The Social Contract

The Social Contract Summary and Analysis of Book III, Chapters X-XIV


Like an individual's private will, the government's interest tends to oppose the general will. Earlier, Rousseau asserted that if there are no factions in the state, then the competing interests of each individual cancel out and approximate the general will. In the government's case, there is no equivalent body that can oppose the corporate will and maintain equilibrium. Thus, even in the most well constituted states, the government's interests will eventually oppress the sovereign.

The dissolution of the state can occur in two ways. First, the prince can disobey the laws and usurp the sovereign authority of the people. When this happens, the social contract is broken and the people are forced - rather than morally bound - to obey their government. The second way in which the state can be dissolved is for certain members of government to usurp the power that they should exercise as a collective body. Because of this tension between the government and the sovereign, no state will last forever. Rousseau laments that if both Sparta and Roma fell, no modern state can hope to do better. Like the human body, the state begins to die at the moment of its inception. However, a good constitution can prolong the life of the state. The legislative process is at the heart of the state, and as long as it is maintained, popular sovereignty is preserved.

Because the sovereign only has legislative power and laws are expressions of the general will, it follows that the body politic can only act when the people are assembled. Although Rousseau acknowledges that gathering the entire populace is a difficult task, he points to Ancient Rome to show that it is not impossible. Despite its considerable size, the Roman Republic held public assemblies at least every few weeks. In every state, there should be periodic assemblies to prevent the government from usurping the people's power. However, these assemblies should occur only on specified days because the right to assemble emanates from law. How many public assemblies there should be depends on the particular situation of the state. In general, the more force that the government has, the more the people should assemble and exert their sovereignty.

When the people are assembled, executive power is suspended. This is because the government serves as an intermediary between the people and the sovereign and is charged with carrying out the general will. When the citizens of the state convene, there is no need for an intermediary. These times when executive power is suspended are very troublesome to political leaders. Throughout history, they have tried to defend their private interests by preventing public assemblies.


Rousseau provides an insightful analysis of the tension between the government and the sovereign. In essence, he declares that the people have exercise sovereignty in all states at some point. Eventually, the government abuses the power given to it by the people, and claims sovereignty for itself.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau goes to great lengths to separate legislative and executive power. This separation, however, does not exist in reality. In Book III, Rousseau acknowledges that governments will always overstep their prescribed limits. Thus, every state faces an inescapable problem: the state must have executive power to carry out the general will, but the natural inclination of the government is to usurp popular sovereignty. Safeguarding legislative power is the primary method of resisting the government. During public assemblies, the members of the body politic can declare whether they approve of the current state of affairs and whether the current government best serves the common good. These assemblies must happen periodically to keep the executive body in check. It is thus not enough for the people to draft a constitution and allow the state to operate without its continuous consent.

Importantly, Rousseau affirms that freedom is not easily maintained. To protect themselves from the government and to promote the health of the state, the people must have a profound respect for their civic duties. Although gathering all the members of the state is difficult, Rousseau firmly believes that it is possible. As an example he cites the people of Ancient Rome, who held periodic assemblies although the city had thousands of inhabitants. Thus, in his discussion of government, Rousseau praises civic virtue and condemns laziness. As Rousseau argues in the following chapters of Book III, when the people avoid their commitments as citizens, they sacrifice their civil freedom.