Selected Quotations from Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Collected from Rousseau’s The Social Contract, or The Principles of Political Right.

Political Duty

‘I was born a citizen of a free state and a member of its sovereign body, and however weak may be the influence of my voice in public affairs, my right to vote on them suffices to impose on me the duty of studying them.’ (Book I)

‘In order therefore that the social pact should not be an empty formula, it contains an implicit obligation which alone can give force to the others, that if anyone refuses to obey the general will he will be compelled to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free; for such is the condition which, giving each citizen to his country, guarantees that he will not depend on any person. This condition is the device that ensures the operation of the political machine; it alone legitimises civil obligations, which without it would be absurd and tyrannical, and subject to the most terrible abuses.’ (Book I, Chapter vii)

‘The better a state is constituted, the higher is the priority given, in citizens’ minds, to public rather than private business. There is even a reduction in the amount of private business, because, when the total sum of public happiness contributes a larger portion to the happiness of each individual, there remains less for him to gain from his own efforts. In a well-ordered republic, everyone hurries to the assemblies; under a bad government, no one is willing to stir a step in order to be there, because no one is interested in what goes on there, nor believes that the general will will dominate, and finally because domestic affairs monopolise everything. Good laws make for better ones, bad laws bring worse. As soon as anyone says, about the affairs of the state, “What does it matter to me?”, the state must be regarded as lost.’ (Book III, Chapter xv)

‘When right and liberty count above everything, inconvenience is nothing.’ (Ibid.)

Legitimate Authority

‘The stronger party is never strong enough to remain the master for ever, unless he transforms his strength into right, and obedience into duty.’ (Book I, Chapter iii)

‘Since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and since strength does not confer any right, it follows that the basis remaining for all legitimate authority among men must be agreed convention.’ (Book I, Chapter iv)

‘[O]nly the general will can direct the powers of the state in accordance with the purpose for which it was instituted, which is the common good; for if the establishment of societies was made necessary because individual interests were in opposition, it was made possible because those interests concur. The social bond is formed by what these interests have in common; if there were no point at which every interest met, no society could exist. And it is solely on the basis of this common interest that society must be governed.’ (Book II, Chapter i)

‘It is not sufficient for the people to have assembled once in order to settle the constitution of the state by giving its sanction to a body of law; nor is it enough for it to have established a government for perpetuity, nor to have arranged, once for all, the election of its officers of government. Apart from the extraordinary assemblies that may be required in unforeseen circumstances, there must be others, fixed at regular intervals, which nothing can abolish or postpone, so that on the appointed day the people are called together legitimately by the law alone, without the need for any other formal means of convocation.’ (Book III, Chapter xiii)

‘[T]he assemblies of the people, which are a shield for the body politic and a check on the government, have at all times been dreaded by their leaders: which is why they have always made every effort, through making objections, difficulties, and promises, to discourage the citizens from holding them. If the people is grasping, faint-hearted, and cowardly, fonder of leisure than of liberty, it will not hold out for long against constant pressure from the government; it is in this way that the sovereign authority is eventually dissipated, as the resistance to it continually increases, and thus most states fall, dying before their time.’ (Book III, Chapter xiv)

‘Sovereignty cannot be represented, for the same reason that it cannot be transferred; it consists essentially in the general will, and the will cannot be represented; it is itself or it is something else; there is no other possibility. The people’s deputies are not its representatives, therefore, nor can they be, but are only its agents; they cannot make definitive decisions. Any law that the people in person has not ratified is void; it is not a law. The people of England believes itself to be free; it is quite wrong: it is free only during the elections of Members of Parliament. Once they are elected, the people is enslaved, it is nothing. Seeing the use it makes of liberty during its brief moments of possession, it deserves to lose it.’ (Book III, Chapter xv)

Democracy and Aristocracy

‘[T]he sovereign can entrust the responsibility of government to all the people or to the greater part of the people, so that more citizens will members of the government than are simply individual citizens. The name given to this form of government is democracy. Or it can restrict government to a small number, so that more will be simply citizens than are members of the government; and this form bears the name of aristocracy.’ (Book III, Chapter iii)

Democracy requires ‘a considerable degree of equality in rank and fortune, without which equality in rights and power cannot last long; and … little or no luxury, for luxury either derives from wealth or makes it necessary; it corrupts both rich and poor at once, one through possession, the other through covetousness; it puts the country on sale to vanity and soft living; it deprives the state of all its citizens, making each of them subject to the other, and all of them to public opinion.’ (Book III, Chapter iv)

‘If there were a nation of gods it would be governed democratically. So perfect a government is not suitable for men.’ (Ibid.)

‘[W]ith popular government all citizens are members of it by birth; but membership of aristocratic government is limited to a few, and is obtained by election: by which means integrity, intelligence, experience, and all the other reasons for preference and public esteem, are so many additional guarantees of wise government. Furthermore, assemblies of government are more easily arranged, its business is better debated and transacted with greater order and diligence, and respected senators will uphold the state’s reputation abroad better than an unknown or despised populace.’ (Book III, Chapter v)

‘In any true democracy the holding of office is not a benefit, but an onerous duty, which cannot justly be imposed upon one citizen rather than another. Only the law can place this duty on him to whom it falls by lot … In an aristocracy, the ruler chooses the ruler, the government is maintained of itself, and here selection by vote is appropriate.’ (Book IV, Chapter iii)

‘When elections and drawing lots are both employed, the former should be used to fill posts requiring particular abilities, such as military positions; the latter suits those in which common sense, equity, and integrity are sufficient, as with judicial appointments, because in a well-constituted state such qualities are common to all citizens.’ (Ibid.)

The Best Government

‘All other things being equal, the government under which, without recourse to extraneous means, with no naturalisation or colonies, the citizens most flourish and multiply is indubitably the best. The one under which the population diminishes and wastes away is the worst. The matter is now for mathematicians to decide: let them count, measure, and compare.’ (Book III, Chapter ix)

Public Opinion

‘A nation’s opinions are engendered by its constitution. Although the law does not control moral standards, it is legislation that gives them birth: when laws grow weak, standards of behaviour degenerate; but the censors’ judgement will not then succeed, if the strength of the laws has failed. From this it follows that the office of censor may be useful in preserving morality, but never in reintroducing it. Establish a censorship when the laws are in their full vigour; as soon as they lose it, the case is desperate; nothing lawful can remain strong when the laws no longer have their strength. The censorship maintains standards of conduct by preventing the debasement of public opinion, preserving its integrity by applying it wisely, and sometimes even by giving it a fixed form when it is still doubtful.’ (Book IV, Chapter vii)

Civil Religion

‘There is … a purely civil profession of faith, the articles of which it is the business of the sovereign to determine; not exactly as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be either a good citizen or a loyal subject. Although it cannot force anyone to believe them, it can banish from the state anyone who does not believe them; he can be banished not for impiety, but for being unsociable, and for being incapable of cherishing the laws and justice sincerely, or of sacrificing, when necessary, his life for his duty. And if, having publicly accepted these same dogmas, any person conducts himself as if he did not believe them, let him be punished by death; he has committed the greatest of crimes: he has lied before the law.’ (Book IV, Chapter viii)

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