The Social Contract
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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 solution.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 possible.
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