Of the Social Contract or Essay on the Form of the Republic (1st version)

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Figures in brackets refer to the corresponding page of the Oeuvres Complètes III, edited by Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond (Paris: Gallimard, 1964).

Translated from the French by Christopher Bertram (C.Bertram@bris.ac.uk)

[Translators note: I have translated this important chapter of the Geneva Manuscript, a chapter which provides a bridge between the second Discourse and Du Contrat Social in order to get to grips with the text myself. There are certainly infelicities and probably inaccuracies. Any suggestions for amendments are most welcome].


Chapter 2: Of the General Society of the Human Race

Let us begin by inquiring into the source of the need for political institutions.

The strength of men is so closely proportioned to his natural needs and to his primitive condition, that however little that condition changes and his needs increase, the assistance [282] of his fellows becomes necessary to him, and when his desires finally come to envelop the whole of nature, the co-operation of the entire human race is hardly sufficient to satisfy them. It is thus that the same causes that make us wicked also turn us into slaves, and subjugate us whilst depraving us; The sentiment of our weakness comes less from our nature than from our cupidity: our needs bring us together at the same time as our passions drive us apart, and the more we become enemies to our fellows the less well can we get by without them. Such are the first ties of general society; such are the foundations of that universal benevolence of which the sentiment gets stifled by the recognition of its necessity, and from which each person would like to harvest the fruit without having the duty of its cultivation: because as for the identity of nature, its effect is non-existent in this matter, and it [the identity] is as much the occasion for quarrel as for unity, and leads to competition and jealousy among them as often as it leads to understanding and agreement.

From this new order of things is born a multiplicity of relationships that are without measure, rule or consistency, that men continually alter and change, a hundred work to destroy them for each one who works to stabilise them; and since the relative existence of a man in the state of nature depends on a thousand other relationships that are in constant flux, he can never be sure of being the same during two moments of his life; peace and happiness are for him just a flash; the only permanent thing is the misery that results from all these vicissitudes; even if his sentiments and his ideas could raise him up to a love of order and to the sublime notions of virtue, it would be impossible for him to make a reliable application of his principles in a situation where he could distinguish neither good from evil, nor the honest man from the malevolent one.

The general society such as our mutual needs can give rise to can thus be of little practical help to the man who has become miserable, or at least it only gives new powers to he who already has too many, while a weak person, lost, stifled, crushed in the multitude, finds neither a haven to hide in nor support in his weakness, and finally perishes as the victim of the fraudulent union from which he expected happiness.

[283] [The following paragraph is crossed-out in Rousseau’s manuscript]

[Once one is convinced that there is nothing in the motives which lead men to unite themselves through voluntary ties that relates to the objective of union; that far from aiming at a goal of communal felicity from which each person could draw their own, the happiness of one person leads to the unhappiness of another; once one finally perceives that instead of aiming at the general good, they only come together because they are each drawing away from it; one must also sense that even though such a condition could persist it would only be a source of crimes and miseries for men in which each would see only his own interest, would only follow his own inclinations and would listen only to his own passions.]

Thus the gentle voice of nature is no longer an infallible guide for us, and the independence which we received from nature is no longer a desirable state; peace and innocence were forever lost to us even before we tasted their delights; the stupid men of the earliest times could not appreciate them; and they are lost to the enlightened men of subsequent ages, the happy life of the golden age was always an alien condition to the human race, either because it did not recognise it when it could have enjoyed it, or because it had lost it once it had the capacity to know it.

There is more to say; this perfect independence and this freedom without rules, had they always remained conjoined with the innocence of ancient times would have always had one essential flaw, and being an impediment to the progress of our most excellent capacities, would have prevented the joining together of those parts which constitute the whole. The earth would have been covered by men among whom there would have been scarcely any communication; there would have been contact between us at some points, but no real unity; each individual would have been isolated among the others, each would have thought only of himself; our understanding would have been unable to develop; we should have lived without experiencing anything, we should have died without having lived; all of our happiness would have consisted in not knowing misery; there would have been neither happiness in our hearts nor morality in our actions, and we should never have tasted the most delicious sentiment of the soul, which is the love of virtue.

[Again, the following two paragraphs are crossed-out in Rousseau’s manuscript]

[It is certainly the case that the expression ‘human race’ calls to mind only a purely collective idea which suggests no real union among the individuals who constitute it; Let us add, if we wish, this hypothesis; let us conceive of the human race as a moral person [284] having a sentiment of common existence which gives it individuality and which constitutes it as one, a universal motive force which makes each part act for an objective which is both general and relative to the whole. Let us conceive of this common sentiment as that of humanity and of natural law as the active principle of the whole machine. Let us next observe that which results from the constitution of man in his relations with his fellows; and, quite to the contrary of what we have supposed, we shall find that the progress of society stifles humanity in men’s hearts, through arousing personal interest, and that the notions of Natural Law, which one should rather call the law of reason, only begin to develop once the antecedent development of the passions make impotent all its precepts. From which one can see that this so-called social treaty ordained by nature is a veritable chimera; because the conditions for it are always unknown or impracticable, and one always has either to be in ignorance of them or to infringe them.

If the general society were to exist elsewhere than in the systems of philosophers, it would be, as I have said, a moral [i.e. artificial] being with its own qualities distinct from those of the beings making it up, a bit like the way that chemical compounds have properties that are drawn from none of their constituents. It would have its own language which nature would teach to all men, and which would be the foremost instrument for communication among them: there would be a sort of common sensorium which would enable the co-ordination of all the parts; the public good or the public bad would not just be the sum of individual costs and benefits as in a simple aggregation, but would instead reside in the link which unites them, it would be larger than that sum, and far from public felicity being built on the happiness of individuals, it would be the source of that very happiness.]

It is false that in the condition of independence, reason leads us to promote the common good via the consideration of our own interests; far from individual interest being allied to the general good, they are mutually exclusive in the natural order of things, and the laws of society are a yoke which each person is happy to impose on others, but not to have to endure himself. "I sense that I bring terror and strife among the human race," says [285] the independent man whom the wise man stifles; "but either I am going to be the unhappy one, or I am going to bring unhappiness to others, and no-one is dearer to me than I myself." "It is in vain," he might add, "that I should seek to reconcile my interests with those of others; everything you say to me about the advantages of the law of society would be fine, if it were only the case that when I observe it scrupulously in relation to others, I could be assured that they would do the same towards me; but what assurance can you give me on this point; and could my situation be worse that to be exposed to all the harms that the stronger would do to me, without me daring to take advantage of the weak? Either give me guarantees against any unjust venture, or do not expect that that I will abstain from such activity myself. You may very well tell me that in renouncing the duties that natural law imposes on me, I am at the same time depriving myself of natural rights and that the violent acts that I commit authorise all the similar ones that others would commit against me. I consent to that all the more willingly since I do not see how my moderation could guarantee me against them. In any case, it will be my business to ally my interests with those of the strong in sharing with them the spoils from the weak; that will be more conducive to my advantage and my security than justice." The proof that the independent and enlightened man would have reasoned thus is that every sovereign society that is only accountable to itself for its conduct reasons likewise.

What kind of robust response can one give to speeches of this nature if one wishes to avoid dragging religion to the aid of morals, and wishes to avoid calling on the immediate intervention of the will of God to unite human society. But the sublime notions of the God of the wise, the gentle laws of fraternity that he imposes on us, the social virtues of pure souls, which are the real worship that he asks of us, will always be beyond the multitude. For them there will always be Gods as brutal as themselves to whom they will sacrifice trinkets so that they can abandon themselves in their honour to a thousand horrible and destructive passions. The whole earth would overflow with blood and the human race would soon perish if philosophy and the laws did not hold back the furies of fanaticism, and if the voice of men were not stronger than those of the Gods.

Indeed , if ideas of the Supreme Being and of natural law were innate in all hearts it was [286] an unnecessary precaution to teach both of these things explicitly: It was to teach us what we already knew, and the manner in which this was done was better suited to getting us to forget it. If they were not innate, then all those to whom God had not given them are dispensed from knowing them: As soon as specific instructions were required, each people had their own which are proved to it to be the only good ones, and from which carnage and murders stem more often than concord and peace.

Let us therefore leave to one side the sacred precepts of various religions of which the abuse causes as many crimes as the use spares us, and let us give to the philosopher the examination of a question which the theologian has never managed to deal with except to the prejudice of the human race.

But the first [the philosopher] refers me back to the human race itself which alone has the business of deciding, because the greatest good of all is the only passion which it has. It is, he will say to me, the general will which each should consider in order to know how far he should be a man, a citizen, a subject, father, child, and when it is suitable for him to live and die. "I do indeed see there, I accept, the rule which I can consult; but I still do not see," will say our independent man, "the reason why I should be subject to it. It is not a matter of teaching me what justice is; it is a matter of demonstrating to me the interest I have in being just." Indeed it is undeniable that the general will is an act of pure understanding within each individual reasoning in the silence of the passions about what each person may demand of his fellow man, and what his fellow man can demand of him, nobody will be inconvenienced by it: But where is the man who is thus capable of separating himself from himself and if the care for one’s own preservation is the first precept of natures, can we make him take this attitude to the human race in general in order that he may impose on himself duties which he cannot see as connected to his individual constitution? Do the foregoing objections not remain in force, and does it not still remain to be seen how his personal interest demands that he submit himself to the general will.

In addition, as the art of thus generalising his ideas is one of the most difficult and late-developing activities of the human understanding, will the average man ever [287] be in a condition to draw from that manner of reasoning the rules for his conduct, and when it would be proper for him to consult the general will concerning a specific act, how many times would it not happen to a well-intentioned man to make a mistake concerning the rule or its application and end up just following his inclination in believing that he was obeying the law? What shall he do, then, in order to guard against error? Will he listen to his inner voice? But it is said that this voice is only formed by the habit of judging and feeling within society and according to its laws, it cannot therefore be made use of to establish them and it would also be necessary that there would not have arisen in his heart any of those passions which speak louder than conscience, drown out its feeble voice, and fortify philosophers in the conviction that such a voice does not exist. Will he consult the principles of written law, the social behaviour of all peoples, the tacit conventions even of those who are enemies to the human race? We always come back to the original problem, and it is only from the social order established among us that we draw the ideas of the one that we imagine. We conceive of general society on the model of our individual societies, the establishment of small republics makes us wish for a large one, and we only really begin to become men after having been citizens. This should tell us what we ought to think of those so-called cosmopolitans, who justify the love of their country on the basis of their love for the human race, and vaunt themselves as loving everyone so that they can have the right to love no-one.

What reason shows us in this matter is perfectly confirmed by the facts and however little one considers the very earliest times, one easily sees that the wise ideas of natural right and of the common fraternity of all men spread very late in history and made such slow progress in the world that it was only Christianity that generalised them enough. Even in the Laws of Justinian we still find traditional acts of violence permitted in many matters, not just against declared enemies, but against all those not subject to the Empire; we can say that the humanity of the Romans extended no further than their domination.

As Grotius observes, for a long time people believed that it was permissible to steal, pillage and mistreat foreigners and barbarians especially, even so far as to reduce them to slavery. This is why strangers were asked without being offended whether they were Brigands or Pirates; because these trades, far from being ignominious, were thought respectable. The first Heros, such as Hercules and Theseus, who made war on Brigands, went in for brigandage themselves and the Greeks often referred to treaties between peoples who were not even at war as peace treaties. The words for foreigners and for enemies were for a long time synonymous among several ancient peoples, even the Latins: Hostis enim, says Cicero, apud majores nostros dicebatur, quem nunc peregrinum dicimus . The mistake Hobbes made was therefore not that he established that there was a state of war among independent men become sociable but to have supposed that this was natural to the species, and to have made it the cause of those vices of which it is the effect.

But even if there is by nature no general society among men, even if they become unhappy and wicked in becoming sociable, even if the laws of justice and equality are nothing for those who live at the same time in the freedom of the state of nature and subjected to the needs of the social condition; far from thinking that there is in all this neither happiness nor virtue for us, and that heaven has abandoned us without resource to the depravation of the species; let us try to draw from the evil itself the remedy that ought to cure it. By new associations, let us correct, if possible, the defect of the general association. Let our violent interlocutor pass his own judgement on our success. Let us show him in perfected art the remedy for the harms that art only-just-begun committed against nature: Let us show him all the misery of the condition he thought happy, the fallacious nature of the reasoning that he thought valid. Let him see in a better constitution of things the reward for good actions, the punishment of bad ones, and the friendly agreement of justice and happiness. Let us enlighten his reason with new knowledge, warm his heart with new sentiments, and let him learn to increase his being and his felicity, in sharing them with his fellow men. If my zeal does not blind me in this enterprise, let us not doubt that with a strong soul and right sense, this enemy of the human race will eventually renounce his hatred with his mistakes, that reason which led him astray will bring him back to humanity, that he will learn to prefer his well-understood to his apparent interest; [289] that he will become good, virtuous, sensitive, and finally that he will change from being a fierce Brigand into the most secure support for a well-ordered society.

Translation © Christopher Bertram 1999