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The Social Contract Summary and Analysis

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book IV, Chapters V-IX


Rousseau creates a special body called a "tribunate" to maintain the respective powers of the sovereign and the government and to prevent the two from conflicting. A tribunate preserves the laws and protects legislative power. However, a tribunate is not a part of the constitution and thus should not exercise legislative or executive power. Rousseau argues that although a tribunate cannot do anything, it can prevent everything and thus has a great deal of power. Furthermore, he argues that a good tribunate is the most effective means of maintaining the constitution. The main problem with a tribunate is that it may become too powerful to control. One way to prevent this from happening is to give the members of a tribunate a short, fixed term.

Sometimes the inflexibility of the laws can prevent the state from responding to a crisis. When the state must act quickly, the slowness inherent in formal procedures can be harmful. Thus, in rare and urgent cases concerning matters of public safety, the laws can be suspended and power can be given to a dictator to preserve the state. Rousseau claims that the general will is still preserved under this kind of dictatorship because the state's primary concern is its own preservation. However, it is important to set limits on the time that a dictator can hold power. After exceeding this limit, a dictator either becomes tyrannical or unnecessary.

Rousseau now turns his attention to civil religion, one of the most controversial issues tackled in On the Social Contract. He claims that at first people thought of the gods as their political leaders, and all governments were theocratic. National boundaries led to polytheism, because warring nations could not logically share the same leader. Polytheism, in turn, created civil and religious tolerance. Christianity changed the organization of the state by promoting the idea of a spiritual kingdom separate from any political system. It thus divided the administrative aspects of the state from the theological, and created a source of conflict within all Christian nations.

Based on their effects on the state, Rousseau delineates three types of religion. The first kind is "the religion of man," which connects the individual to God and follows the teachings of the Gospel. Rousseau supports this religion in abstract terms but believes that it is harmful to the state. For example, devout Christians will fulfill their duties to the state, but they will do so without enthusiasm because they value spiritual salvation over earthly success. In a war, a situation in which passion for victory is necessary, Rousseau argues that an army of Christians would be crushed. The second type unites the religious and administrative aspects of the state, and is the type of religion that people had before Christianity. In a state following this religion, love of God reinforces one's love for the laws, and the individual obeys the state with a fanatical zeal. However, this religion also promotes a violent intolerance of outsiders. The third type of religion is one that, like Christianity, splits church and state. Rousseau thoroughly disapproves of this kind of religion, because it gives the individual contradictory duties and forces them to prioritize either their religion or their citizenship.

Rousseau recommends a combination of the first two types of religion in an ideal society. Each individual is free to have his own religious beliefs, because the sovereign can only regulate matters that affect public utility. However, Rousseau argues that there are certain beliefs that each person should have in order to be a good person. Although the sovereign cannot obligate anyone to accept these beliefs, it can banish from the state anyone who does not hold them. These beliefs comprise a civil religion to which Rousseau believes all citizens should adhere. Generally, the citizen must believe in God, the existence of an afterlife, and the sanctity of the social contract. The citizen must also believe in justice and disapprove of intolerance.


In this section, Rousseau discusses some of the most controversial issues in On the Social Contract: dictatorship, censorship, and civil religion. Because Rousseau supports all three, many academics have claimed that he opposes personal liberty and advocates a totalitarian state. However, this argument may go too far. Rousseau has debatable reasons for supporting what appear to be restrictions on personal freedom. Rousseau asserts that in times of crisis, the law may need to be suspended and a dictator may have to assume power. This assertion contradicts his previous argument that sovereignty is inalienable. For a dictator to save the state, he must stop legislation and do what he believes is best for the state. Although Rousseau contradicts his previous claim about sovereignty, he maintains that the state's preservation is the most important concern. Lives must be saved - even if that means endangering the social contract.

Although it may seem odd that Rousseau would allow a dictatorship, historical references indicate that he did not view dictatorship in the way that most view it today. According to Rousseau, the Roman dictators felt burdened by their responsibilities and hastened to rid themselves of their positions as soon as possible. Thus, Rousseau assumes that for most people, being a dictator would be an unwanted responsibility rather than an opportunity to pursue private interests.

Next, Rousseau turns to censorship, which he believes can maintain public morality. Just as the law expresses the general will, censorship expresses public opinion. Emphasizing his earlier arguments in Book II, he asserts that public opinion forms the basis of the citizens' morality. People always love what is good, but deciding what is good or bad is a matter of public judgment. Thus, Rousseau argues that morality can be reformed by changing opinions. Censorship is necessary to protect morality by preventing the corruption of public opinion.

Rousseau ends On the Social Contract by establishing a set of beliefs that every citizen should share, which he calls "civil religion." Rousseau's critics have claimed that his ideas about civil religion attack individual liberty and set the foundation for totalitarianism. In many ways, the civil creed is a disturbing addition to The Social Contract, especially given Rousseau's desire to protect personal freedom stated in earlier chapters. It promotes intense worship of the state and gives the sovereign the power to control the beliefs of its citizens.

Although many academics have regarded the civil creed as a troubling and unnecessary afterthought to The Social Contract, Rousseau intended it to solve the church-state problem. Rousseau believed that the separation of church and state caused by Christianity presented a major dilemma. The advent of Christianity gave man competing duties, and it became impossible to be both a devout Christian and a good citizen. The civil creed solves this problem by re-establishing religious and moral unity within the state. Thus, Rousseau intends civil religion for states in which theology and politics have separated and several churches are competing for followers. In a pre-Christian society, there was no need to stipulate that everyone must believe in God because all states were theocratic. Despite the benefits of civil religion, the ability to banish dissenters from the state is very disturbing to contemporary readers. It opens the door for governments to manipulate the civil creed and tyrannize their societies.

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