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The Social Contract

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book III, Chapters 3-7

Book III, Chapters 1-2

Book III, Chapters 8-11


Rousseau roughly distinguishes three forms of government. When all or most of the citizens are magistrates, the government is a democracy. When fewer than half the citizens are magistrates, the government is an aristocracy. When there is only one magistrate (or in some cases a small handful of magistrates), the government is a monarchy. There is not one form of government that is best for all. Rather, as Rousseau has already noted, the larger the population, the fewer magistrates there should be. Thus, large states are well suited to monarchy, small states to democracy, and intermediate states to aristocracy.

Rousseau is very skeptical about the viability of democracy. He claims that "there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be." States, by their nature, tend toward having a smaller number take charge of the affairs of government. When the government and the sovereign are the same body, there is a great danger that the combining of legislative and executive functions will corrupt the laws and lead to the ruin of the state. A successful democracy would need to be small, with simple and honest citizens who have little ambition or greed. Because it is so unstable, democracy is also very susceptible to civil strife.

There are three main kinds of aristocracy. (1) Natural aristocracy, frequently found in primitive civilizations, where elders and heads of families govern a village or tribe. (2) Elective aristocracy, which Rousseau considers the best kind of aristocracy, where those with power or riches, or those who are best suited to govern, are placed in charge. (3) Hereditary aristocracy, which Rousseau considers the worst kind of aristocracy, where certain families govern everybody else. As long as the magistrates can be trusted to govern justly, Rousseau believes that aristocracy is an excellent form of government. It is better to have a select group of the best men govern than to have everyone try to govern together regardless of qualifications.

Rousseau expresses serious reservations about monarchy, just as he does about democracy. Monarchy is tremendously efficient, since all power rests in the hands of one man. However, this can be dangerous, as the corporate will becomes nothing more than a particular will. If a king wants his power to be absolute, it is in his best interests to keep the people he governs in harsh subjection so that they can never revolt. Monarchies are best suited to large states, where a number of ranks of princes and underlings can be assigned. However, a monarch will rarely assign these positions wisely, and few monarchs have the strength to govern large states single-handedly. There is also a problem of succession: if kings are elected, these elections are prone to serious corruption, and if there is a hereditary succession, there is the constant risk of incompetent rulers. Rousseau also notes that each successive king will have a different agenda, meaning that the state will not keep a fixed course. For all these reasons and more, it is difficult to find a good king.

No government is strictly one of these three forms: all are mixed to some extent. A monarchy needs to assign power to lesser magistrates and a democracy needs some sort of leader to direct it. On the whole, Rousseau prefers simple forms of government, but recommends mixing forms in order to maintain a balance of power. For example, if the government is too powerful relative to the sovereign, dividing the government into different parts will dissipate its powers.


In reacting against the philosophers of the previous generation who support absolute monarchy, such as ##Hobbes## or Grotius, Rousseau looks even further back, to ancient Greek and Roman thinkers. In particular, he owes a tremendous debt to Aristotle's ##Politics##. In that work, Aristotle makes a similar distinction between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, depending on whether government is by the many, the few, or by a single person. Aristotle also concedes that different forms of government suit different people, but tends to favor aristocracy. Perhaps, however, the differences are more interesting than the similarities. While Rousseau values freedom above all, Aristotle values the "good life," and sufficiently disregards the value of freedom to endorse slavery.

Rousseau's main reason for preferring aristocracy--or rather, his main reason for having reservations about democracy and monarchy--is that he is deeply concerned about cordoning off executive power and the corporate will as distinct entities. In a democracy, the corporate will and the general will are liable to be confused, while in a monarchy, the corporate will is nothing other than the particular will of the monarch.

We should recognize that when Rousseau talks about democracy and the dangers it entails, he does not mean democracy in the sense that we experience it today. Much of the modern world is made up of representative democracies, where the people are involved in politics only to the extent of electing officials to represent them in government. When Rousseau talks about "democracy," he means direct democracy, where the people are the officials who sit in government. According to this scheme, every citizen would be required to sit in assembly together and deliberate on matters of state. If we imagine trying to do this in a country like the United States, we can understand why Rousseau recommends democracy only to small states.

The main problem with direct democracy, as Rousseau perceives it, is that it fails to distinguish between the executive and the legislative. The idea of forming the social contract is to ensure the freedom of each citizen. This freedom would be seriously curtailed if each citizen had to devote as much time to government as elected officials normally do. The people as a whole are needed only as a legislative body, to agree upon the laws and to agree to observe them. This is enough to ensure the mutual freedom of all citizens. Freedom does not rely on the executive work of carrying out day-to-day matters of state, and Rousseau discusses the formation of government precisely so that only a select group will have to deal with such matters.

The dangerin a government of a select few, of course, is that the executive body may become corrupt and no longer serve the people. This danger is especially present in a monarchy. Because the executive body is reduced to a single person, there is no objective standard to distinguish the monarch's particular will from his corporate will as representative of the people. As a result, every monarch will face the temptation to govern in his own interests, and not in the interests of the people.

It might seem odd that a philosopher who so ardently defends liberty and equality should favor aristocracy. This term has been taken in modern times to mean an undeserving and ineffectual upper class, but Rousseau intends it in the Greek sense, as employed by Aristotle. "Aristocracy" literally means "rule of the best," which Rousseau contrasts with the literal meaning of "democracy": "rule of the many." In a perfect world, a select group of magistrates will take on executive duties, and these magistrates will be skilled, efficient, and will serve the interests of the people. Rousseau acknowledges that this is not always the case in an aristocracy, but seems to think that the dangers of aristocracy are fewer and more easily avoided than those either of democracy or monarchy.

We should reiterate, however, that Rousseau does not insist that aristocracy is always the best form of government. Democracy is better suited to small states and monarchy to large states. His preference for aristocracy is based, if anything, on a sense that moderate-sized city-states, such as his home city of Geneva, are ideal. While monarchy is the best form of government for large states, large states are hard to govern regardless of the form of government.

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