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The Social Contract

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book III, Chapters 12-18

Book III, Chapters 8-11

Book III, Chapters 12-18, page 2

page 1 of 3


In order that sovereign power may maintain itself, it is important that all citizens meet in periodic assemblies. This may seem unrealistic, but Rousseau points out that in ancient times, even cities as large as Rome managed the feat. If it seems unrealistic today, that is because of the laziness of the people and not because of logistical difficulties. Generally, a state should not be larger than a single town, so assembling the citizens should not be difficult. In the unstable case where several towns are united, Rousseau suggests not having a fixed capital, but rotating the seat of government and popular assembly from town to town.

Though there is no set period of time, Rousseau suggests that the more powerful the government is, the more frequently all citizens should assemble. In such assemblies, the lowliest citizen has as much of a voice as the most powerful magistrate. As a result, these assemblies are a danger to the government, and the government will often try to dissuade the people from assembling. When the citizens are too lazy or reticent to exercise their freedom the government may succeed in undermining sovereign authority.

Often, a population that does not want to assemble to exercise legislative power elect representatives to do their work for them. Rousseau remarks that a state begins to dissolve when the people value comfort over freedom, and pay representatives and mercenaries rather than serve the state themselves. Rousseau derisively speaks of "finance" as the practice of letting one's wallet replace one's duty as a citizen. Representation is a modern idea that evolved from feudalism, and Rousseau re-asserts that sovereignty cannot be represented.

Rousseau notes that the ancient Greeks were able to assemble regularly largely because slaves did most of their work. In the modern world, the people have enslaved themselves by electing representatives to exercise their freedom for them.

Rousseau addresses the institution of government, claiming contrary to the assertion of other theorists that government is not instituted by means of a contract between people and magistrates. First, sovereign power cannot modify itself like that. Second, such a contract would be a particular act, and therefore not a sovereign act. Third, there would be no higher power to ensure that the contract is honored. The decision to institute a government is indeed an act of sovereignty, but the act of assigning certain magistrates is not. Rousseau explains that, momentarily, the sovereign becomes a democracy--a government where every citizen is a magistrate--and the decision to name certain magistrates is a particular act of government. Once magistrates have been named, the sovereign ceases to act like a government, and the government and sovereign become two distinct bodies.

Thus, government is instituted not by contract, but by law, and magistrates are not rulers, but officers. A regular assembly of all the people is the best means of ensuring that the government never usurps sovereign power. At every assembly, the people must vote as to whether the present government and magistrates should be kept in power.

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