“The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau Book IV (1762)

Book IV

Chapter One: The General Will is Indestructible

When an assembly is gathered, all are convened only to consider one will, the common good, which is apparent and only good sense is need to perceive it. This peace, unity and equality are at odds with political subtleties. Honest and simple men are difficult to deceive because they are simple. If peasants can regulate their affairs of state, the complex methods of other nations do not looks so ingenious.

A state governed in this way need few laws and when a new need arises, it is universally seen and understood as to what needs to be done. There doesn’t need to be debate or political intrigue. It is wrong to assume that current states are any different to this because they always had complex constitutions and their citizens are just as likely to know what is just than in other states. Just because these are preexisting constitutions, doesn’t make it a more complex effort to define the common good.

When social bonds are relaxed, the state grows weak, particular interests make themselves felt and smaller societies dominate larger ones, common interests change and become opponents to each other. Opinion is no longer unanimous. The general will is no longer the will of all. Contradictory views and debates arise and the best course of action is not taken.

A state is about to crumble when then state maintains only a vain, illusory and formal existence. The social bond is broken and the worst interests claim the name of “public good”. The general will is silenced. All men become guided by secret motives. Iniquitous decrees are issued as “laws”.

In these cases, the general isn’t extinguish, exterminated or corrupted. It is constant, unadulterated and pure. It just becomes subordinated to individual wills. Each man looks after his particular interest even against the common interest. He eludes the general will but doesn’t change or kill it.

Chapter Two: Voting

As opinion approaches unanimous, the greater the power of the general will. The state is in decline when long debates, tumult and dissensions are led by particular interests. In Rome, the two orders, plebeians and patricians, disturbed the comitia. However, in this circumstance, there were two states and each body represented their respective order. When citizens fall into servitude, they lose their liberty and their will. Fear and flattery take over and public deliberation stops.

Much depends on how votes are counted, how easy the general will is to discover and how far the state is in decline. The only law needing to be of unanimous consent is that the social compact because civil association is the most voluntary act of a state. If there are opponents to the social compact, it doesn’t invalidate it but prevents the opponents from being included, since the social compact is between one man and the sovereign. This includes foreigners and citizens. When the state is “instituted”, one’s residence supposes consent to the social compact. Living in the state is submitting to the sovereign. The vote of the majority binds the rest.

How can a man be free and forced to conform to wills that aren’t of his own?

Rousseau: The question is badly put. The general will is the constant will of all the members of the state. Whether or not the majority of the votes or not is concerned, the vote is the best estimation of the general will itself. The assembly convened is not asked whether or not it accepts or rejects a proposed law but whether it is in conformity with the general will, their own. On the whole, this presumes that this will is not particular when it is not unanimous, it loses its “generality”. Once generality is lost, there are grades of inequality that are the result of particularity. Questions posed to the assembly must be general and not particular.

To regulate this, it is important to remember:

  • When more serious matters are only, unanimity is more likely.
  • When speed of decision is essential, a smaller majority is acceptable.

Chapter Three: Elections

Elections are complex because there are two possible methods: lot (random choosing of administrative assignments) and choice (specific choosing of administrative assignments).

Lots are natural to democracy because the administration is better in proportion because the number of acts is small. In “real” democracies, an office of magistracy is a burden placed on all individuals and yet it’s not possible for all to take part. In this case, one must be chosen at random to perform this task. Aristocracies are better suited to choice since the government, being distanced from the state, should be able to choose its own members. Lots are better for offices that only require good sense, justice and integrity. Choice is better suited to offices that require expertise.

Chapter Four: The Roman Comitia

The Roman Comitia was one way that the large city could maintain sovereignty over the Roman Republic’s rocky history. It was a popular assembly and had three forms for three types of representation of the people.

  1. Comitia curiata – represented the inhibitants of the city (only the city). Because it applied to anyone who lived in the city, it was suited to tyranny and evil designs. The wills represented in this body were exclusively particular and it descended into corruption and sedition and was used against the state. However, this body excluded all rural tribes.
  2. Comitia tributa – This was the council for the Roman people. They were convoked by Tribunes (elected officials of the tribes) and passed the Plebiscitum (referendum). Patricians and Senators has no rights in this body. It was most favorable to popular government (hence the referenda) and was the voice of the people.
  3. Comitia centuriata – designed for the aristocracy. Due to its smaller size, it tended to have the least amount of particular interest and least amount of corruption.

Toward the end of the Republic, the “expediency” of situations required bare minimum majorities and bad legislation passed through. On the other hand, in the early days, the Republic often fell into a dictatorship because the state wasn’t able to cope with a constitution without any teeth to it.

Chapter Five: The Tribunate

There is a link missing between the sovereign and the magistrate. This will be called the “tribunate” (A governmental body proposed by Rousseau), which is the preserver of the laws of the legislative body. Its function is to protect the sovereign from the government, to uphold the government from the people and to maintain the balance between the two.

It is not a constituent part of the city and holds no executive nor legislative power. It can do nothing actively but can stop things from being done. It is more important than either the prince or the sovereign. It is the strongest support for a good constitution. In order for it to work properly, its power must be balanced correctly. It becomes tyrannical when it usurps executive power and dispenses with the laws of the legislative power. It grows weak, along with the government, when it grows great in number of members. It should be restricted to periods of action to curb abuses within.

Chapter Six: The Dictatorship

The inflexibility of laws sometimes causes a national or state crisis and requires the suspension of legislative authority – but not its abolition because the prince or dictator cannot represent the sovereign but only execute its voice.

Often in Rome, the state did not have a firm basis to maintain itself through a constitution. At the time, there was no fear of abuse because so much power seemed burdensome. Its free use made it less formidable when needed to be so because it was often seen as an empty title. In the later years of the Roman Republic, magistrates were overcome by the citizens and became useless. A dictator might have had much more effect to defend the public liberty.

If a dictatorship proves to be necessary, its length should be rather short.

Chapter Seven: The Censorship

This is the declaration of public judgment. Public opinion (general will) is the form of law which the censor administers and applies in certain cases. It does not decide or interpret public opinion but only declares it. “Men always love what is good or what they find good; it is in judging what is good that they go wrong.”

Opinions are derived from a constitution. Law doesn’t regulate morality but legislation gives it birth. The censor regulates laws and when they fail, all is lost. Censorship upholds morality by stopping the corruption of opinion.

Chapter Eight: Civil Religion

Men began with gods as their leaders and theocracy as their governments. It took a while for men to accept fellow men as their political masters. If a god lorded over a people and there were multiple people, the national divisions essentially created polytheism – local gods at odds with each other just as the states were. But these gods were mostly the same. Due to this fact political war was theological. Because gods were attached to a state, it wasn’t possible to convert a conquered people. The Romans tried to replace local gods of the newly vanquished but this mostly resulted in a multitude of gods – all mostly the same but different in name.

Christianity established a spiritual system apart from political systems. Romans saw Christians as rebels because they rejected Roman state gods. Today, the Christian people have divided obligations – to the priest and to the prince. All attempts to unite the two have failed. Islam succeeded in uniting the two under Mohammed but ultimately became divided by barbarians.

England and Russia have tried to link their local denominations of Christianity to the state through the monarch. However, the government only seems to maintain the religions but doesn’t have the power to change them. Rousseau agrees with Hobbes that a nation cannot be rightly constituted without these two being linked within the state. However, Rousseau doesn’t think this is possible with Christianity. No country has been founded without a religious basis but Christianity is more harmful than good to the strength of the state.

Rousseau sees three types of religion:

  1. Religion of man – is for the internal cult of the supreme god and eternal obligations of morality. This is natural divine right or law. It sees all men as brothers and united at all points of life and even in death. The laws are the possession of a force unable to be changed by the religion. In this religion, each man would do his duty, rulers would be just, magistrates would be honest and incorruptible, soldiers would lay down arms and earthly temptations would cease to be. Unfortunately, there is little concern for earthly well-being and attention to affairs of the state. A “self-seeker” (“ambitieux”) or hypocrite could manipulate or swindle his compatriots. These tricksters could easily manipulate the pious citizens into doing his will by disguising it as god’s will. There will have to be a great amount of cleaning up to do once the people realize that they’ve been duped. Furthermore, war between states wouldn’t be very productive since soldiers wouldn’t care whether they win or lose, or live or die. Christians are taught to be servile and dependent and therefore they are ripe for tyranny and enslavement. Christian solders are said to be good but Rousseau sees them as working for priests and the Church and not for the real, natural god.
  2. Religion of the state – Each country has its own gods, tutelary patrons, dogmas, rites and external cult prescribed by law. Those who don’t follow it are seen as infidel, foreign and barbarous. Man’s duties and rights extend only as far as these religions’ altars. This is civil or positive divine right or law. This religion unites the divine cult with love of laws and the country becomes the object of the citizens’ adoration. It has no priest but is a theocracy that teaches service to the state is service to god and to die for it is martyrdom. But it is founded on lies and error. It makes men credulous and superstitious and puts them in an empty and ceremonious cult. It also makes men bloodthirsty and intolerant.
  3. Gives men two codes of legislation, two rulers, two countries and gives contradictory duties. This is altogether bad because it destroys social unity, and contradictory institutions are useless.

Rousseau feels that having a religion is important for a citizen because it gives him a sense of morality. As far as which religion he should have, it is not very important as long as it does not interfere with the public interest. Religion teaches citizens to love their duty to the state.

A citizen should be require to profess the following positive dogmas and one negative dogma:

  • Belief in the existence of a god
  • Belief in the afterlife
  • Belief in justice for all
  • Belief in the sanctity of laws
  • Belief in the sanctity of the social contract
  • To reject intolerance

Civil and ideological intolerance are inseparable because to reject justice in the civil sense, i.e. with respect to the state, would also be to reject justice in the natural sense,i.e. with respect to god. To be intolerant would favor either the priest or prince and reject the sovereign, or general will of the people, which is usually tolerant. There should be no exclusive national religion and tolerance should be extended to all tolerant religions as long as dogmas do not contradict the duties of citizenship.

Chapter Nine: Conclusion

The implications of this whole work need to be thought through regarding law, commerce, international politics, etc.

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