be punished by death. These articles shall be few and precise; existence of the Divinity, powerful, intelligent, good, and provident; future life, happiness of the just; chastisement of the wicked; sanctity of the social contract and the laws; these are the positive dogmas. There is also one negative dogma: Whosoever shall say, "Outside of the Church there is no salvation", ought to be banished from the State.


The influence of this book was immense. Rousseau owes much indeed to Hobbes and Locke, and to Montesquieu's Esprit des lois, published fourteen years before; but, by the extreme prominence given to the ideas of popular sovereignty, of liberty and equality, and especially by his highly coloured style, his short and concise formula, he put within the common reach principles and concepts which had hitherto been confined to scientific exposition. The book gave expression to ideas and feelings which, at a time of political and social unrest, were growing in the popular mind. It would be interesting to determine how far Rousseau influenced the framing of various modern constitutions; at any rate, he furnished the French Revolution with its philosophy, and his principles direct the actual political life of France. His book, says Mallet du Pan, was "the Koran of the Revolutionists", and Carlyle rightly calls Rousseau "the Evangelist of the French Revolution". The orators of the Constituante quoted its sentences and formulae, and if it may be believed that Rousseau would have condemned the massacres and violences of 1793, the Jacobins, nevertheless, looked to his principles for the justification of their acts.

It is quite intelligible that the Contrat Social should have come to be considered by some as the gospel of freedom and democracy, by others as the code of revolution and anarchy. That it contains serious contradictions is undeniable. For instance, Rousseau assigns as the essential basis of the general will the unanimous consent of the people, yet he assumes that this general will is expressed in the plurality of suffrages; he affirms that parents have no right to engage their children by a contract, and yet children from their birth will be subject to the primitive contract; he affirms that a man has no right to alienate himself, yet he bases the social contract essentially on the total alienation of personal rights and personality in favour of the community. If there are some true considerations and reflections in this book—as, for instance, on slavery and the dignity of man, on the adaptation of the divers forms of government to the character of the people, etc.—its fundamental principles—the origin of society, absolute freedom and absolute equality of all—are false and unnatural.

He bases society on a convention, ignoring the fact and truth so clearly shown both by psychology and history that man is a being essentially social, and that, as Bonald says, the "law of sociability is as natural to man as the law of gravitation to physical bodies". He affirms as a first principle that all men are born free. He calls the natural state a state of instinct, and he defines natural freedom as the unlimited right of each to do whatever he can. He opposes to this natural state and freedom the civil state which he calls the state of justice and morality, and civil liberty, which is freedom limited by the general will. This evidently implies that man is born an animal with force as its power and instinct as its guide, and not an intelligent and free being. Rousseau forgets that, if natural freedom is power to act, it is at the same time an activity subjected to a rule and discipline determined by the very object and conditions of human life; that if all men are born with a right to freedom, they are also born with a duty to direct this freedom; that, if all are born equally free—in the fundamental sense that all have the same essential right to live a human life and to attain human perfection—still, this very right is determined in its mode of exercise for each individual by special laws and conditions; in a word, that the natural state of man is both freedom and discipline in the individual as well as in the social life. Rousseau's conception of freedom leads him directly to an individualism and a naturalism which have no limits save those of brute force itself.

Again, he declares that all men are born naturally equal. Now this principle is true if it is understood in the sense of a specific equality, the foundation of human dignity. Every man has the right, equal in all, to be treated as a man, to be respected in his personal dignity as a man, to be protected and helped by authority in his effort towards perfection. But the principle is fundamentally false, if, as interpreted by Rousseau, it means individual equality. The son is not individually equal to his father, nor the infant to the adult, nor the dull to the intelligent, nor the poor to the rich, in individual needs, rights, or special duties. The natural relations between individual men, their reciprocal duties and rights, involve both equality and hierarchy. The basis of social relations is not absolute individual independence and arbitrary will, but freedom exercised with respect for authority. By his interpretation of this principle, Rousseau leads to a false individualism which ends in anarchy.

Rousseau maintains that society arises through the total alienation of the personality and rights of each associate; hence, for the absolute individualism of nature he substitutes an absolute socialism in the civil state. It is the general will which is the ultimate source and supreme criterion of justice, morality, property, and religion. Then we have, in spite of all the explanations advanced by Rousseau, the suppression of personality, the reign of force and caprice, the tyranny of the multitude, the despotism of the crowd, the destruction of true freedom, morality, and society. The French Revolution was the realization of these principles. Society has not its foundation in the free alienation of personality and rights, but in the natural union of all personalities, or, rather, families, with a view to reach their perfection. Society is not the source of duties and rights of families or individuals, but the protector and helper of families and individuals in the fulfilment of their duties and rights; its existence is commanded, its authority is limited, by this very end. Society is not formed from elements all individually equal, but is organized from graduated elements. These degrees of authority, however, in the social organization are not by nature the exclusive possession of anybody, but accessible to the capacities and the efforts of all. Society is made up of authority and subjects; and this authority, while it may be determined in its subject and manner of exercise by the people, has not its foundation in their will, but in human nature itself as God created it.