I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of
administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be. In this inquiry I
shall endeavor always to unite what right sanctions with what is prescribed by interest ,
in order that justice and utility may in no case be divided.
I enter upon my task without proving the importance of the subject. I shall be asked if
I am a prince or a legislator, to write on politics. I answer that I am neither, and that
is why I do so. If I were a prince or a legislator, I should not waste time in saying what
wants doing; I should do it, or hold my peace.
As I was born a citizen of a free State, and a member of the Sovereign, I feel that,
however feeble the influence my voice can have on public affairs, the right of voting on
them makes it my duty to study them: and I am happy, when I reflect upon governments, to
find my inquiries always furnish me with new reasons for loving that of my own country.
Chapter I: Subject of the first book
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of
others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do
not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.
If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say:
"As long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can
shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for, regaining its liberty by
the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no
justification for those who took it away." But the social order is a sacred right
which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from
nature, and must therefore be founded on conventions. Before coming to that, I have to
prove what I have just asserted.
Chapter III: The Right of the Strongest
The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms
strength into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of the strongest, which,
though to all seeming meant ironically, is really laid down as a fundamental principle.
But are we never to have an explanation of this phrase? Force is a physical power, and I
fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not
of will - at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?
Suppose for a moment that this so-called "right" exists. I maintain that the
sole result is a mass of inexplicable nonsense. For, if force creates right, the effect
changes with the cause: every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right.
As soon as it is possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience is legitimate; and, the
strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become
the strongest. But what kind of right is that which perishes when force fails? If we must
obey perforce, there is no need to obey because we ought; and if we are not forced to
obey, we are under no obligation to do so. Clearly, the word "right" adds
nothing to force: in this connection, it means absolutely nothing.
Obey the powers that be. If this means yield to force, it is a good precept, but
superfluous: I can answer for its never being violated. All power comes from God, I admit;
but so does all sickness: does that mean that we are forbidden to call in the doctor? A
brigand surprises me at the edge of a wood: must I not merely surrender my purse on
compulsion; but, even if I could withhold it, am I in conscience bound to give it up? For
certainly the pistol he holds is also a power.
Let us then admit that force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey
only legitimate powers. In that case, my original question recurs.
Chapter IV: Slavery
Since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we
must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men.
If an individual, says Grotius, can alienate his liberty and make himself the slave of
a master, why could not a whole people do the same and make itself subject to a king?
There are in this passage plenty of ambiguous words which would need explaining; but let
us confine ourselves to the word alienate. To alienate is to give or to sell. Now, a man
who becomes the slave of another does not give himself; he sells himself, at the least for
his subsistence: but for what does a people sell itself? A king is so far from furnishing
his subjects with their subsistence that he gets his own only from them; and, according to
Rabelais, kings do not live on nothing. Do subjects then give their persons on condition
that the king takes their goods also? I fail to see what they have left to preserve.
It will be said that the despot assures his subjects civil tranquillity. Granted; but
what do they gain, if the wars his ambition brings down upon them, his insatiable avidity,
and the vexatious conduct of his ministers press harder on them than their own dissensions
would have done? What do they gain, if the very tranquillity they enjoy is one of their
miseries? Tranquillity is found also in dungeons; but is that enough to make them
desirable places to live in? The Greeks imprisoned in the cave of the Cyclops lived there
very tranquilly, while they were awaiting their turn to be devoured.
To say that a man gives himself gratuitously, is to say what is absurd and
inconceivable; such an act is null and illegitimate, from the mere fact that he who does
it is out of his mind. To say the same of a whole people is to suppose a people of madmen;
and madness creates no right.
Even if each man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children: they are
born men and free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to
dispose of it. Before they come to years of discretion, the father can, in their name, lay
down conditions for their preservation and well- being, but he cannot give them
irrevocably and without conditions: such a gift is contrary to the ends of nature, and
exceeds the rights of paternity. It would therefore be necessary, in order to legitimise
an arbitrary government, that in every generation the people should be in a position to
accept or reject it; but were this so, the government would be no longer arbitrary.
To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and
even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a
renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to
remove all morality from his acts. Finally, it is an empty and contradictory convention
that sets up, on the one side, absolute authority, and, on the other, unlimited obedience.
Is it not clear that we can be under no obligation to a person from whom we have the right
to exact everything? Does not this condition alone, in the absence of equivalence or
exchange, in itself involve the nullity of the act? For what right can my slave have
against me, when all that he has belongs to me, and, his right being mine, this right of
mine against myself is a phrase devoid of meaning?
Grotius and the rest find in war another origin for the so- called right of slavery.
The victor having, as they hold, the right of killing the vanquished, the latter can buy
back his life at the price of his liberty; and this convention is the more legitimate
because it is to the advantage of both parties.
But it is clear that this supposed right to kill the conquered is by no means deducible
from the state of war. Men, from the mere fact that, while they are living in their
primitive independence, they have no mutual relations stable enough to constitute either
the state of peace or the state of war, cannot be naturally enemies. War is constituted by
a relation between things, and not between persons; and, as the state of war cannot arise
out of simple personal relations, but only out of real relations, private war, or war of
man with man, can exist neither in the state of nature, where there is no constant
property, nor in the social state, where everything is under the authority of the laws.
Individual combats, duels and encounters, are acts which cannot constitute a state; while
the private wars, authorised by the Establishments of Louis IX, King of France, and
suspended by the Peace of God, are abuses of feudalism, in itself an absurd system if ever
there was one, and contrary to the principles of natural right and to all good polity.
War then is a relation, not between man and man but between State and State, and
individuals are enemies only accidentally, not as men, nor even as citizens, but as
soldiers; not as members of their country, but as its defenders. Finally, each State can
have for enemies only other States, and not men; for between things disparate in nature
there can be no real relation.
Furthermore, this principle is in conformity with the established rules of all times
and the constant practice of all civilised peoples. Declarations of war are intimations
less to powers than to their subjects. The foreigner, whether king, individual, or people,
who robs, kills or detains the subjects, without declaring war on the prince, is not an
enemy but a brigand. Even in real war, a just prince, while laying hands, in the enemy's
country, on all that belongs to the public, respects the lives and goods of individuals:
he respect rights on which his own are founded. The object of the war being the
destruction of the hostile State, the other side has a right to kill its defenders, while
they are bearing arms; but as soon as they lay them down and surrender, they cease to be
enemies or instruments of the enemy, and become once more merely men, whose life no one
has any right to take. Sometimes it is possible to kill the State without killing a single
one of its members; and war gives no right which is not necessary to the gaining of its
object. These principles are not those of Grotius: they are not based on the authority of
poets, but derived from the nature of reality and based on reason.
The right of conquest has no foundation other than the right of the strongest. If war
does not give the conqueror the right to massacre the conquered peoples, the right to
enslave them cannot be based upon a right which does not exist. No one has a right to kill
an enemy except when he cannot make him a slave, and the right to enslave him cannot
therefore be derived from the right to kill him. It is accordingly an unfair exchange to
make him buy at the price of his liberty his life, over which the victor holds no right.
Is it not clear that there is a vicious circle in founding the right of life and death on
the right of slavery, and the right of slavery on the right of life and death?
Even if we assume this terrible right to kill everybody, I maintain that a slave made
in war, or a conquered people, is under no obligation to a master, except to obey him as
far as he is compelled to do so. By taking an equivalent for his life, the victor has not
done him a favour; instead of killing his without profit, he has killed him usefully. So
far then is he from acquiring over him any authority in addition to that of force, that
the state of war continues to subsist between them: their mutual relation is the effect of
it, and the usage of the right of war does not imply a treaty of peace. A convention has
indeed been made; but this convention, so far from destroying the state of war,
presupposes its continuance.
So, from whatever aspect we regard the question, the right of slavery is null and void,
not only as being illegitimate, but also because it is absurd and meaningless. The words slave and right contradict each other, and are mutually exclusive. It will always be
equally foolish for a man to say to a man or to a people: "I make with you a
convention wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I shall keep it as long as I
like, and you will keep it as long as I like."
Chapter VI: The Social Compact
I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their
preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the
resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That
primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it
changed its manner of existence.
But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they
have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum
of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by
means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert.
This sum of forces can arise only where several persons come together: but, as the
force and liberty of each man are the chief instruments of his self-preservation, how can
he pledge them without harming his own interests, and neglecting the care he owes to
himself? This difficulty, in its bearing on my present subject, may be stated in the
following terms --
"The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with
the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while
uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as
before." This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides
The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act that the
slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective; so that, although they have
perhaps never been formally set forth, they are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly
admitted and recognised, until, on the violation of the social compact, each regains his
original rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty in
favour of which he renounced it.
These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one -- the total alienation of
each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first
place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this
being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.
Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be,
and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain
rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each,
being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would
thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.
Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is
no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over
himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the
preservation of what he has.
If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find
that it reduces itself to the following terms --
"Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme
direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as
an indivisible part of the whole."
At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of
association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the
assemble contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its
life and its will. This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons
formerly took the name of city, and now takes that or Republic of body
politic; it is called by its members State when passive, Sovereign when
active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated
in it take collectively the name of people, and severally are called citizens, as
sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State.
But these terms are often confused and taken one for another: it is enough to know how to
distinguish them when they are being used with precision.
Chapter VII: The Sovereign
This formula shows us that the act of association comprises a mutual undertaking
between the public and the individuals, and that each individual, in making a contract, as
we may say, with himself, is bound in a double capacity; as a member of the Sovereign he
is bound to the individuals, and as a member of the State to the Sovereign. But the maxim
of civil right, that no one is bound by undertakings made to himself, does not apply in
this case; for there is a great difference between incurring an obligation to yourself and
incurring one to a whole of which you form a part.
Attention must further be called to the fact that public deliberation, while competent
to bind all the subjects to the Sovereign, because of the two different capacities in
which each of them may be regarded, cannot, for the opposite reason, bind the Sovereign to
itself; and that it is consequently against the nature of the body politic for the
Sovereign to impose on itself a law which it cannot infringe. Being able to regard itself
in only one capacity, it is in the position of an individual who makes a contract with
himself; and this makes it clear that there neither is nor can be any kind of fundamental
law binding on the body of the people -- not even the social contract itself. This does
not mean that the body politic cannot enter into undertakings with others, provided the
contract is not infringed by them; for in relation to what is external to it, it becomes a
simple being, an individual.
But the body politic or the Sovereign, drawing its being wholly from the sanctity of
the contract, can never bind itself, even to an outsider, to do anything derogatory to the
original act, for instance, to alienate any part of itself, or to submit to another
Sovereign. Violation of the act by which it exists would be self-annihilation; and that
which is itself nothing can create nothing.
As soon as this multitude is so united in one body, it is impossible to offend against
one of the members without attacking the body, and still more to offend against the body
without the members resenting it. Duty and interest therefore equally oblige the two
contracting parties to give each other help; and the same men should seek to combine, in
their double capacity, all the advantages dependent upon that capacity.
Again, the Sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither
has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs; and consequently the sovereign power
need give no guarantee to its subjects, because it is impossible for the body to wish to
hurt all its members. We shall also see later on that it cannot hurt any in particular.
The Sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be.
This, however, is not the case with the relation of the subjects to the Sovereign,
which, despite the common interest, would have no security that they would fulfil their
undertakings, unless it found means to assure itself of their fidelity.
In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar
to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him
quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent
existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous
contribution, the loss of which will do less harm to others than the payment of it is
burdensome to himself; and, regarding the moral person which constitutes the state as a persona
ficta, because not a man, he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being
ready to fulfil the duties of a subject. The continuance of such an injustice could not
but prove the undoing of the body politic.
In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes
the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the
general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than
that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen
to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the
working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which,
without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.
Chapter II: Voting
It may be seen, from the last chapter, that the way in which general business is
managed may give a clear enough indication of the actual state of morals and the health of
the body politic. The more concert reigns in the assemblies, that is, the nearer opinion
approaches unanimity, the greater is the dominance of the general will. On the other hand,
long debates, dissensions and tumult proclaim the ascendancy of particular interests and
the decline of the State.
This seems less clear when two or more orders enter into the constitution, as
patricians and plebeians did at Rome; for quarrels between these two orders often
disturbed the comitia, even in the best days of the Republic. But the exception is rather
apparent than real; for then, through the defect that is inherent in the body politic,
there were, so to speak, two States in one, and what is not true of the two together is
true of either separately. Indeed, even in the most stormy times, the plebiscita of the
people, when the Senate did not interfere with them, always went through quietly and by
large majorities. The citizens having but one interest, the people had but a single will.
At the other extremity of the circle, unanimity recurs this is the case when the
citizens, having fallen into servitude, have lost both liberty and will. Fear and flattery
then change votes into acclamation; deliberation ceases, and only worship or malediction
is left. Such was the vile manner in which the senate expressed its views under the
Emperors. It did so sometimes with absurd precautions. Tacitus observes that, under Otho,
the senators, while they heaped curses on Vitellius, contrived at the same time to make a
deafening noise, in order that, should he ever become their master, he might not know what
each of them had said.
On these various considerations depend the rules by which the methods of counting votes
and comparing opinions should be regulated, according as the general will is more or less
easy to discover, and the State more of less in its decline.
There is but one law which, from its nature, needs unanimous consent. This is the
social compact; for civil association is the most voluntary of all acts. Every man being
born free and his own master, no-one, under any pretext whatsoever, can make any man
subject without his consent. To decide that the son of a slave is born a slave is to
decide that he is not born a man.
If then there are opponents when the social compact is made, their opposition does not
invalidate the contract, but merely prevents them from being included in it. They are
foreigners among citizens. When the State is instituted, residence constitutes consent; to
dwell within its territory is to submit to the Sovereign.
Apart from this primitive contract, the vote of the majority always binds the rest.
This follows from the contract itself. But it is asked how a man can be both free and
forced to conform to wills that are not his own. How are the opponents at once free and
subject to laws they have not agreed to?
I retort that the question is wrongly put. This citizen gives his consent to all the
laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition, and even those which
punish him when he dares to break any of them. The constant will of all the members of the
State is the general will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free. When in the popular
assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or
rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is
their will. Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the
general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my
own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I
thought to be the general will was not so. If my particular opinion had carried the day I
should have achieved the opposite of what was my will; and it is in that case that I
should not have been free.
This presupposes, indeed, that all the qualities of the general will still reside in
the majority: when they cease to do so, whatever side a man may take, liberty is no longer
In my earlier demonstration of how particular wills are substituted for the general
will in public deliberation, I have adequately pointed out the practicable methods of
avoiding this abuse; and I shall have more to say of them later on. I have also given the
principles for determining the proportional number of votes for declaring that will. A
difference of one vote destroys equality; a single opponent destroys unanimity; but
between equality and unanimity, there are several grades of unequal division, at each of
which this proportion may be fixed in accordance with the condition and needs of the body
There are two general rules that may serve to regulate this relation. First, the more
grave and important the questions discussed, the nearer should the opinion that is to
prevail approach unanimity. Secondly, the more the matter in hand calls for speed, the
smaller the prescribed difference in the numbers of votes may be allowed to become: where
an instant decision has to be reached, a majority of one vote should be enough. The first
of these two rules seems more in harmony with the laws, and the second with practical
affairs. In any case, it is the combination of them that gives the best proportions for
determining the majority necessary.