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The Social Contract

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book IV, Chapters 5-9

Book IV, Chapters 1-4

Study Questions

Summary

In certain cases, Rousseau recommends the establishment of an additional body called the "tribunate," whose business is to maintain a steady balance between sovereign and government and between government and people. It has no share in executive or legislative power, and is outside the constitution. Its only purpose is to defend and ensure the safety of the laws.

In rare cases, dictatorship may be necessary to save the state from collapse. The laws are inflexible, and there may be circumstances under which they must be suspended for the safety of all. A dictator does not represent the people or the laws; he acts in concert with the general will only to the extent that it is in the interests of all that the state should not collapse. Obviously dictatorship is volatile and can descend into tyranny, so dictators should only be appointed for a short term.

The censor's office acts as the spokesman for public opinion. Public opinion is closely related to public morality, which we have seen is in turn closely related to the laws. The censorial office sustains the laws and public morality by sustaining the integrity of public opinion.

Rousseau's final topic for discussion is the controversial issue of civil religion. In early societies, he suggests, the heads of each state were the gods that that state worshipped, each state believing that its gods were responsible for watching over its people. Christianity changed things by preaching the existence of a spiritual kingdom that is distinct from any earthly kingdom. Worshipping the Christian God does not necessarily ally one with any particular state, and people of all states may worship this same God. As a result, church and state cease to be identical and a tension arises between the two.

Rousseau distinguishes three different kinds of religion. First, there is the "religion of man," which is a personal religion, linking the individual to God. Rousseau admires this kind of religion (and indeed professed to practice it) but suggests that by itself, it will hurt the state. A pure Christian is interested only in spiritual and other-worldly blessings, and will happily endure hardships in this life for the sake of heavenly rewards. A healthy state needs citizens who will struggle and fight to make the state strong and safe.

Second, there is the "religion of the citizen," which is the official religion of the state, complete with dogmas and ceremonies. This religion combines the interests of church and state, teaching patriotism and a pious respect for the law. However, it also corrupts religion, by replacing true, sincere worship with official, dogmatic ceremony. It also breeds a violent intolerance of other nations.

Third, there is the kind of religion that Rousseau associates with the Catholic church, among others, which he condemns forcefully. In trying to set up two competing sets of laws--one civil and one religious--it creates all sorts of contradictions that prevent the proper exercise of any kind of law.

Rousseau recommends a compromise between the first two kinds of religion. The sovereign, as he has already stated, only has power to determine matters that are of public concern. So long as it does not disturb the public interest, the people are free to worship whatever and however they please. However, all citizens should also pledge allegiance to a civil religion with a very few basic precepts: the existence of a God, the belief in an afterlife, justice for all, the sanctity of the social contract and the law, and the prohibition of intolerance, which should prevent friction between members of different religions.

Commentary

When The Social Contract was first published, the book was condemned and its author found himself a wanted man both in France and in his home state of Geneva. The outrage the book caused arose almost entirely because of the chapter on civil religion, which was considered blasphemous by the religious authorities of the time. In advocating civil religion, Rousseau advocates a worship of the state that is contrary to the edicts of any form of Christianity.

The idea of civil religion, as Rousseau admits, is largely inspired by the cultures of antiquity. Almost all ancient cultures have a pantheon of gods and a mythology to explain the origin of their people. Their gods are their parents and their protectors. All people of a certain race or tribe share their gods in common, to the exclusion of all outsiders. Thus, in ancient times, the worship of these gods was a way of cementing the bonds and traditions that hold a people together. Rousseau notes that this is true even for the Jewish God of the Old Testament. He is frequently referred to as "the God of Israel," and serves as a common bond that unites the tribes of Israel.

Christianity is different in that it is an evangelical religion. As soon as the apostles began converting gentiles, there ceased to be any cultural or racial tie that connected all Christians. They do not find their common heritage on earth, but after death in the kingdom of heaven.

Rousseau acknowledges that there is no point in trying to replace Christianity with older, tribal religions: Christianity has arrived and has taken over. Trying to return to tribal religion would be like trying to return to the state of nature. Furthermore, Rousseau himself was a devout Christian, having been brought up in the Calvinist state of Geneva and educated by devout French Catholics. The question of religion was just one on which Rousseau disagreed bitterly with the atheistic proponents of the Enlightenment.

However much Rousseau respects the scriptures and the gospels, he has little patience for much of the established religion of his day. He was neither the first nor the last to accuse the Catholic church of superficiality and an incompatible mixing of the earthly and the heavenly kingdoms. Rousseau's Christianity was a personal one, more closely allied to a love of nature than a respect for the establishment. Personal faith of this kind is compatible with his political philosophy because it does not intersect at any point with the public life expected of all citizens. Church and state may conflict, but private religion and state should not. The sovereign is only interested in matters that are of public concern, and one's private faith does not fall under that umbrella.

Rousseau's idea of civil religion is essentially an attempt to return to the ancient idea of cementing good citizenship in faith. In Book II, Chapter 7, he suggests that lawgivers often invent supernatural origins for the laws for a similar reason: if people believe that the laws came from the gods, they will be less likely to violate them. His civil religion is not very complicated. It is not caught up in a great deal of dogma, and is just intended to ensure that the citizens remain productive and obedient. Still, during an age when religion has been effectively divorced from the state in most developed countries, the attempt to bring them back together might seem uncomfortable.

The notion of worshipping the state seems disturbingly totalitarian. Rousseau is careful to make tolerance one of the precepts of his civil religion, but such an action does not prevent an unreasoned subservience to the state. In agreeing to the social contract, citizens agree rationally to join together for the betterment of all. Yet in basing this contract to some extent on faith rather than on reason, we might argue that citizens sacrifice the rationality and civil freedom that are the purpose for forming the social contract in the first place.

On a historical note, during the ##French Revolution##, the state instituted national festivals such as the "Festival of the Supreme Being" that were largely inspired by Rousseau's discussion of civil religion.

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