The Social Contract

The Social Contract Summary and Analysis of Book III, Chapters IV-VII


Democracy is the most difficult government to maintain, and few (if any) states meet the conditions required to support it. First, the state must be very small so that it is easy to hold public assemblies. Second, to prevent acrimonious debates and to expedite the public business, the people must have similar moral attitudes and habits. Third, everyone must have similar amounts of wealth, because economic inequality creates power differences that cannot exist in a democracy. Finally, there must be no luxury, because luxury corrupts public morality by making the rich vain and the poor covetous. Out of all governments, democracy is also the most prone to civil wars and internal conflict. Because of this and other reasons, Rousseau believes that democracy is too difficult for ordinary humans to maintain. He asserts that only gods could govern themselves democratically.

Rousseau then turns his attention to aristocracy, or "rule by a few." There are three types of aristocracies: natural, hereditary, and elective. The first, which is based only on natural strength, is only appropriate for simple people. The second is the worst of the three because it promotes injustice and allows unqualified people to rule. Having thus eliminated the first two, Rousseau prefers an elective aristocracy. This form of government has several advantages over a pure democracy. Assemblies are more conveniently held, and the public business is more easily carried out. An elective aristocracy also commands more respect abroad and better manages foreign policy. However, this form of government does have its disadvantages. The people must be more willing to tolerate economic inequality in an aristocracy, but this is a necessary evil to ensure that the most talented will rule.

In a monarchy, one individual represents the entire state and controls all of its force. A monarchy is the most powerful form of government, but also the one in which the private will has the greatest influence. In most cases, the king encourages a state of weakness and misery in the people so that they will be incapable of resisting him. Monarchical governments have many shortcomings and are the most prone to corruption. Because the king determines who is appointed to the magistracy, it is easier for unqualified people to hold high-ranking positions. Rousseau claims that the most obvious disadvantage of a monarchy is how it deals with succession. This process can happen by two methods: election, or a hereditary line of succession. The first method causes public upheaval during the interregna and promotes corruption in the voting process. The second permits unfit people to rule because it is based solely on inheritance.


Although the sovereign can choose any form of government, Rousseau implies that one type is usually preferable to the rest. The strict separation between legislative and executive power excludes a pure democracy from being a viable choice. Rousseau asserts that when the people consider particular acts, legislation becomes corrupted by private interests. In a monarchy, the interests of the king are completely distinct from those of his people. He maintains a life of luxury by making his subjects poor and wretched, and appoints unfit people to high-ranking positions out of personal favoritism.

The best choice, then, is an aristocracy, which can take two forms: hereditary, and elective. A hereditary aristocracy would violate the terms of the social contract because the sovereign cannot make laws that affect only particular individuals. Naming a single family or class to rule the state would destroy equality among citizens, a necessary condition for legitimate polity. Furthermore, a hereditary aristocracy would not be in the interests of the state because it chooses leaders without considering their talent or intelligence. An elective aristocracy chooses the best people to rule the state and avoids the disadvantages of either a democracy or a monarchy. Public business is more effectively carried out because it is easier for a few people to come to a decision than a multitude. It is also more likely that an elective aristocracy will rule according to the general will than a monarch.

Although Rousseau claims that a hereditary aristocracy is the worst government, he has a long list of complaints against monarchies. In no other government is the corporate will as separated from the general will. In a monarchy, private and public interests stand in opposition to each other, and the king can only increase his own wealth by impoverishing his subjects. Rousseau allows for any government that promotes the common interest to be legitimate, but clarifies that it is nearly impossible for a monarch to do this. At several points in On the Social Contract, Rousseau equates monarchy with despotism.