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The Social Contract

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book III, Chapters 3-7

Book III, Chapters 1-2

Book III, Chapters 3-7, page 2

page 1 of 2

Summary

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.

Commentary

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.

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