The Social Contract

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book IV, Chapters 1-4

Book III, Chapters 12-18

Book IV, Chapters 1-4, page 2

page 1 of 2


Though the general will can be silenced or sold to the highest bidder in states that lack the simplicity of peace, unity, and equality, it can never be annihilated. The general will cannot be changed, but it can be subordinated to other wills, notably the particular wills of each individual citizen. Even when the will of all ceases to express the general will, the general will continues to exist, however little it is heeded.

Unanimity in popular decisions is a sign of a healthy state. That is a sign that the general will is agreed upon by all. When everyone is expressing only his own particular will, there are bound to be disagreements. In a worst case scenario, unanimity reappears when people vote in accordance with a tyrant either out of fear or flattery.

While the social contract itself must be agreed upon unanimously, and all who dissent from it must be expelled from the state, all other acts of sovereignty may be decided by a majority vote. In matters of great importance, a vote should need something close to unanimity in order to pass, and in unimportant administrative matters, only a majority of one should be needed. Those who take the losing side of a vote are not having their wills counteracted so much as they are found to be mistaken in determining the general will. When acting as a sovereign, people must not vote for what they personally desire but for what they perceive to be the general will.

Rousseau distinguishes between election by lot (choosing at random) and election by choice. The former suits a democracy, where the only fair method of determining who should bear the responsibility of office would be a random one. Election by choice suits aristocracy, since the government should be free to choose its own members. Generally speaking, election by choice is better for filling offices that require a certain degree of expertise (such as military offices), and election by lot is better for filling offices (such as political offices) that require only the common sense, justice, and integrity that should be common to all citizens.

Chapter 4 launches a lengthy discussion of the Roman comitia to show how a large city was able to maintain the sovereignty of the people for such a long time. There were three different popular assemblies. The comitia curiata was made up of only the inhabitants of the city, and not the wealthier citizens in the outlying countryside, and was generally quite corrupt. The comitia tribunata was an assembly of the people that excluded senators and wealthy patricians, thus favoring the voice of the people. The comitia centuriata was an assembly of all citizens, but the vote was weighted heavily in favor of the wealthy. Rousseau particularly admires this last comitia, and notes that, in spite of Rome's immense size, all the people collectively exercised the sovereign powers of enacting laws and electing officials, taking on some executive duties as well.


If we recall, the general will is the will that aims at the common good. As a result, the general will continues to exist even if it is totally disregarded. If we recall, Rousseau draws an important distinction between the general will and the particular will of each citizen. Insofar as Rousseau treats the sovereign as one collective individual, the general will is the particular will of this sovereign. Just as the particular will of each individual aims toward that individual's best advantage, the general will aims toward the best advantage of the sovereign, which is the common good.

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Rousseau wasn't advocating totalitarianism

by swagscope, May 13, 2016

When people aren't abiding the general will and they are "forced to be free", this wasn't advocating totalitarianism. The general will is laws that are accepted as just and those who don't follow the general will are breaking the law. Rousseau is advocating to force people to follow the law because it is in everyone's best interest to do so.