Posted: June 20th, 2022

the 8 books of Plato’s Republic

summary of those 8 books
use the notes that I gave to summarize
The volumes in this series
seek to address the present debate
over the Western tradition
by reprinting key works of
that tradition along with essays
that evaluate each text from
di√erent perspectives.
David Bromwich
Yale University
Gerald Graff
University of Illinois at Chicago
Geoffrey Hartman
Yale University
Samuel Lipman
The New Criterion
Gary Saul Morson
Northwestern University
Jaroslav Pelikan
Yale University
Marjorie Perloff
Stanford University
Richard Rorty
Stanford University
Alan Ryan
New College, Oxford
Ian Shapiro
Yale University
Frank M. Turner
Yale University
Allen W. Wood
Stanford University
The Social
Contract and
The First and
J E A N – J A C Q U E SR O U S S E A U
Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Dunn
with essays by
Gita May
Robert N. Bellah
David Bromwich
Conor Cruise O’Brien
Yale University Press
New Haven and London
Copyright ∫ 2002 by Yale University.
Translations of The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts and
The Social Contract copyright ∫ 2002 by Susan Dunn.
All rights reserved.
This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part,
including illustrations, in any form (beyond that
copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S.
Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public
press), without written permission from the publishers.
Printed in the United States of America by Vail-Ballou Press, Binghamton, New York.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 1712–1778.
[Selections. English. 2002]
The social contract ; and, The first and second discourses / Jean-Jacques Rousseau ;
edited and with an introduction by Susan Dunn ; with essays by Gita May . . . [et al.].
p. cm. — (Rethinking the Western tradition)
Includes bibliographical references.
isbn 0-300-09140-0 (cloth : alk. paper) — isbn 0-300-09141-9 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Political science—Early works to 1800. 2. Social contract—Early works to 1800.
3. Civilization—Early works to 1800. I. Dunn, Susan. II. May, Gita. III. Title. IV. Series.
jc179 .r7 2002
320%.01—dc21 2001046557
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
The paper in this book meets the guidelines
for permanence and durability of the Committee on
Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the
Council on Library Resources.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the Univer-
sity of California at Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books, includ-
ing Beyond Belief and The Broken Covenant, and is co-author of Habits of
the Heart and The Good Society.
David Bromwich is Housum Professor of English at Yale University. He is
the author of several books, including Politics by Other Means: Higher
Education and Group Thinking, Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Po-
etry, and A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke
to Robert Frost.
Susan Dunn is professor of French literature and the history of ideas at
Williams College. She is the author of The Deaths of Louis XVI: Regicide
and the French Political Imagination and Sister Revolutions: French Light-
ning, American Light, and is co-author with James MacGregor Burns of
The Three Roosevelts.
Gita May is professor of French literature at Columbia University. She is
the author of De Jean-Jacques Rousseau à Madame Roland: Essai sur la
sensibilité préromantique et révolutionnaire, Diderot et Baudelaire, cri-
tiques d’art, Madame Roland and the Age of Revolution, and Stendhal and
the Age of Napoleon.
Conor Cruise O’Brien is a statesman, diplomat, and political commentator
who lives in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of many books including God
Land: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism, The Great Melody: A The-
matic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke, and The
Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800.
Susan Dunn: Introduction: Rousseau’s Political Triptych 1
Chronology of Rousseau’s Life 36
The First Discourse: Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 43
The Second Discourse: Discourse on the Origin and Foundations
of Inequality Among Mankind 69
The Social Contract 149
Rethinking The First and Second Discourses and The Social Contract
Gita May: Rousseau, Cultural Critic 257
Robert N. Bellah: Rousseau on Society and the Individual 266
David Bromwich: Rousseau and the Self without Property 288
Conor Cruise O’Brien: Rousseau, Robespierre, Burke, Jefferson,
and the French Revolution 301
Rousseau’s Political Triptych
Is there any deed more shocking, more hateful, more infamous than the
willful burning of a library? Is there any blow more devastating to the core
of human civilization? In the mid-eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rous-
seau startled—and excited—his readers by praising Caliph Omar, who in
the year 650 ordered the incineration of the glorious library in Alexandria.∞
In his first important work, The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts
(1750), also known as the First Discourse, Rousseau held that the search for
knowledge was so socially and morally destructive that book burning and
the subsequent return to ignorance, innocence, and poverty would be a step
forward rather than a step backward in the history of civilization. He was
convinced that only cultural and material regression could accompany the
movement of society toward morality. The entire rational enterprise of the
Enlightenment found itself unexpectedly under fierce and principled attack.
When Rousseau burst upon the intellectual scene, the philosophers and
writers of eighteenth-century France had for decades been passionately
engaged in an audacious, innovative project: the questioning and disman-
tling of all the traditional underpinnings of their society. Their daring
charge entailed exposing to the light of reason all preconceived ideas,
supernatural dogmas and superstitious beliefs, all political and social as-
sumptions. Intellectuals were challenging the theological foundation of
monarchy, the privileges of the aristocracy, the doctrines of Catholicism.
Having wiped their intellectual slate as clean as they could, men of letters in
France embarked upon the bold plan of using human reason to address
people’s needs: how they should live, govern themselves, organize society,
and conceive morality. Their goal was a rational society dedicated to equal-
ity, freedom, and happiness. Life had become an intellectual adventure, and
people were optimistic that they could shape their own destinies.
Rousseau had once participated in this luminous and probing culture. He
too had wanted to embrace all knowledge; he too had known the joy of
intellectual curiosity, the bliss of creativity. Mingling and collaborating
with artists, musicians, philosophers, and writers—the great philosophe
2 Susan Dunn
Voltaire, the composer Rameau, the versatile man of letters Diderot, the
witty playwright Marivaux, the philosophe Fontenelle—he had reveled in
the aristocratic world of brilliant salons, where luxury, elegance, and genius
combined to make life a joy for the mind and the senses.≤
But his fascination with the sophisticated world of the Enlightenment
was also colored by bitterness and resentment, the result of his humiliating
experience in 1743 working as the secretary for the French Ambassador in
Venice; by his disappointments in life, especially his dismay in 1745 at not
having received more recognition for his part in a musical collaboration
with Voltaire and Rameau; and by his own deep insecurities and demons,
his paranoid feeling that he was the target of various cabals conspiring to
undermine and discredit him. Suddenly his eyes bored into the heart of this
dazzling culture. He judged. He condemned. Behind the splendid façade, he
concluded, lay a world that was superficial, corrupt, and cruel.
Astonishingly, Rousseau turned against the entire Enlightenment proj-
ect. He branded the daring intellectual, scientific, and artistic culture of
eighteenth-century France a lie, a vast devolution, a symptom of alarming
moral decline. Nothing more than a fake veneer, the century’s worldly
accomplishments were all the more perfidious because they masked so
effectively the deep corruption of a decadent, unequal society. The quest for
knowledge and intellectual advancement was a superficial luxury that, in-
stead of serving society, reinforced its self-indulgence and decay. ‘‘We have
physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters,’’
he remarked, adding tellingly that ‘‘we no longer have citizens.’’
People, Rousseau was convinced, had been deceived, seduced, and cor-
rupted by the radiance of the Enlightenment. And what was worse, they
cherished their corruption, for it seemed to mark the summit of progress and
civilization. Everywhere Rousseau saw educated individuals who resem-
bled ‘‘happy slaves,’’ preferring the glitter of high culture to true freedom
and happiness.≥ The search for knowledge had merely taken on a life of its
own, divorced from the real needs of society and citizens.
Skepticism and vain inquiry attracted people more than a search for a
meaningful life. People believed that they knew everything, Rousseau re-
marked, but they did not know the meaning of the words magnanimity,
equity, temperance, humanity, courage, fatherland, and God. Overwhelmed
by pretension, affectation, and deceit, the values that create robust citi-
zens and a healthy society—self-sacrifice, sincere friendships, love of
country—had disappeared.
The principles of science and philosophy and the decadent values im-
plicit in the arts on the one hand and the requirements of a healthy society
Introduction 3
on the other, Rousseau insisted, are irremediably at odds with one another.
Whereas science searches for the truth by fostering doubt and undermining
faith and virtue, a vigorous, patriotic society, Rousseau contended, requires
assent to the principles of its foundation.
What then is the mission of the intellectual in society? The proper,
socially useful role of philosophers and men of letters, according to Rous-
seau, was not to spread mistrust, not to make piecemeal proposals for
incremental reform, not to seek fame and glory for themselves through their
intellectual acrobatics, but rather to offer, as he himself would, a radical
prescription for the complete social and political overhaul of the nation and
for the moral regeneration of its citizens.∂
In his mind’s eye, he saw, in the place of a decadent culture that valued
superficial luxury, prosperity, and free though vain inquiry, a muscular,
Spartan society that imposed rules and discipline and asked its citizens for
sacrifice. In such a polity, virtuous citizens would have no need for futile
intellectual pursuits. Indeed, Spartan virtue itself is anti-intellectual. De-
rived from the Latin word for ‘‘man,’’ vir, virtue implied not just moral
goodness, but rather strength, courage, and, above all, self-sacrifice and
Even so, Rousseau was not suggesting that French men and women rush
out and torch the libraries of France—or copies of his own book. On the
contrary, in an already unhealthy, decadent society, science and philosophy
might, to some extent, be useful. Certain great individuals—such as Bacon,
Descartes, Newton—might serve as guides for humanity, and a few others
might be permitted to follow in their footsteps and even outdistance them.
In an already corrupt society, the arts and sciences, harmful for ‘‘average’’
people, could, in the hands of a few people of genius, perhaps bring some
true enlightenment to all.∑
The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts won first prize in the Dijon
Academy’s intellectual competition, a contest that had asked writers and
philosophers to respond to the question, ‘‘Has the revival of sciences and
arts contributed to improving morality?’’ With Rousseau’s friend Diderot
having arranged for the essay’s publication, the Discourse took Paris by
storm, becoming a best-seller. Were people merely captivated by Rous-
seau’s contrarian viewpoint and fascinated by harsh criticism of their radi-
ant and celebrated culture? Or were they intrigued by his surprising, anach-
ronistic resurrection of Spartan concepts of virtue, self-sacrifice, and duty?
Already in the seventeenth century, the shrewd aristocratic writer of
maxims, the duke de La Rochefoucauld, had criticized the high culture of
France, noting that ‘‘luxury and excessive politesse in states are a sure sign of
4 Susan Dunn
increasing decadence, because as all individuals become attached to their
private interests, they turn away from the public good.’’∏ And in 1748, the
great political philosopher Montesquieu had also faulted the ‘‘manufactures,
commerce, finances, wealth, and luxury’’ of the modern world for displacing
civic and political virtue.π But Rousseau’s attack on modernity was far more
consistent and ambitious—and more psychologically acute—than that of
the other philosophes, and it is he alone who can be credited with composing
the jolting introduction to one of the most original, provocative, and far-
reaching challenges to Western society ever undertaken.
The first seeds of a powerful, world-historical Revolution had been
planted. The ‘‘paradoxes’’ of the First Discourse exploded ‘‘like a bomb-
shell,’’ wrote the English economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill.∫
‘‘Rousseau produced more effect with his pen,’’ Lord Acton said, ‘‘than
Aristotle, or Cicero, or St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or any other
man who ever lived.’’Ω Of all the great philosophes of the French Enlight-
enment—Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire—it was Rousseau who would
have the most profound and enduring impact on history, not only on the
Revolution in France but on almost all modern, democratic movements for
political liberation. He was the most radical political theorist of his times,
the most utopian. But it was also Rousseau who unwittingly set the stage for
the totalitarian states of the twentieth century, for ‘‘one-party democracy,’’
and for communitarianism gone haywire.
How can this paradox be explained?
r o u s s e a u ’ sd i s c o u r s eo ni n e q u a l i t y
Three years after composing his First Discourse, Rousseau leaped at the
chance to add a further dimension to his political philosophy. The Dijon
Academy was proposing another intellectual competition. This time the
subject concerned the origins of inequality. Rousseau’s entry, his Discourse
on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind (1753), also
known as the Second Discourse, occupies a pivotal place in his thought. On
the one hand, it looks back to the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, giving
a historical and theoretical explanation for the decadence and corruption he
diagnosed in eighteenth-century French society. On the other hand, it looks
forward to his next great work, The Social Contract, by suggesting the
necessity of finding an alternate, healthier path along which society and
citizens can evolve.
Why had inequality become so rooted in society, Rousseau asked him-
Introduction 5
self. How had such a wide variety of people, poor as well as rich, come to
accept or profit from outrageous social and economic disparities? How did
we arrive at our present condition?
In order to fathom the different causes of inequality and analyze the
successive stages in its development, Rousseau decided to play the role of
theoretical anthropologist, hypothesizing about the lives that people might
have led in the ‘‘state of nature,’’ before social relations and organized
society molded and corrupted human behavior. Rousseau admitted that the
‘‘state of nature’’ he imagined might never have existed. Still, such theoret-
ical conjecturing was necessary, he insisted, to ‘‘judge properly of our
present state.’’∞≠
Rousseau tried to let his imagination go back in time as far as he could to
envision human beings stripped of even the most primitive social relations,
stripped even of language itself. In an act of impressive intellectual orig-
inality, he pared off all accretions, all the wants, needs, habits, skills, beliefs,
emotions, and values that one develops in society, revealing the ‘‘bare
bones’’ of the human being.
A century earlier, the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes had also
hypothesized about the ‘‘state of nature.’’ In one of the most famous sen-
tences of his classic text Leviathan (1651), Hobbes had maintained that
human life in the state of nature was ‘‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and
short.’’ Though people were free and equal, they were engaged in perpetual
warfare with one another.
Now it was Rousseau’s turn to sketch a portrait of life in the state of
nature, and he would present a very different picture of primitive human
beings. He envisioned the state of nature as a kind of dormancy period.
People were free and equal, he theorized, but they lived mostly solitary
lives, feeling little need for others. Though they had sexual relations with
one another, they formed no lasting bonds. There existed among them
neither cooperation nor conflict.
They lived entirely in the present, experiencing only spontaneous drives.
Still, they felt a harmony with the world because their desires never ex-
ceeded their needs and because they were able to satisfy both needs and
desires immediately. They were independent and devoid of aggression to-
ward one another. Were they happy? Perhaps. But their moral and rational
faculties remained largely asleep. Though they did have an ‘‘instinct’’ for
pity for the suffering of others along with a ‘‘survival instinct’’ of their own,
they were for the most part untouched by morality. Neither love nor friend-
ship nor family nor thought nor speech impinged upon their primitive soli-
tude. These early humans were all potential and virtuality.
6 Susan Dunn
The notion of a state of nature was a useful fiction. It furnished Rousseau
with theoretical ‘‘evidence’’ for claiming a radical dichotomy between our
present demeaning condition and the Eden we left behind. Here was an
original standard against which all future human dislocation could be
This vision of the state of nature, moreover, provided Rousseau with a
basis for his belief in human ‘‘perfectibility.’’ Now he could argue that if
modern individuals appeared corrupt, unequal, and enslaved, it is society—
not human nature—that is to blame. Thus a remedy to the situation might
be found. Because of people’s vast rational and ethical potential, it was pos-
sible and reasonable to propose an alternate route for their social, political,
and moral development. This was the challenge Rousseau accepted: he was
convinced that it was his mission to chart that course, not backward to the
state of nature, but forward toward a more rational, social, and moral Eden.
Given our equality and freedom in the state of nature, why did inequality
come to define the human condition in most societies? How would Rous-
seau explain entire civilizations under the spell of servitude and the yoke of
Very early in human history, according to Rousseau’s hypothetical sce-
nario, people began to work and collaborate occasionally with one another.
This was the beginning of a long golden age that saw the appearance of
family units and patriarchal authority but not yet of private property. Hus-
bands and wives, parents and children dwelled together under one roof,
experiencing the ‘‘sweetest sentiments’’ known to human beings, ‘‘conjugal
and paternal love.’’ Each family resembled a ‘‘little society’’ in which mem-
bers were united by mutual affection and liberty. There was commerce
among the different families; human faculties, social rituals, and a sense of
morality evolved somewhat, all contributing to ‘‘the happiest and most
durable epoch’’ in human history, an interim period ‘‘between the indolence
of the primitive state and the petulant activity of egoism.’’
But then came the fall from tranquillity and the downward spiral into
history and corruption. This period began when people realized that, with
rational effort and work, they could transform the natural world. A new
intellectual energy was unleashed, destroying the simplicity and harmony
that had reigned in the state of nature between one’s needs and one’s de-
sires. The novel concept of the division of labor also took hold, robbing
people of their self-sufficiency. Now new technological advances, such as
agriculture and metallurgy, were introduced, accompanied by the notion of
‘‘private property.’’ People competed for property, increasing their wealth at
Introduction 7
the expense of others. Production started to surpass people’s needs, feeding
a new hunger for superfluous, ‘‘luxury’’ goods. Equality was vanquished by
ambition and greed.
Exacerbating economic inequality was a new insidious form of psycho-
logical inequality. As people started to acquire wealth and property, they
began to compare themselves to their neighbors, seeking to distinguish
themselves and assert their own superiority. Rousseau perceived that this
quest for esteem is, at bottom, a desire for inequality. In 1899 the Amer-
ican economic theorist Thorstein Veblen would label this syndrome ‘‘con-
spicuous consumption.’’∞∞ Rousseau incisively remarked that the cost to
individuals of these new desires for prestige ( proestigium in Latin means
‘‘illusion’’) was alienation from themselves. For they viewed their accom-
plishments, their worth, and themselves through the appraising eyes of their
rivals, experiencing their lives through their judgmental gaze, belonging
less to themselves than to others. To earn the regard of others, it became
more important to appear than to be. One tried to satisfy one’s ego while
robbing oneself of authenticity and equality—as well as of the compassion
one had felt for others in the state of nature.
The disappearance of equality, social divisions resulting from the divi-
sion of labor, the unequal distribution of property, the isolation of the rich
from the poor, Rousseau contends, were followed by exploitation, violence,
and frightening disorder. ‘‘The usurpations of the rich, the pillagings of the
poor, the unbridled passions of all, by stifling the cries of natural compas-
sion, and the still feeble voice of justice,’’ concluded Rousseau, ‘‘rendered
men avaricious, wicked and ambitious.’’∞≤ At this point, Rousseau and
Hobbes merge. Human society has degenerated into a state of war of all
against all.
Now a rich and powerful individual, for whom violence and war are as
pernicious as they are for the weak members of society, makes the people an
offer they cannot refuse. He proposes that they all unite, enter into a ‘‘social
contract’’ and form a polity. The people would be assured order, security,
peace, and justice in exchange for their freedom. The rich man too desires
law and order, so that he may enjoy his possessions in tranquillity, un-
threatened by social unrest. Thus the weak assent to inequality and acquire
chains as the rich consolidate and institutionalize their power. Economic
expropriation has expanded to encompass political expropriation. The basis
of this social contract is deception and exploitation. Might makes right.
People are fully enslaved—by their promise of obedience to their ruler, by
their own ambition and vanity, their inauthentic desires for luxury as well as
their need for the admiration of others.
8 Susan Dunn
Finally, in a rapidly sketched nightmarish vision of the accelerated col-
lapse of society into chaos, Rousseau envisaged political intrigue, factions,
and civil strife leading to the complete disintegration of legitimate govern-
ment. Chosen leaders become hereditary leaders. The social fabric disinte-
grates, people’s natural pity for the suffering of others is extinguished. The
last degree of inequality has been reached. Now despotism raises its hid-
eous head. The political relationship is no longer merely between the
powerful and the weak but between master and slave. The vertiginous
descent into human degradation and corruption is complete.
Once again, people find themselves solitary and atomized, as they were
in the state of nature. Ironically, they are also once again equal. The differ-
ence, Rousseau noted, is that now they are equal because they are all noth-
ing. The only law is the arbitrary will of the master. Life is now indeed nasty
and brutish. But whereas Hobbes had located such degradation in the ‘‘state
of nature,’’ Rousseau discovers it at the end of human social development.
Rousseau has taken us to the edge of the abyss. The Second Discourse
ends with a sanguinary vision of revolution. ‘‘The insurrection, which ends
in the death or deposition of a sultan,’’ concludes Rousseau, ‘‘is as juridical
an act as any by which the day before he disposed of the lives and fortunes
of his subjects. Force alone upheld him, force alone overturns him.’’ Per-
haps there is hope for radical change—through revolution.∞≥
But change will be meaningless unless there is a profound rethinking of
the social contract, society, and social relations. Rousseau always believed
in the Enlightenment notion of human perfectibility. Human nature, he
suggested, is malleable; our moral and rational faculties can be nurtured,
educated, and guided so that our full humanity can blossom. Even if society
has made us unequal and unfree, even if it has made us the deluded toys of
our own psychological alienation from ourselves, the victims of our limit-
less desires for superficial pleasures and superfluous knowledge, even if it
has reduced us to the abject slaves of powerful rulers, it is possible to
reconceive and restructure social relations and political institutions on a
radically different basis. Rousseau’s next work, The Social Contract, leads
us away from the catastrophic vision with which he concluded his Second
Discourse and toward a new utopian future.
In a sense, Rousseau’s whole project follows traditional Christian think-
ing. Like Christian theologians, Rousseau sees human development in
terms of three stages: Eden, the Fall, Redemption. For him, the Fall sig-
nifies, not a separation from God or an accusation against human beings,
but rather a ‘‘fall’’ from the benign state of nature into a long, devastating,
and totally negative period of corruption and degradation.∞∂
Introduction 9
Redemption will occur, not through faith and grace, not through any-
thing supernatural or mystical, but on the contrary through a purely rational
and human prescription for political and social happiness: his revolu-
tionary—and troubling—Social Contract, his attempt to conceive a moral,
consensual polity that assures freedom and equality while nourishing sim-
ple Spartan virtue.
an e wk i n do fs o c i a lc o n t r a c t
A startling break with all traditional notions of government and society,
Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) comprised the final part of his political
triptych. In this work, he presents a radical political vision, yet one that is
perfectly consistent with his attacks on corruption and inequality in his two
The ideal society he proposes in The Social Contract is, more than
anything else, a communitarian society in which the responsibilities and
duties of citizenship outweigh individual rights and freedoms. Selflessly,
citizens bind and commit themselves to the common good of all, willing to
make sacrifices for their political community. Their virtue is richly re-
warded. Through their devotion to their community, their self-discipline,
and patriotism, they thrive as human beings, thus realizing their full rational
and moral potential.
The citizens of this cohesive community have entered into a stunningly
original social pact, different from all previous notions of a social contract.
Other political thinkers, such as Hobbes, had also surmised that at the bases
of societies lay founding contracts. But for these theorists, the social pact
was always an act of submission. Hobbes, for example, contended that in
order to escape from the state of perpetual warfare that existed in the brutish
‘‘state of nature,’’ people entered into a pact, a contract, in which they
signed away their freedom and all their rights to a sovereign who would rule
over them, guaranteeing them life, security, and order. The ruler’s power
over them was absolute.
Rousseau brands these kinds of contracts null and void. Even though the
people may have voluntarily consented to the pact, he considered such
consent invalid.∞∑ If one of the parties to a contract is degraded or harmed in
any way, the contract, he judged, is void. People may give up property, he
reasoned, but they may not consent to give up life or freedom, the essential
elements of their humanity. Consent is not sufficient to create legitimate
10 Susan Dunn
More crucial than consent is the nature of the contract itself. For a
contract to be valid, all parties must profit equally from its terms. Rous-
seau’s idea of a social contract is therefore not a pact between rulers and
ruled, powerful and weak, masters and slaves. On the contrary, the only
parties to the contract are the people themselves who consent only to rule
over themselves. (The opening words of the American constitutional con-
tract, written twenty-five years after Rousseau’s Social Contract, are ‘‘We
the People,’’ words more Rousseauian in spirit than Jefferson’s mention of
the ‘‘consent of the governed’’ in the Declaration of Independence.)
This kind of pact could hardly be more revolutionary. The only legiti-
mate social contract, according to Rousseau, is one in which the people
themselves are sovereign. Their sovereignty, like their freedom, is unalien-
able, and they may not transfer their sovereignty to anyone else or submit to
the will of any others.∞∏ The originality of Rousseau’s social contract is that
the people bind themselves to a contract but do not subject themselves to
any authority except that of their own collective will—their ‘‘General
Will.’’ Indeed, towering above them, revered by all, looms the strange
concept of the people’s ‘‘General Will.’’
The General Will. This unusual notion is the key to Rousseau’s commu-
nitarian vision. What did he mean by the General Will?
Rousseau held that a democratic society possesses a General Will. This
‘‘will’’ reflects what enlightened people would want if they were able to
make decisions solely as social beings and citizens and not as private indi-
viduals. Individuals may possess private wills that express their particular
interests, but citizens must recognize and concur with the General Will that
mirrors the good of all. The General Will is not tantamount to the will of all
citizens. Nor is it the sum of all individual wills or the expression of a
compromise or consensus among them. Nor is it the equivalent of the will
of the majority, for even the majority can be corrupt or misguided. In other
words, it is a theoretical construct. The General Will is general, not because
a broad number of people subscribe to it but because its object is always the
common good of all.
Thus, hovering strangely above and beyond the wills of all, the General
Will is ‘‘always constant, unalterable, and pure,’’∞π always mirroring per-
fectly the common good of all members of the community. The ultimate
authority—and ultimate sovereignty—thus reside not really in the people,
who may err in their estimation of the General Will, unable to transcend
their private wills, but rather in the infallible General Will itself—the
power of Reason, the enlightened collective moral conscience.∞∫
Introduction 11
True freedom, Rousseau maintains, consists in choosing to obey the
General Will. But how can freedom be equated with obedience?
Rousseau recognized two different types of freedom. The first, enjoyed
by people in the state of nature, denoted their freedom to act as they wished,
in a variety of diverse ways. This was a negative form of freedom, freedom
from constraints. But there is another, higher form of freedom, according to
Rousseau, a positive freedom. This is not freedom from constraint, but
rather freedom for some higher good, for the enjoyment of the good, moral
life.∞Ω This kind of freedom, more heroic and ambitious than negative free-
dom, can belong to the citizen who is able to suppress his private will and
consciously choose the common good over his own desires and personal
benefit. This individual has mastered himself, becoming a moral and hence
a truly free being. The originality of Rousseau’s vision resides in his con-
cept of freedom, not as the province of the autonomous individual but rather
as that of the self-sacrificing citizen.
Indeed, the more that people identify with the community, the ‘‘freer’’
they are. Whereas primitive individuals in the state of nature were thor-
oughly indifferent and unattached to one another, in Rousseau’s utopia,
citizens are unreservedly involved with one another. The solitary indepen-
dence that people may have enjoyed in the state of nature is not something
that Rousseau aspired to recover. On the contrary, he wishes to see it trans-
formed into its opposite—voluntary dependence and interdependence,
happy obedience to the General Will.
We cannot recapture our original autonomy, but we can instead secure a
higher freedom, the freedom to govern ourselves as we collectively wish.≤≠
Still, the primitive being and the socialized citizen have something in com-
mon, for both are innocent, genuine, unaffected—both are the polar op-
posite of the corrupt, decadent inhabitants of eighteenth-century Enlighten-
ment France.
Rousseau has taken us on a fantastic voyage—from radical indepen-
dence in the state of nature, to abject servitude in society, to complete social
involvement in his utopia. We have journeyed from animal freedom to
moral freedom.≤∞
Does personal ‘‘happiness’’ fit into Rousseau’s plan? In truth, he does
not promise happiness. People may have been happier, he admits, in their
solitary lives in the state of nature, knowing neither good nor evil, their
existences revolving around the immediate satisfaction of their physical
needs. But Rousseau was convinced that individuals, through their identi-
fication with the community, could attain something higher than private
12 Susan Dunn
happiness: meaningful lives. No longer drowning in infernal rat-races,
competing and striving to impress others, pursuing elusive, inauthentic
goals that never lead to real satisfaction, people by choosing to live as parts
of a whole and to share in the common happiness of all have a chance at real
fulfillment and peace of mind.
Here is Rousseau’s vision of a good society. Citizens are free and equal,
not because they own equal property or possess equal talents, but rather
because they share an equal measure of civic rights and responsibilities. By
renouncing their autonomy and participating in and obeying the General
Will, they assure that they will all be treated fairly and with equal consider-
ation and respect. The political community represents the one and only
channel through which human beings can live and act as fully aware moral
agents, accepting and carrying out the duties assigned to them by their own
human dignity.
Still, Rousseau’s utopian vision is oddly apolitical. He displayed no
interest in political struggles for power; he devoted no time to conceiving
political or parliamentary institutions. Nor was he concerned with eco-
nomic justice, advising only that the rich exercise moderation and that the
poor restrain their envy.≤≤ Rather than reflect on parliamentary rules or an
economic bill of rights, he imagined instead a relatively small community
of citizens, living in ‘‘peace, union, and equality’’ without complex laws.
He rejected the idea of a representative democracy, for representatives
would rob citizens not only of their sovereignty but also of their civic
Periodically all citizens simply and harmoniously come together to
ratify, not to debate, the General Will and the laws that emanate from it. In
these periodic acts of ‘‘direct democracy,’’ citizens attempt to discover the
General Will. They must deliberate alone and by themselves, never in
concert with others—for any kind of associations would lead them to iden-
tify with the ‘‘partial’’ interests of a faction, not the general interest of all.≤≥
When citizens vote, their act of voting is conceived, not as a way for them to
express their individual wills or to forge a compromise among opposing
factions, but purely as a mechanism for ‘‘discovering’’ the General Will.
These assemblies, while engaging citizens in a referendum on the Gen-
eral Will, do not engage them in a participatory democracy. These are not
‘‘town-meetings,’’ for citizens neither govern nor make policies. Nor are
citizens free to assemble en masse when they wish; only assemblies con-
voked by the magistrates are lawful and valid.≤∂ Rousseau’s goal was cohe-
sion, harmony, and peace, not self-government.
Politics, Rousseau taught, was a simple affair; the General Will was
Introduction 13
obvious; collective deliberation was not necessary; and decisions required
nothing more than common sense.≤∑ The people obey only their own Gen-
eral Will which never imposes arbitrary or unnecessary obligations on them.
The laws that citizens ratify reflect their collective sense of the General
Will. When they obey their society’s laws, they ‘‘obey no one, but simply
their own will.’’≤∏ While people must agree unanimously to the original
social contract, all other legislative decisions are made by a simple major-
ity.≤π Though these laws are supposed to affect all subjects collectively,
Rousseau, in a strange and disappointing retreat, oddly contradicts himself
by opening up the possibility that certain citizens may be denied rights or
privileges that are accorded to others.≤∫ The law, Rousseau allows, ‘‘may
indeed decree that there shall be privileges, but cannot confer them on any
person by name.’’≤Ω
The people possess the body of laws handed down to them by their
Founder, Rousseau’s mythical ‘‘Legislator,’’ a clairvoyant wise man who,
like Lycurgus in Sparta, Numa in Rome, and Moses for the Jewish nation,
has formulated laws tailored to his particular people, laws that give a
‘‘soul’’ to the nation and that conciliate pure justice and the particular
circumstances of the polity. After having established the legal code, which
is endowed with ‘‘divine authority’’ and the ‘‘prestige of the gods,’’ the
Legislator can withdraw, his task accomplished.≥≠ A small group of men, or
still better, one man, a monarch, constitutes the people’s ‘‘executive,’’ exist-
ing only as the servant of the people’s will, but nevertheless constituting the
polity’s active government.
Rousseau has conceived a radically original society, geared not to indi-
viduals obsessed with maximizing their own private interests,≥∞ but instead
to citizens who possess a strong moral sense of their responsibilities and
duties toward one another and toward the community. The polity fosters
their equality and enhances their freedom to lead meaningful lives and
realize their most profound human aspirations. The blossoming of their
humanity is inseparable from their citizenship and their conformity to the
State’s prescription for the ‘‘good life.’’ Rousseau has restored to us, one
scholar wrote, the ‘‘fundamental sweetness of life.’’≥≤
d e m o c r a c yw i t h o u tp l u r a l i s m
Do you hear the piercing wail of sirens, warning of danger?
The General Will—arbitrary, coercive, and ultimately illusory—has
come to dominate all of society and its laws. Every citizen must submit to
its infallible, unlimited authority. What king ever ruled so absolutely?
14 Susan Dunn
It must now be clear that Rousseau has conceived a utopian, ethical,
democratic polity that includes no channels for the expression of dissent or
opposition. Having defined the General Will as infallible and sovereign,
Rousseau could not logically imagine any legitimate opposition to it. Politi-
cal ‘‘freedom’’ in such a solidary, unified society requires submission and
obedience to the General Will.
And yet, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we know that the
determining features of democracy are the legitimacy of opposition and
political parties. How can there be political freedom without the right to
oppose those who govern?≥≥
But in Rousseau’s utopia, those who disagree with the General Will are
simply in error, expressing selfish, ‘‘particular’’ interests that perversely
thwart the common good of all. Even the majority of citizens can be in
error, for Rousseau explicitly wrote that often there can be a great differ-
ence between the will of all and the General Will≥∂ (though, wanting it both
ways, he also stated that ‘‘all the characteristics of the General Will’’ are
found in the will of the plurality).≥∑ In any case, there can be no role for
minority opinion. Neither dissenting individuals nor groups, political par-
ties, or factions can be tolerated by the cohesive whole. To persist in ques-
tioning or opposing the General Will is to abdicate one’s membership in the
polity, to give up one’s political rights, and ultimately to be executed, ‘‘less
as a citizen than as an enemy.’’≥∏ But before putting ‘‘rebels’’ and ‘‘traitors’’
to death, the sovereign people must attempt to make those who have diffi-
culty recognizing the General Will see the light. ‘‘Whoever refuses to obey
the general will,’’ Rousseau decreed, ‘‘shall be constrained to do so by
the whole body: which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to
be free.’’≥π
Forced to be free? These paradoxical words shock us, and rightly so, for
they cast their dark shadow on some of the grimmest periods of the twen-
tieth century. Yet Rousseau’s goal was freedom, community, and morality,
not mass repression. Rousseau would contend that if society constrains
people to be free, socializes them to suppress their animal instincts and
selfish desires, and educates them to choose the General Will over their
private wills, it is in the name of their own human dignity.
Socialization and education or mind-control? The health of the society
and the willingness of citizens to obey the General Will, Rousseau ac-
knowledges, depend on citizens’ belief in a civil religion that binds their
hearts to the State and makes them delight in their civic duties.≥∫
So essential is this religion to the well-being of the polity that non-
believers must be banished—not because they are impious, Rousseau ex-
Introduction 15
plains, but rather because they are ‘‘unsociable.’’ And if heretics must be put
to death, it is in the name of the sanctity of the law. ‘‘If any one, after publicly
acknowledging these dogmas [of the civil religion],’’ Rousseau wrote, ‘‘be-
haves like an unbeliever in them, he should be punished with death; he has
committed the greatest of crimes, he has lied before the laws.’’≥Ω
Buttressing the civil religion, a ‘‘board of censors’’ guides and molds
people’s judgment and then ‘‘declares’’ the nature of public opinion.∂≠
Though Rousseau asserts that this censorial tribunal merely preserves mo-
rality by preventing the corruption of public opinion, he admits that this
board will ‘‘fix’’ opinions when they are not yet determined. This seems to
mean that instead of a continuous and open national debate on the common
good, the government would control the equivalent of editorial and op-ed
pages and shape public attitudes. One of Rousseau’s critics contends that
the ‘‘Censorship’’ would inevitably come to supervise not only the press but
also art, theater, and all other means of communication.∂∞
Individual wills shattered by the power of the General Will. Self-interest
supplanted by sacrifice and sharing. Conflict and opposition banned in the
name of unity and consensus. Public opinion shaped by a censorial Big
Brother. Rousseau’s ideal political community, through the sheer force of
its coercive and unitary communitarian spirit, comes to dominate every
aspect of human life—intellectual life, social life, moral life. This is the
very definition of modern totalitarianism—as well as of the militaristic
Spartan society that Rousseau first lauded in his Discourse on the Sciences
and Arts, a society in which man’s entire being is absorbed by his role as
Ironically though not surprisingly, Rousseau admitted toward the end of
his life that he himself would never have chosen or been able to be part of
such a solidary community. ‘‘I was never really suited to civil society, with
all its burdens, obligations and duties,’’ he confessed. His ‘‘independent
nature’’ refused the submissions and compromises necessary in communal
life. ‘‘As soon as I sense a yoke, . . . I become rebellious . . . . When I am
supposed to do the opposite of what I want to do, I refuse to do it, no matter
what happens.’’∂≥
What then motivated Rousseau to conceive a society in which dissent
and conflict are outlawed and submission to the General Will the only
legitimate form of political behavior? Why was the notion of a dynamic,
competitive political arena, one that tolerates conflict and rewards self-
confident individuals and vociferous interest groups, alien to his imagina-
tion? Was it his own anti-social personality and need for solitude, his fear
16 Susan Dunn
that others were always trying to injure him, his long pattern of living under
the paternalistic or maternalistic protection of wealthy patrons?
In Rousseau’s ideal society, every person, he wrote, is ‘‘perfectly inde-
pendent of all the rest, and in absolute dependence on the State.’’∂∂ This, in
fact, corresponds perfectly to the penetrating definition of ‘‘democratic
despotism’’ that the great political sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville offered
in 1856. Tocqueville described a society in which isolated, atomized indi-
viduals—though equal—are barred from group action and cooperation as
well as from meaningful political participation on a variety of levels—
local, county, state, national—spread throughout society. Instead of par-
ticipating in self-government and receiving this kind of hands-on education
in citizenship, they are ruled over by a central government, the sole locus of
political power.∂∑ But for his part, Rousseau was more disposed to the
notion of obedience to the General Will than to the notion of a participatory
government; he was more comfortable with the idea of the atomization of
citizens than with the idea of citizens joining and working together to make
demands and claims upon the state.
Did Rousseau articulate the principles of a revolutionary democratic,
moral community, tapping deep human yearnings for belonging, solidarity,
and sharing? Or did he unwittingly create the enduring blueprint for horrific
totalitarian regimes that repress their people in the name of ‘‘one-party
democracy’’? Does his Social Contract offer redemption and salvation after
the Fall—or a disguised inferno?
Is his legacy the kibbutz or the Gulag?
r o u s s e a ui nt h ea g eo fr e v o l u t i o n
Rousseau admired Niccolò Machiavelli. He called the early sixteenth-
century political theorist a ‘‘profound politician’’ and lover of liberty.∂∏
Machiavelli would not have returned the compliment.
Machiavelli’s most gleaming political insight was that a republic is
energized by conflict: without conflict there are no politics and no freedom.
Tumult, he wrote in 1513, was ‘‘the guardian of Roman liberties’’ and
‘‘deserved the highest praise.’’ When tumult is absent, when everyone in a
state is tranquil, he noted, ‘‘we can be sure that it is not a republic.’’ The
Florentine perceived that conflict is the foundation of freedom and politics.
When the Roman people demonstrated and clamored for their rights, he
remarked, their demands, far from being harmful, eventually produced ‘‘all
laws favorable to liberty.’’ Machiavelli understood that the very nature of
Introduction 17
politics is conflictual and that only tolerance for opposition and conflict can
guarantee the survival of political freedom.∂π
Nearly three hundred years later, James Madison not only revived Ma-
chiavelli’s ideas but acted upon them, making the people’s right to form
factions and engage in non-violent political conflict the foundation of his
plan for republican government. Thomas Jefferson went even further, es-
tablishing the crucial principle of the legitimacy of opposition by fostering
and exploiting a system of political parties that enabled Americans to orga-
nize and oppose the politicians in power.
The American Revolution had proceeded from stage to stage, accom-
plishing its goals: the war of the 1770s had brought independence. The
Philadelphia Convention of 1787 created stable democratic institutions and
a venerated Constitution, to which the founders added a Bill of Rights in
1791, and the watershed election of 1800 established the precedent of a
defeated incumbent party peacefully turning over power to the opposition.
But while Madison and Jefferson emphasized tumult, factions, and par-
ties, on the other side of the Atlantic the leaders of the French Revolution—
Sieyès, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and others—were mesmerized by Rous-
seau’s dream of harmony and unanimity. Their Revolution that began with
the storming of the Bastille and the idealistic ‘‘Declaration of the Rights of
Man and Citizen’’ plunged into a downward spiral, descending into Terror
and the hideous reign of the guillotine, devouring its adversaries and its
followers as well as its leaders. Finally, ten years later, in a plebiscite in
1799, an exhausted people voted for the Constitution that guaranteed the
autocracy of Napoleon. The vote was 3,011,007 to 1,562. In the nineteenth
century, the word ‘‘republic’’ had become a smear-word; France would not
know republican government until 1871. ‘‘He was a madman, your Rous-
seau,’’ commented Napoleon. ‘‘It was he who led us into our present
t h ef r e n c hr e v o l u t i o n
When Rousseau’s remains were installed in the Pantheon in Paris in 1794,
Joseph Lakanal, who had been one of the members of the revolutionary leg-
islative Convention, remarked, ‘‘It is not the Social Contract that brought
about the Revolution. Rather, it is the Revolution that explained to us the
Social Contract.’’∂Ω
Indeed, revolutionaries in France had not always heeded Rousseau’s
advice as they designed their blueprint for the new institutions of France.
18 Susan Dunn
They created, for example, a representative democracy—not the ‘‘direct
democracy’’ that Rousseau had advocated. But if the Revolution’s institu-
tions were not inspired by his work, if they were, on the contrary, influenced
in some respects more by centuries of monarchical absolutism, the Revolu-
tion’s spirit certainly belonged to Rousseau.∑≠ Or, as one scholar recently
observed, Rousseau may not have ‘‘caused’’ the French Revolution, but ‘‘he
provided the terms in which the logic of events could be interpreted.’’∑∞
A harmonious, communitarian society à la Rousseau would be the Rev-
olution’s antidote to centuries of injustice and class stratification. Just as
Rousseau saw his utopian society as a form of redemption after the degra-
dation of the fall, the leaders of 1789 similarly believed, as the historian
François Furet notes, that a unitary, unanimous polity, committed to the
General Will, would ‘‘regenerate’’ humanity after the degradation of the
ancien régime.∑≤
On the eve of the French Revolution, one of Rousseau’s most influential
disciples, Emmanuel Sieyès, authored the incendiary political pamphlet,
‘‘What Is the Third Estate?’’∑≥ During that winter of 1788–1789, as France
stood at the brink of financial collapse, King Louis XVI decided to convene
the Estates General, hoping that they could resolve the crisis. Following the
centuries-old formula, representatives of the three orders— the nobility, the
clergy, and the Third Estate—would meet, each order deliberating sepa-
rately. The nobility and the clergy together consisted of about 200,000
members; the Third Estate, that is, the rest of the population, 25 million.
Even before the meeting took place, spokesmen for the Third Estate were
objecting to this antiquated structure and demanding that the Third Estate
be accorded representation equal to the two other orders combined.
But in his pamphlet Sieyès went even further, making a far more radical
demand. Bitterly denouncing the entire anachronistic institution of the Es-
tates General, he declared that there should be a single National Assembly
comprised solely of representatives of the Third Estate. The nation and the
Third Estate, he argued, were one and the same.∑∂
‘‘What is the Third Estate?’’ Sieyès demanded in his lapidary style.
‘‘Everything. What has it been in the political order up to now? Nothing.
What is it asking for? To become something.’’ Instantaneously Sieyès ex-
cluded the two privileged orders from membership in the nation. Without
them, France would be more, not less. Separate, privileged orders were like
malignant fluids attacking a sick body and had to be ‘‘neutralized.’’∑∑
‘‘There cannot be one will as long as we permit three orders,’’ he patiently
explained, as if echoing Rousseau. ‘‘At best, the three orders might agree.
Introduction 19
But they will never constitute one nation, one representation and one com-
mon will.’’∑∏
When the Estates General convened in the spring of 1789, Sieyès au-
daciously proposed that the Third Estate declare itself the National Assem-
bly. His profoundly revolutionary motion passed by an overwhelming ma-
jority. The ‘‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,’’ composed in
August 1789, decreed that the nation—the Third Estate—was sovereign.
Just eight months after the publication of his ideas, Sieyès’s theoretical
blueprint for France had become the new reality.
The key to Sieyès’s vision of a new France—and the concept that
shaped the Revolution’s politics and became its mantra—was unity. The
salvation of France and the success of the Revolution appeared to hinge on
the unanimity and indivisibility of the nation. Sieyès conceived the Third
Estate not as a diverse population of heterogeneous individuals each acting
in his own self-interest, but rather as a homogeneous mass. Following
Rousseau, he envisioned members of the nation not only as equal but also as
like-minded, sharing the same opinions, ideals, and revolutionary goals.
Individuals might differ from one another in their private lives, Sieyès
allowed, but those differences occur ‘‘beyond the sphere of citizenship.’’∑π
Citizens’ rights and freedoms derived from their status as equal and concur-
ring members of society, from their submission to the General Will. Any
individual who ‘‘exits from the common quality of citizen’’ cannot ‘‘partici-
pate in political rights.’’∑∫
For Sieyès, as for Rousseau before him, there could be no legitimate role
for dissenting individuals or minority factions to play in self-government.∑Ω
Sieyès contended that all citizens, by virtue of having accepted and entered
into their society’s social contract, agree to be bound by the will of the
majority. A citizen is obliged to ‘‘view the common will as his own.’’
Should he refuse to yield to the majority, his only alternative is to leave the
polity. Thus the sole solution envisaged by Sieyès to the problem of possi-
ble political conflict between an individual and the group was expatriation.
Similarly, a minority faction has no right to oppose the majority, since the
majority could be assumed to speak for the General Will.∏≠
Freedom meant the Rousseauian ‘‘freedom’’ to obey the General Will,
not the freedom to pursue one’s own private interests and happiness. ‘‘Ev-
eryone must forget his own interest and pride,’’ instructed the twenty-six
year old Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, the Revolution’s most radical ide-
ologue. ‘‘Private happiness and interest are a violence against the social
order. . . . Your interest demands that you forget your interest; the only
salvation is through the public good.’’∏∞
20 Susan Dunn
Factions and parties were anathema. What justification could there be
for bodies that represent ‘‘partial’’ and private interests in a nation of equal
and self-sacrificing citizens, all committed to the ‘‘common good’’? Danton
expressed the party line: ‘‘You must absorb this truth: factions cannot exist
in a republic.’’∏≤ Making no attempt to disguise the Jacobins’ refusal to
tolerate opposition, Saint-Just proclaimed in February 1794 that ‘‘what
constitutes a republic is the total destruction of everything that stands in
opposition to it.’’∏≥
And yet the radical Jacobins, who would ultimately control the Revolu-
tion and govern France during the reign of Terror, were themselves a dis-
tinct minority. They prevailed in their quest to dominate the Convention by
successfully presenting their radical party ideology as the General Will.
The people, the Jacobins announced, wanted what the Jacobins wanted, and
the Jacobins knew and expressed the General Will, capitalizing on this most
falsifiable of concepts. Their strategy was to denounce and remove duly
elected representatives for nothing more than their minority views and to
eliminate all dissent in the name of unanimity and unity.
But unity divides. Unity excludes. Unity polarizes. The corollary of the
nation’s unity is the elimination of any individuals or groups that disrupt
that unity. People who do not concur with the nation’s interests and goals,
who persist in voicing their own private interests, who threaten the nation’s
unanimity are considered enemies to be banished or punished. Thus, the
Rousseauian yearning for cohesion, solidarity, and oneness imposes the
psychology of the purge.∏∂
Indeed, during the Terror of 1793–1794, the revolutionary Convention
in France would mandate the death penalty for any attempt to threaten the
unity of the Republic. A revolutionary Tribunal was established in March
1793 to ferret out domestic enemies, all the ‘‘traitors’’ and ‘‘conspirators’’
who threatened the nation’s unity. Just as Rousseau had recommended, if
citizens could not be ‘‘forced to be free,’’ those who persisted in betraying
the civil religion of harmony and sociability could be put to death.
Of course, unity never reigned in France. During the tumultuous years of
the French Revolution, the mesmerizing cult of unity was a veil behind
which seethed dissension and discord. Politicians, journalists, philosophers,
and economists disagreed on all the major issues of the day, as rational
people in any country would.
Numerous factions—monarchiens, Brissotins, Feuillantistes, Montag-
nards, Girondins, Jacobins, sansculottes, chouans, enragés, Dantonistes,
Hébertistes, Robespierristes, Thermidoreans—dotted the political land-
scape, not only making the study of the French Revolution extremely com-
Introduction 21
plicated but also making the simple schism in America between Federalists
and Republicans seem, in comparison, downright unimaginative. But so
enchanted were the French with the rhetoric of unity and so cynical were
political leaders who used the Rousseauian myth of unity to isolate and
defeat their adversaries and consolidate their own power, that even when
people disagreed passionately with one another, they continued to condemn
factions and parties as well as the very idea of organized opposition. Even
when it was apparent that nothing existed but dissension and conflict, revo-
lutionary leaders in France were self-destructively blind and intellectually
opposed to the idea of an inclusive polity in which a variety of political
visions could be tolerated.
Ironically, the revolutionary cult of unity that rejected dissent, factions,
and non-violent political conflict led the French Revolution to the most
extreme form of conflict: violence and murder. And this catastrophic failure
of democracy can be traced directly to Rousseau’s dream of harmony and
consensus, to his vision of a fraternal people bound together in political
unity, all happily acknowledging and obeying the truth of the sovereign,
infallible General Will, and to his exclusion of dissent and opposition. ‘‘The
contradiction inherent in the abstract attempt to constrain modern man to
subordinate everything to the public good,’’ judges the historian Furet cate-
gorically, ‘‘led to the Terror.’’∏∑
Before it all began, in 1778, Maximilien Robespierre, who would be-
come the mastermind of the Terror, met the legendary philosopher Jean-
Jacques Rousseau. ‘‘I saw you in your last days,’’ he recalled, ‘‘and this
memory is a source of proud joy for me.’’ According to Robespierre, Rous-
seau commented that he had prepared the field and sowed the seeds for the
immense change that was about to take place in France, but, like Moses, he
would not live to see the promised land. The young lawyer pledged to his
master that he would be ‘‘constantly faithful to the inspiration’’ that he had
drawn from Rousseau’s writings.∏∏
Decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville, shortly before his death, was
working on a sequel to his study of the French Revolution, The Old Regime
and the Revolution. In his notes he prophetically discussed the violence that
can be produced by abstract ideas such as the General Will. The leaders of
the French Revolution, Tocqueville contended, formed a new international
‘‘turbulent and destructive race, always ready to strike down and incapable
of setting up, that stipulates that there are no individual rights, indeed that
there are no individuals, but only a mass which may stop at nothing to attain
its ends.’’ Their revolutionary religion was ‘‘one of the most singular, the
most active and the most contagious diseases of the human mind.’’∏π
22 Susan Dunn
t h em a d i s o n i a nv i s i o n
Just twenty-five years after Rousseau wrote his Social Contract—and two
years before revolutionary leaders in France decided on their plan for
the new government of France—James Madison composed Federalist No.
10. His brilliant political formula for constitutional government turns Rous-
seau’s vision of a political community upside down.∏∫
Underlying Madison’s political thought is his modest, commonsensical
conviction that citizens are all individuals and that as individuals, they are
all different. People simply will never agree unanimously on anything. A
vast variety of ‘‘unavoidable’’ factors—wealth and property, social class,
religion, geography, political ideas, etc.—would always divide people into
different interest groups and factions. Indeed, the principle of diversity
seemed embedded in human nature, that is, in human rationality. Madison
argued that rational people view issues in different ways because reason is
essentially imperfect. ‘‘As long as the reason of man continues fallible,’’ he
maintained, ‘‘and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will
be formed.’’∏Ω
Could differences and factions be removed from society, Madison asked.
Could conflict be eliminated so that the kind of consensus Rousseau had
emphasized could be achieved? Well, unity and unanimity could certainly
be achieved by summarily outlawing factions, Madison allowed, but such
an option was completely unsatisfactory and unacceptable, because its cost
would be freedom itself, that is, people’s freedom to act without constraint
and express their own interests. People would be forced to sacrifice the very
liberty that was ‘‘essential to political life.’’ Thus the remedy would be
worse than the disease. ‘‘Liberty is to faction,’’ Madison wrote in a superb
simile, ‘‘what air is to fire. . . . But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty,
which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would
be to wish the annihilation of air.’’
Was there any other way to achieve unity? No. The dream of unity, he
noted with disdain, was a theoretical fantasy. In the ‘‘civilized commu-
nities’’ of real life, no such ‘‘perfect homogeneousness of interests, opin-
ions & feelings’’ would ever be found.π≠ Whereas Rousseau was convinced
that human beings could be guided and enlightened if not forced to prefer
the common good to their own private interests, Madison believed that self-
interest would always dominate human affairs. Significantly, he had already
criticized in 1787 the leap that Sieyès—following Rousseau—made in
1789, that is, the leap from the idea of citizens’ equality before the law to
the idea of citizens’ similarity in everything else. ‘‘Theoretic politicians,’’
Introduction 23
he wrote in Federalist No. 10, ‘‘have erroneously supposed that by reducing
mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same
time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opin-
ions, and their passions.’’π∞ And he was thoroughly uninterested in ‘‘re-
generating’’ human beings to suit utopian political blueprints. ‘‘What is
government itself,’’ he wrote, ‘‘but the greatest of all reflections on human
nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary.’’π≤
Did Madison believe in such a thing as the public or common good?
Though he does refer in passing to ‘‘the permanent and aggregate interests
of the community,’’π≥ he nevertheless does not posit the existence of a single
common good or General Will in society (that is, other than ‘‘life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness’’). Although Alexander Hamilton always
stressed his belief in the existence of ‘‘the public interest’’ and has even
been called the ‘‘Rousseau of the Right’’π∂ by some American historians,
Madison’s concept of government recognizes the multiple interests and
wills of diverse citizens and factions, all competing for influence and
Indeed, the Virginian explicitly rejected the idea that there could be a
‘‘neutral’’ agency in government that voiced the public good. Madison was
convinced that every participant in government represented some interest
or faction. ‘‘What are the different classes of legislators,’’ he asked, ‘‘but
advocates and parties to the causes which they determine?’’π∑ He confessed
that it would be highly desirable to have some kind of ‘‘dispassionate
umpire in disputes between different passions & interests in the State,’’ but
he knew that hopes for such a neutral referee were vain.π∏ ‘‘Enlightened
statesmen,’’ who subordinate clashing interests to the public good, could
not be expected to ‘‘be at the helm.’’ππ Factions did not exist in opposition to
government: they constitute government. Conflict among different factions
was not merely tolerated by government: conflict was government.
Madison’s vision of the ‘‘good society’’ could hardly have been more
different from Rousseau’s. In contrast to Rousseau’s vision of a harmonious
community, Madison sought to balance conflicting private interest groups,
all feverishly pursuing a host of competing notions of the private and
public good.
Ultimately, Madison counted on factions to perform a task of paramount
importance: resistance to any concentration of power. More than anything
else Madison feared the power of an ‘‘overbearing’’ majority. Therefore, the
more diverse the society, the more it was broken down into ‘‘so many parts,
interests and classes,’’ the more likely it would be that any majority would
become broad and hence moderate in its goals. And the less likely it would
24 Susan Dunn
be that the rights of individuals would be threatened by ‘‘the combinations
of the majority.’’π∫
This notion of division also underlay Madison’s plan for checks and
balances. The government would be divided against itself, institutionally
split ‘‘between different bodies of men, who might watch and check each
other.’’πΩ Madison purposefully designed the government so that people and
interest groups would collide rather than concur. Adding to institutional
division and collision, moreover, were the ideological divisions of the polit-
ical parties—Federalists and Republicans—that crystallized in the 1790s.
Henceforth two rival parties would compete for power and alternately gov-
ern, strengthening the young nation by according legitimacy to opposition.
If there was ‘‘oneness’’ in America, it was the fundamental constitu-
tional consensus: a commitment to a government dedicated to the values of
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and, as for everything else, an
agreement to disagree.
But in France, Rousseau’s revolutionary disciples were insisting that the
republic be ‘‘one and indivisible,’’ that it possess one roaring voice and one
indomitable will. Although in retrospect one can imagine that revolution-
aries in France, scarred if not traumatized by centuries of monarchical
absolutism, might also have sought to divide and fragment power, in fact
the opposite was the case. The French were demanding, above all, change,
impact, action—they clamored for energetic, majoritarian government,
not the stability, inertia, or deadlock that results from the fragmentation
of power.
Is there a political model that can wed the potent, populist leadership and
majoritarian government that French revolutionaries craved with an adver-
sarial two-party system, while also protecting individual rights and avoid-
ing governmental gridlock?
Yes. The wedding has already taken place. In Great Britain.
m a j o r i t yr u l ew i t h o u tc h e c k sa n db a l a n c e s
‘‘Whether we speak of differences in opinion or differences in interest,’’
remarked Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, in 1701, ‘‘we must
own we are the most divided, quarrelsome nation under the sun.’’∫≠ Great
Britain’s affinity for political quarrels has produced the longest-lasting and
arguably most vital democracy on the planet.∫∞
While Rousseau was theorizing about political unity and harmony, the
British were engaged in developing a theory of political parties. Edmund
Introduction 25
Burke, a leader of the opposition Whig party, found it inconceivable that
representative government could exist without political parties. Why, he
wondered in 1770, would like-minded politicians, who want to see their
ideas and principles translated into practice, not associate and cooperate
with one another? The thought that men would choose not to act in concert
with others struck Burke as ‘‘utterly incomprehensible.’’ ‘‘Of what sort
of materials must that man be made,’’ he mused in disbelief, ‘‘who can
sit whole years in Parliament, with five hundred and fifty of his fellow-
citizens, . . . in the agitation of such mighty questions . . . without seeing any
one sort of men, whose character, conduct, or disposition, would lead him
to associate himself with them?’’∫≤
The dominant features of the modern British model of parliamentary
democracy are, as Burke had advocated, two distinct, competitive parties
that alternate in power, a strong elected executive, and—as far as the ex-
ecutive and legislature are concerned—no marked constitutional separa-
tion of powers. After a political party in Great Britain wins a national
election, the party leader becomes the country’s Prime Minister. There are
no formal limits to the power of the Prime Minister’s government, as long
as it retains its parliamentary majority. The party is free to enact all of its
policies and programs, thus assuring clear majoritarian rule.
Still, the losing party does not disappear from the scene, for the opposi-
tion constitutes an integral, essential part of the constitutional system. ‘‘Her
Majesty’s Opposition’’ has the duty to criticize the party in power and is as
much a part of the polity as the administration itself. Its prime responsibility
is not to fell the government in power but rather to offer an alternative
government and to present positive—not just oppositional—policies. In
addition to these responsibilities, the opposition has rights too—for exam-
ple, it selects topics of parliamentary debate. A forceful and effective op-
position constantly reminds leaders and citizens of a clear alternative to the
majority government’s policies, yet the majority may continue to enact its
policies unimpeded.∫≥ Together ‘‘Her Majesty’s Government’’ and ‘‘Her
Majesty’s Opposition’’ make up the two halves of the constitutional system.
Paradoxically, adversarial party politics requires consensus— some-
times a high level of consensus, sometimes a minimal level. First of all,
there must exist a fundamental consensus in the nation as to the constitu-
tional system itself as well as to citizens’ rights and freedoms. Second,
though the system depends on ideological conflict, there must not be too
much conflict—or too little. If criticism of government is too severe, if the
different parties are too polarized, and if conflict is so intense as to eliminate
the ‘‘mediating center,’’ the social fabric of the society may suffer.∫∂ Still,
26 Susan Dunn
too little conflict means that the government is immune from healthy crit-
icism and that significant alternative policies are not being offered. A deli-
cate balancing act is required to produce, in the words of political scientist
Robert Dahl, ‘‘a society where dissent is low enough to encourage a rela-
tively calm and objective appraisal of alternatives, and yet sufficient to
make sure that radical alternatives will not be ignored or suppressed.’’∫∑
For the past two centuries, British and American democracies have
accepted the principle of conflict and learned to exploit it. They have inte-
grated conflict into their institutions; they have normalized it and ritualized
it and thus tamed it; and they have created rules and procedures for defang-
ing and resolving it. And not only have both political systems thrived on
conflict, they have also been remarkably able to weather a variety of other
storms—from horrific world wars to violent social upheaval.
Indeed, the United States and England (and her Canadian and Australian
offspring) are virtually alone among nations in having been able to with-
stand all the catastrophes of the twentieth century—two world wars, fas-
cism, Stalinism, a devastating economic depression. Those governments
remained stable and intact throughout the century, persevering in their care-
ful, orderly ways while the rest of the world reeled. Is that resilience due—
at least in part—to their ability to tolerate, defang, and absorb conflict?
c o n f l i c ta n dc o m m u n i t y
Yet, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, some American sociolo-
gists, political scientists, and philosophers, troubled by a society they see as
ever more fractured and disunited, voice a longing for a greater sense of
social cohesion. Not content with a rational commitment to pluralism and
diversity, feeling an emotional yearning for solidarity and belonging, they
accuse James Madison of having effectively thwarted the dream of oneness.
They feel that Madison’s undeviating emphasis on factions, conflict, and
individual rights forever undermines a sense of national community. One
historian describes Madison’s view of society as an ‘‘agglomeration of
hostile individuals coming together for their mutual benefit.’’∫∏
But are conflict and community really irreconcilable? This question is
a crucial one. For if the American (and British) models of government
do indeed preclude the possibility of community, then it would be under-
standable that revolutionary leaders in France dismissed the American ex-
perience and attempted to follow Rousseau’s formula for fraternity and
Introduction 27
In defense of Madisonian government, one can argue, first of all, that
there exists in America an unusually rich, diversified, and inclusive politi-
cal community. Especially since the vote was extended to non-property
holders, to African-Americans, and to women, the political arena has been
able to encompass new interest groups and accommodate a vast number of
voluntary associations, assuring most citizens and most emerging groups
membership and representation in the national community.∫π
Second, in the 1950s, the brilliant political theorist Louis Hartz argued
that in America there indeed exists ‘‘a peculiar sense of community,’’∫∫
something more than atomized and self-interested individuals. What holds
people together, Hartz maintained, is not the sense that they were different
parts of a corporate whole, but rather ‘‘the knowledge that they were similar
participants in a uniform way of life.’’ At the core of American society
stands a glacier resting on ‘‘miles of submerged conviction.’’ This shared
conviction is the American creed of individualism and freedom—so pow-
erful and self-evident that people do not even realize that they are con-
forming to an ideology at all. This powerful ‘‘common standard,’’ Hartz
believed, produces a very real kind of social cohesion among citizens com-
mitted to the same common good: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That fundamental democratic consensus, in England and America, is the
glue that binds people together.
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, he en-
countered an active, kinetic society. Coming from lethargic Restoration
France, he was astonished by the frenetic activity taking place at all levels
of society. ‘‘As soon as you step onto American soil,’’ he wrote, ‘‘you find
yourself in the middle of a kind of tumult.’’ Wherever he looked, people
were attending meetings! One group was debating whether to build a new
church; another wondering whom to elect as representative; still another
considering what kinds of improvements to make in their township.∫Ω In-
volvement in the nation’s public life had become people’s entertainment
and pleasure. Meetings seemed to have taken the place of theater!
When citizens join with others to promote their private interests,
Tocqueville noted, they discover that their own interests are inseparable
from those of other citizens. Through their involvement in civic associa-
tions, self-government, and the jury system, these Americans rise above
their own narrow self-interest and identify more deeply with the commu-
nity. Tocqueville termed this ‘‘self-interest rightly understood’’ or enlight-
ened self-interest.
Though such people would be puzzled if one congratulated them on
28 Susan Dunn
their commitment to a life of ‘‘virtue,’’ they nevertheless find fulfillment
in helping others and in making sacrifices of their time and wealth for
the community. These Americans, Tocqueville observed, tolerate no con-
straints on their self-interest or their autonomy and would dismiss any lofty
moral interpretations of their conduct, yet they seemed to have mastered
themselves, to have chosen to lead disciplined, moderate, and consider-
ate lives.
Virtue, if not their calling or their goal, nevertheless colors the habits of
their everyday lives. Few Americans, Tocqueville noted, will attain the
heady sphere of absolute virtue, but the vast majority of citizens will have
made reasonable progress in living decent lives. The key to the vital demo-
cratic and moral community they have created? Not a commitment to obey
the General Will. But rather a commitment to exercise freedom and partici-
pate in self-government and act out of an expansive, enlightened notion of
As if nodding simultaneously to both Madison and Rousseau, Tocque-
ville suggested a modern marriage of self-interest and devotion to the com-
mon good, a synthesis of individual freedom and community, an awareness
of self as well as a moral and spiritual desire to transcend the self.
Madisonian individualism or Rousseauian community? Maximization
of self-interest or sacrifice for the common good? Political conflict or a
quest for consensus? Rights conceived as protection for individuals and
minorities or rights conceived for the community as a whole? Education as
individual self-enhancement or education as the inculcation of civic re-
sponsibility and public spirit? These are not just abstract choices—on the
contrary, they color our everyday lives as well as the front pages of our
When we decry ‘‘politics as usual’’ and wish that Democrats and Re-
publicans would sit down and work out their differences and act only for the
‘‘common good’’ of the country, we are echoing Rousseau; and like him, we
believe that we are uttering noble, selfless, ‘‘holistic’’ ideas. When we wish
that politics was based not on the struggle among competing interest groups
but rather on a shared moral vision of all citizens’ interdependence, or when
we assert that the rights of the community should precede the rights of a few
‘‘selfish’’ individuals, we are voicing themes that Rousseau articulated
more profoundly than any other thinker.
At key moments in American history, the mantra of ‘‘rugged individual-
ism’’ and free competition was interrupted by powerful, welcome re-
minders of Rousseau’s moral, communitarian vision. When the reform-
Introduction 29
minded President Theodore Roosevelt settled the great anthracite coal
strike in 1902, announcing that the interests of both the coal operators and
the workers must be ‘‘subordinated to the fundamental permanent interests
of the whole community,’’Ω≠ and a few years later, when, advocating a
steeply graduated tax on estates, he declared, ‘‘If ever our people become so
sordid as to feel that all that counts is moneyed prosperity, ignoble well-
being, effortless ease and comfort, then this nation shall perish, as it will
deserve to perish, from the earth,’’Ω∞ he was enunciating key Rousseauian
themes. And when John F. Kennedy electrified a generation by declaring in
his inaugural address in 1961, ‘‘Ask not what your country can do for you,
ask what you can do for your country,’’ Rousseau was speaking to us
again— with a Boston accent.
Though some of Rousseau’s ideas—about the General Will, unanimity,
and dissent—have proven disruptive and counterproductive in established
democracies and disastrous in developing democracies, his other ideas—
his concept of positive freedom, ‘‘freedom for,’’ and his notion of a commu-
nity dedicated to the common good of all—still inspire and galvanize peo-
ple who seek a deeper, richer, shared communal life in which self-interest is
exchanged for interdependence and in which full participation permits an
ethical life as well as personal happiness.Ω≤
As we continue our ongoing experiments in democracy, Rousseau’s
writings, along with those of Niccolò Machiavelli, James Madison, Thomas
Jefferson, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and others, inspire, puz-
zle, and energize us, nourishing our imaginations, sharpening our critical
faculties, helping to strengthen our commitment to self-government, plural-
ism, community, and freedom.
n o t e s
1. See Rousseau’s last footnote in his Discourse on the Sciences and
Arts. I wish to thank James MacGregor Burns, Francis C. Oakley, and
Richard Miller for reviewing this essay and generously giving me their
constructive suggestions.
2. See Jean Guéhenno, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. John and Doreen
Weightman, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 1:128ff.
3. On the subject of glittering high culture, Thomas Jefferson might
have agreed with Rousseau. ‘‘I view great cities as pestilential to the mor-
als, the health and the liberties of man,’’ Jefferson wrote in 1800. ‘‘True,
they nourish some of the elegant arts, but the useful ones can thrive else-
where, and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue & free-
30 Susan Dunn
dom, would be my choice.’’ Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 23 September
1800, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New
York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896), 7:459.
4. At the end of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, he
specifically counsels the marriage of philosophy and political power, advis-
ing kings to welcome into their courts philosophes who might help make
policies that contribute to human happiness.
5. See Leo Strauss, ‘‘On the Intention of Rousseau,’’ in Hobbes and
Rousseau: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Maurice Cranston and
Richard Peters (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1972), 261–265 and
6. François Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, suivies des Réflexions
diverses (Paris: Garnier, 1967), Maxim 629, my translation.
7. Montesquieu, De l’Esprit des lois, Bk. 3, ch. 3 in Oeuvres complètes,
ed. Roger Caillois (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), 2:252, my translation.
8. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty [1859], ed. Currin V. Shields (New York:
Macmillan, 1985), 57.
9. Lord Acton, Letters to Mary Gladstone (New York: Macmillan,
1904), quotation spoken to Herbert Paul, quoted in Henri Peyre, ‘‘The
Influence of Eighteenth-Century Ideas on the French Revolution,’’ in The
Making of Modern Europe, ed. Herman Ausubel, 2 vols. (New York: Dry-
den Press, 1951), vol. 1.
10. Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, Preface.
11. See Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York:
Modern Library, 1934).
12. Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, Second Part.
13. Rousseau’s feelings about violent revolution are ambivalent, for he
also writes, in the Dedication to the Discourse on Inequality: ‘‘A people
once accustomed to masters are not able to live without them. If they
attempt at any time to shake off their yoke, they lose still more freedom . . .
they generally become greater slaves to some impostor, who loads them
with fresh chains.’’
14. Paul Bénichou, ‘‘L’idée de nature chez Rousseau,’’ in Pensée de
Rousseau, ed. P. Bénichou, E. Cassirer, et al. (Paris: Seuil, 1984), 128–129.
15. See Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 1, ch. 4.
16. See Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 1, ch. 6.
17. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 4, ch. 1.
18. See The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 1–4.
19. See Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 1969).
Introduction 31
20. See Bénichou, ‘‘L’Idée de nature chez Rousseau,’’ 133.
21. See Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk 1, ch. 8.
22. The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 11.
23. The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 3. Although ‘‘associations’’ may not
share in the making of the General Will, Rousseau does not totally exclude
them from society, admitting that ‘‘if there are partial associations, it is
necessary to multiply their number and prevent inequality, as Solon, Numa,
and Servius did.’’ See The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 3. Still, political
philosophers such as Edmund Burke, who recognize the inevitability of
ideological conflict and struggles for political power, take a far more posi-
tive view of political parties. Burke, a leader of the opposition Whig party,
found it inconceivable that representative government could exist without
political parties. Why would like-minded politicians, who want to see their
ideas and principles translated into practice, not associate and cooperate
with one another? He was convinced that ‘‘no men could act with effect,
who did not act in concert . . . who were not bound together by com-
mon opinions, common affections and common interests.’’ See Burke,
‘‘Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents’’ in The Writings and
Speeches of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (Boston: Little Brown,
Beaconsfield Edition, 1901), 1:529.
24. The Social Contract, Bk. 3, ch. 13.
25. See Bernard Manin, ‘‘La délibération politique,’’ Le Débat, January
1985, 80.
26. The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 4.
27. The Social Contract, Bk. 4, ch. 2.
28. Charles Eisenmann, ‘‘La Cité de Rousseau,’’ in Bénichou et al., eds.,
La Pensée de Rousseau, 106.
29. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 6.
30. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 7.
31. François Furet, ‘‘Rousseau and the French Revolution,’’ in The
Legacy of Rousseau, ed. Clifford Orwin and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: Uni-
versity of Chicago Press, 1997), 181.
32. Allan Bloom, ‘‘Rousseau’s Critique of Liberal Constitutionalism,’’
in The Legacy of Rousseau, ed. Orwin and Tarcov, 166.
33. See Robert A. Dahl, ed., ‘‘Preface,’’ Political Oppositions in West-
ern Democracies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), xviii.
34. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 3.
35. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 4. ch. 2. In 1794, John Adams
attacked Rousseau’s notion of the General Will writing, ‘‘If the majority is
51 and the minority is 49, is it certainly the voice of God? If tomorrow one
32 Susan Dunn
should change to 50 vs. 50, where is the voice of God? If two and the
minority should become the majority, is the voice of God changed?’’ See
Zoltan Hasaszti, John Adams and the Prophets of Progress (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1952), 93.
36. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 5.
37. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 1, ch. 7, emphasis added.
38. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 4, ch. 8.
39. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 4, ch. 8, emphasis added.
40. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 4, ch. 7.
41. Lester Crocker, Introduction, in Rousseau, The Social Contract and
Discourse on Inequality, ed. and trans. Lester Crocker (New York: Wash-
ington Square Press, 1967), xxi.
42. See Judith N. Shklar, Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s
Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 12ff.
43. Rousseau, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Paris: Garnier,
1960), 6th Promenade, my translation.
44. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 12.
45. See Alexis de Tocqueville, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, ed.
J.-P. Mayer (Paris: Gallimard, 1952) Book 3, chapter 8, my translation.
46. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. 3, ch. 6, text and note. Also, in
Bk. 3, ch. 9 of The Social Contract, in Rousseau’s second note to that
chapter, he paraphrases Machiavelli, writing that ‘‘a little agitation gives
energy to men’s minds, and what makes the race truly prosperous is not so
much peace as liberty.’’
47. See Niccolò Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio,
ed. Piero Gallardo (Milano: Club del Libro, 1966), Bk. I, ch. 4, 5, 6, my
48. Quotation of Napoleon, 1800, in Bernard Manin, ‘‘Rousseau,’’ in A
Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, ed. François Furet and Mona
Ozouf, transl. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1989), 830.
49. François Furet, ‘‘Rousseau and the French Revolution,’’ in The
Legacy of Rousseau, ed. Orwin and Tarcov, 181.
50. Furet, ‘‘Rousseau and the French Revolution,’’ 178.
51. James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Considered as One of
the First Authors of the Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
2000), x.
52. Furet, ‘‘Rousseau and the French Revolution,’’ 179.
53. On Sieyès, see Susan Dunn, Sister Revolutions: French Lightning,
American Light (New York: Faber & Faber, 1999), 58ff.
Introduction 33
54. Sieyès, speech of 20–21 July 1789 in Orateurs de la Révolution
française, ed. François Furet and Ran Halévi (Paris: Gallimard, 1989),
55. Emmanuel Sieyès, Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?, ed. Roberto Zapperi
(Geneva: Droz, 1950), ch. 6, 194; ch. 1, 124; ch. 6, 217–218.
56. Sieyès, Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?, ed. Zapperi, ch. 6, 198–199, my
57. Sieyès, Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?, ed. Zapperi, ch. 6, 208.
58. Sieyès, Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?, ed. Zapperi, ch. 6, 211.
59. Sieyès, Vues sur les moyens d’exécution dont les représentans de la
France pourront disposer, quoted in Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?, ed. Zap-
peri, 76.
60. See Introduction, in Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?, ed. Zapperi, 75.
61. Saint-Just, Speech of 28 January 1793, in Oeuvres complètes, ed.
Michèle Duval (Paris: Lebovici, 1984), 408.
62. Danton, Speech of 29 October 1792 in H. Morse Stephens, Orators
of the French Revolution, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892), 2:180.
63. Saint-Just, Rapport du comité de salut public, 8 ventôse Year II, in
Saint-Just, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Michèle Duval (Paris: Lebovici, 1984),
64. R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1973), 324.
65. Furet, ‘‘Rousseau and the French Revolution,’’ 181.
66. Maximilien de Robespierre, Mémoires, 2 vols. (Paris: Moreau-
Rosier, 1830), 1:166–167 and 209–210. One recent French historian ob-
jects strongly to American critics, such as Jacob Talmon, Lester Crocker,
and Carol Blum, who trace the totalitarian mentality back to Rousseau. He
argues that the subordination of one’s private interests to the General Will is
simply a patriotic mode of behavior. See Jean-Louis Lecercle, ‘‘Jean-
Jacques terroriste,’’ in Rousseau and the Eighteenth Century: Essays in
Memory of R. A. Leigh, ed. Marian Hobson, J. T. A. Leigh, and Robert
Wokler (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1992), 429.
67. Tocqueville, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, Fragments et Notes
inédites sur la Revolution, ed. André Jardin, vol. 2, pt. 2, of Tocqueville,
Oeuvres complètes, ed. J.-P. Mayer (Paris: Gallimard, 1953), 2:255, 337,
68. On Madison and Federalist No. 10, see Susan Dunn, Sister Revolu-
tions: French Lightning, American Light, 55ff.
69. Madison, Federalist No. 10 (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), 55,
emphasis added.
34 Susan Dunn
70. Madison, 1833, draft of a letter on majority governments, in The
Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison,
ed. Marvin Meyers (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1981),
71. Madison, Federalist No. 10, 58–59.
72. Madison, Federalist No. 51, 337.
73. Madison, Federalist No. 10, 54.
74. Cecelia Kenyon, ‘‘Alexander Hamilton: Rousseau of the Right,’’
Political Science Quarterly, June 1958, vol. 72. Although Hamilton be-
lieved in the ‘‘public good,’’ he felt that it would best be defined by the
Federalist ruling elite and not by the people at large. Like Rousseau, Hamil-
ton believed that unity in government and society should prevail. Although
he allowed for differences of opinion in the legislature, ultimately all repre-
sentatives would have to agree. ‘‘When a resolution is once taken, the oppo-
sition must be at an end,’’ he wrote in Federalist 70, adding with a Rous-
seauian flourish, ‘‘that resolution is a law, and resistance to it punishable.’’
75. Madison, Federalist No. 10, 56.
76. Madison, Letter of 16 April 1787, in Robert A. Rutland et al., eds.,
The Papers of James Madison (Charlottesville: University Press of Vir-
ginia, 1983), 9:384.
77. Madison, Federalist No. 10, 57.
78. Madison, Federalist No. 51, 339.
79. Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions
on the Adoption of the Federalist Constitution (Philadelphia: Lippincott,
1937), 5:242.
80. Daniel Defoe, quoted by Lawrence Stone, ‘‘The Results of the En-
glish Revolutions of the Seventeenth Century,’’ in J. G. A. Pocock, ed.,
Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776 (Princeton: Princeton Univer-
sity Press, 1980), 75.
81. On English parliamentary democracy, see Susan Dunn, Sister Revo-
lutions: French Lightning, American Light, 203ff.
82. Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents
[1770] in The Writings and Speeches of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
(Boston: Little Brown, Beaconsfield Edition, 1901), 1:529 and 533–34.
83. On English parliamentary democracy, see Allen Potter, ‘‘Great Brit-
ain: Opposition with a Capital ‘O’,’’ in Dahl, ed., Political Oppositions in
Western Democracies, 6–8.
84. Robert Alan Dahl, ‘‘The American Oppositions,’’ in Dahl, ed., Polit-
ical Oppositions in Western Democracies, 65.
Introduction 35
85. Dahl, ‘‘Epilogue,’’ in Dahl, ed., Political Oppositions in Western
Democracies, 392.
86. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American
History and Culture, 1969), 607.
87. James MacGregor Burns, The Deadlock of Democracy (Englewood
Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 22.
88. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of
American Political Thought Since the Revolution (New York: Harcourt,
Brace & World, 1955), 55.
89. Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. J.-P.
Mayer (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), Vol. 1, Part 2, ch. 6, my translation.
90. Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography (New York: Macmillan,
1913), 513.
91. Theodore Roosevelt, Speech of 21 October 1907, in The Roosevelt
Policy: Speeches, Letters and State Papers, ed. William Griffith (New
York: Current Literature Publishing Company, 1919), 2: 634.
92. See Robert N. Bellah et al., The Good Society (New York: Knopf,
Chronology of Rousseau’s Life
1712 Rousseau is born in Geneva in a Protestant family of French
origin. His mother dies in childbirth. As a child, Rousseau
loves to read serious books.
1722 Rousseau’s father is forced to leave Geneva, and the young
Jean-Jacques is raised by a Protestant minister, Lambercier.
He spends two happy years with Lambercier.
1727 Rousseau begins work as an apprentice to an engraver.
1728 Rousseau flees Geneva. In Annecy, France, he meets
twenty-nine-year old Madame de Warens, a new convert to
Catholicism. She takes in the sixteen-year old young man.
Years later he credits her with changing his life. With her
encouragement, he converts from Protestantism to
Catholicism. He works as a servant for Madame de
Vercellis and for the Count de Gouvon. Guilty of a petty
theft, Rousseau accuses an innocent maid of the crime, an
experience that will haunt him with shame.
1729 He returns to Madame de Warens, whom he calls from then
on his ‘‘Mommy.’’ He spends several months at a Catholic
seminary in Annecy but discovers in himself no vocation
for religion.
1730–1732 He spends a year hiking from place to place in Switzerland;
during the winter months, he lives in Neufchatel, where
he gives music lessons and composes. He goes to Paris for
the first time. Though he wants to find work as a tutor,
the only position he is offered is that of a servant. In
Lyon in 1731, he earns money by transcribing musical
scores, work he will perform and enjoy for the rest of his
1732 Rousseau returns to Madame de Warens, first in Chambéry,
then at her estate outside of Chambéry, Les Charmettes.
Chronology 37
1732–1736 These are happy years for Rousseau; he writes, composes,
gives music lessons, and studies. In 1734, he and Madame
de Warens become lovers.
1737 Rousseau goes to Geneva to claim his maternal inheritance,
then travels to Montpellier. When he returns to Madame de
Warens, he finds himself displaced by another young man,
Wintzenried. Rousseau remains at Les Charmettes.
1740 He finds work in Lyon as the tutor for the children of
Monsieur de Mably. Unhappy, he returns a final time to
Madame de Warens at Les Charmettes.
1742 Up to this point, Rousseau’s life has been relatively carefree
and haphazard. The next part of his life will be marked by
ambition to succeed in a competitive, elite society and by
the prodigious output of masterpieces in a variety of
different fields, from opera to political theory. Rousseau
goes to Paris. He presents a proposal for a new method of
musical notation, for which he receives encouragement
rather than the financial success he had hoped for. He
becomes acquainted with many of the famous men of letters
of Paris, such as Marivaux, Fontenelle, Diderot, and others;
he frequents fashionable, aristocratic salons.
1743 Looking for other upper-class women to protect and help
him, he finds work as tutor in the family of Madame Dupin.
He tries his hand at writing plays and an opera. Another
woman, Madame de Broglie, finds him a position in Venice.
1743–44 Rousseau works in Venice as secretary to Monsieur de
Montaigu, the French Ambassador. He is treated more as a
servant than as a gentleman. He insults Monsieur de
Montaigu, who forces him to leave Venice. From his
experience in Italy he gains a love of Italian music and a
bitter loathing for social inequality.
1744–1745 Rousseau returns to Paris; he moves among some of the
fashionable salons of the day, but feels ill at ease and
insecure. He begins his lifelong relationship with Thérèse
Lavasseur, an indigent, uneducated servant. In 1745 he
sends their first child off to a foundling home. He and
Thérèse will send their next four children too to the
Foundling Home. His excuse: his poverty, the customs of
the times, the ability of the State to teach the children a
38 Chronology
trade. Also in 1745, Rousseau is asked to work on revising
Voltaire’s and Rameau’s comedy-ballet, ‘‘Les Fêtes de
Ramire’’; the opera is a success but Rousseau receives no
credit for his work. He feels persecuted. Once again he
works for Madame Dupin as her secretary. A friend of
Diderot since 1742, Rousseau contributes essays on music
to Diderot’s great project of the Encyclopedia.
1746–1748 Rousseau accompanies the Dupin family, as their secretary,
to their château of Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley, where
he enjoys the aristocratic life. He composes music and
writes poems and plays. Dupin writes a book about
Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des lois, which had just been
published. Rousseau thus becomes steeped in political
theory. He is asked to be mentor to the Dupins’ nineteen-
year-old son, an experience that will resonate in his work on
education, Emile.
1749 One day, while meditating on the question of a new
intellectual competition, ‘‘Has the revival of the sciences
and the arts contributed to improving morality?’’ Rousseau
decides to answer the question by attacking the
Enlightenment. The course of his life and his ideas is
forever changed.
1750 Rousseau wins the competition for his Discourse on the
Sciences and Arts and becomes a celebrity in Paris. He ends
his work for the Dupin family and earns his living by
copying music and other material.
1751 The first volume of the Encyclopedia is published.
1752 Rousseau composes Le Devin du village (The Village
Soothsayer), a comic opera. The opera is very well
received, and Rousseau is informed that the king, Louis XV,
would like to meet him and might even offer him a pension.
But paralyzed by insecurity and fear, he declines.
1753 The success of Le Devin du village provides Rousseau with
an income and with fame. He publishes ‘‘Letter on French
Music’’ in which he praises Italian music and disparages
French music.
1754 Rousseau writes his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.
He then returns to Geneva, converts back to Calvinism and
reclaims the status of ‘‘Citizen of the free state of Geneva.’’
1755 Rousseau publishes his Second Discourse, The Discourse
Chronology 39
on the Origins of Inequality, which Voltaire attacks in a
letter to Rousseau. Rousseau’s article, Discourse on
Political Economy, is published in the Encyclopedia. He
returns to France. His moody temperament propels him to
break up with most of his friends.
1756–1757 At the invitation of Madame d’Epinay, Rousseau moves to
her estate, the Hermitage, north of Paris, where he delights
in the beautiful surroundings. This is a very creative period
for him, during which he works on his Dictionary of Music.
In response to Voltaire’s pessimistic ‘‘Poem about the
Disaster in Lisbon’’ (an earthquake that killed thousands)
Rousseau writes his Letter to Voltaire on Providence
(1756), expressing his belief in benevolent Providence. He
works on Emile, his reflections on an ideal education.
Rousseau also begins writing The Social Contract. The
other Encyclopedists attack him for his withdrawal from
1757 Rousseau falls in love with a countess, Madame
d’Houdetot, the sister-in-law of Madame d’Epinay, though
boasting of their chasteness. She becomes a model for the
heroine of his epistolary novel, Julie, or the New Héloïse.
Rousseau breaks off with Madame d’Epinay. He moves to
the estate of the Maréchal of Luxembourg in Montmorency.
He breaks ties with his friends Grimm and Diderot. He
quarrels also with the philosophe and Encyclopedist
1758–1762 This is a relatively calm period in Rousseau’s life, during
which he lives in Montmorency. In 1758 he publishes his
‘‘Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre’’ (‘‘Lettre sur les
spectacles’’) in which he condemns the ‘‘immorality’’ of
theater. The ‘‘Lettre’’ provokes a huge outcry. In 1760,
Rousseau breaks off definitively with Voltaire, writing to
him, ‘‘I hate you.’’
1759 Voltaire publishes Candide, or Optimism, a darkly
pessimistic work, contradicting Rousseau’s faith in a
beneficent Providence.
1761 Rousseau publishes his ‘‘pre-Romantic’’ novel about
sublimated passion, Julie, or The New Héloïse. The novel
also depicts Rousseau’s ideal society, a small, self-sufficient
40 Chronology
1762 Rousseau publishes The Social Contract and Emile: or, On
Education. He publishes his Profession of Faith of a
Savoyard Vicar, in which he discusses Deism. This book, as
well as Emile, disturb both the Parliament and the Church in
France, an order for his arrest is issued, and he flees to
1762–1770 Rousseau travels from place to place, hoping to find
asylum, still preoccupied with grievances against his
friends. The city of Geneva refuses him asylum because of
his political and religious ideas. In 1762 he moves to
Môtiers near Neufchatel, territory of the King of Prussia.
For a year and a half his life is relatively calm. The order for
his arrest is almost rescinded when Voltaire intervenes
against him.
1764 He publishes Letters Written from the Mountain, attacking
1765 Voltaire calls for Rousseau’s death. Rousseau’s house in
Môtiers is stoned, and he flees. He spends a few happy
weeks on the island of Saint-Pierre in the Bienne Lake. He
goes to Strasbourg, then to Paris. He suffers from a variety
of psychological ailments. Rousseau writes his Project for a
Constitution for Corsica.
1766 Rousseau accepts the invitation of the English political
philosopher David Hume to stay in England. Voltaire
continues to denounce Rousseau in the English press.
Rousseau breaks off with Hume. He moves to the estate of
Richard Davenport in Derbyshire where he spends a year.
He enjoys studying botany while completing the first part of
his Confessions.
1767–1769 Rousseau returns to France; he wanders clandestinely from
place to place, finally spending a year in the village of
Monquin. He publishes his Musical Dictionary; he works
on his Confessions, and he studies botany.
1770–1771 After eight years of wandering, Rousseau moves to Paris,
where he lives in poverty. He finishes writing his
groundbreaking Confessions. He composes his Letters on
Botany and writes his Considerations on Government in
1772 Dissatisfied with his Confessions and preoccupied with
justifying and explaining himself, he begins writing
Chronology 41
Dialogues: Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques. He devotes
himself to music and botany. Rousseau is saddened in 1774
by news of the death of Louis XV. The hatred of mankind,
he explains, had been divided between Louis XV and
himself; now he would have to bear the entire burden
1776–1778 He works on his Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Rêveries
du promeneur solitaire), a poignant, introspective work. In
1777 Rousseau tends the ill Thérèse. He makes a public
plea for financial help.
1778 At the invitation of the Marquis de Girardin, Rousseau
moves to Ermenonville, outside of Paris. He is shaken by
news of the death of Voltaire. ‘‘My existence was bound up
with his,’’ he says. He dies on 2 July 1778, five days after
his sixty-sixth birthday.
1794 Rousseau’s ashes are moved to the Pantheon in Paris.
A Note on the Translations
The translation of The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts is a new transla-
tion by Susan Dunn. The translation of The Discourse on the Origin and
Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind is Lester Crocker’s reworking
of an anonymous translation from 1761. The translation of The Social
Contract is Susan Dunn’s reworking of an 1895 translation by Henry J.
The First Discourse:
Discourse on the Sciences
and Arts
That won First Prize
at the Academy of Dijon.
In the Year 1750.
On the following question proposed by the Academy:
Has the revival of the Sciences and Arts
contributed to improving morality?
By a Citizen of Geneva
Barbarus hic ego sum qui non intelligor illis.
(People consider me a barbarian because they do not
understand me.)—Ovid.
Here is one of the greatest and grandest questions ever debated. This
Discourse is not concerned with those metaphysical subtleties that have
come to dominate all aspects of literature and from which the Announce-
ments of Academic Competitions are not always exempt; rather it is con-
cerned with those truths that pertain to human happiness.
I foresee that I shall not readily be forgiven for the position I have dared
to take. Setting myself up against all that is most admired today, I expect no
less than a universal outcry against me; nor is the approval of a few wise
men enough to let me count on that of the public. But I have taken my stand,
and I do not care about pleasing cultured or fashionable people. There will
always be people enslaved by the opinions of their times, their country,
their society. A man who today plays the freethinker and the philosopher
would, for the same reason, have been only a fanatic during the time of the
League.∞ No author, who wishes to live on beyond his own epoch, should
write for such readers.
One more word, and I am done. Not expecting the honor conferred on me,
I have, since submitting my Discourse, so altered and expanded it as to make
it almost a new work; but today I felt bound to publish it just as it was when it
received the prize. I have only added a few notes and left two easily recog-
nizable additions, of which the Academy might not have approved. Equity,
respect, and gratitude seemed to me to demand this acknowledgment.
Decipimur specie recti.
We are deceived by the appearance of good.
‘‘Has the revival of the sciences and the arts contributed to improving or
corrupting morality?’’ This is the issue to be examined. Which side should I
take in this question? The one, Gentlemen, that becomes a respectable man,
who knows nothing and thinks himself none the worse for it.
I sense that it will be difficult to adapt what I have to say for this
Tribunal. How can I presume to criticize the sciences before one of the most
learned assemblies in Europe, to praise ignorance before a famous Acad-
emy and reconcile my contempt for study with the respect due to truly
learned scholars? I was aware of these inconsistencies, but not discouraged
by them. It is not science, I said to myself, that I am attacking; it is virtue
that I am defending before virtuous men. Integrity is even more precious to
good people than erudition is to scholars. What then do I have to fear? The
enlightenment of the assembly that listens to me? That, I acknowledge, is to
be feared, but in relation to the construction of the discourse, not to the
views I hold. Equitable sovereigns have never hesitated to decide against
themselves in doubtful cases; and indeed the most advantageous situation
in which a just claim can be made is that of being defended before a fair and
enlightened arbitrator, who is judge in his own case.
This reasoning, which reassures me, merges with another inducement
that helped me make up my mind: that is, after championing the cause of
truth, as I intuitively see it, whatever success I have, there is one reward that
cannot fail me; I shall find it within my own heart.
48 The First Discourse
part one
It is a great and beautiful spectacle to see man emerge from nothingness
through his own efforts, dissipating, by the light of his reason, the dark-
ness in which nature had enveloped him; rising above himself, soaring
intellectually to celestial heights, striding like the sun across the vastness of
the universe, and, what is grander still and more difficult, retreating back
into himself, there to study man and come to know his nature, his duties,
and his destiny. All these marvels we have seen revived within the past few
Europe had relapsed into the barbarism of the earliest ages. The inhabi-
tants of this part of the world, which is at present so enlightened, were living,
a few centuries ago, in a state worse than ignorance. A kind of scientific
jargon, more contemptible than mere ignorance, had usurped the name of
knowledge, setting up an almost invincible obstacle to its return. A revolu-
tion was needed to bring people back to common sense; it came at last from
the place from which it was least expected. It was the stupid Moslem, the
eternal scourge of Letters, who was responsible for their rebirth. The fall of
the throne of Constantine≤ brought to Italy the debris of ancient Greece.
With these precious spoils, France in turn was enriched. The sciences soon
followed literature; the art of writing was joined by the art of thinking, an
order that might seem strange, but is perhaps only too natural. People began
to perceive the principal advantage of communication with the Muses, that
of making people more sociable by inspiring them with the desire to please
one another with works worthy of their mutual regard.
The mind has its needs, as does the body. The needs of the body con-
stitute the foundation of society, those of the mind its ornamentation. While
government and law provide for the security and well-being of people in
their collective life, the sciences, letters, and arts—less despotic though
perhaps more powerful—wrap garlands of flowers around the chains that
weigh people down. They stifle the sense of freedom that people once had
and for which they sensed that they were born, making them love their own
servitude, and turning them into what is called a civilized people. Need
erected thrones; the sciences and arts consolidated them. Let the Powers
that rule the earth cherish all talents and protect those who practice them!*
*Princes always like to see among their subjects the proliferation of an appreciation
for enjoyable arts and luxury that do not result in the exporting of wealth. For they very
well know that, in addition to nourishing the pettiness of soul that lends itself to servitude,
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 49
Civilized peoples, cultivate your talents! Happy slaves, you are indebted to
them for the delicate, exquisite tastes you are so proud of, that sweetness of
disposition and urbanity of manners that make social relations so easy and
pleasant—in short, the appearance of all the virtues without the possession
of a single one.
Through this kind of civility, all the more captivating because so unas-
suming, Athens and Rome once distinguished themselves during the cele-
brated days of their splendor and magnificence: through the same kind of
civility our own century and our nation will undoubtedly surpass all other
epochs and peoples. The tone of philosophy without pedantry, manners that
are natural yet courteous, as distant from Teutonic rusticity as from Italian
pantomime: these are the fruits of the taste acquired through liberal studies
and perfected through social relations.
How delightful it would be for those who live among us if our external
appearance were always a true mirror of our hearts, if good manners were
also virtue, if the maxims we spout were truly the rules of our conduct, if
true philosophy were inseparable from the title of a philosopher! But so
many good qualities seldom go together, and virtue rarely walks amidst
such pomp and state. Richness of attire may herald a man of wealth, and
elegance a man of taste; but the healthy, robust man is recognized by other
signs. It is beneath the rustic clothes of the farmer, and not beneath the gilt
of the courtier, that we should look for strength and vigor of body. External
apparel is no less foreign to virtue than strength and vigor are to the soul. A
good man is an athlete who likes to wrestle in the nude. He scorns all those
vile trappings that inhibit his strength and that, for the most part, were
invented only to conceal some deformity.
Before Art had molded our manners and taught our passions to speak an
artificial language, our morals were rough-hewn but natural, and differ-
ences in behavior immediately announced differences in character. In truth,
human nature was no better than now, but people found security in the ease
with which they could see through one another, and this advantage, of
which we no longer appreciate the value, saved them from many vices.
the artificial wants that a people imposes on itself only enslaves them more. Alexander,
wishing to keep the Ichthyophagi in a state of dependence, compelled them to give up
fishing and subsist on the same food as that of other peoples. The primitive people of
America, who go naked and live off what they hunt, have never been conquered. Indeed,
what kind of yoke could be imposed on people who are in need of nothing?
50 The First Discourse
Today, as more subtle study and more refined taste have reduced the art
of pleasing to a system, there prevails in our manners a loathsome and
deceptive conformity: all minds seem to have been cast in the same mold.
Incessantly politeness makes demands, decorum issues orders. Incessantly
we obey rituals, never our own intuition. We no longer dare to appear as we
really are, and under this perpetual restraint, people who form the herd
known as society, finding themselves in these same circumstances, will all
behave in exactly the same ways, unless more powerful motives prevent
them from doing so. We never know therefore with whom we are dealing:
in order to know one’s friend, one must wait for some critical occasion, that
is, wait until it is too late, for it is precisely on those occasions that knowl-
edge of that friend would have been essential.
What a parade of ills accompany this uncertainty! No more sincere
friendships, no more real regard for another, no more deep trust. Suspi-
cions, resentments, fears, coldness, reserve, hatred, and betrayal habitually
hide under that uniform and perfidious veil of politeness, under that lauded
sophistication which we owe to the enlightenment of our century. Instead of
profaning the name of the Master of the Universe by swearing, we will
insult Him with blasphemies, though our scrupulous ears will take no of-
fense. We might not brag about our own worth, but we will disparage that of
others. We might not outrageously insult our enemy, but we will slander
him with finesse. Our hatred of other nations may diminish, but our own
patriotism will die along with it. Lamentable ignorance will be superseded
by dangerous skepticism. Certain excesses will be condemned, certain
vices abhorred, but others will be honored in the name of virtue, and people
will be obliged either to have them or to pretend to have them. Whoever
wishes to praise the sobriety of our wise men may do so, but as for me, I see
nothing there but a refinement of intemperance as unworthy of my praise as
their duplicitous simplicity.*
This is the kind of purity that our morals have acquired. This is how we
have become worthy people. Let literature, the sciences, and the arts claim
their fair share of this salutary work. I shall add but one thought: suppose
that someone who lives in a faraway land should want to understand our
European morals on the basis of the present state of the sciences in our
society, on the basis of the perfection of the arts, the propriety of our public
*‘‘I love,’’ said Montaigne, ‘‘to debate and discuss, but only with very few people, and
that for my own gratification. For to serve as a spectacle for the Great and show off one’s
wit and talents is, in my opinion, a trade very ill-becoming a man of honor.’’ It is the trade
of all our intellectuals, save one.
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 51
entertainments, the politeness of our manners, the affability of our conver-
sation, our constant protestations of goodwill, and those tumultuous gather-
ings of people of all ages and ranks, who seem, from dawn to dusk, eager
only to please one another; this foreigner, I maintain, would guess that our
morals are exactly the opposite of what they are.
Where there is no effect, it is pointless to look for a cause: but here the
effect is certain and the depravity real, and our souls have been corrupted to
the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced toward perfection.
Will it be said that this is a misfortune peculiar to the present age? No,
Gentlemen; the evils caused by our vain curiosity are as old as the world.
The daily ebb and flow of the tides are not more regularly influenced by the
moon that lights the nighttime sky than the fate of our morality and integrity
by the advancement of the sciences and the arts. We have seen virtue
gradually flee as their light dawned above the horizon, and the same phe-
nomenon has been observed in all times and in all places.
Behold Egypt, that first school of the Universe, that fertile climate under
an imperturbable sky, that famous land from which Sesostris once set out to
conquer the world. Egypt became the mother of philosophy and the fine
arts, and soon afterward she became the conquest of Cambyses≥ and then
that of the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and finally the Turks.
Behold Greece, once peopled by heroes, who twice vanquished Asia,
once in Troy and once on their own soil. Nascent literature had not yet
brought corruption into the hearts of its inhabitants; but progress in the arts,
the dissipation of morals, and the Macedonian yoke∂ followed one upon the
other. And Greece, always learned, always sensual, always a slave, no
longer derived anything from its cycles other than a change of masters. All
the eloquence of Demosthenes∑ could not breathe life back into a body
depleted by luxury and the arts.
It is in the time of Ennius and Terence∏ that Rome, founded by a shep-
herd and made famous by farmers, begins to degenerate. But after the
appearance of an Ovid, a Catullus, a Martial, and that gang of obscene
authors, whose names alone make decency blush, Rome, once the Temple
of Virtue, becomes the Theater of Crime, the shame of nations, and the
plaything of barbarians. This capital of the world ultimately falls under the
same yoke it had imposed on so many other nations, and the day of her fall
was the eve of the day when one of her citizens was awarded the title of
Arbiter of Good Taste.π
What shall I say about that Metropolis of the Eastern Empire, which, by
its position, seemed destined to be the capital of the entire world, about that
refuge for the sciences and arts at a time when they were banned from the
52 The First Discourse
rest of Europe, though perhaps more out of wisdom than barbarity? The
most shameful debauchery and corruption, treason, blackhearted assassina-
tions and poisonings, the most atrocious crimes all put together, this is what
constitutes the fabric of the history of Constantinople. Here we have the
mouth of the river from which the Enlightenment of our century has flowed,
the Enlightenment in which we bask.
But why bother to seek in ancient times proof of a fact for which we have
sufficient evidence before our very eyes? There is in Asia an immense land
where rewards for learning lead to the highest offices of the State. If the
sciences improved morality, if they taught men how to shed their blood for
their country, if they inspired them with courage, then perhaps the Chinese
would be wise, free, and invincible. But if there is no vice that does not
reign over them, no crime with which they are not familiar, if neither the
enlightenment of government officials nor the supposed wisdom of the law,
nor the huge population of this vast Empire could not save them from the
yoke of the illiterate and brutish Tartar, then what good were all their
scholars? What benefit came from the honors bestowed upon them? Per-
haps a population of slaves and felons?
Contrast these portraits with a picture of the morals of that small number
of peoples that, safe from the contagion of vain knowledge, have by dint of
their virtue created their own happiness, making themselves an example for
other nations. Such were the first inhabitants of Persia—an unusual nation
where people learned virtue just as we learn science; with ease they con-
quered Asia and earned the glory of having the history of their political
institutions pass for a philosophical novel.∫ Such were the Scythians, about
whom magnificent songs of praise have come down to us. Such were the
Germans, whose simplicity, innocence, and virtue gave respite to a writerΩ
weary of detailing the crimes and heinous deeds of an enlightened, wealthy,
and lewd nation. Such indeed had been Rome in the days of its poverty and
unenlightenment. And such even today is that rough-hewn nation cele-
brated for its courage, that not even adversity could vanquish and whose
fidelity not even bad examples could corrupt.*
It is hardly because of stupidity that virtuous nations have preferred
*I dare not speak about those happy nations who did not even know the name of the
vices we struggle to suppress, about the primitive people of America, whose simple and
natural mode of government Montaigne [‘‘Of Cannibals,’’ in Essays] instinctively pre-
ferred not only to the laws of Plato, but even to the most idealistic visions of government
that philosophy can conjure. He cites innumerable examples that are impressive for those
who can appreciate them. But my word! he says, they don’t even wear knickers!
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 53
other activities to those of the mind. They realized that in other lands idle
men whiled away their time debating the ultimate good, vice and virtue, and
that presumptuous logicians, extolling none other but themselves, con-
temptuously branded all other nations barbarians. But these virtuous na-
tions evaluated their morals and learned to dismiss their ideas.*
How could I forget that, in the very heart of Greece, there arose a city as
famous for the happy unenlightenment of its inhabitants as for the wisdom
of its laws, that republic of demigods rather than of men, so superior did
their virtues seem to those of mere humanity? O Sparta! you outshine
forever a vain doctrine! While the fine arts ushered vice into Athens, while a
tyrant was carefully collecting the works of the prince of poets,∞≠ you drove
from your walls the arts and artists, the sciences and scholars!
The difference was clear in the outcome. Athens became the home of
civility and good taste, the land of orators and philosophers. The elegance
of her buildings equaled that of her language; wherever one looked one saw
marble and canvas brought to life by the hands of the most skilled masters.
It is Athens that gave us those astonishing works that will serve as models
for every corrupt epoch. The picture of Lacedaemon is less dazzling. There,
the neighboring nations used to say, men are born virtuous, the very air they
breathe seems to inspire them with virtue. But nothing remains of them
except the memory of their heroic deeds. But should we value such monu-
ments less than the curious statues that Athens passed down to us?
Certain wise men, one must admit, were able to withstand the sweeping
torrent and preserved their integrity as they dwelt with the Muses. But listen
to the opinion expressed by the foremost and most unhappy among them,∞∞
concerning the scholars and artists of his day.
‘‘I have considered the poets,’’ he says, ‘‘and I view them as people who
dupe themselves as much as others, who act like wise men and are taken for
such, but who are not that at all.
‘‘From poets,’’ continues Socrates, ‘‘I turned to artists. No one knew less
about the arts than I; no one was more convinced that artists possessed great
secrets. Yet I realized that they were really no better off than the poets;
*I would truly like someone to tell me what the Athenians themselves thought about
eloquence, when they were so very careful to banish declamation from that upright
tribunal, against whose judgments even the Gods did not appeal. What did the Romans
think of medicine when they banished it from their Republic? And when a shred of human
feeling induced the Spanish to prevent their lawyers from entering America, what must
they have thought of their own jurisprudence? Could one say that they hoped, by this
deed, to make up for all suffering they had caused those unfortunate Indians?
54 The First Discourse
indeed both artists and poets suffer from the same misapprehension. Be-
cause the most skillful among them perform well in their specialty, they
take themselves for the wisest of men. Their presumption irremediably
diminished their knowledge in my eyes. Indeed, putting myself in the place
of the Oracle and asking myself who I would rather be, what I am or what
they are, and asking myself what I would like to know, what they have
learned or the knowledge that I know nothing, I was able to respond truth-
fully to myself and to God: I want to remain what I am.
‘‘None of us—neither the sophists, poets, orators, artists, nor I— know
what is truth, goodness, and beauty. But the difference between us is this:
though these people know nothing, they all believe that they know some-
thing; whereas for my part, if I know nothing, I have no doubt about my
ignorance. So that all this superiority of wisdom conferred on me by the
Oracle contracts into my clear understanding that I am ignorant of what I do
not know.’’
Here we have the wisest of men, in the opinion of the gods, the most
learned of Athenians in the opinion of all of Greece, Socrates extolling
ignorance! If he came back to life today, would he be persuaded by our
learned men and artists to change his mind? No, Gentlemen, this fair-
minded man would still hold our vain sciences in contempt. He would not
help enlarge that pile of books that engulfs us from all sides; and the only
rule he would bequeath, as he did before, to his disciples and to our chil-
dren would be the example and the memory of his virtue. This is a noble
What Socrates had begun at Athens, Cato the Elder continued in Rome,
inveighing against those artful and deceptive Greeks who corrupted the
virtue and undermined the courage of his fellow citizens. But the sciences,
arts, and dialectic reasoning prevailed once more: Rome overflowed with
philosophers and orators, military discipline was neglected, agriculture was
scorned, people embraced new cults and forgot their Fatherland. The sacred
names of freedom, disinterestedness, and obedience to the law were dis-
placed by those of Epicurus, Zeno, and Arcesilaus. Since scholars have
begun to appear among us, their own philosophers used to say, good people
have been eclipsed. Until then, the Romans had been happy to cultivate
virtue; all was lost when they began to study it.
O Fabricius!∞≤ What would your noble soul have thought if, unhappily
for you, called back to life, you had seen the pompous visage of Rome, the
city saved by your valor and on which your name bestowed more glory than
all her conquests? ‘‘My Gods!’’ you would have said, ‘‘what has become of
those thatched roofs and rustic hearths where moderation and virtue once
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 55
dwelled? What fatal splendor has displaced Roman simplicity? What is this
strange tongue? What are these effeminate manners? What is the meaning
of all these statues, paintings, and buildings? Madmen, what have you
done? Have you, the Masters of all Nations, become the slaves of the
shallow men you conquered? Are these rhetoricians who govern you? Was
it only to enrich architects, painters, sculptors, and actors that you shed your
blood in Greece and Asia? Are the spoils of Carthage the prize of a flute
player? Romans! lose no time! demolish those amphitheaters, smash those
statues, burn those paintings, drive out those slaves who subjugate you and
whose fatal arts corrupt you. Let other hands win fame with such vain
talents; the only talent worthy of Rome is that of conquering the world and
making virtue its ruler. When Cyneas took our Senate for an Assembly of
Kings, he was blind to vain pomp and affected elegance. He was deaf to that
superficial eloquence, the occupation and the delight of futile men. What
then was the majesty that Cyneas beheld? O Citizens, the sight he saw could
never be produced by all your wealth and culture; the most noble sight ever
glimpsed beneath the heavens, the Assembly of two hundred virtuous men,
worthy of ruling Rome and governing the earth.’’
But let us sail through time and space and see what has been happening
in our own lands and beneath our very eyes. Or better still, let us cast aside
the loathsome tableaus that offend our feelings, thus sparing ourselves the
task of repeating the same things with different words. It was not in vain
that I invoked the specter of Fabricius. Indeed, what words did I put in the
mouth of that great man that I could not have put in the mouth of a Louis XII
or a Henry IV? Among us, in truth, Socrates would not have drunk the
hemlock, but he would have drunk from an even more bitter chalice the
insults of mockery and scorn a hundred times worse than death.
Now we see how luxury, licentiousness, and slavery have always been
the punishment for the presumptuous efforts man has made to escape from
blissful ignorance in which eternal Wisdom had placed us. That opaque veil
with which Wisdom cloaked her actions should have warned us that we
were not destined for a vain quest for knowledge. Is there a single one of her
lessons from which we have profited or which we have neglected with
impunity? Let all nations once and for all realize that nature wanted to
protect us from knowledge, just as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon
from the hands of her child. Let them know that all the secrets she hides
from us are so many ills from which she protects us and that the very
difficulty they encounter in searching for knowledge is not the least of her
kindnesses. Men are perverse; but they would be far worse if they had had
the misfortune to be born learned.
56 The First Discourse
How humiliating these reflections are for humanity! How mortified by
them our pride must be! What! Could probity be the daughter of ignorance?
Could knowledge and virtue be incompatible? Is virtue inconsistent with
learning? What conclusions might not be drawn from such suppositions?
But to reconcile these apparent contradictions, we need only examine in
detail the vanity and vacuity of those pretentious titles that dazzle us and
that we bestow so liberally on human learning. Let us, therefore, consider
the sciences and the arts in themselves. Let us see just what comes out of
their progress, and let us not hesitate to recognize the truth of those points
where our own reasoning confirms historical inductions.
part two
There was an ancient tradition that spread from Egypt to Greece that a God
hostile to human tranquillity was the inventor of the sciences.* What must
the Egyptians, in whose country the sciences were born, have thought of
them? Indeed, they were able to behold the fountainhead from which they
sprang. In fact, whether we leaf through the annals of the world or supple-
ment uncertain chronicles with philosophical research, we will not find a
wellspring of human knowledge that corresponds to our idealized vision.
Astronomy was born from superstition; eloquence from ambition, hatred,
flattery, and falsehood; geometry from avarice; physics from vain curiosity;
all of them, even moral philosophy, stem from human pride. Thus the
sciences and arts owe their birth to our vices; we would be less in doubt as
to their benefits, if they owed their birth to our virtues.
The defect of their origin is all too clear in the objects of their pursuit.
What would we do with the arts, without the luxury that nourishes them?
Without human injustice, what use would we have of jurisprudence? What
would become of History, if there were neither tyrants, wars, nor conspira-
*It is easy to understand the meaning in the Prometheus fable: it does not seem that
the Greeks, who chained Prometheus to the Caucasus, were any better disposed to him
than the Egyptians to their god Theutus. ‘‘The satyr, according to an ancient fable, wanted
to kiss and embrace fire, the first time he saw it; but Prometheus cried out to him, Satyr,
you will mourn the beard on your chin, for it burns when you touch it.’’ This is the subject
of the frontispiece. [Rousseau does not provide the rest of the quotation from Plutarch
about Prometheus. Prometheus adds: ‘‘It burns when one touches it, but it gives light and
warmth, and is an implement serving all crafts providing one knows how to use it well.’’
See Havens, 209.]
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 57
tors? In short, who would want to spend a life in barren speculations, if each
person, sensitive only to the duties of man and the needs of nature, had time
only for his country, his friends, and the suffering of others? Were we
created so that we would die staring into the well from which truth has fled?
This thought alone should be sufficient to repel immediately any person
who would seriously endeavor to find enlightenment in philosophy.
So many dangers surround us! so many false paths in scientific research!
How many errors, a thousand times more dangerous than the truth is useful,
must one overcome to arrive at the truth? The hurdles are clear, for human
error is liable to an infinite number of combinations, whereas truth has only
one manner of being. Besides, who seeks it sincerely? By what signs can
even the most committed person be sure to recognize it? In the throng of
diverse opinions, what criterion will we use to judge the truth correctly?*
And what is the most problematic: if we are so lucky as to finally discover
it, who among us will know how to use it wisely?
If our sciences are vain in the objects they pursue, they are even more
dangerous in the effects they produce. Born in idleness, they nourish it in
turn, and an irreparable waste of time is the first harm they inevitably inflict
on society. In the political world as well as in the moral world, it is bad not
to do good, and every useless citizen can be regarded as a pernicious man.
Explain to me, then, you celebrated philosophers, who taught us what are
the ratios in which bodies attract one another in a vacuum, what are, in the
revolutions of the planets, the relations of spaces traversed at equal inter-
vals; what curves have conjugate points, points of inflection, and cusps;
how man sees everything in God; how the soul and body correspond like
two clocks, without communicating; what stars may be inhabited; and
which insects reproduce in extraordinary ways. Explain to me, then, I say,
you who have given us so much sublime knowledge. If you had never
taught us anything, would there be fewer of us, would we be less well
governed, less fearsome, less flourishing or more perverse? Think again
about the importance of your accomplishments; if the works of the most
enlightened of our scholars and our best citizens procure for us so little of
use, tell us what we should think of that crowd of obscure writers and idle
men of letters who pointlessly devour the very substance of the State.
*The less we know, the more we think we know. Did the Peripatetics harbor any
doubts? Did not Descartes construct the universe with cubes and vortices? And in Europe
today is there a single lightweight physicist who does not purport to explain boldly
the profound mystery of electricity, which will perhaps be forever the despair of true
58 The First Discourse
Did I say idle? How I wish they only were! Our morals would be
healthier and society more peaceful. But these vain and futile declaimers go
forth on all sides, armed with their lethal paradoxes, subverting the founda-
tions of our faith, and annihilating virtue. They scornfully snicker at old-
fashioned words like Patriotism and Religion, devoting their talents and
philosophy to the destruction and defamation of all that people hold sacred.
Not that they in truth despise virtue or our dogmas; they are the enemies of
public opinion; to bring them back to church it might suffice to exile them to
live among atheists. O passion for prestige, do you stop at nothing?
The misuse of time is a great evil. Even greater evils accompany litera-
ture and the arts. One is luxury, produced like them by indolence and men’s
vanity. Luxury rarely appears without the sciences and arts, and they never
appear without it. I realize that our philosophy, always rich in bizarre
maxims, maintains, contrary to the lessons of history, that luxury creates the
splendor of States; but after denying the importance of luxury taxes, will
Philosophy also deny that good morals are essential for the survival of
Empires and that luxury is diametrically opposed to good morals? Let us
admit that luxury is an accurate sign of wealth; let us even admit, if you like,
that it serves to increase wealth. What conclusion should we draw from this
paradox so worthy of our epoch, and what will become of virtue when no
price is too high to pay for wealth? The political philosophers of the ancient
world talked incessantly about morality and virtue; today they speak only
about business and money. One will inform you that in a given country a
man is worth the price he will sell for in Algiers; another, thinking along
similar lines, will point to some countries where people are worth nothing
and to others where they are worth less than nothing. They gauge the value
of human beings in terms of livestock. According to them, a man is worth
no more to the State than the value of his consumption. Thus one Sybarite
would have been worth at least thirty Lacedaemonians. Guess, then, which
one of the two republics, Sparta or Sybaris, was conquered by a handful of
peasants and which one made Asia tremble.
The monarchy of Cyrus was conquered by thirty thousand men, led by a
prince poorer than the lowest Persian Satrap, and the Scythians, the most
destitute of all nations, were able to resist the most powerful monarchs of
the universe. Two renowned republics competed for world empire; one was
very rich, the other had nothing, and it was the latter that destroyed the
former. The Roman Empire in its turn, after having engulfed all the wealth
of the universe, fell prey to people who did not even know what wealth was.
The Franks conquered the Gauls, and the Saxons England, their only trea-
sures their bravery and their poverty. A bunch of poor mountain people,
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 59
whose greed focused only on a few sheepskins, after breaking Austrian
pride, crushed the opulent and mighty House of Burgundy, feared by all the
potentates of Europe. Lastly, all the power and all the wisdom of the heir of
Charles V, buttressed by all the treasures of the Indies, were decimated by a
handful of herring fishermen. Let our political philosophers deign to sus-
pend their calculations and reflect on these examples, and let them learn
once and for all that with money we have everything, except morality and
What is really at stake in this question of luxury? To know which is more
crucial for Empires, to be brilliant and fleeting or virtuous and enduring. I
say brilliant, but with what kind of radiance? A taste for luxury and a taste
for probity do not cohabit in the same souls. No, it is not possible that minds
degraded by a multiplicity of trivial concerns could ever rise to any great-
ness, and even if they had the might, they would not have the courage.
Every artist loves applause. The praise of his contemporaries is the most
precious part of his reward. What will he do to obtain praise, if he has
the misfortune of being born in a nation and at a time when fashionable
scholars let superficial youth set the tone, where people sacrifice their taste
to the tyrants of their freedom,* where masterpieces of dramatic poetry and
marvels of harmony are abandoned because one sex dares approve only
what befits the pusillanimity of the other? What will he do, Gentlemen? He
will lower his genius to the level of his times and will prefer to compose
ordinary works that will be appreciated during his lifetime, instead of mar-
vels that would be valued only long after his death. Tell us, exalted Voltaire,
how many virile and strong works of beauty you gave up for our false
delicacy, and how much of what is great and noble did that mentality of
gallantry, which delights in what is shallow and petty, cost you?
Thus the dissolution of morality, the necessary consequence of luxury,
results in turn in the corruption of taste. If by chance there can be found
among extraordinarily talented men a single one who has strength of char-
acter and who refuses to bow to the mentality of his century and disgrace
*I am far from thinking that this ascendancy of women is an evil in itself. It is a gift
nature gave them for the good of humankind. Better guided, it could produce as much
good as today it does harm. We do not sufficiently realize what benefits society would
gain from giving a better education to the half of the human race that rules the other. Men
will always be what is pleasing to women. So if you wish them to be great and virtuous,
teach women what nobility and virtue are. Meditations on this subject, which long ago
attracted Plato, deserve to be expanded upon by a pen worthy of following in the wake of
such a master and defending such a noble cause.
60 The First Discourse
himself with puerile works, woe unto him! He will die in indigence and
oblivion. I wish that this were only a prediction and not a fact confirmed by
experience! Carle, Pierre,∞≥ the time has come when your brushes, destined
to embellish the majesty of our temples with sublime and sacred images,
will drop from your hands or else be prostituted to adorn the panels of a
coach with lewd paintings. And you, inimitable Pigalle,∞∂ rival of Praxiteles
and Phidias, you whose chisel the ancients would have employed to carve
them gods worthy of idolatry, at least in our own eyes; Pigalle, even your
hand must stoop to scraping the belly of a pasha or else remain idle.
We cannot reflect on morality without fondly looking back on that pic-
ture of simplicity of long ago. A lovely shore, adorned only by the hands of
nature, toward which our eyes are constantly turned and from which we
turn away only with regret. When innocent and virtuous people were happy
to have the gods witness their deeds, they dwelt together with them in the
same huts; but soon they became wicked and wearied of such inconvenient
intruders, relegating them to magnificent Temples. But then they drove their
deities out of the Temples and moved into them themselves; in any case, the
Temples of the gods were no longer very different from the houses of the
citizens. This was the zenith of depravity, and immorality never reached
greater heights than when it was seen supported, as it were, at the entryways
of the palaces of the mighty by marble columns, sculpted on Corinthian
As the comforts of life increase, as arts are brought to perfection and as
luxury spreads, true courage flags, military virtues fade, and this too is the
work of the sciences and all those arts that are practiced in the privacy of
one’s home. When the Goths sacked Greece, all the libraries were saved
from burning only by an idea suggested by one of them, that it would be
wise to leave for their enemies a few things standing so as to distract them
from military training and keep them diverted with indolent and sedentary
hobbies. Charles VIII found himself master of Tuscany and the kingdom of
Naples, virtually without having drawn his sword, and all the members of
his court attributed this stunning ease to the fact that the defeated princes
and nobles of Italy took far greater enjoyment in pursuing the subtleties of
knowledge than in practicing the martial arts. Thus, says the sensible man
who relates these two points, a multiplicity of examples teaches us that in
military matters and in everything related to them, the pursuit of science,
instead of strengthening and invigorating virile courage, tends to under-
mine and feminize it.
The Romans admitted that military virtue died in their land when they
began to appreciate paintings, engravings, jeweled and enameled objects
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 61
and to cultivate the fine arts. And as if that nation were destined to serve
unceasingly as an example for others, the rise of the Medicis and the revival
of Letters once more destroyed, perhaps for ever, the military reputation
that Italy seemed to have recovered a few centuries earlier.
The ancient republics of Greece, with that wisdom that radiated from
most of their institutions, forbade their citizens to pursue all those tranquil
and sedentary occupations, which while enervating and corrupting the body
soon also undermine the vigor of the soul. How can men cope with hunger,
thirst, fatigue, danger, and death, if they are overwhelmed by the smallest
need and discouraged by the slightest difficulty? With how much courage
will soldiers tolerate overwork when they are entirely unaccustomed to it?
With how much enthusiasm will they go on forced marches under officers
who do not even have the strength to journey on horseback? Will someone
now insist on defending the renowned merit of these scientifically trained
modern warriors? We hear much praise of their valor during a battle that
lasts but a day, but we do not hear about how they bear overwork, how they
stand the rigor of the seasons and the inclemency of the weather. Nothing
but a little sun or snow or the absence of a few superfluities is enough to
dissolve and destroy one of our best armies in a few days. Intrepid warriors!
Listen for once to the truth you so seldom hear. You are good soldiers, I
know. You would have triumphed along with Hannibal at Cannae and at
Trasimene: with you Caesar would have crossed the Rubicon and enslaved
his country; but it is not with you that the former would have crossed the
Alps and not with you that the latter would have conquered your ancestors.
Fighting does not always determine the successful outcome of a war; as
far as Generals are concerned, there is an art that is superior to that of
winning battles. A man who runs bravely into the line of fire might nev-
ertheless be a very poor officer. Even in the common soldier, a little more
strength and vigor might be more necessary than a lot of bravery, which is
no protection from death. And what does it matter to the State whether its
troops perish by sickness or frozen winter or the enemy’s sword?
If studying the sciences is harmful to military qualities, it is even more
harmful to moral qualities. From early childhood an absurd system of edu-
cation enhances our mind and corrupts our judgment. I see everywhere
immense institutions, where at great cost our youth are educated, learning
everything except their duties. Your children will not know their own lan-
guage, but they will speak others that are useful nowhere; they will be
able to write poetry that they can barely understand; unable to tell truth
from error, they will know the art of making both of them unrecogniz-
able to others with specious arguments; but the meaning of the words
62 The First Discourse
magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, and courage they will not
know. The dear name of the Fatherland will never ring in their ears, and if
they are taught about God, they will learn fear instead of awe.* I would
have preferred, a wise man said,∞∑ that my pupil had spent his time on the
tennis court instead; at least then he would have a healthy body. I know that
children must be kept occupied, and that idleness is for them the danger
most to be feared. What, then, should they learn? A fine question! Let them
learn what they ought to do to behave as men,† not what they ought to
Our gardens are decorated with statues and our galleries with paintings.
What would you imagine these masterpieces of art, exhibited for public
*Pensées philosophiques, Diderot.
†This was the kind of education the Spartans received, according to the greatest of
their kings. It is something worthy of great consideration, says Montaigne, that the
excellent rules of Lycurgus—in truth monstrously perfect and yet so solicitous of the
raising of children, as if that were their principal purview—in the very home of the Muses
make little mention of scholarly learning: as if these noble youths, disdaining every other
yoke, required, instead of teachers of the sciences, only instructors in valor, prudence, and
Let us see now how the same author speaks about the ancient Persians. Plato, he says,
relates that the heir to the throne was brought up in the following way: At his birth he was
given, not to women, but to eunuchs who, because of their virtue, had great standing with
the king. The eunuchs were responsible for giving him a beautiful and healthy physique
and for teaching him, at the age of seven, to ride and to hunt. When he reached fourteen,
he was placed in the hands of four men, the wisest, the most just, the most moderate, and
the most courageous persons in the kingdom. The first taught him religion, the second
taught him to be always truthful, the third to master his own cupidity, the fourth to have no
fear. All of them, let me add, taught him to be good; none taught him to be learned.
Astyages, in Xenophon, asks Cyrus to give him an account of his last lesson. It was
this, he said: In our school an older boy with a small tunic gave it to one of his school-
mates who was small in size, snatching that boy’s tunic for himself. Having been asked by
our master to settle their feud, I decided that things should be left as they were at that point
and that both seemed better off. But the master scolded me, for I had bothered to take into
account appropriateness, when instead I should have taken into account only justice,
which holds that there should be no interference with one’s property. And he says that he
was punished for it, just as we are punished in our villages when we forget the first aorist
tense of túptv. My schoolmaster would have to give me quite a speech, in genere
demonstrativo, to convince me that his school is as good as this one.
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 63
admiration, represent? The defenders of our nation? or even greater men
who enriched it with their virtue? No. There are images of every folly of the
heart and mind, carefully extracted from ancient mythology and offered
early on to the curiosity of our children—without a doubt so that they may
have before their eyes models for bad deeds, even before they can read.
What else could produce these abuses if not the deplorable inequality
introduced among us by the prestige accorded to talent and the abasement
of virtue? This indeed is the most obvious result of all our studying and the
most dangerous of all its consequences. We no longer ask if a man has
integrity but rather if he has talent; we do not ask if a book is useful but
merely if it is well written. Rewards are showered on clever minds, but
virtue receives no honors. A thousand prizes are offered for fine essays,
none for fine deeds. But can someone tell me if the glory of having written
the best of the discourses crowned by the Academy is comparable to the
merit of having established the prize?
A wise man does not run after success, but he is not indifferent to glory,
and when he sees it so poorly distributed, his virtue, which a little emulation
might have energized and thus made beneficial to society, languishes and
dies away in destitution and obscurity. This is what ultimately happens
when pleasing talents eclipse useful ones, something that has been only too
well confirmed since the revival of the sciences and arts. We have physi-
cists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters; we no
longer have citizens; or if a few remain, scattered over our abandoned
countryside, they are left to perish there, indigent and shunned. This is the
condition to which those who give bread to us and milk to our children have
been reduced, and this is the respect they wrest from us.
Still I must confess that the harm is not as great as it might have become.
Eternal Providence, by placing curative herbs alongside of noxious plants
and by making maleficent animals contain the antidote to their lesions, has
taught the Sovereigns of the earth, who are its ministers, to imitate its
wisdom. By following this example, that great Monarch,∞∏ on whose glory
every age will bestow new radiance, drew from the very bosom of the arts
and sciences, that source of a thousand moral lapses, those renowned so-
cieties which are responsible for both the dangerous trust of human knowl-
edge and the sacred trust of morals—and responsible as well for maintain-
ing the purity of those trusts and for demanding the purity of the members
they admit.
These wise institutions, solidified by his august successor and imitated
by all the kings of Europe, will at least serve as a brake on intellectuals, men
64 The First Discourse
of letters, who, all aspiring to the honor of being admitted into these Acade-
mies, will keep watch over themselves and endeavor to make themselves
worthy of such honor by useful works and irreproachable morals. Those
Academies, which, in their competitions for prizes bestowed on literary
merit, will propose subjects aimed at reviving the love of virtue in citizens’
hearts, will show that such love reigns among them and will give to all
nations that rare, sweet pleasure of seeing learned societies devote them-
selves to showering the human race not only with pleasurable enlighten-
ment but also with salutary edification.
I am not interested in hearing an objection that only confirms my argu-
ment. So many precautions show all too well the necessity for taking them,
and people do not seek remedies for ills that do not exist. Why should these,
by their very insufficiency, share the traits of ordinary remedies? The nu-
merous establishments created for the benefit of scholars are only too able
to deceive them concerning the objects of the sciences and to turn minds
toward their cultivation. It would seem, from the kinds of precautions peo-
ple take, that we have a surplus of farmers and fear a shortage of philoso-
phers. I do not wish to attempt a comparison between agriculture and
philosophy, which people would reject. I shall only ask: What is philoso-
phy? What do the writings of the most famous philosophers contain? What
are the lessons of these friends of wisdom? To listen to them, would one not
take them for a gang of charlatans each calling out from a different corner
on a public square: Come to me, I alone do not deceive? One claims that
there are no bodies and that all is mere reflection. Another, that there is no
other substance than matter, and no other God than the world. One asserts
that neither virtues nor vices exist and that goodness and moral evil are
illusions. Another that men are wolves and can devour one another in good
conscience. O great philosophers! Why not keep these profitable lessons for
your own friends and children? You would soon reap your rewards, and we
would not need to fear finding among our own friends and children your
These indeed are the marvelous men who were showered with the es-
teem of their contemporaries during their lifetimes and for whom immor-
tality was reserved after their deaths! These are the wise maxims we have
received from them, and which we will pass on, from generation to genera-
tion, to our descendants. Did paganism, though susceptible to all the de-
rangements of human reason, leave posterity anything comparable to the
shameful monuments prepared for posterity by Printing, during the reign of
the gospel? The impious writings of a Leucippus and a Diagoras died with
them.∞π The art of immortalizing the extravagances of the human mind had
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 65
not yet been invented. But thanks to the characters of typography* and the
use we make of them, the pernicious reveries of a Hobbes and a Spinoza
will endure forever. Go, famous writings, of which the ignorance and na-
iveté of our forefathers would have been incapable, go along to our descen-
dants with those even more dangerous works that reek of the moral corrup-
tion of our century, and together convey to the centuries to come a faithful
history of the progress and benefits of our sciences and our arts. If they read
what you have to say, you will permit them no doubt as to the question we
debate today. And unless they are even more irrational than we, they will
raise their hands to Heaven and say, with bitter hearts, ‘‘Almighty God, you
who hold all souls in your hands, deliver us from the enlightenment and
deadly arts of our forefathers, give us back ignorance, innocence and pov-
erty, the only treasures that can make us happy and that are precious in
your sight.’’
But if the advancement of the sciences and the arts has contributed
nothing to our true happiness, if it has corrupted morality, and if the corrup-
tion of morality has adulterated purity of taste, what shall we think of that
throng of facile authors who removed from the entrance to the Temple of
the Muses the obstacles that nature had placed there as a test of strength for
those who might be tempted to seek knowledge? What shall we think of
those collators of works who mindlessly battered down the portal of the
sciences, letting into their sanctuary rabble unworthy of approaching it?
How much better it would have been if all those who could not go far in a
career in letters had been turned away at the entrance and steered toward
arts useful to society. A person who will never be more than a bad poet or a
*If we consider the horrible disorders that printing has already produced in Europe,
and if we judge the future in light of the progress this evil makes every day, we can easily
predict that sovereigns will not delay in making as much effort to banish this awful art
from their states as they made to establish it. The Sultan Achmet, yielding to the insistent
demands of certain supposed people of taste, had agreed to establish a printing press in
Constantinople. But the press had barely begun to function when people felt obliged to
destroy it and throw its machinery into a well. It is said that Caliph Omar, when asked
what should be done with the library in Alexandria, answered in the following words: If
the books in this library contain anything opposed to the Koran, they are bad and they
must be burned. If they contain only the doctrine of the Koran, burn them anyway: they
are superfluous. Our scholars have cited this reasoning as the height of absurdity. Imag-
ine, however, Gregory the Great instead of Omar and the Bible instead of the Koran, the
Library would still have been burned, and this might perhaps be the most noble deed in
the life of that illustrious Pontiff.
66 The First Discourse
third-rate geometer might have become an excellent cloth maker. Those
who were destined by nature to become her disciples hardly needed teach-
ers. A Bacon, a Descartes, and a Newton, those tutors of humanity, had
none themselves, and, moreover, what guides could have led them as far as
their vast genius took them? Ordinary teachers would only have shrunk
their intelligence by squeezing it into the narrow confines of their own. The
first obstacles they encountered taught them to how to apply themselves and
how to work at leaping over the vast space they had mapped out. If a few
men should be permitted to devote themselves to the study of the sciences
and the arts, it should be only those who feel strong enough to walk alone in
their footsteps and to outdistance them. It is for these few to erect monu-
ments to the glory of the human mind. But if we want nothing to be beyond
their genius, nothing must be beyond their hopes. That is the only encour-
agement they need. Little by little, the soul assumes the size of the subjects
that preoccupy it, and thus it is great events that make great men. The Prince
of Eloquence was Consul of Rome, and perhaps the greatest of philoso-
phers Lord Chancellor of England.∞∫ Can it be believed that if one had been
a professor at some university and the other a modest fellow in some
Academy, can it be believed, I say, that their works would not have reflected
their conditions? May kings, therefore, never disdain welcoming into their
councils people who are most able to give them good advice; may they
renounce that old prejudice, invented by the pride of the great, that the art of
governing nations is more difficult than that of enlightening them, as if it
was easier to engage people to do good voluntarily than to compel them to
do so by force. May learned people of the first rank find honorable asylum
in their courts; may they receive there the only recompense worthy of them,
that of contributing by their influence to the happiness of the nations that
they will have taught to be wise. Only then will we see what virtue, science,
and authority can do when energized by noble emulation and working
together for the felicity of humanity. But as long as power remains alone on
one side and enlightenment and wisdom alone on the other, the learned will
rarely focus on great things, Princes will even more rarely perform great
ones, and nations will continue to be wretched, corrupt, and unhappy.
As for us, ordinary people on whom Heaven bestowed no great talents
nor destined for so much glory, let us remain in our obscurity. Let us not run
after a reputation that would only elude us and which, in the present state of
things, would never pay us back what it had cost us, even if we possessed all
the qualifications to obtain it. What good is it to seek our happiness in the
opinions of others if we can find it within ourselves? Let us leave to others
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts 67
the responsibility for instructing nations in their duties and confine our-
selves to fulfilling our own. We have no need of other knowledge.
O virtue, sublime science of simple souls! Are so much effort and so
much preparation really necessary to know you? Are your principles not
engraved in all our hearts? Does it not suffice to learn your laws, to meditate
and listen to the voice of our conscience in the silence of our passions? That
is the true philosophy; let us be content with that; and without envying the
glory of those famous men who find immortality in the Republic of Letters,
let us try to put between them and us that glorious distinction observed long
ago between two great peoples,∞Ω that one knew how to speak well, and the
other knew how to behave.
n o t e s
Note to readers: Footnotes in the First Discourse are Rousseau’s own
notes that appeared in the original version.
1. The ‘‘Holy League’’ refers to French Catholics who tried to outlaw
Protestantism in the sixteenth century.
2. Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders in 1203 and was con-
quered by Turkey in 1453. (See Rousseau, Discours sur les sciences et les
arts, ed. George R. Havens [New York: Modern Language Association of
America, 1946], 180.)
3. Cambyses II, King of Persia, conquered Egypt in 525 b.c. (Havens,
4. King Philip of Macedonia conquered the principal Greek city-states in
338 b.c. (Havens, 191).
5. Demosthenes, the great Athenian orator, opposed Macedonian power
in Greece.
6. Ennius, an early Latin poet (239 b.c. to 170 b.c.). Terence, a Latin
author of comedies (194 b.c. to 159 b.c.).
7. Petronius.
8. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (Havens, 196).
9. Tacitus (c. a.d. 55 to c. a.d. 117), see his De moribus Germanorum
(Havens, 197).
10. Pisistratus, tyrant in Athens (554 b.c.–527 b.c.) was said to have
collected the writings of Homer (Havens, 200–201).
11. Plato, Rousseau’s free translation of Apologia for Socrates.
12. Fabricius, mentioned in Seneca and Plutarch, is the image of the
great virtuous man.
68 The First Discourse
13. Charles-André (‘‘Carle’’) Van Loo (1705–1765) and Jean-Baptiste-
Marie Pierre (1713–1789) were celebrated artists. (See Havens, 226–227).
14. Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714–1785), French sculptor. (Havens, 228)
15. Montaigne.
16. Louis XIV founded five such honorific ‘‘academies.’’
17. Leucippus, the teacher of Democritus. Diagoras, Democritus’s
18. Cicero and Francis Bacon.
19. Athens and Sparta.
The Second Discourse:
on the
Origin and Foundations
Inequality Among Mankind
Non in depravatis, sed in his quae bene secundum
naturam se habent, considerandum est quid sit naturale.*
aristotle, Politics, 1, 2.
* ‘‘We should consider what is natural not in things which are depraved, but in those
which are rightly ordered according to nature.’’
Notice Regarding the Notes
I have appended a few notes to this work, following my indolent custom of
working by fits and starts. These notes sometimes digress too far from the
subject to be read with the text. Therefore I have placed them at the end of
the Discourse, in which I have tried my best to follow a straight path. Those
who have the courage to continue may enjoy beating the bushes a second
time and try to go through the notes. As to the others, it is no great matter if
they do not read them at all.
J.-J. Rousseau
to the
Republic of Geneva
m o s th o n o r a b l e ,m a g n i f i c e n t ,a n d
s o v e r e i g nl o r d s ,
Convinced that it belongs only to a virtuous citizen to present his country
those acknowledgments it may become her to receive, I have been for thirty
years past, endeavoring to render myself worthy to offer you some public
homage. In the meantime, this fortunate occasion replacing in some degree
the insufficiency of my efforts, I have presumed rather to follow the dictates
of zeal, than to wait till I should be authorized by merit. Having had the
good fortune to be born a subject of Geneva, how could I reflect on the
natural equality of mankind, and that inequality which they have intro-
duced, without admiring the profound wisdom by which both the one and
the other are happily combined in this State, and contribute, in a manner the
most conformable to the law of nature, and the most favorable to commu-
nity, to the security of public order and the happiness of individuals? In my
researches after the best and most sensible maxims, which might be laid
down for the constitution of government, I was surprised to find them all
united in yours; so that had I not been a fellow-citizen, I should have
thought it indispensable in me to present such a picture of human society to
that people, who of all others, seem to be possessed of its greatest advan-
tages, and to have best guarded against its abuses.
If I had had to choose the place of my birth, I should have preferred a
community proportioned in its extent to the limits of the human faculties;
that is to the possibility of being well governed: in which every person
being capable of his employment, no one should be obliged to commit to
others the trust he ought to discharge himself: a State in which its individ-
uals might be so well known to each other, that neither the secret machina-
tions of vice, nor the modesty of virtue should be able to escape the notice
and judgment of the public; and in which the agreeable custom of seeing
and knowing each other, should occasion the love of their country to be
rather an affection for its inhabitants than for its soil.
I should have chosen for my birthplace a country in which the interest of
the sovereign could not be separated from that of the subject; to the end that
all the motions of the machine of government might ever tend to the general
happiness. And as this could not be the case, unless where the sovereignty is
lodged in the people, it follows that I should have preferred a prudently
tempered democracy.
Dedication 73
I should have been desirous to live and die free: that is, so far subject to
the laws that neither I, nor any other body else, should have it in our power
to cast off their honorable yoke: that agreeable and salutary yoke to which
the haughtiest necks bend with the greater docility, as they are formed to
bear no other.
I should have desired, therefore, that no person within the State should
be able to say he was above the laws; nor that any person without, should be
able to dictate such as the State should be obliged to obey. For, whatever the
constitution of a government, if there be a single member of it who is not
subject to the laws, all the rest are necessarily at his discretion. And if there
be a national chief within, and a foreign chief without, however they may
divide their authority, it is impossible that both should be duly obeyed and
the State well governed.
I should not have chosen to live in a republic of recent institution,
however excellent its laws, for fear the government being otherwise framed
than circumstances might require, it might either disagree with the new
subjects, or the subjects disagree with the new government; in which
case the State might be shaken to pieces and destroyed almost as soon as
For it is with liberty as it is with solid and succulent foods, or with rich
wines, proper to nourish and fortify robust constitutions accustomed to
them, but pernicious, destructive and intoxicating to weak and delicate
temperaments, to which they are not adapted. A people once accustomed to
masters are not able to live without them. If they attempt at any time to
shake off their yoke, they lose still more freedom; for, by mistaking licen-
tiousness for liberty, to which it is diametrically opposed, they generally
become greater slaves to some impostor, who loads them with fresh chains.
The Romans themselves, an example for every succeeding free people,
were incapable of governing themselves on their expulsion of the Tarquins.
Debased by slavery, and the ignominious tasks imposed on them, they were
at first no better than a stupid mob, which it was requisite to manage and
govern with the greatest wisdom; so that, being accustomed by degrees to
breathe the salutary air of liberty, their minds which had been enervated or
rather brutalized under the burden of slavery, might gradually acquire that
severity of manners and spirit of fortitude which rendered them at length
the most respectable nation upon earth.
I should have searched out for my country, therefore, some peaceful and
happy republic, whose antiquity lost itself, as it were, in the obscurity of
time: one that had experienced only such salutary shocks as served to
display and confirm the courage and patriotism of its subjects; and whose
74 The Second Discourse
citizens, long accustomed to a prudent independence, were not only free,
but worthy of their freedom.
I should have made choice of a country, diverted, by a fortunate impo-
tence, from the brutal love of conquest; and secured, by a still more fortu-
nate situation, from becoming itself the conquest of other states: a free city
situated between several nations, none of which should find it their interest
to attack it, yet all think themselves interested in preventing its being at-
tacked by others: a republic, in short, which should present nothing to tempt
the ambition of its neighbors; but might reasonably depend on their assi-
tance in case of need. It would follow that a republican State so happily
situated as I have supposed, could have nothing to fear but from itself; and
that, if its members accustomed themselves to the exercise of arms, it must
be to keep alive that military ardor and courage, which is so suitable to free
men, and tends to keep up their taste for liberty, rather than through the
necessity of providing for their own defense.
I should have sought a country, in which the legislative power should be
vested in all its citizens: for who can better judge than themselves of the
propriety of the terms, on which they mutually agree to live together in the
same community? Not that I should have approved of plebiscites, like those
among the Romans, in which the leaders of the State, and those most
interested in its preservation, were excluded from those deliberations on
which its security frequently depended; and in which, by the most absurd
inconsistency, the magistrates were deprived of privileges enjoyed by the
lowest citizens.
On the contrary, I should have desired that, in order to prevent self-
interested and ill-designed projects, with any of those dangerous innova-
tions which at length ruined the Athenians, no person should be at liberty to
propose new laws at pleasure: but that this should be the exclusive privilege
of the magistrates; and that even these should use it with so much caution,
that the people on their part should be so reserved in giving their consent to
such laws; and that the promulgation of theirs should be attended with so
much solemnity, that before the constitution could be affected by them,
there might be time enough given for all to be convinced, that it is the great
antiquity of the laws which principally contributes to render them sacred
and venerable, that the people soon learn to despise those which they
see daily altered, and that States, by accustoming themselves to neglect
their ancient customs under pretense of improvement, frequently introduce
greater evils than those they endeavor to remove.
I should have particularly avoided a republic, as one that must of course
be ill-governed, in which the people, imagining themselves capable of
Dedication 75
subsisting without magistrates, or at least without investing them with any-
thing more than a precarious authority, should imprudently reserve to them-
selves the administration of civil affairs and the execution of their own
laws. Such must have been the rude constitution of the primitive govern-
ments, directly emerging from the state of nature; and this was another of
the vices that contributed to the dissolution of the republic of Athens.
But I should have chosen a republic, the individuals of which, contented
with the privileges of giving sanction to their laws, and of deciding in a
body, according to the recommendations of the leaders, the most important
public affairs, should have established respectable tribunals; carefully dis-
tinguished their several departments; and electing annually some of their
fellow-citizens, of the greatest capacity and integrity, to administer justice
and govern the State; a community, in short, in which the virtue of the
magistrates thus bearing testimony to the wisdom of the people, they would
mutually honor each other. So that if ever any fatal misunderstandings
should arise to disturb the public peace, even these intervals of confusion
and error should bear the marks of moderation, reciprocal esteem, and of a
mutual respect for the laws; certain signs and pledges of a reconciliation as
lasting as sincere. Such are the advantages, most honorable, magnificent
and sovereign Lords, which I should have sought in the country I had
And if providence had added to all these, a delightful situation, a temper-
ate clime, a fertile soil, and the most charming views that present them-
selves under heaven, I should desire only, to complete my felicity, the
peaceful enjoyment of all these blessings, in the bosom of this happy coun-
try; living in agreeable society with my fellow-citizens, and exercising
towards them from their own example, the duties of friendship, humanity,
and every other virtue, that I might leave behind me the honorable memory
of a worthy man, and an incorruptible and virtuous patriot.
But, if less fortunate or too late grown wise, I saw myself reduced to end
an infirm and languishing life in other climates, vainly regretting that
peaceful repose which I forfeited in the imprudence of my youth, I would at
least have entertained the same sentiments within myself, though denied
the opportunity of avowing and indulging them in my native country. Af-
fected with a tender and disinterested love for my distant fellow-citizens, I
should have addressed them from my heart, in about the following terms.
‘‘My dear countrymen, or rather my brethren, since the ties of blood
unite most of us, as well as the laws, it gives me pleasure that I cannot think
of you, without thinking, at the same time, of all the blessings you enjoy, the
value of which none of you, perhaps, are so aware as I to whom they are
76 The Second Discourse
lost. The more I reflect on your situation, both civil and political, the less
can I conceive that the present state of human nature will admit of a better.
In all other governments, even when it is a question of securing the greatest
welfare of the State, they are always confined to ideal projects, or at least to
bare possibilities. But as for you, your happiness is complete. You have
nothing to do but enjoy it; you require nothing more to be made perfectly
happy, than to know how to be satisfied with being so. Your sovereignty,
acquired or recovered by the sword, and maintained for two centuries past
by your valor and wisdom, is at length fully and universally acknowledged.
Your boundaries are fixed, your rights confirmed and your repose secured
by honorable treaties. Your constitution is excellent, dictated by the pro-
foundest wisdom, and guaranteed by friendly and respectable powers. Your
State enjoys perfect tranquillity; you have nothing to fear either from wars
or conquerors: you have no other master than the wise laws you have
yourselves made; and which are administered by upright magistrates of
your own choosing. You are neither so wealthy as to be enervated by
softness, and so to lose, in the pursuit of frivolous pleasures, a taste for
real happiness and solid virtue; nor yet are you so poor as to require
more assistance from strangers than your own industry is sufficient to pro-
cure you. In the meantime that precious liberty, which is maintained in
great States only by exorbitant taxation, costs you hardly anything for its
‘‘May a republic, so wisely and happily constituted, last forever, as well
for an example to other nations, as for the felicity of its own subjects! This
is the only wish you have left to make; the only subject of your solicitude. It
depends, for the future, on yourselves alone, not to make you happy, your
ancestors have saved you that trouble, but to render that happiness lasting,
by your prudence in its enjoyment. It is on your constant unanimity, your
obedience to the laws, and your respect for the magistrates, that your pres-
ervation depends. If there remain among you the smallest seeds of enmity
or distrust, hasten to root them up, as an accursed leaven from which sooner
or later will result your misfortunes and the destruction of the State. I
conjure you all to examine the bottom of your hearts, and to hearken to the
secret voice of your own consciences. Is there any among you who can find,
throughout the universe, a more upright, more enlightened and more re-
spectable body than that of your own magistracy? Do not all its members
set you an example of moderation, of simplicity of manners, of respect for
the laws, and of the most sincere reconciliation? Place, therefore, without
reservations that salutary confidence in such wise leaders, which reason
ever owes to virtue. Consider they are the objects of your own choice; that
Dedication 77
they justify that choice; and that the honors, due to those whom you have
exalted to dignity, are necessarily reflected back on yourselves. Is there any
among you so ignorant, as not to know that, when the laws lose their force,
and the magistrates their authority, neither the persons nor properties of
individuals are any longer secure? Why, therefore, should you hesitate to do
that cheerfully and confidently, which your true interest, your duty and even
common prudence will ever require?
‘‘Let not a culpable and fatal indifference to the support of the constitu-
tion, ever induce you to neglect, in case of need, the prudent advice of the
most enlightened and zealous of your fellow-citizens: but let equity, moder-
ation and firmness of resolution continue to regulate all your proceedings;
exhibiting you to the whole universe as an example of a valiant and modest
people, equally jealous of their honor and their liberty. Beware particularly,
this is the last advice I shall give you, of sinister interpretations and calum-
niating reports, the secret motives of which are often more dangerous than
the actions at which they are leveled. The whole house will be awake and
take the first alarm, given by a trusty and watchful mastiff, who barks only
at the approach of thieves; but we ever abominate the impertinent yelping
of those noisy curs, who are perpetually disturbing the public repose, and
whose continual and ill-timed warnings prevent our attending to them when
they may be needed.’’
And you, most honorable and magnificent Lords, you, the worthy and
respectable magistrates of a free people, permit me to offer you in particular
my duty and homage. If there be in the world a station capable of conferring
honor on the persons who fill it, it is undoubtedly that which virtue and
talents combine to bestow; that of which you have rendered yourselves
worthy, and to which you have been promoted by your fellow-citizens.
Their worth adds a new luster to yours; since men who are capable of
governing others have chosen you to govern them, I cannot help esteeming
you as superior to all other magistrates, as a free people, and particularly
that over which you have the honor to preside, is by its wisdom and knowl-
edge superior to the populace of other States.
May I be permitted to cite an example of which ought to have survived a
better remnant; an example which will be ever near and dear to my heart.
I cannot recall to mind, without the most agreeable emotions, the person
and manners of that virtuous citizen, to whom I owe my being, and by
whom I was instructed, in my infancy, in the respect which is due to you. I
see him still, subsisting on his manual labor, and improving his mind by
the study of the sublimest truths. I see, lying before him, the works of
Tacitus, Plutarch, and Grotius, intermixed with the tools of his trade. At his
78 The Second Discourse
side stands his darling son, receiving, alas with too little profit, the tender
instructions of the best of fathers. But, though the follies of a wild youth
caused me a while to forget his prudent lessons, I have at length the happi-
ness to experience that, whatever propensity one may have to vice, it is not
easy for an education, thus affectionately bestowed, to be ever entirely
thrown away.
Such, my most honorable and magnificent lords, are the citizens, and
even the common inhabitants of the country under your government; such
are those intelligent and sensible men, of which, under the name of me-
chanics and tradespeople, it is usual, in other nations to entertain a false and
contemptible idea. My father, I own it with pleasure, was not a distin-
guished man among his fellow citizens. He was only such as they are all:
and yet, such as he was, there is no country in which his acquaintance would
not have been coveted, and cultivated even with advantage by men of the
first distinction. It would not become me, nor is it, thank heaven, at all
necessary for me to remind you of the regard which such men have a right
to expect of their magistrates, to whom they are equal both by birth and
education, and inferior only by that preference which they voluntarily pay
to your merit, and in so doing lay claim on their part to some sort of
It is with a lively satisfaction I learn with how much gentleness and
condescendence you temper that gravity which becomes the ministers of
the law; and that you so well repay them, by your esteem and attentions, that
respect and obedience which they justly pay to you. This conduct is not only
just but prudent, as it wisely tends to obliterate many unhappy events,
which ought to be buried in eternal oblivion;* it is also by so much the more
prudential, as this generous and equitable people find a pleasure in their
duty; as they are naturally inclined to doing you honor, as those who are the
most zealous to maintain their own rights and privileges are at the same
time the best disposed to respect yours.
It ought not to be thought surprising that the leaders of a civil society
should have its welfare and glory at heart: but it is uncommonly fortunate
for them, when those persons who look upon themselves as the magistrates,
or rather the masters of a more holy and sublime country, demonstrate their
affection for the earthly spot which maintains them. I am happy in having it
* Rousseau is referring to uprisings by a large part of the population which was
oppressed by the ruling oligarchy. The description of the government of Geneva is largely
false, and an example of Rousseau’s frequent tactics of duplicity. He is trying to win the
favor of the Genevan authorities.—translator
Dedication 79
in my power to make so singular an exception in favor of my own country;
and to rank, in the number of its best citizens, those zealous depositaries of
the sacred articles of our established faith; those venerable pastors whose
powerful and captivating eloquence is so much the better calculated to
enforce the maxims of the gospel, as they are themselves the first to put
them in practice.
The whole world is informed of the great success with which the oratory
of the pulpit is cultivated at Geneva; but, being too much used to hear
divines preach one thing, and see them practice another, few people have an
opportunity to know how far the true spirit of Christianity, holiness of
manners, severity with regard to themselves and indulgence to their neigh-
bors, prevail throughout the whole body of our ministers. It is, perhaps, in
the power of the city of Geneva alone to produce an edifying example of so
perfect a union subsisting between its clergy and men of letters. And it is in
great degree, on their wisdom, their known moderation, and on their zeal
for the prosperity of the State that I build my hopes of its constant and
perpetual tranquillity.
At the same time, I remark, with a pleasure mixed with surprise and
veneration, how much they detest the horrid maxims of those holy and
barbarous men, of whom history furnishes us with more than one example;
who, in order to support the pretended prerogative of the deity, that is to say
their own interest, have been so much the less sparing of human blood, as
they were more assured that their own should be always respected.
I must not here forget that precious half of the republic, which makes the
happiness of the other; and whose tenderness and prudence preserve its
tranquillity and virtue. Amiable and virtuous daughters of Geneva, it will be
always the lot of your sex to govern ours. Happy, so long as your chaste
influence, solely exercised within the limits of conjugal union, is exerted
only for the glory of the State and the happiness of the public. It is thus the
female sex commanded at Sparta; and thus that you deserve to command at
What man can be such a barbarian as to resist the voice of honor and
reason, breathing from the lips of an affectionate wife? Who would not
despise the tawdry charms of luxury, on beholding the simplicity and mod-
esty of an attire, which, from the luster it derives from you, seems to be the
most favorable to beauty? It is your task to perpetuate, by the insinuating
spirit of your manners, by your innocent and amiable influence, a respect
for the laws of the State, and harmony among individuals. It is yours to
reunite divided families by happy marriages; and, above all things, to cor-
rect, by the persuasive mildness of your lessons and the modest graces of
80 The Second Discourse
your discourse, those extravagances which our young people pick up in
other countries; from whence, instead of many useful things that come
within the reach of their observation and practice, they bring home hardly
anything but a puerile air and ridiculous manner, acquired among loose
women, and the admiration of I know not what pretended grandeur, a paltry
indemnification for slavery and unworthy of the real greatness of true
Continue, therefore, always to be what you are, the chaste guardians of
our manners, and the gentle links of our peace; exerting on every occasion
the privileges of the heart and of nature to the advantage of moral obligation
and the interests of virtue.
I flatter myself no sinister event will ever prove me to have been mis-
taken, in building on such a foundation my hopes of the felicity of my
fellow-citizens and the glory of the republic. It must be confessed, however,
that with all these advantages, it will not shine with that exterior luster, by
which the eyes of the generality of mankind are affected, a puerile and fatal
taste for which is the most mortal enemy to the happiness and liberty of a
Let dissolute youth seek elsewhere those transient pleasures which are
followed by long repentance. Let pretenders to taste elsewhere admire the
grandeur of palaces, the beauty of equipages, the sumptuousness of furni-
ture, the pomp of public entertainments, with all the refinements of luxury
and effeminacy. Geneva boasts nothing but men; such a sight has neverthe-
less its value, and those who have a taste for it are at least as good as the
admirers of the other things.
Deign, most honorable, magnificent and sovereign lords, all and each, to
receive, and with equal goodness, this respectful testimony of the interest I
take in your common prosperity. And, if I have been so unhappy as to be
guilty of any indiscreet transport, in this glowing effusion of my heart, I
beseech you to pardon, and impute it to the tender affection of a real patriot,
and to the ardent and lawful zeal of a man, who places his own greatest
felicity in the prospect of seeing you happy.
I am, with the most profound respect, most honorable, magnificent and
sovereign lords,
Your most humble,
Chambéry, and most obedient servant
June 12, 1754 and fellow-citizen.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The most useful and least perfected of all human studies is, in my opinion,
that of man, and I dare say that the inscription on the Temple of Delphi did
alone contain a more important and difficult precept than all the huge vol-
umes of the moralists.* I therefore consider the subject of this discourse as
one of the most interesting questions philosophy can propose, and, unhap-
pily for us, one of the most knotty philosophers can labor to solve: For how
is it possible to know the source of the inequality among men, without
knowing men themselves? And how shall man be able to see himself, such
as nature formed him, in spite of all the alterations which a long succession
of years and events must have produced in his original constitution, and
how shall he be able to distinguish what is of his own essence, from what
the circumstances he has been in and the progress he has made have added
to, or changed in, his primitive condition? The human soul, like the statue of
Glaucus which time, the sea and storms had so much disfigured that it
resembled a wild beast more than a god, the human soul, I say, altered in
society by the perpetual succession of a thousand causes, by the acquisition
of numberless discoveries and errors, by the changes that have happened in
the constitution of the body, by the perpetual jarring of the passions, has in a
manner so changed in appearance as to be scarcely distinguishable; and by
now we perceive in it, instead of a being always acting from certain and
invariable principles, instead of that heavenly and majestic simplicity
which its author had impressed upon it, nothing but the shocking contrast of
passion that thinks it reasons, and an understanding grown delirious.
But what is still more cruel, as every advance made by the human
species serves only to remove it still further from its primitive condition, the
more we accumulate new knowledge, the more we deprive ourselves of the
means of acquiring the most important of all; and it is, in a manner, by
the mere dint of studying man that we have lost the power of knowing him.
It is easy to perceive that it is in these successive alterations of the
* The inscription read, ‘‘Know thyself,’’ and ‘‘Nothing in excess.’’
82 The Second Discourse
human constitution that we must look for the first origin of those differences
that distinguish men, who, it is universally allowed, are naturally as equal
among themselves as were the animals of every species before various
physical causes had introduced those varieties we now observe among
some of them. In fact, it is not possible to conceive how these first changes,
whatever causes may have produced them, could have altered, all at once
and in the same manner, all the individuals of the species. It seems obvious
that while some improved or impaired their condition, or acquired divers
good or bad qualities not inherent in their nature, the rest continued a longer
time in their primitive state; and such was among men the first source of
inequality, which it is much easier thus to point out in general, than to trace
back with precision to its true causes.
Let not then my readers imagine that I dare flatter myself with having
seen what I think is so difficult to discover. I have opened some arguments;
I have risked some conjectures; but not so much from any hopes of being
able to solve the question, as with a view of throwing upon it some light,
and giving a true statement of it. Others may with great facility penetrate
further on the same road, but none will find it an easy matter to get to the
end of it. For it is no such easy task to distinguish between what is natural
and what is artificial in the present constitution of man, and to make oneself
well acquainted with a state which, if ever it did, does not now, and in all
probability never will exist, and of which, notwithstanding, it is absolutely
necessary to have just notions to judge properly of our present state. A man
must be even more a philosopher than most people think, to take upon
himself to determine exactly what precautions are requisite to make solid
observations upon this subject; and, in my opinion, a good solution of the
following problem would not be unworthy of the Aristotles and Plinys of
our age: What experiments are requisite to know man as constituted by
nature, and which are the best methods of making these experiments in the
midst of society? For my own part, I am so far from pretending to solve this
problem, that I think I have sufficiently reflected on the subject of it to dare
answer beforehand, that the wisest philosophers would not be too wise to
direct such experiments, nor the most powerful sovereigns too powerful to
make them; a concurrence of circumstances which there is hardly any
reason to expect, and especially with that perseverance, or rather that suc-
cession of knowledge, penetration, and good will requisite on both sides to
insure success.
These investigations, so difficult to make and which hitherto have been
so little thought of, are however the only means left us to remove a thousand
difficulties which prevent our seeing the true foundations of human society.
Preface 83
It is this ignorance of the nature of man that casts so much uncertainty and
obscurity on the genuine definition of natural right: for the idea of right, as
Monsieur Burlamaqui* says, and still more that of natural right, are ideas
evidently relative to the nature of man. It is therefore from this very nature
of man, he continues, from his constitution and his state, that we are to
deduce the principles of this science.
It is impossible to observe, without both surprise and scandal, the little
agreement there is to be found on this important subject between the dif-
ferent authors that have treated it. Among the gravest writers, you will
scarce find two of the same opinion. Not to speak of the ancient philoso-
phers, who, one would imagine, had set out to contradict each other in
regard to the most fundamental principles, the Roman jurisconsults make
man and all other animals, without distinction, subject to the same natural
law, because they consider under this name, rather that law which nature
imposes upon herself than that which she prescribes; or, more probably, on
account of the particular acceptation of the word, law, among these juris-
consults, who, on this occasion, seem to have understood nothing more by it
than the general relations established by nature between all animated beings
for the sake of their common preservation. The moderns, by not admitting
anything under the word law but a rule prescribed to a moral being, that is to
say, a being intelligent, free, and considered with a view to his relations to
other beings, must of course confine to the only animal endowed with
reason, that is, to man, the competency of the natural law; but then, by
defining this law, every one of them his own way, they establish it on such
metaphysical principles, that so far from being able to find out these princi-
ples by themselves, there are very few persons among us capable of so
much as understanding them. Thus, therefore, all the definitions of these
learned men, definitions in everything else so constantly at variance, agree
only in this, that it is impossible to understand the law of nature, and
consequently to obey it, without being a very subtle reasoner and a very
profound metaphysician. This is no more nor less than saying that men must
have employed for the establishment of society a fund of knowledge, which
it is a very difficult matter, nay absolutely impossible, for most persons to
develop, even in a state of society.
As men, therefore, are so little acquainted with nature, and agree so ill
about the meaning of the word law, it would be very difficult for them to
agree on a good definition of natural law. Accordingly, all those we meet
with in books, besides lacking uniformity, err by being derived from several
* Author of Principes du droit naturel (Geneva, 1747).
84 The Second Discourse
kinds of knowledge which men do not naturally enjoy, and from advantages
they can have no notion of, as long as they remain in a state of nature. The
writers of these books set out by examining what rules it would be proper
for men to agree to among themselves for their common interest; and then
they proceed to give the name of natural law to a collection of these rules,
without any other proof than the advantage they find would result from a
universal compliance with it. This is, no doubt, a very easy method of
striking out definitions, and of explaining the nature of things by an almost
arbitrary fitness.
But as long as we remain unacquainted with the constitution of natural
man, it will be in vain for us to attempt to determine what law he received,
or what law suits him best. All we can plainly distinguish in regard to that
law is that for it to be law, not only the will of him whom it obliges must be
able to submit to it knowingly, but also that, for it to be natural, it must speak
immediately by the voice of nature.
Laying aside therefore all the scientific treatises, which teach us merely
to consider men such as they have made themselves, and confining myself
to the first and most simple operations of the human soul, I think I can
distinguish in it two principles prior to reason; one of them interests us
deeply in our own preservation and welfare, the other inspires us with a
natural aversion to seeing any other being, but especially any being like
ourselves, suffer or perish. It is from the concurrence and the combination
our mind is capable of forming between these two principles, without there
being the least necessity for adding to them that of sociability, that, in my
opinion, flow all the rules of natural right; rules, which reason is afterwards
obliged to reestablish upon other foundations, when by its successive de-
velopments, it has at last stifled nature itself.
By proceeding in this manner, we shall not be obliged to make man
a philosopher before he is a man. His obligations are not dictated to
him merely by the slow voice of wisdom; and as long as he does not resist
the internal impulses of compassion, he never will do any harm to another
man, nor even to any sentient being, except in those lawful cases where his
own preservation happens to come in question, and it is of course his duty
to give himself the preference. By this means too we may put an end to the
ancient disputes concerning the participation of other animals in the law
of nature; for it is plain that, as they want both reason and free will,
they cannot be acquainted with that law; however, as they partake in
some measure of our nature in virtue of that sensibility with which
they are endowed, we may well imagine they ought likewise to partake of
the benefit of the natural law, and that man owes them a certain kind of
Preface 85
duty.* In fact, it seems that, if I am obliged not to injure any being like
myself, it is not so much because he is a reasonable being, as because he is a
sensible being; and this quality, by being common to men and beasts, ought
to exempt the latter from any unnecessary injuries the former might be able
to do them.
This same study of original man, of his real needs, and of the fundamen-
tal principles of his duties, is likewise the only good method we can take, to
surmount an infinite number of difficulties concerning the origin of moral
inequality, the true foundations of political bodies, the reciprocal rights of
their members, and a thousand other similar questions that are as important
as they are ill-understood.
If we consider human society with a calm and disinterested eye, it seems
at first sight to show us nothing but the violence of the powerful and the
oppression of the weak; the mind is shocked at the cruelty of the one, and
equally grieved at the blindness of the other; and as nothing is less stable in
human life than those exterior relations, which chance produces oftener than
wisdom, and which are called weakness or power, poverty or riches, human
establishments appear at the first glance like so many castles built upon
quicksand; it is only by taking a nearer survey of them, and by removing the
dust and the sand which surround and disguise the edifice, that we can
perceive the unshakable basis upon which it stands, and learn to respect its
foundations. Now, without a serious study of man, his natural faculties and
their successive developments, we shall never succeed in making these dis-
tinctions, and in separating, in the present constitution of things, what comes
from the divine will from what human contrivance has aspired to do. The
political and moral reflections, to which the important question I examine
gives rise, are therefore useful in many ways; and the hypothetical history of
governments is, in regard to man, an instructive lesson in every respect. By
considering what we should have become, had we been left to ourselves, we
ought to learn to bless him, whose gracious hand, correcting our institutions,
and giving them an unshakable foundation, has thereby prevented the disor-
ders which they otherwise must have produced, and made our happiness
flow from means, which seemed bound to complete our misery.
Quem te Deus esse
Jussit, et humana qua parte locatus es in re, Disce.†
* Descartes had maintained that animals are merely machines, without conscious
† ‘‘Learn whom God has ordered you to be and in what part in human affairs you have
been placed.’’ (Persius, Satires, III, 71).
Posed by the Academy of Dijon
What is the origin of inequality
among mankind and does
natural law decree inequality?
on the Origin and the Foundations
of Inequality Among Mankind
It is of man I am to speak; and the question into which I am inquiring
informs me that it is to men that I am going to speak; for to those alone, who
are not afraid of honoring truth, it belongs to propose discussions of this
kind. I shall therefore defend with confidence the cause of mankind before
the sages, who invite me to stand up in its defense; and I shall think myself
happy, if I can but behave in a manner not unworthy of my subject and of
my judges.
I conceive two species of inequality among men; one which I call natu-
ral, or physical inequality, because it is established by nature, and consists
in the difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the
mind, or of the soul; the other which may be termed moral, or political
inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or
at least authorized by the common consent of mankind. This species of
inequality consists in the different privileges, which some men enjoy, to the
prejudice of others, such as that of being richer, more honored, more power-
ful, and even that of exacting obedience from them.
It were absurd to ask, what is the cause of natural inequality, seeing the
bare definition of natural inequality answers the question: it would be more
absurd still to inquire, if there might not be some essential connection
between the two species of inequality, as it would be asking, in other words,
if those who command are necessarily better men than those who obey; and
if strength of body or of mind, wisdom or virtue are always to be found in
individuals, in the same proportion with power, or riches: a question, fit
perhaps to be discussed by slaves in the hearing of their masters, but un-
becoming free and reasonable beings in quest of truth.
What therefore is precisely the subject of this discourse? It is to point
out, in the progress of things, that moment, when, Right taking place of
violence, nature became subject to law; to unfold that chain of amazing
events, in consequence of which the strong submitted to serve the weak,
and the people to purchase imaginary ease, at the expense of real happiness.
The philosophers, who have examined the foundations of society, have
88 The Second Discourse
all perceived the necessity of tracing it back to a state of nature, but not one
of them has ever got there. Some of them have not scrupled to attribute to
men in that state the ideas of justice and injustice, without troubling them-
selves to prove that he really must have had such ideas, or even that such
ideas were useful to him: others have spoken of the natural right of every
man to keep what belongs to him, without letting us know what they meant
by the word belong; others, without further ceremony ascribing to the
strongest an authority over the weakest, have immediately brought govern-
ment into being, without thinking of the time requisite for men to form any
notion of the things signified by the words authority and government. All of
them, in fine, constantly harping on wants, avidity, oppression, desires, and
pride, have transferred to the state of nature ideas picked up in the bosom of
society. In speaking of savages they described citizens. Nay, few of our own
writers seem to have so much as doubted, that a state of nature did once
actually exist; though it plainly appears by sacred history, that even the first
man, immediately furnished as he was by God himself with both instruc-
tions and precepts, never lived in that state, and that, if we give to the Books
of Moses that credit which every Christian philosopher ought to give to
them, we must deny that, even before the Deluge, such a state ever existed
among men, unless they fell into it by some extraordinary event: a paradox
very difficult to maintain, and altogether impossible to prove.
Let us begin, therefore, by laying aside facts, for they do not affect the
question. The researches, in which we may engage on this occasion, are not
to be taken for historical truths, but merely as hypothetical and conditional
reasonings, fitter to illustrate the nature of things, than to show their true
origin, like those systems, which our naturalists daily make of the formation
of the world. Religion commands us to believe that men, having been
drawn by God himself out of a state of nature, are unequal, because it is His
pleasure they should be so; but religion does not forbid us to draw conjec-
tures solely from the nature of man, considered in itself, and from that of the
beings which surround him, concerning the fate of mankind, had they been
left to themselves. This is then the question I am to answer, the question I
propose to examine in the present discourse. As mankind in general has an
interest in my subject, I shall endeavor to use a language suitable to all
nations; or rather, forgetting the circumstances of time and place in order to
think of nothing but the men I speak to, I shall suppose myself in the
Lyceum of Athens, repeating the lessons of my masters before the Platos
and the Xenocrates of that famous seat of philosophy as my judges, and in
presence of the whole human species as my audience.
O man, of whatever country you are, whatever your opinions may be,
First Part 89
attend to my words; here is your history such as I think I have read it, not in
books composed by your fellowmen, for they are liars, but in the book of
nature which never lies. All that comes from her will be true, nor will there
be anything false, but where I may happen, without intending it, to intro-
duce something of my own. The times I am going to speak of are very
remote. How much are you changed from what you once were! It is in a
manner the life of your species that I am going to write, from the qualities
which you have received, and which your education and your habits have
succeeded in depraving, but could not destroy. There is, I feel, an age at
which every individual would choose to stop; and you will look for the age
at which, had you your wish, your species had stopped. Discontented with
your present condition for reasons which threaten your unhappy posterity
with still greater vexations, you will perhaps wish it were in your power to
go back; and this sentiment ought to be considered a panegyric of your first
ancestors, a criticism of your contemporaries, and a source of terror to those
who may have the misfortune of coming after you.
First Part
However important it may be, in order to form a proper judgment of the
natural state of man, to consider him from his origin, and to examine him, as
it were, in the first embryo of the species, I shall not attempt to trace his
organization through its successive developments: I shall not stop to exam-
ine in the animal system what he may have been in the beginning, in order
to have become at last what he actually is. I shall not inquire, whether, as
Aristotle thinks, his extended nails were no better at first than crooked
talons; whether his whole body was not, bear-like, thickly covered with
hair; and whether, walking upon all fours, his looks directed to the earth,
and confined to a horizon of a few paces extent, did not at once point out the
nature and limits of his ideas. I could only form vague, and almost imagi-
nary, conjectures on this subject. Comparative anatomy has not as yet made
sufficient progress; and the observations of natural philosophy are too un-
certain, to establish upon such foundations the basis of any solid reasoning.
For this reason, without having recourse to the supernatural information
with which we have been favored on this head, or paying any attention to
the changes, that must have happened in the internal, as well as external
conformation of man, in proportion as he applied his limbs to new purposes,
and took to new foods, I shall suppose his conformation to have always
been, what we now behold it; that he always walked on two feet, made the
90 The Second Discourse
same use of his hands that we do of ours, extended his looks over the whole
face of nature, and measured with his eyes the vast extent of the heavens.*
If I strip this being, thus constituted, of all the supernatural gifts which
he may have received, and of all the artificial faculties, which he could not
have acquired but by slow degrees; if I consider him, in a word, such as he
must have issued from the hands of nature; I see an animal less strong than
some, and less agile than others, but, upon the whole, the most advan-
tageously organized of any: I see him satisfying his hunger under an oak,
and his thirst at the first brook; I see him laying himself down to sleep at the
foot of the same tree that afforded him his meal; and there are all his wants
completely supplied.
The earth, left to its own natural fertility, and covered with immense
woods that no hatchet ever disfigured, offers at every step food and shelter
to every species of animals. Men, dispersed among them, observe and
imitate their industry, and thus rise as high as the instinct of beasts; with this
advantage, that, whereas every species of beasts is confined to one peculiar
instinct, man, who perhaps has not any that particularly belongs to him,
appropriates to himself those of all other animals, and lives equally upon
most of the different foods, which they only divide among themselves; a
circumstance which qualifies him to find his subsistence more easily than
any of them.
Accustomed from their infancy to the inclemency of the weather, and to
the rigor of the different seasons; inured to fatigue, and obliged to defend,
naked and without arms, their life and their prey against the other wild
inhabitants of the forest, or at least to avoid their fury by flight, men acquire
a robust and almost unalterable constitution. The children, bringing with
them into the world the excellent constitution of their parents, and strength-
ening it by the same exercises that first produced it, attain by this means all
the vigor that the human frame is capable of. Nature treats them exactly in
the same manner that Sparta treated the children of her citizens; those who
come well formed into the world she renders strong and robust, and de-
stroys all the rest; differing in this respect from our societies, in which the
State, by permitting children to become burdensome to their parents, mur-
ders them without distinction in the wombs of their mothers.
The body being the only instrument that savage man is acquainted with,
he employs it to different uses, of which ours, for want of practice, are
incapable; and we may thank our industry for the loss of that strength and
* Rousseau was well acquainted with the theory of evolution that had been sketched
by his friend, Diderot, in his Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (1753).
First Part 91
agility, which necessity obliges him to acquire. Had he a hatchet, would his
hand so easily snap off from an oak so stout a branch? Had he a sling, would
it hurl a stone to so great a distance? Had he a ladder, would he climb so
nimbly up a tree? Had he a horse, would he run with such swiftness? Give
civilized man but time to gather about him all his machines, and no doubt he
will outmatch the savage: but if you have a mind to see a contest still more
unequal, place them naked and unarmed one opposite to the other; and you
will soon discover the advantage there is in perpetually having all our
forces constantly at our disposal, in being constantly prepared against
all events, and in always carrying ourselves, as it were, whole and entire
about us.
Hobbes would have it that man is naturally void of fear, and intent only
upon attacking and fighting. An illustrious philosopher* thinks on the con-
trary, and Cumberland and Pufendorf likewise affirm it, that nothing is more
timid than man in a state of nature, that he is always in a tremble, and ready
to fly at the first motion he perceives, at the first noise that strikes his ears.
This, indeed, may be very true in regard to objects with which he is not
acquainted; and I make no doubt of his being terrified at every new sight
that presents itself, whenever he cannot distinguish the physical good and
evil which he may expect from it, nor compare his strength with the dangers
he has to encounter; circumstances that seldom occur in a state of nature,
where all things proceed in so uniform a manner, and the face of the earth is
not liable to those sudden and continual changes occasioned in it by the
passions and inconstancies of men living in bodies. But savage man living
dispersed among other animals and finding himself early under a necessity
of measuring his strength with theirs, soon makes a comparison between
both, and finding that he surpasses them more in address, than they surpass
him in strength, he learns not to be any longer in dread of them. Turn out a
bear or a wolf against a sturdy, active, resolute savage (and this they all are),
provided with stones and a good stick, and you will soon find that the
danger is at least equal on both sides, and that after several trials of this
kind, wild beasts, who are not fond of attacking each other, will not be very
disposed to attack man, whom they have found every whit as wild as
themselves. As to animals who have really more strength than man has
address, he is, in regard to them, what other weaker species are, who find
means to subsist notwithstanding; he has even this great advantage over
such weaker species, that being equally fleet with them, and finding on
every tree an almost inviolable asylum, he is always at liberty to accept or to
* Montesquieu, in the Esprit des lois, I, ii.
92 The Second Discourse
refuse the encounter, to fight or to fly. Let us add that it appears that no
animal naturally makes war on man, except in the case of self-defense or
extreme hunger; nor ever expresses against him any of these violent antipa-
thies, which seem to indicate that one species is intended by nature for the
food of another.
But there are other more formidable enemies, and against which man is
not provided with the same means of defense; I mean natural infirmities,
infancy, old age, and sickness of every kind; melancholy proofs of our
weakness, whereof the two first are common to all animals, and the last
chiefly attends man living in a state of society. It is even observable in
regard to infancy, that the mother being able to carry her child about with
her, wherever she goes, can perform the duty of a nurse with a great deal
less trouble than the females of many other animals, who are obliged to be
constantly going and coming with no small labor and fatigue, one way to
look out for their own subsistence, and another to suckle and feed their
young ones. True it is that, if the woman happens to perish, her child is
exposed to the greatest danger of perishing with her; but this danger is
common to a hundred other species, whose young ones require a great deal
of time to be able to provide for themselves; and if our infancy is longer
than theirs, our life is longer likewise; so that, in this respect too, all things
are in a manner equal; not but that there are other rules concerning the
duration of the first age of life, and the number of the young of man and
other animals, but they do not belong to my subject. With old men, who stir
and perspire but little, the demand for food diminishes with their abilities to
provide it; and as a savage life would exempt them from the gout and the
rheumatism, and old age is of all ills that which human assistance is least
capable of alleviating, they would at last go off, without its being per-
ceived by others that they ceased to exist, and almost without perceiving it
In regard to sickness, I shall not repeat the vain and false declamations
made use of to discredit medicine by most men, while they enjoy their
health; I shall only ask if there are any solid observations from which we
may conclude that in those countries, where the healing art is most ne-
glected, the mean duration of man’s life is shorter than in those where it is
most cultivated. And how is it possible this should be the case, if we inflict
more diseases upon ourselves than medicine can supply us with remedies?
The extreme inequalities in the manner of living of the several classes of
mankind, the excess of idleness in some, and of labor in others, the facility
of irritating and satisfying our sensuality and our appetites, the too exquisite
and out of the way foods of the rich, which fill them with fiery juices, and
First Part 93
bring on indigestions, the unwholesome food of the poor, of which even,
bad as it is, they very often fall short, and the want of which tempts them,
every opportunity that offers, to eat greedily and overload their stomachs;
late nights, excesses of every kind, immoderate transports of all the pas-
sions, fatigues, mental exhaustion, in a word, the numberless pains and
anxieties annexed to every condition, and which the mind of man is con-
stantly a prey to; these are the fatal proofs that most of our ills are of our
own making, and that we might have avoided them all by adhering to the
simple, uniform and solitary way of life prescribed to us by nature. Allow-
ing that nature intended we should always enjoy good health, I dare almost
affirm that a state of reflection is a state against nature, and that the man who
meditates is a degenerate animal. We need only call to mind the good
constitution of savages, of those at least whom we have not destroyed by
our strong liquors; we need only reflect, that they are strangers to almost
every disease, except those occasioned by wounds and old age, to be in a
manner convinced that the history of human diseases might be easily writ-
ten by pursuing that of civil societies. Such at least was the opinion of Plato,
who concluded from certain remedies made use of or approved by Poda-
lirius and Machaon at the Siege of Troy, that several disorders, which these
remedies were found to bring on in his days, were not known among men at
that remote period; and Celsus relates that dieting, so necessary nowadays,
was first invented by Hippocrates.
Man therefore, in a state of nature where there are so few sources of
sickness, can have no great occasion for physic, and still less for physicians;
neither is the human species more to be pitied in this respect, than any other
species of animals. Ask those who make hunting their recreation or busi-
ness, if in their excursions they meet with many sick or feeble animals.
They meet with many carrying the marks of considerable wounds, that have
been perfectly well healed and closed up; with many, whose bones formerly
broken, and whose limbs almost torn off, have completely knit and united,
without any other surgeon but time, any other regimen but their usual way
of living, and whose cures were not the less perfect for their not having been
tortured with incisions, poisoned with drugs, or worn out by fasting. In a
word, however useful medicine well administered may be to us who live in
a state of society, it is still past doubt, that if, on the one hand, the sick
savage, destitute of help, has nothing to hope for except from nature, on the
other, he has nothing to fear but from its ills; a circumstance which often
renders his situation preferable to ours.
Let us therefore beware of confusing savage man with the men with
whom we associate. Nature behaves towards all animals left to her care
94 The Second Discourse
with a predilection that seems to prove how jealous she is of that preroga-
tive. The horse, the cat, the bull, nay the ass itself, have generally a higher
stature, and always a more robust constitution, more vigor, more strength
and courage in their forests than in our houses; they lose half these advan-
tages by becoming domestic animals; it looks as if all our attention to treat
them kindly, and to feed them well, served only to bastardize them. It is thus
with man himself. In proportion as he becomes sociable and a slave to
others, he becomes weak, fearful, mean-spirited, and his soft and effemi-
nate way of living at once completes the enervation of his strength and of
his courage. We may add, that there must be still a wider difference between
man and man in a savage and domestic condition, than between beast and
beast; for as men and beasts have been treated alike by nature, all the
comforts with which men indulge themselves, still more than they do the
beasts tamed by them, are so many particular causes which make them
degenerate more markedly.
Nakedness, therefore, the want of houses, and of all these superfluities,
which we consider as so very necessary, are not such mighty evils in respect
to these primitive men, and much less still any obstacle to their preserva-
tion. Their skin, it is true, is destitute of hair; but then they have no occasion
for any such covering in warm climates; and in cold climates they soon
learn to apply to that use those of the animals they have conquered; they
have only two feet to run with, but they have two hands to defend them-
selves with, and provide for all their wants; their children, perhaps, learn to
walk later and with difficulty, but their mothers carry them with ease; an
advantage not granted to other species of animals, with whom the mother,
when pursued, is obliged to abandon her young ones, or regulate her step by
theirs. In short, unless we admit those singular and fortuitous concurrences
of circumstances, which I shall speak of hereafter, and which, it is very
possible, may never have existed, it is evident, in any case, that the man
who first made himself clothes and built himself a cabin supplied himself
with things which he did not much need, since he had lived without them till
then; and why should he not have been able to support, in his riper years, the
same kind of life, which he had supported from his infancy?
Alone, idle, and always surrounded with danger, savage man must be
fond of sleep, and sleep lightly like other animals, who think but little, and
may, in a manner, be said to sleep all the time they do not think: self-
preservation being almost his only concern, he must exercise those faculties
most which are most serviceable in attacking and in defending, whether to
subdue his prey, or to prevent his becoming that of other animals: those
organs, on the contrary, which softness and sensuality can alone improve,
First Part 95
must remain in a state of rudeness, utterly incompatible with all manner of
delicacy; and as his senses are divided on this point, his touch and his taste
must be extremely coarse and blunt; his sight, his hearing, and his smelling
equally subtle: such is the animal state in general, and accordingly, if we
may believe travelers, it is that of most savage nations. We must not there-
fore be surprised, that the Hottentots of the Cape of Good Hope distinguish
with their naked eyes ships on the ocean, at as great a distance as the Dutch
can discern them with their glasses; nor that the savages of America should
have tracked the Spaniards with their smell, to as great a degree of exact-
ness, as the best dogs could have done; nor that all these barbarous nations
support nakedness without pain, use such large quantities of pimento to
give their food a relish, and drink like water the strongest liquors of Europe.
As yet I have considered man merely in his physical capacity; let us now
endeavor to examine him in a metaphysical and moral light.
I can discover nothing in any animal but an ingenious machine, to which
nature has given senses to wind itself up, and guard, to a certain degree,
against everything that might destroy or disorder it. I perceive the very
same things in the human machine, with this difference, that nature alone
operates in all the operations of the beast, whereas man, as a free agent, has
a share in his. One chooses by instinct; the other by an act of liberty; for
which reason the beast cannot deviate from the rules that have been pre-
scribed to it, even in cases where such deviation might be useful, and man
often deviates from the rules laid down for him to his prejudice. Thus a
pigeon would starve near a dish of the best meat, and a cat on a heap of fruit
or corn, though both might very well support life with the food which they
thus disdain, did they but bethink themselves to make a trial of it. It is in this
manner that dissolute men run into excesses, which bring on fevers and
death itself; because the mind depraves the senses, and when nature ceases
to speak, the will still continues to dictate.
All animals have ideas, since all animals have senses; they even com-
bine their ideas to a certain degree, and, in this respect, it is only the
difference of such degree that constitutes the difference between man and
beast: some philosophers have even advanced, that there is a greater differ-
ence between some men and some others, than between some men and
some beasts; it is not therefore so much the understanding that constitutes,
among animals, the specific distinction of man, as his quality of a free
agent. Nature speaks to all animals, and beasts obey her voice. Man feels
the same impulse, but he at the same time perceives that he is free to resist
or to acquiesce; and it is in the consciousness of this liberty, that the spir-
ituality of his soul chiefly appears: for natural philosophy explains, in some
96 The Second Discourse
measure, the mechanism of the senses and the formation of ideas; but in the
power of willing, or rather of choosing, and in the consciousness of this
power, nothing can be discovered but acts, that are purely spiritual, and
cannot be accounted for by the laws of mechanics.
But even if the difficulties, in which all these questions are involved,
should leave some room to dispute on this difference between man and
beast, there is another very specific quality that distinguishes them, and a
quality which will admit of no dispute; this is the faculty of improvement;*
a faculty which, as circumstances offer, successively unfolds all the other
faculties, and resides among us not only in the species, but in the individ-
uals that compose it; whereas a beast is, at the end of some months, all he
ever will be during the rest of his life; and his species, at the end of a
thousand years, precisely what it was the first year of that thousand. Why is
man alone subject to dotage? Is it not, because he thus returns to his primi-
tive condition? And because, while the beast, which has acquired nothing
and has likewise nothing to lose, continues always in possession of his
instinct, man, losing by old age, or by accidents, all the acquisitions he had
made in consequence of his perfectibility, thus falls back even lower than
beasts themselves? It would be a melancholy necessity for us to be obliged
to allow that this distinctive and almost unlimited faculty is the source of all
man’s misfortunes; that it is this faculty, which, though by slow degrees,
draws him out of his original condition, in which his days would slide away
insensibly in peace and innocence; that it is this faculty, which, in a succes-
sion of ages, produces his discoveries and mistakes, his virtues and his
vices, and, in the long run, renders him both his own and nature’s tyrant. (i)
It would be shocking to be obliged to commend, as a beneficent being,
whoever he was that first suggested to the Orinoco Indians the use of those
boards which they bind on the temples of their children, and which secure to
them the enjoyment of some part at least of their natural imbecility and
Savage man, abandoned by nature to pure instinct, or rather indemnified
for the instinct which has perhaps been denied to him by faculties capable
of immediately supplying its place, and of raising him afterwards a great
deal higher, would therefore begin with purely animal functions: to see and
to feel would be his first condition, which he would enjoy in common with
other animals. To will and not to will, to wish and to fear, would be the first,
and in a manner, the only operations of his soul, until new circumstances
occasioned new developments.
* Rousseau uses the word perfectibilité, which means the capacity to make progress.
First Part 97
Let moralists say what they will, the human understanding is greatly
indebted to the passions, which, on their side, are likewise universally
allowed to be greatly indebted to the human understanding. It is by the
activity of our passions, that our reason improves; we covet knowledge
merely because we covet enjoyment, and it is impossible to conceive, why a
man exempt from fears and desires should take the trouble to reason. The
passions, in their turn, owe their origin to our needs, and their increase to
our progress in science; for we cannot desire or fear anything, but in conse-
quence of the ideas we have of it, or of the simple impulses of nature; and
savage man, destitute of every species of knowledge, experiences no pas-
sions but those of this last kind; his desires never extend beyond his physi-
cal wants; (k) He knows no goods but food, a female, and rest; he fears no
evils but pain, and hunger; I say pain, and not death; for no animal, merely
as such, will ever know what it is to die, and the knowledge of death, and of
its terrors, is one of the first acquisitions made by man, in consequence of
his deviating from the animal state.
I could easily, were it necessary, cite facts in support of this opinion, and
show that the progress of the mind has everywhere kept pace exactly with
the wants to which nature had left the inhabitants exposed, or to which
circumstances had subjected them, and consequently to the passions, which
inclined them to provide for these wants. I could exhibit in Egypt the arts
starting up, and extending themselves with the inundations of the Nile; I
could pursue them in their progress among the Greeks, where they were
seen to bud, grow, and rise to the heavens, in the midst of the sands and
rocks of Attica, without being able to take root on the fertile banks of the
Europus; I would observe, that, in general, the inhabitants of the north are
more industrious than those of the south, because they can less do without
industry; as if nature thus meant to make all things equal, by giving to the
mind that fertility she has denied to the soil.
But leaving aside the uncertain testimony of history, who does not per-
ceive that everything seems to remove from savage man the temptation and
the means of altering his condition? His imagination paints nothing to him;
his heart asks nothing from him. His moderate wants are so easily supplied
with what he everywhere finds ready to his hand, and he stands at such a
distance from the degree of knowledge requisite to covet more, that he can
neither have foresight nor curiosity. The spectacle of nature, by growing
quite familiar to him, becomes at last equally indifferent. It is constantly the
same order, constantly the same revolutions; he has not sense enough to feel
surprise at the sight of the greatest wonders; and it is not in his mind we
must look for that philosophy, which man must have to know how to
98 The Second Discourse
observe once, what he has every day seen. His soul, which nothing disturbs,
gives itself up entirely to the consciousness of its present existence, without
any thought of even the nearest futurity; and his projects, equally confined
with his views, scarce extend to the end of the day. Such is, even at present,
the degree of foresight in the Caribbean: he sells his cotton bed in the
morning, and comes in the evening, with tears in his eyes, to buy it back, not
having foreseen that he should want it again the next night.
The more we meditate on this subject, the wider does the distance be-
tween mere sensation and the most simple knowledge become in our eyes;
and it is impossible to conceive how man, by his own powers alone, without
the assistance of communication, and the spur of necessity, could have got
over so great an interval. How many ages perhaps revolved, before man
beheld any other fire but that of the heavens? How many different accidents
must have concurred to make them acquainted with the most common uses
of this element? How often have they let it go out, before they knew the
art of reproducing it? And how often perhaps has not every one of these
secrets perished with the discoverer? What shall we say of agriculture, an
art which requires so much labor and foresight; which depends upon other
arts; which, it is very evident, can be practiced only in a society which had
at least begun, and which does not so much serve to draw from the earth
food which it would yield them without all that trouble, as to oblige her to
produce those things which are preferable to our taste? But let us suppose
that men had multiplied to such a degree, that the natural products of the
earth no longer sufficed for their support; a supposition which, by the way,
would prove that this kind of life would be very advantageous to the human
species; let us suppose that, without forge or workshops, the instruments of
husbandry had dropped from the heavens into the hands of savages, that
these men had overcome that mortal aversion they all have for constant
labor; that they had learned to foretell their wants at so great a distance of
time; that they had guessed exactly how they were to break the earth, sow
the grain and plant trees; that they had found out the art of grinding their
corn, and improving by fermentation the juice of their grapes; all operations
which must have been taught them by the gods, since we cannot conceive
how they should make such discoveries of themselves; after all these fine
presents, what man would be mad enough to cultivate a field, that may be
robbed by the first comer, man or beast, who takes a fancy to the produce of
it. And would any man consent to spend his days in labor and fatigue, when
the rewards of his labor and fatigue became more and more precarious in
proportion of his want of them? In a word, how could this situation engage
First Part 99
men to cultivate the earth, as long as it was not parceled out among them,
that is, as long as a state of nature subsisted.
Though we should suppose savage man as well-versed in the art of
thinking, as philosophers make him; though we were, following them, to
make him a philosopher himself, discovering by himself the sublimest
truths, forming to himself, by the most abstract arguments, maxims of
justice and reason drawn from the love of order in general, or from the
known will of his Creator: in a word, though we were to suppose his mind
as intelligent and enlightened as it would have had to be, and is in fact found
to have been dull and stupid; what benefit would the species receive from
all these metaphysical discoveries, which could not be communicated, but
must perish with the individual who had made them? What progress could
mankind make in the forests, scattered up and down among the other ani-
mals? And to what degree could men mutually improve and enlighten each
other, when they had no fixed habitation, nor any need of each other’s
assistance; when the same persons scarcely met twice in their whole lives,
and on meeting neither spoke to, or so much as knew each other.
Let us consider how many ideas we owe to the use of speech; how much
grammar exercises and facilitates the operations of the mind; let us, be-
sides, reflect on the immense pains and time that the first invention of lan-
guages must have required: let us add these reflections to the preceding; and
then we may judge how many thousand ages must have been requisite to
develop successively the operations, which the human mind is capable
of producing.
I must now beg leave to stop one moment to consider the perplexities
attending the origin of languages. I might here barely cite or repeat the
researches made, in relation to this question, by the Abbé de Condillac,*
which all fully confirm my system, and perhaps even suggested to me the
first idea of it. But, as the matter in which this philosopher resolves the dif-
ficulties he himself raises concerning the origin of arbitrary signs shows
that he supposes, what I doubt, namely a kind of society already estab-
lished among the inventors of languages; I think it my duty, at the same
time that I refer to his reflections, to give my own, in order to expose the
same difficulties in a light suitable to my subject. The first that offers itself
is how languages could become necessary; for as there was no correspon-
dence between men, nor the least necessity for any, there is no conceiv-
ing the necessity of this invention, nor the possibility of it, if it was not
* In the Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746).
100 The Second Discourse
indispensable. I might say, with many others, that languages are the fruit of
the domestic intercourse between fathers, mothers, and children: but this,
besides its not answering the difficulties, would be committing the same
error as those, who reasoning on the state of nature, transfer to it ideas
gathered in society, always consider families as living together under one
roof, and their members as observing among themselves a union, equally
intimate and permanent as that which exists among us, where so many
common interests unite them; whereas in this primitive state, as there were
neither houses nor cabins, nor any kind of property, everyone took up
his lodging at random, and seldom continued above one night in the same
place; males and females united without any premeditated design, as
chance, occasion, or desire brought them together, nor had they any great
occasion for language to make known what they had to say to each other.
They parted with the same ease. (l) The mother suckled her children, when
just born, for her own sake; but afterwards when habit had made them dear
to her, for theirs; but they no sooner gained strength enough to run about in
quest of food than they separated even from her, and as they scarcely had
any other method of not losing each other, than that of remaining constantly
in each other’s sight, they soon came to a point of not even recognizing each
other when they happened to meet again. I must further observe, that the
child having all his wants to explain, and consequently more things to say to
his mother, than the mother can have to say to him, it is he that must be at
the chief expense of invention, and the language he makes use of must be in
a great measure his own work; this makes the number of languages equal to
that of the individuals who are to speak them; and this multiplicity of
languages is further increased by their roving and vagabond kind of life,
which allows no idiom time enough to acquire any consistency; for to say
that the mother would have dictated to the child the words he must employ
to ask her this thing and that, may well enough explain in what manner
languages, already formed, are taught, but it does not show us in what
manner they are first formed.
Let us suppose this first difficulty conquered: Let us for a moment con-
sider ourselves on this side of the immense space, which must have sepa-
rated the pure state of nature from that in which languages became neces-
sary, and let us, after allowing their necessity, examine how languages could
begin to be established: a new difficulty this, still more stubborn than the
preceding; for if men stood in need of speech to learn to think, they must
have stood in still greater need of the art of thinking to invent that of
speaking; and though we could conceive how the sounds of the voice came
to be taken for the conventional interpreters of our ideas we should not be
First Part 101
the nearer knowing who could have been the interpreters of this convention
for such ideas, which, in consequence of their not corresponding to any
sensible objects, could not be indicated by gesture or voice; so that we can
scarcely form any tolerable conjectures concerning the birth of this art of
communicating our thoughts, and establishing a correspondence between
minds: a sublime art which, though so remote from its origin, philosophers
still behold at such a prodigious distance from its perfection, that I never
met with one of them bold enough to affirm it would ever arrive there, even
though the revolutions necessarily produced by time were suspended in its
favor; though prejudice could be banished from, or would at least consent to
sit silent in the presence of our academies; and though these societies
should consecrate themselves, entirely and during whole ages, to the study
of this thorny matter.
The first language of man, the most universal and most energetic of all
languages, in short, the only language he needed, before there was a neces-
sity of persuading assembled multitudes, was the cry of nature. As this cry
was never extorted but by a kind of instinct in the most urgent cases, to
implore assistance in great danger, or relief in great sufferings, it was of
little use in the common occurrences of life, where more moderate senti-
ments generally prevail. When the ideas of men began to extend and multi-
ply, and a closer communication began to take place among them, they
labored to devise more numerous signs, and a more extensive language:
they multiplied the inflections of the voice, and added to them gestures,
which are, in their own nature, more expressive, and whose meaning de-
pends less on any prior determination. They therefore expressed visible and
movable objects by gestures, and those which strike the ear by imitative
sounds: but as gestures scarcely indicate anything except objects that are
actually present or can be easily described, and visible actions; as they are
not of general use, since darkness or the interposition of a material object
renders them useless; and as besides they require attention rather than
excite it; men at length bethought themselves of substituting for them the
articulations of voice, which, without having the same relation to any deter-
minate object, are, in quality of conventional signs, fitter to represent all our
ideas; a substitution, which could only have been made by common con-
sent, and in a manner pretty difficult to practice by men, whose rude organs
were unimproved by exercise; a substitution, which is in itself still more
difficult to be conceived, since such a common agreement would have
required a motive, and speech therefore appears to have been exceedingly
requisite to establish the use of speech.
We must suppose, that the words, first made use of by men, had in their
102 The Second Discourse
minds a much more extensive signification, than those employed in lan-
guages of some standing, and that, considering how ignorant they were of
the division of speech into its constituent parts, they at first gave every word
the meaning of an entire proposition. When afterwards they began to per-
ceive the difference between the subject and attribute, and between verb
and noun, a distinction which required no mean effort of genius, the sub-
stantives for a time were only so many proper names, the infinitive was the
only tense, and as to adjectives, great difficulties must have attended the
development of the idea that represents them, since every adjective is an
abstract word, and abstraction is an unnatural and very painful operation.
At first they gave every object a peculiar name, without any regard to its
genus or species, things which these first originators of language were in no
condition to distinguish; and every individual presented itself in isolation of
their minds, as they are in the picture of nature. If they called one oak A,
they called another oak B: so that their dictionary must have been more
extensive in proposition as their knowledge of things was more confined. It
could not but be a very difficult task to get rid of so diffuse and embarrassing
a nomenclature; as in order to marshal the several beings under common
and generic denominations, it was necessary to be first acquainted with
their properties, and their differences; to be stocked with observations and
definitions, that is to say, to understand natural history and metaphysics,
advantages which the men of these times could not have enjoyed.
Besides, general ideas cannot be conveyed to the mind without the
assistance of words, nor can the understanding seize them except by means
of propositions. This is one of the reasons why mere animals cannot form
such ideas, nor ever acquire the perfectibility, which depends on such an
operation. When a monkey leaves without the least hesitation one nut for
another, are we to think he has any general idea of that kind of fruit, and that
he compares its archetype with these two individual bodies? No certainly;
but the sight of one of these nuts calls back to his memory the sensations
which he has received from the other; and his eyes, modified after some
certain manner, give notice to his palate of the modification it is in its turn
going to receive. Every general idea is purely intellectual; let the imagina-
tion tamper ever so little with it, it immediately becomes a particular idea.
Endeavor to represent to yourself the image of a tree in general, you never
will be able to do it; in spite of all your efforts it will appear big or little, with
thin or thick foliage, light or dark; and were you able to see nothing in it, but
what can be seen in every tree, such a picture would no longer resemble any
tree. Beings perfectly abstract are perceivable in the same manner, or are
only conceivable by the assistance of speech. The definition of a triangle
First Part 103
can alone give you a just idea of that figure: the moment you form a triangle
in your mind, it is this or that particular triangle and no other, and you
cannot avoid giving breadth to its lines and color to its area. We must
therefore make use of propositions; we must therefore speak to have gen-
eral ideas; for the moment the imagination stops, the mind can continue to
function only with the aid of discourse. If therefore the first inventors could
give no names to any ideas but those they had already, it follows that the
first substantives could never have been anything more than proper names.
But when by means, which I cannot conceive, our new grammarians
began to extend their ideas, and generalize their words, the ignorance of the
inventors must have confined this method to very narrow bounds; and as
they had at first too much multiplied the names of individuals for want of
being acquainted with the distinctions called genus and species, they after-
wards made too few genera and species for want of having considered
beings in all their differences: to push the divisions far enough, they must
have had more knowledge and experience than we can allow them, and
have made more researches and taken more pains, than we can suppose
them willing to submit to. Now if, even at this present time, we every day
discover new species, which had before escaped all our observations, how
many species must have escaped the notice of men, who judged of things
merely from their first appearances! As to the primitive classes and the most
general notions, it were superfluous to add that these they must have like-
wise overlooked: how, for example, could they have thought of or under-
stood the words, matter, spirit, substance, mode, figure, motion, since even
our philosophers, who for so long a time have been constantly employing
these terms, can themselves scarcely understand them, and since the ideas
annexed to these words being purely metaphysical, they could find no
models of them in nature?
I stop at these first advances, and beseech my judges to suspend their
reading a little, in order to consider, what a great way language has still to
go, in regard to the invention of physical substantives alone (though the
easiest part of language to invent), to be able to express all the sentiments of
man, to assume an invariable form, to bear being spoken in public, and to
influence society. I earnestly entreat them to consider how much time and
knowledge must have been requisite to find out numbers, abstract words,
the aorists, and all the other tenses of verbs, the particles, and syntax, the
method of connecting propositions and arguments, of forming all the logic
of discourse. For my own part, I am so frightened by the difficulties that
multiply at every step, and so convinced of the almost demonstrated impos-
sibility of languages owing their birth and establishment to means that were
104 The Second Discourse
merely human, that I must leave to whoever may please to take it up, the
task of discussing this difficult problem, ‘‘Which was the more necessary,
society already formed to invent languages, or languages already invented
to form society?’’
Whatever these origins may have been, we may at least infer from the
little care which nature has taken to bring men together by mutual wants,
and make the use of speech easy to them, how little she has done towards
making them sociable, and how little she has contributed to anything which
they themselves have done to become so. In fact, it is impossible to con-
ceive, why, in this primitive state, one man should have more occasion for
the assistance of another, than one monkey, or one wolf for that of another
animal of the same species; or supposing that he had, what motive could
induce another to assist him; or even, if he did so, how he, who wanted
assistance, and he from whom it was wanted, could agree upon the condi-
tions. I know we are continually told that in this state man would have been
the most wretched of all creatures; and if it is true, as I fancy I have
proved it, that he must have continued many ages without either the desire
or the opportunity of emerging from such a state, their assertion could
only serve to justify a charge against nature, and not any against the being
which nature had thus constituted. But, if I thoroughly understand this term
wretched, it is a word that either has no meaning, or signifies nothing but a
privation attended with pain, and a suffering state of body or soul: now I
would fain know what kind of misery can be that of a free being, whose
heart enjoys perfect peace, and body perfect health? and which is most
likely to become insupportable to those who enjoy it, a civil or a natural
life? In civil life we can scarcely meet a single person who does not com-
plain of his existence; many even throw away as much of it as they can, and
the united force of divine and human laws can hardly put a stop to this
disorder. Was ever any free savage known to have been so much tempted to
complain of life, and do away with himself? Let us therefore judge with less
pride on which side real misery is to be placed. Nothing, on the contrary,
would have been so unhappy as savage man, dazzled by flashes of knowl-
edge, racked by passions, and reasoning about a state different from that in
which he saw himself placed. It was in consequence of a very wise provi-
dence, that the faculties, which he potentially enjoyed, were not to develop
themselves, except in proportion as there offered occasions to exercise
them, lest they should be superfluous or troublesome to him when he did not
yet want them, or tardy and useless when he did. He had in his instinct alone
everything requisite to live in a state of nature; in his cultivated reason he
has barely what is necessary to live in a state of society.
First Part 105
It appears at first sight that, as there was no kind of moral relations
between men in this state, nor any known duties, they could not be either
good or bad, and had neither vices nor virtues, unless we take these words in
a physical sense, and call vices, in the individual, the qualities which may
prove detrimental to his own preservation, and virtues those which may
contribute to it; in which case we should be obliged to consider him as most
virtuous, who made least resistance against the simple impulses of nature.
But without deviating from the usual meaning of these terms, it is proper to
suspend the judgment we might form of such a situation, and be on our
guard against prejudice, until, balance in hand, we have examined whether
there are more virtues or vices among civilized men; or whether their
virtues do them more good than their vices do them harm; or whether the
improvement of their understanding is sufficient compensation for the mis-
chief they do to each other, in proportion as they become better informed of
the good they ought to do; or whether, on the whole, they would not be
much happier in a condition, where they had nothing to fear or to hope from
each other, than to have submitted to universal dependence, and to have
obliged themselves to depend for everything upon those, who do not think
themselves obliged to give them anything.
But above all things let us beware of concluding with Hobbes, that man,
as having no idea of goodness, must be naturally bad; that he is vicious
because he does not know what virtue is; that he always refuses to do any
service to those of his own species, because he believes that none is due to
them; that, in virtue of that right which he justly claims to everything he
wants, he foolishly looks upon himself as proprietor of the whole universe.
Hobbes very plainly saw the flaws in all the modern definitions of natural
right: but the consequences, which he draws from his own definition, show
that the sense in which he understands it is equally false. This author, to
argue from his own principles, should say that the state of nature, being that
in which the care of our own preservation interferes least with the preserva-
tion of others, was consequently the most favorable to peace, and the most
suitable to mankind; whereas he advances the very reverse in consequence
of his having injudiciously included in that care which savage man takes of
his preservation, the satisfaction of numberless passions which are the work
of society, and have made laws necessary. A bad man, says he, is a robust
child. But this is not proving that savage man is a robust child; and though
we were to grant that he was, what could this philosopher infer from such a
concession? That if this man, when robust, depended on others as much as
when feeble, there is no excess that he would not be guilty of. He would
make nothing of striking his mother when she delayed ever so little to give
106 The Second Discourse
him the breast; he would claw, and bite, and strangle without remorse the
first of his younger brothers, that ever so accidentally jostled or otherwise
disturbed him. But these are two contradictory suppositions in the state of
nature, to be robust and dependent. Man is weak when dependent, and his
own master before he grows robust. Hobbes did not consider that the same
cause, which hinders savages from making use of their reason, as our
jurisconsults pretend, hinders them at the same time from making an ill use
of their faculties, as he himself pretends; so that we may say that savages
are not bad, precisely because they don’t know what it is to be good; for it is
neither the development of the understanding, nor the curb of the law, but
the calmness of their passions and their ignorance of vice that hinder them
from doing ill: tanto plus in illis proficit vitiorum ignoratio, quam in his
cognitio virtutis.* There is besides another principle that has escaped
Hobbes, and which, having been given to man to moderate, on certain
occasions, the ferocity of self-love, or the desire of self-preservation pre-
vious to the appearance of that love (o) tempers the ardor, with which he
naturally pursues his private welfare, by an innate abhorrence to see beings
suffer that resemble him. I shall not surely be contradicted, in granting to
man the only natural virtue, which the most passionate detractor of human
virtues could not deny him, I mean that of pity, a disposition suitable to
creatures weak as we are, and liable to so many evils; a virtue so much the
more universal, and withal useful to man, as it takes place in him before all
manner of reflection; and so natural, that the beasts themselves sometimes
give evident signs of it. Not to speak of the tenderness of mothers for their
young; and of the dangers they face to screen them from danger; with what
reluctance are horses known to trample upon living bodies; one animal
never passes unmoved by the dead carcass of another animal of the same
species: there are even some who bestow a kind of sepulture upon their
dead fellows; and the mournful lowings of cattle, on their entering the
slaughterhouse, publish the impression made upon them by the horrible
spectacle they are there struck with. It is with pleasure we see the author of
the Fable of the Bees,† forced to acknowledge man a compassionate and
sensitive being; and lay aside, in the example he offers to confirm it, his cold
and subtle style, to place before us the pathetic picture of a man, who, with
his hands tied up, is obliged to behold a beast of prey tear a child from the
arms of his mother, and then with his teeth grind the tender limbs, and with
* ‘‘So much more does ignorance of vice profit these than knowledge of virtue the
others.’’ (Justin, Histories, II, 2.)
† Mandeville.
First Part 107
his claws rend the throbbing entrails of the innocent victim. What horrible
emotions must not such a spectator experience at the sight of an event
which does not personally concern him? What anguish must he not suffer at
his not being able to assist the fainting mother or the expiring infant?
Such is the pure impulse of nature, anterior to all manner of reflection;
such is the force of natural pity, which the most dissolute manners have as
yet found it so difficult to extinguish, since we every day see, in our theatri-
cal representations, those men sympathize with the unfortunate and weep at
their sufferings, who, if in the tyrant’s place, would aggravate the torments
of their enemies. Mandeville was aware that men, in spite of all their
morality, would never have been better than monsters, if nature had not
given them pity to assist reason: but he did not perceive that from this
quality alone flow all the social virtues which he would dispute mankind the
possession of. In fact, what is generosity, what clemency, what humanity,
but pity applied to the weak, to the guilty, or to the human species in
general? Even benevolence and friendship, if we judge right, will appear
the effects of a constant pity, fixed upon a particular object: for to wish that a
person may not suffer, what is it but to wish that he may be happy? Though
it were true that commiseration is no more than a sentiment, which puts us
in the place of him who suffers, a sentiment obscure but active in the
savage, developed but dormant in civilized man, how could this notion
affect the truth of what I advance, but to make it more evident? In fact,
commiseration must be so much the more energetic, the more intimately the
animal, that beholds any kind of distress, identifies himself with the animal
that labors under it. Now it is evident that this identification must have been
infinitely more perfect in the state of nature, than in the state of reason. It is
reason that engenders self-love, and reflection that strengthens it; it is rea-
son that makes man shrink into himself; it is reason that makes him keep
aloof from everything that can trouble or afflict him; it is philosophy that
destroys his connections with other men; it is in consequence of her dictates
that he mutters to himself at the sight of another in distress, You may perish
for aught I care, I am safe. Nothing less than those evils, which threaten the
whole community, can disturb the calm sleep of the philosopher, and force
him from his bed. One man may with impunity murder another under his
windows; he has nothing to do but clap his hands to his ears, argue a little
with himself to hinder nature, that startles within him, from identifying
him with the unhappy sufferer. Savage man lacks this admirable talent;
and for want of wisdom and reason, is always ready foolishly to obey the
first whispers of humanity. In riots and street brawls the populace flock
together, the prudent man sneaks off. It is the dregs of the people, the
108 The Second Discourse
market women, that part the combatants, and hinder gentlefolks from cut-
ting one another’s throats.
It is therefore certain that pity is a natural sentiment, which, by moderat-
ing in every individual the activity of self-love, contributes to the mutual
preservation of the whole species. It is this pity which hurries us without
reflection to the assistance of those we see in distress; it is this pity which, in
a state of nature, takes the place of laws, manners, virtue, with this advan-
tage, that no one is tempted to disobey her gentle voice: it is this pity which
will always hinder a robust savage from plundering a feeble child, or infirm
old man, of the subsistence they have acquired with pain and difficulty, if he
has but the least prospect of providing for himself by any other means: it is
this pity which, instead of that sublime maxim of rational justice, Do to
others as you would have others do to you, inspires all men with that other
maxim of natural goodness a great deal less perfect, but perhaps more
useful, Do good to yourself with as little prejudice as you can to others. It is
in a word, in this natural sentiment, rather than in finespun arguments, that
we must look for the cause of that reluctance which every man would
experience to do evil, even independently of the maxims of education.
Though it may be the peculiar happiness of Socrates and other geniuses of
his stamp to reason themselves into virtue, the human species would long
ago have ceased to exist, had it depended entirely for its preservation on the
reasonings of the individuals that compose it.
With passions so tame, and so salutary a curb, men, rather wild than
wicked, and more attentive to guard against harm than to do any to other
animals, were not exposed to any dangerous dissensions: as they kept up no
manner of intercourse with each other, and were of course strangers to
vanity, to respect, to esteem, to contempt; as they had no notion of what we
call thine and mine, nor any true idea of justice; as they considered any
violence they were liable to as an evil that could be easily repaired, and
not as an injury that deserved punishment; and as they never so much as
dreamed of revenge, unless perhaps mechanically and unpremeditatedly, as
a dog who bites the stone that has been thrown at him; their disputes could
seldom be attended with bloodshed, were they never occasioned by a more
considerable stake than that of subsistence: but there is a more dangerous
subject of contention, which I must not leave unnoticed.
Among the passions which ruffle the heart of man, there is one of a hot
and impetuous nature, which renders the sexes necessary to each other; a
terrible passion which despises all dangers, bears down all obstacles, and
which in its transports seems proper to destroy the human species which it
is destined to preserve. What must become of men abandoned to this law-
First Part 109
less and brutal rage, without modesty, without shame, and every day disput-
ing the objects of their passion at the expense of their blood?
We must in the first place allow that the more violent the passions, the
more necessary are laws to restrain them: but besides that the disorders and
the crimes, to which these passions daily give rise among us, sufficiently
prove the insufficiency of laws for that purpose, we would do well to look
back a little further and examine, if these evils did not spring up with the
laws themselves; for at this rate, even if the laws were capable of repressing
these evils, it is the least that might be expected from them, that they should
check a mischief which would not exist without them.
Let us begin by distinguishing between what is moral and what is physi-
cal in the passion called love. The physical part of it is that general desire
which prompts the sexes to unite with each other; the moral part is that
which determines this desire, and fixes it upon a particular object to the
exclusion of all others, or at least gives it a greater degree of energy for this
preferred object. Now it is easy to perceive that the moral part of love is a
factitious sentiment, engendered by society, and cried up by the women
with great care and address in order to establish their empire, and secure
command to that sex which ought to obey. This sentiment, being founded
on certain notions of beauty and merit which a savage is not capable of
having, and upon comparisons which he is not capable of making, can
scarcely exist in him: for as his mind was never in a condition to form
abstract ideas of regularity and proportion, neither is his heart susceptible of
sentiments of admiration and love, which, even without our perceiving it,
are produced by our application of these ideas; he listens solely to the
dispositions implanted in him by nature, and not the taste which he never
could have acquired; and any woman answers his purpose.
Confined entirely to what is physical in love, and happy enough not to
know these preferences which sharpen the appetite for it, at the same time
that they increase the difficulty of satisfying such appetite, men, in a state of
nature, must be subject to fewer and less violent fits of that passion, and of
course there must be fewer and less violent disputes among them in conse-
quence of it. The imagination, which causes so many ravages among us,
never speaks to the heart of savages, who peaceably wait for the impulses of
nature, yield to these impulses without choice and with more pleasure than
fury; and the need once satisfied, all desire is lost.
Nothing therefore can be more evident, than that it is society alone,
which has added even to love itself as well as to all the other passions, that
impetuous ardor, which so often renders it fatal to mankind; and it is so
much the more ridiculous to represent savages constantly murdering each
110 The Second Discourse
other to glut their brutality, as this opinion is diametrically opposite to
experience, and the Caribbeans, the people in the world who have as yet
deviated least from the state of nature, are to all intents and purposes the
most peaceable in their amours, and the least subject to jealousy, though
they live in a burning climate which seems always to add considerably to
the activity of these passions.
As to the inductions which may be drawn, in respect to several species of
animals, from the battles of the males, who in all seasons cover our poultry
yards with blood, and in spring particularly cause our forests to ring again
with the noise they make in disputing their females, we must begin by ex-
cluding all those species where nature has evidently established, in the rela-
tive power of the sexes, relations different from those which exist among
us: thus from the battles of cocks we can form no induction that will affect
the human species. In the species, where the proportion is better observed,
these battles must be owing entirely to the fewness of the females compared
with the males, or what amounts to the same, to the intervals of refusal,
during which the female constantly refuses the advances of the males; for if
the female admits the male but two months in the year, it is all the same as if
the number of females were five-sixths less: now neither of these cases is
applicable to the human species, where the number of females generally
surpasses that of males, and where it has never been observed that, even
among savages, the females had, like those of other animals, their stated
times of heat and indifference. Besides, among several of these animals the
whole species takes fire all at once, and for some days nothing is to be seen
among them but confusion, tumult, disorder and bloodshed; a state un-
known to the human species, where love is never periodical. We cannot
therefore conclude from the battles of certain animals for the possession of
their females, that the same would be the case of man in a state of nature;
and even if we did, since these contests do not destroy the other species,
there is at least equal room to think they would not be fatal to ours; and it is
very probable that they would cause fewer ravages than they do in society,
especially in those countries where, morality being as yet held in some
esteem, the jealousy of lovers and the vengeance of husbands every day
produce duels, murders, and even worse crimes; where the duty of an
eternal fidelity serves only to propagate adultery; and the very laws of
continence and honor necessarily increase dissoluteness, and multiply
Let us conclude that savage man, wandering about in the forests, without
industry, without speech, without any fixed residence, an equal stranger to
war and every social tie, without any need of his fellows, as well as without
First Part 111
any desire of hurting them, and perhaps even without ever distinguishing
them individually one from the other, subject to few passions, and finding
in himself all he wants, let us, I say, conclude that savage man had no
knowledge or feelings but such as were proper to that situation; that he felt
only his real necessities, took notice of nothing but what it was his interest
to see, and that his understanding made as little progress as his vanity. If he
happened to make any discovery, he could the less communicate it as he did
not even know his children. The art perished with the inventor; there was
neither education nor improvement; generations succeeded generations to
no benefit; and as all constantly set out from the same point, whole centuries
rolled on in the rudeness and barbarity of the first age; the race was grown
old, and man still remained a child.
If I have enlarged so much upon the supposition of this primitive condi-
tion, it is because I thought it my duty, considering what ancient errors and
inveterate prejudices I have to extirpate, to dig to the very roots, and show
in a true picture of the state of nature, how much even natural inequality
falls short in this state of that reality and influence which our writers ascribe
to it.
In fact, we may easily perceive that among the differences, which dis-
tinguish men, several pass for natural, which are merely the work of habit
and the different kinds of life adopted by men living in a social way. Thus a
robust or delicate constitution, and the strength and weakness which de-
pend on it, are oftener produced by the hardy or effeminate manner in which
a man has been brought up, than by the primitive constitution of his body. It
is the same thus in regard to the forces of the mind; and education not only
produces a difference between those minds which are cultivated and those
which are not, but even increases the difference which is found among the
former in proportion to their culture; for let a giant and a dwarf set out in
the same road, the giant at every step will acquire a new advantage over the
dwarf. Now, if we compare the prodigious variety in the education and way
of living of the various orders of men in a civil state, with the simplicity and
uniformity that prevail in the animal and savage life, where all the individ-
uals feed on the same food, live in the same manner, and do exactly the
same things, we shall easily conceive how much the difference between
man and man in the state of nature must be less than in the state of society,
and how greatly every social inequality must increase the natural inequali-
ties of mankind.
But even if nature in the distribution of her gifts should really affect all
the preferences that are imputed to her, what advantage could the most
favored derive from her partiality, to the prejudice of others in a state of
112 The Second Discourse
things which admits hardly any kind of relation between them? Of what
service can beauty be, where there is no love? What will wit avail people
who don’t speak, or cunning those who have no business? Authors are
constantly crying out, that the strongest would oppress the weakest; but let
them explain what they mean by the word oppression. One man will rule
with violence, another will groan under a constant subjection to all his
caprices: this is indeed precisely what I observe among us, but I don’t see
how it can be said of savage men, into whose heads it would be a hard
matter to drive even the meaning of the words domination and servitude.
One man might indeed seize the fruits which another had gathered, the
game which another had killed, the cavern which another had occupied for
shelter; but how is it possible he should ever exact obedience from him, and
what chains of dependence can there be among men who possess nothing?
If I am driven from one tree, I have nothing to do but look out for another; if
one place is made uneasy to me, what can hinder me from taking up my
quarters elsewhere? But suppose I should meet a man so much superior to
me in strength, and withal so depraved, so lazy and so barbarous as to oblige
me to provide for his subsistence while he remains idle; he must resolve not
to take his eyes from me a single moment, to bind me fast before he can take
the least nap, lest I should kill him or give him the slip during his sleep: that
is to say, he must expose himself voluntarily to much greater troubles than
what he seeks to avoid, than any he gives me. And after all this, let him
abate ever so little of his vigilance; let him at some sudden noise but turn his
head another way; I am already buried in the forest, my fetters are broken,
and he never sees me again.
But without insisting any longer upon these details, everyone must see
that, as the bonds of servitude are formed merely by the mutual dependence
of men one upon another and the reciprocal necessities which unite them, it
is impossible for one man to enslave another, without having first reduced
him to a condition which, as it does not exist in a state of nature, must leave
every man his own master, and render the law of the strongest altogether
vain and useless.
Having proved that inequality in the state of nature is scarcely felt, and
that it has very little influence, I must now proceed to show its origin and
trace its progress, in the successive developments of the human mind. After
having showed that perfectibility, the social virtues, and the other faculties,
which natural man had received as potentialities, could never be developed
of themselves, that they needed the fortuitous concurrence of several for-
eign causes, which might never arise, and without which he must have
eternally remained in his primitive condition, I must proceed to consider
Second Part 113
and bring together the different accidents which may have perfected the
human understanding while debasing the species, and made man wicked by
making him sociable, and from so remote a time bring man at last and the
world to the point at which we now see them.
I must own that, as the events I am about to describe might have hap-
pened many different ways, I can determine my choice only by mere con-
jecture; but aside from the fact that these conjectures become reasons, when
they are the most probable that can be drawn from the nature of things and
the only means we can have of discovering truth, the consequences I mean
to deduce from mine will not be merely conjectural, since, on the principles
I have just established, it is impossible to form any other system, that would
not supply me with the same results, and from which I might not draw the
same conclusions.
This will make it unnecessary for me to dwell on the manner in which
the lapse of time compensates for the slight probability of events; on the
surpising power of very trivial causes, when their action is constant; on the
impossibility, on the one hand, of destroying certain hypotheses, while on
the other we cannot give them the degrees of certainty of facts; on its being
the business of history, when two facts are proposed, as real, and connected
by a chain of intermediate facts which are either unknown or considered as
such, to furnish such facts as may actually connect them; and the business
of philosophy, when history is silent, to point out similar facts which may
answer the same purpose; finally, on the power of similarity, in regard to
events, to reduce facts to a much smaller number of different classes than is
generally imagined. It suffices me to offer these matters to the consideration
of my judges; it suffices me to have conducted my inquiry in such a manner
as to save the general reader the trouble of considering them at all.
Second Part
The first man, who after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to
say, this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the
real founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many
murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved
the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should
have cried to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost,
if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth
itself to nobody! But it is highly probable that things had by then already
come to such a pass, that they could not continue much longer as they were;
114 The Second Discourse
for as this idea of property depends on several prior ideas which could only
spring up gradually one after another, it was not formed all at once in the
human mind: men must have made considerable progress; they must have
acquired a great stock of industry and knowledge, and transmitted and
increased it from age to age before they could arrive at this last point of the
state of nature. Let us therefore take up things at an earlier stage, and collect
into one point of view, and in their most natural order, the slow succession
of events and discoveries.
Man’s first feeling was that of his existence, his first care that of preserv-
ing it. The productions of the earth yielded him all the assistance he re-
quired, instinct prompted him to make use of them. Hunger and other
appetites made him at different times experience different modes of exis-
tence; one of these excited him to perpetuate his species; and this blind
propensity, quite void of anything like pure love or affection, produced
nothing but an act that was merely animal. Their need once gratified, the
sexes took no further notice of each other, and even the child was nothing to
his mother, the moment he could do without her.
Such was the condition of infant man; such was the life of an animal
confined at first to pure sensations, and so far from harboring any thought of
forcing her gifts from nature, that he scarcely availed himself of those
which she offered to him of her own accord. But difficulties soon arose, and
there was a necessity for learning how to surmount them: the height of some
trees, which prevented his reaching their fruits; the competition of other
animals equally fond of the same fruits; the fierceness of many that even
aimed at his life; these were so many circumstances, which obliged him to
apply to bodily exercise. There was a necessity for becoming active, swift-
footed, and sturdy in battle. The natural arms, which are stones and the
branches of trees, soon offered themselves to his reach. He learned to
surmount the obstacles of nature, to fight when necessary with other ani-
mals, to fight for his subsistence even with other men, or indemnify himself
for the loss of whatever he found himself obliged to yield to a stronger.
In proportion as the human species grew more numerous, and extended
itself, its difficulties likewise multiplied and increased. The difference of
soils, climates and seasons succeeded in forcing them to introduce some
difference in their way of living. Bad harvests, long and severe winters, and
scorching summers which parched up all the fruits of the earth, required a
new resourcefulness and activity.* On the seashore, and the banks of rivers,
they invented the line and the hook, and became fishermen and fish-eaters.
* The French word industrie combines both meanings.
Second Part 115
In the forests they made themselves bows and arrows, and became hunts-
men and warriors. In the cold countries they covered themselves with the
skins of the beasts they had killed; thunder, a volcano, or some happy
accident made them acquainted with fire, a new resource against the rigors
of winter: they discovered the method of preserving this element, then that
of reproducing it, and lastly the way of preparing with it the flesh of ani-
mals, which heretofore they had devoured raw.
This reiterated applying of various things to himself, and to one another,
must have naturally engendered in the mind of man the idea of certain
relations. These relations, which we express by the words, great, little,
strong, weak, swift, slow, fearful, bold, and the like, compared occasionally,
and almost without thinking of it, produced in him some kind of reflection,
or rather a mechanical prudence, which pointed out to him the precautions
most essential to his safety.
The new knowledge resulting from this development increased his supe-
riority over other animals, by making him aware of it. He applied himself to
learning how to ensnare them; he played them a thousand tricks; and though
several surpassed him in strength or in swiftness, he in time became the
master of those that could serve him, and a sore enemy to those that could
do him mischief. Thus it was that the first look he gave into himself pro-
duced the first emotion of pride in him; thus it was that at a time he scarcely
knew how to distinguish between the different orders of beings, in consider-
ing himself the highest by virtue of his species he prepared the way for his
much later claim to preeminence as an individual.
Though other men were not to him what they are to us, and he had
scarcely more intercourse with them than with other animals, they were not
overlooked in his observations. The conformities, which in time he was
able to perceive between them, and between himself and his female, made
him presume of those he did not perceive; and seeing that they all behaved
as he himself would have done in similar circumstances, he concluded that
their manner of thinking and feeling was quite conformable to his own; and
this important truth, when once engraved deeply on his mind, made him
follow, by an intuition as sure and swift as any reasoning, the best rules of
conduct, which for the sake of his own safety and advantage it was proper
he should observe toward them.
Instructed by experience that the love of well-being is the sole spring of
all human actions, he found himself in a condition to distinguish the few
cases, in which common interest might authorize him to count on the assis-
tance of his fellows, and those still fewer, in which a competition of inter-
ests should make him distrust them. In the first case he united with them in
116 The Second Discourse
the same herd, or at most by some kind of free association which obliged
none of its members, and lasted no longer than the transitory necessity that
had given birth to it. In the second case every one aimed at his own private
advantage, either by open force if he found himself strong enough, or by
ruse and cunning if he felt himself the weaker.
Such was the manner in which men were gradually able to acquire some
gross idea of mutual engagements and the advantage of fulfilling them, but
this only as far as their present and obvious interest required; for they were
strangers to foresight, and far from troubling their heads about a distant
futurity, they gave no thought even to the morrow. Was a deer to be taken?
Every one saw that to succeed he must faithfully stand to his post; but
suppose a hare to have slipped by within reach of any one of them, it is not
to be doubted that he pursued it without scruple, and when he had seized his
prey never reproached himself with having made his companions miss
We may easily conceive that such an intercourse scarcely required a
more refined language than that of crows and monkeys, which flock to-
gether almost in the same manner. Inarticulate exclamations, a great many
gestures, and some imitative sounds, must have been for a long time the
universal language of mankind, and by joining to these in every country
some articulate and conventional sounds, of which, as I have already said, it
is not very easy to explain the first institution, there arose particular lan-
guages, but rude, imperfect, and such nearly as are to be found at this day
among several savage nations. Hurried on by the rapidity of time, the
abundance of things I have to say, and the almost imperceptible progress of
the first improvements, my pen flies like an arrow over numberless ages; for
the slower the succession of events, the more quickly are they told.
At length, these first advances enabled man to make others at a greater
rate. He became more industrious in proportion as his mind became more
enlightened. Men, soon ceasing to fall asleep under the first tree, or take
shelter in the first cave, hit upon several kinds of hatchets of hard and sharp
stones, and employed them to dig the ground, cut down trees, and with the
branches build huts, which they afterwards bethought themselves of plas-
tering over with clay or mud. This was the epoch of a first revolution, which
produced the establishment and distinction of families, and which intro-
duced a species of property, and already along with it perhaps a thousand
quarrels and battles. As the strongest however were probably the first to
make themselves cabins, which they knew they were able to defend, we
may conclude that the weak found it much shorter and safer to imitate, than
to attempt to dislodge them: and as to those, who were already provided
Second Part 117
with cabins, no one could have any great temptation to seize upon that of his
neighbor, not so much because it did not belong to him, as because he did
not need it; and as he could not make himself master of it without exposing
himself to a very sharp fight with the family that was occupying it.
The first developments of the heart were the effects of a new situation,
which united husbands and wives, parents and children, under one roof; the
habit of living together gave birth to the sweetest sentiments the human
species is acquainted with, conjugal and paternal love. Every family be-
came a little society, so much the more firmly united, as mutual attachment
and liberty were its only bonds; and it was now that the sexes, whose way of
life had been hitherto the same, began to adopt different ways. The women
became more sedentary, and accustomed themselves to stay at home and
look after the children, while the men rambled abroad in quest of subsis-
tence for the whole family. The two sexes likewise by living a little more at
their ease began to lose somewhat of their usual ferocity and sturdiness: but
if on the one hand individuals became less able to engage separately with
wild beasts, they on the other were more easily got together to make a
common resistance against them.
In this new state of things, the simplicity and solitariness of man’s life,
the paucity of his wants, and the instruments which he had invented to
satisfy them leaving him a great deal of leisure, he employed it to supply
himself with several conveniences unknown to his ancestors; and this was
the first yoke he inadvertently imposed upon himself, and the first source of
evils which he prepared for his descendants; for besides continuing in this
manner to soften both body and mind, these conveniences having through
use lost almost all their ability to please, and having at the same time
degenerated into real needs, the privation of them became far more intoler-
able than the possession of them had been agreeable; to lose them was a
misfortune, to possess them no happiness.
Here we may a little better discover how the use of speech was gradually
established or improved in the bosom of every family, and we may likewise
form conjectures concerning the manner in which divers particular causes
may have propagated language, and accelerated its progress by rendering it
every day more and more necessary. Great inundations or earthquakes sur-
rounded inhabited districts with water or precipices. Portions of the conti-
nent were by revolutions of the globe torn off and split into islands. It is
obvious that among men thus collected, and forced to live together, a com-
mon idiom must have started up much sooner, than among those who freely
wandered through the forests of the mainland. Thus it is very possible that
the inhabitants of the islands, after their first essays in navigation, brought
118 The Second Discourse
among us the use of speech; and it is very probable at least that society and
languages commenced in islands, and even were highly developed there,
before the inhabitants of the continent knew anything of either.
Everything now begins to wear a new aspect. Those who heretofore
wandered through the woods, by taking to a more settled way of life,
gradually flock together, coalesce into several separate bodies, and at length
form in every country a distinct nation, united in character and manners, not
by any laws or regulations, but by the same way of life, and alimentation,
and the common influence of the climate. Living permanently near each
other could not fail eventually to create some connection between different
families. The transient commerce required by nature soon produced, among
the youth of both sexes living in neighboring huts, another kind of com-
merce, which besides being not less agreeable is rendered more durable by
mutual association. Men begin to consider different objects, and to make
comparisons; they imperceptibly acquire ideas of merit and beauty, and
these soon give rise to feelings of preference. By seeing each other often
they contract a habit, which makes it painful not to see each other always.
Tender and agreeable sentiments steal into the soul, and are by the smallest
opposition wound up into the most impetuous fury: jealousy kindles with
love; discord triumphs; and the gentlest of passions requires sacrifices of
human blood to appease it.
In proportion as ideas and feelings succeed each other, and the head and
the heart become active, men continue to shake off their original wildness,
and their connections become more intimate and extensive. They now be-
gan to assemble round a great tree: singing and dancing, the genuine off-
spring of love and leisure, became the amusement or rather the occupation
of the men and women, free from care, thus gathered together. Everyone
began to notice the rest, and wished to be noticed himself; and public
esteem acquired a value. He who sang or danced best; the handsomest, the
strongest, the most dexterous, or the most eloquent, came to be the most
respected: this was the first step towards inequality, and at the same time
towards vice. From these first distinctions there arose on one side vanity
and contempt, on the other envy and shame; and the fermentation raised by
these new leavens at length produced combinations fatal to happiness and
Men no sooner began to set a value upon each other, and know what
esteem was, than each laid claim to it, and it was no longer safe for any man
to refuse it to another. Hence the first duties of politeness, even among
savages; and hence every voluntary injury became an affront, as besides the
hurt which resulted from it as an injury, the offended party was sure to find
Second Part 119
in it a contempt for his person often more intolerable than the hurt itself. It is
thus that every man, punishing the contempt expressed for him by others in
proportion to the value he set upon himself, the effects of revenge became
terrible, and men learned to be sanguinary and cruel. Such precisely was
the degree attained by most of the savage nations with whom we are ac-
quainted. And it is for want of sufficiently distinguishing ideas, and observ-
ing at how great a distance these people were from the first state of nature,
that so many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and
requires a civil government to make him more gentle; whereas nothing is
more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal
distance from the stupidity of brutes, and the pernicious enlightenment of
civilized man; and confined equally by instinct and reason to providing
against the harm which threatens him, he is withheld by natural compassion
from doing any injury to others, so far from being led even to return that
which he has received. For according to the axiom of the wise Locke,
Where there is no property, there can be no injury.
But we must take notice, that the society now formed and the relations
now established among men required in them qualities different from those
which they derived from their primitive constitution; that as a sense of
morality began to insinuate itself into human actions, and every man, before
the enacting of laws, was the only judge and avenger of the injuries he had
received, that goodness of heart suitable to the pure state of nature by no
means was suitable for the new society; that it was necessary punishments
should become severer in the same proportion that the opportunities of
offending became more frequent, and the dread of vengeance add strength
to the too weak curb of the law. Thus, though men had become less patient,
and natural compassion had already suffered some alteration, this period of
the development of the human faculties, holding a just mean between the
indolence of the primitive state and the petulant activity of egoism, must
have been the happiest and most durable epoch. The more we reflect on this
state, the more convinced we shall be, that it was the least subject of any to
revolutions, the best for man, (p) and that nothing could have drawn him out
of it but some fatal accident, which, for the common good, should never
have happened. The example of savages, most of whom have been found in
this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in
it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior
improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfec-
tion of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitude of the species.
As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic huts; as long as they
were content with clothes made of the skins of animals, sewn with thorns
120 The Second Discourse
and fish bones; as long as they continued to consider feathers and shells as
sufficient ornaments, and to paint their bodies different colors, to improve
or ornament their bows and arrows, to fashion with sharp-edged stones
some little fishing boats, or clumsy instruments of music; in a word, as long
as they undertook such works only as a single person could finish, and stuck
to such arts as did not require the joint endeavors of several hands, they
lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit,
and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent
intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of an-
other’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man
to possess enough provisions for two, equality vanished; property was
introduced; labor became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling
fields, which had to be watered with human sweat, and in which slavery and
misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the harvests.
Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts whose invention produced
this great revolution. With the poet, it is gold and silver, but with the
philosopher, it is iron and corn, which have civilized men, and ruined
mankind. Accordingly both one and the other were unknown to the savages
of America, who for that very reason have still remained savages; nay other
nations seem to have continued in a state of barbarism, as long as they
continued to exercise one only of these arts without the other; and perhaps
one of the best reasons that can be assigned, why Europe has been, if not
earlier, at least more constantly and highly civilized than the other quarters
of the world, is that it both abounds most in iron and is most fertile in corn.
It is very difficult to conjecture how men came to know anything of iron,
and the art of employing it: for we are not to suppose that they should of
themselves think of digging the ore out of the mine, and preparing it for
smelting, before they knew what could be the result of such a process. On
the other hand, there is the less reason to attribute this discovery to any
accidental fire, as mines are formed nowhere but in barren places, bare of
trees and plants, so that it looks as if nature had taken pains to keep from us
so mischievous a secret. Nothing therefore remains but the extraordinary
chance of some volcano, which belching forth metallic substances already
fused might have given the spectators the idea of imitating that operation of
nature. And we must further suppose in them great courage and foresight to
undertake so laborious a work, and have, at so great a distance, an eye to the
advantages they might derive from it; qualities scarcely suitable but to
minds more advanced than those can be supposed to have been.
As to agriculture, the principles of it were known a long time before the
practice of it took place, and it is hardly possible that men, constantly
Second Part 121
employed in drawing their subsistence from trees and plants, should not
have early hit on the means employed by nature for the generation of
vegetables; but in all probability it was very late before their industry took a
turn that way, either because trees which with hunting and fishing supplied
them with food, did not require their attention; or because they did not know
the use of grain; or because they had no instruments to cultivate it; or
because they were destitute of foresight in regard to future necessities; or
lastly, because they lacked means to hinder others from running away with
the fruit of their labors. We may believe that on their becoming more
industrious they began their agriculture by cultivating with sharp stones and
pointed sticks a few vegetables or roots about their cabins; and that it was a
long time before they knew the method of preparing wheat, and were
provided with instruments necessary to raise it in large quantities; not to
mention the necessity there is, in order to follow this occupation and sow
lands, to consent to lose something now to gain a great deal later on; a
precaution very foreign to the turn of man’s mind in a savage state, in
which, as I have already remarked, he can hardly foresee in the morning
what he will need at night.
For this reason the invention of other arts must have been necessary to
oblige mankind to apply themselves to that of agriculture. As soon as some
men were needed to smelt and forge iron, others were wanted to maintain
them. The more hands were employed in manufactures, the fewer hands
were left to provide subsistence for all, though the number of mouths to be
supplied with food continued the same; and as some required commodities
in exchange for their iron, the rest at last found out the method of making
iron serve for the multiplication of commodities. Thus were established on
the one hand husbandry and agriculture, and on the other the art of working
metals and of multiplying the uses of them.
The tilling of the land was necessarily followed by its distribution; and
property once acknowledged, the first rules of justice ensued: for to secure
every man his own, every man had to be able to own something. Moreover,
as men began to extend their views toward the future, and all found them-
selves in possession of goods capable of being lost, there was none without
fear of reprisals for any injury he might do to others. This origin is so much
the more natural, as it is impossible to conceive how property can flow from
any other source but work; for what can a man add but his labor to things
which he has not made, in order to acquire a property in them? It is the labor
of the hands alone, which giving the husbandman a title to the produce of
the land he has tilled gives him a title to the land itself, at least until he has
gathered in the fruits of it, and so on from year to year; and this enjoyment
122 The Second Discourse
forming a continued possession is easily transformed into property. The
ancients, says Grotius, by giving to Ceres the epithet of legislatrix, and to a
festival celebrated in her honor the name of Thesmophoria, insinuated that
the distribution of lands produced a new kind of right; that is the right of
property different from that which results from the law of nature.
Things thus circumstanced might have remained equal, if men’s talents
had been equal, and if, for instance, the use of iron and the consumption of
commodities had always held an exact proportion to each other; but as
nothing preserved this balance, it was soon broken. The man that had most
strength performed most labor; the most dexterous turned his labor to best
account; the most ingenious found out methods of lessening his labor; the
husbandman required more iron, or the smith more grain, and while both
worked equally, one earned a great deal by his labor, while the other could
scarcely live by his. Thus natural inequality insensibly unfolds itself with
that arising from men’s combining, and the differences among men, devel-
oped by the differences of their circumstances, become more noticeable,
more permanent in their effects, and begin to influence in the same propor-
tion the condition of individuals.
Matters once having reached this point, it is easy to imagine the rest. I
shall not stop to describe the successive inventions of other arts, the prog-
ress of language, the trial and employment of talents, the inequality of
fortunes, the use or abuse of riches, nor all the details which follow these,
and which every one may easily supply. I shall just give a glance at mankind
placed in this new order of things.
Behold then all our faculties developed; our memory and imagination at
work; egoism involved; reason rendered active; and the mind almost ar-
rived at the utmost bounds of that perfection it is capable of. Behold all our
natural qualities put in motion; the rank and lot of every man established,
not only as to the amount of property and the power of serving or hurting
others, but likewise as to genius, beauty, strength or skill, merits or talents;
and as these were the only qualities which could command respect, it was
found necessary to have or at least to affect them. It became to the interest of
men to appear what they really were not. To be and to seem became two
very different things, and from this distinction sprang haughty pomp and
deceitful knavery, and all the vices which form their train. On the other
hand, man, heretofore free and independent, was now, in consequence of a
multitude of new needs, brought into subjection, as it were, to all nature,
and especially to his fellows, whose slave in some sense he became, even
by becoming their master; if rich, he stood in need of their services, if poor,
of their assistance; even mediocrity itself could not enable him to do with-
Second Part 123
out them. He must therefore have been continually at work to interest them
in his happiness, and make them, if not really, at least apparently find their
advantage in laboring for his: this rendered him sly and artful in his dealings
with some, imperious and cruel in his dealings with others, and laid him
under the necessity of using ill all those whom he stood in need of, as often
as he could not awe them into compliance and did not find it his interest to
be useful to them. In fine, an insatiable ambition, the rage of raising their
relative fortunes, not so much through real necessity as to overtop others,
inspires all men with a wicked inclination to injure each other, and with a
secret jealousy so much the more dangerous, as to carry its point with the
greater security it often puts on the mask of benevolence. In a word, compe-
tition and rivalry on the one hand, and an opposition of interests on the
other, and always a secret desire of profiting at the expense of others. Such
were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of nascent
Riches, before the invention of signs to represent them, could scarcely
consist in anything but lands and cattle, the only real goods which men can
possess. So, when estates increased so much in number and in extent as to
take in whole countries and touch each other, it became impossible for one
man to aggrandize himself but at the expense of some other; at the same
time, the supernumerary inhabitants, who were too weak or too indolent to
make such acquisitions in their turn, impoverished without having lost
anything, because while everything about them changed they alone re-
mained the same, were obliged to receive or force their subsistence from the
hands of the rich. And from that began to arise, according to their different
characters, domination and slavery, or violence and rapine. The rich on their
side scarcely began to taste the pleasure of commanding, when they pre-
ferred it to every other; and making use of their old slaves to acquire new
ones, they no longer thought of anything but subduing and enslaving their
neighbors; like those ravenous wolves, who having once tasted human
flesh, despise every other food, and thereafter want only men to devour.
It is thus that the most powerful or the most wretched, respectively
considering their power and wretchedness as a kind of right to the posses-
sions of others, equivalent in their minds to that of property, the equality
once broken was followed by the most terrible disorders. It is thus that the
usurpations of the rich, the pillagings of the poor, and the unbridled pas-
sions of all, by stifling the cries of natural compassion, and the still feeble
voice of justice, rendered men avaricious, wicked, and ambitious. There
arose between the title of the strongest and that of the first occupier a
perpetual conflict, which always ended in battle and bloodshed. The new
124 The Second Discourse
state of society became the most horrible state of war: Mankind thus de-
based and harassed, and no longer able to retrace its steps, or renounce the
fatal acquisitions it had made; laboring, in short, merely to its confusion by
the abuse of those faculties, which in themselves do it so much honor,
brought itself to the very brink of ruin.
Attonitus novitate mali, divesque miserque,
Effugere optat opes; et quae modo voverat, odit.*
But it is impossible that men should not sooner or later have made
reflections on so wretched a situation, and upon the calamities with which
they were overwhelmed. The rich in particular must have soon perceived
how much they suffered by a perpetual war, of which they alone supported
all the expense, and in which, though all risked life, they alone risked any
property. Besides, whatever color they might pretend to give their usurpa-
tions, they sufficiently saw that these usurpations were in the main founded
upon false and precarious titles, and that what they had acquired by mere
force, others could again by mere force wrest out of their hands, without
leaving them the least room to complain of such a proceeding. Even those,
who owed all their riches to their own industry, could scarce ground their
acquisitions upon a better title. It availed them nothing to say, It was I built
this wall; I acquired this spot by my labor. Who traced it out for you,
another might object, and what right have you to expect payment at our
expense for doing that we did not oblige you to do? Don’t you know that
numbers of your brethren perish, or suffer grievously for want of what you
have too much of, and that you should have had the express and unanimous
consent of mankind to appropriate to yourself more of the common subsis-
tence, more than you needed for yours? Destitute of valid reasons to justify,
and sufficient forces to defend himself; crushing individuals with ease, but
with equal ease crushed by banditti; one against all, and unable, on account
of mutual jealousies, to unite with his equals against enemies united by the
common hopes of pillage; the rich man, thus pressed by necessity, at last
conceived the deepest project that ever entered the human mind: this was to
employ in his favor the very forces that attacked him, to make allies of his
enemies, to inspire them with other maxims, and make them adopt other
institutions as favorable to his pretensions, as the law of nature was un-
favorable to them.
With this view, after laying before his neighbors all the horrors of a
* Both rich and poor, shocked at their newfound ills, would fly from wealth, and hate
what they had sought. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI, 127.)
Second Part 125
situation, which armed them all one against another, which rendered their
possessions as burdensome as their wants, and in which no one could
expect any safety either in poverty or riches, he easily invented specious
arguments to bring them over to his purpose. ‘‘Let us unite,’’ said he, ‘‘to
secure the weak from oppression, restrain the ambitious, and secure to
every man the possession of what belongs to him: Let us form rules of
justice and of peace, to which all may be obliged to conform, which shall
give no preference to anyone, but may in some sort make amends for the
caprice of fortune, by submitting alike the powerful and the weak to the
observance of mutual duties. In a word, instead of turning our forces against
ourselves, let us collect them into a sovereign power, which may govern us
by wise laws, may protect and defend all the members of the association,
repel common enemies, and maintain a perpetual concord and harmony
among us.’’
Many fewer words of this kind would have sufficed to persuade men so
uncultured and easily seduced, who had besides too many quarrels among
themselves to live without arbiters, and too much avarice and ambition to
live long without masters. All gladly offered their necks to the yoke, think-
ing they were securing their liberty; for though they had sense enough to
perceive the advantages of a political constitution, they had not experience
enough to see beforehand the dangers of it. Those among them who were
best qualified to foresee abuses were precisely those who expected to bene-
fit by them; even the soberest judged it requisite to sacrifice one part of their
liberty to insure the rest, as a wounded man has his arm cut off to save the
rest of his body.
Such was, or must have been the origin of society and of law, which gave
new fetters to the weak and new power to the rich; irretrievably destroyed
natural liberty, fixed forever the laws of property and inequality; changed an
artful usurpation into an irrevocable right; and for the benefit of a few
ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labor,
servitude, and misery. We may easily conceive how the establishment of a
single society rendered that of all the rest absolutely necessary, and how, to
withstand united forces, it became necessary for the rest of mankind to unite
in their turn. Societies once formed in this manner, soon multiplied or
spread to such a degree, as to cover the face of the earth; and not to leave a
corner in the whole universe, where a man could throw off the yoke, and
withdraw his head from under the often ill-conducted sword which he saw
perpetually hanging over it. The civil law being thus become the common
rule of citizens, the law of nature no longer obtained except between the
different societies, where under the name of the law of nations, it was
126 The Second Discourse
modified by some tacit conventions to render commerce possible, and sup-
ply the place of natural compassion, which, losing by degrees all that influ-
ence over societies which it originally had over individuals, no longer exists
but in some great souls, who consider themselves as citizens of the world,
force the imaginary barriers that separate people from people, after the
example of the sovereign being from whom we all derive our existence, and
include the whole human race in their benevolence.
Political bodies, thus remaining in a state of nature among themselves,
soon experienced the inconveniencies that had obliged individuals to quit
it; and this state became much more fatal to these great bodies, than it had
been before to the individuals who now composed them. Hence those na-
tional wars, those battles, those murders, those reprisals, which make nature
shudder and shock reason; hence all those horrible prejudices, which make
it a virtue and an honor to shed human blood. The worthiest men learned to
consider cutting the throats of their fellows as a duty; at length men began to
butcher each other by thousands without knowing for what; and more mur-
ders were committed in a single action, and more horrible disorders at the
taking of a single town, than had been committed in the state of nature
during ages together upon the whole face of the earth. Such are the first
effects we may conceive to have arisen from the division of mankind into
different societies. Let us return to their institution.
I know that several writers have assigned other origins to political so-
ciety; as for instance, the conquests of the powerful, or the union of the
weak; and it is no matter which of these causes we adopt in regard to what I
am going to establish. That which I have just laid down, however, seems to
me the most natural, for the following reasons. First, because, in the first
case, the right of conquest being in fact no right at all, it could not serve as a
foundation for any other right, the conqueror and the conquered ever re-
maining with respect to each other in a state of war, unless the conquered,
restored to the full possession of their liberty, should freely choose their
conqueror for their chief. Until then, whatever capitulations might have
been made between them being founded upon violence, and thus ipso facto
null and void, there could not have existed in this hypothesis either a true
society, or a political body, or any other law but that of the strongest.
Secondly, because these words strong and weak, are, in the second case,
ambiguous; for during the interval between the establishment of the right of
property or prior occupancy, and that of political government, the meaning
of these terms is better expressed by the words poor and rich, as before the
establishment of laws men in reality had no other means of subjecting their
equals, but by invading their property, or by parting with some of their own
Second Part 127
property to them. Thirdly, because the poor having nothing but their liberty
to lose, it would have been the height of madness in them to give up
willingly the only blessing they had left without obtaining some consider-
ation for it; whereas the rich being sensitive if I may say so, in every part of
their possessions, it was much easier to do them mischief, and therefore
more incumbent upon them to guard against it; and because, in fine, it is but
reasonable to suppose that a thing has been invented by him to whom it
could be of service, rather than by him to whom it must prove detrimental.
Government in its infancy had no regular and permanent form. For want
of a sufficient fund of philosophy and experience, men could see no further
than the present inconveniencies, and never thought of providing for future
ones except as they arose. In spite of all the labors of the wisest legislators,
the political state still continued imperfect, because it was in a manner the
work of chance; and, as the foundations of it were ill laid, time, though
sufficient to reveal its defects and suggest the remedies for them, could
never mend its original faults. It was always being mended; whereas they
should have begun as Lycurgus did at Sparta, by clearing the ground and
removing all the old materials, so that they could then put up a good edifice.
Society at first consisted merely of some general conventions which all the
members bound themselves to observe, and the performance of which the
whole body guaranteed to every individual. Experience was necessary to
show the great weakness of such a constitution, and how easy it was for
those who infringed it to escape the conviction or chastisement of faults, of
which the public alone was to be both the witness and the judge; the laws
could not fail of being eluded a thousand ways; inconveniencies and disor-
ders could not but multiply continually, until it was at last found necessary
to think of committing to private persons the dangerous trust of public au-
thority, and to magistrates the care of enforcing obedience to the decisions
of the people. For to say that chiefs were elected before the confederacy
was formed, and that the ministers of the laws existed before the laws
themselves, is a supposition too ridiculous to deserve serious refutation.
It would be equally unreasonable to imagine that men at first threw
themselves into the arms of an absolute master, without any conditions or
consideration on his side; and that the first means contrived by jealous and
unconquered men for their common safety was to run headlong into slavery.
In fact, why did they give themselves superiors, if it was not to be defended
by them against oppression, and protected in their lives, liberties, and prop-
erties, which are in a manner the elements of their being? Now in the
relations between man and man, the worst that can happen to one man being
to see himself at the mercy of another, would it not have been contrary to
128 The Second Discourse
the dictates of good sense to begin by making over to a chief the only things
they needed his assistance to preserve? What equivalent could he have
offered them for so great a right? And had he presumed to exact it on
pretense of defending them, would he not have immediately received the
answer in the fable: What worse will an enemy do to us? It is therefore past
dispute, and indeed a fundamental maxim of all political law, that people
gave themselves chiefs to defend their liberty and not to be enslaved by
them. If we have a Prince, said Pliny to Trajan, it is in order that he may
keep us from having a master.
Politicians argue in regard to the love of liberty with the same sophistry
that philosophers do in regard to the state of nature; by the things they see
they judge of things very different which they have never seen, and they
attribute to men a natural inclination to slavery, on account of the patience
with which the slaves within their notice bear the yoke; not reflecting that it
is with liberty as with innocence and virtue, the value of which is not known
but by those who possess them, and the taste for which is lost when they are
lost. I know the charms of your country, said Brasidas to a satrap who was
comparing the life of the Spartans with that of the Persepolites; but you
cannot know the pleasures of mine.
As an unbroken courser erects his mane, paws the ground, and rages at
the bare sight of the bit, while a trained horse patiently suffers both whip
and spur, just so the barbarian will never reach his neck to the yoke that
civilized man carries without murmuring, but prefers the most stormy lib-
erty to a peaceful slavery. It is not therefore by the servile disposition of
enslaved nations that we might judge of the natural dispositions of man for
or against slavery, but by the prodigies done by every free people to secure
themselves from oppression. I know that the former are constantly crying
up that peace and tranquillity they enjoy in their irons, and that miserrimam
servitutem pacem appellant:* But when I see the latter sacrifice pleasures,
peace, riches, power, and even life itself to the preservation of that one
treasure so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see freeborn animals
through a natural abhorrence of captivity dash their brains out against the
bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of naked savages despise Euro-
pean pleasures, and brave hunger, fire and sword, and death itself to pre-
serve their independence, I feel that it is not for slaves to argue about liberty.
As to paternal authority, from which several have derived absolute gov-
ernment and every other mode of society, it is sufficient, without having
recourse to Locke and Sidney, to observe that nothing in the world differs
* ‘‘They call the most wretched slavery peace.’’ (Tacitus, Histories, IV, 17.)
Second Part 129
more from the cruel spirit of despotism than the gentleness of that authority,
which looks more to the advantage of him who obeys than to the utility of
him who commands; that by the law of nature the father continues master of
his child no longer than the child stands in need of his assistance; that after
that term they become equal, and that then the son, entirely independent of
the father, owes him no obedience, but only respect. Gratitude is indeed a
duty which we are bound to pay, but which benefactors cannot exact. Instead
of saying that civil society is derived from paternal authority, we should
rather say that it is to the former that the latter owes its principal force. No
one individual was acknowledged as the father of several other individuals,
until they settled about him. The father’s goods, which he can indeed dis-
pose of as he pleases, are the ties which hold his children to their dependence
upon him, and he may divide his substance among them in proportion as
they shall have deserved by a continual deference to his commands. Now
the subjects of a despotic chief, far from having any such favor to expect
from him, as both themselves and all they have are his property, or at least
are considered by him as such, are obliged to receive as a favor what he
relinquishes to them of their own property. He does them justice when he
strips them; he treats them with mercy when he suffers them to live.
By continuing in this manner to test facts by right, we should discover as
little solidity as truth in the voluntary establishment of tyranny; and it would
be a hard matter to prove the validity of a contract which was binding only
on one side, in which one of the parties should stake everything and the
other nothing, and which could only turn out to the prejudice of him who
had bound himself. This odious system is even today far from being that of
wise and good monarchs, and especially of the kings of France, as may be
seen by divers passages in their edicts, and particularly by that of a cele-
brated piece published in 1667 in the name and by the orders of Louis XIV.
‘‘Let it therefore not be said that the Sovereign is not subject to the laws of
his Realm, since the contrary is a maxim of the law of nations which flattery
has sometimes attacked, but which good princes have always defended as
the tutelary divinity of their Realms. How much more reasonable is it to say
with the sage Plato, that the perfect happiness of a State consists in the
subjects obeying their prince, the prince obeying the laws, and the laws
being equitable and always directed to the good of the public?’’ I shall not
stop to consider whether, liberty being the noblest faculty of man, it is not
degrading our nature, lowering ourselves to the level of brutes, who are the
slaves of instinct, and even offending the author of our being, to renounce
without reserve the most precious of his gifts, and to submit to committing
all the crimes he has forbidden us, merely to gratify a mad or a cruel master;
130 The Second Discourse
and whether that sublime craftsman must be more irritated at seeing his
work dishonored than at seeing it destroyed. I shall only ask what right
those, who were not afraid thus to degrade themselves, could have to sub-
ject their posterity to the same ignominy, and renounce for them, blessings
which come not from their liberality, and without which life itself must
appear a burden to all those who are worthy to live.
Pufendorf says that, as we can transfer our property from one to another
by contracts and conventions, we may likewise divest ourselves of our
liberty in favor of other men. This, in my opinion, is a very poor way of
arguing; for, in the first place, the property I cede to another becomes a
thing quite foreign to me, and the abuse of which can no way affect me; but
it concerns me greatly that my liberty is not abused, and I cannot, without
incurring the guilt of the crimes I may be forced to commit, expose myself
to become the instrument of any. Besides, the right of property being of
mere human convention and institution, every man may dispose as he
pleases of what he possesses: but the case is otherwise with regard to the
essential gifts of nature, such as life and liberty, which every man is permit-
ted to enjoy, and of which it is doubtful at least whether any man has a right
to divest himself: by giving up the one, we degrade our being; by giving up
the other we annihilate it as much as it is our power to do so; and as no
temporal enjoyments can indemnify us for the loss of either, it would be an
offense against both nature and reason to renounce them for any consider-
ation. But though we could transfer our liberty as we do our property, it
would be quite different with regard to our children, who enjoy the father’s
property only by the transmission of his right; whereas liberty being a
blessing, which as men they hold from nature, their parents have no right to
strip them of it; so that, just as to establish slavery it was necessary to do
violence to nature, so it was necessary to alter nature to perpetuate such a
right; and the jurisconsults, who have gravely pronounced that the child of a
slave is born a slave, have in other words decided that a man will not be
born a man.
It therefore appears to me incontestibly true, that not only governments
did not begin by arbitrary power, which is but the corruption and extreme
term of government, and at length brings it back to the law of the strongest
against which governments were at first the remedy; but even that, suppos-
ing they had begun in this manner, such power being illegal in itself could
never have served as a foundation for social law, nor of course for the
inequality it instituted.
Without embarking now upon the inquiries which still remain to be
made into the nature of the fundamental pact underlying every kind of
Second Part 131
government, I shall accept the common opinion, and confine myself here to
holding the establishment of the political body to be a real contract between
the multitude and the chiefs elected by it. A contract by which both parties
oblige themselves to the observance of the laws that are therein stipulated,
and form the ties of their union. The multitude having, in regard to their
social relations, concentrated all their wills in one, all the articles, in regard
to which this will expresses itself, become so many fundamental laws,
which oblige without exception all the members of the State, and one of
which regulates the choice and power of the magistrates appointed to look
to the execution of the rest. This power extends to everything that can
maintain the constitution, but extends to nothing that can alter it. To this
power are added honors, that may render the laws and their ministers re-
spectable; and the ministers are distinguished by certain prerogatives,
which may recompense them for the heavy burdens inseparable from a
good administration. The magistrate, on his side, obliges himself not to use
the power with which he is entrusted except in conformity to the intention
of his constituents, to maintain every one of them in a peaceable possession
of his property, and upon all occasions prefer the public good to his own
private interest.
Before experience had shown, or knowledge of the human heart had
made the abuses inseparable from such a constitution foreseeable, it must
have appeared so much the more perfect, as those appointed to look to its
preservation had themselves had most interest in it; for magistracy and its
rights being built solely on the fundamental laws, as soon as these ceased to
exist, the magistrates would cease to be legitimate, the people would no
longer be bound to obey them, and, as the essence of the State did not
consist in the magistrates but in the laws, each one would rightfully regain
his natural liberty.
A little reflection would afford us new arguments in confirmation of this
truth, and the nature of the contract might alone convince us that it cannot
be irrevocable: for if there were no superior power capable of guaranteeing
the fidelity of the contracting parties and of obliging them to fulfill their
mutual engagements, they would remain sole judges in their own cause, and
each of them would always have a right to renounce the contract, as soon as
he discovered that the other had broke the conditions of it, or that these
conditions ceased to suit his private convenience. Upon this principle, the
right of abdication may probably be founded. Now, to consider, as we do,
only what is human in this institution, if the magistrate, who has all the
power in his own hands, and who appropriates to himself all the advantages
of the contract, has nonetheless a right to renounce his authority; how much
132 The Second Discourse
better a right should the people, who pay for all the faults of its chief, have
to renounce their dependence upon him. But the shocking dissensions and
disorders without number, which would be the necessary consequence of so
dangerous a privilege, show more than anything else how much human
governments stood in need of a more solid basis than that of mere reason,
and how necessary it was for the public tranquillity, that the will of the
Almighty should interpose to give to sovereign authority a sacred and
inviolable character, which should deprive subjects of the fatal right to
dispose of it. If mankind had received no other advantages from religion,
this alone would be sufficient to make them adopt and cherish it, since it is
the means of saving more blood than fanaticism has been the cause of
spilling. But let us resume the thread of our hypothesis.
The various forms of government owe their origin to the various degrees
of inequality that existed between individuals at the time of their institution.
Where a man happened to be preeminent in power, virtue, riches, or credit,
he became sole magistrate, and the State assumed a monarchical form. If
several of pretty equal eminence stood out over all the rest, they were
jointly elected, and this election produced an aristocracy. Those whose
fortune or talents were less unequal, and who had deviated less from the
state of nature, retained in common the supreme administration, and formed
a democracy. Time demonstrated which of these forms suited mankind best.
Some remained altogether subject to the laws; others soon bowed their
necks to masters. The former labored to preserve their liberty; the latter
thought of nothing but invading that of their neighbors, jealous at seeing
others enjoy a blessing that they themselves had lost. In a word, riches and
conquest fell to the share of the one, and virtue and happiness to that of the
In these various modes of government the offices at first were all elec-
tive; and when riches did not decide, the preference was given to merit,
which gives a natural ascendancy, and to age, which is the parent of deliber-
ateness in council, and experience in execution. The ancients among the
Hebrews, and Gerontes of Sparta, the Senate of Rome, nay, the very ety-
mology of our word Seigneur, show how much gray hairs were formerly
respected. The oftener the choice fell upon old men, the oftener it became
necessary to repeat it, and the more the trouble of such repetitions became
sensible; intrigues took place; factions arose, the parties grew bitter; civil
wars blazed forth; the lives of the citizens were sacrificed to the pretended
happiness of the State; and things at last came to such a pass, as to be ready
to relapse into their primitive confusion. The ambition of the principal men
induced them to take advantage of these circumstances to perpetuate the
Second Part 133
hitherto temporary offices in their families; the people already inured to
dependence, accustomed to ease and the conveniences of life, and too much
enervated to break their fetters, consented to the increase of their slavery for
the sake of securing their tranquillity; and it is thus that chiefs, become
hereditary, contracted the habit of considering their offices as a family
estate, and themselves as proprietors of those communities, of which at first
they were but mere officers; of calling their fellow-citizens their slaves; of
numbering them, like cattle, among their belongings; and of calling them-
selves the peers of gods, and kings of kings.
By pursuing the progress of inequality in these different revolutions, we
shall discover that the establishment of laws and of the right of property was
the first term of it; the institution of magistrates the second; and the third
and last the changing of legal into arbitrary power; so that the different
states of the rich and poor were authorized by the first epoch; those of the
powerful and weak by the second; and by the third those of master and
slave, which formed the last degree of inequality, and the term in which all
the rest at last end, until new revolutions entirely dissolve the government,
or bring it back nearer to its legal constitution.
To conceive the necessity of this progress, we are not so much to con-
sider the motives for the establishment of the body politic, as the forms it
assumes in its realization; and the faults with which it is necessarily at-
tended: for those vices, which render social institutions necessary, are the
same which render the abuse of such institutions unavoidable. And as laws
(Sparta alone excepted, whose laws chiefly regarded the education of chil-
dren, and where Lycurgus established such manners and customs, as made
laws almost needless) are in general less strong than the passions, and
restrain men without changing them, it would be no hard matter to prove
that every government, which carefully guarding against all alteration and
corruption should scrupulously comply with the purpose of its establish-
ment, was set up unnecessarily; and that a country, where no one either
eluded the laws, or made an ill use of magistracy, required neither laws nor
Political distinctions necessarily lead to civil distinctions. The inequality
between the people and the chiefs increases so fast as to be soon felt by
individuals, and appears among them in a thousand shapes according to
their passions, their talents, and circumstances. The magistrate cannot
usurp any illegal power without making for himself creatures with whom he
must share it. Besides, citizens only allow themselves to be oppressed in
proportion as hurried on by a blind ambition, and looking rather below than
above them, they come to love authority more than independence. When
134 The Second Discourse
they submit to fetters, it is only to be the better able to fetter others in their
turn. It is no easy matter to reduce to obedience a man who does not wish to
command; and the most astute politician would find it impossible to subdue
those men who only desire to be independent. But inequality easily gains
ground among base and ambitious souls, ever ready to run the risks of
fortune, and almost indifferent whether they command or obey, as she
proves either favorable or adverse to them. Thus then there must have been
a time, when the eyes of the people were bewitched to such a degree, that
their rulers needed only to have said to the lowest of men, ‘‘Be great you
and all your posterity,’’ to make him immediately appear great in the eyes of
everyone as well as in his own; and his descendants took still more upon
them, in proportion to their distance from him: the more distant and uncer-
tain the cause, the greater the effect; the longer line of drones a family
produced, the more illustrious it was reckoned.
Were this a proper place to enter into details, I could easily explain
in what manner inequalities of credit and authority become unavoidable
among private persons (s) the moment that, united into one body, they are
obliged to compare themselves one with another, and to note the differences
which they find in the continual intercourse every man must have with his
neighbor. These differences are of several kinds; but riches, nobility or
rank, power, and personal merit, being in general the principal distinctions,
by which men in society measure each other, I could prove that the har-
mony or conflict between these different forces is the surest indication of
the good or bad original constitution of any State: I could show that among
these four kinds of inequality, personal qualities being the source of all the
rest, riches is that in which they ultimately terminate, because, being the
most immediately useful to the prosperity of individuals, and the most easy
to communicate, they are made use of to purchase every other distinction.
By this observation we are enabled to judge with tolerable exactness, how
much any people has deviated from its primitive institution, and what steps
it has still to make to the extreme term of corruption. I could show how
much this universal desire of reputation, of honors, of preference, with
which we are all devoured, exercises, and compares our talents and our
forces; how much it excites and multiplies our passions; and, by creating a
universal competition, rivalry, or rather enmity among men, how many
disappointments, successes, and catastrophes of every kind it daily causes
among the innumerable aspirants whom it engages in the same competition.
I could show that it is to this itch of being spoken of, to this fury of
distinguishing ourselves which seldom or never gives us a moment’s re-
spite, that we owe both the best and the worst things among us, our virtues
Second Part 135
and our vices, our sciences and our errors, our conquerors and our philoso-
phers; that is to say, a great many bad things and a very few good ones. I
could prove, in short, that if we behold a handful of rich and powerful men
seated on the pinnacle of fortune and greatness, while the crowd grovel in
darkness and misery, it is merely because the former value what they enjoy
only because others are deprived of it; and that, without changing their
condition, they would cease to be happy the minute the people ceased to be
But these details would alone furnish sufficient matter for a more consid-
erable work, in which we might weigh the advantages and disadvantages of
every species of government, relatively to the rights of man in a state of
nature, and might likewise unveil all the different faces under which in-
equality has appeared to this day, and may hereafter appear to the end of
time, according to the nature of these several governments, and the revolu-
tions which time must unavoidably occasion in them. We should then see
the multitude oppressed by domestic tyrants in consequence of those very
precautions taken by them to guard against foreign masters. We should see
oppression increase continually without its being ever possible for the op-
pressed to know where it would stop, nor what lawful means they had left to
check its progress. We should see the rights of citizens, and the liberties of
nations extinguished by slow degrees, and the groans and protestations and
appeals of the weak treated as seditious murmurings. We should see policy
confine to a mercenary portion of the people the honor of defending the
common cause. We should see taxes made necessary, the disheartened hus-
bandman desert his field even in time of peace, and quit the plough to gird
on the sword. We should see fatal and whimsical rules laid down for the
code of honor. We should see the champions of their country sooner or later
become her enemies, and perpetually holding their daggers to the breasts of
their fellow-citizens. Nay the time would come when they might be heard to
say to the oppressor of their country:
Pectore si fratris gladium juguloque parentis
Condere me jubeas, gravidaeque in viscera partu
Conjugis, invita peragam tamen omnia dextra.*
From the vast inequality of conditions and fortunes, from the great
variety of passions and of talents, of useless arts, of pernicious arts, of
* ‘‘If you order me to plunge my sword into my brother’s breast and into my father’s
throat and into the vitals of my wife heavy with child, I shall do, nevertheless, all these
things even though my hand is unwilling.’’ (Lucan, Pharsalia, I, 376–8.)
136 The Second Discourse
frivolous sciences, would issue clouds of prejudices equally contrary to
reason, to happiness, to virtue. We should see the chiefs foment everything
that tends to weaken men united in societies by dividing them; everything
that, while it gives society an air of apparent harmony, sows in it the seeds of
real dissension; everything that can inspire the different classes with mutual
distrust and hatred by an opposition of their rights and interests, and so
strengthen that power which controls them all.
It is from the midst of this disorder and these revolutions, that despotism,
gradually rearing up her hideous head, and devouring in every part of the
State all that still remained sound and untainted, would at last succeed in
trampling upon the laws and the people, and establish itself upon the ruins of
the republic. The times immediately preceding this last alteration would be
times of calamity and trouble; but at last everything would be swallowed up
by the monster; and the people would no longer have chiefs or laws, but only
tyrants. From this fatal moment all regard to virtue and manners would
likewise disppear; for despotism, cui ex honesto nulla est spes,* tolerates no
other master, wherever it reigns; the moment it speaks, probity and duty lose
all their influence, and the blindest obedience is the only virtue to slaves.
This is the last term of inequality, the extreme point which closes the
circle and meets that from which we set out. It is here that all private men
return to their primitive equality, because they are nothing; and that, sub-
jects having no longer any law but the will of their master, nor the master
any other law but his passions, all notions of good and principles of justice
again disappear. This is when everything returns to the sole law of the
strongest, and of course to a new state of nature different from that with
which we began, inasmuch as the first was the state of nature in its purity,
and this one the consequence of excessive corruption. There is, in other
respects, so little difference between these two states, and the contract of
government is so much dissolved by despotism, that the despot is master
only so long as he continues the strongest, and that, as soon as they can
expel him, they may do it without his having the least right to complain of
their violence. The insurrection, which ends in the death or deposition of a
sultan, is as juridical an act as any by which the day before he disposed of
the lives and fortunes of his subjects. Force alone upheld him, force alone
overturns him. Thus all things take place and succeed in their natural order;
and whatever may be the upshot of these hasty and frequent revolutions, no
one man has reason to complain of another’s injustice, but only of his own
indiscretion or bad fortune.
* ‘‘in which there is no hope afforded by honesty.’’
Second Part 137
By thus discovering and following the lost and forgotten road, which
man must have followed in going from the state of nature to the social state,
by restoring, together with the intermediate positions which I have been just
indicating, those which want of time obliges me to omit, or which my
imagination has failed to suggest, every attentive reader must unavoidably
be struck at the immense space which separates these two states. In this slow
succession of things he may meet with the solution of an infinite number of
problems in morality and politics, which philosophers are puzzled to solve.
He will perceive that, the mankind of one age not being the mankind of
another, the reason why Diogenes could not find a man was, that he sought
among his contemporaries the man of a bygone period: Cato, he will then
see, fell with Rome and with liberty, because he did not suit the age in which
he lived; and the greatest of men served only to astonish that world, which
would have cheerfully obeyed him, had he come into it five hundred years
earlier. In a word, he will find himself in a condition to understand how the
soul and the passions of men by insensible alterations change as it were their
very nature; how it comes to pass, that in the long run our wants and our
pleasures seek new objects; that, original man vanishing by degrees, society
no longer offers to the eyes of the sage anything but an assemblage of
artificial men and factitious passions, which are the work of all these new
relations, and have no foundation in nature. What reflection teaches us on
that score, observation entirely confirms. Savage man and civilized man
differ so much at the bottom of their hearts and in their inclinations, that
what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to
despair. The first sighs for nothing but repose and liberty; he desires only to
live, and to be exempt from labor; nay, the ataraxy of the most confirmed
Stoic falls short of his profound indifference to every other object. Civilized
man, on the other hand, is always in motion, perpetually sweating and
toiling, and racking his brains to find out occupations still more laborious:
he continues a drudge to his last minute; nay, he courts death to be able to
live, or renounces life to acquire immortality. He pays court to men in power
whom he hates, and to rich men whom he despises; he sticks at nothing to
have the honor of serving them; he boasts proudly of his baseness and their
protection; and proud of his slavery, he speaks with disdain of those who
have not the honor of sharing it. What a spectacle must the painful and
envied labors of a European minister of state form in the eyes of a Carib-
bean! How many cruel deaths would not this indolent savage prefer to such
a horrid life, which very often is not even sweetened by the pleasure of
doing good? But to see the purpose of so many cares, his mind would first
have to affix some meaning to these words power and reputation; he should
138 The Second Discourse
be apprized that there are men who set value on the way they are looked on
by the rest of mankind, who know how to be happy and satisfied with
themselves on the testimony of others rather than upon their own. In fact,
the real source of all those differences is that the savage lives within him-
self, whereas social man, constantly outside himself, knows only how to
live in the opinion of others; and it is, if I may say so, merely from their
judgment of him that he derives the consciousness of his own existence. It is
foreign to my subject to show how this disposition engenders so much
indifference toward good and evil, notwithstanding such fine discourses on
morality; how everything, being reduced to appearances, becomes mere art
and mummery; honor, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we
at last learn the secret of boasting; how, in short, ever asking others what
we are, and never daring to ask ourselves, in the midst of so much philoso-
phy, humanity and politeness, and such sublime moral codes, we have
nothing but a deceitful and frivolous exterior, honor without virtue, reason
without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness. It is sufficient that I have
proved that this is certainly not the original state of man, and that it is
merely the spirit of society, and the inequality which society engenders, that
thus change and transform all our natural inclinations.
I have endeavored to reveal the origin and progress of inequality, the
institution and abuse of political societies, as far as these things are capable
of being deduced from the nature of man by the mere light of reason, and
independently of those sacred maxims which give the sanction of divine
right to sovereign authority. It follows from this survey that inequality,
almost non-existent among men in the state of nature, derives its force and
its growth from the development of our faculties and the progress of the
human mind, and at last becomes permanent and lawful by the establish-
ment of property and of laws. It likewise follows that moral* inequality,
authorized, solely by positive right,† clashes with natural right, whenever it
is not in proportion to physical‡ inequality; a distinction which sufficiently
determines what we are to think of that kind of inequality which obtains in
all civilized nations, since it is evidently against the law of nature that
children should command old men, and fools lead the wise, and that a
handful should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving
masses lack the barest necessities of life.
* ‘‘Moral’’ should here be interpreted as meaning ‘‘social,’’ or ‘‘artificial.’’
† i.e., established laws.
‡ i.e., ‘‘natural.’’
Notes 139
n o t e s
(i) A celebrated author,* by calculating the goods and the evils of human
life and comparing the two sums, found that the last greatly exceeded the
first, and that everything considered life to man was no such valuable
present. I am not surprised at his conclusions; he drew all his arguments
from the constitution of man in a civilized state. Had he looked back to man
in a state of nature, it is obvious that the result of his inquiries would have
been very different; that man would have appeared to him subject to very
few evils but those of his own making, and that he would have acquitted
nature. It has cost us much trouble to make ourselves so miserable. When
on the one hand we consider the immense labors of mankind, so many
sciences brought to perfection, so many arts invented, so many powers
employed, so many abysses filled up, so many mountains leveled, so many
rocks rent to pieces, so many rivers made navigable, so many tracts of land
cleared, lakes emptied, marshes drained, enormous buildings raised upon
the earth, and the sea covered with ships and sailors; and on the other weigh
with ever so little attention the real advantages that have resulted from all
these works to mankind; we cannot help being amazed at the vast dis-
proportion observable between these things, and deplore the blindness of
man, which, to feed his foolish pride and I don’t know what vain self-
admiration, makes him eagerly court and pursue all the miseries he is
capable of feeling, and which beneficent nature had taken care to keep at a
distance from him.
That men are wicked, a sad and constant experience renders the proof of
it unnecessary; man, however, is naturally good; I think I have demon-
strated it; what then could have depraved him to such a degree, unless the
changes that have happened in his constitution, the advantages he has made,
and the knowledge he has acquired. Let us admire human society as much
as we please, it will not be the less true that it necessarily leads men to hate
each in proportion as their interests clash; to do each other apparent ser-
vices, and in fact heap upon each other every imaginable mischief. What
are we to think of a commerce, in which the interest of every individual
dictates to him maxims diametrically opposite to those which the interest of
the community recommends to the body of society; a commerce, in which
every man finds his profit in the misfortunes of his neighbor? There is not,
* This author was Maupertuis, whose theory appeared in the Essai de philosophie
morale (1749).
140 The Second Discourse
perhaps, a single man in easy circumstances, whose death his greedy heirs,
nay and too often his own children, do not secretly wish for; not a ship at
sea, the loss of which would not be an agreeable piece of news for some
merchant or another; not a house which a debtor would not be glad to see
reduced to ashes with all the papers in it; not a nation, which does not
rejoice at the misfortunes of its neighbors. It is thus we find our advantages
in the ill fortune of our fellows, and that the loss of one man almost always
constitutes the prosperity of another. But, what is still more dangerous,
public calamities are ever the objects of the hopes and expectations of
innumerable individuals. Some desire sickness, others mortality; some war,
some famine. I have seen monsters of men weep for grief at the appearance
of a plentiful season; and the great and fatal conflagration of London, which
cost so many wretches their lives or their fortunes, may have made the
fortune of more than ten thousand persons. I know that Montaigne finds
fault with Demades the Athenian for having caused to be punished a work-
man who, selling his coffins very dear, was a great gainer by the deaths of
his fellow-citizens. But Montaigne’s reason being, that by the same rule
every man should be punished, it is plain that it confirms my argument. Let
us therefore look through our frivolous displays of benevolence at what
passes in the inmost recesses of the heart, and reflect on what must be that
state of things, in which men are forced with the same breath to caress and
to destroy each other, and in which they are born enemies by duty, and
knaves by interest. Perhaps somebody will object that society is so formed
that every man gains by serving the rest. That would be fine, if he did not
gain still more by injuring them. There is no legitimate profit that is not
exceeded by what may be made illegitimately, and we always gain more by
hurting our neighbors than by doing them good. It is only a matter of finding
a way to do it with impunity; and this is the end to which the powerful
employ all their strength, and the weak all their cunning.
Savage man, when he has dined, is at peace with all nature, and the friend
of all his fellows. Does a dispute sometimes happen about a meal? He
seldom comes to blows without having first compared the difficulty of con-
quering with that of finding his subsistence elsewhere; and, as pride has no
share in the squabble, it ends in a few cuffs; the victor eats, the vanquished
retires to seek his fortune, and all is quiet again. But with man in society it’s
quite another story; in the first place, necessaries are to be provided, and then
superfluities; delicacies follow, and then immense riches, and then subjects,
and then slaves. He does not enjoy a moment’s relaxation; what is most
extraordinary, the less natural and pressing are his wants, the more head-
strong his passions become, and what is still worse, the greater is his power
Notes 141
of satisfying them; so that after a long run of prosperity, after having swal-
lowed up many treasures and ruined many men, our hero will end up by
cutting every throat, until he at last finds himself the sole master of the
universe. Such is in miniature the moral picture, if not of human life, at least
of the secret ambitions in the heart of every civilized man.
Compare without prejudice the state of social man with that of the
savage, and find out, if you can, how many inlets, besides his wickedness,
his wants, his miseries, the former has opened to pain and death. If you
consider the afflictions of the mind which prey upon us, the violent passions
which waste and exhaust us, the excessive labors with which the poor are
overburdened, the still more dangerous indolence, to which the rich give
themselves up and which kill the one through want, and the other through
excess. If you reflect a moment on the monstrous mixture, and pernicious
manner of seasoning so many dishes; on the putrefied food; on the adulter-
ated medicines, the tricks of those who sell them, the mistakes of those who
administer them, the poisonous qualities of the vessels in which they are
prepared; if you but think of epidemics bred by bad air among great num-
bers of men crowded together, or those occasioned by our delicate way of
living, by our passing back and forth from the inside of our houses into the
open air, the putting on and taking off our clothes with too little precaution,
and by all those conveniences which our boundless sensuality has changed
into necessary habits, and the neglect or loss of which afterwards costs us
our life or our health; if you set down the conflagrations and earthquakes,
which devouring or overturning whole cities destroy the miserable inhabi-
tants by thousands; in a word, if you sum up the dangers with which all
these causes are constantly menacing us, you will see how dearly nature
makes us pay for the contempt we have showed for her lessons.
I shall not here repeat what I have elsewhere said of the calamities of
war; I only wish that sufficiently informed persons are willing or bold
enough to make public the detail of the villainies committed in armies by
the contractors for food and for hospitals; we should then plainly discover
that their monstrous frauds, scarcely concealed, destroy more soldiers than
actually fall by the sword of the enemy, so as to make the most gallant
armies melt away. The number of those who every year perish at sea, by
famine, by the scurvy, by pirates, by shipwrecks, would furnish matter for
another very shocking calculation. Besides it is plain, that we are to place to
the account of the establishment of property and therefore to that of society,
the assassinations, poisonings, highway robberies, and even the punish-
ments for these crimes; punishments, it is true, requisite to prevent greater
evils, but which, by making the murder of one man prove the death of two,
142 The Second Discourse
double in fact the loss to the human species. How many are the shameful
methods to prevent the birth of men, and cheat nature? Either by those
brutal and depraved appetites which insult her most charming work, ap-
petites which neither savages nor mere animals ever knew, and which could
only spring in civilized countries from a corrupt imagination; or by those
secret abortions, the worthy fruits of debauch and vicious notions of honor;
or by the exposure or murder of multitudes of infants, victims of the poverty
of their parents, or the barbarous shame of their mothers; or finally by the
mutilation of those wretches, part of whose existence, with that of their
whole posterity, is sacrificed to vain singsong, or, which is still worse, the
brutal jealousy of some other men: a mutilation, which, in the last case, is
doubly outrageous to nature, both by the treatment of those who suffer it,
and by the service to which they are condemned.* But what if I undertook
to show the human species attacked in its very source, and even in the
holiest of all ties, in forming which nature is never listened to until fortune
has been consulted, and social disorder confusing all virtue and vice, conti-
nence becomes a criminal precaution, and a refusal to give life to beings
like oneself, an act of humanity? But without tearing open the veil that
hides so many horrors, it is enough to point out the disease for which others
will have to find a remedy.
Let us add to this the great number of unwholesome trades which
shorten life, or destroy health; such as the digging and preparing of metals
and minerals, especially lead, copper, mercury, cobalt, arsenic, realgar;†
those other dangerous trades, which every day kill so many men, for exam-
ple, tilers, carpenters, masons, and quarrymen; let us, I say, unite all these
things, and then we shall discover in the establishment and perfecting of
societies the reasons for that diminution of the species, which so many
philosophers have taken notice of.
Luxury, which nothing can prevent among men who are avid for their
own comforts and the deference of others, soon puts the finishing hand to
the evils which society had begun; and on pretense of giving bread to the
poor, whom it should never have made such, impoverishes all the rest, and
sooner or later depopulates the State.
Luxury is a remedy much worse than the disease which it pretends to
cure; or rather is in itself the worst of all diseases; both in great and small
States. To maintain those crowds of servants and wretches which it creates,
* A passage on arranged marriages, which first appeared in the posthumous edition of
1782, is here omitted.
† Arsenic monosulphide; found in the dust of certain caves.
Notes 143
it crushes and ruins the farmer and the townsman; not unlike those scorch-
ing south winds, which covering both plants and foliage with devouring
insects rob the useful animals of subsistence, and carry famine and death
with them wherever they blow.
From society and the luxury engendered by it, spring the liberal and
mechanical arts, commerce, letters, and all those superfluities which make
industry flourish, and enrich and ruin nations. The reason for such ruin is
very simple. It is plain that agriculture, by its very nature, must be the least
lucrative of all arts, because its products being of the most indispensable
necessity for all men, their price must be proportionate to the abilities of
the poorest. From the same principle it may be gathered, that in general
arts are lucrative in the inverse ratio of their usefulness, and that in the end
of the most necessary must come to be the most neglected. From this we
may form a judgment of the true advantages of industry, and of the real
effects of its progress.
Such are the evident causes of all the miseries into which opulence at
length precipitates the most celebrated nations. In proportion as industry
and arts spread and flourish, the despised husbandman, loaded with taxes
necessary for the support of luxury, and condemned to spend his life be-
tween labor and hunger, leaves his fields to seek in town the bread he should
take to it. The more our capital cities strike with wonder the stupid eye of
the common people, the greater reason is there to weep, the countryside
abandoned, fields lie uncultivated, and the high roads crowded with unfor-
tunate citizens turned beggars or robbers, and doomed, sooner or later to
lay down their wretched lives on the wheel or the dunghill. It is thus,
that while States grow rich on one hand, they grow weak, and are depopu-
lated on the other; and the most powerful monarchies, after innumerable
labors to enrich and depopulate themselves, fall at last a prey to some poor
nation, which has yielded to the fatal temptation of invading them, and then
grows opulent and weak in its turn, until it is itself invaded and destroyed by
some other.
I wish somebody would condescend to inform us what could have pro-
duced those swarms of barbarians, which during so many ages overran
Europe, Asia, and Africa? Was it to the activity of their arts, the wisdom of
their laws, the excellence of their State they owed so prodigious an in-
crease? I wish our learned men would be so kind as to tell us, why instead of
multiplying to such a degree, these fierce and brutal men, without sense or
science, without restraint, without education, did not murder each other
every minute in quarreling for the spontaneous productions of their fields
and woods? Let them tell us how these wretches could have the assurance to
144 The Second Discourse
look in the face such skillful men as we were, with so fine a military
discipline, such excellent codes, and such wise laws. Why, in short, since
society has been perfected in the northern climates, and so much pains have
been taken to instruct the inhabitants in their duties to one another, and the
art of living happily and peaceably together, do we no longer see them
produce anything like those numberless hosts, which they formerly used to
send forth? I am afraid that somebody may at last take it into his head to
answer me by saying, that truly all these great things, namely arts, sciences,
and laws, were very wisely invented by men, as a salutary plague, to pre-
vent the too great multiplication of mankind, lest this world, which was
given us should at length become too small for its inhabitants.
What then? Must societies be abolished? Must meum and tuum be anni-
hilated, and must man go back to living in forests with the bears? This
would be a deduction in the manner of my adversaries, which I choose to
anticipate rather than permit them the shame of drawing it. O you, by whom
the voice of heaven has not been heard, and who think your species destined
only to finishing in peace this short life; you, who can lay down in the midst
of cities your fatal acquisitions, your restless spirits, your corrupted hearts
and unbridled desires, take up again, since it is in your power, your ancient
and primitive innocence; retire to the woods, there to lose the sight and
remembrance of the crimes committed by your contemporaries; nor be
afraid of debasing your species, by renouncing its enlightenment in order to
renounce its vices. As for men like me, whose passions have irretrievably
destroyed their original simplicity, who can no longer live upon grass and
acorns, or without laws and magistrates; all those who were honored in the
person of their first parent with supernatural lessons; those, who discover,
in the intention to give immediately to human actions a morality which
otherwise they must have been so long in acquiring, the reason of a precept
indifferent in itself, and utterly inexplicable in every other system; those, in
a word, who are convinced that the divine voice has called all men to the
enlightenment and happiness of the celestial intelligences; all such will
endeavor to deserve the eternal reward promised their obedience, by prac-
ticing those virtues to the practice of which they oblige themselves in
learning to know them. They will respect the sacred bonds of those societies
to which they belong; they will love their fellows, and will serve them to the
utmost of their power; they will religiously obey the laws, and all those who
make or administer them; they will above all things honor those good and
wise princes who find means to prevent, cure, or palliate the crowd of evils
and abuses always ready to overwhelm us; they will animate the zeal of
those worthy chiefs, by showing them without fear of flattery the impor-
Notes 145
tance of their talk, and the rigor of their duties. But they will not for that
reason have any less contempt for a social organization which cannot sub-
sist without the assistance of so many men of worth, who are oftener wanted
than found; and from which, in spite of all their cares, there always spring
more real calamities than even apparent advantages.
(k) This appears to me as clear as daylight, and I cannot conceive whence
our philosophers can derive all the passions they attribute to natural man.
Except the bare physical necessities, which nature herself requires, all our
other needs are merely the effects of habit, before which they were not
needs, or of our cravings; and we don’t crave that which we are not in a
condition to know. Hence it follows that as savage man longs for nothing
but what he knows, and knows nothing but what he actually possesses or
can easily acquire, nothing can be so calm as his soul, or so confined as his
(l)* Mr. Locke, in fine, proves at most that there may be in man a motive to
live with the woman when she has a child; but he by no means proves that
there was any necessity for his living with her before her delivery and
during the nine months of her pregnancy; if a pregnant woman comes to be
indifferent to the man by whom she is pregnant during these nine months, if
she even comes to be entirely forgotten by him, why should he assist her
after her delivery? Why should he help her to rear a child, which he does not
know to be his, and whose birth he neither foresaw nor planned? It is
evident that Mr. Locke supposes the very thing in question: for we are not
inquiring why man should continue to live with the woman after her deliv-
ery, but why he should continue to attach himself to her after conception.
The appetite satisfied, man no longer stands in need of any particular
woman, nor the woman of any particular man. The man does not have the
slightest concern, nor perhaps the slightest notion of what must follow his
act. One goes this way, the other that, and there is little reason to think that at
the end of nine months they should remember ever to have known each
other: for this kind of remembrance, by which one individual gives the
preference to another for the act of generation, requires, as I have proved in
the text, a greater degree of progress or corruption in the human understand-
ing, than man can be supposed to have attained in the state of animality we
* Only the last part of this note is given here. Rousseau is replying to Locke’s
contention that men and women naturally stayed together in families because of the
dependency of their young.
146 The Second Discourse
here speak of. Another woman therefore may serve to satisfy the new
desires of the man fully as conveniently as the one he has already known;
and another man in like manner satisfy the woman’s, supposing her subject
to the same appetite during her pregnancy, a thing which may be reasonably
doubted. But if in the state of nature, the woman, when she has conceived,
no longer feels the passion of love, the obstacle to her associating with men
becomes still greater, since she no longer has any occasion for the man by
whom she is pregnant, or for any other. There is therefore no reason on the
man’s side for his coveting the same woman, nor on the woman’s for her
coveting the same man. Locke’s argument therefore falls to the ground, and
all the logic of this philosopher has not secured him from the mistake
committed by Hobbes and others. They had to explain a fact in the state of
nature; that is, in a state in which every man lived by himself without any
connection with other men, and no one man had any motives to associate
with any other, nor perhaps, which is still more serious, men in general to
herd together; and it never came into their heads to look back beyond the
times of society, that is to say, those times in which men have always had
motives for herding together, and in which one man has often motives for
associating with a particular man, or a particular woman.
(o) We must not confuse selfishness with self-love; they are two very dis-
tinct passions both in their nature and in their effects. Self-love is a natural
sentiment, which inclines every animal to look to his own preservation, and
which, guided in man by reason and qualified by pity, is productive of
humanity and virtue. Selfishness is but a relative and factitious sentiment,
engendered in society, which inclines every individual to set a greater value
upon himself than upon any other man, which inspires men with all the
mischief they do to each other, and is the true source of what we call honor.
This position well understood, I say that selfishness does not exist in our
primitive state, in the true state of nature; for every man in particular
considering himself as the only spectator who observes him, as the only
being in the universe which takes any interest in him, as the only judge of
his own merit, it is impossible that a sentiment arising from comparisons,
which he is not in a condition to make, should spring up in his mind. For the
same reason, such a man must be a stranger to hatred and spite, passions
which only the opinion of our having received some affront can excite; and
as it is contempt or an intention to injure, and not the injury itself that
constitutes an affront, men who don’t know how to set a value upon them-
selves, or compare themselves one with another, may do each other a great
deal of mischief, as often as they can expect any advantage by doing it,
Notes 147
without ever offending each other. In a word, man seldom considering his
fellows in any other light than he would animals of another species, may
plunder another man weaker than himself, or be plundered by another that
is stronger, without considering these acts of violence otherwise than as
natural events, without the least emotion of insolence or spite, and without
any other passion than grief at his failure, or joy at his good success.
(p) It is very remarkable, that for so many years past that the Europeans
have been toiling to make the savages of different parts of the world con-
form to their manner of living, they have not as yet been able to win over
one of them, not even with the assistance of the Christian religion; for
though our missionaries sometimes make Christians, they never make civi-
lized men of them. There is no getting the better of their invincible reluc-
tance to adopt our manners and customs. If these poor savages are as
unhappy as some people would have them, by what inconceivable de-
pravity of judgment is it that they so constantly refuse to be governed as we
are, or to live happy among us; whereas we read in a thousand places that
Frenchmen and other Europeans have voluntarily taken refuge, nay, spent
their whole lives among them, without ever being able to quit so strange a
kind of life; and that even very sensible missionaries have been known to
regret with tears the calm and innocent days they had spent among those
men we so much despise. Should it be observed that they are not enlight-
ened enough to judge soundly of their condition and ours, I must answer,
that the valuation of happiness is not so much the business of the under-
standing as of feeling. Besides, this objection may still more forcibly be
turned against ourselves; for our ideas are more remote from that disposi-
tion of mind requisite for us to conceive the relish, which the savages find in
their way of living, than the ideas of the savages are from those by which
they may conceive the relish we find in ours. In fact, very few observations
are enough to show them that all our labors are confined to two objects,
namely the conveniences of life and the esteem of others. But how shall we
be able to imagine that kind of pleasure, which a savage takes in spending
his days alone in the heart of a forest, or in fishing, or in blowing into a
wretched flute without ever being able to fetch a single note from it, or ever
giving himself any trouble to learn how to make a better use of it?*
(s) Nay, this rigorous equality of the state of nature, even if it were practi-
cable in civil society, would clash with distributive justice; and as all the
* The remainder of this note is not given here.
148 The Second Discourse
members of the State owe it services in proportion to their talents and
abilities, they should be distinguished in proportion to their services. It is in
this sense we must understand a passage of Isocrates, in which he extols the
primitive Athenians for having distinguished which of the two following
kinds of equality was the more useful, that which consists in sharing the
same advantages indifferently among all the citizens, or that which consists
in distributing them to each according to his merit. These able politicians,
adds the orator, banishing that unjust inequality which makes no difference
between the good and the bad, inviolably adhered to that which rewards and
punishes every man according to his merit. But in the first place there never
existed a society so corrupt as to make no difference between the good and
the bad; and in those points concerning morals, where the law can prescribe
no measure exact enough to serve as a rule to magistrates, it is with the
greatest wisdom that in order not to leave the fate or the rank of citizens at
their discretion, it forbids them to judge of persons, and leaves actions alone
to their discretion. There are no mores, except those as pure as those of the
old Romans, that can bear censors, and such a tribunal among us would
soon throw everything into confusion. It belongs to public esteem to mark a
difference between good and bad men; the magistrate is judge only as to
strict law; whereas the multitude is the true judge of manners; an upright
and even an intelligent judge in that respect; a judge which may indeed
sometimes be imposed upon, but can never be corrupted. The rank therefore
of citizens ought to be regulated, not according to their personal merit, for
this would be putting it in the power of magistrates to make almost an
arbitrary application of the law, but according to the real services they
render to the State, since these will admit of a more exact estimation.
The Social Contract
—foederis aequas
Dicamus leges.
(Let us make fair terms for
the compact.)
—The Aeneid, Bk. XI
Prefatory Note
This little treatise is taken from a longer work undertaken at an earlier time
without considering my strength, and long since abandoned. Of the various
fragments that might be taken from what was done, the following is the
most substantial, and appears to me the least unworthy of being offered to
the public.
The rest of the work no longer exists.
Prefatory Note 151
Introductory Note 155
I. Subject of the First Book 156
II. Primitive Societies 156
III. The Right of the Strongest 158
IV. Slavery 158
V. That It Is Always Necessary to Go Back to a First
VI. The Social Pact 163
VII. The Sovereign 165
VIII. The Civil State 166
IX. Real Estate 167
I. That Sovereignty Is Inalienable 170
II. That Sovereignty Is Indivisible 171
III. Whether the General Will Can Err 172
IV. The Limits of the Sovereign Power 173
V. The Right of Life and Death 176
VI. The Law 178
VII. The Legislator 180
VIII. The People 183
IX. The People (continued) 185
X. The People (continued) 187
XI. The Different Systems of Legislation 189
XII. Classification of the Laws 191
154 The Social Contract
I. Government in General 193
II. The Principle Which Constitutes the Different Forms of
III. Classification of Governments 199
IV. Democracy 200
V. Aristocracy 202
VI. Monarchy 204
VII. Mixed Governments 208
VIII. That All Forms of Government Are Not Suited for
Every Country
IX. The Signs of a Good Government 213
X. The Abuse of Government and Its Tendency to Degenerate 214
XI. The Dissolution of the Body Politic 216
XII. How the Sovereign Authority Is Maintained 218
XIII. How the Sovereign Authority Is Maintained (continued) 218
XIV. How the Sovereign Authority Is Maintained (continued) 220
XV. Deputies or Representatives 220
XVI. That the Institution of the Government Is Not a Contract 223
XVII. The Institution of the Government 224
XVIII. Means of Preventing Usurpations of the Government 225
I. That the General Will Is Indestructible 227
II. Voting 228
III. Elections 231
IV. The Roman Comitia 232
V. The Tribuneship 240
VI. Dictatorship 242
VII. The Censorship 244
VIII. Civil Religion 245
IX. Conclusion 254
Book I
Introductory Note
I want to inquire whether, taking men as they are and laws as they can be
made to be, it is possible to establish some just and reliable rule of admin-
istration in civil affairs. In this investigation I shall always strive to recon-
cile what right permits with what interest prescribes, so that justice and
utility may not be at variance.
I enter this inquiry without demonstrating the importance of my subject.
I shall be asked whether I am a prince or a legislator that I write on politics. I
reply that I am neither; and that it is for this very reason that I write about
politics. If I were a prince or a legislator, I would not waste my time saying
what ought to be done; I would do it or remain silent.
Born a citizen of a free State, and a member of that sovereign body,
however feeble an influence my voice may have in public affairs, the right
to vote on them is sufficient to impose on me the duty of informing myself
about them; and I feel happy, whenever I meditate on governments, always
to discover in my research new reasons for loving that of my own country.
156 The Social Contract
Chapter 1
s u b j e c to ft h ef i r s tb o o k
Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Many a one believes
himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they. How has
this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? I
believe I can settle this question.
If I looked only at force and the results that stem from it, I would say that
as long as a people is compelled to obey and does obey, it does well; but
that, as soon as it can shake off the yoke and does shake it off, it does even
better; for, if men recover their freedom by virtue of the same right by
which it was taken away, either they are justified in taking it back, or there
was no justification for depriving them of it. But the social order is a sacred
right that serves as a foundation for all others. This right, however, does not
come from nature. It is therefore based on conventions. The question is to
know what these conventions are. Before coming to that, I must establish
what I have just stated.
Chapter II
p r i m i t i v es o c i e t i e s
The earliest of all societies, and the only natural one, is the family; yet
children remain attached to their father only so long as they need him for
their own survival. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dis-
solved. The children being freed from the obedience which they owed to
their father, and the father from the concern he owed his children, become
equally independent. If they remain united, it is not because of nature but of
choice; and the family itself is kept together only by convention.
This common liberty is a consequence of man’s nature. His first law is to
attend to his own survival, his first concerns are those he owes to himself;
and as soon as he reaches the age of rationality, being sole judge of how to
survive, he becomes his own master.
The family is, then, if you will, the first model of political societies; the
leader is the analogue of the father, while the people are like the children;
and all, being born free and equal, give up their freedom only for their own
advantage. The whole difference is that, in the family, the father’s love
for his children repays him for the concern that he bestows upon them;
while, in the State, the pleasure of ruling makes up for the leader’s lack of
love for his people.
Book I: Chapter II 157
Grotius denies that all human authority is established for the benefit of
the governed, and he cites slavery as an example. His steady line of reason-
ing is to establish right by fact.* A more consistent method might be used,
but none more favorable to tyrants.
It is doubtful, then, according to Grotius, whether the human race belongs
to a hundred men, or whether these hundred men belong to the human race;
and he appears throughout his book to incline to the former opinion, which is
also that of Hobbes. In this way we have mankind divided like herds of cattle,
each of which has a master, who looks after it in order to devour it.
Just as a herdsman is superior in nature to his herd, so leaders, who are
the herdsmen of men, are superior in nature to their people. Such was,
according to Philo’s account, the reasoning of the Emperor Caligula, infer-
ring truly enough from this analogy that kings are gods, or that men are
The reasoning of Caligula is similar to that of Hobbes and Grotius.
Aristotle, before them all, had also said that men are not naturally equal, but
that some are born to be slaves and others to rule.
Aristotle was right, but he mistook the effect for the cause. Every man
born in slavery is born for slavery; nothing is more certain. Slaves lose
everything in their chains, even the desire to escape from them; they love
their servitude as the companions of Ulysses loved their brutishness.† If,
then, there are slaves by nature, it is because there have been slaves con-
trary to nature. The first slaves were made by force; their cowardice kept
them in bondage.
I have said nothing about King Adam nor about Emperor Noah, the
father of three great monarchs who split the universe among them, like the
children of Saturn with whom they are likened. I hope that people will give
me credit for my moderation; for, as I am a direct descendant of one of these
princes, and perhaps of the eldest branch, how do I know whether, by exam-
ination of titles, I might not find myself the legitimate king of the human
race? Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that Adam was sovereign of the
world, as Robinson was of his island, so long as he was its sole inhabitant;
and it was a convenient feature of that empire that the monarch, secure on
his throne, had nothing to fear from rebellions, or wars, or conspirators.
* ‘‘Learned researches in public law are often nothing but the history of ancient
abuses; and to devote much labor to studying them is misplaced pertinacity’’ (Treatise on
the Interests of France in Relation to Her Neighbours, by the Marquis d’Argenson). That
is exactly what Grotius did.
† See a small treatise by Plutarch, entitled That Brutes Employ Reason.
158 The Social Contract
Chapter III
t h er i g h to ft h es t r o n g e s t
The strongest man is never strong enough to be always master, unless he
transforms his power into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of
the strongest—a right in appearance assumed in irony, and in reality estab-
lished in principle. But will this term ever be explained to us? Force is a
physical power; I do not see what morality can result from its effects. To
yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will; it is at most an act of
prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?
Let us assume for a moment this so-called right. I say that nothing re-
sults from it but inexplicable nonsense; for if might makes right, the effect
changes with the cause, and any force that can overcome the first can claim
its rights. As soon as men can disobey with impunity, they can do so
legitimately; and since the strongest is always in the right, it makes sense to
act in such a way as to be the strongest. But what kind of right perishes
when might disappears? If one is compelled to obey by force, there is no
need to obey from duty; and if one is no longer forced to obey, obligation is
at an end. We see, then, that this word right adds nothing to force; here it
means nothing at all.
Obey the powers that be. If that means, Yield to force, the precept is
good but superfluous; I reply that it will never be violated. All power comes
from God, I admit; but every disease comes from Him too; does it follow
that we are prohibited from calling in a physician? If a robber should catch
me deep in a forest, am I bound not only to give up my money when forced,
but am I also morally bound to do so when I might hide it? For, after all, the
gun he holds is a superior force.
Let us agree, then, that might does not make right, and that we are bound
to obey none but lawful authorities. Thus we return to my original question.
Chapter IV
s l a v e r y
Since no man has any natural authority over his fellow men, and since
might is not the source of right, conventions remain as the basis of all lawful
authority among men.
If an individual, says Grotius, can alienate his freedom and become the
slave of a master, why should a whole people not be able to alienate theirs,
and become subject to a king? In this there are many equivocal terms
Book I: Chapter IV 159
requiring explanation; but let us confine ourselves to the word alienate. To
alienate is to give or sell. Now, a man who becomes another’s slave does not
give himself; he sells himself at the very least for his subsistence. But why
does a nation sell itself? So far from a king providing his subjects with their
subsistence, he draws his from them; and, according to Rabelais, a king
does not live on a little. Do subjects, then, give up their persons on condi-
tion that their property also shall be taken? I do not see what is left for them
to keep.
It will be said that the despot secures for his subjects civil peace. Be it so;
but what do they gain by that, if the wars which his ambition brings upon
them, together with his insatiable greed and the vexations of his administra-
tion, harass them more than their own dissensions would? What do they
gain by it if this tranquillity is itself one of their miseries? Men live tran-
quilly also in dungeons; is that enough to make them contented there? The
Greeks confined in the cave of the Cyclops lived peacefully until their turn
came to be devoured.
To say that a man gives himself for nothing is to say something absurd
and inconceivable; such an act is illegitimate and invalid, for the simple
reason that he who performs it is not in his right mind. To say the same thing
of a whole nation is to suppose a nation of fools; and madness does not
confer rights.
Even if each person could alienate himself, he could not alienate his
children; they are born free men; their liberty belongs to them, and no one
has a right to dispose of it except them themselves. Before they have
reached the age of rationality, the father can, in their name, stipulate condi-
tions for their preservation and welfare, but not surrender them irrevocably
and unconditionally; for such a gift is contrary to the ends of nature, and
exceeds the rights of paternity. In order, then, that an arbitrary government
might be legitimate, it would be necessary for the people in each generation
to have the option of accepting or rejecting it; but in that case such a
government would no longer be arbitrary.
To renounce one’s liberty is to renounce one’s essence as a human being,
the rights and also the duties of humanity. For the person who renounces
everything there is no possible compensation. Such a renunciation is in-
compatible with human nature, for to take away all freedom from one’s will
is to take away all morality from one’s actions. In short, a convention which
stipulates absolute authority on the one side and unlimited obedience on the
other is meaningless and contradictory. Is it not clear that we are under no
obligations whatsoever toward a man from whom we have a right to de-
mand everything? And does not this single condition, without equivalent,
160 The Social Contract
without exchange, presuppose the nullity of the act? For what rights would
my slave have against me, since all that he has belongs to me? His rights
being mine, this right of me against myself is a meaningless term.
Grotius and others derive from war another origin for the supposed right
of slavery. The victor having, according to them, the right of slaying the
vanquished, the latter may purchase his life at the cost of his freedom;
an agreement so much the more legitimate that it turns to the advantage
of both.
But it is clear that this supposed right of slaying the vanquished in no
way results from the state of war. Men are not naturally enemies, if only for
the reason that, living in their primitive independence, they have no mutual
relations sufficiently durable to constitute a state of peace or a state of war.
It is the relation of things and not of men that constitutes war; and since the
state of war cannot arise from simple personal relations, but only from real
relations, private war—war between man and man—cannot exist either in
the state of nature, where there is no settled ownership, or in the social state,
where everything is under the authority of the laws.
Private combats, duels, and encounters are acts that do not constitute a
state of war; and with regard to the private wars authorized by the Estab-
lishments of Louis IX, king of France, and suspended by the peace of God,
they were abuses of the feudal government, an absurd system if ever there
was one, contrary both to the principles of natural right and to all sound
War, then, is not a relation between man and man, but a relation between
State and State, in which individuals are enemies only by accident, not as
men, nor even as citizens,* but as soldiers; not as members of the father-
land, but as its defenders. In short, each State can have as enemies only
* The Romans, who understood and respected the rights of war better than any nation
in the world, carried their scruples so far in this respect that no citizen was allowed to
serve as a volunteer without enlisting expressly against the enemy, and by name against a
certain enemy. A legion in which Cato the younger made his first campaign under Popilius
having been re-formed, Cato the elder wrote to Popilius that, if he consented to his son’s
continuing to serve under him, it was necessary that he should take a new military oath,
because, the first being annulled, he could no longer bear arms against the enemy (Cicero,
De Officiis I, II). And Cato also wrote to his son to abstain from appearing in battle until
he had taken his new oath. I know that it will be possible to urge against me the siege of
Clusium and other particular cases; but I cite laws and customs (Livy, V. 35–37). No
nation has transgressed its laws less frequently than the Romans, and no nation has had
laws so admirable.
Book I: Chapter IV 161
other States and not individual men, inasmuch as it is impossible to claim
any true relation between things of different kinds.
This principle also conforms to the established maxims of all ages and to
the accepted practices of all civilized nations. Declarations of war are not so
much warnings to the powers as to their subjects. The foreigner, whether
king, or nation, or private person, that robs, slays, or detains subjects with-
out declaring war against the government, is not an enemy, but a pirate.
Even in open war, a just prince, while he rightly takes possession of all that
belongs to the State in an enemy’s country, respects the person and property
of individuals; he respects the rights on which his own are based. The aim
of war being the destruction of the hostile State, we have a right to slay its
defenders so long as they have arms in their hands; but as soon as they lay
them down and surrender, ceasing to be enemies or instruments of the
enemy, they become again simply men, and no one has any further right
over their lives. Sometimes it is possible to destroy the State without killing
a single one of its members; but war confers no right except what is neces-
sary to its end. These are not the principles of Grotius; they are not based on
the authority of poets, but are derived from the nature of things, and are
founded on reason.
With regard to the right of conquest, it has no other foundation than the
law of the strongest. If war does not confer on the victor the right of slaying
the vanquished, this right, which he does not possess, cannot be the founda-
tion of a right to enslave them. If we have a right to slay an enemy only
when it is impossible to enslave him, the right to enslave him is not derived
from the right to kill him; it is, therefore, an iniquitous transaction to make
him purchase his life, over which the victor has no right, at the cost of his
liberty. In establishing the right of life and death upon the right of slavery,
and the right of slavery upon the right of life and death, is it not manifest
that one falls into a vicious cycle?
Even if we grant this terrible right of killing everybody, I say that a slave
taken in war, or a conquered nation, is under no obligation at all to a master,
except to obey him so far as compelled. In taking an equivalent for his life
the victor has conferred no favor on the slave; instead of killing him un-
profitably, he has destroyed him for his own profit. Far, then, from having
acquired over him any authority in addition to that of force, the state of war
subsists between them as before, their relationship itself is the effect of it;
and the exercise of the rights of war supposes that there is no treaty of
peace. They have made a convention. Be it so; but this convention, far from
terminating the state of war, supposes its continuance.
Thus, however we might view things, the right of slavery is null and
162 The Social Contract
void, not only because it is illegitimate, but because it is absurd and mean-
ingless. These words, slavery and right, are contradictory and mutually
exclusive. Whether spoken by a man to a man, or by a man to a nation, such
speech as this will always be equally aberrant: ‘‘I make an agreement with
you wholly at your expense and wholly for my benefit, and I shall observe it
as long as I please, while you also shall observe it as long as I please.’’
Chapter V
t h a ti ti sa l w a y sn e c e s s a r yt og ob a c kt oa
f i r s tc o n v e n t i o n
Even if I conceded all that I have so far refuted, those who favor despotism
would be no farther advanced. There will always be a great difference
between subduing a multitude and governing a society. When isolated men,
however numerous they may be, are subjected one after another to a single
person, this seems to me only a case of master and slaves, not of a nation
and its leader; they form, if you will, an aggregation, but not an association,
for they have neither public property nor a body politic. Such a man, even if
he enslaved half the world, is never anything but an individual; his interest,
separated from that of the rest, is never anything but a private interest. If he
dies, his empire after him is left disconnected and disunited, as an oak
disintegrates and becomes a heap of ashes after fire has consumed it.
A people, says Grotius, can give itself to a king. According to Grotius,
then, a people is a people before it gives itself to a king. This gift itself is a
civil act, and presupposes public deliberation. Consequently, before exam-
ining the act by which a people elects a king, it would be well to examine
the act by which a people becomes a people; for this act, being necessarily
anterior to the other, is the real foundation of the society.
In fact, if there were no anterior convention, where, unless the election
were unanimous, would be the obligation upon the minority to submit to the
decision of the majority? And from where do the hundred who desire a
master derive the right to vote on behalf of ten who do not desire one? The
law of the plurality of votes is itself established by convention, and presup-
poses unanimity at least at one point in time.
Book I: Chapter VI 163
Chapter VI
t h es o c i a lp a c t
I imagine men reaching a point when the impediments that endangered their
survival in the state of nature prevailed by their resistance over the forces
that each individual could use to survive in that state. At that point this
primitive condition can no longer subsist, and the human race would perish
unless it changed its mode of existence.
Now, as men cannot create any new forces, but only combine and con-
trol those that do exist, they have no other means of self-preservation than
to form by aggregation a sum of forces which may prevail over the re-
sistance, to put them in action by a single motive power, and to make them
work in concert.
This sum of forces can be produced only by the combination of many;
but the strength and freedom of each man being the chief instruments of his
survival, how can he pledge them without doing harm to himself, and
without neglecting the concern he owes to himself? This difficulty, applied
to my subject, may be expressed in these terms:—
‘‘To find a form of association that may defend and protect with the
whole force of the community the person and property of every associate,
and by means of which each, joining together with all, may nevertheless
obey only himself, and remain as free as before.’’ Such is the fundamental
problem of which the social contract provides the solution.
The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act
that the slightest modification would render them pointless and ineffectual;
so that, although they have never perhaps been formally enunciated, they
are everywhere the same, everywhere tacitly accepted and recognized, un-
til, the social pact being violated, each man returns to his original rights and
takes back his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty for
which he renounced it.
These clauses, rightly understood, can be reduced to a single one,
namely, the total alienation to the whole community of each associate with
all his rights; for, in the first place, since each gives himself up entirely, the
situation is equal for all; and, the conditions being equal for all, no one has
any interest in making them burdensome to others.
Further, the alienation being made without reserve, the union is as per-
fect as it can be, and no individual associate need claim anything more; for,
if any rights were left to individuals, since there would be no common
superior who could adjudicate between them and the public, each, being on
some issue his own judge, would soon claim to be so on all; the state of
164 The Social Contract
nature would still exist, and the association would necessarily become
tyrannical or pointless.
In short, each giving himself to all, gives himself to no one; and since
there is no associate over whom we do not acquire the same rights which we
concede to him over ourselves, we gain the equivalent of all that we lose,
and more power to preserve what we have.
If, then, we set aside whatever does not belong to the essence of the
social contract, we shall find that we can reduce it to the following terms:
‘‘Each of us puts in common his person and all his power under the supreme
direction of the general will; and in return each member becomes an indi-
visible part of the whole.’’
Right away, in place of the particular individuality of each contracting
party, this act of association produces a moral and collective body, com-
posed of as many members as the assembly has voices, and which receives
from this same act its unity, its common self (moi), its life, and its will.
This public person, which is thus formed by the union of all the individual
members, used to be called a city,* and now is called republic or body
politic. When it is passive, it is called by its members State, and sover-
eign when it is active, power when it is compared to similar bodies.
With regard to the associates, they take collectively the name of people, and
are called individually citizens, inasmuch as they participate in the sov-
ereign power, and subjects, inasmuch as they are subjected to the laws of
the State. But these terms are often confused and are mistaken for one
another; it is sufficient to be able to distinguish them when they are used
with precision.
* The real meaning of this word has been almost completely erased among the
moderns; most people take a town for a city, and a burgess for a citizen. They do not know
that houses make the town, and that citizens make the city. This very mistake cost the
Carthaginians dear. I have never read of the title citizens (cives) being given to the sub-
jects of a prince, not even in ancient times to the Macedonians, nor, in our days, to the
English, although nearer liberty than all the rest. The French alone employ familiarly this
name citizen, because they have no true idea of it, as we can see from their dictionaries;
but for this fact, they would, by assuming it, commit the crime of high treason. The name,
among them, expresses a virtue, not a right. When Bodin wanted to give an account of
our citizens and burgesses he made a gross blunder, mistaking the one for the other.
M. d’Alembert has not erred in this, and, in his article Geneva, has clearly distinguished
the four orders of men (even five, counting mere foreigners) which exist in our town, and
of which two only compose the republic. No other French author that I know of has
understood the real meaning of the word citizen.
Book I: Chapter VII 165
Chapter VII
t h es o v e r e i g n
We see from this formula that the act of association comprises a reciprocal
engagement between the public and individuals, and that every individual,
contracting so to speak with himself, is engaged in a double relation, that is,
as a member of the sovereign toward individuals, and as a member of the
State toward the sovereign. But we cannot apply here the maxim of civil
law that no one is bound by engagements made with himself; for there is a
great difference between being bound to oneself and to a whole of which
one forms part.
We must further observe that public deliberations which bind all sub-
jects to the sovereign in consequence of the two different relations under
which each of them is regarded cannot, for a contrary reason, bind the
sovereign to itself; and that accordingly it is contrary to the nature of the
body politic for the sovereign to impose on itself a law which it cannot
transgress. Since it can only be considered under one and the same relation,
it is in the position of an individual contracting with himself; from which
we see that there is not, nor can there be, any kind of fundamental law that is
binding upon the body of the people, not even the social contract. This does
not imply that such a body cannot perfectly well enter into engagements
with others in what does not derogate from this contract; for, in regard to
foreigners, it becomes a simple being, an individual.
But the body politic or sovereign, deriving its existence only from the
sanctity of the contract, can never bind itself, even to others, in anything
that derogates from the original act, such as alienation of some portion of
itself, or submission to another sovereign. To violate the act by which it
exists would be to annihilate itself; and what is nothing produces nothing.
As soon as the multitude is thus united in one body, it is impossible to
harm one of the members without attacking the body, still less to harm the
body without the members feeling the effects. Thus duty and interest alike
oblige the two contracting parties to give mutual assistance; and those same
men must seek to combine in this double relationship all the advantages
implicit in it.
Now, the sovereign, being formed solely by the individuals who com-
pose it, neither has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs; thus the
sovereign power need make no guarantee to its subjects, because it is
impossible for the body to wish to harm all its members; and we shall see
hereafter that it can harm no one as an individual. The sovereign, for the
simple reason that it is so, is always everything that it should be.
166 The Social Contract
But this is not the case regarding the relation of subjects to the sovereign,
which, notwithstanding the common interest, could not depend on them to
fulfill their engagements, unless there were a way to ensure their fidelity.
Indeed, every individual can, as a man, have a particular will contrary to,
or divergent from, the general will which he has as a citizen; his private
interest may appear to him quite different from the common interest; his
absolute and naturally independent existence may make him envisage what
he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which
would be less harmful to others than the payment of it would be onerous to
him; and, viewing the moral person that constitutes the State as an abstract
being because it is not a man, he would be willing to enjoy the rights of a
citizen without being willing to fulfill the duties of a subject. The perpetua-
tion of such injustice would bring about the ruin of the body politic.
So that the social pact not be a pointless device, it tacitly includes this
engagement, which can alone give force to the others—that whoever re-
fuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole
body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free; for
such is the condition which, uniting every citizen to the fatherland, protects
him from all personal dependency, a condition that ensures the control and
working of the political machine, and alone renders legitimate civil engage-
ments, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and subject to the
most enormous abuses.
Chapter VIII
t h ec i v i ls t a t e
The transition from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very
remarkable change in man, by substituting in his behavior justice for in-
stinct, and by imbuing his actions with a moral quality they previously
lacked. Only when the voice of duty prevails over physical impulse, and
law prevails over appetite, does man, who until then was preoccupied only
with himself, understand that he must act according to other principles, and
must consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this
state, he gives up many advantages that he derives from nature, he acquires
equally great ones in return; his faculties are used and developed; his ideas
are expanded; his feelings are ennobled; his entire soul is raised to such a
degree that, if the abuses of this new condition did not often degrade him
below that from which he has emerged, he ought to bless continually the
Book I: Chapter IX 167
wonderful moment that released him from it forever, and transformed him
from a stupid, limited animal into an intelligent being and a man.
Let us simplify this whole scheme into terms easy to compare. What
man loses because of the social contract is his natural liberty and an un-
limited right to anything that tempts him and that he can attain; what he
gains is civil liberty and property in all that he possesses. So not to misun-
derstand these gains, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is
limited only by the powers of the individual, from civil liberty, which is
limited by the general will; and we must distinguish possession, which is
nothing but the result of force or the right of first occupancy, from property,
which can be based only on a lawful title.
We might also add to the advantages of the civil state moral freedom,
which alone enables man to be truly master of himself; for the impulse of
mere appetite is slavery, while obedience to a self-prescribed law is free-
dom. But I have already said too much on this subject, and the philosophical
meaning of the term freedom need not concern us here.
Chapter IX
r e a le s t a t e
Every member of the community at the moment of its founding gives
himself up to it, just as he is, that is, with all his being, his powers, and
property. By this act, possession does not change its nature when it changes
hands, and become property in those of the sovereign; but, as the powers of
the State (cité) are incomparably greater than those of an individual, public
possession is also, in fact, more secure and more irrevocable, without being
more legitimate, at least in respect of foreigners; for the State, with regard
to its members, is owner of all their property by the social contract, which,
in the State, serves as the basis of all rights; but with regard to other powers,
it is owner only by the right of first occupancy which it derives from
The right of first occupancy, although more real than that of the strong-
est, becomes a true right only after the establishment of the right of prop-
erty. Every man has by nature a right to all that he needs; but the positive act
which makes him proprietor of certain property excludes him from owner-
ship of other property. His portion having been allotted, he must confine
himself to it, and he has no further right to the property of the collectivity.
That is why the right of first occupancy, so weak in the state of nature, is
168 The Social Contract
respected by all citizens. In this right men respect not so much what belongs
to others as what does not belong to themselves.
In order to legalize the right of first occupancy over any real estate
whatsoever, the following conditions are necessary: first, the land must not
yet be inhabited by any one; secondly, a man must occupy only the area
required for his subsistence; thirdly, he must take possession of it, not
by ceremonial statements, but by labor and cultivation, the only mark of
ownership which, in the absence of legal title, ought to be respected by
Indeed, if we accord the right of first occupancy to necessity and labor,
why not extend it as far as it can go? Is it impossible to assign limits to this
right? Will the mere setting foot on common ground be sufficient to give an
immediate claim of ownership? Will the power of driving away other men
from it for a moment suffice to deprive them forever of the right of returning
to it? How can a man or a people take possession of an immense territory
and rob the whole human race of it except by a punishable usurpation, since
other men are deprived of the place of residence and the sustenance that
nature gives to them in common? When Núñez de Balboa on the seashore
took possession of the Pacific Ocean and of all of South America in the
name of the crown of Castille, was this sufficient to dispossess all the
inhabitants, and exclude from it all the princes in the world? There could be
innumerable ceremonies of the same kind; and the Catholic king in his
study might, by a single stroke, have claimed possession of the whole
world, only eliminating from his empire lands previously occupied by other
We perceive how the lands of individuals, united and contiguous, be-
come public territory, and how the right of sovereignty, extending itself
from the subjects to the land they occupy, becomes at once real and per-
sonal; which places the possessors in greater dependency, and transforms
their own powers into a guarantee of their fidelity—an advantage that
ancient monarchs did not understand, for, calling themselves only kings of
the Persians or Scythians or Macedonians, they seem to have regarded
themselves as rulers of men rather than as masters of countries. Monarchs
of today call themselves more cleverly kings of France, Spain, England,
etc.; in thus holding the land they are quite sure of holding its inhabitants.
The unusual feature of this alienation is that the community, in receiving
the property of individuals, so far from robbing them of it, only assures
them lawful possession, and changes usurpation into true right, enjoyment
into ownership. Also, the possessors being considered as holders of the
public property, and their rights being respected by all members of the
Book I: Chapter IX 169
State, as well as defended by all its power against foreigners, they have, as it
were, by a transfer advantageous to the public and still more to themselves,
acquired all that they have given up—a paradox easily explained by distin-
guishing between the rights that the sovereign and the proprietor have over
the same property, as we shall see hereafter.
It might also happen that men begin to unite before they possess any-
thing, and that afterwards taking over territory sufficient for all, they enjoy
it in common, or split it among themselves, either equally or in parts deter-
mined by the sovereign. In whatever way this acquisition is made, the right
that every individual has over his own property is always subordinate to the
right that the community has over all; otherwise there would be no stability
in the social union, and no real force in the exercise of sovereignty.
I shall close this chapter and this book with a remark which can serve as
a basis for the whole social system; it is that instead of destroying natural
equality, the fundamental pact, on the contrary, substitutes a moral and law-
ful equality for the physical inequality that nature imposed upon men, so
that, although unequal in strength or intellect, they all become equal by
convention and legal right.*
* Under bad governments this equality is only apparent and illusory; it serves only to
keep the poor in their misery and the rich in their usurpations. In fact, laws are always
useful to those who possess and injurious to those that have nothing; whence it follows
that the social state is advantageous to men only so far as they all have something, and
none of them has too much.
Book II
Chapter I
t h a ts o v e r e i g n t yi si n a l i e n a b l e
The first and most important consequence of the principles established
above is that the general will alone can direct the forces of the State accord-
ing to the object of its founding, which is the common good; for if the
opposition of private interests has rendered necessary the establishment of
societies, it is the concord of these same interests that has rendered it
possible. That which is common to these different interests forms the social
bond; and unless there were some point in which all interests agree, no
society could exist. Now, it is solely with regard to this common interest
that the society should be governed.
I say, then, that sovereignty, being nothing but the exercise of the general
will, can never be alienated, and that the sovereign power, which is in fact a
collective being, can be represented only by itself; power indeed can be
transmitted, but not will.
In fact, if it is not impossible that a particular will might agree on some
point with the general will, it is at least impossible that this agreement
should be lasting and steady; for the particular will naturally tends to certain
preferences, and the general will to equality. It is still more impossible to
have a guarantee for this agreement, even though it should always exist; it
would not be a result of art, but of chance. The sovereign may indeed say:
‘‘I want now what a certain man wants, or at least what he says that he
wants’’; but he cannot say: ‘‘What that man wants tomorrow, I shall also
want,’’ since it is absurd that the will should take on chains as regards the
future, and since it is not incumbent on any will to consent to anything
contrary to the welfare of the being that wills. If, then, the people simply
promises to obey, it dissolves itself by that act and loses its character as a
people; the moment there is a master, there is no longer a sovereign, and
forthwith the body politic is destroyed.
This does not imply that the orders of the leaders cannot pass for deci-
Book II: Chapter II 171
sions of the general will, so long as the sovereign, free to oppose them,
refrains from doing so. In such a case the consent of the people should be
inferred from the universal silence. This will be explained at greater length.
Chapter II
t h a ts o v e r e i g n t yi si n d i v i s i b l e
For the same reason that sovereignty is inalienable it is indivisible; for the
will is either general,* or it is not; it is either that of the body of the people,
or that of only a part of it. In the first case, this declared will is an act of
sovereignty and constitutes law; in the second case, it is only a particular
will, or an act of magistracy—it is at most a decree.
But our politicians, being unable to divide sovereignty in its principle,
divide it in its object. They divide it into force and will, into legislative
power and executive power; into rights of taxation, of justice, and of war;
into internal administration and foreign relations—sometimes conflating
all these branches, and sometimes separating them. They make the sov-
ereign into a fantastic being, formed of disparate parts; it is as if they
created a man from several different bodies, one with eyes, another with
arms, another with feet, and nothing else. The Japanese conjurers, it is said,
cut up a child before the eyes of the spectators; then, throwing all its limbs
into the air, they make the child come down again alive and whole. Such
almost are the jugglers’ tricks of our politicians; after dismembering the
social body, by magic worthy of the circus, they recombine its parts, in any
unlikely way.
This error arises from their not having formed clear ideas about the
sovereign authority, and from their regarding as elements of this authority
what are only emanations from it. Thus, for example, the acts of declaring
war and making peace have been regarded as acts of sovereignty, which is
not the case, since neither of them is a law, but only an application of the
law, a particular act which determines the case of the law, as will be clearly
seen when the idea attached to the word law is defined.
By following out the other divisions in the same way, it would be found
that, whenever sovereignty appears divided, we are mistaken in our think-
ing; and that the rights which are considered as parts of that sovereignty are
* That a will may be general, it is not always necessary that it should be unanimous,
but it is necessary that all votes should be counted; any formal exclusion destroys the
172 The Social Contract
all subordinate to it, and always imply supreme wills of which these rights
are merely functions.
It would be impossible to describe the obscurity into which this lack of
precision has thrown the conclusions of writers on the subject of political
rights when they have meditated on the respective rights of kings and
peoples, on the principles that they had established. Every one can see, in
chapters III and IV of the first book of Grotius, how that learned man and
his translator Barbeyrac become entangled and embarrassed in their soph-
isms, for fear of saying too much or not saying enough according to their
views, and so offending the interests that they had to conciliate. Grotius,
having taken refuge in France, discontent with his own country, and wish-
ing to pay court to Louis XIII, to whom his book is dedicated, spares no
pains to despoil the people of all their rights, and, in the most artful manner,
bestow them on kings. This also would clearly have been the inclination of
Barbeyrac, who dedicated his translation to the king of England, George I.
But unfortunately the expulsion of James II, which he calls an abdication,
forced him to be reserved and to equivocate and evade, in order not to make
William appear a usurper. If these two writers had adopted true principles,
all difficulties would have been removed, and they would have been always
consistent; but they would have spoken the truth with regret, and would
have paid court only to the people. Truth, however, does not lead to fortune,
and the people confer neither embassies, nor professorships, nor pensions.
Chapter III
w h e t h e rt h eg e n e r a lw i l lc a ne r r
It follows from what precedes that the general will is always right and
always tends to the public good; but it does not follow that the deliberations
of the people always have the same rectitude. Men always desire their own
good, but do not always discern it; the people are never corrupted, though
often deceived, and it is only then that they seem to will what is evil.
There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the
general will; the latter regards only the common interest, while the former
has regard to private interests, and is merely a sum of particular wills; but
take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses which cancel one
another,* and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.
* ‘‘Every interest,’’ says the Marquis d’Argenson, ‘‘has different principles. The
accord of two particular interests is formed by opposition to that of a third.’’ He might
Book II: Chapter IV 173
If citizens deliberate when adequately informed and without any com-
munication among themselves, the general will would always result from
the great number of slight differences, and the resolution would always be
good. But when factions, partial associations, are formed to the detriment of
the whole society, the will of each of these associations becomes general in
relation to its members, and particular with reference to the State; it may
then be said that there are no longer as many voters as there are men, but
only as many voters as there are associations. The differences become less
numerous and yield a less general result. Lastly, when one of these associa-
tions becomes so great that it dominates all the others, you no longer have
as the result a sum of small differences, but a single difference; there is then
no longer a general will, and the opinion which prevails is only a particular
It is important, then, in order to have a clear declaration of the general
will, that there should be no factions in the State, and that every citizen
should express only his own opinion.* Such was the unique and sublime
institution of the great Lycurgus. But if there are factions, it is necessary to
multiply their number and prevent inequality, as Solon, Numa, and Servius
did. These are the only proper precautions for ensuring that the general will
may always be enlightened, and that the people may not be deceived.
Chapter IV
t h el i m i t so ft h es o v e r e i g np o w e r
If the State or polity is but a moral person, the life of which consists in the
union of its members, and if the most important of its functions is that of
self-preservation, it needs a universal and coercive force to move and orga-
nize every part in the manner most appropriate for the whole. As nature
have added that the accord of all interests is formed by opposition to that of each. Unless
there were different interests, the common interest would scarcely be felt and would never
meet with any obstacles; everything would go of itself, and politics would cease to be
an art.
* ‘‘It is true,’’ says Machiavelli, ‘‘that some divisions injure the State, while some are
beneficial to it; those are injurious to it which are accompanied by cabals and factions;
those assist it which are maintained without cabals, without factions. Since, therefore, no
founder of a State can provide against enemies in it, he ought at least to provide that there
shall be no cabals’’ (History of Florence, Book VII).
174 The Social Contract
gives every man an absolute power over all his limbs, the social pact gives
the body politic an absolute power over all its members; and it is this same
power which, when controlled by the general will, bears, as I said, the name
of sovereignty.
But besides the public person, we have to consider the private persons
who comprise it, and whose life and liberty are naturally independent of it.
The question, then, is to distinguish clearly between the respective rights of
the citizens and of the sovereign,* as well as between the duties which the
former have to fulfill in their capacity as subjects and the natural rights
which they ought to enjoy in their character as men.
We agree that whatever part of his power, property, and liberty each
person alienates by accepting the social compact is only what is useful and
important to the community; but we must also agree that the sovereign
alone is judge of what is important.
All the services that a citizen can render to the State he owes to it as soon
as the sovereign demands them; but the sovereign, for its part, cannot
impose on its subjects any burden which is useless to the community; it
cannot even wish to do so, for, by the law of reason, just as by the law of
nature, nothing is done without a cause.
The engagements which bind us to the social body are obligatory only
because they are reciprocal; and their nature is such that in fulfilling them
we cannot work for others without also working for ourselves. Why is the
general will always right, and why do all invariably desire the prosperity of
each, unless it is because there is no one who appropriates to himself this
word each without also thinking of himself when voting on behalf of all?
This proves that equality of rights and the notion of justice that it produces
are derived from the preference which each gives to himself, and conse-
quently from man’s nature; that the general will, to be truly such, should be
so in its object as well as in its essence; that it ought to proceed from all in
order to be applicable to all; and that it loses its natural rectitude when it
tends to some individual and specific object, because in that case, judging
what is unknown to us, we have no true principle of equity to guide us.
Indeed, as soon as a particular fact or right is in question with regard to a
point which has not been regulated by an anterior general convention, the
matter becomes contentious; it is a proceeding in which the private persons
interested are one of the parties and the public the other, but in which I
perceive neither the law which must be followed, nor the judge who should
* Attentive readers, do not, I beg you, hastily charge me with contradiction here. I
could not avoid it in terms owing to the poverty of the language, but wait.
Book II: Chapter IV 175
decide. It would be ridiculous in such a case to wish to refer the matter for a
formal decision of the general will, which can be nothing but the decision of
one of the parties, and which, consequently, is for the other party only a will
that is foreign, partial, and inclined on such an occasion to injustice as well
as liable to error. Therefore, just as a particular will cannot represent the
general will, the general will in turn changes its nature when it has a
particular concern, and cannot, as general, decide about either a person or a
fact. When the people of Athens, for instance, elected or deposed their
leaders, decreed honors to one, imposed penalties on another, and by multi-
tudes of particular decrees exercised indiscriminately all the functions of
government, the people no longer had any real general will; they no longer
acted as a sovereign power, but as magistrates. This will appear contrary to
common ideas, but I must be allowed time to expound my own.
From this we must understand that what generalizes the will is less the
number of voices than the common interest that unites them; for, under this
system, each person necessarily submits to the conditions which he imposes
on others—an admirable union of interest and justice, which gives to the
deliberations of the community a spirit of equity that seems to disappear in
debates about any private affair, for want of a common interest to unite and
identify the guidelines of the judge with that of the concerned party.
By whatever path we return to our founding principle we always arrive
at the same conclusion, that is, that the social compact establishes among
the citizens such an equality that they all pledge themselves under the same
conditions and ought all to enjoy the same rights. Thus, by the nature of the
compact, every act of sovereignty, that is, every authentic act of the general
will, binds or favors equally all the citizens; so that the sovereign recog-
nizes only the body of the nation, and singles out none of those who com-
pose it.
What, then, constitutes a real act of sovereignty? It is not an agreement
between a superior and an inferior, but an agreement of the collective body
with each of its members; a lawful agreement, because it has the social
contract as its foundation; equitable, because it is common to all; useful,
because it can have no other object than the general welfare; and stable,
because it has the public force and the supreme power as a guarantee. So
long as the subjects submit only to such agreements, they obey no one,
other than their own will; and to ask how far the respective rights of the
sovereign and citizens extend is to ask up to what point the latter can make
engagements among themselves, each with all and all with each.
Thus we see that the sovereign power, wholly absolute, wholly sacred,
and wholly inviolable, does not, and cannot, transcend the limits of general
176 The Social Contract
agreements, and that every man can fully control what is left to him of his
property and liberty by these agreements; so that the sovereign never has a
right to burden one subject more than another, because then the matter
would become particular and his power would no longer apply.
These distinctions once understood, so untrue is it that in the social
contract there is on the part of individuals any real relinquishment, that their
situation, as a result of this contract, is in reality preferable to what it was
before, and that, instead of an abdication, they have only made an advan-
tageous exchange of an uncertain and precarious mode of existence for a
better and more assured one, of natural independence for liberty, of the
power to injure others for their own security, and of their strength, which
others might overcome, for a right which the social union renders invio-
lable. Their lives, also, which they have devoted to the State, are con-
tinually protected by it; and in exposing their lives for its defense, what do
they do but give back what they have received from it? What do they do but
what they used to do more frequently and with more risk in the state of
nature, when, engaging in inevitable battles, they defended at the peril of
their lives their means of preservation? All have to fight for their country in
case of need, it is true; but then no one ever has to fight for himself. Do we
not gain, moreover, by incurring, for what insures our security, a part of the
risks that we would have to incur for ourselves individually, as soon as we
were deprived of it?
Chapter V
t h er i g h to fl i f ea n dd e a t h
It may be asked how individuals who have no right to dispose of their own
lives can transmit to the sovereign this right which they do not possess. The
question appears hard to solve only because it is poorly phrased. Every man
has a right to risk his own life in order to preserve it. Has it ever been said
that one who throws himself out of a window to escape from a fire is guilty
of suicide? Has this crime, indeed, ever been imputed to a man who per-
ishes in a storm, although, on embarking, he was not oblivious to the
The social contract has as its end the preservation of the contracting
parties. He who desires the end also desires the means, and some risks, even
some losses, are inseparable from these means. He who is willing to pre-
serve his life at the expense of others must also give it up for them when
necessary. Now, the citizen is not a judge of the peril to which the law
Book II: Chapter V 177
requires that he expose himself; and when the prince has said to him: ‘‘It is
expedient for the State that you should die,’’ he ought to die, since it is only
on this condition that he has lived in security up to that time, and since his
life is no longer merely a gift of nature, but a conditional gift of the State.
The penalty of death inflicted on criminals may be regarded almost from
the same point of view; it is in order not to be the victim of an assassin that a
man consents to die if he becomes one. In this contract, far from disposing
of his own life, he thinks only of protecting it, and it is not to be supposed
that any of the contracting parties contemplates at the time being hanged.
Moreover, every evildoer who attacks social rights becomes by his
crimes a rebel and a traitor to his country; by violating its laws he ceases to
be a member of it, and even makes war upon it. In that case, the preservation
of the State is incompatible with his own—one of the two must perish; and
when a guilty man is executed, it is less as a citizen than as an enemy. The
proceedings and the judgment are the proofs and the declaration that he has
broken the social contract, and consequently that he is no longer a member
of the State. Now, as he has acknowledged himself to be such, at least by his
residence, he ought to be cut off from it by exile as a violator of the
compact, or by death as a public enemy; for such an enemy is not a moral
person, he is simply a man; and this is a case in which the right of war is to
slay the vanquished.
But, it will be said, the condemnation of a criminal is a particular act.
Granted; but this condemnation does not belong to the sovereign; it is a
right which that power can confer, though itself unable to exercise it. All
my ideas are connected, but I cannot expound them all at once.
Again, the frequency of capital punishments is always a sign of weak-
ness or indolence in the government. There is no man so worthless that he
cannot be made good for something. We have a right to kill, even for
example’s sake, only those who cannot be kept alive without danger.
As regards the right to pardon or to exempt a guilty man from the penalty
imposed by the law and inflicted by the judge, it belongs only to a power
which is above both the judge and the law, that is to say, the sovereign; still
its right in this is not very clear, and the occasions for exercising it are very
rare. In a well-governed State there are few punishments, not because many
pardons are granted, but because there are few criminals; the multitude of
crimes insures impunity when the State is decaying. Under the Roman
Republic neither the Senate nor the consuls attempted to grant pardons; not
even the people granted any, although they sometimes revoked their own
sentences. Frequent pardons proclaim that crimes will soon need them no
longer, and every one sees to what that leads. But I feel my heart murmuring
178 The Social Contract
and holding back my pen; let us leave these questions to be discussed by the
just man who has not erred, and who never needed pardon himself.
Chapter VI
t h el a w
By the social compact we have given existence and life to the body politic;
the question now is to endow it with movement and will by legislation. For
the original act by which the body is formed and consolidated determines
nothing in addition as to what it must do for its own preservation.
What is right and conformable to order is such by the nature of things,
and independently of human conventions. All justice comes from God, He
alone is the source of it; but if we understood how to receive it direct from
so lofty a source, we would need neither government nor laws. Without
doubt there is a universal justice emanating from reason alone; but this
justice, in order to be accepted among us, should be reciprocal. Regarding
things from a human standpoint, the laws of justice are inoperative among
men for want of a natural sanction; they only bring good to the wicked and
evil to the just when the latter observe them with everyone, and no one
observes them in return. Conventions and laws, then, are necessary to
couple rights with duties and apply justice to its object. In the state of
nature, where everything exists in common, I owe nothing to those to whom
I have promised nothing; I recognize as belonging to others only what is
useless to me. This is not the case in the civil state, in which all rights are
determined by law.
But then, finally, what is a law? So long as men are content to attach to
this word only metaphysical ideas, they will continue to debate without
being understood; and when they have stated what a law of nature is, they
will know no better what a law of the State is.
I have already said that there is no general will with reference to a
particular object. In fact, this particular object is either in the State or
outside of it. If it is outside the State, a will which is foreign to it is not
general in relation to it; and if it is within the State, it forms part of it; then
there is formed between the whole and its part a relation which makes of it
two separate beings, of which the part is one, and the whole, less this same
part, is the other. But the whole less one part is not the whole, and so long as
the relation endures, there is no longer any whole, but two unequal parts;
whence it follows that the will of the one is no longer general in relation to
the other.
Book II: Chapter VI 179
But when the whole people decree concerning the whole people, they
consider themselves alone; and if a relation is then constituted, it is between
the whole object under one point of view and the whole object under
another point of view, without any division at all. Then the matter respect-
ing which they decree is general like the will that decrees. It is this act that I
call a law.
When I say that the object of the laws is always general, I mean that the
law considers subjects collectively, and actions as abstract, never a man as
an individual nor a particular action. Thus the law may indeed decree that
there shall be privileges, but cannot confer them on any person by name; the
law can create several classes of citizens, and even assign the qualifications
which shall entitle them to rank in these classes, but it cannot nominate such
and such persons to be admitted to them; it can establish a royal government
and a hereditary succession, but cannot elect a king or appoint a royal
family; in a word, no function which has reference to an individual object
appertains to the legislative power.
From this standpoint we see immediately that it is no longer necessary to
ask whose office it is to make laws, since they are acts of the general will;
nor whether the prince is above the laws, since he is a member of the State;
nor whether the law can be unjust, since no one is unjust to himself; nor how
we are free and yet subject to the laws, since the laws are only registers of
our wills.
We see, further, that since the law combines the universality of the will
with the universality of the object, whatever any man prescribes on his own
authority is not a law; and whatever the sovereign itself prescribes respect-
ing a particular object is not a law, but a decree, not an act of sovereignty,
but of magistracy.
I therefore call any State a republic which is governed by laws, under
whatever form of administration it may be; for then only does the public
interest predominate and the commonwealth count for something. Every
legitimate government is republican;* I will explain hereafter what govern-
ment is.
Laws are properly only the conditions of civil associations. The people,
being subjected to the laws, should be the authors of them; it concerns only
the associates to determine the conditions of association. But how will they
* I do not mean by this word an aristocracy or democracy only, but in general any
government directed by the general will, which is the law. To be legitimate, the govern-
ment must not be combined with the sovereign power, but must be its minister; then
monarchy itself is a republic. This will be made clear in the next book.
180 The Social Contract
be determined? Will it be by a common agreement, by a sudden inspiration?
Has the body politic an organ for expressing its will? Who will give it the
foresight necessary to frame its acts and publish them at the outset? Or how
shall it declare them in the hour of need? How would a blind multitude,
which often knows not what it wishes because it rarely knows what is good
for it, execute by itself an enterprise so great, so difficult, as a system of
legislation? By themselves, the people always desire what is good, but do
not always discern it. The general will is always right, but the judgment
which guides it is not always enlightened. The general will must be made to
see objects as they are, sometimes as they ought to appear; it must be shown
the good path that it is seeking, and guarded from the seduction of private
interests; it must be made to observe closely times and places, and to
balance the attraction of immediate and palpable advantages against the
danger of remote and concealed evils. Individuals see the good which they
reject; the public desire the good which they do not see. All alike have need
of guides. The former must be compelled to conform their wills to their
reason; the public must be taught to understand what they want. Then from
the public enlightenment results the union of understanding and will in the
social body; and from that the close cooperation of the parts, and, lastly, the
maximum power of the whole. Hence arises the need of a legislator.
Chapter VII
t h el e g i s l a t o r
In order to discover the rules of association that are most suitable to nations,
a superior intelligence would be necessary who could see all the passions of
men without experiencing any of them; who would have no affinity with
our nature and yet know it thoroughly; whose happiness would not depend
on us, and who would nevertheless be quite willing to interest himself in
ours; and, lastly, one who, storing up for himself with the progress of time a
far-off glory in the future, could labor in one age and enjoy in another.*
Gods would be necessary to give laws to men.
The same argument that Caligula adduced as to fact, Plato put forward
with regard to right, in order to give an idea of the civil or royal man whom
he is in quest of in his work the Statesman. But if it is true that a great prince
* A nation becomes famous only when its legislation is beginning to decline. We are
ignorant during how many centuries the institutions of Lycurgus conferred happiness on
the Spartans before they were known in the rest of Greece.
Book II: Chapter VII 181
is a rare man, what will a great legislator be? The first has only to follow the
model which the other has to conceive. The latter is the engineer who
invents the machine, the former is only the workman who assembles it and
turns it on. In the birth of societies, says Montesquieu, it is the leaders of the
republics who frame the institutions, and afterwards it is the institutions
which mold the leaders of the republics.
He who dares undertake to give institutions to a nation ought to feel
himself capable, as it were, of changing human nature; of transforming
every individual, who in himself is a complete and independent whole, into
part of a greater whole, from which he receives in some manner his life and
his being; of altering man’s constitution in order to strengthen it; of sub-
stituting a social and moral existence for the independent and physical
existence which we have all received from nature. In a word, it is necessary
to deprive man of his native powers in order to endow him with some which
are alien to him, and of which he cannot make use without the aid of other
people. The more thoroughly those natural powers are deadened and de-
stroyed, the greater and more durable are the acquired powers, and the more
solid and perfect also are the institutions; so that if every citizen is nothing,
and can be nothing, except in combination with all the rest, and if the force
acquired by the whole be equal or superior to the sum of the natural forces
of all the individuals, we may say that legislation is at the highest point of
perfection which it can attain.
The legislator is in all respects an extraordinary man in the State. If he
ought to be so by his genius, he is not less so by his office. It is neither
magistracy nor sovereignty. This office, which constitutes the republic, does
not enter into its constitution; it is a special and superior office, having
nothing in common with human jurisdiction; for, if he who rules men ought
not to control legislation, he who controls legislation ought not to rule men;
otherwise his laws, being ministers of his passions, would often serve only
to perpetuate his acts of injustice; he would never be able to prevent private
interests from corrupting the sacredness of his work.
When Lycurgus gave laws to his country, he began by abdicating his
royalty. It was the practice of the majority of the Greek towns to entrust to
foreigners the framing of their laws. The modern republics of Italy often
imitated this usage; that of Geneva did the same and found it advanta-
geous.* Rome, at her most glorious epoch, saw all the crimes of tyranny
* Those who consider Calvin only as a theologian are but little acquainted with the
extent of his genius. The preparation of our wise edicts, in which he had a large share,
does him as much credit as his Institutes. Whatever revolution time may bring about in
182 The Social Contract
spring up in her bosom, and saw herself on the verge of destruction, through
uniting in the same hands legislative authority and sovereign power.
Yet the Decemvirs themselves never appropriated the right to pass any
law on their sole authority. Nothing that we propose to you, they said to the
people, can pass into law without your consent. Romans, be yourselves the
authors of the laws which are to secure your happiness.
He who frames laws, then, has, or ought to have, no legislative right, and
the people themselves cannot, even if they wished, divest themselves of this
incommunicable right, because, according to the fundamental compact, it is
only the general will that binds individuals, and we can never be sure that a
particular will is conformable to the general will until it has been submitted
to the free votes of the people. I have said this already, but it is not useless to
repeat it.
Thus we find simultaneously in the work of legislation two things that
seem incompatible—an enterprise surpassing human powers, and, to ex-
ecute it, an authority that is a mere nothing.
Another difficulty deserves attention. Wise men who want to speak to
the vulgar in their own language instead of in a popular way will not be
understood. Now, there are a thousand kinds of ideas which it is impossible
to translate into the language of the people. Views very general and objects
very remote are alike beyond its reach; and each individual, approving of no
other plan of government than that which promotes his own interests, does
not readily perceive the benefits that he is to derive from the continual
deprivations which good laws impose. In order that a newly formed nation
might approve sound maxims of politics and observe the fundamental rules
of state-policy, it would be necessary that the effect should become the
cause; that the social spirit, which should be the product of the institution,
should preside over the institution itself, and that men should be, prior to the
laws, what they ought to become by means of them. Since, then, the legisla-
tor cannot employ either force or reasoning, he must have recourse to an
authority of a different order, which can compel without violence and per-
suade without convincing.
It is this which in all ages has constrained the fathers of nations to resort
to the intervention of heaven, and to give the gods the credit for their own
wisdom, in order that the nations, subjected to the laws of the State as to
our religion, so long as love of country and of liberty is not extinct among us, the memory
of that great man will not cease to be revered.
Book II: Chapter VIII 183
those of nature, and recognizing the same power in the creation of man and
in that of the State, might obey willingly, and bear submissively the yoke of
the public welfare.
The legislator puts into the mouths of the immortals that sublime reason
which soars beyond the reach of common men, in order that he may win
over by divine authority those whom human prudence could not move.*
But it does not belong to every man to make the gods his oracles, nor to be
believed when he proclaims himself their interpreter. The great soul of the
legislator is the real miracle which must give proof of his mission. Any man
can engrave tables of stone, or bribe an oracle, or pretend secret intercourse
with some divinity, or train a bird to speak in his ear, or find some other
clumsy means to impose himself on the people. He who is acquainted with
such means only will perchance be able to assemble a crowd of foolish
persons; but he will never found an empire, and his extravagant work will
soon perish with him. Empty deceptions form but a transient bond; it is only
wisdom that makes it lasting. The Jewish law, which still endures, and that
of the child of Ishmael, which for ten centuries has ruled half the world, still
bear witness today to the great men who dictated them; and while proud
philosophy or blind party spirit sees in them nothing but lucky impostors,
the true statesman admires in their systems the great and powerful genius
which directs durable institutions.
It is not necessary from all this to conclude with Warburton that politics
and religion have among us a common aim, but only that, in the origin of
nations, one serves as an instrument of the other.
Chapter VIII
t h ep e o p l e
As an architect, before erecting a large edifice, examines and tests the soil in
order to see whether it can support the weight, so a wise lawgiver does not
begin by drawing up laws that are good in themselves, but considers first
whether the people for whom he designs them are fit to maintain them. It is
* ‘‘It is true,’’ says Machiavelli, ‘‘there never was in a nation any promulgator of
extraordinary laws who had not recourse to God, because otherwise they would not have
been accepted; for there are many advantages recognized by a wise man which are not
so self-evident that they can convince others’’ (Discourses on Titus Livius, Book I, chap-
ter II).
184 The Social Contract
on this account that Plato refused to legislate for the Arcadians and Cyre-
nians, knowing that these two peoples were rich and could not tolerate
equality; and it is on this account that good laws and worthless men were to
be found in Crete, for Minos had only disciplined a people steeping in vice.
A thousand nations that have flourished on the earth could never have
tolerated good laws; and even those that might have done so could have
succeeded for only a very short period of their whole duration. The majority
of nations, as well as of men, are tractable only in their youth; they become
incorrigible as they grow old. When once customs are established and
prejudices have taken root, it is a perilous and futile enterprise to try and
reform them; for the people cannot even endure that their ills be touched
with a view to their removal, like those stupid and cowardly patients who
shudder at the sight of a physician.
But just as some illnesses unhinge men’s minds and deprive them of all
remembrance of the past, so we sometimes find, in the history of States,
epochs of violence, in which revolutions produce an influence upon nations
such as certain crises produce upon individuals, in which horror of the past
takes the place of forgetfulness, and in which the State, inflamed by civil
wars, springs forth so to speak from its ashes, and regains the vigor of youth
in springing from the arms of death. Such was Sparta in the time of Lycur-
gus, such was Rome after the Tarquins, and such among us moderns were
Holland and Switzerland after the expulsion of their tyrants.
But these events are rare; they are exceptions, the explanation of which
is always found in the particular constitution of the excepted State. They
could not even happen twice with the same nation; for it may render itself
free so long as it is merely barbarous, but can no longer do so when the
resources of the State are exhausted. Then commotions may destroy it
without revolutions being able to restore it, and as soon as its chains are
broken, it falls in pieces and ceases to exist; henceforward it requires a
master and not a liberator. Free nations, remember this maxim: Liberty may
be acquired but never recovered.
There is for nations as for men a period of maturity, which they must
await before they are subjected to laws; but it is not always easy to discern
when a people is mature, and if time is rushed, the labor is abortive. One
nation is governable from its origin, another is not so at the end of ten
centuries. The Russians will never be really governed, because they have
been governed too early. Peter had an imitative genius; he had not the true
genius that creates and produces anything from nothing. Some of his mea-
sures were beneficial, but the majority were ill-timed. He saw that his
people were barbarous, but he did not see that they were unripe for govern-
Book II: Chapter IX 185
ment; he wished to civilize them, when it was necessary only to discipline
them. He wished to produce at once Germans or Englishmen, when he
should have begun by making Russians; he prevented his subjects from
ever becoming what they might have been, by persuading them that they
were what they were not. It is in this way that a French tutor trains his pupils
to shine for a moment in childhood, and then to be for ever a nonentity. The
Russian Empire will desire to subjugate Europe, and will itself be subju-
gated. The Tartars, its subjects or neighbors, will become its masters and
ours. This revolution appears to me inevitable. All the kings of Europe are
working in concert to accelerate it.
Chapter IX
t h ep e o p l e( c o n t i n u e d )
As nature has set limits to the stature of a properly formed man, outside of
which it produces only giants and dwarfs; so likewise, with regard to the
best constitution of a State, there are limits to its possible size so that it may
be neither too large to enable it to be well-governed, nor too small to enable
it to maintain itself by itself. There is in every body politic a maximum of
force which it cannot exceed, and which is often diminished as the State
grows. The more the social bond is extended, the more it is weakened; and,
in general, a small State is proportionally stronger than a large one.
A thousand reasons demonstrate the truth of this maxim. In the first
place, administration becomes more difficult at great distances, as a weight
becomes heavier at the end of a longer lever. It also becomes more burden-
some in proportion as its parts are multiplied; for every town has first its
own administration, for which the people pay; every district has its admin-
istration, still paid for by the people; next, every province, then the superior
governments, the satrapies, the vice-royalties, which must be paid for more
dearly as we ascend, and always at the cost of the unfortunate people;
lastly comes the supreme administration, which overwhelms everything. So
many additional burdens perpetually exhaust the subjects; and far from
being better governed by all these different orders, they are less well gov-
erned than if they had but a single order above them. Meanwhile, hardly any
resources remain for cases of emergency; and when it is necessary to have
recourse to them the State trembles on the brink of ruin.
Nor is this all; not only has the government less vigor and speed in
enforcing observance of the laws, in putting a stop to vexations, in reform-
ing abuses, and in forestalling seditious schemes which may be conducted
186 The Social Contract
in distant places; but the people have less affection for their leaders whom
they never see, for their country, which is in their eyes like the world, and
for their fellow-citizens, most of whom are strangers to them. The same
laws cannot be suitable to so many different provinces, which have different
customs and different climates, and cannot tolerate the same form of gov-
ernment. Different laws beget only trouble and confusion among the na-
tions which, living under the same leaders and in constant communication,
mingle or intermarry with one another, and, when subjected to other cus-
toms, never know whether their patrimony is really theirs. Talents are hid-
den, virtues ignored, vices unpunished, in that multitude of men, unknown
to one another, whom the seat of the supreme administration gathers to-
gether in one place. The leaders, overwhelmed with business, see nothing
themselves; clerks govern the State. In a word, the measures that must be
taken to maintain the general authority, which so many officers at a distance
wish to evade or impose upon, absorb all governmental attention; no regard
for the welfare of the people remains, and scarcely any for their defense in
time of need; and thus a body too vast for its constitution sinks and perishes,
crushed by its own weight.
On the other hand, the State must secure a certain foundation, that it may
possess stability and resist the shocks which it will doubtless experience, as
well as sustain the efforts which it will be forced to make in order to
maintain itself; for all nations have a kind of centrifugal force, by which
they continually act against one another, and tend to aggrandize themselves
at the expense of their neighbors, like the vortices of Descartes. Thus the
weak are in danger of being quickly swallowed up, and none can preserve
itself long except by putting itself in a kind of equilibrium with all, which
renders the compression almost equal everywhere.
Hence we see that there are reasons for expansion and reasons for con-
traction; and it is not the least of a statesman’s talents to find the proportion
between the two which is most advantageous for the preservation of the
State. We may say, in general, that reasons for expansion, being only exter-
nal and relative, ought to be subordinated to the others, which are internal
and absolute. A healthy and strong constitution is the first thing to be
sought; and we should rely more on the vigor that springs from a good
government than on the resources furnished by a vast territory.
States have, however, been constituted in such a way that the necessity
of making conquests entered into their very constitution, and in order to
maintain themselves they were forced to enlarge themselves continually.
Perhaps they rejoiced in this happy necessity, which nevertheless revealed
to them, with the limit of their greatness, the inevitable moment of their fall.
Book II: Chapter X 187
Chapter X
t h ep e o p l e( c o n t i n u e d )
A body politic may be measured in two ways, by the extent of its territory,
and by the number of its people; and there is between these two modes of
measurement an appropriate ratio according to which the State may be
given its genuine dimensions. It is the men who constitute the State, and it is
the soil that sustains the men; the ratio, then, is that the land should suffice
for the maintenance of its inhabitants, and that there should be as many
inhabitants as the land can sustain. In this ratio is found the maximum
power of a given number of people; for if there is too much land, the care of
it is burdensome, the cultivation inadequate, and the output superfluous,
and this is the immediate cause of defensive wars. If there is not enough
land, the State is at the mercy of its neighbors for the additional crops; and
this is the immediate cause of offensive wars. Any nation which has, by its
position, only the alternative between commerce and war is weak in itself; it
is dependent on its neighbors and on events; it has only a short and pre-
carious existence. It conquers and changes its situation, or it is conquered
and reduced to nothing. It can preserve its freedom only by virtue of being
small or large.
It is impossible to express numerically a fixed ratio between the extent
of land and the number of men that are reciprocally sufficient, on account of
the differences that are found in the quality of the soil, in its degree of
fertility, in the nature of its products, and in the influence of climate, as well
as on account of those which we observe in the constitutions of the inhabi-
tants, of whom some consume little in a fertile country, while others con-
sume much on an unfruitful soil. Further, attention must be paid to the
greater or less fecundity of the women, to the conditions of the country,
whether more or less favorable to population, and to the numbers which the
legislator may hope to draw together by his institutions; so that an opinion
should be based not on what is seen, but on what is foreseen, not on the
current size of the population but on the size it ought naturally to attain. In
short, there are a thousand occasions on which the particular accidents of
situation require or permit that more territory than appears necessary should
be taken up. Thus men will spread out a good deal in a mountainous
country, where the natural productions, that is, woods and pastures, require
less labor, where experience teaches that women are more fecund than in
the plains, and where with an extensive inclined surface there is only a
small horizontal base, which alone should count for vegetation. On the
other hand, people may inhabit a smaller space on the seashore, even
188 The Social Contract
among rocks and sands that are almost barren, because fishing can, in great
measure, supply the deficiency in the productions of the earth, because men
ought to be more concentrated in order to repel pirates, and because, fur-
ther, it is easier to relieve the country, by means of colonies, of the inhabi-
tants with which it is overburdened.
In order to establish a nation, it is necessary to add to these condi-
tions one which cannot supply the place of any other, but without which
they are all useless—it is that the people should enjoy abundance and
peace; for the time of a State’s founding is, like that of constituting sol-
diers into a regiment, the moment when the body is least capable of re-
sistance and most easy to destroy. Resistance would be easier in a state of
absolute disorder than at a moment of fermentation, when each is occupied
with his own position and not with the common danger. Should a war,
a famine, or a sedition erupt at this critical period, the State is inevita-
bly overthrown.
Many governments, indeed, may be established during such storms, but
then it is these very governments that destroy the State. Usurpers always
bring about or select tumultuous times for passing, under cover of the
public agitation, destructive laws which the people would never adopt
when sober-minded. The choice of the moment for the establishment of a
government is one of the surest marks for distinguishing the work of the
legislator from that of the tyrant.
What people, then, is suited for legislation? One that is already united by
some bond of interest, origin, or convention, but has not yet borne the real
yoke of the laws; one that has neither customs nor superstitions firmly
rooted; one that has no fear of being overwhelmed by a sudden invasion, but
that, without entering into the disputes of its neighbors, can single-handed
resist either of them, or aid one in repelling the other, that in which every
member can be known by all, and in which there is no necessity to impose
on a man a greater burden than a man can bear; one that can do without
other nations, and without which every other nation can make do,* one that
* If of two neighboring nations one could not survive without the other, it would be a
very hard situation for the first, and a very dangerous one for the second. Every wise
nation in such a case will endeavor very quickly to free the other from this dependence.
The republic of Thlascala, enclosed in the empire of Mexico, preferred to do without salt
rather than buy it of the Mexicans or even accept it gratuitously. The wise Thlascalans saw
a trap hidden beneath this generosity. They kept themselves free; and this small State,
enclosed in that great empire, was at last the instrument of its downfall.
Book II: Chapter XI 189
is neither rich nor poor and is self-sufficient; lastly, one that combines the
stability of an ancient people with the docility of a new one. The work of
legislation is made arduous not so much by what must be established as by
what must be destroyed; and what makes success so rare is the impossibility
of finding a meeting of the simplicity of nature and the needs of society. All
these conditions, it is true, are with difficulty combined; hence few well-
constituted States are seen.
There is still one country in Europe capable of legislation; it is the island
of Corsica. The courage and firmness which that brave nation has exhibited
in recovering and defending its freedom would well deserve that some wise
man should teach it how to preserve it. I have some presentiment that this
small island will one day astonish Europe.
Chapter XI
t h ed i f f e r e n ts y s t e m so fl e g i s l a t i o n
If we ask precisely wherein consists the greatest good of all, which ought to
be the aim of every system of legislation, we shall find that it is summed up
in two principal objects, liberty and equality—liberty, because any individ-
ual dependence is so much force removed from the body of the State;
equality, because liberty cannot survive without it.
I have already said what civil liberty is. With regard to equality, we must
not understand by this word that the degrees of power and wealth should be
absolutely the same; but that, as to power, it should fall short of all violence,
and never be exercised except by virtue of station and of the laws; while, as
to wealth, no citizen should be rich enough to be able to buy another, and
none poor enough to be forced to sell himself,* which supposes, on the part
of the wealthy, moderation in property and influence, and, on the part of
ordinary citizens, moderation of avarice and covetousness.
It is said that this equality is an abstract chimera which cannot exist in
practice. But if the abuse is inevitable, does it follow that it is unnecessary
even to regulate it? It is precisely because the force of circumstances always
* If, then, you wish to give stability to the State, bring the two extremes as near
together as possible; tolerate neither rich people nor beggars. These two conditions,
naturally inseparable, are equally fatal to the general welfare; from the one class spring
tyrants, from the other, the supporters of tyranny; it is always between these that the traffic
in public liberty is carried on; the one buys and the other sells.
190 The Social Contract
tends to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to
maintain it.
But these general objects of every good institution ought to be modified
in each country by the relations which arise both from the local situation
and from the character of the inhabitants; and it is with reference to these
relations that we must assign to each nation a particular system of insti-
tutions, which shall be the best, not perhaps in itself, but for the State
for which it is designed. For instance, if the soil is unfruitful and barren,
or the country too confined for its inhabitants, turn your attention to arts
and manufactures, and exchange their products for the provisions that you
require. On the other hand, if you occupy rich plains and fertile slopes, if, in
a productive region, you are in need of inhabitants, bestow all your cares on
agriculture, which multiplies men, and drive out the arts, which would only
end in depopulating the country by gathering together in a few spots the few
inhabitants that the land possesses.* If you occupy extensive and conve-
nient coasts, cover the sea with vessels and foster commerce and naviga-
tion; you will have a short and brilliant existence. If the sea on your coasts
bathes only rocks that are virtually inaccessible, remain fish-eating barbar-
ians; you will lead more peaceful, perhaps better, and certainly happier
lives. In a word, besides the maxims common to all, each nation contains
within itself some cause that influences it in a particular way, and makes its
legislation suitable for it alone. Thus the Hebrews in ancient times, and the
Arabs more recently, had religion as their chief object, the Athenians litera-
ture, Carthage and Tyre commerce, Rhodes navigation, Sparta war, Rome
valor. The author of the Spirit of the Laws has shown in a multitude of
instances by what arts the legislator directs his institutions towards each of
these objects.
What makes the constitution of a State really solid and enduring is the
observance of expediency in such a way that natural relations and laws
always coincide, the latter only serving, as it were, to secure, support, and
rectify the former. But if the legislator, mistaken in his object, takes a
principle different from that which springs from the nature of things; if the
one tends to servitude, the other to liberty, the one to riches, the other to
population, the one to peace, the other to conquests, we shall see the laws
imperceptibly weakened and the constitution impaired; and the State will
* Any branch of foreign commerce, says the Marquis d’Argenson, diffuses merely a
deceptive utility through the kingdom generally; it may enrich a few individuals, even
a few towns, but the nation as a whole gains nothing, and the people are none the better
for it.
Book II: Chapter XII 191
be ceaselessly agitated until it is destroyed or changed, and invincible
nature has resumed her sway.
Chapter XII
c l a s s i f i c a t i o no ft h el a w s
So that everything may be duly regulated and the best possible form given
to the commonwealth, there are various relations to be considered. First, the
action of the whole body acting on itself, that is, the relation of the whole to
the whole, or of the sovereign to the State; and this relation is composed of
that of the intermediate terms, as we shall see hereafter.
The laws governing this relation bear the name of political laws, and are
also called fundamental laws, not without some justification if they are wise
ones; for, if in every State there is only one good method of regulating it, the
people who discovered it ought to adhere to it; but if the established order is
bad, why should we regard as fundamental laws that prevent it from being
good? Besides, in any case, a nation is always at liberty to change its laws,
even the best; for if it likes to injure itself, who has a right to prevent it from
doing so?
The second relation is that of the members with one another, or with the
body as a whole, and this relation should, in respect of the first, be as small,
and, in respect of the second, as great as possible; so that every citizen may
be perfectly independent of all the rest, and in absolute dependence on the
State. And this is always effectuated by the same means, for it is only the
power of the State that secures the freedom of its members. It is from this
second relation that civil laws arise.
We may consider a third kind of relation between the individual man and
the law, that of punishable disobedience; and this gives rise to the establish-
ment of criminal laws, which at bottom are not so much a particular species
of laws as the sanction of all the others.
To these three kinds of laws is added a fourth, the most important of all,
which is engraved neither on marble nor on bronze, but in the hearts of the
citizens; a law which creates the real constitution of the State, which ac-
quires new strength daily, which, when other laws grow obsolete or pass
away, revives them or reinforces them, preserves a people in the spirit of
their institutions, and imperceptibly substitutes the force of habit for that of
authority. I speak of manners, customs, and above all of opinion—a prov-
ince unknown to our politicians, but one on which the success of all the rest
depends; a province with which the great legislator is occupied in private,
192 The Social Contract
while he appears to confine himself to particular regulations, that are merely
the sides of the arch, of which customs and morals, slower to develop,
ultimately form the immovable keystone.
Of these different types of law, political laws, which constitute the form
of government, alone relate to my subject.
Book III
Before speaking of the different forms of government, let us try to deter-
mine the precise meaning of that word, which has not yet been explained
Chapter I
g o v e r n m e n ti ng e n e r a l
I warn the reader that this chapter must be read carefully, and that I do not
know the art of making myself intelligible to those that will not be attentive.
Every free act has two causes which together produce it; one is moral,
that is, the will that determines the act; the other is physical, that is, the
power that executes it. When I walk toward an object, first I must want to go
toward it; in the second place, my feet must take me to it. Should a paralytic
wish to run, or an agile man not wish to do so, both will remain where they
are. The body politic has the same driving forces; in it, we discern force and
will, the latter under the name of legislative power, the former under the
name of executive power. Nothing is, or ought to be, done in it without
We have seen that the legislative power belongs to the people and can
belong only to them. On the other hand, it is easy to see from the principles
already established, that the executive power cannot belong to the people
generally as legislative or sovereign, because that power is used only in
particular acts, which are not within the province of the law, nor conse-
quently within that of the sovereign, all the acts of which must be laws.
The public force, then, requires a suitable agent to concentrate it and set
it in motion according to the directions of the general will, to serve as a
means of communication between the State and the sovereign, to create in
some manner in the public person what the union of soul and body creates
in a man. This is, in the State, the function of the government, improperly
confused with the sovereign of which it is only the minister.
194 The Social Contract
What, then, is the government? An intermediate body established be-
tween the subjects and the sovereign for their mutual correspondence,
charged with the execution of the laws and with the maintenance of liberty
both civil and political.
The members of this body are called magistrates or kings, that is, gover-
nors; and the body as a whole bears the name Prince.* Those therefore who
claim that the act by which a people submits to its leaders is not a contract
are quite right. It is absolutely nothing but a commission, an employment,
in which, as simple officers of the soverign, they exercise in its name the
power of which it has made them depositaries, and which it can limit,
modify, and take back when it pleases. The alienation of such a right, being
incompatible with the nature of the social body, is contrary to the object of
the association.
I therefore give the name government or supreme administration to the
legitimate exercise of the executive power, and I give the name of Prince or
magistrate to the man or body charged with that administration.
It is in the government that are found the intermediate powers, the
relations of which constitute the relation of the whole to the whole, or of
the sovereign to the State. This last relation can be represented by that of the
extremes of a continuous proportion, of which the proportional mean is the
government. The government receives from the sovereign the orders it
gives to the people; and so that the State may be in stable equilibrium it is
necessary, everything being balanced, that there should be equality between
the product or the power of the government taken by itself, and the product
or power of the citizens, who are sovereign on the one hand and subjects on
the other.
Moreover, we could not alter any of the three terms without at once
destroying their proportionality. If the sovereign wishes to govern, or if the
magistrate wishes to legislate, or if the subjects refuse to obey, disorder
prevails over order, force and will no longer act in concert, and the State
being dissolved falls into despotism or anarchy. Lastly, as there is but one
proportional mean between each relation, there is only one good govern-
ment possible in the State; but as a thousand events may change the rela-
tions of a people, not only may different governments be good for different
peoples, but for the same people at different times.
To try and give an idea of the different relations that may exist between
* It is for this reason that at Venice the title of Most Serene Prince is given to the
College, even when the Doge does not attend it.
Book III: Chapter I 195
these two extremes, I will take for example the population figures as a
relation most easy to express.
Let us suppose that the State is composed of ten thousand citizens. The
sovereign can only be considered collectively and as a body; but every
private person, in his capacity of subject, is considered an individual; there-
fore the sovereign is to the subject as ten thousand is to one, that is, each
member of the State has as his share only one ten-thousandth part of the
sovereign authority, although he is entirely subjected to it.
If the nation consists of a hundred thousand men, the position of the
subjects does not change, and each alike is subjected to the whole authority
of the laws, while his vote, reduced to one hundred-thousandth, has ten
times less influence in their enactment. The subject, then, always remaining
one, the ratio of the sovereign to the subject increases in proportion to the
number of citizens. From which it follows that the more the State is en-
larged, the more liberty is diminished.
When I say that the ratio increases, I mean that it is farther removed from
equality. Therefore, the greater the ratio is in the geometrical sense, the less
is the ratio in the ordinary sense; in the former sense, the ratio, considered in
terms of quantity, is measured by the quotient, and in the other, considered
in terms of likeness, it is estimated by the similarity.
Now, the less the particular wills correspond to the general will, that is,
customs with laws, the more should the repressive power be increased. The
government, then, in order to be good, should be relatively stronger in
proportion as the people are more numerous.
On the other hand, since the enlargement of the State gives those en-
trusted with the public authority more temptations and more opportunities
to abuse their power, the more force the government should have to restrain
the people, and the more should the sovereign have in its turn to restrain the
government. I am not speaking here of absolute force, but of the relative
force of the different parts of the State.
It follows from this double relationship that the continuous proportion
between the sovereign, the Prince, and the people is not an arbitrary idea,
but a necessary consequence of the nature of the body politic. It follows,
further, that one of the extremes, that is, the people, as subject, being
defined and represented by unity, whenever the doubled ratio increases or
diminishes, the single ratio increases or diminishes in like manner, and
consequently the middle term is changed. This shows that there is no unique
and absolute constitution of government, but that there may be as many
governments different in nature as there are States different in size.
196 The Social Contract
If, taking these ideas to their extreme, one argues that, in order to find
this mean proportional and form the body of the government, it is, accord-
ing to me, only necessary to take the square root of the number of people, I
would answer that I take that number here only as an example; that the
relationships of which I speak are not measured solely by the number of
men, but in general by the quantity of action, which results from the com-
bination of a multitude of causes; that, moreover, if for the purpose of
expressing myself in fewer words, I borrow for a moment geometrical
terms, I am nevertheless aware that geometrical precision does not exist in
moral quantities.
The government is on a small scale what the body politic which includes
it is on a large scale. It is a moral person endowed with certain faculties,
active like the sovereign, passive like the State, and it can be broken down
into other similar relations from which arises as a consequence a new
proportion, and yet another within this, according to the order if the mag-
istracies, until we come to an indivisible middle term, that is, to a single
leader or supreme magistrate, who may be represented, in the middle of this
progression, as unity between the series of fractions and that of the whole
Without getting confused by this multiplication of terms, let us be con-
tent to consider the government as a new body in the State, distinct from the
people and from the sovereign, and intermediate between the two.
There is this essential difference between those two bodies, that the State
exists by itself, while the government exists only through the sovereign.
Thus the prevailing will of the Prince is, or ought to be, only the general
will, or the law; his force is only the public force concentrated in himself; so
soon as he wishes to perform some absolute and independent act, the con-
nection of the whole begins to fall apart. If, lastly, the Prince should happen
to have a particular will more active than that of the sovereign, and if, to
enforce obedience to this particular will, he should use the public force
which is in his hands, in such a manner that there would be so to speak two
sovereigns, the one de jure and the other de facto, the social union would
immediately disappear, and the body politic would be dissolved.
Further, in order that the body of the government may have an existence,
a real life which distinguishes it from the body of the State; so that all its
members may be able to act in concert and fulfill the object for which it is
instituted, a particular personality is necessary to it, a feeling common to
its members, a force, a will of its own focused on its preservation. This indi-
vidual existence supposes assemblies, councils, a power of deliberating
Book III: Chapter II 197
and resolving, rights, titles, and privileges which belong to the Prince ex-
clusively, and which render the position of the magistrate more honorable
in proportion as it is more arduous. The difficulty lies in the method of
organizing, within the whole, this subordinate whole, in such a way that it
may not weaken the general constitution in strengthening its own; that its
particular force, intended for its own preservation, may always be kept
distinct from the public force, designed for the preservation of the State;
and, in a word, that it may always be ready to sacrifice the government to
the people, and not the people to the government.
Moreover, although the artificial body of the government is the work of
another artificial body, and has in some respects only a derivative and
subordinate existence, that does not prevent it from acting with more or less
vigor or celerity, from enjoying, so to speak, more or less robust health.
Lastly, without directly departing from the object for which it was in-
stituted, it may deviate from it more or less, according to the manner in
which it is constituted.
From all these differences arise the different relations which the govern-
ment must have with the body of the State, so as to accord with the acciden-
tal and particular relations by which the State itself is modified. For often
the government that is best in itself will become the most corrupt, unless its
relations are changed so as to redress the defects of the body politic to
which it belongs.
Chapter II
t h ep r i n c i p l ew h i c hc o n s t i t u t e st h ed i f f e r e n t
f o r m so fg o v e r n m e n t
To explain the general cause of these differences, I must here distinguish the
Prince from the government, as I before distinguished the State from the
The body of the magistracy may be composed of a greater or smaller
number of members. We said that the ratio of the sovereign to the sub-
jects was so much greater as the people were more numerous; and, by an
evident analogy, we can say the same of the government with regard to the
Now, the total force of the government, being always that of the State,
does not vary; from which it follows that the more it uses this force on its
own members, the less remains for acting upon the whole people.
198 The Social Contract
Consequently, the more numerous the magistrates are, the weaker is the
government. As this maxim is fundamental, let us endeavor to explain it
more clearly.
We can distinguish in the person of the magistrate three essentially
different wills; first, the will belonging to the individual, concerned only
with his personal advantage; secondly, the common will of the magistrates,
concerned solely with the interest of the Prince, and which may be called
the corporate will, being general in relation to the government, and particu-
lar in relation to the State of which the government forms part; in the third
place, the will of the people, or the sovereign will, which is general both in
relation to the State considered as the whole, and in relation to the govern-
ment considered as part of the whole.
In a perfect system of legislation the particular or individual will should
be null and void; the corporate will belonging to the government quite
subordinate; and consequently the general or sovereign will always domi-
nant, and the sole ruling agency of all the others.
On the other hand, according to the natural order, these different wills
become more active to the extent that they are concentrated. Thus the
general will is always the weakest, the corporate will has the second rank,
and the particular will the first of all; so that in the government each mem-
ber is, firstly, himself, next a magistrate, and then a citizen—a gradation
directly opposed to what the social order requires.
But suppose that the whole government is in the hands of a single man;
then the particular will and the corporate will are perfectly united, and
consequently the latter is in the highest possible degree of intensity. Now, as
it is on the degree of will that the use of force depends, and as the absolute
power of the government does not vary, it follows that the most active
government is that of a single person.
On the other hand, let us unite the government with the legislative
authority; let us make the sovereign the Prince, and all the citizens magis-
trates; then the corporate will, combined with the general will, will be no
more active than the latter, and will leave the particular will in all its force.
Thus the government, always with the same absolute force, will be at its
minimum of relative force or activity.
These relations are incontestable, and other considerations serve still
further to confirm them. We see, for example, that each magistrate is more
active in his body than each citizen is in his, and that consequently the
particular will has much more influence in the acts of government than in
those of the sovereign; for every magistrate is almost always charged with
some function of government, whereas each citizen, taken by himself, has
Book III: Chapter III 199
no function of sovereignty. Moreover, the larger a State’s territory, the more
its real force is increased, although it does not increase as a result of its size;
but, while the State remains the same, it is useless to increase the number of
magistrates, for the government acquires no greater real force, inasmuch as
this force is that of the State, the quantity of which is always uniform. Thus
the relative force or activity of the government diminishes without its abso-
lute or real force being able to increase.
It is certain, moreover, that the dispatch of business is delayed when more
people are responsible for it; that, in laying too much stress on prudence, we
leave too little to luck; that opportunities are allowed to pass by, and that
owing to excessive deliberation the fruits of deliberation are often lost.
I have just shown that the government is weakened as the number of
magistrates increases, and I have before demonstrated that the more nu-
merous the people is, the more ought the repressive force to be increased.
From which it follows that the ratio between the magistrates and the gov-
ernment ought to be the inverse of the ratio between the subjects and the
sovereign; that is, the more the State expands, the more the government
should contract; so that the number of leaders should diminish as a result of
an increase in the number of the people.
But I speak here only of the relative force of the government, and not of
its rectitude; for, on the other hand, the more numerous the magistracy is,
the more the corporate will approaches the general will; whereas, under a
single magistrate, this same corporate will is, as I have said, only a particu-
lar will. Thus, what is lost on one side can be gained on the other, and the art
of the legislator consists in knowing how to determine the point at which
the force and will of the government, always in reciprocal proportion, are
combined in the ratio most advantageous to the State.
Chapter III
c l a s s i f i c a t i o no fg o v e r n m e n t s
We have seen in the previous chapter why the different kinds or forms of
government are characterized by the number of members that comprise
them; it remains to be seen in the present chapter how this division is made.
The sovereign may, in the first place, place the responsibility for the
government in the whole people, or in the majority of the people, in such a
way that there may be more citizens who are magistrates than simple indi-
vidual citizens. We call this form of government a democracy.
Or it may confine the government to a small number, so that there may
200 The Social Contract
be more ordinary citizens than magistrates; and this form bears the name of
Lastly, it may concentrate the whole government in the hands of a single
magistrate from whom all the rest derive their power. This third form is the
most common, and is called monarchy, or royal government.
We should remark that all these forms, or at least the first two, admit of
degrees, and may indeed have a considerable range; for democracy may
embrace the whole people, or be limited to a half. Aristocracy, in its own
way, may confine itself not to a half of the people but to an even smaller
number. Even royalty may undergo some division. Sparta by its constitu-
tion always had two kings; and in the Roman Empire there were as many as
eight Emperors at the same time without it being possible to say that the
Empire was divided. Thus there is a point at which each form of govern-
ment blends with the next; and we see that, under three forms only, the
government may adapt to as many different forms as the State has citizens.
What is more, this same government being in certain respects capable of
subdivision into other parts, one administered in one way, another in an-
other, there may result from combinations of these three forms a multitude
of mixed forms, each of which can be multiplied by all the simple forms.
For ages there has been much debate about the best form of government,
without considering the fact that each of them is the best in certain cases,
and the worst in others.
If, in the different States, the number of the supreme magistrates must be
in inverse ratio to that of the citizens, it follows that, in general, democratic
government is suitable to small States, aristocracy to those of moderate
size, and monarchy to large ones. This rule stems directly from the princi-
ple. But how is it possible to estimate the multitude of circumstances which
may produce exceptions?
Chapter IV
d e m o c r a c y
He who makes the law knows better than any one how it should be executed
and interpreted. It would seem, then, that there could be no better constitu-
tion than one in which the executive power is united with the legislative; but
it is that very circumstance which makes a democratic government inade-
quate in certain respects, because things which ought to be specified are not,
and because the Prince and the sovereign, being the same person, only form
as it were a government without government.
Book III: Chapter IV 201
It is not correct that the person who makes the laws execute them, nor
that the body of the people divert its attention from general considerations
in order to bestow it on particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous than
the influence of private interests on public affairs; and the abuse of the laws
by the government is a lesser evil than the corruption of the legislator,
which is the infallible result of the pursuit of private interests. For when the
State is changed in its substance, all reform becomes impossible. A people
that would never abuse the government would likewise never abuse its
independence; a people that always governed well would not need to be
Taking the term in its strict sense, there never has existed, and never will
exist, any true democracy. It is contrary to the natural order that the majority
should govern and that the minority should be governed. It is impossible to
imagine the people remaining in perpetual assembly to attend to public
affairs, and it is readily apparent that commissions could not be established
for that purpose without changing the form of administration.
In fact, I think I can posit as a principle that when the functions of
government are shared among several magistrates, the least numerous ac-
quire, sooner or later, the greatest authority, if only on account of the facility
with which a smaller number of men can transact business.
How difficult it is, moreover, to combine all the features that this kind of
government requires! First, a very small State, in which the people may be
readily assembled, and in which every citizen can easily know all the
others; secondly, great simplicity of customs and morals, which prevents a
multiplicity of issues and thorny debates; next, considerable equality in
class and fortune, without which equality in rights and authority could not
long survive; lastly, little or no luxury, for luxury is either the result of
wealth or makes it necessary; luxury corrupts simultaneously the rich and
the poor, the former by ownership, the latter by coveting; it betrays the
country to indolence and vanity; it deprives the State of all its citizens in
order to enslave them to one to another, and all to opinion.
That is why a famous author posited virtue as the founding principle of a
republic, for all these conditions could not survive without virtue; but, by
not making the necessary distinctions, this brilliant genius often lacked
precision and sometimes clarity, and did not see that the sovereign authority
being everywhere the same, the same principle ought to have a role in every
well-constituted State, in a greater or lesser degree, it is true, according to
the form of government.
Let us add that there is no government so subject to civil wars and
internal agitations as the democratic or popular, because there is none
202 The Social Contract
which tends so strongly and so constantly to change its form, none which
demands more vigilance and courage to be maintained in its own form. It is
especially in this constitution that the citizen should arm himself with
strength and steadfastness, and say every day of his life from the bottom of
his heart what a virtuous Palatine* said in the Diet of Poland: Malo peri-
culosam libertatem quam quietum servitium.
If there were a nation of gods, it would be governed democratically. So
perfect a government is unsuited to men.
Chapter V
a r i s t o c r a c y
We have here two very different moral persons, that is, the government and
the sovereign; and consequently two general wills, one having reference to
all the citizens, the other only to the members of the administration. Thus,
although the government can regulate its internal policy as it pleases, it can
never speak to the people except in the name of the sovereign, that is, in the
name of the people themselves. This must never be forgotten.
The earliest societies were aristocratically governed. The heads of fam-
ilies deliberated among themselves about public affairs. The young men
yielded readily to the authority of experience. Hence the names priests,
elders, senate, gerontes. The Indians of North America are still governed in
this way at the present time, and are very well governed.
But in proportion as the inequality due to institutions prevailed over
natural inequality, wealth or power† was preferred to age, and aristocracy
became elective. Finally, the power transmitted with the father’s property to
the children, rendering the families patrician, made the government heredi-
tary, and people beheld senators who were only twenty years old.
There are, then, three kinds of aristocracy—natural, elective, and hered-
itary. The first is suitable only for simple nations; the third is the worst of all
governments. The second is the best; it is aristocracy in the true sense.
Other than the advantage of the distinction between the two powers,
aristocracy has that of the choice of its members; for in a popular govern-
ment all the citizens are born magistrates; but this one limits them to a small
* The Palatine of Posnania, father of the King of Poland, Duke of Lorraine.
† It is clear that the word optimates among the ancients did not mean the best, but the
most powerful.
Book III: Chapter V 203
number, and they become magistrates by election only;* a method by
which integrity, intelligence, experience, and all other grounds of prefer-
ment and public esteem are so many fresh guarantees that men will be
wisely governed.
Further, assemblies are more easily convened; issues are better dis-
cussed and are dispatched with greater order and diligence; while the credit
of the State is better maintained abroad by venerable senators, than by an
unknown or base multitude.
In a word, it is the best and most natural order of things that the wisest
should govern the multitude, when we are sure that they will govern it for
its advantage and not for their own. We should not pointlessly multiply
means, nor ask twenty thousand men to do what a hundred chosen men can
do still better. But we must note that the corporate interest begins here to
steer the public force in a lesser degree according to the rule of the general
will, and that another inevitable propensity deprives the laws of a part of the
executive power.
With regard to special expediencies, a State must not be so small, nor a
people so simple and upright, that the execution of the laws follows imme-
diately upon the public will, as in a good democracy. Nor again must a
nation be so large that its leaders, who are dispersed in order to govern it,
install themselves as sovereigns, each in his own province, and begin by
making themselves independent so as at last to become masters.
But if aristocracy requires fewer virtues than popular government, it also
requires others that are peculiarly its own, such as moderation among the
rich and contentment among the poor; for a rigorous equality would seem to
be out of place in it, and was not even observed in Sparta.
Besides, inasmuch as this form of government includes a certain in-
equality of fortune, it would be well in general that the administration of
public affairs be entrusted to those who are best able to devote their whole
time to it, but not, as Aristotle maintains, that the rich should always be
preferred. On the contrary, it is important that an opposite choice sometimes
teach the people that there are, in men’s personal merits, reasons for prefer-
ence more important than wealth.
* It is very important to regulate by law the form of election of magistrates; for, in
leaving it to the will of the Prince, it is impossible to avoid falling into hereditary
aristocracy, as happened in the republics of Venice and Berne. In consequence, the first
has long been a decaying State, but the second is maintained by the extreme wisdom of its
Senate; it is a very honorable and a very dangerous exception.
204 The Social Contract
Chapter VI
m o n a r c h y
We have hitherto considered the Prince as a moral and collective person
united by the force of the laws, and as the depositary of the executive power
in the State. We now have to consider this power concentrated in the hands
of a natural person, of a real man, who alone has a right to use it according
to the laws. He is what is called a monarch or a king.
Quite the reverse of the other forms of administration, in which a collec-
tive being represents an individual, in this one an individual represents a
collective being; so that the moral unity that constitutes it is at the same time
a physical unity in which all the powers that the law combines in the other
with so much effort are combined naturally.
Thus the will of the people, the will of the Prince, the public force of the
State, and the particular force of the government, all obey the same motive
power; all the parts of the machine are in the same hand, everything moves
toward the same end; there are no opposing movements that counteract one
another, and no kind of constitution can be imagined in which more action
is produced with less effort. Archimedes, quietly seated on the shore, and
launching without difficulty a large vessel, represents to me a skillful mon-
arch, governing from his cabinet his vast States, and, while he appears
motionless, setting everything in motion.
But if there is no government that has more vigor, there is none in which
the particular will has more sway and more easily governs others. Every-
thing moves toward the same end, it is true; but this end is not the public
welfare, and the very power of the administration turns continually to the
prejudice of the State.
Kings wish to be absolute, and from afar men shout to them that the best
way to become so is to make themselves beloved by their people. This
maxim is very fine, and also very true in certain respects; unfortunately it
will always be ridiculed in royal circles. Power which springs from the
affection of the people is doubtless the greatest, but it is precarious and
conditional; princes will never be satisfied with it. The best kings wish to
have the power to be wicked if they please, without ceasing to be masters. A
political sermonizer will tell them in vain that, the strength of the people
being their own, it is their greatest interest that the people flourish, nu-
merous, and formidable; they know very well that that is not true. Their
personal interest is, in the first place, that the people should be weak and
miserable, and should never be able to resist them. Supposing all the sub-
jects always perfectly submissive, I admit that it would then be the Prince’s
Book III: Chapter VI 205
interest that the people should be powerful, in order that this power, being
his own, might render him formidable to his neighbors; but inasmuch as this
interest is only secondary and subordinate, and as the two suppositions are
incompatible, it is natural that princes should always give preference to the
maxim that is most immediately useful to them. It is this that Samuel
insisted on to the Hebrews; it is this that Machiavelli clearly demonstrated.
While pretending to give lessons to kings, he gave great ones to peoples.
The Prince of Machiavelli is the book for republicans.*
We have found, by general considerations, that monarchy is suited only
to large States; and we shall find this again by examining monarchy itself.
The more numerous the public administrative body is, the more does the
ratio of the Prince to the subjects diminish and approach equality, so that
this ratio is unity or equality itself, in a democracy. This same ratio in-
creases in proportion as the government contracts, and is at its maximum
when the government is in the hands of a single person. Then the distance
between the Prince and the people is too great, and the State lacks cohesion.
In order to unify it, then, intermediate orders, princes, grandees, and nobles
are required to fill them. Now, nothing at all of this kind is suitable for a
small State, which would be ruined by all these orders.
But if it is difficult for a large State to be well governed, it is much more
so for it to be well governed by a single man; and every one knows what
happens when the king appoints substitutes.
One essential and inevitable defect, which will always make a monar-
chical government inferior to a republican one, is that in the latter the public
voice hardly ever raises to the highest posts any but enlightened and capa-
ble men, who fill them honorably; whereas those who succeed in monar-
chies are most frequently only petty mischief-makers, petty crooks, petty
intriguers, whose petty talents, which enable them to climb to high posts in
courts, only serve to show the public their ineptitude as soon as they have
attained them. The people are much less mistaken about their choice than
the Prince is; and a man of real merit is almost as rare in a royal ministry as a
fool at the head of a republican government. Therefore, when by some
* Machiavelli was an honorable man and a good citizen; but, attached to the house of
the Medici, he was forced, during the oppression of his country, to conceal his love for
liberty. The mere choice of his execrable hero sufficiently manifests his secret intention;
and the opposition between the maxims of his book the Prince and those of his Dis-
courses on Titus Livius and his History of Florence shows that this profound politician
has had hitherto only superficial or corrupt readers. The court of Rome has strictly
prohibited his book; I certainly believe it, for it is that court which he most clearly depicts.
206 The Social Contract
fortunate chance one of these born rulers takes the helm of affairs in a
monarchy almost wrecked by such a fine set of ministers, it is quite as-
tonishing what resources he finds, something quite epoch-making.
So that a monarchical State might be well-governed, it would be neces-
sary for its greatness or size to be in proportion to the abilities of the person
who governs. It is easier to conquer than to rule. With a sufficient lever, the
world can be moved by a finger; but to hold it up the shoulders of Hercules
are required. However small a State may be, the Prince is almost always too
small for it. When, on the contrary, it happens that the State is too small for
its leader, something very rare, it is still badly governed, because the leader,
always pursuing his own great designs, forgets the interests of the people,
and renders them no less unhappy by the abuse of his abundant abilities,
than an inferior leader by his lack of talent. It would be necessary, so to
speak, for a kingdom to be enlarged or contracted in every reign, according
to the capacity of the Prince; whereas, the talents of a senate have more
definite limits, the State may have permanent boundaries, and the admin-
istration prosper equally well.
The most obvious disadvantage of the government of a single person is
the lack of that continual succession which creates in the two others an
uninterrupted chain. One king having died, another is necessary; elections
leave dangerous intervals; they are stormy; and unless the citizens are of a
disinterestedness, an integrity, something this government hardly encour-
ages, intrigue and corruption sweep in. It would be hard for a man to whom
the State has been sold not to sell it in his turn, and indemnify himself out of
the helpless for the money which the powerful have extorted from him.
Sooner or later everything becomes venal under such an administration,
and the peace which is then enjoyed under a king is worse than the disorder
of an interregnum.
What has been done to prevent these evils? Crowns have been made
hereditary in certain families; and an order of succession has been estab-
lished which prevents any dispute on the demise of kings; that is to say, the
inconvenience of regencies being substituted for that of elections, an ap-
pearance of tranquillity has been preferred to a wise administration, and
men have preferred to risk having as their leaders children, monsters, and
imbeciles, rather than have a dispute about the choice of good kings. They
have not considered that in thus exposing themselves to the risk of this
alternative, they set themselves up for failure. That was a very sensible
answer of Dionysius the younger, to whom his father, in criticizing him for
a dishonorable action, said: ‘‘Did I set you the example in this?’’ ‘‘Ah!’’
replied the son, ‘‘your father was not king.’’
Book III: Chapter VI 207
All things conspire to deprive of justice and reason a man brought up to
govern others. Much trouble is taken, so it is said, to teach young princes
the art of reigning; this education does not appear to help them. It would be
better to begin by teaching them the art of obeying. The greatest kings
whom history has celebrated were not trained to rule; that is a science which
men are never less masters of than after excessive study of it, and it is better
acquired by obeying than by ruling. Nam utilissimus idem ac brevissimus
bonarum malarumque rerum delectus, cogitare quid aut nolueris sub alio
principe, aut volueris.
A result of this lack of coherence is the instability of royal government,
which, being regulated sometimes on one plan, sometimes on another,
according to the character of the reigning Prince or that of the persons who
reign for him, cannot long pursue a definite aim or a consistent course of
conduct, a mutability which always makes the State fluctuate between
maxim and maxim, project and project, and which does not exist in other
governments, where the Prince is always the same. So we see that, in
general, if there is more cunning in a court, there is more wisdom in a
senate, and that republics pursue their ends by more steadfast and regular
methods; whereas every revolution in a royal ministry produces one in the
State, the maxim common to all ministers, and to almost all kings, being to
reverse in every respect the acts of their predecessors.
From this same lack of coherence issues the solution of a sophism very
familiar to royal politicians; this is not only to compare civil government
with domestic government, and the Prince with the father of a family, an
error already refuted, but, further, to bestow liberally on this magistrate all
the virtues he might need, and always to assume that the Prince is what he
ought to be—a supposition on which is based the idea that royal govern-
ment is clearly preferable to every other, because it is without doubt the
strongest, and because it only lacks a corporate will that corresponds to the
general will.
But if, according to Plato, a king by nature is so unusual a personage,
how many times will nature and fortune conspire to crown him? And if
royal education necessarily corrupts those who receive it, what should be
expected from a succession of men trained to rule? It is, then, voluntary
self-deception to confuse royal government with that of a good king. To see
what this government is in itself, we must consider it under inept or wicked
princes; for such will come to the throne, or the throne will make them such.
These difficulties have not escaped our authors, but they have not been
confused by them. The remedy, they say, is to obey without murmuring; God
gives bad kings in His wrath, and we must endure them as chastisements of
208 The Social Contract
heaven. Such talk is doubtless edifying, but I am inclined to think it would
be more appropriate in a pulpit than in a book on politics. What should we
say of a physician who promises miracles, and whose whole art consists in
exhorting the sick man to be patient? We know well that when we have a bad
government it must be endured; the question is to find a good one.
Chapter VII
m i x e dg o v e r n m e n t s
In truth, there is no simple government. A single leader must have subordi-
nate magistrates; a popular government must have a leader. Thus, in the
division of executive power, there is always a gradation from the greater
number to the less, with this difference, that sometimes the majority de-
pends on the minority, and sometimes the minority on the majority.
Sometimes there is an equal division, either when the constituent parts
are in mutual dependence, as in the government of England; or when the
authority of each part is independent, but imperfect, as in Poland. This latter
form is bad, because there is no unity in the government, and the State lacks
Is a simple or a mixed government the better? A question much debated
among political thinkers, and one to which the same answer must be made
that I have made before about every form of government.
The simple government is the better in itself, for the reason that it is
simple. But when the executive power is not sufficiently dependent on the
legislative, that is, when there is a closer rapport between the Prince and the
sovereign than between the people and the Prince, this defective relation-
ship must be remedied by dividing the government; for then all its parts
have no less authority over the subjects, and their division renders them all
together less strong against the sovereign.
The same defect is also guarded against by the establishment of inter-
mediate magistrates, who, leaving the government in its entirety, only serve
to balance the two powers and maintain their respective rights. Then the
government is not mixed, but moderate.
The opposite defect can be guarded against by similar means, and, when
the government is too lax, tribunals may be erected to concentrate it. That is
customary in all democracies. In the first case the government is divided in
order to weaken it, and in the second in order to strengthen it; for the
maximum of strength and also of weakness is found in simple governments,
while the mixed forms give a medium strength.
Book III: Chapter VIII 209
Chapter VIII
t h a ta l lf o r m so fg o v e r n m e n ta r en o ts u i t e d
f o re v e r yc o u n t r y
Liberty, not being a fruit of all climates, is not within the reach of all
peoples. The more we consider this principle established by Montesquieu,
the more do we perceive its truth; the more it is contested, the greater
opportunity is given to establish it by new proofs.
In all the governments of the world, the public person consumes, but
produces nothing. From where, then, comes the substance it consumes?
From the labor of its members. It is the superfluity of individuals that
supplies the necessaries of the public. Hence it follows that the civil State
can subsist only so long as men’s labor produces more than they need.
Now this excess is not the same in all countries of the world. In several it
is considerable, in others moderate, in others nothing, in others a minus
quantity. This proportion depends on the fertility due to climate, on the kind
of labor which the soil requires, on the nature of its products, on the physi-
cal strength of its inhabitants, on the greater or less consumption that is
necessary to them, and on several other like proportions of which it is
On the other hand, all governments are not of the same nature; there are
some more or less wasteful; and the differences are based on this other
principle, that the more the public contributions are distanced from their
source, the more burdensome they are. We must not measure this burden by
the amount of the taxes, but by the distance they have to travel in order to
return to the hands from which they have come. When this circulation is
prompt and well-established, it matters not whether little or much is paid;
the people are always rich, and the finances are always prosperous. On the
other hand, however little the people may contribute, if this little does not
revert back to them, they are soon exhausted by constantly giving; the State
is never rich and the people are always in beggary.
It follows from this that the more the distance between the people and
the government is increased, the more burdensome do the taxes become;
therefore, in a democracy the people are least encumbered, in an aristocracy
they are more so, and in a monarchy they bear the greatest weight. Mon-
archy, then, is suited only to wealthy nations; aristocracy, to States moderate
both in wealth and size; democracy, to small and poor States.
Indeed, the more we reflect on this, the more we find in this the dif-
ference between free and monarchical States. In the first, everything is
used for the common good; in the others, public and private resources are
210 The Social Contract
reciprocal, and the former are increased by the diminution of the latter;
lastly, instead of governing subjects in order to make them happy, despotism
renders them miserable in order to govern them.
There are, then, in every climate natural causes by which we can assign
the form of government which is adapted to the nature of the climate, and
even say what kind of inhabitants the country should have.
Unfruitful and barren places, where the produce is not commensurate
with the labor, ought to remain uncultivated and abandoned, or should only
be peopled by savages; places where men’s toil yields only bare necessities
ought to be inhabited by barbarous nations; in them any polity would be an
impossibility. Places where the excess of the produce over the labor is
moderate are suitable for free nations; those in which abundant and fertile
soil yields much produce for little labor are willing to be governed monar-
chically, in order that the superfluity of the subjects may be consumed by
the luxuries of the Prince; for it is better that this excess be absorbed by the
government than squandered by private persons. There are exceptions, I
know; but these exceptions themselves prove the rule, in that, sooner or
later, they produce revolutions which restore things to their natural order.
We should always distinguish general laws from the particular causes
that may modify their effects. If all southern lands were covered with
republics, and all northern lands with despotic States, it would not be less
true that, through the influence of climate, despotism is suitable to warm
countries, barbarism to cold countries, and a good polity to intermediate
regions. I see, however, that while the principle is accepted, its application
may be disputed; it will be said that some cold countries are very fertile, and
some southern ones very unfruitful. But this is a difficulty only for those
who do not examine the matter in all its aspects. It is necessary, as I have
already said, to reckon those connected with labor, resources, consump-
tion, etc.
Let us suppose that the product of two districts equal in area is in the
ratio of five to ten. If the inhabitants of the former consume four and those
of the latter nine parts, the surplus product of the first will be one-fifth, and
that of the second one-tenth. The ratio between these two surpluses being
then inversely as that of the produce of each, the district that yields only five
will give a surplus double that of the district which produces ten.
But it is not a question of a doubled product, and I do not think that any
one dare, in general, place the fertility of cold countries even on an equal
par with that of warm countries. Let us, however, assume this equality; let
us, if you will, put England on the scale with Sicily, and Poland with Egypt;
Book III: Chapter VIII 211
more to the south we shall have Africa and India; more to the north we shall
have nothing. To achieve equality in product, what are the differences in
cultivation? In Sicily it suffices to scratch the soil; in England what toil is
needed to till it! But where more exertion is required to yield the same
product, the surplus must necessarily be very small.
Consider, besides this, that the same number of men consume much less
in warm countries. The climate demands that people be moderate to be
healthy; Europeans who want to live as at home all die of dysentery and
dyspepsia. ‘‘We are,’’ says Chardin, ‘‘carnivorous beasts, wolves, in com-
parison with Asiatics. Some attribute the moderation of the Persians to the
fact that their country is scantily cultivated; I believe, on the contrary, that
their country is not very abundant in provisions because the inhabitants
need very little. If their frugality,’’ he continues, ‘‘resulted from the poverty
of the country, it would be only the poor who would eat little, whereas it is
the people generally; and more or less would be consumed in each prov-
ince, according to the fertility of the country, whereas the same abstemious-
ness is found throughout the kingdom. They pride themselves greatly on
their mode of living, saying that it is only necessary to look at their com-
plexions, to see how much superior they are to those of Christians. Indeed,
the complexions of the Persians are smooth; they have beautiful skin, deli-
cate and clear; while the complexions of their subjects, the Armenians, who
live in European fashion, are rough and blotched, and their bodies are
coarse and heavy.’’
The nearer we approach the Equator, the less the people have to live on.
They scarcely eat any meat; rice, maize, couscous, millet, cassava, are their
ordinary foods. There are in India millions of men whose diet does not cost
a half-penny a day. We see even in Europe palpable differences in appetite
between northern and southern nations. A Spaniard can live for eight days
on a German’s dinner. In countries where men are most voracious luxury
revolves around appetite; in England it is displayed in a table loaded with
meats; in Italy you are regaled with sugar and flowers.
Luxury in dress presents similar differences. In climates where the
changes of the seasons are sudden and violent, garments are better and
simpler; in those where people dress only for ornament, splendor is more
sought after than utility, for clothes themselves are a luxury. In Naples you
will see men every day walking to Posilippo with gold-embroidered coats,
and no stockings. It is the same with regard to buildings; everything is
sacrificed to magnificence when there is nothing to fear from the climate. In
Paris and in London people must be warmly and comfortably housed; in
212 The Social Contract
Madrid they have superb drawing-rooms, but no windows that shut, while
they sleep in mere closets.
Food is much more substantial and nutritious in warm countries; this is a
third difference which cannot fail to influence the second. Why do people
eat so many vegetables in Italy? Because they are good, nourishing, and
flavorful. In France, where they are fertilized only with water, they are not
nourishing and count almost for nothing on the table; they do not, however,
occupy less soil, and they cost at least as much labor to cultivate. We know
from experience that the wheat of Barbary, inferior in other respects to that
of France, yields much more flour, and that the wheat of France yields more
than the wheat of the north. From this we may infer that a similar gradation
is observable generally, in the same direction, from the Equator to the Pole.
Now is it not a clear disadvantage to have in an equal quantity of produce a
smaller quantity of nutrition?
To all these different reflections I want to add one that springs from, and
reinforces, them; it is that warm countries have less need of inhabitants than
cold countries, but would be able to maintain a greater number; hence a
double surplus is produced, always to the advantage of despotism. The
greater the surface occupied by the same number of inhabitants, the more
difficult do rebellions become, because conspiracies cannot be concerted
promptly and secretly, and because it is always easy for the government to
discover the plans and cut off communications. But the more closely
packed a numerous population is, the less power a government has to usurp
the sovereignty; the leaders deliberate as securely in their offices as the
Prince in his council, and the multitude assemble in the town squares as
quickly as the troops in their quarters. The advantage, then, of a tyrannical
government lies in this, that it can act from great distances. With the help of
its collaborators, its power increases with the distance, like that of levers.*
That of the people, on the other hand, acts only when concentrated; it
evaporates and disappears as it extends, like the effect of gunpowder scat-
tered on the ground, which takes fire only grain by grain. The least popu-
lous countries are thus the best adapted for tyranny; wild beasts reign
only in deserts.
* This does not contradict what I said before (Book II, chapter ix) on the inconve-
niences of large States; for there it was a question of the authority of the government over
its members, and here it is a question of its power against its subjects. Its scattered
members serve as points of support to it for operating at a distance upon the people, but it
has no point of support for acting on its members themselves. Thus, the length of the lever
is the cause of its weakness in the one case, and of its strength in the other.
Book III: Chapter IX 213
Chapter IX
t h es i g n so fag o o dg o v e r n m e n t
When, then, it is finally asked which is the best government, an insoluble,
undeterminable question is posed; or, if you will, it has as many correct
solutions as there are possible combinations in the absolute and relative
situations of nations.
But if it were asked by what sign it can be known whether a given people
is well or badly governed, that would be a different matter, and the question
of fact might be determined.
It is, however, not settled, because every one wishes to decide it in his
own way. Subjects extol the public tranquillity, citizens the liberty of indi-
viduals; the former prefer security of property, the latter, that of persons; the
former think that the best government is the most authoritarian, the latter
maintain that it is the mildest; one party wants crimes to be punished, the
other wants them to be prevented; one party thinks it well to be feared by
their neighbors, the other party prefers to be unacquainted with them; one
party is satisfied when money circulates, the other party demands that the
people have bread. Even if there were agreement on these and other similar
points, would we know more? Since moral quantities lack a precise mode of
measurement, even if we agreed on the sign, how could we do so about the
valuation of it?
For my part, I am always astonished that people fail to recognize so
simple a sign, or that they should have the insincerity not to agree about it.
What is the object of political association? It is the security and prosperity
of its members. And what is the surest sign that they are safe and pros-
perous? It is their number and population. Do not, then, go and seek else-
where for this contentious sign. All other things being equal, the gov-
ernment under which, without external aids, without naturalizations, and
without colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most, is infallibly the
best. That under which a people decreases and decays is the worst. Statisti-
cians, it is now your affair; count, measure, compare.*
* On the same principle must be judged the centuries which deserve preference in
respect of the prosperity of the human race. Those in which literature and art were seen to
flourish have been too much admired, without the secret object of their cultivation being
penetrated, without their fatal consequences being considered: Idque apud imperitos
humanitas vocabatur, quum pars servitutis esset. Shall we never detect in the maxims of
books the gross self-interest which makes the authors speak? No, whatever they may say,
when, notwithstanding its brilliancy, a country is being depopulated, it is untrue that all
214 The Social Contract
Chapter X
t h ea b u s eo fg o v e r n m e n ta n di t st e n d e n c yt o
d e g e n e r a t e
As the private will acts incessantly against the general will, so the govern-
ment makes a continual effort against the sovereignty. The more this effort
is increased, the more the constitution is altered; and as there is no other
corporate will which, by resisting that of the Prince, creates a balance with
it, sooner or later the Prince oppresses the sovereign and violates the social
treaty. Therein is the inherent and inevitable vice which, right from the birth
of the body politic, tends ineluctably to destroy it, just as old age and death
ultimately destroy the human body.
There are two general ways by which a government degenerates, that is,
when it contracts, or when the State is dissolved.
The government contracts when it passes from the majority to the mi-
nority, that is, from democracy to aristocracy, and from aristocracy to roy-
alty. That is its natural tendency.* If it retrograded from the minority to the
majority, it might be said to weaken; but this inverse progress is impossible.
goes well, and it is not enough that a poet should have an income of 100,000 livres for his
epoch to be the best of all. The apparent repose and tranquillity of the chief men must be
regarded less than the welfare of nations as a whole, and especially that of the most
populous States. Hail lays waste a few cantons, but it rarely causes scarcity. Riots and
civil wars greatly startle the chief men; but they do not produce the real misfortunes of
nations, which may even be abated, while it is being disputed who shall tyrannize over
them. It is from their permanent condition that their real prosperity or calamities spring;
when all is left crushed under the yoke, it is then that everything perishes; it is then that the
chief men, destroying them at their leisure, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
When the broils of the great agitated the kingdom of France, and the coadjutor of Paris
carried a poniard in his pocket to the Parlement, that did not prevent the French nation
from living happily and harmoniously in free and honorable ease. Greece of old flour-
ished in the midst of the most cruel wars; blood flowed there in streams, and the whole
country was covered with men. It seemed, said Machiavelli, that amid murders, proscrip-
tions, and civil wars, our republic became more powerful; the virtues of its citizens, their
manners, their independence, were more effectual in strengthening it than all its dissen-
sions had been in weakening it. A little agitation gives energy to men’s minds, and what
makes the race truly prosperous is not so much peace as liberty.
* The slow formation and the progress of Venice in her lagoons present a notable
example of this succession; it is indeed astonishing that, after more than twelve hundred
Book III: Chapter X 215
In reality, the government never changes its form except when its de-
pleted energy leaves it too weak to preserve itself; and if it becomes still
more weakened as it expands, its strength will be annihilated, and it will be
unable to survive. We must therefore concentrate the energy as it dwindles;
otherwise the State that it sustains will fall into ruin.
The dissolution of the State may occur in two ways.
Firstly, when the Prince no longer administers the State in accordance
with the laws; and, secondly, when he usurps the sovereign power. Then a
remarkable change takes place—the State, and not the government, con-
years, the Venetians seem to be still only in the second stage, which began with the Serrar
di Consiglio in 1198. As for the ancient Doges, with whom they are reproached, whatever
the Squittinio della libertà veneta may say, it is proved that they were not their sovereigns.
People will not fail to bring forward as an objection to my views the Roman Republic,
which followed, it will be said, a course quite contrary, passing from monarchy to aristoc-
racy, and from aristocracy to democracy. I am very far from regarding it in this way.
The first institution of Romulus was a mixed government, which speedily degener-
ated into despotism. From peculiar causes the State perished before its time, as we see a
newborn babe die before attaining manhood. The expulsion of the Tarquins was the real
epoch of the birth of the Republic. But it did not at first assume a regular form, because,
through not abolishing the patrician order, only a half of the work was done. For, in this
way, the hereditary aristocracy, which is the worst of legitimate administrations, remain-
ing in conflict with the democracy, the form of the government, always uncertain and
fluctuating, was fixed, as Machiavelli has shown, only on the institution of the tribunes;
not till then was there a real government and a true democracy. Indeed, the people then
were not only sovereign, but also magistrates and judges; the Senate was only a subordi-
nate tribunal for moderating and concentrating the government; and the consuls them-
selves, although patricians, although chief magistrates, although generals with absolute
authority in war, were in Rome only the presidents of the people.
From that time, moreover, the government seemed to follow its natural inclination, and
tend strongly to aristocracy. The patriciate abolishing itself as it were, the aristocracy was
no longer in the body of patricians as it is at Venice and Genoa, but in the body of the Senate,
composed of patricians and plebeians, and also in the body of tribunes when they began to
usurp an active power; for words make no difference in things, and when a nation has chiefs
to govern for them, whatever name those chiefs bear, they always form an aristocracy.
From the abuses of aristocracy sprang the civil wars and the triumvirate. Sylla, Julius
Cæsar, Augustus, became in fact real monarchs; and at length, under the despotism of
Tiberius, the State was broken up. Roman history, then, does not belie my principle, but
confirms it.
216 The Social Contract
tracts; I mean that the State dissolves, and that another is formed within it,
which is comprised only of the members of the government, and which is
for the rest of the people nothing more than their master and their tyrant. So
that as soon as the government usurps the sovereignty, the social compact is
broken, and all the ordinary citizens, rightfully regaining their natural lib-
erty, are forced, but not morally bound, to obey.
The same thing occurs also when the members of the government usurp
individually the power that they ought to exercise only collectively, which
is no less a violation of the laws, and creates still greater disorder. Then
there are, so to speak, as many Princes as magistrates; and the State, not less
divided than the government, perishes or changes its form.
When the State is broken up, the violation of the government, whatever
it may be, takes the common name of anarchy. To be clear, democracy
degenerates into ochlocracy, aristocracy into oligarchy; I should add that
royalty degenerates into tyranny; but this last word is equivocal and re-
quires explanation.
In the vulgar sense a tyrant is a king who governs with violence and
without regard to justice and the laws. In the strict sense, a tyrant is an
individual who arrogates to himself the royal authority without having a
right to it. It is in this sense that the Greeks understood the word tyrant; they
bestowed it equally on good and bad Princes whose authority was not
legitimate.* Thus tyrant and usurper are two perfectly synonymous words.
To give different names to different things, I call the usurper of royal
authority a tyrant, and the usurper of sovereign power a despot. The tyrant
is he who, contrary to the laws, takes it upon himself to govern according to
the laws; the despot is he who sets himself above those very laws. Thus the
tyrant cannot be a despot, but the despot is always a tyrant.
Chapter XI
t h ed i s s o l u t i o no ft h eb o d yp o l i t i c
Such is the natural and inevitable tendency of the best constituted govern-
ments. If Sparta and Rome perished, what State can hope to endure forever?
If we wish to form an enduring constitution, let us, then, not dream of
* Omnes enim et habentur et dicuntur tyranni, qui potestate utuntur perpetua in ea
civitate quae libertate usa est. (Corn. Nep., in Miltiad., cap. viii) It is true that Aristotle
(Mor. Nicom., Book VIII, cap. x) distinguishes the tyrant from the king, by the circum-
stance that the former governs for his own benefit, and the latter only for the benefit of his
Book III: Chapter XI 217
making it eternal. To succeed we must not attempt the impossible, nor
flatter ourselves that we can bestow on the work of men a permanence that
human things cannot attain.
The body politic, as well as the human body, begins to die from its birth,
and contains in itself the causes of its own destruction. But both may have a
more or less robust constitution, that can preserve them for a long while.
The constitution of man is the work of nature; that of the State is the work of
art. It is not men’s prerogative to prolong their lives; it is their prerogative to
prolong the life of the State as long as possible, by giving it the best
constitution possible. The best constituted will come to an end, but later
than another, unless some unforeseen accident brings about its premature
The principle of political life is in the sovereign authority. The legisla-
tive power is the heart of the State; the executive power is its brain, giving
movement to all the parts. The brain might be paralyzed and yet the individ-
ual can still live. A man might be an imbecile but still live; but as soon as the
heart stops, the animal dies.
It is not by laws that the State survives, but by the legislative power. The
law of yesterday is not binding today; but tacit consent is presumed from
silence, and the sovereign is supposed to confirm continually the laws it
does not abrogate when able to do so. Whatever it once declared that it
wills, it wills so always, unless the declaration is revoked.
Why, then, do people show so much respect for ancient laws? That is
exactly the reason. We are right to believe that it is the very excellence of
ancient laws that has enabled them to survive so long; if the sovereign had
not recognized them as salutary, it would have revoked them a thousand
times. That is why, far from being weakened, the laws are ever acquiring
fresh vigor in every well constituted State; the prejudice in favor of antiq-
uity makes them more revered every day; while, wherever laws are weak-
ened as they grow old, this fact proves that there is no longer any legislative
power, and that the State no longer lives.
subjects; but besides the fact that, in general, all the Greek authors have taken the word
tyrant in a different sense, as appears especially from Xenophon’s Hiero, it would follow
from Aristotle’s distinction that, since the beginning of the world, not a single king has yet
218 The Social Contract
Chapter XII
h o wt h es o v e r e i g na u t h o r i t yi sm a i n t a i n e d
The sovereign, having no other force than the legislative power, acts only
through the laws; and the laws being nothing but authentic acts of the general
will, the sovereign can act only when the people are assembled. A conven-
tion of the people! People will say: What a fantasy! It is a fantasy today; but it
was not so two thousand years ago. Have men changed their nature?
The limits of the possible in moral things are less narrow than we think; it
is our weaknesses, our vices, our prejudices, that shrink them. Sordid souls
do not believe in great men; vile slaves smile mockingly at the word liberty.
From what has been done let us consider what can be done. I shall not
speak of the ancient republics of Greece; but the Roman Republic was, it
seems to me, a great State, and the city of Rome a great city. The last census
in Rome showed that there were 400,000 citizens bearing arms, and the last
census of the Empire showed more than 4,000,000 citizens, without includ-
ing subjects, foreigners, women, children, and slaves.
What a difficulty, we might suppose, there would be in assembling fre-
quently the enormous population of the capital and its environs. Yet few
weeks passed without the Roman people being assembled, even several
times. Not only did they exercise the rights of sovereignty, but a part of the
rights of government. They discussed certain issues and adjudicated certain
problems, and in the public assembly the whole people were almost as often
magistrates as citizens.
By going back to the early times of nations, we would find that the
majority of the ancient governments, even monarchical ones, like those of
the Macedonians and the Franks, had similar councils. Be that as it may, this
single incontestable fact answers all objections; inference from the actual to
the possible appears to me sound.
Chapter XIII
h o wt h es o v e r e i g na u t h o r i t yi sm a i n t a i n e d
( c o n t i n u e d )
It is not sufficient for the assembled people to have, at one point in time,
determined the constitution of the State by giving their sanction to a body of
laws; it is not sufficient for them to have established a permanent govern-
ment, or to have once and for all provided for the election of magistrates.
Besides the extraordinary assemblies which unforeseen events may require,
Book III: Chapter XIII 219
it is necessary to have regular and periodic ones that nothing can cancel or
postpone; so that, on the appointed day, the people are rightfully convened
by the law, without any formal call.
But, except for these assemblies which are lawful by their date alone,
every assembly of the people not convoked by magistrates appointed for
that duty and not corresponding to the prescribed forms, must be seen as
illegitimate and all that is done in it as invalid, because even the order to
assemble must emanate from the law.
As for the more or less frequent meetings of the lawful assemblies, they
depend on so many considerations that no precise rules can be formulated
about them. But we can say in general that the more strength a government
has, the more frequently should the sovereign meet in public.
This, I shall be told, may be good for a lone city; but what is to be done
when the State comprises many cities? Will the sovereign authority be
divided? Or must it be concentrated in a single city and render subject all
the others?
My answer is that neither alternative is good. In the first place, the
sovereign authority is simple and undivided, and we cannot divide it with-
out destroying it. In the second place, a city, no more than a nation, can be
lawfully subject to another, because the essence of the body politic consists
in the union of obedience and liberty, and these words, subject and sov-
ereign, are correlatives, the notion underlying them being expressed in the
one word citizen.
My answer, furthermore, is that it is always bad to merge several towns
into a single State, and, in desiring to create such a union, we must not
flatter ourselves that we can avoid the usual problems. The defects of large
States cannot be used as an objection against a man who only desires small
ones. But how can small States be endowed with sufficient force to resist
large ones? Just as Greek towns used to resist the great King, and as more
recently Holland and Switzerland resisted the House of Austria.
If, however, the State cannot be reduced to proper limits, one option still
remains; it is not to allow any capital, but to make the government sit
alternately in each town, and also to assemble in them one by one the people
of the country.
Populate the territory uniformly, extend the same rights everywhere,
spread everywhere abundance and life; this is how the State will become
simultaneously the strongest and the best governed that may be possible.
Remember that the walls of the towns are constructed solely of the wreck-
age of farm houses. For every palace that I see built in the capital, I seem to
see a whole rural district laid in ruins.
220 The Social Contract
Chapter XIV
h o wt h es o v e r e i g na u t h o r i t yi sm a i n t a i n e d
( c o n t i n u e d )
As soon as the people are lawfully assembled as a sovereign body, the
whole jurisdiction of the government ceases, the executive power is sus-
pended, and the person of the lowliest citizen is as sacred and inviolable as
that of the first magistrate, because where the represented are, there is no
longer any representative. Most of the tumult that arose in Rome in the
comitia stemmed from ignorance or neglect of this rule. The consuls were
then only presidents of the people and the tribunes simple orators;* the
Senate had no power at all.
These intervals of suspension, in which the Prince recognizes or ought to
recognize the presence of a live superior, have always been dreaded by him;
and these assemblies of the people, which are the shield of the body politic
and the curb of the government, have in all ages terrified leaders; hence
such men are never wanting in solicitude, objections, obstacles, and prom-
ises, in an attempt to make the citizens disgusted with the assemblies. When
citizens are avaricious, cowardly, pusillanimous, and more desirous of calm
than of freedom, they do not long hold out against the strenuous efforts of
the government; and thus, as the resisting force constantly increases, the
sovereign authority finally disappears, and most of the States fall and perish
before their time.
But between the sovereign authority and an arbitrary government there
sometimes emerges an intermediate power of which I must speak.
Chapter XV
d e p u t i e so rr e p r e s e n t a t i v e s
As soon as public service ceases to be the principle concern of citizens, and
they prefer helping with their wallets rather than with their persons, the
State is already on the brink of ruin. Must they march to battle? They pay
troops and stay at home. Is it necessary to go to the council? They appoint
deputies and stay at home. Because of indolence and wealth, they ulti-
* Almost in the sense given to this term in the Parliament of England. The resem-
blance between their offices would have set the consuls and tribunes in conflict, even if all
jurisdiction had been suspended.
Book III: Chapter XV 221
mately create soldiers who enslave their country and create representatives
who sell it.
It is the bustle of commerce and of the arts, it is the greedy pursuit of
profit, it is indolence and love of comforts, that transform public service
into money. People sacrifice a portion of their profit in order to increase it
when they like. Give money and soon you will have chains. That word
finance is a slave’s word; it is unknown among citizens. In a state that is
really free, the citizens do everything with their hands and nothing with
money; far from paying to avoid their duties, they would pay to perform
them themselves. Far from me ordinary ideas; I believe that hard labor is
less contrary to liberty than taxation is.
The better constituted a State is, the more public affairs outweigh private
ones in the minds of the citizens. There is, indeed, a much smaller number
of private affairs, because the amount of general prosperity makes each
individual more prosperous, and less remains to be sought by individual
exertions. In a well governed city-state every one hastens to the assemblies;
under a bad government no one budges to attend them, because no one
takes an interest in the proceedings; they know in advance that the general
will will not prevail, because private concerns have become all-absorbing.
Good laws pave the way for better ones; bad laws lead to worse ones. As
soon as any one says about the affairs of the State, ‘‘Why should I care?’’ the
State is gone.
The decline of patriotism, the active pursuit of private interests, the vast
size of States, conquests, and the violations of government led to the idea of
deputies or representatives of the people in the national assemblies. It is this
which in certain countries they dare to call the Third Estate. Thus the
private interest of two orders is placed in the first and second rank, the
public interest only in the third.
Sovereignty cannot be represented for the same reason that it cannot be
alienated; it consists essentially in the general will, and the will cannot be
represented; it is itself or it is something else; there is no middle ground.
The deputies of the people, then, are not and cannot be its representatives;
they are only its agents and can conclude nothing definitively. Every law
which the people in person have not ratified is invalid; it is not a law. The
English nation thinks that it is free, but is greatly mistaken, for it is so only
during the election of members of Parliament; as soon as they are elected, it
is enslaved and counts for nothing. The use it makes of the brief moments of
freedom renders the loss of liberty well-deserved.
The idea of representatives is modern; it comes to us from feudal
222 The Social Contract
government, that absurd and iniquitous government, under which mankind
is degraded and the name of man dishonored. In the republics, and even in
the monarchies, of antiquity, the people never had representatives; they did
not know the word. It is noteworthy that in Rome, where the tribunes were
so sacred, it was not even imagined that they could usurp the functions of
the people, and in the midst of so great a multitude, they never attempted to
pass on their own authority a single plebiscite. We can imagine, however,
the confusion the crowd sometimes caused from what occurred in the time
of the Gracchi, when some citizens shouted their votes from the housetops.
Where right and liberty mean everything, inconveniences are nothing.
In that wise nation everything was estimated at its true value; it allowed the
lictors to do what the tribunes had not dared to do, and was not afraid that
the lictors would want to represent it.
To explain, however, in what manner the tribunes sometimes repre-
sented it, it suffices to understand how the government represents the sov-
ereign. The laws being nothing but the declaration of the general will, it is
clear that in their legislative capacity the people cannot be represented; but
they can and should be represented in the executive power, which is only
force applied to law. This shows that very few nations would, upon careful
examination, be found to have laws. Be that as it may, it is certain that the
tribunes, having no share in the executive power, could never represent the
Roman people by right of their office, but only by encroaching on the rights
of the Senate.
Among the Greeks, whatever the people had to do, they did themselves;
they were constantly assembled in the public space. They lived in a mild
climate and they were not avaricious; slaves performed the manual labor;
the people’s great preoccupation was liberty. Without those same advan-
tages, how can people preserve those same rights? Your more rigorous
climates give you more wants;* for six months in a year the public place is
deserted, and your hoarse voices cannot be heard in the open air. You care
more for profit than for liberty, and you fear slavery far less than you do
What! is liberty secured only through slavery? Perhaps; extremes meet.
Everything which is not according to nature has its drawbacks, and civil
society more than all the rest. There are circumstances so unfortunate that
people can preserve their freedom only at the expense of that of others, and
the citizen cannot be completely free except when the slave is enslaved to
* To adopt in cold countries the effeminacy and luxuriousness of Orientals is to be
willing to assume their chains, and to submit to them even more necessarily than they do.
Book III: Chapter XVI 223
the utmost. Such was the situation in Sparta. As for you, modern nations,
you have no slaves, but you are slaves; you pay for their freedom with your
own. In vain you boast of this preference; I consider it more cowardice than
I do not mean by all this that slaves are necessary and that the right of
slavery is lawful, since I have proved the contrary; I only mention the
reasons why modern nations who believe themselves free have representa-
tives, and why ancient nations had none. Be that as it may, as soon as a
nation appoints representatives, it is no longer free; it no longer exists.
After very careful consideration I do not see that it is possible hencefor-
ward for the sovereign to preserve among us the exercise of its rights unless
the State is very small. But if it is very small, will it not be subjugated? No; I
shall show hereafter* how the external power of a great nation can be
combined with benign government and the good order of a small State.
Chapter XVI
t h a tt h ei n s t i t u t i o no ft h eg o v e r n m e n ti sn o t
ac o n t r a c t
The legislative power, having been, at one point in time, well established,
the question is to set up also the executive power; for the latter, which
operates only by specific acts, not sharing the essence of the other, is
naturally distinct from it. If it were possible for the sovereign, considered as
such, to wield executive power, law and fact would be so intermixed that it
would no longer be clear what is law and what is not; and the body politic,
thus deformed, would soon become prey to the violence against which it
was instituted.
The citizens being all equal according to the social contract, all can
prescribe what all ought to do, while no one has a right to demand that
another do what he is unwilling to do himself. Now, it is precisely this right,
indispensable to make the body politic live and move, that the sovereign
gives to the Prince when establishing the government.
Some people have claimed that this founding act is a contract between
the people and the leaders they choose—a contract by which it is stipulated
between the two parties on what conditions one binds itself to rule, the other
* It is this which I had intended to do in the sequel to this work, when, in treating of
external relations, I came to confederations—a wholly new subject, the principles of
which have yet to be established.
224 The Social Contract
to obey. It will be agreed, I am sure, that this is a strange method of
contracting. But let us see whether such a position is tenable.
First, the supreme authority can no more be modified than alienated; to
limit it is to destroy it. It is absurd and contradictory that the sovereign
should acknowledge a superior; to bind itself to obey a master is to regress
to primitive freedom.
Further, it is clear that this contract of the people with such or such
persons is a particular act; from where it follows that the contract cannot be
a law or an act of sovereignty, and that consequently it is illegitimate.
Moreover, we see that the contracting parties themselves would be under
the law of nature alone, and without any security for the performance of their
reciprocal responsibilities, which is in every way adverse to the civil state.
He who disposes of power being always capable of using it, we might as well
give the name contract to the act of a man who says to another: ‘‘I give you all
my property, on condition that you restore to me what you please.’’
There is but one contract in the State—that of association; and this of
itself excludes any other. No public contract can be conceived which would
not be a violation of the first.
Chapter XVII
t h ei n s t i t u t i o no ft h eg o v e r n m e n t
Under what general concept, then, should we view the act by which the gov-
ernment is founded? I shall note first that this act is complex, or composed of
two others, that is, the establishment of the law and the execution of the law.
By the first, the sovereign determines that there shall be a governing
body established in such or such a form; and it is clear that this act is a law.
By the second, the people appoint the leaders who will be entrusted with
the government when established. Now, these appointments, being a par-
ticular act, are not a second law, but only a consequence of the first, and a
function of the government.
The difficulty is to understand how there can be an act of government
before the government exists, and how the people, who are only sover-
eign or subjects, can, in certain circumstances, become the Prince or the
Here, however, we discover one of those astonishing properties of the
body politic, by which it reconciles operations apparently contradictory; for
this is made possible by a sudden conversion of sovereignty into democracy
in such a manner that, without any perceptible change, and merely by a new
Book III: Chapter XVIII 225
relationship of all to all, the citizens, having become magistrates, move
from general acts to particular acts, and from the law to the execution of it.
This change of relation is not a subtlety of theory with no real applica-
tion; it occurs every day in the Parliament of England, in which the Lower
House on certain occasions transforms itself into Grand Committee in order
to discuss business better, and thus becomes a simple commission instead
of the sovereign court that it was the moment before. In this way it after-
wards reports to itself, as the House of Commons, what it has just decided in
Grand Committee.
Such is the advantage peculiar to a democratic government, that it can be
established in fact by a simple act of the general will; and after this, the
provisional government remains in power, should that be the form adopted,
or establishes in the name of the sovereign the government prescribed by
the law; and thus everything is according to rule. It is impossible to found
the government in any other way that is legitimate without renouncing the
principles heretofore established.
Chapter XVIII
m e a n so fp r e v e n t i n gu s u r p a t i o n so ft h e
g o v e r n m e n t
From these explanations it follows, in confirmation of chapter XVI, that the
act which institutes the government is not a contract, but a law; that the de-
positaries of the executive power are not the masters of the people, but its
officers; that the people can appoint them and dismiss them at pleasure; that
for them it is not a question of contracting, but of obeying; and that in under-
taking the functions that the State imposes on them, they simply fulfill their
duty as citizens, without having in any way a right to argue about the
When, therefore, it happens that the people institute a hereditary govern-
ment, whether monarchical in a family or aristocratic in one class of cit-
izens, it is not an engagement that they make, but a provisional form that
they give to the administration, until they decide to organize it differently.
It is true that such changes are always dangerous, and that the estab-
lished government must never be touched except when it becomes incom-
patible with the public good; but this circumspection is a political truth, not
a rule of law; and the State is no more bound to give the civil authority to its
leaders than the military authority to its generals.
Moreover, it is true that in such a case all the formalities requisite to
226 The Social Contract
distinguish a regular and lawful act from seditious tumult, and the will of a
whole people from the clamors of a faction, cannot be too carefully ob-
served. It is especially in this case that only such concessions should be
made as cannot in strict justice be refused; and from this obligation also the
Prince derives a great advantage in preserving his power in spite of the
people, without their being able to say that he has usurped the power; for
while appearing to exercise nothing but his rights, he may very easily
increase them, and, under the pretext of maintaining public order, obstruct
the assemblies designed to reestablish good order; so that he takes advan-
tage of a silence that he prevents from being broken, or of irregularities that
he instigates, so as to interpret in his own favor the approbation of those
silenced by fear and punish those who dare to speak. It is in this way that the
Decemvirs, having at first been elected for one year, and then kept in office
for another year, attempted to retain their power in perpetuity by no longer
permitting the comitia to assemble; and it is by this easy method that all the
governments in the world, when once invested with the public force, usurp
sooner or later the sovereign authority.
The periodic assemblies of which I have spoken before are designed to
prevent or postpone this damage, especially when they need no formal
convocation; for then the Prince cannot interfere with them, without openly
proclaiming himself a violator of the laws and an enemy of the State.
These assemblies, which have as their object the maintenance of the
social treaty, must always be opened with two propositions, which no one
should eliminate, and which should pass separately by vote.
The first: ‘‘Whether it pleases the sovereign to maintain the present form
of government.’’
The second: ‘‘Whether it pleases the people to leave the administration
to those at present entrusted with it.’’
I presuppose here what I believe that I have proved, that there is in the
State no fundamental law which cannot be revoked, not even the social
compact; for if all the citizens assembled to break this compact by a solemn
agreement, no one can doubt that it would be quite legitimately broken.
Grotius even thinks that each man can renounce the State of which he is a
member, and regain his natural freedom and his property by leaving the
country.* Now it would be absurd if all the citizens combined would be
unable to do what each of them can do separately.
* It must be clearly understood that no one should leave in order to evade his duty and
relieve himself from serving his country at a moment when it needs him. Flight in that
case would be criminal and punishable; it would no longer be retirement, but desertion.
Book IV
Chapter I
t h a tt h eg e n e r a lw i l li si n d e s t r u c t i b l e
As long as a certain number of men consider themselves to be a single body,
they have but one will, which relates to the common security and to the
general welfare. In such a case all the forces of the State are vigorous and
simple, and its principles are clear and luminous; it has no confused and
conflicting interests; the common good is everywhere plainly clear and only
good sense is required to perceive it. Peace, union, and equality are foes to
political subtleties. Upright and guileless men are hard to deceive because
of their candor; temptations and subtle tricks do not impress them; they are
not even cunning enough to be dupes. When, in the happiest nation in the
world, we see troops of peasants deciding the affairs of the State under an
oak and always acting wisely, can we refrain from scorning the refinements
of other nations, who make themselves illustrious and wretched with so
much art and mystery?
A State thus governed needs very few laws; and in so far as it becomes
necessary to promulgate new ones, this necessity is universally recognized.
The first man to propose them only gives expression to what all have
previously felt, and neither factions nor eloquence will be needed to pass
into law what every one has already resolved to do, so soon as he is sure that
the rest will act as he does.
What misleads theorists is that, seeing only States that are ill-constituted
from their beginning, they are struck by the impossibility of maintaining
good organization in those States; they laugh to think of all the follies to
which a cunning knave, a smooth talker, can persuade the people of Paris or
London. They know not that Cromwell would have been put in irons by the
people of Berne, and the Duke of Beaufort imprisoned by the Genevans.
But when the social bond begins to fail and the State is weakened, when
private interests begin to make themselves felt and small factions to ex-
ercise influence on the State, the common interest is harmed and finds
228 The Social Contract
opponents; unanimity no longer reigns in the voting; the general will is no
longer the will of all; opposition and debates arise, and the best advice is not
accepted without disputes.
Finally, when the State, on the verge of ruin, no longer subsists except in
a meaningless and illusory form, when the social bond is broken in all
hearts, when the basest interest shelters itself impudently under the sacred
name of the public welfare, the general will becomes mute; all, under the
sway of ulterior motives, no more express their opinions as citizens than if
the State had never existed; and, under the name of laws, they deceptively
pass unjust decrees that have only private interest as their aim.
Does it follow from this that the general will is destroyed or corrupted?
No; it is always constant, unalterable, and pure; but it is subordinated to
others which get the better of it. Each, detaching his own interest from the
common interest, sees clearly that he cannot completely separate from it;
but his share in the harm done to the State appears small to him in com-
parison with the exclusive advantage that he aims at getting for himself.
With this exception, he desires the general welfare for his own interests
quite as strongly as any other. Even in selling his vote for money, he does
not extinguish in himself the general will, but eludes it. The fault that he
commits is to change the nature of the question, and to answer something
different from what he was asked; so that, instead of saying by a vote: ‘‘It is
beneficial to the State,’’ he says: ‘‘It is beneficial to a certain man or a
certain party that such or such a motion should pass.’’ Thus the law of
public order in assemblies is not so much to maintain in them the general
will as to ensure that it shall always be consulted and always respond.
I might at this point make many reflections on the simple right of voting
in every act of sovereignty—a right which nothing can take away from the
citizens—and on the right of speaking, proposing, dividing, and discussing,
which the government is always very careful to leave to its members only;
but this important matter would require a separate treatise, and I cannot say
everything in this one.
Chapter II
v o t i n g
We see from the previous chapter that the manner in which public affairs are
managed may give a sufficiently trustworthy indication of the character and
health of the body politic. The more that harmony reigns in the assemblies,
that is, the more the voting approaches unanimity, the more also is the
Book IV: Chapter II 229
general will predominant; but long debates, dissensions, and tumult an-
nounce the ascendancy of private interests and the decline of the State.
This is not as clear when two or more orders enter into its constitution,
as, in Rome, the patricians and plebeians, whose quarrels often disturbed
the comitia, even in the greatest days of the Republic; but this exception is
more apparent than real, for, at that time, by a vice inherent in the body
politic, there were, so to speak, two States in one; what is not true of the two
together is true of each separately. And, indeed, even in the stormiest times,
the plebiscites of the people, when the Senate did not interfere with them,
always passed peaceably and by a large majority of votes; the citizens
having but one interest, the people had but one will.
At the other extremity of the circle unanimity returns; that is, when the
citizens, fallen into slavery, have no longer either liberty or will. Then fear
and flattery change votes into acclamations; men no longer deliberate, but
adore or curse. Such was the disgraceful mode of speaking in the Senate
under the Emperors. Sometimes it was done with ridiculous precautions.
Tacitus observes that under Otho the senators, in pounding Vitellius with
curses, sought to make at the same time a frightful tumult, so that, if he
happened to become master, he would not know what each of them had
From these different reflections are deduced the principles by which we
should regulate the method of counting votes and of comparing opinions,
depending on whether the general will is more or less easy to ascertain and
the State more or less deteriorating.
There is but one law which by its nature requires unanimous consent,
that is, the social compact; for civil association is the most voluntary act in
the world; every man being born free and master of himself, no one can,
under any pretext whatsoever, enslave him without his assent. To conclude
that the son of a slave is born a slave is to conclude that he is not born a man.
If, then, at the time of the social compact, there are opponents of it, their
opposition does not invalidate the contract, but only prevents them from
being included in it; they are intruders among citizens. When the State is
established, consent lies in residence; to dwell in the territory is to submit to
the sovereignty.*
Excepting this original contract, the vote of the majority always binds all
* This must always be understood to relate to a free State; for otherwise family,
property, want of an asylum, necessity, or violence, may detain an inhabitant in a country
against his will; and then his residence alone no longer supposes his consent to the
contract or to the violation of it.
230 The Social Contract
the rest, this being a result of the contract itself. But it will be asked how a
man can be free and yet forced to conform to wills that are not his own. How
are opponents free and yet subject to laws they have not consented to?
I reply that the question is wrongly put. The citizen consents to all the
laws, even to those passed in spite of him, and even to those that punish him
when he dares to violate any of them. The unvarying will of all the members
of the State is the general will; it is through the general will that they are
citizens and free.* When a law is proposed in the assembly of the people,
what is asked of them is not exactly whether they approve the proposition or
reject it, but whether it conforms or not to the general will, which is their
own; each one in casting his vote expresses his opinion thereupon; and from
the counting of the votes is obtained the declaration of the general will.
When, therefore, an opinion opposed to my own prevails, that simply
shows that I was mistaken, and that what I considered to be the general will
was not so. Had my private opinion prevailed, I would have done some-
thing other than I wished; and in that case I would not have been free.
This supposes, it is true, that all the features of the general will are still in
the majority; when they cease to be so, whatever side we take, there is no
longer any liberty.
In showing before how particular wills were substituted for general wills
in public deliberations, I have sufficiently indicated the useful means for
preventing this abuse; I will speak of it again hereafter. With regard to the
proportional number of votes for declaring this will, I have also laid down
the principles according to which it may be determined. The difference of a
single vote destroys unanimity; but between unanimity and equality there
are many unequal divisions, at each of which this number can be fixed
according to the condition and requirements of the body politic.
Two general principles may serve to regulate these proportions: the one,
that the more important and weighty the deliberations, the nearer should the
dominant opinion approach unanimity; the other, that the greater the dis-
patch required in the matter under discussion, the more should we restrict
the prescribed difference in the division of opinions; in deliberations which
must be decided immediately, the majority of a single vote should suffice.
The first of these principles appears more suitable to laws, the second to
* At Genoa we read in front of the prisons and on the fetters of the galley slaves the
word, Libertas. This employment of the device is becoming and just. In reality, it is only
the malefactors in all States who prevent the citizen from being free. In a country where
all such people are in the galleys the most perfect liberty will be enjoyed.
Book IV: Chapter III 231
affairs under discussion. Be that as it may, it is by their combination that we
can set the best proportions for determining the decision of a majority.
Chapter III
e l e c t i o n s
With regard to the elections of the Prince and the magistrates, which are, as
I have said, complex acts, there are two modes of procedure: choice and lot.
Both have been used in different republics, and a very complicated mixture
of the two is seen even now in the election of the Doge of Venice.
‘‘Election by lot,’’ says Montesquieu, ‘‘belongs to the nature of democ-
racy.’’ I agree, but how is it so? ‘‘The lot,’’ he continues, ‘‘is a mode of
election that demeans no one; it gives every citizen a reasonable hope of
serving his country.’’ But those are not reasons.
If we are mindful that the election of leaders is a function of government
and not of sovereignty, we shall see why the method of election by lot is
more in the nature of democracy, in which the administration is so much the
better when its acts are less multiplied.
In every true democracy, the magistracy is not a boon but an onerous
charge, which cannot fairly be imposed on one individual rather than on
another. The law alone can impose this burden on the person upon whom
the lot falls. For then, the conditions being equal for all, and the choice not
being dependent on any human will, there is no particular application to
alter the universality of the law.
In an aristocracy the Prince chooses the Prince, the government is main-
tained by itself, and voting is rightly established.
The example of the election of the Doge of Venice, far from destroying
this distinction, confirms it; this mixed form is suitable in a mixed govern-
ment. For it is an error to take the government of Venice for a true aristoc-
racy. If the people have no share in the government, the nobles themselves
are numerous. A multitude of poor Barnabotes never come near any mag-
istracy, and have for their nobility only the empty title of Excellency and the
right to attend the Great Council. This Great Council being as numerous as
our General Council in Geneva, its illustrious members have no more priv-
ileges than our simple citizens (citoyens). It is certain that, setting aside
the extreme disparity of the two Republics, the burgesses (la bourgeoisie)
of Geneva exactly correspond to the Venetian order of patricians; our na-
tives (natifs) and residents (habitants) represent the citizens and people of
232 The Social Contract
Venice; our peasants ( paysans) represent the subjects of the mainland; in
short, in whatever way we consider this Republic apart from its size, its
government is no more aristocratic than ours. The whole difference is that,
having no leader for life, we do not have the same need for election by lot.
Elections by lot would have few drawbacks in a true democracy, in
which, all being equal in morals and ability as well as in ideas and fortune,
the choice would become of little consequence. But I have already said that
there is no true democracy.
When choice and lot are combined, the first should be used to fill the
posts that require special talents, such as military appointments; the other is
suitable for those in which good sense, justice, and integrity are sufficient,
such as judicial offices, because, in a well-constituted State, these qualities
are common to all the citizens.
Neither lot nor voting has any place in a monarchical government. The
monarch being by right sole Prince and sole magistrate, the choice of his
lieutenants belongs to him alone. When the Abbé de Saint-Pierre proposed
to multiply the councils of the King of France and to elect the members of
them by ballot, he did not see that he was proposing to change the very form
of government.
It remains for me to speak of the method for recording and collecting
votes in the assembly of the people; but perhaps the history of the Roman
policy in that respect will explain more clearly all the principles that I might
be able to establish. It is not unworthy of a judicious reader to see in
some detail how public and private affairs were dealt with in a council of
200,000 men.
Chapter IV
t h er o m a nc o m i t i a
We have no very trustworthy records of the early times of Rome; there is
even great probability that most of the things which have been handed
down are fables,* and, in general, the most instructive part of the annals of
nations, which is the history of their institution, is the most defective.
Experience every day teaches us from what causes spring the revolutions of
* The name of Rome, which is alleged to be derived from Romulus, is Greek and
means force; the name of Numa is also Greek and means law. What likelihood is there that
the first two kings of that city should have borne at the outset names so clearly related to
what they did?
Book IV: Chapter IV 233
empires; but, as nations are no longer in process of founding, we have
scarcely anything but conjectures to explain how they were formed.
The customs that we see at least testify that these customs had a begin-
ning. Of the traditions that go back to these origins, those which the greatest
authorities countenance, and which the strongest reasons confirm, should
be accepted as the surest. These are the principles I have tried to follow in
inquiring how the freest and most powerful nation in the world exercised its
supreme power.
After the foundation of Rome, the growing republic, that is, the army of
the founder, composed of Albans, Sabines, and foreigners, was divided into
three classes, which, from this division, took the name of tribes. Each of
these tribes was subdivided into ten curiæ, and each curia into decuriæ, at
the head of which were placed curiones and decuriones.
Besides this, a body of one hundred horsemen or knights, called a cen-
turia, was drawn from each tribe, whence we see that these divisions, not
very necessary in a town, were at first only military. But it seems that an
instinct for greatness induced the little town of Rome from the first to adopt
a policy suitable to the capital of the world.
From this first division a drawback soon resulted; the tribe of the Al-
bans* and that of the Sabines† remaining always in the same condition,
while that of the foreigners‡ increased continually through perpetual acces-
sions, the last soon outnumbered the two others. The remedy which Servius
found for this dangerous situation was to change the mode of division, and
for the division by races, which he abolished, to substitute another drawn
from the districts of the city occupied by each tribe. Instead of three tribes
he made four, each of which occupied one of the hills of Rome and bore its
name. Thus, in remedying the existing inequality, he also prevented it for
the future; and in order that this might be a division, not only of localities,
but of men, he prohibited the inhabitants of one quarter from moving into
another, which prevented the races from being mingled.
He also doubled the three old centuriæ of cavalry and added twelve
others to them, but still under the old names—a simple and judicious means
by which he created a distinction between the corps of knights and that of
the people, without making the latter object.
To these four urban tribes Servius added fifteen others, called rural
tribes, because they were comprised of inhabitants of the country, divided
* Ramnenses.
† Tatientes.
‡ Luceres.
234 The Social Contract
into so many cantons. Afterwards many new ones were formed; and the
Roman people were ultimately divided into thirty-five tribes, a number that
remained the same until the end of the Republic.
This distinction between the urban and the rural tribes had a noteworthy
result, because there is no other example of it, and because Rome owed to it
both the preservation of her mores and the growth of her empire. It might be
supposed that the urban tribes soon arrogated to themselves power and
honors, and were ready to disparage the rural tribes. It was quite the reverse.
We know the taste of the old Romans for the country life. This taste they
inherited from their wise founder, who united with liberty rural and military
endeavors, and relegated, so to speak, to the towns arts, trades, intrigue,
wealth, and slavery.
Thus, since every eminent man in Rome lived in the fields and tilled the
soil, it was expected that supporters of the Republic lived in the country.
This condition, being that of the worthiest patricians, was honored by ev-
eryone; the simple and laborious life of villagers was preferred to the lax
and indolent life of the burgesses of Rome; and many who would have been
only wretched proletarians in the city became, as laborers in the fields,
respected citizens. It is not without reason, said Varro, that our magnani-
mous ancestors created in the village the nursery of those hardy and valiant
men who defended them in time of war and sustained them in time of peace.
Pliny says without hesitation that the rural tribes were honored because of
the men who composed them, while the worthless whom they wanted to
disgrace were transferred as a mark of ignominy into the urban tribes. The
Sabine Appius Claudius, having come to settle in Rome, was there show-
ered with honors and enrolled in a rural tribe, which afterwards took the
name of his family. Lastly, all the freedmen entered the urban tribes, never
the rural; and during the whole of the Republic there is not a single example
of any of these freedmen attaining a magistracy, although they had become
This policy was excellent, but was pushed so far that finally a change,
and certainly an abuse, in government resulted from it.
First, the censors, after having long arrogated the right of transferring
citizens arbitrarily from one tribe to another, allowed the majority to be
enrolled in whichever they pleased. This permission was certainly in no
way useful and took away one of the great resources of the censorship. Fur-
ther, since the great and powerful all enrolled themselves in the rural tribes,
while the freedmen who had become citizens remained with the populace in
the urban ones, the tribes in general had no longer any district or territory,
Book IV: Chapter IV 235
but all were so intermingled that it was impossible to distinguish the mem-
bers of each except by the official registers; so that the idea of the word tribe
passed from the real to the personal, or rather became almost an illusion.
Moreover, it came about that the urban tribes, being close at hand, were
often the most powerful in the comitia, and sold the State to those who
stooped to buy the votes of the mob of which they were composed.
With regard to the curiæ, the founder having set up ten in each tribe, the
whole Roman people, at that time enclosed in the walls of the city, consisted
of thirty curiæ, each of which had its temples, its gods, its officers, its
priests, and its festivals called compitalia, resembling the paganalia that
the rural tribes had afterwards.
In the new division of Servius, the number thirty being incapable of
equal distribution into four tribes, he was unwilling to touch them; and the
curiæ, being independent of the tribes, became another division of the
inhabitants of Rome. But there was no question of curiæ either in the rural
tribes or in the people composing them, because the tribes having become a
purely civil institution, and another mode of levying troops having been
introduced, the military divisions of Romulus were found superfluous.
Thus, although every citizen was enrolled in a tribe, it was far from being
the case that each was enrolled in a curia.
Servius made yet a third division, which had no relation to the two
preceding, but became by its consequences the most important of all. He
divided the whole Roman people into six classes, which he distinguished,
not by the place of residence, nor by the men, but by property; so that the
first classes were filled with rich men, the last with poor men, and the
intermediate ones with those who enjoyed a moderate fortune. These six
classes were subdivided into one hundred and ninety-three other bodies
called centuriæ, and these bodies were so distributed that the first class
alone comprised more than a half, and the last comprised only one. It thus
happened that the class least numerous in men had most centuriæ, and that
the last entire class was counted as only one subdivision, although it alone
contained more than a half of the inhabitants of Rome.
So that the people did not discern the consequences of this last form,
Servius affected to give it a military appearance. He introduced in the
second class two centuriæ of armorers, and two of makers of instruments of
war in the fourth; in each class, except the last, he distinguished the young
and the old, that is to say, those who were obliged to bear arms, and those
who were exempted by law on account of age—a distinction that, more
than that of property, gave rise to the necessity of frequently repeating the
236 The Social Contract
census or enumeration; finally, he required the assembly to be held in the
Campus Martius, and all who were qualified for service by age to gather
there with their arms.
The reason why he did not follow in the last class this same division into
seniors and juniors is that the honor of bearing arms for their country was
not granted to the populace; it was necessary to own homes to obtain the
right of defending them; and out of those innumerable troops of beggars
with which the armies of kings nowadays glitter, there is not one who would
have been driven out with scorn from a Roman cohort, when soldiers were
defenders of liberty.
Yet again, there was in the last class a distinction between the proletarii
and those who were called capite censi. The former, not altogether desti-
tute, at least supplied citizens to the State, sometimes even soldiers, when
there was need. As for those who had nothing at all and could only be
counted by heads, they were regarded as altogether unimportant, and
Marius was the first who condescended to enroll them.
Without concluding here whether this third enumeration was good or
bad in itself, I think I can state that nothing but the simple manners of early
Romans—their disinterestedness, their taste for agriculture, their contempt
for commerce and for the ardent pursuit of profit—could have made it
possible. In what modern nation would rapacious greed, restlessness of
spirit, intrigue, continual changes of residence, and the perpetual revolu-
tions of fortune have allowed such an institution to endure for twenty years
without the whole State being subverted? It is, indeed, necessary to observe
carefully that morality and the censorship, more powerful than this institu-
tion, corrected its imperfections in Rome, and that many a rich man was
relegated to the class of the poor for making too much display of his wealth.
From all this we may easily understand why mention is scarcely ever
made of more than five classes, although there were really six. The sixth,
which furnished neither soldiers to the army, nor voters to the Campus
Martius* and which was almost useless in the Republic, rarely counted as
Such were the different divisions of the Roman people. Let us see now
what effect they produced in the assemblies. These assemblies, lawfully
convened, were called comitia; they were usually held in the Forum of
Rome or in the Campus Martius, and were distinguished as comitia curiata,
* I say, ‘‘to the Campus Martius,’’ because it was there that the comitia centuriata
assembled; in the two other forms the people assembled in the Forum or elsewhere; and
then the capite censi had as much influence and authority as the chief citizens.
Book IV: Chapter IV 237
comitia centuriata, and comitia tributa, in accordance with the one of
the three forms by which they were regulated. The comitia curiata were
founded by Romulus, the comitia centuriata by Servius, and the comitia
tributa by the tribunes of the people. No law received sanction, no magis-
trate was elected, except in the comitia; and since there was no citizen who
was not enrolled in a curia, in a centuria, or in a tribe, it follows that no
citizen was excluded from the right of voting, and that the Roman people
were truly sovereign de jure and de facto.
In order for the comitia to be lawfully assembled, and for what was done
in them to have the force of law, three conditions were necessary: the first,
that the body or magistrate which convoked them should be invested with
the necessary authority for that purpose; the second, that the assembly
should be held on one of the days permitted by law; the third, that the
auguries should be favorable.
The reason for the first regulation need not be explained; the second is a
matter of organization; thus it was not permitted to hold the comitia on feast
days and market days, when the country people, coming to Rome on busi-
ness, had no leisure to pass the day in the assembly. By the third, the Senate
kept in check a proud and turbulent people, and tempered the ardor of
seditious tribunes; but the latter found more than one means of freeing
themselves from this constraint.
Laws and the election of leaders were not the only issues submitted for
the decision of the comitia; the Roman people having usurped the most im-
portant functions of government, the fate of Europe may be said to have been
determined in their assemblies. This variety of issues produced the different
forms these assemblies took according to the matters that had to be decided.
To judge these different forms, it is sufficient to compare them. Romulus,
in instituting the curiæ, desired to restrain the Senate by means of the people,
and the people by means of the Senate, while ruling equally over all. He
therefore gave the people by this form all the authority of numbers in order to
balance that of power and wealth, which he left to the patricians. But, accord-
ing to the spirit of a monarchy, he gave still more weight to the patricians
through the influence of their plebeian dependents in securing a plurality of
votes. This admirable institution of patrons and dependents was a master-
piece of policy and humanity, without which the patrician order, so opposed
to the spirit of a republic, could not have survived. Rome alone had the honor
of giving to the world such a fine institution, from which there never resulted
any abuse, and which notwithstanding has never been copied.
Since the form of the assembly of the curiæ survived under the kings
down to Servius, and since the reign of the last Tarquin is not considered
238 The Social Contract
legitimate, the royal laws were on this account generally distinguished by
the name of leges curiatæ.
Under the Republic the assembly of the curiæ, always limited to the four
urban tribes, and containing only the Roman populace, could not corre-
spond either with the Senate, which was at the head of the patricians, or
with the tribunes, who, although plebeians, were at the head of the middle-
class citizens. It therefore fell into disrepute; and its degradation was
such that its thirty assembled lictors did what the comitia curiata ought to
have done.
The comitia centuriata was so favorable to the aristocracy that we do not
at first see why the Senate did not always prevail in the comitia which bore
that name, and by which the consuls, censors, and other curule magistrates
were elected. Indeed, of the one hundred and ninety-three centuriæ which
made up the six classes of the whole Roman people, the first class compris-
ing ninety-eight, and the votes being counted only by centuriæ, this first
class alone outnumbered in votes all the others. When all these centuriæ
were in agreement, the recording of votes was not even completed; what the
minority had decided passed for a decision of the multitude; and we may
say that in the comitia centuriata affairs were regulated rather by the major-
ity of coins (écus) than of votes.
But this excessive power was moderated in two ways: first, the tribunes
usually, and a great number of plebeians always, being in the class of the
rich, counteracted the influence of the patricians in this first class. The
second means consisted in this, that instead of making the centuriæ vote
according to their order, which would have permitted the first class always
to begin, one of them* was drawn by lot and proceeded alone to the elec-
tion; after which all the centuriæ, being summoned on another day accord-
ing to their rank, repeated the election and usually confirmed it. Thus the
power of example was taken away from rank to be given to lot, according to
the principle of democracy.
From this practice resulted yet another advantage; the citizens from the
country had time, between the two elections, to gather information about
the merits of the candidate provisionally chosen, and so record their votes
with knowledge of the case. But, under pretense of dispatch, this practice
was abolished and the two elections took place on the same day.
The comitia tributa were properly the council of the Roman people.
They were convoked only by the tribunes; in them the tribunes were elected
* This centuria, thus chosen by lot, was called prærogativa, because its suffrage was
demanded first; hence came the word prerogative.
Book IV: Chapter IV 239
and passed their plebiscites. Not only had the Senate no status in them—it
had not even a right to attend; and, being compelled to obey laws on which
they could not vote, the senators were, in this respect, less free than the
lowliest citizens. This injustice was altogether impolitic, and alone sufficed
to invalidate the decrees of a body to which all the citizens were not admit-
ted. If all the patricians had taken part in these comitia according to the
rights they had as citizens, having become in that case simple individuals,
they would have scarcely influenced a form in which votes were counted by
the head, and in which the lowliest proletarian had as much power as the
leader of the Senate.
We see, then, that besides the order resulting from these different divi-
sions for the collection of the votes of so great a people, these divisions
were not reduced to forms immaterial in themselves, but that each had
results corresponding to the purposes for which it was chosen.
Without entering upon this in greater detail, it follows from the preced-
ing explanations that the comitia tributa were more favorable to popular
government, and the comitia centuriata to aristocracy. With regard to the
comitia curiata, in which the Roman populace alone formed the majority, as
they served only to favor tyranny and evil designs, they deserved to fall into
discredit, the seditious themselves refraining from a means which would
too plainly reveal their projects. It is certain that the full majesty of the
Roman people was found only in the comitia centuriata, which were alone
complete, seeing that the rural tribes were absent from the comitia curiata
and the Senate and the patricians from the comitia tributa.
The mode of collecting the votes among the early Romans was as simple
as their customs, although still less simple than in Sparta. Each cast his vote
with a loud voice, and a recording officer duly registered it; a majority of
votes in each tribe determined the suffrage of the tribe; a majority of votes
among the tribes determined the suffrage of the people; and so with the
curiæ and centuriæ. This was a good practice so long as integrity prevailed
among the citizens and every one was ashamed to cast his vote publicly for
an unjust measure or an unworthy man; but when the people were corrupted
and votes were bought, votes were cast in secret in order to defy purchasers
and give crooks an opportunity of not being traitors.
I know that Cicero criticizes this change and attributes to it in part the
fall of the Republic. But although I feel the weight which Cicero’s authority
ought to have in this matter, I cannot accept his opinion; on the contrary, I
think that through not making sufficient changes of this kind, the downfall
of the State was hastened. As the regimen of healthy persons is unfit for the
ill, so we should not desire to govern a corrupt people by the laws that suit a
240 The Social Contract
good nation. Nothing supports this maxim better than the duration of the
republic of Venice, only the shadow of which now exists, solely because its
laws are suitable to none but worthless men.
Tablets, therefore, were distributed to the citizens by means of which
each could vote without his decision being known; new formalities were
also established for the collection of tablets, the counting of votes, the
comparison of numbers, etc.; but this did not prevent suspicions as to the
fidelity of the officers* charged with these duties. At length edicts were
framed, the multitude of which proves their uselessness.
Towards the closing years, they were often compelled to resort to ex-
traordinary measures to correct the defects of the laws. Sometimes miracles
were feigned; but this method, which might impress the people, did not
impress those who governed them. Sometimes an assembly was hastily
summoned before the candidates had had time to canvass. Sometimes a
whole sitting was consumed in talking when it was clear that the people
having been won over were ready to pass a bad resolution. But ultimately
ambition eluded everything; and it seems incredible that in the midst of so
many abuses, this great nation, thanks to its ancient institutions, did not
cease to elect magistrates, to pass laws, to judge issues, and to dispatch
public and private affairs with almost as much facility as the Senate itself
could have done.
Chapter V
t h et r i b u n e s h i p
When an exact relation cannot be established among the constituent parts of
the State, or when indestructible causes are incessantly changing their rela-
tions, a special magistracy is instituted, which is not incorporated with the
others, but which restores each part to its true relation, forming a connec-
tion or middle term either between the Prince and the people, or between
the Prince and the sovereign, or if necessary between both at once.
This body, which I shall call the tribuneship, is the guardian of the laws
and of the legislative power. It sometimes serves to protect the sovereign
against the government, as the tribunes of the people did in Rome; some-
times to uphold the government against the people, as the Council of Ten
now does in Venice; and sometimes to maintain an equilibrium among all
parts, as the ephors did in Sparta.
* Custodes, diribitores, rogatores, suffragiorum.
Book IV: Chapter V 241
The tribuneship is not a constituent part of the State, and should have no
share in the legislative or in the executive power; but it is in this itself that
its own power is greatest; for, while unable to do anything, it can prevent
everything. It is more sacred and more venerated, as defender of the laws,
than the Prince who executes them and the sovereign that enacts them. This
was very clearly seen in Rome, when those proud patricians, who always
scorned the people, were forced to bow before a simple officer of the
people, who had neither auspices nor jurisdiction.
The tribuneship, wisely moderated, is the strongest support of a good
constitution; but if its power is ever even a little in excess, it overthrows
everything. Weakness is not natural to it; and provided it has some power, it
is never less than it should be.
It degenerates into tyranny when it usurps the executive power, of which
it is only the moderator, and when it wishes to make laws it should only
defend. The enormous power of the ephors, which was without danger as
long as Sparta preserved her morality, accelerated the incipient corruption.
The blood of Agis, slain by these tyrants, was avenged by his successor; but
the crime and the punishment of the ephors alike hastened the fall of the
republic, and, after Cleomenes, Sparta mattered no longer. Rome, too,
perished in the same way; and the excessive power of the tribunes, usurped
by degrees, served, with the help of laws framed on behalf of liberty, as a
shield for the emperors who destroyed liberty. As for the Council of Ten in
Venice, it is a tribunal of blood, horrible both for the patricians and for the
people; and, far from nobly defending the laws, since their degradation, it
does nothing but strike secret blows that men dare not notice.
The tribuneship, like the government, is weakened by the increase of its
members. When the tribunes of the Roman people, at first two in number
and afterwards five, wished to double this number, the Senate allowed them
to do so, being quite sure of controlling some by means of others, which did
not fail to happen.
The best means for preventing the usurpations of such a formidable
body, a means of which no government has hitherto availed itself, would be,
not to make this body permanent, but to set intervals during which it should
remain suspended. These intervals, which should not be long enough to
give abuses time to grow, can be determined by law in such a way that
they can be easily shortened in case of need by means of extraordinary
This method appears to me problem free, because, as I have said, the
tribuneship, forming no part of the constitution, can be eliminated with-
out harm; and it strikes me as efficacious, because a newly established
242 The Social Contract
magistrate does not start with the power that his predecessor had, but with
the one the law gives him.
Chapter VI
d i c t a t o r s h i p
The inflexibility of the laws, which prevents them from adapting to events,
can in certain cases make them pernicious, and thereby cause the ruin of the
State in a time of crisis. The order and delay of procedure require a space of
time which circumstances sometimes do not allow. A thousand cases may
arise which the legislator has not foreseen, and to perceive that everything
cannot be foreseen is a very necessary kind of foresight.
It is therefore not a good idea to establish political institutions so rigidly
as to take away the power to suspend their consequences. Even Sparta
allowed her laws to sleep.
But only the greatest dangers can outweigh that of changing the public
order, and the sacred power of the laws should never be interfered with
except when the survival of the country is at stake. In these rare and obvious
cases, the public security is provided for by a special act, which entrusts its
care to the most worthy man. This commission can be conferred in two
ways, according to the nature of the danger.
If an increase in the activity of the government suffices to remedy this
evil, we may concentrate it in one or two of its members; in that case it is not
the authority of the laws that is changed but only the manner of their
administration. But if the danger is such that the formal process of law is an
obstacle to our security, a supreme leader is named, who may silence all the
laws and suspend for a moment the sovereign authority. In such a case the
general will is not in doubt, and it is clear that the primary intention of
the people is that the State should not perish. In this way the suspension of
the legislative power does not involve its abolition; the magistrate who
silences it can make it speak; he dominates it without having power to
represent it; he can do everything but make laws.
The first method was used by the Roman Senate when it asked the
consuls, by a consecrated formula, to provide for the safety of the Republic.
The second was adopted when one of the two consuls appointed a dictator,*
something of which Alba had furnished the precedent to Rome.
* This nomination was made by night and in secret as if they were ashamed to set a
man above the laws.
Book IV: Chapter VI 243
At the beginning of the Republic they very often had recourse to dic-
tatorship, because the State had not yet a sufficiently firm foundation to be
able to maintain itself by the vigor of its constitution alone.
Public morality making superfluous many precautions that might have
been necessary at another time, there was no fear either that a dictator
would abuse his authority or that he would attempt to keep it beyond his
term. On the contrary, it seemed that so great a power must be a burden to
the person invested with it, such haste did he make to divest himself of it, as
if to take the place of laws were an office too arduous and too dangerous.
Therefore it is the danger, not of its being abused, but of its degradation,
that makes me blame the indiscreet use of this supreme magistracy in early
times; for while it was freely used at elections, at dedications, and in purely
formal matters, there was reason to fear that it would become less formida-
ble in case of need, and that the people would grow accustomed to regard as
an empty title that which was only used in empty ceremonies.
Toward the close of the Republic, the Romans, having become more
circumspect, used the dictatorship sparingly with as little reason as they had
formerly been prodigal with it. It was easy to see that their fear was ill-
founded; that the weakness of the capital then constituted its security
against the magistrates whom it had within it; that a dictator could, in
certain cases, defend the public liberty without ever being able to assail it;
and that the chains of Rome would not be forged in Rome itself, but in her
armies. The slight resistance which Marius made against Sylla, and Pompey
against Cæsar, showed clearly what might be looked for from the authority
within against the force without.
This error caused them to commit great mistakes; such, for example,
was that of not appointing a dictator in the Catiline affair; for as it was only
a question of the interior of the city, or at most of some province of Italy, a
dictator, with the unlimited authority that the laws gave him, would have
easily broken up the conspiracy, which was suppressed only by a combina-
tion of fortunate accidents which human prudence could not have foreseen.
Instead of that, the Senate was content to entrust all its power to the
consuls; whence it happened that Cicero, in order to act effectively, was
constrained to exceed his authority in a material point, and that, although a
first rush of enthusiasm caused his conduct to be approved, he was after-
wards justly called to account for the blood of citizens shed contrary to the
laws, a reproach which could not have been brought against a dictator. But
the consul’s eloquence won over everybody; and he himself, although a
Roman, preferred his own glory to his country’s good, and sought not the
most certain and legitimate means of saving the State but rather the way to
244 The Social Contract
garner all the honor for this affair.* Therefore he was justly honored as the
liberator of Rome and justly punished as a violator of the laws. However
brilliant his return to power may have been, it was certainly a pardon.
Moreover, in whatever way this important commission may be con-
ferred, it is important to determine its duration for a very short term which
can never be prolonged. In the crises which cause it to be established, the
State is soon destroyed or saved; and, the urgent need having passed away,
the dictatorship becomes tyrannical or useless. In Rome the dictators held
office for six months only, and the majority abdicated before the end of this
term. Had the term been longer, they would perhaps have been tempted to
prolong it still further, as the Decemvirs did their term of one year. The
dictator only had time to provide for the necessity which had led to his
election; he had no time to think of other projects.
Chapter VII
t h ec e n s o r s h i p
Just as the declaration of the general will is made by the law, the declaration
of public opinion is made by the censorship. Public opinion is a kind of law
of which the censor is minister, and which he only applies to particular
cases in the manner of the Prince.
The censorial tribunal, then, far from being the arbiter of the opinion of
the people, only declares it, and so soon as it departs from this position, its
decisions are fruitless and ineffectual.
It is useless to distinguish the character of a nation from the objects of its
esteem, for all these things depend of the same principle and are necessarily
intermixed. In all the nations of the world it is not nature but opinion which
decides the choice of their pleasures. Reform men’s opinions and their
mores will be purified by themselves. People always like what is becoming
or what they judge to be so; but it is in this judgment that they make mis-
takes; the question, then, is to guide their judgment. He who judges of mores
judges of honor; and he who judges of honor takes his law from opinion.
The opinions of a nation spring from its constitution. Although the law
does not regulate morality, it is legislation that gives it birth, and when
legislation becomes impaired, morality degenerates; but then the judgment
of the censors will not do what the power of the laws has failed to do.
* He could not be satisfied about this in proposing a dictator; he dared not nominate
himself, and could not feel sure that his colleague would nominate him.
Book IV: Chapter VIII 245
It follows from this that the censorship may be useful to preserve moral-
ity, never to restore it. Institute censors while the laws are vigorous; so soon
as they have lost their power all is over. Nothing that is lawful has any force
when the laws cease to have any.
The censorship supports morality by preventing opinions from being
corrupted, by preserving their integrity through wise applications, some-
times even by defining them when they are still uncertain. The use of
seconds in duels, carried to a mad extreme in the kingdom of France, was
abolished by these simple words in an edict of the king: ‘‘As for those who
have the cowardice to appoint seconds.’’ This judgment, anticipating that of
the public, immediately decided it. But when the same edicts wanted to
declare that it was also cowardice to fight a duel, which is very true, but
contrary to common opinion, the public ridiculed this decision, on which its
judgment was already formed.
I have said elsewhere* that as public opinion is not subject to constraint,
there should be no vestige of this in the tribunal established to represent it.
We cannot admire too much the art with which this force, wholly lost
among the moderns, was set in operation among the Romans and still better
among the Lacedæmonians.
A man of bad character having brought forward a good measure in the
Council of Sparta, the ephors, without paying attention to him, caused the
same measure to be proposed by a virtuous citizen. What an honor for the one,
what shame for the other, without praise or blame being given to either! Cer-
tain drunkards from Samos† defiled the tribunal of the ephors; on the morrow a
public edict granted permission to the Samians to be filthy. A real punishment
would have been less severe than such impunity. When Sparta pronounced
what was or was not honorable, Greece did not appeal those decisions.
Chapter VIII
c i v i lr e l i g i o n
Men had at first no kings except the gods and no government but a the-
ocracy. They reasoned like Caligula, and at that time they reasoned rightly.
A long period is needed to change men’s feelings and ideas in order that
* I merely indicate in this chapter what I have treated at greater length in the Letter to
M. d’Alembert.
† They were from another island, which the delicacy of our language forbids us to
name on this occasion.
246 The Social Contract
they may resolve to take a fellow man as a master and flatter themselves that
all will be well.
From the single fact that God was placed at the head of every political
society, it followed that there were as many gods as nations. Two nations
foreign to each other, and almost always hostile, could not for long ac-
knowledge the same master; two armies engaged in battle with each other
could not obey the same leader. Thus from national divisions resulted
polytheism, and, from this, theological and civil intolerance, which are by
nature the same, as will be shown hereafter.
The fancy of the Greeks that they recognized their own gods among
barbarous nations arose from their regarding themselves as the natural
sovereigns of those nations. But in our days that is a very ridiculous kind of
erudition which turns on the identity of the gods of different nations, as if
Moloch, Saturn, and Chronos could be the same god! As if the Baal of the
Phœnicians, the Zeus of the Greeks, and the Jupiter of the Latins could be
the same! As if there could be anything in common among imaginary
beings bearing different names!
But if it is asked why under paganism, when every State had its cult and
its gods, there were no wars of religion, I answer that it was for the same
reason that each State, having its own form of worship as well as its own
government, did not distinguish its gods from its laws. Political warfare was
also theological; the regions of the gods were, so to speak, fixed by the
limits of the nations. The god of one people had no right over other peoples.
The gods of the pagans were not jealous gods; they shared among them-
selves the empire of the world; even Moses and the Hebrew nation some-
times countenanced this idea by speaking of the god of Israel. It is true that
they regarded as nought the gods of the Canaanites, proscribed nations,
devoted to destruction, whose country they were to occupy; but see how
they spoke of the divinities of the neighboring nations whom they were
forbidden to attack: ‘‘The possession of what belongs to Chamos your
god,’’ said Jephthah to the Ammonites, ‘‘is it not lawfully your due? By the
same title we possess the lands which our conquering god has acquired.’’*
In this, it seems to me, there was a well-recognized parity between the
rights of Chamos and those of the god of Israel.
But when the Jews, subjected to the kings of Babylon, and afterwards to
the kings of Syria, obstinately refused to acknowledge any other god but
* ‘‘Nonne ea quae possidet Chamos deus tuus tibi jure debentur?’’ (Judges xi: 24).
Such is the text of the Vulgate. Père de Carrières has translated it thus: ‘‘Do you not
believe that you have a right to possess what belongs to Chamos your god?’’ I am ignorant
Book IV: Chapter VIII 247
their own, this refusal, seen as a rebellion against the conqueror, drew upon
them the persecutions which we read of in their history, and of which no
other instance appears before Christianity.*
Every religion, then, being exclusively attached to the laws of the State
which prescribed it, there was no other way of converting a people than to
conquer it, and no other missionaries than conquerors; and the obligation to
change their form of worship being the law imposed on the vanquished, it
was necessary to begin by conquering before speaking of conversions. Far
from men fighting for the gods, it was, as in Homer, the gods who fought for
men; each demanded victory from his own god and paid for it with new
altars. The Romans, before attacking a place, summoned its gods to aban-
don it; and when they left to the Tarentines their exasperated gods, it was
because they then regarded these gods as subjected to their own and forced
to pay them homage. They left the vanquished their gods as they left them
their laws. A crown for the Capitoline Jupiter was often the only tribute that
they imposed.
At last, the Romans having extended their religion and their laws with
their empire, and having themselves often adopted those of the vanquished,
the nations of this vast empire, since the right of citizenship was granted to
all, found little by little that they had multitudes of gods and religions,
almost the same everywhere; and this is why paganism was at length known
in the world as one and the same religion.
It was in these circumstances that Jesus came to establish on earth a
spiritual kingdom, which, separating the theological system from the politi-
cal system, destroyed the unity of the State, and created the intestine divi-
sions which have never ceased to arouse Christian nations. Now this new
idea of a kingdom in the other world having never been able to enter the
minds of the pagans, they always regarded Christians as actual rebels, who,
under cover of a hypocritical submission, only sought an opportunity to
make themselves independent and supreme, and to usurp by cunning the
authority which, in their weakness, they pretended to respect. This was the
cause of persecutions.
of the force of the Hebrew text, but I see that in the Vulgate Jephthah positively acknowl-
edges the right of the god Chamos, and that the French translator weakens this acknowl-
edgment by an ‘‘according to you’’ which is not in the Latin.
* There is the strongest evidence that the war of the Phocæans, called a sacred war,
was not a war of religion. Its object was to punish sacrilege, and not to subdue un-
248 The Social Contract
What the pagans had feared came to pass. Then everything changed; the
humble Christians altered their tone, and soon this supposed kingdom of the
other world became, under a visible leader, the most violent despotism in
this world.
As, however, there have always been a Prince and civil laws, a perpetual
conflict of jurisdiction has resulted from this double power, which has
rendered any good polity impossible in Christian States; and no one has
ever succeeded in understanding whether he was bound to obey the ruler or
the priest.
Many nations, however, even in Europe or on its outskirts, wished to
preserve or to reestablish the old system, but without success; the spirit of
Christianity prevailed over everything. The sacred cult always retained or
regained its independence of the sovereign, and without any necessary
connection with the body of the State. Muhammad had very sound views;
he thoroughly unified his political system; and so long as his form of gov-
ernment survived under his successors, the caliphs, the government was
quite unified and in that respect good. But the Arabs having become flour-
ishing, learned, cultivated, lax, and cowardly, were subjugated by the bar-
barians, and then the division between the two powers began again. Al-
though it may be less apparent among the Muhammadans than among the
Christians, the division nevertheless exists, especially in the sect of Ali; and
there are States, such as Persia, in which it is still seen.
Among us, the kings of England have established themselves as heads of
the church, and the Tsars have done the same; but by means of this title they
have made themselves its ministers rather than its rulers; they have acquired
not so much the right to change it as the power to maintain it; they are not its
legislators but only its princes. Wherever the clergy form a corporation,*
they are masters and legislators in their own country. There are, then, two
powers, two sovereigns, in England and in Russia, just as elsewhere.
Of all Christian authors, the philosopher Hobbes is the only one who has
clearly seen the evil and its remedy, and who has dared to propose to unite
* It must, indeed, be remarked that it is not so much the formal assemblies, like those
in France, that bind the clergy into one body, as the communion of churches. Communion
and excommunication are the social pact of the clergy, a pact by means of which they will
always be the masters of nations and kings. All priests who are of the same communion
are fellow citizens, though they are as far asunder as the poles. This invention is a
masterpiece of policy. There was nothing similar among pagan priests; therefore they
never formed a body of clergy.
Book IV: Chapter VIII 249
the two heads of the eagle and to restore political unity, without which no
State or government will ever be well constituted. But he ought to have seen
that the domineering spirit of Christianity was incompatible with his sys-
tem, and that the interest of the priest would always be stronger than that of
the State. It is not so much what is horrible and false in his political theory
as what is just and true that has rendered it odious.*
I believe that by developing historical facts from this point of view,
the opposite opinions of Bayle and Warburton might easily be refuted. The
former of these maintains that no religion is useful to the body politic; the
latter, on the other hand, asserts that Christianity is its strongest support. To
the first it might be proved that no State was ever founded without religion
serving as its basis, and to the second, that the Christian law is more inju-
rious than useful to a firm constitution of the State. In order to succeed in
making myself understood, I need only give a little more precision to the
exceedingly vague ideas about religion in its relation to my subject.
Religion, considered with reference to society, which is either general or
particular, may also be divided into two kinds, that is, the religion of the
man and that of the citizen. The first, without temples, without altars, with-
out rites, limited to the purely internal worship of the supreme God and to
the eternal duties of morality, is the pure and simple religion of the Gospel,
the true theism, and what may be called the natural divine law. The other,
inscribed in a single country, gives to it its gods, its peculiar and tutelary
patrons. It has its dogmas, its rites, its external religion prescribed by the
laws; outside the single nation which observes it, everything is for it infidel,
foreign, and barbarous; it extends the duties and rights of men only as far as
its altars. Such were all the religions of early peoples, to which may be
given the name of divine law, civil or positive.
There is a third and more extravagant kind of religion, which, giving to
men two sets of laws, two leaders, two fatherlands, imposes on them contra-
dictory duties, and prevents them from being simultaneously devout men
and citizens. Such is the religion of the Lamas, such is that of the Japanese,
such is Roman Christianity. This may be called the religion of the priest.
There results from it a kind of mixed and unsocial law which has no name.
Considered politically, these three kinds of religion all have their
* See, among others, in a letter from Grotius to his brother of the 11th April, 1643,
what that learned man approves and what he blames in the book De Cive. It is true that,
inclined to indulgence, he appears to pardon the author for the good for the sake of the
evil, but everyone is not so merciful.
250 The Social Contract
defects. The third is so evidently bad that it would be a waste of time to stop
and prove this. Whatever destroys social unity is good for nothing; all
institutions which put a man in contradiction with himself are worthless.
The second is good so far as it combines divine worship with love for the
laws, and, by making their fatherland the object of citizens’ adoration,
teaches them that to serve the State is to serve the guardian deity. It is a kind
of theocracy, in which there ought to be no pontiff but the Prince, no other
priests than the magistrates. Then to die for one’s country is to achieve
martyrdom, to violate the laws is to be impious, and to subject a guilty man
to public execration is to subject him to the wrath of the gods: Sacer esto.
But it is bad in so far as being based on error and falsehood, it deceives
men, renders them credulous and superstitious, and obscures the true wor-
ship of the Deity with superficial rituals. It is bad, again, when, becoming
exclusive and tyrannical, it makes a nation sanguinary and intolerant, so
that it thirsts after nothing but murder and massacre, and believes that it is
performing a holy action in killing whosoever does not acknowledge its
gods. This puts such a people in a natural state of war with all others, which
is very harmful to its own security.
There remains, then, the religion of man or Christianity, not that of today,
but that of the Gospel, which is quite different. By this holy, sublime, and
pure religion, men, children of the same God, all recognize one another as
brethren, and the social bond which unites them is not dissolved even at
But this religion, having no particular relation with the body politic,
leaves to the laws only the force that they derive from themselves, without
adding to them any other; and thereby one of the great bonds of the particu-
lar society remains ineffective. What is more, far from attaching the hearts
of citizens to the State, it detaches them from it as it does from all earthly
things. I know of nothing more contrary to the social spirit.
We are told that a nation of true Christians would form the most perfect
society conceivable. In this supposition I see only one great difficulty—that
a society of true Christians would be no longer a society of men.
I say even that this supposed society, with all its perfection, would be
neither the strongest nor the most durable; by virtue of its perfection it
would lack cohesion; its perfection, indeed, would be its destroying vice.
Each man would perform his duty; the people would be obedient to the
laws, the leaders would be just and moderate, and the magistrates upright
and incorruptible; the soldiers would scorn death; there would be neither
vanity nor luxury. All this is very good; but let us look further.
Christianity is an entirely spiritual religion, concerned solely with heav-
Book IV: Chapter VIII 251
enly things; the Christian’s country is not of this world. He does his duty, it
is true; but he does it with a profound indifference as to the good or ill
success of his efforts. Provided that he has nothing to reproach himself with,
it matters little to him whether all goes well or ill down here. If the State is
flourishing, he scarcely dares to enjoy the public felicity; he fears to take a
pride in the glory of his country. If the State declines, he blesses the hand of
God which lies heavy on his people.
In order that the society might be peaceable and harmony maintained, it
would be necessary for all citizens without exception to be equally good
Christians; but if unfortunately there happens to be in it a single ambitious
man, a single hypocrite, a Catiline or a Cromwell, for example, such a man
will certainly get the better of his pious compatriots. Christian charity does
not encourage men to think ill of their neighbors. As soon as a man has
found by cunning the art of dominating them and securing for himself part
of the public authority, he is invested with dignity; God wills that he be
respected. Soon he exercises dominion; God wills that he be obeyed. Does
the depositary of this power abuse it? This is the rod with which God
punishes His children. They would have scruples about driving out the
usurper; it would be necessary to disturb the public peace, to use violence,
to shed blood; all this ill accords with the meekness of the Christian, and,
after all, does it matter whether they are free or enslaved in this vale of
woes? The essential thing is to reach paradise, and resignation is but one
means the more toward that.
What if foreign war comes on? The citizens march to battle without
anxiety; none of them think of flight. They do their duty, but without an
ardent desire for victory; they know better how to die than to conquer. What
matters it whether they are the victors or the vanquished? Does not Provi-
dence know better than they what is needful for them? Conceive what an
advantage a bold, impetuous, enthusiastic enemy can derive from this sto-
ical indifference! Set against them those noble peoples who are consumed
with a burning love of glory and of country. Suppose your Christian re-
public confronted with Sparta or Rome; the pious Christians will be beaten,
crushed, destroyed, before they have time to collect themselves, or they will
owe their survival only to the contempt which the enemy may conceive for
them. To my mind that was a noble oath of the soldiers of Fabius; they did
not swear to die or to conquer, they swore to return as conquerors, and kept
their oath. Never would Christians have done such a thing; they would have
believed that they were tempting God.
But I am mistaken in speaking of a Christian republic; each of these
two words excludes the other. Christianity preaches only servitude and
252 The Social Contract
dependence. Its spirit is too favorable to tyranny for the latter not to profit
by it always. True Christians are made to be slaves; they know it and are
hardly aroused by it. This short life has too little value in their eyes.
Christian troops are excellent, we are told. I deny it; let them show me
any that are such. For my part, I know of no Christian troops. The crusades
will be cited. Without disputing the valor of the crusaders, I shall observe
that, far from being Christians, they were soldiers of the priest, citizens of
the Church; they fought for their spiritual country, which the Church had
somehow rendered temporal. Property regarded, this brings us back to
paganism; as the Gospel does not establish a national religion, any sacred
war is impossible among Christians.
Under the pagan emperors Christian soldiers were brave; all Christian
authors affirm it, and I believe it. There was a rivalry of honor against the
pagan troops. As soon as the emperors became Christians, this rivalry no
longer subsisted; and when the cross had driven out the eagle, all the Roman
valor disappeared.
But, setting aside political considerations, let us return to the subject of
rights and determine principles on this important point. The right which the
social pact gives to the sovereign over its subjects does not, as I have said,
go beyond the limits of public utility.* Subjects, then, owe no account of
their opinions to the sovereign except so far as those opinions are of impor-
tance to the community. Now it is very important for the State that every
citizen should have a religion which may make him delight in his duties; but
the dogmas of this religion concern neither the State nor its members,
except so far as they affect morality and the duties which he who professes
it is bound to perform toward others. Each may have, in addition, such
opinions as he pleases, without its being the business of the sovereign to
know them; for, as he has no jurisdiction in the other world, the destiny of
his subjects in the life to come, whatever it may be, is not his affair, pro-
vided they are good citizens in this life.
There is, therefore, a purely civil profession of faith, the articles of
which it is the duty of the sovereign to determine, not exactly as dogmas of
religion, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to
* ‘‘In the commonwealth,’’ says the Marquis d’Argenson, ‘‘each is perfectly free in
what does not injure others.’’ That is the unalterable limit; it cannot be more accurately
placed. I could not deny myself the pleasure of sometimes quoting this manuscript,
although it is not known to the public, in order to do honor to the memory of an illustrious
and honorable man, who preserved even in office the heart of a true citizen, and just and
sound opinions about the government of his country.
Book IV: Chapter VIII 253
be a good citizen or a faithful subject.* Without having power to compel
any one to believe them, the sovereign may banish from the State whoever
does not believe them; it may banish him not as impious, but as unsociable,
as incapable of sincerely loving the law, justice and of sacrificing, if need
be, his life to his duty. But if any one, after publicly acknowledging these
dogmas, behaves like an unbeliever in them, he should be punished with
death; he has committed the greatest of crimes, he has lied before the laws.
The dogmas of civil religion ought to be simple, few in number, stated
with precision, and without explanations or commentaries. The existence of
the Deity, powerful, wise, beneficent, prescient, and bountiful, the life to
come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity
of the social contract and of the laws; these are the positive dogmas. As for
the negative dogmas, I limit them to one only, that is, intolerance; it belongs
to the creeds which we have excluded.
Those who distinguish civil intolerance from theological intolerance
are, in my opinion, mistaken. These two kinds of intolerance are insepa-
rable. It is impossible to live at peace with people whom we believe to be
damned; to love them would be to hate God who punishes them. It is
absolutely necessary to convert them or to punish them. Wherever theologi-
cal intolerance is allowed, it cannot but have some effect in civil life;† and
as soon as it has any, the sovereign is no longer sovereign even in secular
affairs; from that time the priests are the real masters; the kings are only
their officers.
Now that there is, and can be, no longer any exclusive national religion,
we should tolerate all those which tolerate others, as long as their dogmas
have nothing contrary to the duties of a citizen. But whosoever dares to say:
‘‘Outside the Church no salvation,’’ ought to be driven from the State,
unless the State be the Church and the Prince be the pontiff. Such a dogma
belongs only in a theocratic government; in any other it is pernicious. The
reason for which Henry IV is said to have embraced the Roman Catholic
religion ought to have made any honorable man renounce it, and especially
any prince who knew how to reason.
* Cæsar, in pleading for Catiline, tried to establish the dogma of the mortality of the
soul; Cato and Cicero, to confute him, did not waste time in philosophizing; they were
content to show that Cæsar spoke as a bad citizen and put forward a doctrine pernicious to
the State. Indeed, it was that which the Roman Senate had to decide, and not a theological
† Marriage, for example, being a civil contract, has civil consequences, without which
it is even impossible for society to subsist. Let us, then, suppose that a clergy
254 The Social Contract
Chapter IX
c o n c l u s i o n
After laying down the principles of political right and attempting to found
the State on this basis, it still remains for us to strengthen it in its foreign
relations; which would include the law of nations, commerce, the right of
war and conquests, public law, alliances, negotiations, treaties, etc. But all
this constitutes a new subject too vast for my limited scope. I ought always
to have confined myself to a narrower sphere.
should succeed in arrogating to itself the sole right to perform this act, a right which it
must necessarily usurp in every intolerant religion; then, is it not clear that in taking the
opportunity to strengthen the Church’s authority, it will render ineffectual that of the
Prince, which will no longer have any subjects except those which the clergy are pleased
to give it? Having the opinion of marrying or not marrying people, according as they hold
or do not hold such or such a doctrine, according as they admit or reject such or such a
formulary, according as they are more or less devoted to it, is it not clear that by behaving
prudently and keeping firm, the Church alone will dispose of inheritances, offices, cit-
izens, and the State itself, which cannot subsist when only composed of bastards? But, it
will be said, men will appeal as against abuses; they will summon, issue decrees, and
seize on the temporalities. What a pity! The clergy, however little they may have, I do not
say of courage, but of good sense, will let this be done and go their way; they will quietly
permit appealing, adjourning, decreeing, seizing, and will end by remaining masters. It is
not, it seems to me, a great sacrifice to abandon a part, when one is sure of getting
possession of the whole.
The First and Second Discourses
The Social Contract
Rousseau, Cultural Critic
Enlightenment aesthetics generally stressed the social usefulness of the
arts. The philosophes, unlike the seventeenth-century moralistes, were not
disabused, world-weary observers of human foibles with no hope for the
future betterment of society. They were passionately dedicated to improv-
ing social and political conditions, and even though their program was far
from monolithic, it rested on a shared belief that the writer and artist should
not be content merely to create entertaining, decorative works aimed at
pleasing the rich and powerful.
Such seventeenth-century moralistes as La Rochefoucauld and La Bru-
yère had been conservative misanthropes who harbored a rather dim and
pessimistic view of human nature. Their pithy maxims and observations
sought to unmask the hidden, selfish motivations that drive even our appar-
ently most virtuous acts. Self-interest, according to them, is at the core of
human behavior and behind our most seemingly altruistic, charitable, and
philanthropic endeavors lurks the irrepressible (if subconscious) need for
self-aggrandizement. The Augustinian notion that, without the saving grace
of faith, humanity is mired in evil and sin informs the ethics of the moral-
istes. This bleak and rather desolate theological and psychological land-
scape, however, is redeemed and ennobled by writers who succeeded in
distillating their darkest thoughts in patiently honed, brilliantly provocative
aphorisms. Classical art represents a triumph of beauty and orderliness of
form over the chaotic, dark impulses of the human heart. This perfection
and economy of style is evident in La Rochefoucauld’s maxims, in Pous-
sin’s compositions, and in the architectural symmetry of Versailles. Art
strove mightily to compensate for the irremediable frailties inherent in our
sinful nature by exalting and glorifying the cultural achievements possible
in an absolute monarchy, incarnated by the Sun King, Louis XIV.
The philosophes, on the other hand, held fast to the notion that art has a
positive, indeed aggressively political role to play in society. And no one
was more passionately dedicated to the notion of art as a force capable of
liberating the most creative human energies and impulses, even in a corrupt
258 Gita May
society, as the France of Louis XV and Louis XVI was viewed by the
philosophes, than Denis Diderot, the Encyclopedist and for many years
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s best friend. In his plays, novels, and art criticism
Diderot advocated a bold renewal and regeneration of all the art forms, and
one of his major goals was to formulate a new relationship between culture
and society, as well as between the creative individual and society. All his
life, he approached the artist’s creative process and procedures and the
interrelation between art and society with the liveliest interest and with a
keen personal sense of sympathetic, enthusiastic involvement.
Whereas Rousseau perceived a profound and fatal cleavage between art
and moral values, Diderot tirelessly sought to reconcile the respective ex-
igencies of the aesthetically pleasing and the socially useful. He did not
look on the arts as above or separate from life, and from the outset he
acknowledged the essential roles of passion and enthusiasm in the creative
process and of subjective sensibility in aesthetic appreciation and pleasure.
The sublime, in particular, had great appeal for him, and it reinforced his
rejection of neoclassicism in favor of a new aesthetic stressing the over-
powering rather than pleasing emotions and experiences.
The Paris to which Rousseau came in August of 1742 was the capital not
only of France, but of the Western world. The thirty-year-old Rousseau was
then an obscure Genevan who had sought to escape the restrictive environ-
ment of his native city and his own troubled family through a series of
wanderings and unsuccessful and unsatisfying attempts at various jobs,
including working as an apprentice to an engraver, doing a stint as a valet,
being a music teacher, serving as a secretary in a land survey office, and
tutoring the children of a rich merchant in Lyons. As an exciting center of
intellectual and cultural activity, Paris was a magnet for young men like
Diderot and Rousseau, who came from the French provinces and even
beyond to test their mettle and seek fame.
By the time Rousseau decided to conquer the French capital, he had
already experienced many trials and torments as a youth left to his own
devices. As a semi-orphan (his mother died shortly after his birth) aban-
doned by an emotionally unstable father, he had had to face injustice and
indifference on the part of adults in charge of his care. Although he would
later become a harsh critic of city life, as a young man he saw the French
capital as the only place that could satisfy his dream of self-fulfillment.
In his early wanderings Rousseau had briefly visited Paris in 1732. His
first impressions of the city turned out to be deeply disappointing. In his
own mind and fertile imagination he had pictured it as a beautiful, orderly
Rousseau, Cultural Critic 259
city, even more imposing in its appearance than Turin, which had greatly
impressed him with its splendid urban architecture, broad streets and ave-
nues, and great mansions. What struck him upon his arrival in Paris was
the stark contrast between the rich and powerful and the poor and disen-
franchised. There was the Paris of elegant mansions, sophisticated salons,
and a refined, pleasure-loving society. Brilliant, witty conversation and
gallantry prevailed in the salons. On the other hand, ordinary people lived
in crowded, squalid tenements in narrow, unpaved streets and alleys. What
struck him, above all else, was the sordid poverty and filth in which they
were forced to live.
Rousseau, who wholly identified with the common people, never over-
came this initial negative impression:
As I entered through the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, I saw nothing but
dirty, stinking little streets, ugly black houses, a general air of squalor
and poverty, beggars, cart pushers, clothes menders, hawkers of herb-
drinks and of old hats. All this so affected me at the outset that all the real
magnificence I have since seen in Paris has not overcome this first
impression, and I have always retained a secret aversion for living in the
capital. I can state that all the time I subsequently resided there was em-
ployed toward seeking means that would enable me to live elsewhere.∞
The publication of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and Arts in
1751 determined the course of his whole life and career. The years spent in
Paris had only confirmed him in his belief that urban civilization was irre-
mediably corrupt and beyond redemption. His strictures against the French
capital may have had something to do with his own personal disappoint-
ments. He had arrived in Paris in the summer of 1742 with high hopes,
fifteen louis in his pocket, as well as his comedy Narcisse and a new scheme
for musical notation from which he expected fame and fortune. But nothing
came of these ambitious projects. Instead, he had to live in squalid lodgings
and resort to expedient means in order to survive. But this was also the time
he met and befriended Denis Diderot, a struggling young writer hailing
from Langres.
They were both of the same age, both were sons of artisans, both were
poor, both had been drawn to Paris for similar reasons, and both had a great
number of interests in common, such as a passion for knowledge, music,
chess, a rebellion against the establishment, and a need for recognition.
Diderot, however, had already begun to gain a reputation, to make friends
in the world of letters, and to establish himself with publishers as a transla-
tor of English works, notably his copiously annotated version of the English
260 Gita May
philosopher Shaftesbury’s Inquiry concerning Merit and Virtue. More im-
portantly, in 1746 he had been contracted as co-editor, with the mathemati-
cian Jean le Rond d’Alembert, to bring out a French translation of the
commercially successful Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia. This ambitious
enterprise rapidly turned into an original work eventually amounting to
seventeen folio volumes of text and an additional twelve of plates, and its
publication was a stormy one because of its official condemnation, both by
state and Church.
In early October of 1749 an event took place that propelled Rousseau
out of his obscurity. On July 24 of that year Diderot had been imprisoned in
the medieval fortress of Vincennes, a few miles east of Paris, for the pub-
lication of his Letter on the Blind, a work deemed dangerous to religion and
morals. When Diderot, who had been in solitary confinement for a month,
was granted the privilege of receiving visitors, Rousseau hastened to see
him. Because of lack of money, he had to make the journey on foot from
central Paris, a good six-mile walk each way.
The summer of 1749 had been unusually hot, and the heat wave con-
tinued well into autumn. Knowing that he would tend to rush impetuously
in order to see his imprisoned friend as soon as possible, Rousseau put in his
pocket a well-known literary periodical, the Mercure de France, so that he
would have something to read during the stops he would impose upon
himself on the way. Directing his steps eastward, he left behind him the city,
its imposing structures and teeming streets, and soon reached the more
countrified suburbs. As both the heat and fatigue overtook him, he sat down
underneath an oak tree and pulled out of his pocket the Mercure de France.
Perusing the periodical in order to force himself to take a much-needed rest
he came across the announcement of a 1750 literary prize essay contest
offered by the academy of Dijon, one of the many provincial academies
gracing the cultural landscape of Old Regime France.
The question proposed by the academy of Dijon was not a startling one,
for it invited contestants to participate in a longtime debate: ‘‘Has the Re-
vival of the Sciences and Arts Contributed to Improving Morality?’’ The
stakes were high, for the whole notion of progress was in question. The phi-
losophes, including Diderot himself, were passionately committed to the
idea that Enlightenment meant that advancement in both the sciences and
arts would also necessarily have a direct and positive impact on human
moral betterment.
As Rousseau sat beneath his oak tree, recovering from the heat and
fatigue, he pondered the question proposed by the academy of Dijon, and a
stunning, overpowering vision came to him: ‘‘The moment I read this I
Rousseau, Cultural Critic 261
beheld another universe and I became another man.’’≤ In his mind’s eye he
perceived a profound split between progress in the arts and sciences on the
one hand and the more problematic and complex question of ethics on the
other. This was a moment of extraordinary inspiration and insight in Rous-
seau’s intellectual and moral life. He intuitively sensed that his answer to
the academy of Dijon question would have to be a resounding NO to the
smug and arrogant belief that progress in the sciences and arts automat-
ically also meant progress in the realm of human morality. In a state of
feverish excitement he immediately scribbled in pencil the ideas that came
to him in a rush, and these would constitute the most eloquent section of the
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, the so-called Prosopopoeia to Fab-
ricius.≥ A Prosopopoeia is a rhetorical device consisting in addressing an
absent, dead, or imaginary figure, in this case, Fabricius, the Roman general
and statesman, reputed for his civic virtue:
O Fabricius! What would your noble soul have if, unhappily for you,
called back to life, you had seen the pompous visage of Rome, the city
saved by your valor and on which your name bestowed more glory than
all her conquests? ‘‘My Gods!’’ you would have said, ‘‘what has become
of the thatched roofs and rustic hearths where moderation and virtue
once dwelled? What fatal splendor has displaced Roman simplicity?
When Rousseau eloquently invoked the ghost of the civic-minded Fab-
ricius returning in order to contemplate sadly the fate of his city which by
now had become the capital of a dissolute, pleasure-seeking empire, he was
of course clearly referring to Paris. The French capital was, according to
Rousseau, the very embodiment of the fundamental weaknesses of contem-
porary society, notably its obsession with materialistic gains and gratifica-
tions and its moral cynicism. Even more importantly, Rousseau’s major
thesis was that the sciences and arts not only remained passively subser-
vient to the most oppressive forces in society but also actively contributed
to their perpetuation.
Rousseau was still in a state of great agitation ‘‘close to delirium’’ when
he reached the Vincennes prison. Diderot, for his part, had been deeply
affected by his imprisonment and solitary confinement, so contrary to his
own gregarious nature. He immediately noticed his friend’s state of excite-
ment. Rousseau responded by reading the Prosopopoeia to Fabricius he had
excitedly penciled under the oak tree. Diderot not only urged Rousseau to
vie for the prize, he also exhorted him to pursue this negative, controversial
view, for he perceived it as a provocative paradox that would give his friend
a better chance at winning the prize against the majority of the contestants,
262 Gita May
who would in all probability subscribe to the overly optimistic notion that
there is a necessary correlation between progress in the arts and sciences
and morality.∂
Little did Diderot fathom the intensity, depth, and sincerity of Rous-
seau’s negative response to the Academy of Dijon proposal, and its conse-
quences. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Sciences and Arts constituted far
more than a paradox, an intellectual or ideological game play in which
the philosophes liked to indulge. The eloquent and belligerently negative
stance he took in the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts represented an
existential posture, a deeply personal, moral lifetime commitment that
would soon alienate Rousseau from the philosophes, including his friend
Diderot. With his tendency at rhetorical hyperbole, in his Confessions
Rousseau ascribes to what he views as Diderot’s undue influence not only
much of the responsibility for the negative response to the Dijon Academy
proposal, but also indirectly for the many misfortunes that befell him after
what he melodramatically characterizes as ‘‘this moment of frenzy.’’ Yet, at
the same time, he proclaims that it was the extraordinary vision he experi-
enced under the oak tree that ultimately not only inspired him to write the
Prosopopoeia to Fabricius but also emotionally and morally sustained him
for the following several tumultuous years:
All my petty passions were stifled by an overwhelming enthusiasm for
truth, liberty, and virtue, and what is most astonishing is that this state of
excitement was sustained in my heart for more than four or five years as
intensely perhaps as has ever been entertained in the heart of any human
Rousseau’s writings on literature and the arts make clear that his aes-
thetics were inseparable from his ethical and political ideas. Although mu-
sic, fiction, poetry, and the theater are intimately intertwined in almost all
his work, for Rousseau the development of the arts, the progressive refine-
ment in manners, mores, and standards of beauty, and the impressive ad-
vances and achievements in architecture, theater, opera, literature, and
painting had not been matched by political, social, and moral progress and
only testified to an ever-widening rift between culture and morality.
Rousseau’s 1758 Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre has come to oc-
cupy an increasingly central place in his oeuvre. It is indeed of crucial
importance, for no other writing by him so intimately and consistently
interweaves his politics and his aesthetics, or so powerfully underscores the
problematic role the arts play in society. Allan Bloom, the translator of the
Rousseau, Cultural Critic 263
Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre and the Emile, who achieved controver-
sial celebrity with his book on The Closing of the American Mind, speaks of
it as an unjustly neglected work.∏
If Rousseau so sharply focused on the theater, it was not so much, as has
so frequently been stated, to protect the virtue of his Genevan compatriots
against the corrupting influence of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists as to
show how our instinctive sociability (the pleasure we derive from dealing
with our fellow human beings) becomes denatured in a corrupt society.
Neither does he seek to emulate Pascal in a wholesale denunciation of any
form of diversion. Far from it. Rather he seeks to transform the very notion
of theatricality in order to bring it into greater conformity with our natural
impulses as well as with his idea of a new political order.
The sophistication and codification of the French theater only demon-
strated its hopeless artificiality and irrelevance. Rousseau’s ferocious on-
slaught on the contemporary French theater, on its hallowed traditions and
repertoire, and on what he views as the dubious morality of the profession
of the actor and especially the actress, rests on the belief that it is irremedia-
bly artificial and outdated. The Lettre to d’Alembert on the Theatre con-
stitutes a passionate plea for a total renewal of public spectacles in favor of
a new kind of participatory theatricality involving all citizens in one way or
another: in informal balls where young people of marriageable age can
meet, in healthy outdoor activities such as athletic games and competitions,
or in patriotic events celebrating the great civic virtues that are the bedrock
of a true republic.π
Rousseau boldly challenged the commonly held and cherished notion
that great scientific and artistic accomplishments necessarily contribute to
the betterment of the human condition. This meant that he would have to
stand alone against the philosophes, and especially against his friend Di-
derot. One cannot but wonder why Diderot did not immediately recognize
the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts as a clear and flagrant repudiation of
everything the Encyclopédie stood for. Indeed he did everything in his
power to promote the success of the Discourse. Perhaps it was because he
was a loyal, generous, and steadfast friend eager to see Rousseau’s essay
win the prize, but perhaps also because he not only admired Rousseau’s
rhetorical virtuosity, but also subconsciously acknowledged that the darker,
more ominous message of the Discourse deserved to be taken seriously.
For Diderot had his own doubts about the role of culture in modern
society. His endorsement of Greuze’s overtly didactic compositions, his
harsh strictures against such contemporary practitioners of the slyly erotic
and titillating art of Boucher and Fragonard, and his creation of a new
264 Gita May
dramatic genre reflecting the concerns of middle-class people and their
family problems are proof that his preoccupations are not as far removed as
one would like to think from Rousseau’s stance. Furthermore, the lesson
that the cynical and ne’er-do-well Rameau’s Nephew proclaims he finds in
Molière’s plays is a compendium of ways in which to indulge one’s favorite
vices with impunity: ‘‘When I read The Miser, I say to myself, ‘Be as
miserly as you like, but don’t talk like the miser.’ When I read Tartuffe, I say
‘Be a hypocrite if you choose, but don’t talk like one. Keep any useful vices,
but don’t acquire the tone and air which would make you ridiculous.’ ’’∫ The
lesson is clear: In a society with a devalued morality every individual
becomes an actor—that is, one well-versed in the art of wearing a mask and
in the ruses of deception. Similarly, Diderot was as capable as Rousseau of
railing against the nefarious effect of superfluity and luxury on the moral
fiber of a society, as is evidenced in his Satire against Luxury in the Style
of Persius.Ω Like Rousseau, Diderot denounces the loss of all moral values
as a result of an economy based upon personal enrichment and general
In his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts Rousseau deliberately set out
to contrast the simple, frugal ways of Sparta with the high culture of Athens
as a strong warning that as a nation grows rich and powerful and as its
prosperity increases, it may come to give in to a fatal craving for luxury,
urbanity, and refined manners and pleasures. This narcissistic preoccupa-
tion with pleasure, politeness, elegance, and good taste will be fatally inimi-
cal to morality and to the survival of such basic, simple, and essential
virtues as truthfulness, sincerity, loyalty, courage, humanity, and love of
duty and of freedom. Furthermore, instead of contributing to the happiness
and well-being of people, the advancement of the sciences and arts has all
too often fostered unrealistic aspirations and ambitions, thereby creating
frustrated misfits: ‘‘How much better it would have been if all those who
could not go far in a career in letters had been turned away at the entrance
and steered toward arts useful to society. A person who will never be more
than a bad poet or a third-rate geometer might have become an excellent
cloth maker.’’
We like to believe that culture represents our highest and noblest as-
pirations. Rousseau, for his part, was convinced that its role is far more
problematic. All too often it serves as the complicitous handmaiden of
the establishment and contributes to the perpetuation of the status quo.
Despite their rhetorical hyperbole Rousseau’s stern admonitions are par-
ticularly relevant in our own self-indulgent, cynical postmodern age, for
they pointedly remind us that culture profoundly affects the fate of a nation
Rousseau, Cultural Critic 265
by either fostering or discouraging those virtues that are at the core of its
political survival.
n o t e s
1. Rousseau, Confessions, Book 4 in Oeuvres complètes de Rousseau
(Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléïade, Gallimard, 1964), I, 159 (my translation).
2. Rousseau, Confessions, Book 8, 351.
3. In his Confessions, Book 8, 351, Rousseau states that he wrote the
Prosopopoeia to Fabricius ‘‘in pencil under an oak tree.’’
4. Rousseau, Confessions, Book 8.
5. Rousseau, Confessions, Book 8.
6. Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre, tr. Allan Bloom (Glencoe,
Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1960), xviii.
7. Whether the grandiose Fêtes de la Révolution answered Rousseau’s
wish for popular, patriotic but generally simple and informal events is not
certain. Cf. Emmet Kennedy, A Cultural History of the French Revolution
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) and Mona Ozouf, Festivals and
the French Revolution, tr. Alain Sheridan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1988). Also cf. Gita May, ‘‘Rousseau’s Lettre à d’Alem-
bert sur les spectacles and Revolutionary Aesthetics,’’ Actes du Colloque
de Montréal sur Rousseau et la Révolution, ed. J. Roy (Ottawa: Association
nord-américaine des études sur Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1991), 199–207.
8. Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew and Other Works, tr. J. Barzun and R. H.
Bowen (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), 50.
9. Diderot, Salon de 1767, in Salons III; Ruines et paysages, ed. E. M.
Bukdahl, M. Delon, A. Lorenceau (Paris: Hermann, 1995), 549–57.
Rousseau on Society and the Individual
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the strangest, and one of the most intel-
ligent, men of the eighteenth century—of any century. He said himself that
he was a man of paradoxes, and several of his most important works begin,
famously, with paradoxes. The Social Contract:‘‘Man was born free and
everywhere he is in chains.’’ Emile: ‘‘Everything is good as it leaves the
hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.’’
And The Reveries of a Solitary Walker: ‘‘So now I am alone in the world,
with no brother, neighbor or friend, nor any company left me but my own.
The most sociable and loving of men has with one accord been cast out by
all the rest.’’ The third paradox concerns Jean-Jacques alone; the other two
concern the whole of humanity.
The paradox on which I wish to focus in this chapter is as follows: no
one has argued more strongly than Rousseau that human nature is funda-
mentally individualistic, yet no one has more clearly seen what humans
owe to society. According to him society is what makes us fully human and
society is what debases us below our natural state. Rousseau has a story to
tell which explains how all this came to be; it is a very complex story, so
complex that scholars continue to disagree about how to interpret it. Yet it
is a story which is still very much part of the self-understanding of the mod-
ern world. We have much to learn from it, not only about Rousseau, but
about ourselves, who are, more than we are aware, still under his influ-
ence. I want to tell that story briefly by examining the arguments of the
Second Discourse and The Social Contract, considering in passing the First
Discourse and several other of his writings. Then I want to test whether
these arguments are true, scientifically and morally. I hope only to lead
readers into conversation with Rousseau’s great texts themselves; I cannot
replace Rousseau’s answers nor foresee the answers that his future readers
will give.
Many have noted that Rousseau was born and raised a Protestant in Cal-
vin’s city, Geneva. His Deism distanced him from the Protestant and Catho-
lic churches alike, but his sympathies1 and perhaps the inner structure of his
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 267
thought had a Protestant cast. Charles Taylor has argued that Rousseau’s
contrast between that which is good from the hands of God and the evil men
have made of it brought an Augustinian, even a hyper-Augustinian, strand
into eighteenth-century thought,2 and we should remember that Augustine
was the church father who had the greatest influence on Protestantism.
Rousseau’s pessimism about human progress in history was surely one of
the reasons for his alienation from the literary and philosophical circles of
his day. Those thinkers who were determined to erase the infamy of Chris-
tian superstition were not happy to see its shadow reappearing in one of
their own.
It is commonly held that Rousseau, along with many eighteenth-century
thinkers, believed that human nature is basically good, that he rejected the
idea of original sin, and Rousseau himself said as much. But on closer
inspection Rousseau’s view of human nature is perhaps closer to that of
orthodox Christianity, especially Protestantism, than is usually recognized.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were not evil—they hadn’t sinned.
From the hand of God they were, like all of creation, good. It was their own
action, their own sin, that brought about the Fall and distorted all subse-
quent human nature, so in this sense sin is not original. Human nature for
Rousseau is good only in the state of nature, before the beginning of society.
It was the human creation of society, with all its attendant vices, that began
the fatal process of human distortion and degeneration. Further, just as
Christians can be saved from their sinful state through belief in Jesus Christ
and membership in the Church which is his body on earth, so human beings
for Rousseau may regain something like their natural freedom if they enter
the social contract and gain civil freedom, or if they as individuals attain
moral freedom. But these forms of salvation for Rousseau, in spite of his
Pelagianism, are more difficult to attain and rarer than those offered by
Christianity; his view of human history is marked by a more than Augustin-
ian gloom.3
There is one further parallel between Christian teaching and that of
Rousseau which will lead me into the central concern of this essay. Adam’s
fall was not viewed as wholly a disaster. Without it there would have been
no salvation history of the human race, no need for the redeemer, Jesus
Christ. The human condition in the Garden of Eden has been referred to as
‘‘dreaming innocence,’’ an existence so simplified as to be hardly human.
Viewing Paradise in this way, the fall has been seen as fortunate, a felix
culpa, for it is only through it that we became fully human, though in need
of salvation. For Rousseau man in the state of nature is solitary, without
language or culture, satisfied with meeting only his simplest biological
268 Robert N. Bellah
needs, in short, little different from non-human animals. But entering so-
ciety brings dramatic changes. In Chapter 8 of Book 1 of The Social Con-
tract, Rousseau puts it succinctly:
The transition from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very
remarkable change in man, by substituting in his behavior justice for
instinct, and by imbuing his actions with a moral quality they previously
lacked. Only when the voice of duty prevails over physical impulse, and
law prevails over appetite, does man, who until then was preoccupied
only with himself, understand that he must act according to other princi-
ples, and must consult his reason before listening to his inclinations.
Although, in this state, he gives up many advantages that he derives
from nature, he acquires equally great ones in return; his faculties are
used and developed; his ideas are expanded; his feelings are ennobled;
his entire soul is raised to such a degree that, if the abuses of this new
condition did not often degrade him below that from which he emerged,
he ought to bless continually the wonderful moment that released him
from it forever, and transformed him from a stupid, limited animal into
an intelligent being and a man.
A happy fall indeed.
Although he sometimes, as in the above quotation, describes the shift
from the state of nature to the civil state as occurring in a single jump, at
other times, especially in the Second Discourse, he describes the transition
as more gradual, with several intermediary stages. Jean Starobinski, a lead-
ing French specialist on Rousseau, has described these stages in some detail
and it is useful to follow his discussion in order to understand better the role
of society in Rousseau’s conception of social evolution.4 It is true that
Rousseau insisted that his views on the original state of nature ‘‘are not to be
taken as historical truths, but merely as hypothetical and conditional rea-
sonings.’’ Nonetheless, his account of the several stages of the transition
between the state of nature and the formation of civil society is circumstan-
tial, including references to existing peoples representing various stages,
and some of it could still be defended today as having a degree of historical
accuracy. In these respects Rousseau’s account is more than the ‘‘just so’’
story which the accounts of Hobbes and Locke, for example, so clearly are.
In the state of nature itself humans are solitary, without speech or cul-
ture, have only the briefest of contacts with each other, and do not even
know that they will die; they are, in effect, without self-consciousness.
Mating consists of only passing encounters, and even children, though
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 269
briefly suckled by their mother (Rousseau blithely informs us that children
among primitives grow up much more quickly than among us), ‘‘no sooner
gained strength to run about in quest of food than they separated even from
her.’’ Eventually mother and child came not even to recognize each other.
These utterly unsociable creatures are governed, says Rousseau, by two
principles prior to reason: ‘‘one of them interests us deeply in our own
preservation and welfare, the other inspires us with a natural aversion to
seeing any other being, but especially any being like ourselves, suffer or
perish.’’ The first principle, self-preservation, Rousseau shares with Hobbes
and Locke, but he does not draw a Hobbesian conclusion from it. Precisely
because humans are solitary, the quest for self-preservation involves no
necessary hostility toward others nor even any competition with them. The
second principle, quite absent in Hobbes but essential to Rousseau, he calls
pity, and defines as a sentiment, not a rule of reason. It is the feeling of pity
which will hinder ‘‘even a robust savage from plundering a feeble child, or
an infirm old man’’ unless in the direst need himself. And although pity
does not rise to the level of the golden rule, it results in a ‘‘maxim of natural
goodness a great deal less perfect, but perhaps more useful, Do good to
yourself with as little prejudice as you can to others’’ (Rousseau’s em-
phasis). We will have to consider below whether pity as Rousseau defines it,
is, after all, compatible with the radically non-social nature he is trying
to describe.
However hypothetical this starting point may be, the succeeding stages
begin to be empirically recognizable. But why should there be any succeed-
ing stages—why not an everlasting contentment with the ‘‘natural’’ state?
Rousseau gives two kinds of reasons, internal and external. Starting first
with the internal reasons, there are two things about human nature even
in its earliest stage which makes it different from that of other animals.
Whereas animals operate solely according to the laws of mechanics and are
strictly governed by instinct (here Rousseau follows Descartes), humans
have the ‘‘spiritual’’ capacity for ‘‘willing, or rather choosing,’’ and ‘‘the
consciousness of this power.’’ In other words humans are free; they have the
‘‘quality of a free agent.’’ But there is another quality equally if not more
important than freedom that distinguishes man from beast, perfectibility, ‘‘a
faculty which, as circumstances offer, successively unfolds all the other
faculties, and resides among us not only in the species, but in the individ-
uals that compose it.’’ Yet neither of these internal potentialities, freedom
and perfectibility, though they make possible developments not open to
other animals, necessitate such developments. It is, rather, the external
270 Robert N. Bellah
reasons, ‘‘accidents’’ Rousseau calls them, which pressure men to take the
first steps toward what will prove a fatal course:
After having showed that perfectibility, the social virtues, and the other
faculties, which natural man had received as potentialities, could never
be developed of themselves, that they needed the fortuitous concurrence
of several foreign causes, which might never arise, and without which he
must have eternally remained in his primitive condition, I must proceed
to consider and bring together the different accidents which may have
perfected the human understanding while debasing the species, and
made man wicked by making him sociable, and from so remote a time
bring man at last and the world to the point at which we now see them.
(Rousseau’s emphasis)
One of these accidents, perhaps the most important (and one often in-
voked today by scholars who think about social evolution) was population
increase. What was easy when men were few became more difficult when
they multiplied. It was need that motivated ingenuity, leading to the inven-
tion of hooks and lines, bows and arrows, and it was need that led men,
solitary by nature, to begin to associate, although the association was transi-
tory, lasting only as long as the need was felt. It was also need that instigated
the first use of language in the hitherto silent species. ‘‘The first language of
man,’’ said Rousseau, ‘‘was the cry of nature,’’ imploring ‘‘assistance in
great danger, or relief in great sufferings.’’5 These earliest forms of associa-
tion, based only on moments of temporary mutual need, as in a common
hunt, ‘‘scarcely required a more refined language than that of crows and
monkeys.’’ This is what Starobinski calls the first stage, ‘‘one in which
pressed by need [men] begin to associate themselves for a common effort:
occasional collaboration, where anarchic hordes without permanence are
Once technological advances began, they led to others at an increasing
rate resulting in a ‘‘first revolution,’’ from which emerged what Starobinski
calls the ‘‘patriarchal age.’’ This stage he identifies with life in the Paleo-
lithic, though it is the first of the stages to be represented by still living
peoples.7 Huts and villages were constructed, family life began, language
reached a degree of subtlety similar to our own, but private property was
still minimal, the land being used in common for hunting and gathering.
Rousseau’s description of this age is both idyllic and ominous:
They now began to assemble round a great tree: singing and dancing, the
genuine offspring of love and leisure, became the amusement or rather
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 271
the occupation of the men and women, free from care, thus gathered
together. Everyone began to notice the rest, and wished to be noticed
himself; and public esteem acquired a value. He who sang or danced
best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most dexterous, or the most
eloquent, came to be the most respected: this was the first step toward
inequality, and at the same time toward vice.
In this stage some differences between the strong and the weak, the
skilled and the less skilled, the beautiful and the less beautiful, began to
appear, and, though ideas of justice and morality began to emerge, retribu-
tion for wrongs was left to the action of those aggrieved, there being no law.
Nonetheless this was a happy state, what Starobinski calls a golden age.8
Rousseau describes it as follows:
[Though] natural compassion had already suffered some alteration, this
period of the development of human faculties, holding a just mean
between the indolence of the primitive state and the petulant activity of
egoism [amour propre], must have been the happiest and most durable
epoch. The more we reflect on this state, the more convinced we shall be,
that it was the least subject of any to revolutions, the best for man, and
that nothing could have drawn him out of it but some fatal accident,
which, for the common good, would never have happened. The example
of savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to
confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition
is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have
been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals,
but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species.
Before turning to the ‘‘great revolution’’ which would end this golden
age, the age Rousseau’s description of which has led people to attribute to
him the idea of the ‘‘noble savage,’’ a term he did not use, we must look
at another key but problematic distinction in his account, that between
‘‘amour de soi’’ and ‘‘amour propre.’’ Careful translators distinguish them
by translating the first as ‘‘love of self’’ and the second as ‘‘self-love.’’
Unfortunately Lester Crocker, whose translation of the Second Discourse is
used in this volume, is inconsistent in his translation of these terms, which
in normal French do indeed mean the same thing, so Rousseau’s distinction
cannot be followed in his translation. According to Rousseau’s analysis in
note O of the Second Discourse, the love of self (amour de soi) in the true
state of nature is a natural passion little different from the animal instinct of
self-preservation. In particular, it involves no comparisons with others, for
272 Robert N. Bellah
in his solitary state ‘‘man seldom consider[s] his fellows in any other light
than he would animals of another species.’’ This primitive love of self, then,
involves no consciousness of others as comparable to one’s self, and, con-
versely, no consciousness of self as comparable to others. It is selfish only in
an innocent sense, since it lacks any desire to elevate the self at the expense
of others. Self-love (amour-propre), on the other hand, is based fundamen-
tally on invidious comparisons with others and so gives rise to all the vices
of pride, envy, resentment, and spite. As we have seen, self-love is present
already in the golden age, but its consequences will grow steadily worse in
succeeding historical periods.
Turning then to the great revolution, let us consider how Rousseau de-
scribes it and to what causes he attributes it:
[F]rom the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess
enough provisions for two, equality vanished; property was introduced;
labor became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields,
which had to be watered with human sweat, and in which slavery and
misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the harvests.
Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts whose invention pro-
duced this great revolution. . . [I]t is iron and corn, which have civilized
men, and ruined mankind.
Starobinski identifies this change with the Neolithic revolution as cur-
rently understood, although we know that agriculture considerably pre-
dated metallurgy, particularly the iron metallurgy that Rousseau had in
mind. Nonetheless, Rousseau, who began the Second Part of the Second
Discourse by finding the first man who enclosed a piece of ground to be the
cause of crimes, wars, murders, misfortunes, and horrors, was probably
right in seeing agriculture as the origin of private property in land and the
exploitation of agricultural surplus (Starobinski notes that though he does
not use the terms Rousseau accurately describes the transition from a sub-
sistence economy to a production economy)9 as the most fundamental
cause of human inequality. Such an insight was not new: ‘‘Subjection enters
the house with the plough’’ is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muham-
mad.10 And recent scholars have shown that agrarian societies had greater
inequality than any other societies before or since.11
The problem that soon arose under the new agricultural regime was that
even those who prospered and who had extensive property could claim no
right to it, for the very idea of law and right did not yet exist. Even though
one had, as Locke had argued, a just claim to the soil to which one had
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 273
added one’s labor, there was no reason for others to respect such a claim.
Thus, says Rousseau:
There arose between the title of the strongest and that of the first oc-
cupier a perpetual conflict, which always ended in battle and bloodshed.
The new state of society became the most horrible state of war.
At this point Rousseau, though rejecting the Hobbesian view of human
nature and the original condition of men, comes to agree with Hobbes that a
war of all against all indeed lies in the human past (and always potentially
in the present as well). Even in the golden age of hunters and gatherers
there had been a difference between the strong and the weak and the begin-
ning of invidious self-love (amour-propre), but the new situation gave
rise to the distinction between rich and poor and invidious self-love grew
In this situation of calamity, according to Rousseau, ‘‘[t]he rich in par-
ticular must have soon perceived how much they suffered by a perpetual
war, of which they alone supported all the expense, and in which, though all
risked life, they alone risked any property.’’ For Rousseau, the claim to
legitimacy of ownership by the rich, even when based on the right of first
possession, was without foundation as long as many who had no property
‘‘suffered grievously for want of what [the rich] had too much of.’’ Without
justification for his wealth or forces sufficient to defend himself against all
comers ‘‘the rich man . . . at last conceived the deepest project that ever
entered the human mind: this was to employ in his favor the very forces that
attacked him, to make allies of his enemies, to inspire them with other
maxims, and make them adopt other institutions as favorable to his preten-
sions, as the law of nature was unfavorable to them.’’ Thus was born the
social contract and the civil society based on it. In the words of the rich,
Rousseau defines the essence of the new order: ‘‘[I]nstead of turning our
forces against ourselves, let us collect them into a sovereign power, which
may govern us by wise laws, may protect and defend all the members of the
association, repel common enemies, and maintain a perpetual concord and
harmony among us.’’ Thus emerged the first state.
For Rousseau, it is clear that the new order, establishing justice and right
in name but not in fact, was a trick the rich played on the poor:
Such was, or must have been the origin of society and of law, which gave
new fetters to the weak and new power to the rich; irretrievably de-
stroyed natural liberty, fixed for ever the laws of property and inequality;
274 Robert N. Bellah
changed an artful usurpation into an irrevocable right; and for the benefit
of a few ambitious individuals, subjected the rest of mankind to per-
petual labor, servitude and misery.
It is not necessary to follow the argument in the remaining pages of the
Second Discourse, describing as they do in depressing detail how civil
society degenerates gradually into sheer tyranny and the relation between
rich and poor turns into the relation between master and slave. Given that
the social contract guarantees life and property, however unequally, it might
appear that Rousseau is describing a Hobbesian contract between ruler and
subject in which the latter gives up his freedom in exchange for his life. But
such is not the case. Rousseau refutes the idea that the social contract is
based on acquiescence to the rule of the stronger. However deluded the
poor and the weak are when they are persuaded to enter the social contract,
they do so believing that what they give up in the way of freedom of action
will be returned to them by the rule of law, to which all, rich and poor, ruler
and ruled, are to be subject. There is even the first appearance of the idea of
the general will that will be central to the argument of The Social Contract:
‘‘The multitude having, in regard to their social relations, concentrated, all
their wills in one, all the articles, in regard to which this will expresses
itself, become so many fundamental laws, which oblige without exception
all the members of the State’’ (my emphasis). Here Rousseau touches on the
matter of right, which will be central in the later book, as opposed to fact
which largely occupies him here.
Before turning to The Social Contract, which in comparison to the
historical narrative, however hypothetical, of the Second Discourse, would
seem to be an abstract, logical, even mathematical argument, we might
assess briefly the empirical validity of the story so far. As I have implied,
the story of the transition from the hunting and gathering societies of the
Paleolithic, to the agricultural societies of the Neolithic, to the formation of
the early state, though not reliable in detail, is not radically different from
the story we would tell today. Rousseau’s account of social evolution was
the first of many, and not the least accurate, that have been told subse-
quently. But what of Rousseau’s starting point, the original state of nature,
on which he staked so much?
Why Rousseau believed that man in the state of nature was solitary is not
easy to answer. One can point to his own life: he lost his mother shortly
after his birth and his father left him at the age of ten. Subsequently his
movements were frequent and his attachments few and mostly fleeting. One
can perhaps see a source in his Protestant background where the individual
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 275
is seen as ultimately alone in the presence of God. Most obviously, in the
tradition of modern political philosophy by which he was greatly influenced
even when he argued against it, man was seen as originally solitary: in
Hobbes’s famous phrase human life in the ‘‘naturall condition of mankind’’
was ‘‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.’’12
Whatever the sources of Rousseau’s idea, the empirical basis for it,
unlike that for much of his subsequent account, is entirely lacking. Not only
are the chimpanzees, with whom we are most closely related, and with
whom we share a common ancestor four or five million years ago, as well as
the other great apes, social, but so are all the primates, whose origin is at
least forty million years ago. That is a long way back to go to find a solitary
ancestor and such an ancestor would hardly qualify as a man, even in
Rousseau’s stripped down version of the state of nature. As far as the genus
Homo is concerned, of which we have evidence for several million years,
again everything points to the fact that all the species of the genus were
social. Of course Rousseau did not have the advantage of paleontology to
help him reconstruct the early history of man, but there is a glaring error in
his argument where he seems almost willfully to overlook an obvious fact.
This mistake is his attempt to minimize the length of time it takes for a child
to become independent. The long dependency of human childhood not only
necessitates the continuing relation of mother and child, but some degree of
cross gender cooperation in its care and feeding. Some recognition of kin-
ship and local group relations appears to have existed among all humans
and among most of our close primate relatives.
Finally, one must doubt whether the solitary animals that Rousseau
describes could have had the sentiment of pity that he attributes to them.
Pity as he describes it, a concern for the sufferings of others, would seem to
imply just the degree of identification with another that Rousseau wants to
deny was yet possible. For putting oneself in the place of the other entails
just that capacity to see oneself as the other sees one, which would also
generate the comparative self-consciousness that Rousseau called self-love
(amour-propre). Only a social animal can have pity of the sort Rousseau
describes and the other side of the generous love of another which he calls
pity is always the possibility of the self-consciousness that is a form of
It is, then, safe to say that human beings are social by nature and that
society is not an artificial creation at a late stage of social evolution. What
difference does this make to how we think about Rousseau’s ideas? We will
have to return to this subject later, but we can say that the extreme ten-
sion that Rousseau finds between the human desire for liberty and the
276 Robert N. Bellah
obligations that any kind of society requires may be less ‘‘natural’’ than he
assumes. The understanding of human beings as social by nature would
seem to mitigate the pessimism of his account, though it would still require
us to explain tensions between individual and society where they actually
exist. But when Rousseau says that ‘‘[t]he subjecting of man to law is a
problem in politics which I liken to that of the squaring of the circle in
geometry,’’14 he assumes a creature more recalcitrant to the demands of
society than humans in fact are.
Nonetheless, to the extent that Rousseau believed that human beings are
deeply asocial, the theoretical problem of how society is possible is acute,
and in The Social Contract required all his genius to explain. Here he does
not entirely ignore the historical conditions leading up to the social contract
as explained in the Second Discourse, but he concentrates on what could
possibly make it legitimate in the eyes of intransigently individualistic
humans. He states the ‘‘fundamental problem’’ of which the social contract
is the solution as follows:
To find a form of association that may defend and protect with the whole
force of the community the person and property of every associate, and
by means of which each, joining together with all, may nevertheless
obey only himself, and remain as free as before. (Book 1 , ch. 6)
He spells out the solution as follows:
[The contract to form such an association implies] the total alienation to
the whole community of each associate with all his rights; for, in the first
place, since each gives himself up entirely, the situation is equal for all;
and, the conditions being equal for all, no one has any interest in making
them burdensome to others. . .
In short, each giving himself to all, gives himself to no one; and since
there is no associate over whom we do not acquire the same rights which
we concede to him over ourselves, we gain the equivalent of all that we
lose, and more power to preserve what we have.
If, then, we set aside whatever does not belong to the essence of the
social contract, we shall find that we can reduce it to the following terms:
‘‘Each of us puts in common his person and all his power under the
supreme direction of the general will; and in return each member be-
comes an indivisible part of the whole.’’ (Book 1, ch. 6)
Here we have a series of assertions that must seem bewildering, espe-
cially to Americans. On the one hand there is an intense desire to maintain
one’s liberty, even ‘‘to remain as free as before,’’ that is, in the totally
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 277
asocial state of nature. On the other hand there seems to be an extreme
abdication of just that freedom, in that one alienates one’s self, one’s prop-
erty, and all one’s rights to the community. In part Rousseau seems to be
getting ahead of himself here, for it can be only hypothetical rights that are
being alienated. In the state of nature there are no rights; rights derive
exclusively from the social contract. Even though Rousseau reassures us
quickly that we will get everything back, we aren’t so sure. Especially
important for him, by giving ourselves to all, we give ourselves to nobody.
Living in a still quasi-feudal society where personal dependence on others
was everywhere (including in his own life), Rousseau believed dependence
on the community to be far preferable. But personal dependence is not so
central an issue for us. What about ‘‘total alienation to the whole commu-
nity’’? For freedom-loving Americans that is hard to take. From being a
radical individualist, Rousseau seems to have turned into a radical commu-
nitarian in the strong sense that makes Americans nervous.
If we are nervous already then we will be really upset by Rousseau’s
next move: ‘‘So that the social pact not be a pointless device, it tac-
itly includes this engagement, which can alone give force to the others—
that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to
do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall
be forced to be free.’’ (Book 1, ch. 7, my emphasis. Consult the whole
We have noted Rousseau’s penchant for paradox. We should remember
that a paradox is not a contradiction. Something important may be going on
in this strange expression, ‘‘forced to be free.’’ Some critics have found that
something indeed important is going on: the invention of totalitarianism,
the state forcing the individual to be ‘‘free’’ in some preordained way that is
in fact the total violation of freedom. Given the whole context of Rous-
seau’s work and the argument of The Social Contract, the idea of a total-
itarian Rousseau is hard to understand except as the result of the overheated
sensitivities about totalitarianism in the mid-twentieth century. At one level
all he is saying is that it is law that makes us free (for in the state of nature
there is no law and, once we are no longer isolated, no freedom) and that
law is only law when it is enforced. We will be forced to be law-abiding, for
only thus can we be free. But he is probably saying more than that.
What more is going on begins to be apparent in the opening paragraph of
Book 2:
The first and most important consequence of the principles established
above is that the general will alone can direct the forces of the State
278 Robert N. Bellah
according to the object of its founding, which is the common good; for if
the opposition of private interests has rendered necessary the establish-
ment of societies, it is the concord of these same interests that has
rendered it possible. That which is common to these different interests
forms the social bond; and unless there were some point in which all in-
terests agree, no society could exist. Now, it is solely with regard to this
common interest that the society should be governed. (Book 2, ch. 1)
Although we Americans are familiar with the phrase ‘‘common good,’’
we have difficulty understanding it as meaning anything other than the
sum of private goods. But that is just what Rousseau says the common good
is not:
There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the
general will; the latter regards only the common interest, while the
former has regard to private interests, and is merely a sum of particular
wills. (Book 2, ch. 3)
The distinction between the will of all and the general will is critical.15 It
is one of the most important distinctions between Rousseau’s position,
which we might characterize as civic republicanism, and that of Locke,
which we might characterize as classical liberalism. The liberal view is
expressed by Mandeville in the idea that the pursuit of private vice will
result in public good, or Adam Smith’s notion of the ‘‘invisible hand’’ of the
market which guarantees that the individual pursuit of self-interest will
result in an increase in wealth in the society as a whole. The Lockean strand
in the Anglo-American tradition is so powerful that we suspect Rousseau of
a totalitarian willingness to sacrifice the individual good to the common
good if he means by the latter anything other than the sum of private goods.
The difference between the liberal and the civic republican positions is
sometimes expressed by a contrast between negative liberty and positive
liberty. Negative liberty protects individuals from the abrogation of their
rights by the state. Positive liberty requires the active participation of cit-
izens in their own government. Pushed to the extreme, the emphasis on
positive liberty can be seen as totalitarian: individuals are ‘‘forced to be
free.’’ But Rousseau’s position does not fit easily into this dichotomy, for he
is as adamant as any liberal in defense of the rights of individuals, that is, of
negative liberty. He holds that the idea that ‘‘government is allowed to
sacrifice an innocent man for the safety of the multitude’’ is ‘‘one of the
most execrable that tyranny ever invented.’’ In fact ‘‘if a single citizen
perished who could have been saved; if a single one were wrongly held in
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 279
prison; and if a single suit were lost due to evident injustice’’ then ‘‘the civil
state is dissolved.’’16 Even the ACLU could hardly go further than that. So
Rousseau’s insistence that the general will is not the same as the will of all
has nothing to do with any willingness to trample on individual rights.
Perhaps we can begin to understand the elusive idea of the general will if
we ask ourselves what we mean when we use the term so common in con-
temporary political discourse, ‘‘special interests.’’ We mean that some indi-
viduals or groups—very rich persons, corporations, labor unions, etc.—
are putting their own interests ahead of the general interest. But again what
is the general interest? Do we really mean, as the cynics would say, that we
object to the special interests of others and would prefer that our own
special interests be honored instead? That would hardly seem to capture the
passion that the denunciation of special interests arouses in the citizenry.
But can we imagine that the general interest is merely the additive sum of
everyone’s special interest? Could it be, for example, that if every one of us
preferred to ride in our own individual automobile and spend no tax money
on public transportation that would be in the general interest? James Stock-
inger, one of the wisest commentators on Rousseau that I know, puts it well
when he writes:
The central theoretical point is that the general will is the result of an
ongoing disposition on the part of each citizen or member of a commu-
nity to ask himself or herself ‘‘What is best for all of us?,’’ rather than the
Lockean question, ‘‘What’s in it for me?’’17
If Rousseau believed, as he did, that the civil state is dissolved if a single
individual is unjustly treated, he also believed that if the citizens never
think of the general interest, what is best for all of us, but only of what’s in it
for me, then there too the civil state is dissolved. And, since the civil state is
the only protector of our liberty once society has developed, without it we
are subject to sheer tyranny. Thus, finally to return to the meaning of the
paradox ‘‘forced to be free,’’ if it doesn’t mean the violation of our individ-
ual rights, as it clearly doesn’t, it does mean that if we want to retain our
freedom we will have to think of the common good, for if we don’t, then our
freedom will be lost. That is a theme which is central to the entire political
thought of Alexis de Tocqueville.
While it is important to get clear on what Rousseau means by the social
contract and the general will on which it is based, we must still ask where
this rather abstract idea fits into his understanding of the social history of
mankind. In one sense it is a purely theoretical construction which can be
used as a measure by which to judge all past and present societies. Since
280 Robert N. Bellah
Rousseau’s description of the social contract as a measure is sternly uncom-
promising, it is evident that virtually all existing societies are illegitimate
and that what we have instead of a civil state is a more or less disguised
return to the state of nature in which the rich and strong tyrannize over the
poor and weak. That is pretty much what Rousseau did think. Although he
was very moderate in his advice as to practical political action, his ideas
were indeed revolutionary and would have revolutionary consequences.
Even so, Rousseau’s idea of the social contract in its pure form was not
entirely a theoretical construct. He thought it had actually existed in human
history and he described the conditions that made it possible. His usual
examples were Sparta (which seems to have been his type-case), republican
Rome, and (in theory if not in fact) his home city of Geneva. It is obvious
that these are all city states, and he makes it clear that a republic based on a
genuine social contract could not exist in any other kind of society. He often
contrasted the relatively small and rigorous republican cities with the great
luxurious cities that were capitals of empires: Sparta with Athens, republi-
can Rome with imperial Rome, Geneva with Paris. In every case the civil
freedom of the republic was lost in the inevitable tyranny befitting an
imperial city.18
But although size is critical, it is not the only precondition of a true re-
public. The single most important precondition is the quality of the people:
As an architect, before erecting a large edifice, examines and tests the
soil in order to see whether it can support the weight, so a wise lawgiver
does not begin by drawing up laws that are good in themselves, but
considers first whether the people for whom he designs them are fit to
maintain them. (Book 2, ch. 8)
The quality of the people is indicated by their mores,19 that is, their
manners and morals, their customs. For Rousseau, as for Tocqueville after
him (there were classical precedents as well), the mores are more important
than the laws, for without suitable mores the laws will not function. So what
kind of mores are requisite for a true republic? On this issue Rousseau is
both specific and narrow. The proper mores will exist only among a people
at a late stage of patriarchal society, his golden age. For him it is essential
that the society be young. ‘‘The majority of nations, as well as of men, are
tractable only in their youth; they become incorrigible as they grow old’’
(Book 2, ch. 8). As he explains in detail in the First Discourse, old societies,
that is, ones advanced in the arts and sciences and in the luxury that attends
them, will be so permeated by vicious mores that they will never endure the
rigors of a true republic; they are incapable of freedom. What is critical
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 281
about youth, whether in an individual or in a society, is the capacity to
become virtuous, something that Rousseau does not discuss extensively in
our texts but which he does discuss at length in Emile.20 On occasion, civil
wars and revolutions can allow a people to regain the vigor of youth. ‘‘Such
was Sparta in the time of Lycurgus, such was Rome after the Tarquins, and
such among us moderns were Holland and Switzerland after the expulsion
of their tyrants.’’ But once the opportunity is past, it cannot be regained:
‘‘Liberty may be acquired but never recovered.’’ (Book 2, ch. 8).
But even the healthy mores that go with youth or youth regained are not
enough. There is another factor, rare, indispensable: the presence of a legis-
lator. The reader should peruse chapter 7 of Book 2 of The Social Contract,
entitled ‘‘The Legislator,’’ although that is only one of the places where
Rousseau discusses the issue. Here it is enough to say that the legislator
must be an extraordinary person, perhaps even someone we could call
charismatic, personally disinterested and concerned only with the good of
the new state. And we should remember that even the best of legislators
would be helpless unless the people for whom he is legislating has mores
that can be molded into good laws. The necessary coincidence of such an
extraordinary leader and a society at just the right stage of development
would appear to be so rare as scarcely to exist. That is what Rousseau
believed; he was no optimist.
But there is one more qualification that brings us to an issue we have not
directly discussed so far in this chapter: religion. Even the wisest and most
charismatic of legislators will not convince a people by reason alone. Only
the sanction of the gods will make the new republic possible: ‘‘The legisla-
tor puts into the mouths of the immortals that sublime reason which soars
beyond the reach of common men, in order that he may win over by divine
authority those whom human prudence could not move’’ (Book 2, ch. 7). In
a footnote to this passage Rousseau cites Machiavelli, but he could also
have cited Spinoza. For all of them the primary model of the legislator is
Moses who was able to impose his God-given laws on a people such that it
has survived for millennia. The achievement of most legislators has been
more transient. Among Rousseau’s prime examples, as we would suspect,
were Lycurgus, for Sparta, Numa, for Rome, and, interestingly enough,
Calvin, for Geneva.21
But it is not only at the inception of a new republic that the gods must be
invoked: a civil society requires a civil religion. The chapter ‘‘On Civil
Religion’’ near the end of The Social Contract has been considered horrify-
ing by some and we will have to consider why. The content of Rousseau’s
civil religion is far from horrifying. It would seem to be moderation itself:
282 Robert N. Bellah
The dogmas of the civil religion ought to be simple, few in number,
stated with precision, and without explanation or commentaries. The
existence of the Deity, powerful, wise, beneficent, prescient, and bounti-
ful, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the
wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and of the laws; these are the
positive dogmas. As for the negative dogmas, I limit them to one only,
that is, intolerance. (Book 4, ch. 8)
Not only are the positive dogmas of the civil religion few and so general
that all the existing religions, at least those of Rousseau’s day, could affirm
them, but Rousseau explicitly stated that citizens could hold whatever other
religious beliefs they chose without the knowledge or interference of the
state, so long as they did not violate these few. The founders of the Ameri-
can republic, being good deists, that is more or less on the same page as
Rousseau in their religious beliefs, were fairly explicit in thinking that just
this set of beliefs was essential if the new republic was to survive. That is
why I took from Rousseau the term ‘‘civil religion’’ in my 1967 essay
‘‘Civil Religion in America.’’22
So what is so horrifying? It is the following illiberal conclusion:
Without having power to compel any one to believe [these dogmas], the
sovereign may banish from the state whoever does not believe them; it
may banish him not as impious, but as unsociable, as incapable of sin-
cerely loving law and justice and of sacrificing, if need be, his life to his
duty. But if any one, after publicly acknowledging these dogmas, be-
haves like an unbeliever in them, he should be punished with death; he
has committed the greatest of crimes, he has lied before the laws.23
(Book 4, ch. 8)
Rousseau would enforce tolerance by being intolerant of intolerance.
That is shocking to us today as we have learned that to tolerate intolerance
is the price of our liberty. But the societies of Rousseau’s day had not
learned the first lesson of tolerance. He was himself the victim of intoler-
ance—it was for his views of religion that he was persecuted, and both in
Catholic France and in Protestant Switzerland. Even in America, where the
founders of our republic believed that the dogmas of Rousseau’s civil reli-
gion were a prerequisite for a free society, but without Rousseau’s draco-
nian provisions for enforcing them, tolerance of deviant religious views
was limited, if not in law, then in public opinion. Thomas Paine discovered
how unpopular a self-proclaimed atheist could be on these shores, in spite
of his many services to the republic.
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 283
It is important to remember that the idea that shared religious belief is a
prerequisite for social coherence long predated Rousseau and has survived
long after him, though in various forms. Tocqueville said of religion in
America that it was ‘‘the first of their political institutions.’’ For Durkheim
religion was the expression of social solidarity. It would take us too far
afield to explore the ramifications of this idea, which at face value would
seem to be in complete contradiction to our American belief in the separa-
tion of church and state and the idea that religion is essentially private. To
understand why Rousseau held a belief that seems so alien to us, we must
see that he, along with many others, doubted whether religion and morality,
and morality and politics, can really be separated. If republican politics
depend on republican mores, and if republican mores depend on republican
religion, then republican politics depend on republican religion. It is for this
reason that Tocqueville, speaking of the Americans, said ‘‘they have a
democratic and a republican religion,’’ and he included American Catholics
as well as Protestants.
Remember that Rousseau had no interest in enforcing religious beliefs
and practices as such. In the passage outlining his draconian enforcement
he says he would banish unbelievers ‘‘not as impious, but as unsociable, as
incapable of sincerely loving law and justice.’’ In short, Rousseau, and in
this view the founders of the American republic resembled him, was trying
to balance two potentially contradictory intentions: they felt that they
needed to found society in religious belief, but they wanted that belief to be
minimal and tolerant. Neither Rousseau’s minimalist civil religion nor that
of the American founders seems vigorous enough to sustain the task as-
signed them. Rousseau apparently sensed that, for he relied on more than
deist dogmas to create the solidarity necessary in his true republic.
In several places he speaks of the civic celebrations that are essential to
the life of a republic, but nowhere more clearly than in his Letter to M.
d’Alembert on the Theatre. He contrasts the passivity of the audience in a
darkened theater, seduced by unseemly and privatized emotions,24 with the
open air celebrations of republican peoples. In particular he describes the
festivals of the Genevans which he knew from his own experience:
[O]ne must have been there with the Genevans to understand with what
ardor they devote themselves to [the festivities]. They are unrecogniz-
able; they are no longer that steady people which never deviates from its
economic rules; they are no longer those slow reasoners who weigh
everything, including joking, in the scale of judgment. The people are
lively, gay, and tender; their hearts are then in their eyes as they are
284 Robert N. Bellah
always on their lips; they seek to communicate their joy and their plea-
sures. They invite, they importune, and coerce the new arrivals and
dispute over them. All the societies constitute but one, all become com-
mon to all. It is a matter of indifference at which table one sits.25
Here it is as if the general will becomes visible; that which people share
overcomes that which separates them. It is hard not to see in Rousseau’s
description a precursor of Durkheim’s idea of ‘‘collective effervescence,’’
the ritual occasions in which society becomes visible to itself as he put it in
Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
One must remember, too, that the late eighteenth century saw a critical
moment in the development of modern nationalism. Rousseau was not
without a role in that development. The content of civic festivities is patrio-
tism. He describes what followed a joyous dance of his father’s military
company after the completion of their exercises:
The dance was suspended, now there were only embraces, laughs,
healths, and caresses. There resulted from all this a general emotion that
I could not describe but which, in universal gaiety, is quite naturally felt
in the midst of all that is dear to us. My father, embracing me, was seized
with trembling which I think I still feel and share. ‘‘Jean-Jacques,’’ he
said to me, ‘‘love your country. Do you see these good Genevans? They
are all friends, they are all brothers; joy and concord reign in their midst.
You are a Genevan.’’26
Rousseau put on the title page of The Social Contract and certain of his
other works, ‘‘J. J. Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva.’’ Perhaps it was the Ge-
neva of his dreams of which he was a citizen, for he never lived there again
after running away at the age of fifteen. And Emile and The Social Contract
were publicly burned by the Genevan authorities shortly after their publica-
tion. Today the great Pléïade edition of the complete works of Rousseau is
underwritten in part by the City of Geneva, at last proud of one of its most
illustrious sons. But the paradox of the solitary walker as citizen of Geneva
remains one of the most poignant in a life of paradox.
Perhaps we can say that Rousseau avoided nothing, that he lived in his
person the conflicts of emerging modernity. He experienced great joy and
great suffering, but he did not share in any triumphant confidence about
human progress. If the conflict between the individual and society is less
deeply embedded in human nature than he thought, it is nonetheless one of
the great tensions of modernity. No one saw more clearly than he, in spite of
his deep devotion to individual freedom, that the new self-assertion of the
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 285
individual in the modern age27 was fraught with danger. To continue the
passage with which I began this chapter:
What man loses because of the social contract is his natural liberty and an
unlimited right to anything that tempts him and that he can attain; what he
gains is civil liberty and property in all that he possesses. So not to
misunderstand these gains, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty,
which is limited only by the powers of the individual, from civil liberty,
which is limited by the general will; and we must distinguish possession,
which is nothing but the result of force or the right of first occupancy,
from property, which can be based only on a lawful title.
We might also add to the advantages of the civil state moral freedom,
which alone enables man to be truly master of himself; for the impulse
of mere appetite is slavery, while obedience to a self-prescribed law is
freedom. (Book 1, ch. 8)
For those who believe that all we need to understand about society is that
it is composed of competing individuals, each with his consumer prefer-
ences, Rousseau’s insistence on the tension between individual and society
becomes invisible, because, as Margaret Thatcher put it, ‘‘society does not
exist.’’ But if the will of all replaces the general will, Rousseau would argue,
any hope of civil freedom will evaporate and the ‘‘soft despotism’’ that
Tocqueville, in this respect his disciple, predicted, will be upon us. It is
hard to overestimate Rousseau’s deep and continuing influence. Kant,
Hegel, Tocqueville, Durkheim, and a host of others owe him vital elements
in their thought. Yet for Americans today and for people all over the world
who are influenced by American culture, he is a difficult thinker. Rebellious
against authority, yet enraptured by Genevan festivities, Rousseau reminds
us that society is both the problem and the answer. We will forget him only
at our peril.
n o t e s
1. ‘‘Experience teaches that of all the Christian sects, Protestantism, as
the wisest and gentlest, is also the most peaceful and social. It is the only
one in which the laws can maintain their dominion and the leaders their
authority.’’ J.-J. Rousseau, The Geneva Manuscript, in On the Social Con-
tract, ed. Roger D. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 201.
2. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1989), 356.
3. In spite of his gloomy view of human progress, Rousseau remained
286 Robert N. Bellah
personally happy, or so he claimed in his last work, The Reveries of the
Solitary Walker, trans. Charles E. Butterworth (New York: Harper and Row,
4. Jean Starobinski, ‘‘Introduction’’ to Discours sur l’Origine et les fon-
dements de l’inégalité, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oeuvres Complètes
(Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléïade, 1964), Vol. 3, xlii–lxxi.
5. In Essay on the Origin of Languages Rousseau writes that among
men in Northern climes ‘‘[t]he first words among them were not love me
[aimez-moi] but help me [aidez-moi].’’ See Jean-Jacques Rousseau and
Johann Gottfried Herder, On the Origin of Language, trans. John H. Moran
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 47.
6. Starobinski, ‘‘Introduction,’’ lxii.
7. Starobinski, ‘‘Introduction,’’ lxii.
8. Starobinski, ‘‘Introduction,’’ lxii.
9. Starobinski, ‘‘Introduction,’’ lxiii.
10. Cited by Ernest Gellner in Plough, Sword and Book (Chicago: Uni-
versity of Chicago Press, 1988), 10.
11. Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege; a Theory of Social Stratifica-
tion (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
12. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [1651], Pt. I, ch. 13.
13. I don’t want to say that ‘‘pity’’ or what today we might more likely
call ‘‘empathy’’ necessarily implies invidious comparison, only that the
possibility is always present. Indeed ‘‘pity’’ has been criticized as a way of
‘‘looking down’’ on another: ‘‘Oh you poor thing, you’re so much worse off
than I am.’’
14. Considerations on the government of Poland, in Jean-Jacques Rous-
seau, Political Writings, translated and edited by Frederick Watson (Madi-
son, University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 161–162.
15. Rousseau’s distinction between the general will and the will of all is
expressed by Durkheim in his frequently reiterated assertion that society is
more than the sum of its parts. Indeed the strongly objective meaning of
society in Durkheim owes more than a little to Rousseau. See ‘‘Rousseau’s
Social Contract’’ in Emile Durkheim, Montesquieu and Rousseau: Fore-
runners of Sociology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960.) On
Durkheim’s view of society see Robert N. Bellah, Introduction to Emile
Durkheim on Morality and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
16. In Discourse on Political Economy in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On
the Social Contract, ed. Roger D. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
1978), 220.
Rousseau on Society and the Individual 287
17. James Stockinger, ‘‘Locke and Rousseau: Human Nature, Human
Citizenship, and Human Work,’’ unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Depart-
ment of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, 1990, 226.
18. Rousseau was not immune to empirical evidence. He had held that
Sparta, unlike Athens, had no theater until a scholar pointed out to him that
the ruins of a theater had been discovered there. (See J.-J. Rousseau, Poli-
tics and the Arts: Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre, trans. Allan
Bloom (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960), 152, note 64. Rousseau accepted
the correction. One would wonder what he would say to the fact that de-
mocracy survived far longer in Athens than in any Greek city. Perhaps he
would say it was not real democracy.
19. French moeurs. Allan Bloom hesitates to translate this term by
‘‘mores,’’ its Latin root, but prefers the rather awkward ‘‘morals [man-
ners].’’ (See Letter to d’Alembert, 149, note 3.) Mores, however, has be-
come standard in translations of the same French word in Tocqueville and is
a familiar term in social science.
20. Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, Allan Bloom tr.
(New York: Basic Books, 1979).
21. He writes, ‘‘Those who consider Calvin only as a theologian are but
little acquainted with the extent of his genius.’’ (The Social Contract, Book
2, ch. 8)
22. Robert N. Bellah, ‘‘Civil Religion in America,’’ Daedalus, 96 (1),
1967, 1–21. Reprinted in Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a
Post-Traditional World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991
[1970]), 168–189.
23. It would be helpful to compare Rousseau’s position on the punish-
ment of unbelievers in the civil dogmas with the punishments proposed in
Book 10 of Plato’s Laws, 907d to the end of the book. Although Plato’s
treatment of civil theology in the Laws is clearly a model for Rousseau, the
differences are as significant as the similarities.
24. It is worth remembering that Rousseau, so passionately opposed to
the establishment of a theater in republican Geneva, was himself a passion-
ate theatergoer and the composer of a successful opera, Le Devin du Village
(The Village Soothsayer). He was also the author of one of the most widely
read (and sentimental) novels of the eighteenth century, Julie, ou La Nou-
velle Héloïse. Another paradox?
25. Rousseau, Letter to d’Alembert, 127.
26. Rousseau, Letter to d’Alembert, 135.
27. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1983 [1966]).
Rousseau and the Self without Property
‘‘The first man,’’ writes Rousseau in a phrase like a thunderclap, ‘‘who after
enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, This is mine, and
found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil
society.’’ Rousseau does not much care for this man. Still, the claim to
personal property was original, if only in the sense in which the Fall was
original. It earns its place therefore at the start of the ‘‘conjectural history’’
of human nature that occupies much of the Discourse on Inequality. The
history takes us broadly speaking from nature to culture— from a creature
of two primary instincts, self-preservation and sympathy, to one in whom a
third instinct, self-improvement, has taken control and changed the shape of
all experience. A world originally of separate beings, not bound together as
a herd, ‘‘free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would
admit,’’ was altered ‘‘from the moment one man began to stand in need of
another’s assistance.’’ In the very idea of convenience, Rousseau sees the
germ of an economy of privilege: ‘‘from the moment it appeared an advan-
tage for one man to possess enough provisions for two, equality vanished.’’
The enjoyment of privilege brings in its turn a love of luxury, a ceaseless
clamor for distinction and honors, vastly expanded trade for goods that only
enhance distinction, and, to complete the cycle, the creation of still more
refined and artificial ‘‘needs.’’ Meanwhile, the man who says This is mine is
on the way to forgetting what it could mean to say This is me.
Rousseau believed that there was an intimate relation between inequal-
ity and a wrong understanding of the self. The pervasive modern error, he
thinks, is to identify the self with its socialized qualities— distinctions,
honors, reputation, official character—in short its properties, in the widest
sense of the word. A modern man or woman is to be understood in terms of
amour-propre, or sociable self-love; what he or she has lost is amour de soi-
même, or care for the true self. These words are not so directly employed in
the Discourses as they are in other works, but their centrality is implicit
throughout. Rousseau comes to the marrow of his purpose when he says, in
part two of the Second Discourse, that with the rise of artificial society ‘‘It
Rousseau and the Self without Property 289
became to the interest of men to appear what they really were not.’’ How it
came to pass that to be and to appear are different things is explained in an
important note:
We must not confuse selfishness (amour-propre) with self-love (amour
de soi-même); they are two very distinct passions both in their nature and
their effects. Self-love is a natural sentiment, which inclines every ani-
mal to look to his own preservation, and which, guided in man by reason
and qualified by pity, is productive of humanity and virtue. Selfishness is
but a relative and factitious sentiment, engendered in society, which
inclines every individual to set a greater value upon himself than upon
any other man.
This distinction is vital to Rousseau’s task as a breaker of illusions. It also
serves to connect his ethics with a reading of human psychology.
Amour-propre, he explains, is ‘‘a sentiment arising from comparisons,’’
from our thought of the way other people appear and the way our own
demeanor probably strikes them. On the other hand, amour de soi-même
comes from ‘‘every man in particular considering himself as the only spec-
tator who observes him, as the only being in the universe which takes any
interest in him, as the only judge of his own merit.’’ So the self has its own
history. I move from a nature in which I am myself the only spectator of my
thoughts, feelings, and actions, to a social and cultural stage on which the
imagined gaze and known interests of a crowd of others come into my mind
and shape every possible thought, feeling, and action. Morality, which
begins as an inquest into native feeling, ends as a protocol of assent; and as
the approval of others perfects my self-approval, conformity at last takes
the place of conscience. Human action thereby becomes a spectacle in the
precise sense that I conceive of my choices as occurring under the scrutiny
of others. The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts suggests an unstated
corollary. The theater, and the other arts in their different ways, by their
status as ‘‘fine’’ or ‘‘polite,’’ vindicate our attachment to spectacle. They
abstract amour-propre into a received idea of taste, and support a conven-
tional morality with all the possible intricacy of manners.
The hypothesis of a ‘‘state of nature’’ had been used before, by Hobbes,
Locke, and others to show how their vision of politics answered to an
essential fact about human nature. Rousseau says memorably against these
state-of-nature theorists that for all the machinery they deploy to recover
the origins of morality ‘‘not one of them has got there.’’ Their portraits of
natural man have been drawn from modern citizens, with all the modern
appetites, refinements, and corruptions. If we truly imagine natural man as a
290 David Bromwich
self-sustaining being, we shall see that his life is far from ‘‘nasty, brutish,
and short,’’ though it is indeed solitary. Nor can such a primitive being truly
be judged wicked. He does not know evil for the same reason that he does
not know good. So far, it is a superb polemic; but, having arrived at this
point, the reader may have a question to put to Rousseau. Why should we
treat any conjectural history as more than a fanciful exercise? Rousseau
wants his account to replace the earlier accounts of natural man because
such stories are used for more than entertainment. It is necessary to reflect
on ‘‘the constitution of natural man’’ in order to arrive at a just estimate of
our present state—and this, even though the earlier state ‘‘if it ever did,
does not now, and in all probability never will exist.’’ To know what we may
become, we have to judge ourselves against what we are by nature. We must
try to know what man was like before society captured him.
Though Rousseau’s idea of the state of nature is a fiction, it is not meant
to be an altogether attractive one. He points out that the ‘‘sublime maxim of
rational justice, Do to others as you would have others do to you,’’ must
have been unknown to natural man. The principle of reciprocity had not yet
entered his idea of conduct, any more than consciousness of others had
entered his idea of himself. Another notable good is missing from his state.
Furnished with the habits that we now possess, we can hardly imagine not
desiring to sustain a pleasure—Rousseau admits this propensity, and does
not see it as a source of corruption—but before society comes on the scene,
nothing good can be relied on to happen twice. Improvement only follows
in channels worn by the arts of memory, but those arts no more belong to
nature than the other arts and sciences. ‘‘The art perished with the inventor;
there was neither education nor improvement; generations succeeded gen-
erations to no benefit; and as all constantly set out from the same point,
whole centuries rolled on in the rudeness and barbarity of the first age; the
race was grown old, and man was a child.’’ No modern citizen could ra-
tionally desire to live in such a state. Yet Rousseau does not rest his argu-
ment here. We are lost if we fail to consider the ways in which our progress
has also been a catastrophe.
The latter part of the story Rousseau largely trusts us to fill in for our-
selves, and some of the work has already been done in the First Discourse.
His criticism there was mainly directed against the flatterers of the rich and
powerful—those who, in their striving for honors and preferment, debase
the very arts and sciences they are supposed to exalt. It is impossible to read
his observations on this subject without feeling that his indictment fits the
‘‘culture industry’’ of the modern commercial democracies. Whatever one
makes of Rousseau as an observer of the eighteenth century, he is an extra-
Rousseau and the Self without Property 291
ordinarily accurate prophet of the twenty-first. The vein of horror, mockery,
and distrust that is so notable a feature of the Discourses feels like a natural
response to the mesh of therapeutics, pharmacology, miscellaneous infor-
mation and mass entertainment that now sets the cultural tone in America,
and that is coming to define what the world agrees to call civilization.
Indeed, the current uses of the words culture and technology closely follow
the implications of Rousseau’s arts and sciences. Let us, then, pursue the
comparative estimate of natural man and social man, which the two Dis-
courses together suggest. What do we find when we look at the life our
culture and technology have made for us?
‘‘The savage,’’ observes Rousseau, ‘‘lives within himself, whereas so-
cial man, constantly outside himself, knows only how to live in the opinion
of others.’’ One would expect an apologist for culture eventually to argue
that living outside oneself is a good thing. This has become a conventional
academic sentiment, over the past two decades, but with a simplicity of
optimism that would have startled even Rousseau. The contemporary theo-
rists of society and the arts known as ‘‘postmodern’’ have sided with social
man to the furthest reach of artifice. Experience, they say, can never be
individually known; it comes to us ‘‘mediated’’ by its reflections in culture
and technology. We have crossed the line whether we like it or not, and
stand together now as creatures utterly outside ourselves, spectators watch-
ing the other spectators watching an image of something somebody once
called ‘‘myself.’’ Suppose that they are right. The analysis certainly puts us
in possession of a clue to the texture of American life. The aim of the
contemporary media, one may judge by experience, is not only to place us
but to keep us outside ourselves by showing that the correct inner response
is already there—predigested, programmed, and requiring nothing but a
tacit consent which we express through cooperation and reiteration. The
canned laughter of TV sitcoms is an example of this process and a metaphor
for what it wants to accomplish everywhere. The response of the audience
is built into the product itself. In other settings too, the responsive signals of
the ideal spectator are in your eye and ear as you watch and listen, though
with variations suitable to the different media. In the typical format of rock
or rap video, for example, the built-in response is danced and sung by
spectators within the performance, the clapping, nodding, approving min-
ions of the lead singer or group. The habits of such spectatorship bear an
inverse relation to the duties of citizenship. If the right way to allow people
to acquire a moral self is to leave them time to think, and show them the
value of having time for thinking, the popular arts of our day go far to
discourage this. The result aimed at by the productions of culture and
292 David Bromwich
technology is to clinch a sensational effect or to gratify a familiar need.
They rivet attention in a way calculated to blot out and tranquilize thought.
How would one describe the popular culture of America to the sort of
witness—a sensitive and unfamiliar observer—whom Rousseau admon-
ishes us always to employ against ourselves? From talk shows to live police
hunts captured with a hand-held camera, to Internet search engines and
their advertising inserts, to the standard sadistic fare of the video arcades, to
the seasonal blockbuster action thrillers with a line of dialogue per bullet, to
the routine use of the cell phone by citizens while driving a Sport Utility
Vehicle or walking the dog—in all its varied aspects, our culture is plainly
ingenious, efficient, exciting, hypnotic, brutal, sedative, and ultimately stu-
pefying. These traits taken together, of course, would be nothing new to
Rousseau. What has been added in our time is the ambition of culture and of
technology to fill every crevice and outpost of human experience. Culture
has been sapped of the power to reflect on itself, and released from the duty
to reform itself. The maxim of a cynical and profiteering aestheticism, ‘‘We
don’t make the culture, we only reflect it,’’ has become the slogan of every
hustler in need of a literate excuse.
Yet the sensational effects are on the surface. The deeper malady lies in
what the culture teaches implicitly by its examples: that we human beings
are endlessly malleable and adaptive creatures, and that our nature is to
want to crowd our lives with moments of choice among various possible
and optional goods, all of them tempting, none of them intrinsically more
valuable than the others. The lifework of the citizen as pictured in our
culture is: to produce what people consume. The end of life is to become
a fulfilled consumer. The market, with its evangelizing techniques and
rhetoric—the very word market has taken on an aura that is religious—now
penetrates our daily lives as never before. In all sectors of the mass media
and the personal media, the boundary between content and advertisement
has been effaced, so that children far into adolescence find the distinction
incomprehensible. The norm that is inculcated by the morale of the popular
arts and sciences is hyperactive listlessness, in the service of an ideal that a
modern philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has aptly described as interpassivity. To
look at the society of the spectacle in the light of natural man is to want to
ask again what has gone wrong.
Oddly, at this point a consolation is suggested by Rousseau. He suspects
that we are creatures of culture far more shallowly than we are taught—far
less completely than culture itself would have us be. Most people, even in
America today, still live a large portion of their lives outside the routines of
culture. For we do have a distinct life of thinking, feeling, and acting, a life
Rousseau and the Self without Property 293
that is partly the creation of nature and necessity. The monstrous fiction that
culture altogether defines us is refuted not only by our authentic experi-
ence of stray passions and instincts, such as love, sex, sympathy, and self-
preservation, but also by occasional deeper experiences of those rare works
of art which are not only or mainly the productions of a shared culture of the
arts and sciences. Such a work has the power to break through the compla-
cent satisfaction that is nurtured by even the most exquisite productions of
conventional culture. Rousseau would seem to have acknowledged as much
in various reserve clauses that appear in his replies to the critics of the
Discourse on the Sciences and Arts and in the Discourse on Inequality
itself. One of his recurrent suggestions is that the arts and sciences are
compelled to act as a cure for diseases of which they themselves are the
leading cause.
The Social Contract has in view another kind of cure: a moral education
achieved through a practice of politics without end. Here the opposition of
the natural and the social self, the tension between amour de soi-même and
amour-propre, the mutual repulsion of a conscience that takes no account
of others and a gregariousness that feeds on vanity—these contraries are at
last surmounted by being writ large as the separation between the public
and the private good. The people of a free and rational republic are sure to
find that acting for long-term prudence and the public good is a tangible
expression of a genuine care for the self. The result, as Rousseau presents it,
is a moral system that naturally extends the sublime morality of Do to
others as you would have others do to you. Citizens are asked to judge for
others as they would judge for themselves if none had a proper self, and a
moral law that evades the scrutiny of individuals is made to cover society as
a whole. In this way, the problem is not so much solved as restated. But with
an immense advantage: a more than personal agency is now in place to
unmask the false and disclose the true self. We know how to interpret the
result because we are looking at the false and the true self of society. No
personal amour-propre can obstruct the judgment where the vanity of all
has been conquered by all.
A lot of people for a long time have thought such speculations worse
than fanciful. Rousseau consistently taught that imitation is a treachery
against ourselves, yet a generation of French politicians, the Jacobins of the
1790s, contended for the honor of being the most perfect of his imitators. It
has been said of them, with truth, that they committed their acts of terror
with less compunction as his disciples, since his writings assured them that
whatever they did was done on behalf of all humanity. (This pattern of
influence is traced in fascinating detail in Carol Blum’s study Rousseau and
294 David Bromwich
the Republic of Virtue.) The most eloquent arraignment of Rousseau as a
sponsor of revolutionary terror came from Edmund Burke in his Letter to a
Member of the National Assembly. ‘‘The professor of vanity’’ is Burke’s
nickname for the author of the Social Contract and the Confessions; to the
question which of the fanatics of 1791 most resembles Rousseau, he an-
swers with grim irony ‘‘in truth they all resemble him.’’ It is curious to see
Burke single out, as Rousseau’s great moral fault, vanity—vanity of all
things, in the defender of amour de soi-même, who counted himself the
sworn enemy of people existing in the opinion of others. Yet Burke’s insight
is genuine and it is deep. There is something not only selfish but con-
tagiously selfish about the man who claims to stand utterly alone with his
conscience. He of all others is likeliest to draw the heedless emulation of
souls eager for the intoxicant of new feelings. Whereas, Burke implies, a
more docile and circumspect person is restrained from such influences by
the force of custom, by inertia and acquiescence, virtues that are the op-
posite of romantic.
And yet, Rousseau’s own politics in practice were moderate. When
reading his most spartan and utopian passages, one must not forget that he
shared with his century a peculiar taste for schemes of perfectibility. This is
an epochal trait, not to be compared with anything more recent, except,
perhaps, the taste for science fiction. Both genres offer allegorical equip-
ment for living, ways of enchanting us into an understanding of the world.
Neither can be pronounced innocent of desiring to effect real changes in
society, but both rely implicitly on an audience well versed in the uses of
metaphor. When Rousseau, in the Social Contract, says that frequent par-
dons signify that great crimes soon will go unpunished—but then adds that
his heart whispers and restrains his pen—he does not mean that literally he
cannot write another word or draw a logical inference on the punishment of
death. Rather, he has found a way to suggest without saying: ‘‘Great crimes
are wicked; and we should not be afraid of inflicting death on the wicked;
but I am fallible, and so are you, reader; remember this when you talk of
giving the state the power to kill.’’ The doctrine of the general will cannot
be excused as a metaphor, but the fairest conclusion may be that of T. H.
Green, the great nineteenth-century theorist of obligation, who thought the
phrase mainly significant as an appeal to the ‘‘common good’’ in settings
where ‘‘obedience to it is a means to an end desirable in itself or abso-
lutely.’’ In this sense, the general will is a name for a residual sentiment of
unconscious approval that all states require. It was, added Green, an error
for Rousseau to have confounded the sentiment with the power of the
people to give approval in the form of a vote.
Rousseau and the Self without Property 295
Rousseau is vulnerable on many grounds. But the argument that carries
through all his books is an extreme statement of a principle and it yields a
perpetual challenge. The argument denies that the improvement of society
is the improvement of humanity. It asks us to consider whether the prestige
enjoyed by the idea of ‘‘progress’’ may not be philosophically absurd—a
way of talking with apparent meaning but without sense, which flatters the
self-esteem of persons who have lost the power of judging good and bad or
right and wrong. They have been taught by society to think that whatever
comes to us wrapped as progress cannot be bad or wrong. Yet no greater
deception, Rousseau believes, has ever been practiced by human nature
against itself than the belief that by a fortunate necessity we are socialized
into virtue. The notion that morality is at bottom a social good that tallies
with the achievement of good works, worldly esteem, and prosperity—this
heresy of Protestantism, which the seventeenth century knew by the name
of Arminianism, had left its tracks all over the new creed of progress and it
went against the deepest of Rousseau’s convictions, namely that true virtue
is of the heart and not to be known by worldly deeds. He has been widely,
indeed epidemically, misunderstood as therefore saying that human beings
are essentially good. At the earliest moment described in his conjectural
history, he supposed that they were neither good nor evil. They were self-
sufficient and episodically attentive to others. But in this world, as we know
this world, Rousseau no more believed that people are essentially good than
his near contemporary Jonathan Edwards did. He seems to have felt that
individuals have a nature, a character, as inveterate as their manner of
pausing to listen or show concern. This nature is a given fact. It is also a new
fact—it brings something into the world. Conventional morality will never
realize that this new fact is unassimilable. There is something that is your-
self that is not anyone’s property, not even your own, but this is a truth
society cannot bear to know.
How did Rousseau arrive at his truth? The First Discourse was really a
prelude: a circumstantial attack on fashion, including the fashion of prog-
ress, and a cursory view of the frenzy for distinction that is another name for
the desire to resemble a herd of indistinguishable others. As he advanced to
the Second Discourse and later works, Rousseau’s inquest into the sickness
of imitative conduct drove him gradually deeper, until he was left to grapple
with a metaphor that seems to govern the field of social relations. His
iconoclasm is directed finally against the idea that the self is identical with
its properties, the things it is attached to and the things it owns. To regard
property as a part of nature is to confuse the costume with the body and
substance of things. Property, propriety, with the realm of the propria and
296 David Bromwich
amour-propre that they sanction, all this undergrowth of the arts and sci-
ences can ramify so densely, so indecently in the name of decency that most
people are convinced most of the time that the claim that is thus made
rightly supersedes every other imperative. We come to believe that a second
nature is our only nature after all.
Some way into his enterprise, Rousseau saw that property, when placed
at the head of our moral knowledge of others, has the same corrupting effect
that culture has when allowed to shape our self-imaginings. An important
clue lies in his Letter to d’Alembert. This great pamphlet argues that even
the finest work of art confronts a division between the truth of its subject
matter and the treatment that will hold the audience. When asked to choose
between a theatrical lie and an untheatrical truth, even the greatest artist will
often choose the lie. Or rather, the economy of art will make the choice
almost without the intervention of the artist. In the case in question, the
character of Alceste in Molière’s comedy The Misanthrope, Rousseau in-
vites us to notice how the traits of a cold and unworldly arrogance, which
belong to a true misanthrope, are allowed insensibly to pass out of focus. It
could hardly be otherwise in the theater, where such a portrayal would be
tedious. Instead, the character is rendered laughable by his commonplace
love of flattery and a helpless desire to conciliate those he adores, qualities
that of course have nothing to do with misanthropy. Thus the unsociable
man is exposed as an adept in secret of all the sociable vices. The story
appeals to the sense of ridicule that is part of our amour-propre, but the
result is a sacrifice of truth to theatrical plausibility. What happens in The
Misanthrope will be found to occur, says Rousseau, only more penetrably
in the lesser productions of culture. They want to hold us in our seats, and
they give us an appetite for unreality.
Rousseau, then, writes steadily against art and science, against culture
and technology, and against a convenience that society prizes for the sake of
its own advancement. At the same time he defends a self that is inward, a
self that does not exist merely in the opinion of others. His perception, and it
was never in the history of human feelings an obvious one, is that society
cannot do anything to assist this principle or germ of the self. It can only
allow it to exist. We are compelled to respect the self by virtue of its
existence as such, not for any attribute or quality or property. It is natural for
us to use society as a medium for ordinary commerce between persons,
which disposes for the individual’s inspection an array of collaborative
thoughts and feelings, ways of knowing people and ways of joining them in
common projects. So long as society confines itself to this function of
Rousseau and the Self without Property 297
merely exhibiting the possible combinations, it remains nothing but a useful
extension of the world in which the earliest human creatures, who Rousseau
believes may have been arboreal, occasionally linked with each other from
tree to tree.
But the error of the social self is to suppose that the complication,
elaboration, and fortification of the group in its character as a group would
be the end desired by a single being reasonably reflecting on its own wel-
fare. We know on the contrary that people in the mass take on a character
more base and presumptuous—above all, more refined in the excuses they
make for their own perpetuation—than the most ingeniously perverse and
self-justifying individual. Beneath the forms of caring that are native to the
social self, which say, and believe when they hear themselves say, that they
care for the good of the individual, can be glimpsed an active jealousy of the
inward self that will stop at nothing. What the attitude suggests is prudent
guidance; what it means is the opposite of love. Here our amour-propre is
an outward expression, in the great book of manners which all obey more
than we know we obey, of a wish for collective stability as an end, a wish
that never really is identical with the desire of a single separate man or
woman. So long as the wishful social body retains expressive dominance,
and stays sure of its good intentions, there is no enormity of delusion or
crime of which it is not capable.
We have a bad reason, besides dullness, for accepting the moral claim of
amour-propre. There is an innocence about the inward self which we are
apt to judge warily because it looks so like indifference. Yet the person who
consults amour de soi-même is limited in the wrongs that he or she is likely
to commit. This limitation has partly to do with the eccentric manner in
which motives work their way toward conduct for the unconnected individ-
ual. It is also a fact, seldom brought into such discussions, that individuals
commonly show a surprising readiness to forgive, when assurance can be
had that important others are not watching. This is a profound though
unprincipled and capricious form of charity, unknown to society at large.
But sooner or later people merge into one group and another, beyond their
own conscious wish for such an identity, thanks to the sheer convenience of
custom and the enchantment of imitation. We come to feel a craving for
distinction when we learn what other people want. ‘‘Born originals, how
comes it to pass that we die copies?’’ asked Edward Young in his Conjec-
tures on Original Composition, a work published four years after the Dis-
course on Inequality. We do become copies, to a greater degree than any of
us anticipates—the social side of our nature both urges and rewards it.
298 David Bromwich
Rousseau’s task, at this late stage of development, is not so much to per-
suade as to warn. To the extent that you agree with society, and believe there
is nothing that is yourself that is not someone’s property, to that extent you
cut off your original contribution to human hopes and fears. You treat
yourself as one more dispensable proof of the satisfactoriness of the avail-
able options.
Common-sense detractors of Rousseau have always replied that it is
only by collaboration that any enlightened change ever comes to pass. This
is true in a conspicuous and pragmatic sense, and it is not denied by Rous-
seau. But though such reforms may be a necessary condition for, they do
not add up to the actual extensions of, the kind of human imagining Rous-
seau’s admirers generally have in view when honoring him. To deepen our
knowledge of the kind of creature we are, it is not enough to expose our-
selves to occasional disagreements among agreeable persons. We require,
even when we cannot fully comprehend, the influx of a moral energy that
may come suddenly and seem to shake the ground beneath us. There is
(Rousseau would have us believe) such a thing as moral originality. The
consequences of his suggestion themselves have made a change in the self-
imagining of human beings. The writings of Shelley and Tolstoy for exam-
ple were sustained attempts to follow Rousseau’s beginning. This is true not
least in works like The Mask of Anarchy and The Death of Ivan Ilych, which
show the triumph of the social will over an intuition of personal freedom.
The same idea of moral originality must have been vivid to John Stuart Mill
in On Liberty, where the teachings of Rousseau are mentioned as acts of
courage which their earliest readers could not but resist, but by which the
moral world has been incalculably enlarged.
What kind of courage does such originality bring? We hear its ground
note in the opening of Rousseau’s Confessions: ‘‘I have resolved on an
enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no
imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to
nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.’’ Rousseau could not
have meant to say that nobody after him would write an autobiography. In
announcing that his enterprise was without precedent and would be without
imitators, he was saying that there were memories, tones and colors from
experience, which by their nature seemed to be uniquely his. Not in spite of
that fact, but because of it, his story would have exemplary value. Could the
same be true of the story of any of us? Rousseau implies that it could:
potentially, any of us. It is not written in the book of usable hours that we
shall die copies. The paradox remains that Rousseau, who distrusts writing
Rousseau and the Self without Property 299
as he distrusts any technology, should have elected to convey his teachings
and his memories into the world through writing. But of all mediums writ-
ing offers the densest fabric by which the weave of a particular character
may be known. Perhaps by its very nature, it can come to be a defense
against the delusions of egotism, just as the social contract is a defense
against the delusions of sociability.
From the way in which the idea of true self-love is made to emerge in the
Discourses, a reader might fairly guess a circumstance that is confirmed in
Rousseau’s final work, another kind of memoir, the Reveries of the Solitary
Walker. He followed a strict personal code in which the requirements of
sincerity and accuracy were blended. He thought it permissible to embellish
a tale that shades the truth, so long as the lie harms no one and is told for the
sake of wit or fancy. On the other hand, according to his code, it is forbidden
to tell the slightest falsehood that could stain the character of another per-
son; and it is compulsory (where relevant) to recount any circumstantial
truth that could reflect discredit upon oneself. Here again we meet Rous-
seau’s emphasis on the good of exposure and its connection with a self-
knowledge freed from artifice. The inward self relates to the full amplitude
of experience, and so its intimate knowledge matters more, in the sense that
it deserves more attention, than fidelity to the course and catalogue of
things-that-have-happened. Together the Confessions and Reveries repre-
sent the faiblesse, the unexceptional weakness or frailty, the susceptibility
to mundane faults of the person from whom the philosophy proceeds. It
seems possible that Rousseau intended these works to remind us of the very
mixed human materials from which any philosophy is worked up from
experience to theory.
His view of the personal accent of all experience cannot be reduced to a
difference between subjective and objective reports, any more than his
definition of amour de soi-même can be reduced to a preference for sponta-
neous over responsible feelings. I submit myself to the tribunal of other
human beings or fellow citizens in the same stroke by which I subject
myself to a judgment of my own. The two processes will have become the
same when all are persuaded to shed the vanity that leads them to favor
themselves. This is where the arts take on their immense power to charm
and corrupt, since they encourage us to confuse vanity with the dramatic
allure of ‘‘consistency.’’ And this is where the moral imagination must
assume the place of authority vacated by art. Most lives, once looked at
close, are wretchedly inconsistent, but a love of pattern and probability
blinds us to this discovery until we forget that it is a truth about ourselves.
300 David Bromwich
Rousseau’s understanding of ethics, aesthetics, and psychology all point to
a charitable and not a self-serving conclusion. A good book is one in which
the reader is not invited to acquit the author. A good society is one in which
a citizen will not be unfairly punished for the choice to reveal a truth about
himself. It was necessary for autobiography to be invented at the same time
as the social contract in order for each to justify the other.
Rousseau, Robespierre, Burke,
Je√erson, and the French Revolution
From the beginning of the second phase of the French Revolution—the
manic phase beginning with the deposition of the King by the Paris mob on
the 10th August 1792—Revolutionary France saw Rousseau and Burke as
polar opposites representing good and evil, respectively.
For the French Revolutionaries, Rousseau was the great mentor and
exemplar. His Social Contract was ‘‘the beacon of legislators.’’ Rousseau
had of course been loved and admired by all sorts of French people—
including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—in pre-revolutionary France.
But that was the sentimental, idealistic Rousseau of La Nouvelle Héloïse, of
The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, of Emile, and especially The Profession
of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar.
That was what we might call the ‘‘nice cop’’ Rousseau. The cult of the
‘‘tough cop’’ Rousseau, and The Social Contract, came in with the second
phase of the French Revolution following the deposition of the King and
the rise of the Jacobins and in particular of Maximilien Robespierre for
whom The Social Contract was both the object of a cult and the guarantee
of his own personal political holiness and absolute power for a time, as the
arch-priest of the cult. Rousseau was also, in a curious way, the guarantee of
Robespierre’s impartiality, as a being above normal politics, spokesman for
a mysterious and awe-inspiring entity: the General Will. In his address to
the French of the eighty-three Departments in the summer of 1792—about
the summit period of his personal authority—Robespierre came forward
confidently in the persona of spokesman for the General Will, addressing
the Jacobins whom he now totally dominated:
‘‘For us, we are not of any party, we serve no faction, you know it,
brothers and friends, our will is the General Will.’’
‘‘Our will is the General Will.’’ Once accepted as spokesman for the
General Will, itself an absolute, Robespierre was able to wield absolute
power, even at a time when he held no office.
He was seen as the ‘‘guide’’ or ‘‘legislator’’ who makes his appearance in
chapters 6 and 7 of Book 2 of The Social Contract. The function of the
302 Conor Cruise O’Brien
guide or legislator is to direct the General Will, ‘‘to show it how to see
objects as they are, sometimes as they ought to be.’’
In 1793–1794, to be designated by Robespierre, with no evidence at all,
as opposed to the General Will, was invariably the prelude to the fatal
prosecution of the individual concerned, to a trial with the result known in
advance, and then to speedy execution.
The cult of the General Will flourished, in a way, even after the fall of
Robespierre. The Thermidorians, having killed Robespierre, declared that
he had falsified Rousseau and that they themselves were the true heirs to
Rousseau. On 14 September 1794 the Thermidorian-dominated Conven-
tion ordered that Rousseau’s remains be brought from his original burial
place on the Isle of Poplars in Ermenonville and placed in the Pantheon in
Paris with appropriate ceremony. Gordon MacNeil describes the central
place of The Social Contract in the ceremonies: ‘‘The Social Contract, the
‘beacon of legislators’ was carried on a velvet cushion, and a statue of its
author in a cask pulled by twelve horses.’’
In substance, the ceremonies were less like an apotheosis than like an
exorcism. There was no heir to Robespierre. The Thermidorians had killed
Robespierre and declared that he had falsified Rousseau, of whom they
themselves were the true heirs. But they could not agree among themselves
about what The Social Contract meant, still less were they able to exe-
cute people in its name. The Revolution was fading, soon to be replaced
by the Empire. And there the cult of Rousseau suddenly stopped. It van-
ished for the long period during which Napoleon Bonaparte held supreme
Napoleon Bonaparte had a definite personal reason for dismantling the
cult of Rousseau. Rousseau had glorified General Paoli who had fought for
Corsican independence. Indeed Rousseau had glorified him in a charac-
teristic passage, asserting absolutism in the name of freedom. In Rousseau’s
fragment of a constitution for Corsica, he represents his hero General Paoli
as landing on an island and addressing his people in the following words,
provided for him by Rousseau, and redolent of Rousseau’s politics:
‘‘Corsicans be silent: I am going to speak in the name of all. . . . Let those
who will not consent, depart, and let those who consent raise their hands.’’
For Napoleon this was not only pernicious nonsense but also dangerous
because it challenged his personal right to be Emperor of the French. If
Paoli had succeeded, as Rousseau wished, Napoleon could not have be-
come Emperor of the French because he would not have been French at all,
but a citizen of an insignificant independent Corsica. So throughout the
The French Revolution 303
long period of Napoleon’s dominance, in the Consulate followed by the
Empire, Rousseau was in total eclipse.
After the end of the Napoleonic period and the restoration of the Mon-
archy, the cult of Rousseau resumed in France, and still flourishes. But it has
been mainly a literary cult, without direct political application. There may
have been an exception. It seems to me that Marx’s combination of a cult of
freedom with intimations of absolutism may well derive ultimately from
Rousseau and specifically from The Social Contract. But so far as I know,
Marx never explicitly acknowledged any such debt, and in the absence of
evidence, speculation cannot be usefully pursued.
The second phase of the French Revolution, from August 1792 on, saw
the virtual deification of Robespierre, as the infallible interpreter of Rous-
seau’s General Will. The same period saw the diabolization of Edmund
Burke in the France of the second phase of the Revolution. To the parlia-
mentary revolutionaries of the first phase (1789 to 1792) Burke had been
merely irritating as predicting their own failure, with absolute accuracy. But
to the revolutionaries of the second phase—1792 to 1794—and principally
to Robespierre—Burke’s insights were dangerous. Burke was dangerous,
first of all, because he had predicted their own emergence and diagnosed
their characters. In Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, published
in January 1791, Burke had predicted the failure of the ‘‘moderates’’ who
then dominated the Assembly and the advent to power of a fiercer and more
ruthless revolutionary strain. He begins by showing the infirmity of the
moderates and goes on to depict the character of the men who are about to
replace them. He depicts the moderates as working together with the extre-
mists in a common cause but hoping to dominate them ‘‘on the credit of the
sobriety with which they show themselves disposed to carry on what may
seem most plausible in the mischievous projects they pursue in common.’’
From that piece of analysis, Burke proceeds immediately to his clinching
‘‘But these men naturally are despised by those who have heads to know,
and hearts that are able to go through, the necessary demands of bold
wicked enterprises. They are naturally classed below the latter description,
and will only be used by them as inferior instruments. They will be only the
Fairfaxes of your Cromwells.’’
Burke here predicts in January 1791 the transit of power within the
Revolution, which would come about in the second half of 1792. And it was
this transit, of course, that led directly to what Burke also foresaw: the
304 Conor Cruise O’Brien
execution/assassination of the king of France. Burke predicted that in that
same Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, in which he predicted
the emergence of those who would carry it out:
‘‘Nothing that I can say, or that you can say, will hasten them [the hard-
line revolutionaries] by a single hour, in the execution of a design which
they have long since entertained. In spite of their solemn declarations, their
soothing addresses and the multiple oaths they have taken and forced others
to take, they will assassinate the king when his name will no longer be
necessary to their designs, but not a moment sooner.’’
Burke’s profound understanding of the workings of the French Revolu-
tion, attained very early on, is nowhere more evident than in his prediction,
contained in his Reflections on the Revolution in France that the Revolution
would necessarily end in military dictatorship:
It is known that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and
uncertain obedience to any senate, or popular authority; and they will
least of all yield it to an assembly which is to have only a continuance of
two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of
military men, if they see with perfect submission and due admiration,
the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find, that they have a
new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders, whose
military policy, and the genius of whose command (if they should have
any) must be as uncertain as their duration is transient. In the weakness
of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an
army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some
popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and
who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men
upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no
other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the
moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really com-
mands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the
master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic.
The seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte—the event predicted in
this remarkable passage—occurred on 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799),
four years after the death of the predictor.
According to a writer in the London Review of Books (February 1989)
‘‘Burke has always been ignored in France.’’ Quite untrue, both in the past
and in the present. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was
translated into French in the month after its English publication. The French
edition sold two thousand copies in its first two days and was immediately
The French Revolution 305
at the center of a fierce controversy. This was during the ‘‘constitutional’’
initial phase of the French Revolution, a phase for which Burke rightly saw
no future. Nor was Burke exactly ignored during the Terror when mere
possession of his book was enough to send its possessor to the guillotine.
Nor in the next century did Michelet ignore Burke when he called Reflec-
tions ’’that infamous book’’ and loudly and inaccurately denounced its
By the time, however, when the readers of the London Review of Books
were learning how the French had ‘‘always ignored’’ Burke, the school of
French historiography now in the ascendant was already paying respectful
attention to him. The attitudes of that school—far more critical of the
French Revolution than any of its predecessors—are reflected in the great
Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, edited by François Furet and
Mona Ozouf, and published in Paris in 1988 (an English edition followed in
1989). The Critical Dictionary contains a respectful entry on Burke by Gé-
rard Gengembre. Burke is the only English speaker to be included among
the seventeen thinkers in the section ‘‘Historians and Commentators.’’ The
only other non-Francophones to figure in the list are four Germans: Fichte,
Hegel, Kant, and Marx. Gengembre’s essay concludes: ‘‘Study of this pen-
etrating foreigner’s scrutiny of France remains profitable for anyone who
would understand what was truly at stake in a Revolution from which the
whole modern French political tradition ultimately derives.’’ The ‘‘pen-
etrating foreigner’’ bit is better in the original French: ‘‘ce regard étranger,
d’une clairvoyance pénétrante.’’ Pity that English-speaking readers should
miss that keyword ‘‘clairvoyance.’’
Thomas Jefferson, Burke’s contemporary, became the French Revolu-
tion’s warmest admirer in America right at the beginning of the Revolution,
and so remained throughout the Terror. He was one of the first Americans to
obtain a copy of Burke’s Reflections, immediately after its publication in
America. Before that he had—like most Americans—reacted favorably to
what he knew of Burke, because Burke had been the leading figure in the
parliamentary minority in Britain which had opposed the coercion of Amer-
ica. But when Jefferson read Reflections, and found Burke implacably op-
posed to the French Revolution, he decided that Burke’s opposition to the
coercion of America must have been corruptly motivated. Jefferson wrote
to a sympathetic English correspondent on 11 May 1791:
‘‘The Revolution of France does not astonish me as much as the Revolu-
tion of Mr. Burke. I wish I could believe the latter proceeded from as pure
motives as the former. But what demonstration could scarcely have estab-
306 Conor Cruise O’Brien
lished before, less than the hints of Dr. Priestley [Dr. Joseph Priestley,
leading English radical, and a friendly correspondent of Jefferson] and Mr.
Paine establish firmly now [sic]. How mortifying that this evidence of the
rottenness of his mind must oblige us now to ascribe to wicked motives
those actions of his life which wore the mask of virtue and patriotism.’’
Jefferson’s sputtering indignation at Reflections was no doubt quite sin-
cere. But it also served a political purpose. Most Americans, from 1789 to
1795, were highly sympathetic to the French Revolution which they tended
to see as resembling their own Revolution and somehow complementary to
it. But enthusiasm for the French Revolution was not evenly distributed
throughout America. In the North, dominant commercial interests, consid-
ering that the fast expanding trade with Britain was vital to America’s
future, were suspicious of enthusiasm for the French Revolution, seeing
that enthusiasm as having the potential to carry America into a war with
Britain which would be ruinous to American prosperity. The economically
backward and debt-ridden Southern states had no such reasons to hold
back. American enthusiasm for the French Revolution was seen by Jeffer-
son as a major asset for the South—and Jefferson’s Virginia in particular—
in the burgeoning struggle for dominance within the new Republic. Jeffer-
son saw this clearly and cleverly exploited enthusiasm for the French Revo-
lution as a weapon against John Adams—his main potential rival for the
succession to the Presidency. Jefferson drew attention to similarities be-
tween Burke’s Reflections and certain writings of John Adams. The contro-
versy was damaging to Adams and politically profitable to Jefferson. And it
paved the way not only for Jefferson’s own presidency but for three Virgin-
ian presidencies, of two terms each.
Jefferson never, so far as I know, explicitly acknowledged a debt to
Rousseau. To do so would have been politically compromising, since most
Americans were more religious than most Europeans and most religious
people classified Rousseau—not quite accurately—along with Voltaire as
undermining all forms of religion. Jefferson, throughout his life, remained
suspect to Americans with strong religious convictions. Toward the end of
his life, after the British had burned down the center of Washington and
destroyed the nucleus of the Library of Congress, Jefferson offered to sell
his own splendid collection of books to Congress to make up for the loss.
Religious people in Congress warned against accepting the gift because
Jefferson’s library contained the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. Congress,
nonetheless, bought the collection. But Jefferson would not have been sur-
prised at the objection. Rousseau, like Voltaire, was a compromising ally,
politically speaking. Jefferson, always keenly alert, in his long march to the
The French Revolution 307
presidency, to considerations of political advantage and disadvantage, must
have been well aware that to acknowledge a debt to Rousseau would have
been politically damaging. So such a debt was never acknowledged but we
are not to understand from that, that the debt was not there.
The debt appears in Jefferson’s relation to the concept of ‘‘civil reli-
gion,’’ a phrase which appears to have been coined by Rousseau.
The Jefferson of the early 1790s, the champion of the French Revolu-
tion, was an ardent believer in, and prophet of, civil religion in the sense
adumbrated by Rousseau. That is, he sought to animate an apparently secu-
lar and political idea—that of liberty—by breathing into it the kind of
emotions and dispositions with which religion had been invested in the
Ages of Faith. Of this religion Thomas Jefferson was more than a prophet,
he was a pope. As author of the Declaration of Independence he possessed
the Magisterium of liberty. He could define heresy and excommunicate
heretics. To fail to acknowledge (for example) that the French Revolution
constituted an integral part of the holy cause of liberty along with the
American Revolution constituted heresy, and the heretic had to be driven
from public life.
The words ‘‘heresy’’ and ‘‘holy cause’’ appear repeatedly in Jefferson’s
correspondence between 1789 and 1794 and occasionally even later. And
they are always there to link the American Revolution with the French one
and to sanctify the linkage.
Yet Jefferson’s most profoundly revealing implicit acknowledgement of
a debt to Rousseau comes from a period—early 1798—when the Revolu-
tion was already in retreat before the rise of Napoleon, and Jefferson’s own
faith in the Revolution was already well on the wane. His correspondence
from this period shows that he no longer wanted America to be directly
dominated, or even strongly influenced, by the French Revolution. But he
still wishes that the French Revolutionaries should succeed in occupying
and dominating Britain—an event which appeared to many quite probable
in the last years of the eighteenth century. The conquest of Britain by
revolutionary France would be a victory, in Jefferson’s opinion, for the
principles of the American Revolution. ‘‘Nothing can establish firmly the
republican principles of our government (my italics) but establishment of
them in England. France will be the apostle for this.’’
‘‘The apostle. . .’’ The idea of Revolutionary France as having a quasi-
divine mission had dominated Jefferson’s vision of international politics in
the period 1789–94 at the height of his mystical enthusiasm for the French
Revolution. By the late 1790s that faith had disappeared in relation to
French influence over America. But Jefferson could still see conquest by
308 Conor Cruise O’Brien
the French as a kind of redemption for a more benighted Britain. To a
correspondent, Peregrine Fitzhugh, who had apparently expressed some
qualms about Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the subjugation of England by
revolutionary France, Jefferson wrote on 23 February 1798:
The ensuing month will probably be the most eventful ever yet seen in
Modern Europe. It may probably be the season preferred for the pro-
jected invasion of England. It is indeed a game of chances. The sea
which divides the combatants gives to fortune as well as to valor its
share of influence on the enterprise. But all the chances are not on one-
side. The subjugation of England would indeed be a general calamity.
But happily it is impossible. Should it end in her being only republi-
canized, I know not on what principle a true republican of our country
could lament it, whether he considers it as extending the blessings of a
purer government to other portions of mankind, or strengthening the
cause of liberty in our own country by the influence of that example. I do
not indeed wish to see any nation have a form of government forced on
them; but if it is to be done, I should rejoice at its being a freer one.
They may not be ‘‘subjugated,’’ but if the government ‘‘forced’’ on them
is ‘‘a freer one,’’ Jefferson would rejoice. The concept that people might
be ‘‘forced to be free’’ originated with Rousseau, in The Social Contract
(Book 1, chapter 7, last paragraph). Jefferson never acknowledged any
intellectual or moral debt to Rousseau but the debt is evident in this peremp-
tory paradox. ‘‘Forced to be free’’ is a truly revolutionary concept, common
to the French Revolution, and to its twentieth-century heir, the Russian
Rousseau, Burke, Robespierre, Jefferson: this quartet of late eighteenth-
century movers and shakers has challenged my imagination for many years.
Such relations as existed among the four men were uneven and partly
equivocal. By 1778, when Rousseau died, Burke had been a Member of the
British Parliament for thirteen years and had attracted a great deal of atten-
tion, mainly as the strongest parliamentarian opponent of the American
war. Rousseau would have at least heard of him. But Rousseau’s direct
political interests—never more than fleeting—appear to have been con-
fined to continental Europe. When Rousseau visited Britain in 1766—just
after Burke’s election to Parliament—he was in close touch with James
Boswell and David Hume, both of whom knew Burke well. Burke seems to
have discussed Rousseau’s visit with them. But if they discussed Burke
The French Revolution 309
with Rousseau, the discussion seems to have left no trace. In any case
Rousseau soon quarreled with both of them—as he did with almost all of
his acquaintances throughout his life—and he cut short his unhappy visit to
Burke, on the other hand, took quite a keen interest in Rousseau. Burke
wrote ‘‘sharply critical’’ reviews of Rousseau’s Letter to d’Alembert in the
Annual Register for 1759 and of Emile for the same publication in 1762.
When Rousseau became a posthumous hero of the French Revolution-
aries— from 1789 to the end of the Revolution—Burke’s animosity against
him increased and hardened in tone. To an unknown acquaintance Burke
wrote in January 1790 about the literary heroes of the French Revolution-
aries of that time: ‘‘Such masters, such scholars. Who ever dreamt of Vol-
taire and Rousseau as legislators? The first has the merit of writing agree-
ably; and nobody has ever united blasphemy and obscenity so happily
together. The other was not a little deranged in his intellects, to my almost
certain knowledge. But he saw things in bold and uncommon lights, and he
was very eloquent.’’
Just one year later, in January 1791, Burke returned to the subject of
Rousseau with a vengeance, in Letter to a Member of the National Assem-
bly [of revolutionary France]. Rousseau was a topical subject when Burke
was writing. On 22 December, less than a month before Burke’s Letter was
written, the National Assembly had decreed that ‘‘there shall be erected to
the author of Emile and Du Contrat Social a statue bearing the inscription:
The Assembly recommends to its youth a study of the bold experimen-
ters in morality. Everybody knows that there is a great dispute amongst
their leaders, which of them is the best resemblance to Rousseau. In
truth, they all resemble him. His blood they transfuse into their minds
and into their manners. Him they study; him they meditate; him they
turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the
day, or the debauches of the night. Rousseau is their canon of holy writ;
in his life he is their canon of Polycletus; he is their standard figure of
perfection. To this man and this writer, as a pattern to authors and to
Frenchmen, the foundries of Paris are now running for statues, with the
kettles of their poor and the bells of their churches. If an author had
written like a great genius on geometry, though his practical and spec-
ulative morals were vicious in the extreme, it might appear that in voting
the statue, they honoured only the geometrician. But Rousseau is a
310 Conor Cruise O’Brien
moralist, or he is nothing. It is impossible, therefore, putting the circum-
stances together, to mistake their design in choosing the author, with
whom they have begun to recommend a course of studies.
Their great problem is to find a substitute for all the principles which
hitherto have been employed to regulate the human will and action.
They find dispositions in the mind, of such force and quality, as may fit
men, far better than the old morality, for the purposes of such a state as
theirs; and may go much further in supporting their power, and destroy-
ing their enemies. They have therefore chosen a selfish, flattering, se-
ductive, ostentatious vice, in the place of plain duty. True humility, the
basis of the Christian system, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of
all real virtue. But this, as very painful in the practice, and little imposing
in the appearance, they have totally discarded. Their object is to merge
all natural and all social sentiment in inordinate vanity. In a small degree,
and conversant in little things, vanity is of little moment. When full
grown, it is the worst of vices, and the occasional mimic of them all. It
makes the whole man false. It leaves nothing sincere or trust-worthy
about him. His best qualities are poisoned and perverted by it, and
operate exactly as the worst. When your lords had many writers as
immoral as the object of their statue (such as Voltaire and others) they
chose Rousseau; because in him that peculiar vice which they wished to
erect into a ruling virtue, was by far the most conspicuous.
We have had the great professor and founder of the philosophy of
vanity in England. As I had good opportunities of knowing his proceed-
ings almost from day to day, he left no doubt in my mind, that he
entertained no principle either to influence his heart, or to guide his
understanding, but vanity. With this vice he was possessed to a degree
little short of madness. It is from the same deranged eccentric vanity, that
this, the insane Socrates of the National Assembly, was impelled to
publish a mad Confession of his mad faults, and to attempt a new sort of
glory, from bringing hardily to light the obscure and vulgar vices which
we know may sometimes be blended with eminent talents. He has not
observed on the nature of vanity, who does not know that it is om-
nivorous; that it has no choice in its food; that it is fond to talk even of its
own faults and vices, as what will excite surprise and draw attention, and
what will pass at worst for openness and candor. It was this abuse and
perversion, which vanity makes even of hypocrisy, which has driven
Rousseau to record a life not so much as chequered, or spotted here and
there, with virtues, or even distinguished by a single good action. It is
such a life he chooses to offer to the attention of mankind. It is such a
The French Revolution 311
life, that with a wild defiance, he flings in the face of his Creator, whom
he acknowledges only to brave. Your Assembly, knowing how much
more powerful example is found than precept, has chosen this man (by
his own account without a single virtue) for a model. To him they erect
their first statue. From him they commence their series of honours and
It is that new-invented virtue which your masters canonize, that led
their moral hero constantly to exhaust the stores of his powerful rhetoric
in the expression of universal benevolence; whilst his heart was incapa-
ble of harbouring one spark of common parental affection. Benevolence
to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with
whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new
philosophy. Setting up for an unsocial independence, this their hero of
vanity refuses the just price of common labour, as well as the tribute
which opulence owes to genius, and which, when paid, honours the
giver and the receiver; and then he pleads his beggary as an excuse for
his crimes. He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by
the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as
a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours, and
sends his children to the hospital of foundlings. The bear loves, licks,
and forms her young; but bears are not philosophers (my italics).
According to his own account in his Confessions, Rousseau had sent off
all his five children by Thérèse Levasseur to the foundling asylum as soon
as possible. If we accept Rousseau’s own account, Burke’s last comment
above appears well merited.
Of Robespierre’s own connections with the other three eighteenth-
century figures under consideration here, only the connection with Rous-
seau and especially with The Social Contract is well attested. Robespierre’s
rise and his ascendancy of 1793–94 were based on being accepted as the
authentic interpreter of the otherwise enigmatic Social Contract. Robes-
pierre was no ordinary political leader but the high priest of a dominant cult.
High priest and also supreme judge. He alone would determine who was
obedient to the General Will and who was refractory to it. Those judged
refractory went to the guillotine as soon as Robespierre made known his
verdict. All this authority was based on Robespierre’s acceptance as Rous-
seau’s living voice.
For our other two subjects—so far as I can find—Robespierre never
made known a personal verdict. Nevertheless we know what he thought
about Burke. The mere possession of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution
312 Conor Cruise O’Brien
in France became a capital offense under the Terror, and that could not have
been done without the sanction of the all-powerful Robespierre.
Concerning the remaining member of our quartet, Robespierre’s opin-
ions, so far as I know, have left no trace. He must have known, I think, of
Jefferson’s oft expressed admiration of the French Revolution which did
not cease with Robespierre’s advent to power or during Robespierre’s dic-
tatorship. But, assuming that Robespierre did know of Jefferson’s admira-
tion for the French Revolution, Robespierre could not have been greatly
impressed by that. Robespierre felt that the French Revolution belonged to
the French alone. He was correspondingly suspicious of foreign sym-
pathizers with the French Revolution, most of whom, he thought, were
probably spies. Many of the victims of the Terror, under Robespierre, were
foreign residents, strong sympathizers with the French Revolution. One of
these was Anacharsis Cloots. Cloots, of Prussian origin, became a natu-
ralized Frenchman and almost ecstatic in his enthusiasm for the French
Revolution. He even wrote a long letter to Edmund Burke in which he
invited Burke to come to France and enlist in the cause of the Revolution.
‘‘Leave your island, my dear Burke, come to France!’’ Burke, of course, did
not reply, but Cloots was duly guillotined, under Robespierre, by the Revo-
lution he had so enthusiastically embraced.
A similar case was that of Tom Paine who also became a naturalized
Frenchman and also wrote to Burke extolling the French Revolution. Paine
was imprisoned under the Terror and was probably only saved from execu-
tion as a result of Robespierre’s own fall and execution in Thermidor 1794.
Jefferson did eventually condemn what he called ‘‘the atrocities of
Robespierre.’’ But that was in 1795 and Robespierre was not only dead but
anathema to the new masters of the French Revolution. Throughout the
period of the ascendancy of Robespierre, Jefferson continued to approve
the Revolution in general terms and did not acknowledge that Robespierre
had committed any atrocities. In January 1793—the month of the execution
of Louis XVI—Jefferson wrote a letter to his protégé William Short, in
which he acknowledged virtually no limit to the slaughter that might legit-
imately be perpetrated by the French Revolutionaries: ‘‘The liberty of the
whole earth was dependent on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a
prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been
deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it
should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there
but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better
than it is now.’’
The French Revolution 313
That was the paroxysm of Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the French Revolu-
tion. But he continued to support the Revolution throughout the Terror and
did not condemn it until well after Robespierre’s fall and death. Two cen-
turies later Pope Pius XII went through a similar evolution after the fall and
death of Adolf Hitler.
In conclusion I should like to consider the reason for Rousseau’s as-
tonishing popularity in France, both in his own time and in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries.
The origin of that popularity may be precisely dated. It began in 1749
when the academy of Dijon offered a prize for an essay on the effect of the
progress of civilization on morals. Rousseau decided to compete for the
prize. His idea of how to treat the subject seems originally to have been an
orthodox one: progress beneficial to morals. But Diderot—then still his
friend—showed Rousseau a better idea. Why not enlist the power of para-
dox and describe the superiority of the savage state? Rousseau took the hint,
deployed his paradox and won the prize.
Henceforward, paradox was among the principal weapons of his formi-
dable controversial armory. Another great resource was his grasp of the
power latent in confident, fulminating assertion, unsupported either by ar-
gument or common sense. The most notable example of all this was the
famous sentence:
‘‘Man was born free and everywhere is found enslaved and in chains.’’
It is obvious, that man was never ‘‘born free.’’ A baby is dependent for
years after its birth and, if not taken care of, will die in infancy. Everybody
of course knew that then, just as well as everybody knows it now. Yet the
French of the late eighteenth century obviously were delighted with the idea
of ‘‘born free and everywhere enslaved.’’ Why should this be?
General de Gaulle, who had a profound understanding of the psychic
processes underlying modern French history, dated the maturing of the
processes which were to lead to the French Revolution from 15 January
1757, the date on which the French were beaten by the Prussians in the
battle of Rossbach. There is no doubt that this was a traumatic event for the
French people. France had been the predominant power in continental Eu-
rope for more than a hundred years. The Monarchy needed the prestige of
military success. Defeat by a power classified as minor—Prussia—under-
mined the monarchy. Then there was the fact that France’s ally in the Seven
Years War was Catholic Austria. The Catholic Church, seen as blessing the
Austrian alliance, became increasingly discredited by the discredit of the
314 Conor Cruise O’Brien
alliance itself. Both Church and Monarchy were largely discredited after
Rossbach, and the discredit of each of the partners also told upon the other.
But even before the revolutionary process set in in earnest (after 1757)
both Church and Monarchy were losing authority during the long, frivolous
and inglorious reign of Louis XIII. The Catholic Church, the social and
moral pillar of the Monarchy, was already tottering under the assaults of the
philosophes well before 1750. The Church was undermined in its moral
authority. But also, by the second half of the century, the authority of those
who had undermined the Church’s authority was itself being undermined.
Few believed what the Church taught any more, but even those who did not
believe were growing dissatisfied with the confident cerebrality and the
cold mockeries of the victorious philosophes.
In short there was what would later be called ‘‘a gap in the market.’’
Rousseau had an unerring eye and ear for such a gap and confidently moved
in to fill it. He did so in 1761 with La Nouvelle Héloïse. What he offered was
a vague religious emotionalism and rhetoric, disconnected from all intellec-
tual dogma, and also from inconvenient restrictions on practice. You could
feel good without actually having to endure restrictions on practice. This
worked like a charm: French people loved Rousseau then as they have
never loved any of the other philosophes. And—with the comparatively
brief apparent exception of the Napoleonic years—the French have loved
him ever since. His admirers generally cite Rousseau’s style as the reason
for their admiration. But Rousseau’s style is no more than the very efficient
medium for the conveyance of a perennially seductive message: how to
know you are good without having to give anything away.
Rousseau’s place in France now appears perennially secure. He simply
comes with the language. But Rousseau also holds an influential place
within the English-speaking world through the vogue for the ‘‘politically
correct’’ and ‘‘multiculturalism’’ now dominant in certain faculties of
several major American universities. These work in Rousseau’s manner:
through strong, repeated, unargued assertion: ‘‘Hey ho, hey ho, Western
culture’s got to go’’ chanted the students. No matter that the students in
question have no other culture than the culture of the English language, the
only language that they know, or have any intention of knowing. They are
in fact monocultural multiculturalists; intellectual monsters, incapable of
doing anything except exercising a kind of power through agreed nonsense,
and feeling good while doing so.
All that is very much in the spirit of Rousseau. I believe that Rousseau
has been, and still remains a noxious force within Western culture. He is
The French Revolution 315
noxious because of a fundamental lack of seriousness. He does not think or
argue. He talks for effect and teaches others to do the same. Unfortunately
there are some in every generation who are seduced either by his message
or—more probably—by the example of his successes. The malignant
magic of the grand charlatan is liable to be with us for a long time.
Title Page
List of Contributors
Table of Contents
Introduction: Rousseau’s Political Triptych (Susan Dunn)
Chronology of Rousseau’s Life
A Note on the Translations
The First Discourse: Discourse on the Sciences and Arts
The Second Discourse: Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind
The Social Contract
Book I
Book II
Book III
Book IV
Rethinking The First and Second Discourses andThe Social Contract
Rousseau, Cultural Critic (Gita May)
Rousseau on Society and the Individual (Robert N. Bellah)
Rousseau and the Self without Property (David Bromwich)
Rousseau, Robespierre, Burke, Jefferson, and the French Revolution (Conor Cruise O’Brien)
The Prince
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9780141395876_ThePrince_PRE.indd 2 21/05/15 3:00 PM
The Prince
N i c c o l ò
M a c h i av e l l i
Translated and Introduced by
tim parks
an imprint of
p e n g u i nb o o k s
9780141395876_ThePrince_PRE.indd 3 21/05/15 3:00 PM
UK | USA | Canada | Ireland | Australia
India | New Zealand |South Africa
Penguin Classics is part ofthe Penguin Random House group ofcompanies
whose addresses can be found at
This translation first published 2009
This edition first published in Penguin Classics 2014
Translation and editorial material copyright © Tim Parks, 2009
All rights reserved
Cover design and illustration: CoralieBickford- Smith
The moral right ofthe translator and editor has been asserted
Set in 10/13 pt Dante MT Std
Typeset by Jouve (UK), Milton Keynes
Printed in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, StIves plc
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9780141395876_ThePrince_PRE.indd 4 21/05/15 3:00 PM
Introduction ix
Translator’s Note xxxix
Map lvii
Letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici 3
1. Different kinds ofstates and
how to conquer them 5
2. Hereditary monarchies 7
3. Mixed monarchies 9
4. Conquered by Alexander the Great,
the Kingdom ofDarius did not rebel
against his successors after his death.
Why not? 21
5. How to govern cities and states that
were previouslyself- governing 25
6. States won by the new ruler’s own
forces and abilities 27
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7. States won by lucky circumstance and
someone else’s armed forces 33
8. States won by crime 43
9. Monarchy with public support 49
10. Assessing a state’s strength 55
11. Church states 59
12. Different kinds ofarmies and a
consideration ofmercenary forces 63
13. Auxiliaries, combined forces and
citizen armies 71
14. A ruler and his army 77
15. What men and particularly rulers are
praised and blamed for 81
16. Generosity and meanness 83
17. Cruelty and compassion. Whether it
is better to be feared or loved 87
18. A ruler and his promises 93
19. Avoiding contempt and hatred 97
20. Whether fortresses and other
strategies rulers frequently adopt
are useful 111
21. What a ruler should do to win
respect 117
22. A ruler’s ministers 123
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23. Avoiding flatterers 125
24. Why Italian rulers have lost
their states 129
25. The role ofluck in human affairs,
and how to defend against it 133
26. An appeal to conquer Italy and free
it from foreign occupation 139
Glossary ofproper names 145
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9780141395876_ThePrince_PRE.indd 8 21/05/15 3:00 PM
Necessity. Must. Have to. Inevitably. Bound to. These are the
words that recur insistently throughout The Prince. And
then again: success, victory, prestige, achievement, and, on the
other hand: loss, failure, defeat, death. These opposites are
linked together by an almost obsessive use ofbecause, so
that, hence, therefore, as a result, as a consequence. From start
to finish we have a vision ofman manoeuvring precariously
in a suffocating net ofcause and effect. What is at stake is
survival. Anything extra is luxury.
The Prince was written by aforty- four- year- old diplomat
facing ruin. After fourteen years ofinfluence and prestige,
a change ofregime had led to his dismissal. Suspected of
conspiring against the new government, he was imprisoned
and tortured. The rapid reversal offortunes could not have
been more devastating. Found innocent and released, he
left town to live with his wife and family on a small farm.
For a worldly man and compulsive womanizer, used to
being at the frenetic heart ofpublic life, this too felt like
punishment. Idle and bitter, he tramped the hills by day
and, in the long, empty evenings, began to write down
some considerations on how to win power and, above
all, how to hold on to it, how not to be a victim of
9780141395876_ThePrince_PRE.indd 9 21/05/15 3:00 PM
circumstance. The result was a slim volume that would be
a scandal for centuries.
Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, the
same year Lorenzo de’ Medici (il Magnifico) came to
power. First male child after two daughters, Niccolò would
grow up very close to his father, Bernardo, anex- lawyer,
mostly unemployed, with good contacts but no significant
wealth or influence. Ifthe son was to rise in the world,
and he was determined to do so, he would have to count
on his own wits and charm. Niccolò’s younger brother,
Totto, chose not to compete and went into the priesthood.
The boys’ mother, it should be said, was an extremely
devout woman, a writer ofreligious poems and hymns.
Their father on the other hand was sceptical, more at home
with the sober works ofLatin antiquity than the Bible.
Niccolò may have taken his writing skills from his mother,
but over divisions on religion he stood with his father and
the Roman historians.
One says ofLorenzo il Magnifico that he ‘came to
power’, but officially Florence was a republic and since
Lorenzo was only twenty years old in 1469 he was far too
young to hold elected office; an explanation is required.
When, in the thirteenth century, the Florentines had
thrown out the noble families who used to run the town,
they introduced a republican constitution ofexemplary
idealism. A government ofeight priori led by one gonfalo-
niere, or prime minister, would be elected every two
months by drawing tags from a series ofbags containing
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the names of well- to- do men from different guilds and
different areas oftown. This lottery would allow each
major profession and each geographical area to be ade-
quately and constantly represented. Every individual (ofa
certain social standing) could expect a briefshare ofpower
in order that no one could ever seize it permanently.
The system was unworkable. Every two months a new
government might take a different position on key issues.
The potential for instability more or less obliged whichever
family was in the ascendant to step in and impose continu-
ity. From 1434 on, the Medicis– first Cosimo, then Piero,
then Lorenzo– had been manipulating the electoral pro-
cess to make sure that most ofthe names in the bags were
friendly to themselves and that all ofthose actually selected
for government would toe the Medici line. Hence, although
the Florentines still liked to boast that they were free citi-
zens who bowed the knee to no man, by themid- fifteenth
century they were in fact living in something very close to
a dictatorship. When the rival Pazzi family tried to assas-
sinate Lorenzo in the Duomo in April 1478, it was because
they saw no legitimate way ofputting him in his place as
an ordinary citizen. Machiavelli thus grew up in a society
where the distance between how things were actually run
and how they were described as being run could not have
been greater. He was close to his ninth birthday when the
captured Pazzi conspirators, one an archbishop, were hung
upside down from the high windows ofthe city’s main
government building and left there for weeks to rot. He
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would have understood very young the price ofgetting it
wrong in politics.
The young Machiavelli might also have had reason to
doubt that there was any meaningful difference between
matters ofreligion and matters ofstate. The pope had
backed the Pazzi conspiracy, priests had been involved in
the assassination attempt and Lorenzo was excommuni-
cated after it failed; the religious edict was a political tool.
A war between Florence and Rome ensued and the hostility
only ended in 1480 when Turkish raids on the southern
Italian coast prompted a rare moment ofunity in the pen-
insula. Years later, Lorenzo would so ingratiate himself
with a new pope as to get his son Giovanni made a cardinal
at age thirteen. From excommunication to pope’s favourite
was quite a change offortune and once again it was more
a matter ofpolitics than offaith. Nothing, it appeared, was
beyond the reach ofwealth and astute negotiation.
At this point Machiavelli wastwenty- one. We know very
little ofhis early adult life, but one thing he definitely did
at least once was to listen to the fiery preacher Girolamo
Savonarola, head ofthe influential monastery ofSan
Marco. Savonarola’s was a different kind ofChristianity:
rather than the corrupt,pleasure- conscious world ofthe
papacy, whose decadence had offered no resistance to the
rise ofHumanism, this austere monk represented an early
manifestation ofwhat we have come to call fundamental-
ism, a return to the biblical text as the sole authority
on earth and a vision ofthe Church as embattled and
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defensive in a world increasingly interested in values that
had little to do with the gospel story. With great conviction,
Savonarola preached the virtues ofpoverty, advocated the
burning ofany book or work ofart that was impure and
prophesied doom for the sinful Florentines in the form of
a foreign invasion. In 1494 his prophesy came true.
To get any grasp ofMachiavelli’s diplomatic career and the
range ofreference he draws on in The Prince, one must
have some sense ofthe complicated political geography
ofItaly in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and
ofthe profound change that occurred in the 1490s, a change
that would determine Italy’s fate for the next 350 years.
For most ofthe fifteenth century there had been five
major players in the peninsula: the Kingdom ofNaples,
the Papal States, Florence, Venice and Milan. Extending
from just south ofRome to the southernmost tip of
Calabria, the Kingdom ofNaples was by far the largest.
Wedged in the centre, with only precarious access to the
sea, Florence was the smallest and weakest.
All five powers were in fierce competition for whatever
territory they could take. Having lost much oftheir over-
seas empire to the Turks, the Venetians were eager to
expand inside the northern Italian plain (Ferrara, Verona,
Brescia) and down the Adriatic coast (Forlì Rimini). Con-
scious ofthe size and power ofa now unified France to
the north, Milan hoped for gains to the south and west
(Genoa) as acounter- weight. Florence simply tried to get
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bigger in any way that was convenient. Over the previous
century the Florentines had captured Arezzo, Pisa and
Cortona and wasted huge energies in a series offailed
attempts to conquer Lucca.
Rome’s aim under any pope was always to expand north
and east into Romagna and Emilia, with a view to swal-
lowing up Perugia, Bologna, Rimini and Forlì, a project
that would bring it into conflict with both Venice and Flor-
ence. In the far south, Naples was governed by a branch
ofthe house ofAragon, but the crown was contested by
the Angevin kings ofFrance and by the Spanish royal fam-
ily (also Aragons) which already ruled Sicily.
So the scenario was complicated. Scattered between the
large states were at least a score ofsmaller ones, some no
bigger than a town and the surrounding fields, and all con-
stantly under threat ofinvasion from one enemy or
another. However, ifthe situation was rarely static, it is
also true that there were few major changes. As soon as
one power achieved some significant military victory, the
others immediately formed an alliance against it to halt its
progress. Florence, in particular, owed its continuing inde-
pendence largely to the fact that ifVenice, Milan or Rome
tried to take it, the other two would at once intervene to
prevent this happening. So for more than a hundred years
a certain balance ofpower had been kept. All this ended
with the French invasion of1494.
The invasion was, as Machiavelli himselfexplains in The
Prince, largely the Italians’ own fault. For some time the
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five states had been in the habit offrightening each other
with the threat offoreign intervention. During the war
against Rome and Naples in 1480, Florence had invited the
French king to pursue his claim to the throne ofNaples
more actively. In 1482, during a Venetian assault on Ferrara,
Florence and Milan had encouraged the Turks to step up
their attacks on Venice’s maritime possessions. Venice had
replied by inviting the Duke ofOrleans to pursue his claim
to Milan. In a war against Naples in 1483, Pope Innocent
VIII had reminded the Duke ofLorraine that he too had
a claim to the southern kingdom and invited him to send
There was an element ofbluffand brinkmanship in
these threats, but in 1494 when King Charles VIII ofFrance
accepted Milan’s invitation to make good his claim to the
crown ofNaples, the bluffwas called. Charles marched
south with an army far larger than any Italians had seen in
living memory. From that moment on, the peninsula would
not be free from foreign intervention until the completion
ofthe Risorgimento in 1870. Struggling to hold Naples,
the French would invite in the Spanish from Sicily to split
the kingdom with them, and the Spanish, after Charles I
ofSpain inherited the crown ofthe Holy Roman Empire,
would eventually push France back north ofthe Alps, put
Rome to the sack and dominate Italy for 150 years.
But that is to leap ahead. In 1494, when the French first
marched through Lombardy heading for Naples, Florence
was directly in their path and, what’s more, an ally of
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Naples. At this point Lorenzo il Magnifico had been dead
for two years and the Medici regime was led by his incom-
petent son, Piero. So abject was Piero’s capitulation to
Charles, so spineless his decision simply to surrender the
city’s dependent territories, that the Florentines rebelled
against him. The Medici regime collapsed and very soon
the preacher who had been prophesying this disaster was
made gonfaloniere, first minister, this time on a yearly, rather
than atwo- monthly, basis.
Girolamo Savonarola ruled Florence from 1494 to 1498,
during which time the city passed from being one ofthe
centres ofRenaissance Humanism to abook- burning, fun-
damentalist theocracy. Realizing that Savonarola’s claim
to be God’s prophet was a far greater threat to its authority
than any Humanism, scepticism or eclecticism, the Church
in Rome did everything possible to bring about his downfall
and in 1498, having lost much ofhis support in Florence,
the preacher was convicted ofheresy and burned at the
stake. It was shortly after these dramatic events that Nic-
colò Machiavelli succeeded in getting himselfelected to
the important positions ofSecretary ofthe Second Chan-
cery (one oftwo key state departments in Florence) and,
soon afterwards, Secretary ofthe Ten ofWar, a committee
that dealt with foreign relations and war preparations.
Machiavelli wastwenty- eight. We have no idea how he
arrived at such appointments at this early age. There is no
record ofany special experience that would warrant such
confidence in his abilities. But within months he was
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travelling to neighbouring states to represent Florence’s
interests, and over the next fourteen years he would be
involved in important, oftenlong- drawn- out missions to
the King ofFrance, the pope, the Holy Roman Emperor,
Cesare Borgia, Caterina Sforza and many others. In
between these missions he was frequently and very actively
engaged in Florence’s ongoing military campaign tore- take
Pisa, which had regained its independence during the
French invasion. Pisa was crucial to Florentine commerce
in that it gave the town an outlet to the sea.
Introductions to The Prince generally play down Machi-
avelli’s abilities as a diplomat, presenting these years as
useful only in so far as they offered him the material he
would draw on for his writing after he had lost his position.
Machiavelli would not have seen things that way. For more
than a decade he was Florence’s top diplomat and proud
to be so, and ifthe missions he undertook did not produce
spectacular results this was largely because he was repre-
senting the weakest ofthe main states in Italy in a period
ofparticular confusion and vulnerability that would even-
tually see four foreign powers militarily involved in the
peninsula: France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and
Savonarola had taken Florence towards an alliance with
France; the priest’s successors followed the same policy,
but without any clear vision ofhow the city might achieve
stability and security in the long term. To make matters
worse, having decided in 1502 that their gonfaloniere, or first
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minister, should be elected for life, the Florentines gave the
job to Piero Soderini, an honourable man but chronically
incapable ofmaking any kind ofbold decision. Machia-
velli’s diplomatic career was thus mostly taken up in
attempts to persuade surrounding and threatening states
to leave Florence alone and not to expect financial or mili-
tary help from her for their wars elsewhere; that is, as far
as there was a discernible,long- term policy it was one of
prevarication. Far from home, Machiavelli would fre-
quently receive contradictory orders after he had already
started negotiating. Arriving in foreign towns, he would
find that his expense allowance wasn’t sufficient to pay
couriers to take his messages back to Florence. Sometimes
he could barely afford to feed and clothe himself. Such was
the contempt ofthe more powerful monarchs that he was
often obliged to wait days or even weeks before being
granted an audience.
It is in the light ofthese frustrations that we have to
understand Machiavelli’s growing obsession, very much in
evidence in The Prince, with the formation ofa citizen army.
Florence was weak partly because ofits size but mostly
because it had no military forces ofits own. It relied on
mercenary armies which were notorious for evaporating
when things got tough, before the gates ofPisa for example.
Apower- base built on an efficient and patriotic civilian
army would give a diplomat like Machiavelli a little more
clout and respect when he negotiated. Or so he hoped.
In June of1502, four years into the job, Machiavelli met
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Cesare Borgia, son ofPope Alexander VI. With his father’s
support, Borgia was carving out a new state for himself
on the northern borders ofthe Papal States and had just
captured the city ofUrbino to the east ofFlorence. Sent
on a mission to dissuade Borgia from advancing into Flor-
entine territory, Machiavelli was deeply impressed by the
man. Seductive, determined, cunning and ruthless, Borgia
was a leader in the epic mode. Certainly he could hardly
have been more different from the diplomat’s dithering
boss, Soderini.
Machiavelli was on another mission to Borgia in January
1503 when the adventurer invited a group ofrebels to nego-
tiations in the coastal town ofSenigallia, then had them
seized and murdered as soon as they were inside the town
walls. Here was a man, Machiavelli realized, determined
to take circumstance by the scruffofthe neck. It was not
so much Borgia’s willingness to ignore Christian principles
that fascinated him, as his ability to assess a situation rap-
idly, make his calculations, then act decisively in whatever
way would bring the desired result. This modern, positivist
attitude, where thought and analysis serve in so far as they
produce decisive action, rather than abstract concepts, lies
at the heart ofThe Prince.
Meanwhile Florence continued to drift. Machiavelli was
once again on the scene in 1503, this time in Rome, when
Borgia’s empire collapsed after both he and his father fell
seriously ill; legend has it that Alexander had accidentally
poisoned them both. The pope died and the son lost his
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power- base. Three years later Machiavelli was travelling
with the later Pope Julius at the head ofthe papal army
when Julius demanded admission to the town ofPerugia,
walked in with only a small bodyguard and told the local
tyrant, Giampaolo Baglioni, to get out or face certain
defeat. Sure that Baglioni would simply kill Julius, Machi-
avelli was amazed when the man caved in and fled. Such
were the pope’s coercive powers as he then marched north
to lay siege to Bologna that Florence was once again forced
to enter an alliance and a war in which it had no desire to
be involved.
As Secretary ofthe Ten ofWar, Machiavelli enjoyed just
one moment ofpersonal glory, in 1509, when the citizen
army that he had finally been allowed to form overcame
Pisan resistance and took the town after a long siege. Given
the many failed attempts to capture Pisa using mercenary
armies, this victory was a powerful vindication ofMachi-
avelli’s conviction that citizen armies were superior. It was
also the only occasion in his fourteen years ofservice when
Soderini took the initiative with success.
But in every other respect things went from bad to
worse. Florence was living on borrowed time, its freedom
dependent on the whims ofothers. Three years after the
capture ofPisa, when Pope Julius, now in alliance with the
Spanish, defeated the French at Ravenna, he immediately
sent an army to Florence to impose a return ofthe Medici
and transform the city into a puppet state dependent on
Rome. After briefresistance, the Florentine army was
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crushed at Prato a few miles to the north ofthe city.
Soderini escaped and the Medici returned. Machiavelli
wasunemployed and unemployable.
The scandalous nature ofThe Prince was largely deter-
mined by its structure rather than any conscious desire to
shock. Originally entitled On Principalities, the book opens
with an attempt to categorize different kinds ofstates and
governments at different moments oftheir development,
then, moving back and forth between ancient and modern
history, to establish some universal principles relative to
the business oftaking and holding power in each kind of
state. Given Machiavelli’s experience, wide reading and
determined intellectual honesty, the project obliged him
to explain that there were many occasions when winning
and holding political power was possible only ifa leader
was ready to act outside the moral codes that applied to
ordinary individuals. Public opinion was such, he explained,
that, once victory was achieved, nobody was going to put
the winner on trial. Political leaders were above the law.
Had Machiavelli insisted on deploring this unhappy state
ofaffairs, had he dwelt on other criteria for judging a
leader, aside from his mere ability to stay in power and
build a strong state, had he told us with appropriate piety
that power was hardly worth having ifyou had to sell your
soul to get it, he could have headed offa great deal of
criticism while still delivering the same information. But
aside from one or two token regrets that the world is not
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a nicer place, Machiavelli does not do this. It wasn’t his
project. Rather he takes it for granted that we already know
that life, particularly political life, is routinely, and some-
times unspeakably, cruel, and that once established in a
position ofpower a ruler may have no choice but to kill
or be killed.
This is where the words ‘ofnecessity’, ‘must’ and ‘have
to’ become so ominous. For The Prince is most convincing
and most scandalous not in its famous general statements–
that the end justifies the means, that men must be pampered
or crushed, that the only sure way ofkeeping a conquered
territory is to devastate it utterly, and so on– but in the
many historical examples ofbarbarous behaviour that
Machiavelli puts before us, without anyhand- wringing, as
things that were bound to happen: the Venetians find that
their mercenary leader Carmagnola is not putting much
effort into his fighting any more, but they are afraid that
ifthey dismiss him he will walk offwith the territory he
previously captured for them: ‘at which point the only safe
thing to do was to kill him.’ Hiero ofSyracuse, when given
command ofhis country’s army, finds that they are all
mercenaries and ‘realizing that they could neither make
use ofthem, nor let them go, he had them all cut to pieces.’
The climax ofthis approach comes with Machiavelli’s
presentation ofthe ruthless Cesare Borgia as a model for
any man determined to win a state for himself(as ifsuch
a project were not essentially dissimilar from building a
house or starting a business). Having tamed and unified
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the Romagna with the help ofhis cruel minister Remirro
de Orco, Machiavelli tells us, Borgia decided to deflect
people’s hatred away from himselfby putting the blame
for all atrocities on his minister and then doing away with
him: so ‘he had de Orco beheaded and his corpse put on
display one morning in the piazza in Cesena with a wooden
block and a bloody knife beside. The ferocity ofthe spec-
tacle left people both gratified and shocked.’
It’s hard not to feel, as we read the chapters on Borgia,
that this is the point where Machiavelli’s book ceases to be
the learned, but fairly tame, On Principalities and is trans-
formed into the extraordinary and disturbing work that
would eventually be called The Prince. In short, Machiavel-
li’s attention has shifted from a methodical analysis of
different political systems to a gripping and personally
engaged account ofthe psychology ofthe leader who has
placed himselfbeyond the constrictions ofChristian ethics
and lives in a delirium ofpure power. For a diplomat like
Machiavelli, who had spent his life among the powerful
but never really held the knife by the handle, a state
employee so scrupulously honest that when investigated
for embezzlement he ended up being reimbursed monies
that were due to him, it was all too easy to fall into a state
ofenvy and almost longing when contemplating the awe-
some Borgia who had no qualms about taking anything
that came his way and never dreamed ofbeing honest to
At a deep level, then, the scandal ofThe Prince is
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intimately tied up with the scandal ofall writers offiction
and history who in the quiet oftheir studies take vicarious
enjoyment in the ruthlessness ofthe characters they
describe– but with this difference: Machiavelli systematizes
such behaviour and appears to recommend it, ifonly to
those few who are committed to winning and holding
political power. The author’s description, in a letter to a
friend, ofhis state ofmind when writing the book makes
it clear what a reliefit was, during these months immedi-
ately following his dismissal, imprisonment and torture,
to imagine himselfback in the world ofpolitics and, if
only on paper, on a par with history’s great heroes.
Come evening, I walk home and go into my study. In the
passage I take offmy ordinary clothes, caked with mud
and slime, and put on my formal palace gowns. Then when
I’m properly dressed I take my place in the courts ofthe
past where the ancients welcome me kindly and I eat my
fill ofthe only food that is really mine and that I was born
for. I’m quite at ease talking to them and asking them why
they did the things they did, and they are generous with
their answers. So for four hours at a time I feel no pain, I
forget all my worries, I’m not afraid ofpoverty and death
doesn’t frighten me. I put myselfentirely in their minds.
In so far as The Prince remains a persuasive account ofhow
political power is won and lost it is so because it eventually
focuses on the mind, or, to be more precise, on the
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interaction ofindividual and collective psychologies, the
latter fairly predictable, the former infinitely varied, the
two together dangerously volatile. The book is not a care-
ful elaboration ofa rigid, predetermined vision. More and
more, as Machiavelli rapidly assesses different kinds of
states and forms ofgovernment, different contexts, differ-
ent men and their successes and failures, he runs up against
two factors that defy codification: the role ofluck and the
mystery ofpersonality. By the end ofthe book he is beyond
the stage ofoffering heroes and success stories as models,
aware that ifthere is one circumstance that a man cannot
easily change it is his own character: even had he wanted
to, Soderini could not have modelled himselfon Borgia,
nor vice versa.
In particular Machiavelli is fascinated by the way certain
personality traits can mesh positively or negatively with
certain sets ofhistorical circumstances. A man can be suc-
cessful in one situation then fail miserably in another; a
policy that works well in one moment is a disaster the next.
Rather than one ideal ruler, then, different men are required
for different situations. The only key to permanent political
success would be always to adapt one’s deepest instincts
to new events, but, as Machiavelli ruefully observes, that
would effectively mean the end of‘luck’ and the end of
Machiavelli’s own mind was deeply divided during the
writing ofThe Prince and it is the resulting tension that
accounts for much ofthe book’s fascination and ambiguity.
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On the one hand, as a form ofprivate therapy, he was
disinterestedly pursuing the truth about power and politics:
to establish how states really were won and lost would give
him an illusion ofcontrol and bolster hisself- esteem. At
the same time, and perhaps less consciously, he was vicari-
ously enjoying, in the stories ofBorgia and others, the sort
ofdramatic political achievements that had always been
denied to him. In this regard it’s interesting to see how
rapidly he glosses over Borgia’s abject fall from power, his
arrest, imprisonment and death, almost as ifthe author
were in denial about his hero’s ultimate fallibility.
Therapeutic as this might have been, however, at another
level The Prince was clearly written for publication and
meant as a public performance. Machiavelli loves to show
offhis intelligence, his range ofreference, his clever rea-
soning. Even here, though, his intentions were divided and
perhaps contradictory. At his most passionate and focused
he was involved in a debate with all the great historians
and philosophers ofthe past and determined to show his
contemporaries that his own mind was as sharp as the best.
But in a more practical mood Machiavelli was planning to
use the book as a passport to get himselfback into a job:
so evident and compelling, he hoped, would his analytical
skills appear, that the ruler to whom he formally gave and
dedicated the book would necessarily want to employ him;
hence the flattering tone ofthe opening dedication and
the addition ofThe Prince’s final patriotic pages proposing
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that the ruler in question should be the man to rid Italy of
foreign oppression.
Who was this ruler? Shortly before Machiavelli had been
released from prison, Pope Julius had died and been
replaced by Giovanni de’ Medici, il Magnifico’s son, the
man who had become a cardinal at thirteen. This was
March 1513. When he started work on The Prince some
months later, Machiavelli had intended to dedicate the
book to Giovanni’s brother, Giuliano, who had been put
in charge ofFlorence after the Medicis’ return. However,
when the effeminate Giuliano began to move away from
politics and was replaced in Florence by his aggressive,
warlike nephew Lorenzo, Machiavelli decided to switch
the dedication to the younger man.
Thus far the writer showed himselfflexible in the face
ofchanging events. Yet there is something ingenuous and
almost endearing in the clever diplomat’s miscalculation
here. The brilliant reasoning required to convince yourself
that you had got a grip on politics and history, the profound
analysis that would demonstrate to your fellow intellectu-
als that you were asclear- headed as Livy, Tacitus and
Thucydides put together, were not the qualities that a
young and hardlywell- read Medici prince was likely to
comprehend, never mind enjoy.
Given the book in 1515, Lorenzo probably never opened
it and certainly didn’t take time to study Machiavelli’s care-
fully crafted reflections. Then, even ifhe had read it, would
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Lorenzo, or indeed any other ruler, have wanted to employ
a diplomat who had gone on record as saying that trickery
was largely the name ofthe game and that though it wasn’t
important to have a religious faith it was absolutely essen-
tial to appear to have one? Machiavelli should have been
the first to understand that as an instrument for furthering
his diplomatic career, rather than a literary and philosoph-
ical achievement in its own right, the book’s honesty would
beself- defeating: the two goals were never compatible.
Surprised and disappointed by The Prince’s failure, Mach-
iavelli went back to womanizing. Aside from routine
whoring, he fell in and out oflove easily, pursuing passion
without discretion or restraint. And just as he had more
luck with romance than diplomacy, he had more success
when he wrote ironic,sex- centred comedies rather than
candid but dangerous political analyses. In 1518 the first
performance ofhis play The Mandragola, in which a young
man invents the most absurd subterfuges to get a married
woman into bed, won Machiavelli immediate celebrity;
some years later Clizia, which this time has an older man
hell- bent on having his way with a very young woman,
confirmed his talent.
But literary success was not enough for Machiavelli. It
was active politics that interested him, and, though he
laboured for ten years or so on his Discourses on Livy, then
on a long history ofFlorence and finally on a short work
entitled The Art ofWar, it was his old job as the city’s prin-
cipal ambassador that he always yearned for. Finally, in
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1525, Pope Clement VII, alias Giulio de’ Medici (Giovanni’s
cousin), drew theex- diplomat back into politics, asking
him for advice on how to deal with the growing antagon-
ism between the French and the Spanish. As an eventual
clash between the two great powers inside Italy loomed
ever closer, Machiavelli was given the task ofoverseeing
Florence’s defensive walls. When the crunch came, how-
ever, and the armies ofSpain and the Holy Roman Empire,
now united under the same crown, marched south into
Italy, they simply bypassed Florence, went straight to Rome
and sacked it. It was an occasion ofthe most disgraceful
savagery on a scale Italy had not witnessed for centuries.
In the aftermath, the Medici regime in Florence collapsed
and once again Machiavelli was out offavour. Over-
whelmed with disappointment and in the habit oftaking
medicines that weren’t good for him, he died in June 1527,
agedfifty- eight, having accepted, no doubt after careful
calculation, extreme unction.
That there are many different roads to notoriety and that
a man’s achievements may combine with historical events
in unexpected ways, are truths Machiavelli was well aware
of. So he would have appreciated the irony that it was
largely due to Luther’s Protestant reform and the ensuing
wars ofreligion that his name became the object ofthe
most implacable vilification and, as a consequence, univer-
sally famous.
The turning point came in 1572. The Prince had not been
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published in Machiavelli’s lifetime. After circulating for
years in manuscript form, then in a printed Latin edition
(still entitled On Principalities), it finally appeared in Italian
in 1532, only to be put on Pope Paul IV’s Index ofProhibited
Books in 1559, this partly in response to the prompting of
the English cardinal Reginald Pole, who maintained that,
written as it was by ‘Satan’s finger’, The Prince was largely
responsible for Henry VIII’s decision to take the English
Church away from Rome.
Meantime, in France, the conflict between the Protest-
ant Huguenots and the Catholics was intensifying and
would reach a head under the reign ofthe sickly young
Charles IX, who for the most part was controlled by his
mother, the Italian, indeed Florentine, Catherine de’ Med-
ici, daughter ofthe same Lorenzo de’ Medici to whom
Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince. Catherine had
brought a great many Italian favourites into the French
court, a move guaranteed to arouseanti- Italian feeling. In
general, she sought to dampen down the religious conflict
which threatened to tear France apart, but nevertheless
she would be held responsible for the StBartholomew’s
Day Massacre of1572 when thousands ofHuguenots were
murdered. One potential victim, Innocent Gentillet,
escaped to Protestant Geneva and wrote a Discours contre
Machiavel that was to set the tone foranti- Machiavellian
criticism for decades to come.
Intended as an attack on Catherine de’ Medici and mili-
tant French Catholicism, and hence a defence ofthe
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Huguenots, the book described Catherine as a compulsive
reader ofMachiavelli and, playing onanti- Italian feeling,
claimed that both queen and writer were representative of
a callous and villainous trait in Italian national character.
Listed out ofcontext, the ideas developed in The Prince
were schematized and simplified, allowing readers to
imagine they had read Machiavelli himselfwhen what they
were actually getting was a travesty that legitimized any
form ofbrutality and rejoiced in amoral calculation.
From this point on, Machiavelli’s name escaped from
the restricted circle ofintellectual reflection and became
a popular term ofdenigration. ‘Mach Evil’ and ‘Match- a-
villain’ were typical English corruptions, ‘Mitchell Wylie’
a Scottish. Many critics would not bother reading his work
in the original but take their information from Gentillet,
whose ‘ Anti- Machiavel’, as his book became known, was
quickly translated into Latin for English readers and then,
some twenty years later, directly into English. At this point
(the end ofthe sixteenth century) the first English trans-
lation ofMachiavelli’s work was yet to appear.
Ironically, in the years after the StBartholomew’s Day
Massacre, as Catherine de’ Medici struggled to find some
solution to France’s civil wars, and in particular to convince
Catholics ofthe need to tolerate the existence ofthe
Huguenots, ifonly in Huguenot enclaves, both she and
her supposed mentor Machiavelli once again came under
attack, this time from the Catholic side. The accusation
now was that, in the attempt to avoid conflict, religious
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truths ofsupreme importance were being subordinated
to questions ofpolitical convenience, something that
would eventually transform France, the Catholics feared,
into a secular state.
Here the criticism comes closer to the real spirit of
Machiavelli. Renaissance Humanism in general had shifted
the focus ofintellectual reflection from questions ofthe-
ology and metaphysical truth to matters ofimmediate and
practical human interest. In general, however, lip service
had always been paid to the ultimate superiority ofreli-
gious matters and writers had avoided suggesting that there
might be a profound incompatibility between rival value
systems: it was perfectly possible, that is, to be a good Chris-
tian and an effective political leader.
Machiavelli, on the contrary, made it clear that, as he
saw it, Christian principles and effective political leadership
were not always compatible; situations would arise where
one was bound to choose between the two. It was not,
as his critics claimed, that he rejected all ethical values
outright; the strength, unity and independence ofa people
and state certainly constituted goals worth fighting
for (‘I love my country more than my soul’, Machiavelli
declared in a letter to fellow historian Francesco Guicciar-
dini). But such goals could not always be achieved without
abandoning Christian principles; twovalue- systems were
at loggerheads. To make matters worse, Machiavelli did
not appear to be concerned about this. He took it as an
evident truth: Christian principles were admirable, but not
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applicable for politicians in certain circumstances; the idea
that all human behaviour could be assessed in relation to
one set ofvalues was naive and utopian. It was in so far as
Machiavelli allowed these dangerous implications to sur-
face in his writing that he both unmasked, and himself
became identified with, what we might call the unaccept-
able face ofRenaissance Humanism.
How much the presentation ofthe Machiavellian villain
in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, from Kyd and Marlowe,
through to Middleton, Shakespeare and ultimately Ben
Jonson, owed to Gentillet’s ‘ Anti- Machiavel’ and how much
to a direct knowledge ofMachiavelli’s writings is still a
matter ofacademic dispute. In the 1580s an Italian version
ofThe Prince was printed in England, avoiding a publication
ban by claiming falsely on the frontispiece that it was
printed in Italy. Many educated English people at the time
had a good knowledge ofItalian. Sir Francis Bacon had
certainly read The Prince before its first legal publication in
English in 1640, defending the Florentine in the Advancement
ofLearning (1605) with the remark: ‘We are much beholden
to Machiavel and others, that write what men do and not
what they ought to do.’
But the ‘murderous Machiavel’ who gets more than
400 mentions in Elizabethan drama, thus making the Flor-
entine’s name synonymous with the idea ofvillainy for
centuries to come, is another matter. The Roman author
Seneca had long ago established a tradition in tragic drama
that featured an evil, calculating tyrant who would stop at
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nothing to grasp all the power he could. Renaissance Italian
theatre had updated this type ofvillain with elements from
Machiavelli, transforming the character into an unscrupu-
lous courtier who takes pleasure in wicked calculation and
cruelty. It was from this model that the English theatre
developed its endlessmani festations ofthe devious rogue
(pander, miser, or revengeful cuckold) who administers
poisons with aplomb and is never without a dagger
beneathhis cloak.
From the point ofview ofthe dramatist, an unscrupu-
lous character who has a secret agenda and relies on his
presumed intellectual superiority to dupe those around
him is obviously an exciting proposition. Such a figure can
be depended upon to create tension, keep the plot moving
and allow for resolutions where the larger group’s benign
order once again imposes itselfafter the tragic disturbance
caused by the wicked, scheming individual. Beyond a super-
ficial repulsion that the audience feels towards such a
character, be it Marlowe’s Jew ofMalta, Webster’s Flami-
neo in The White Devil, or Shakespeare’s Iago, there is also
an undercurrent ofexcitement at the thought that it might
be possible to take life entirely into one’s hands, manipulate
people and circumstances at will and generally pursue one’s
selfish goals without a thought for moral codes or eternal
damnation: in this sense the Machiavellian villain looks
ahead to the worst ofmodern individualism.
Then there was also, ofcourse, the contrasting pleasure
ofseeing the clever schemer ‘hoist with his own petard’.
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As the years passed and the high tension ofJacobean tra-
gedy relaxed into the comedies ofBen Jonson and his
contemporaries, the evil Machiavel became a pathetic fail-
ure whose complacently wicked designs inevitably and
reassuringly led to his making a fool ofhimself. Fading out
ofBritish drama in themid- seventeenth century, this stock
figure is still resurrected from time to time, most recently
and hilariously in Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, a charac-
ter who adds a visceral cowardice to the already long list
ofMachiavel’s vices.
To a great extent, no doubt, it was this identification of
Machiavelli’s name with everything that was evil which
kept The Prince in print and guaranteed that, despite the
papal ban, it would be widely read. But there was more.
As medieval Christianity and scholasticism sank into the
past and science and reason made their slow, often unwel-
come advances, as Europe got used to religious schism and
competing versions ofthe truth, the overriding question
for any modern ruler inevitably became: how can I con-
vince people that I have a legitimate, reasonable right to
hold power and to govern? In England Charles Stuart
would insist on the notion that kings had a divine right,
this at a time when so many English monarchs had seized
their crowns by force and cunning. Curiously enough,
Charles’s great antagonist Cromwell felt that he too had
a direct line to God and legitimacy, but through belief
andpiety rather than family and inheritance. Officially a
parliamentarian, Cromwell frequently governed without
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parliament or elections for fear the people might not see
things God’s way.
Meantime, across Europe, the princes and princesses of
ancient noble families took to marrying and remarrying
each other in anever- thickening web ofdefensive alliances,
as ifdensity ofblood and lineage might offer protection
against the threat ofusurpers or, worse still, republicanism
and democracy. No family was more practised at this
upmarket dating game than the Medici, who, partly thanks
to an extraordinary network ofconnections, would hang
on in Florence in aclient- state twilight lasting more than
200 undistinguished years. Meantime, from Paris to Madrid
to Naples, the court clothes became finer, the statues and
monuments more pompous and the whole royal charade
more colourful and more solemn, as though people might
somehow be dazzled into believing that a king or a duke
really did have a right to rule. Many prestigious works of
art were commissioned with precisely this idea in mind.
But most ofall Europe’s rulers worked hard to put a
halo round their crowned heads, to appear religious and
at all costs to uphold the Faith, sensing that this too would
bolster their position and draw attention away from the
mystery oftheir privileges. Later still, particularly after
the French Revolution had destroyed any illusions about
the rights ofmonarchs, the rather desperate card of
‘respectability’ was played. Members ofcourt, Napoleon
ordered, shortly after usurping power, must attend soirées
with their wives, to appear respectable and avoid gossip.
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‘The death ofconversation’, Talleyrand opined. Certainly,
when a leader has to rely on appearing respectable to claim
legitimacy, he is on thin ice indeed.
To thislong- drawn- out conspiracy ofpomp and pious
circumstance, Machiavelli’s little book was a constant
threat. It reminded people that power is always up for
grabs, always a question ofwhat can be taken by force or
treachery, and always, despite all protests to the contrary,
the prime concern ofany ruler. In their attempt to dis-
creditThe Prince, both religious and state authorities played
up the author’s admiration for the ruthless Borgia, and
never mentioned his perception that in the long run a ruler
must avoid being hated by his people and must always put
their interests before those ofthe aristocracy; the people
are so many, Machiavelli reflected, that power ultimately
lies with them.
Liberal andleft- wing thinkers were not slow to pick up
on this aspect ofthe book. As Rousseau saw it, the whole
ofThe Prince was itselfa Machiavellian ruse: the author
had only pretended to give lessons to kings whereas in fact
his real aim was to teach people to be free by showing them
that royal power was no more than subterfuge. Both Spi-
noza and, later, the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo saw it the
same way: The Prince was a cautionary tale about how
power really worked, the underlying intention being to
deprive those who held it ofdignity and glamour and teach
the people as a whole how to resist it; Machiavelli after all
declared himselfa republican and a libertarian. The
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communist leader Antonio Gramsci would even see The
Prince as looking forward to the dictatorship ofthe
Others took a more traditional view: Bertrand Russell
described The Prince as ‘a handbook for gangsters’, and in
so doing did no more than repeat the position ofFrederick
the Great, who wrote a book to refute Machiavelli and
present a more idealistic vision ofmonarchical govern-
ment. Others again ( Jakob Burckhardt and Friedrich
Meinecke) found a space between denigration and admir-
ation to suggest that the novelty ofMachiavelli was to
present leadership andnation- building as creative processes
that should be judged not morally but aesthetically; in a
manner that looked forward to Nietzsche the charismatic
leader made a work ofart ofhimselfand his government.
Mussolini simply took the book at face value: it was a useful
‘vade mecum for statesmen’, he enthused.
But whatever our interpretation ofhis intentions, one
reaction that Machiavelli never seems to provoke is indif-
ference. Reading The Prince it is impossible not to engage
with the disturbing notion that politics cannot be governed
by the ethical codes that most ofus seek to observe in our
ordinary lives. And however we react to this idea, once we
have closed the book it will be very hard to go on thinking
ofour own leaders in quite the same way as we did before.
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Translator’s Note
Translations have a way ofgathering dust. This isn’t true
ofan original text. When we read Chaucer or Shakespeare
we may need a gloss, or in the case ofChaucer a modern
translation, but we only look at these things so that we can
then enjoy the work as it was first written. And we’re struck
by its immediacy and freshness, as ifwe had been able to
learn a foreign language in a very short space oftime with
little effort and maximum reward.
This is not the case with an old translation. Ifwe read
Pope’s translation ofHomer today, we read it because we
want to read Pope, not Homer. Linguistically, the transla-
tion draws our attention more to the language and poetry
ofour eighteenth century than to Homer or ancient
So to attempt a new translation ofMachiavelli is not to
dismiss previous translations as poor. We are just acknowl-
edging that these older versions now draw attention to
themselves as moments in the English language. My efforts
ofcourse will some day meet the same fate. Such distrac-
tions are particularly unfortunate with Machiavelli, who
insisted that he was only interested in style in so far as it
could deliver content without frills or distraction. ‘I haven’t
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Translator’s Note
prettified the book,’ he tells us, ‘or padded it out with long
sentences or pompous, pretentious words, or any ofthe
irrelevant flourishes and attractions so many writers use;
I didn’t want it to please for anything but the range and
seriousness ofits subject matter.’
I have taken that statement ofintention as my guide in
this translation, attempting wherever possible to free the
text from the archaisms and corrosive quaintness ofolder
English versions, to get to the essential meaning ofthe
original and deliver it, as we say today, but perhaps not
tomorrow, straight.
It isn’t easy. The first problem, and one that sets up all
the others, is already there in the title: The Prince. What is
a prince for Machiavelli? Well, a duke is a prince. The pope
is a prince. A Roman emperor is a prince. The King of
France is a prince. The Lord ofImola is a prince.
This won’t work in modern English. The English have
Prince Charles. And the thing about Prince Charles is that
he is not King Charles and probably never will be. And
even ifhe were king he would wield no real power, not
even the kind ofpower the pope wields, and we never think
ofthe pope as a king or prince.
The only other idea we have of‘the prince’, in English,
is Prince Charming. This concept is a long way from the
ageing Prince Charles and even further from the kind of
prince Machiavelli was talking about. Machiavelli’s word
‘prince’ does not mean ‘the son ofthe king’, and even less
‘an attractive young suitor’. Machiavelli’s ‘principe’ refers
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Translator’s Note
generically to men ofpower, men who rule a state. The
prince is the first, or principal, man.
So the translator is tempted to use the word ‘king’. At
least in the past a king stood at the apex ofa hierarchical
system, he was the man who mattered. But it is difficult,
translating Machiavelli, to use the word ‘king’ to refer to
the lord ofImola, or a pope, or a Roman emperor. In the
end, as far as possible, I have resolved this problem by using
the rather unattractive word ‘ruler’, or even the more gen-
eric ‘leader’, though always making it clear that we’re
talking about the political leader ofa state. The book’s
famous title, however, must be left as it is.
Even harder to solve is the translation of‘virtù’, together
with a number ofother words that cluster round it. It
would be so easy to write the English cognate ‘virtue’,
meaning the opposite ofvice, but this is not what Machi-
avelli was talking about. He was not interested in the
polarity ‘good’/‘evil’, but in winning and losing, strength
and weakness, success and failure. For Machiavelli ‘virtù’
was any quality ofcharacter that enabled you to take pol-
itical power or to hold on to it; in short, a winning trait. It
could be courage in battle, or strength ofpersonality, or
political cunning, or it might even be the kind ofruthless
cruelty that lets your subjects know you mean business.
But one can hardly write ‘cunning’ or ‘cruelty’ for ‘virtù’,
even ifone knows that in this context that is what the text
means; because then you would lose the sense that
although Machiavelli is not talking about the moral virtues
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Translator’s Note
he nevertheless wants to give a positive connotation to the
particular qualities he is talking about: this cruelty is aimed
at solving problems, retaining power, keeping a state
strong, hence, in this context it is a ‘virtù’.
Ugly though it may sound, then, I have sometimes been
obliged to translate ‘virtù’ as ‘positive qualities’ or ‘strength
ofcharacter’, except ofcourse on those occasions– because
there are some– when Machiavelli does mean ‘virtues’
in the moral sense: in which case he’s usually talking
aboutthe importance offaking them even ifyou may not
have them. Faking, ofcourse, when cunningly deployed
for an appropriate end, is another important virtù. The spin
doctor was not a notion invented in the 1990s.
Related to both these particular problems –prince,
virtue– is the more general difficulty that so many ofthe
key words Machiavelli uses have English cognates through
Latin–for tuna, audace, circospetto, malignità, diligente, etc.
In some cases they are true cognates– prudente/prudent,
for example– but even then to use the cognate pulls us
back to a rather dusty, archaic style. Aren’t the words ‘care-
ful’ or ‘cautious’ or ‘considered’ more often used now than
the word ‘prudent’?
Something ofthe same difficulty can occur where there
is no cognate in English but a traditional and consolidated
dictionary equivalent for an old Italian term. Machiavelli
frequently uses the word ‘savio’, which has usually been
translated ‘wise’, but again this invites the English version
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Translator’s Note
to drift towards that slightly stilted archaic style so often
used to render great texts from the past; ‘sensible’ or on
other occasions ‘shrewd’ are choices that, depending on
the context, can combine accuracy with a prose that draws
less attention to itselfas a translation.
So the constantly recurring question as one translates
The Prince is: what words would we use today to describe
the qualities and situations Machiavelli is talking about?
Ofcourse sometimes there are no modern words, because
there are certain things– siege engines, cavalry attacks– that
we don’t talk about any more. On the whole, though,
Machiavelli is chiefly interested in psychology or, rather, in
the interaction ofdifferent personalities in crisis situations,
and here, so long as the translator avoids the temptation
to introduce misleading contemporary jargon, a great deal
can be done to get The Prince into clear, contemporary
However, the difficulty ofthese lexical choices is infin-
itely compounded by Machiavelli’s wayward grammar and
extremely flexible syntax. Written in 1513, The Prince is not
easily comprehensible to Italians today. Recent editions of
the work are usually parallel texts with a modern Italian
translation printed beside the original. The obstacle for the
Italian reader, however, is hardly lexical at all– in the end
he can understand a good ninety per cent ofthe words
Machiavelli is using– rather it has to do with a combination
ofextreme compression ofthought, obsolete, sometimes
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Translator’s Note
erratic grammar, and, above all, a syntax where subordin-
ate andpre- modifying clauses abound in ways that the
modern reader is not used to.
We are not talking here about those complex but always
elegant Ciceronian sentences so admired and frequently
mimicked by the English Augustans. Machiavelli has a
more spoken, flexible, persuading, sometimes brusque
voice, and to get that tone in English one has to opt for a
syntax that is quite different from the original Italian. In
particular, the sequence with which information is deliv-
ered within the sentence frequently has to be reorganized.
Here, to give the reader a sense ofwhat he can expect, are
three versions ofthe same paragraph, the last being my
own. I haven’t chosen anything especially complex; it’s a
fairly ordinary passage in which, as so often, Machiavelli
poses a situation, then considers possible responses to it
and the consequences ofeach response. The first transla-
tion is from W. K. Marriot and was published in 1908.
A prince is also respected when he is either a true friend
or a downright enemy, that is to say, when, without any
reservation, he declares himselfin favour ofone party
against the other; which course will always be more advan-
tageous than standing neutral; because iftwo ofyour
powerful neighbours come to blows, they are ofsuch a
character that, ifone ofthem conquers, you have either
to fear him or not. In either case it will always be more
advantageous for you to declare yourselfand to make war
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Translator’s Note
strenuously; because, in the first case, ifyou do not declare
yourself, you will invariably fall a prey to the conqueror,
to the pleasure and satisfaction ofhim who has been con-
quered, and you will have no reasons to offer, nor anything
to protect or to shelter you. Because he who conquers does
not want doubtful friends who will not aid him in the time
oftrial; and he who loses will not harbour you because
you did not willingly, sword in hand, court his fate.
The second is from George Bull, published in 1961.
A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a
true enemy, that is, for revealing himselfwithout any
reservation in favour ofone side against another. This pol-
icy is always more advantageous than neutrality. For
instance, ifthe powers neighbouring on you come to
blows, either they are such that, ifone ofthem conquers,
you will be in danger, or they are not. In either case it will
always be to your advantage to declare yourselfand to
wage a vigorous war; because, in the first case, ifyou do
not declare yourselfyou will always be at the mercy ofthe
conqueror, much to the pleasure and satisfaction oftheone
who has been beaten, and you will have no justification
nor any way to obtain protection or refuge. The conqueror
does not want doubtful friends who do not help him when
he is in difficulties; the loser repudiates you because you
were unwilling to go, arms in hand, and throw in your
lotwith him.
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Translator’s Note
And here is my own.
A ruler will also be respected when he is a genuine friend
and a genuine enemy, that is, when he declares himself
unambiguously for one side and against the other. This
policy will always bring better results than neutrality. For
example, ifyou have two powerful neighbours who go to
war, you may or may not have reason to fear the winner
afterwards. Either way it will always be better to take sides
and fight hard. Ifyou do have cause to fear but stay neutral,
you’ll still be gobbled up by the winner to the amusement
and satisfaction ofthe loser; you’ll have no excuses, no
defence and nowhere to hide. Because a winner doesn’t
wanthalf- hearted friends who don’t help him in a crisis;
and the loser will have nothing to do with you since you
didn’t choose to fight alongside him and share his fate.
A typically tricky moment in this passage comes when
Machiavelli says ofthese neighbouring powers:
. . . o sono di qualità che, vincendo uno di quelli, tu abbia
a temere del vincitore, o no.
. . . either they are ofqualities that, winning one ofthose,
you ought to fear the winner, or not.
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Translator’s Note
Here Marriot gives:
. . . they are ofsuch a character that, ifone ofthem con-
quers, you have either to fear him or not.
And Bull:
. . . either they are such that, ifone ofthem conquers, you
will be in danger, or they are not.
Here it’s clear that Bull is closer to modern prose, yet
one still feels that nobody writing down this idea today
in English would introduce the second part ofMachiavelli’s
alternative as Bull does by tagging that ‘or they are not’ on
to the end ofthe sentence after the introduction ofan ‘if ’
clause. Ifwe follow Bull’s general structure but move
the alternative forward –thus, ‘either they are or they
aren’t such that ifone ofthem conquers, you will be in
danger’– the sentence gains in fluency. In the end, however,
the simplest solution seemed to me to shift the alternative
aspect towards the verb ‘fear’ and away from a description
ofthe two states; this leaves the sense ofthe sentence intact
and allows us to get closer to the original’s telegraphic
. . . you may or may not have reason to fear the winner
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Translator’s Note
Let me say at this point that I have the greatest respect
for both these earlier translations and indeed various
others. I owe a lot to them, because, although I have always
translated directly from the original, I have then gone
to these and to the modern Italian translations to see
where they disagree and to mull over what I can learn from
them. The original text is such that on occasion all four
ofthe translations I have been looking at, two English and
two Italian, offer different interpretations. In these cases
one really must attune oneselfto Machiavelli’s mental pro-
cesses, his insistence on logic, reason and deduction, and
remember that every clause, ifnot every word, is there for
a purpose.
Here is a small example. Having stated that rulers must
at all costs avoid being hated by their subjects, and that
such hatred is almost always the cause ofa leader’s down-
fall, Machiavelli foresees that some people will object that
this wasn’t the case with many Roman emperors who
either held on to power despite being hated by the people,
or lost it despite being loved. ‘To meet these objections’,
he tells us, ‘I shall consider the qualities ofsome ofthese
emperors, showing how the causes oftheir downfall are
not at all out ofline with my reasoning above.’ So far so
good, but this sentence then ends:
. . . e parte metterò in considerazione quelle cose che sono
notabili a chi legge le azioni di quelli tempi.
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Translator’s Note
Translating word for word, this gives:
. . . and part I will put in consideration those things that
are important to people who read the events ofthose times.
What is this about? Why did Machiavelli feel the need to
add these words to a sentence that already seems clear
enough. Bull offers:
. . . I shall submit for consideration examples which are
well known to students ofthe period.
This may sound sensible and vaguely academic, but it
simply isn’t accurate: the word ‘parte’ has gone; to ‘submit
for consideration’ may be a standard English formula, but
does it mean the same as Machiavelli’s actually rather
unusual ‘put in consideration’? ‘Notabile’ doesn’t so much
mean ‘well known’ as ‘worthy ofnote’ or ‘important’. Mar-
riot gives:
. . . at the same time I will only submit for consideration
those things that are noteworthy to him who studies the
affairs ofthose times.
Again we have the standard ‘submit for consideration’,
while ‘at the same time’ and ‘only’ are both translator’s
additions. It now sounds as ifMachiavelli is reassuring us
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Translator’s Note
that he will only look at examples that are relevant, but
this sort ofdefensiveness is not the author’s way. Why
would the reader have suspected him ofintroducing irrele-
vant examples?
One modern Italian translation gives: ‘e in parte indi-
cherò quei fatti che sono important per chi si interessa alla
storia di quei tempi.’ Literally: ‘and in part I will indicate
those facts that are important for people interested in the
history ofthose times.’
This is now extremely close to our literal translation of
Machiavelli’s original but still not particularly helpful.
What is the author getting at? What does the phrase add
to what has already been said?
Another Italian translation gives: ‘nello stesso tempo
indicherò i fatti che devono essere messi in evidenza da chi
si interessa alla storia di quei tempi.’ Literally: ‘at the same
time I will indicate the facts that must be put in evidence
by people interested in the history ofthose times.’
Despite the fact that ‘parte’ has once again been mysteri-
ously transformed into ‘at the same time’– a classic filler
when a translator is lost– an idea at last emerges: that there
are facts that people interested in those times ‘must put in
evidence’, and the implication is that without these facts
we won’t understand what has to be understood ifwe are
to be persuaded by the author’s argument.
At this point the translator tries to enter Machiavelli’s
reasoning, reassured by the knowledge that here we have
an author who always put sense and clarity before anything
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Translator’s Note
else. Machiavelli, remember, is facing objections from
people who claim that the question ofwhether a ruler’s
people do or do not hate him is not the crucial criterion
when it comes to considering whether that leader will sur-
vive. Those objections, what’s more, are based on the lives
ofcertain Roman emperors. What Machiavelli is going
to show in the following paragraphs is that the nature
ofpower and political institutions in the Roman empire
was profoundly different from that in a modern (early
sixteenth- century) state, the key difference being the exist-
ence, in Roman times, ofa strong standing army that, for
safety’s sake, a leader had to satisfy before satisfying the
people and that could often only be kept happy by allowing
it to treat the people very harshly, stealing and raping at
will. What this little clause appears to be doing, then, is
preparing us for Machiavelli’s approach to answering the
objection that has been raised: it is a question, he is going
to tell us, ofunderstanding a different historical context.
The word ‘parte’ could be short for ‘a parte’ (apart, sep-
arately) or ‘in parte’ (in part), as both the Italian translations
take it. Now perhaps we can read the sentence as a whole
To meet these objections, I shall consider the qualities of
some ofthese emperors, showing how the causes oftheir
downfall are not at all out ofline with my reasoning above,
and bringing into the argument some ofthe context that
historians ofthe period consider important.
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Translator’s Note
The original ‘mettere in considerazione’ (‘put in consider-
ation’) is used only once in the whole ofThe Prince (having
the text in electronic form is a huge help to the translator),
hence the decision not to translate with a standard formula
such as ‘submit for consideration’, but to give a more pre-
cise sense to the words with the expression ‘bringing into
the argument’: Machiavelli is advising us that for these
particular examples he will have to fill in a different context.
The idea of‘parte’ I have understood as ‘in part’, and then
for the sake offluency rendered it with ‘some’: the author
can’t bring in all the context, but some ofit.
One has no way ofknowing whether this is exactly what
Machiavelli meant, but the sentence now gives an internal
cohesion to the passage that was lacking in other versions.
And ifwe return to ourword- for- word translation ofthe
original–‘and part I will put in consideration those things
that are important to people who read the events ofthose
times’– we see that it can indeed be read in the way we
have chosen to render it.
One particularly pernicious problem a translator faces as
he grapples with The Prince is the book’s reputation. Machi-
avelli is a scandal, every schoolboy knows, because he puts
the ends before the means to the point ofcondoning acts
ofviolence, cruelty and betrayal, something Christian and
modern western ethics consider unacceptable: we don’t
condone a brutal killing just because it puts an end to a
riot and we are no longer at ease with the idea oftorture,
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Translator’s Note
even when it might prevent a terrorist atrocity. The climax
ofthis scandal comes with the author’s discussion of
Cesare Borgia, a man who rose to power and kept it with
the use ofextraordinary treachery and cruelty. The temp-
tation for the translator is to play to the reputation ofthe
book, underlining Machiavelli’s extreme views and making
sure the text doesn’t ‘disappoint’, even when its tone and
subtlety are not, perhaps, exactly what readers were
At the end ofthe discussion ofBorgia, having recounted
how he eventually lost power when his father, Pope Alex-
ander, suddenly and unexpectedly died and a pope hostile
to Borgia was elected, Machiavelli writes: ‘Raccolte io
adunque tutte le azioni del duca, non saprei riprenderlo.’
Literally, we have: ‘Having gathered then all the actions of
the duke, I would not know how to reproach him.’
Bull gives: ‘So having summed up all that the duke did,
I cannot possibly censure him.’ Here the word ‘censure’
has a strong moral connotation, and the statement is made
stronger still by the introduction of‘can’t possibly’, which
seems a heavy interpretation ofthe standard Italian for-
mula ‘I wouldn’t know how to’. In Bull’s version it seems
that Machiavelli is making a point oftelling us that he has
no moral objections to anything Cesare Borgia did, this in
line with the author’s reputation for cynicism.
Marriot more cautiously gives: ‘When all the actions of
the duke are recalled, I do not know how to blame him’,
and both Italian translations take the same line. The fact
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Translator’s Note
is that just as the word ‘virtù is rarely used in a strictly moral
context, so the word ‘riprendere’, ‘reproach’, refers not to
moral behaviour, but to the question: did the duke get
something wrong, did he make a mistake? A key to reading
the word comes at the opening to the next paragraph
where we have: ‘Solamente si può accusarlo nella creazione
di Iulio pontefice, nella quale lui ebbe mala elezione’,
which, more or less literally, gives us: ‘The only thing Bor-
gia can be accused ofis his role in the election ofPope
Julius, where he made a bad choice’ (that is, as far as his
own interests were concerned, he backed the wrong man).
Here we approach the subtler scandal ofMachiavelli’s
text: it is not that the author is insisting that Borgia’s
immoral acts should not be censured, rather that Machi-
avelli is just not interested in discussing the moral aspect
ofthe question at all, or not from a Christian point ofview.
For him it is a case ofshrewd or mistaken choices, not of
good or evil. When he proposes Borgia as a model, neither
morality nor immorality come into it, only the fact that
this man knew how to win power and hold it and build a
strong state.
Finally, one can’t help noticing a certain Victorian bashful-
ness in previous translations. Machiavelli was a notorious
womanizer and in writing The Prince he believed he was
addressing an audience ofmen who had no worries about
political correctness. When he says ‘la fortuna è donna, et
è necessario, volendola tenere sotto, batterla et urtarla’–
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Translator’s Note
literally: ‘fortune is woman and it is necessary wanting to
keep her underneath to beat her and shove her’– there is
an obvious sexual reference. The phrase comes in the last
paragraph ofThe Prince proper (the closing exhortation is
very much a piece apart) and Machiavelli wants to go out
on a strong but, as he no doubt saw it, witty note.
Here is Marriot’s version ofthe whole last paragraph:
I conclude, therefore, that fortune being changeful and
mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in
agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they
fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adven-
turous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if
you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat andill- use
her; and it is seen that she allows herselfto be mastered
by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work
more coldly. She is, therefore, always,woman- like, a lover
ofyoung men, because they are less cautious, more violent,
and with more audacity command her.
And Bull’s:
I conclude, therefore, that as fortune is changeable whereas
men are obstinate in their ways, men prosper so long as
fortune and policy are in accord, and where there is a clash
they fail. I hold strongly to this: that it is better to be impetu-
ous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if
she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce
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Translator’s Note
her. Experience shows that she is more often subdued by
men who do this than by those who act coldly. Always,
being a woman, she favours young men, because they are
less circumspect and more ardent, and because they com-
mand her with greater audacity.
I hope I am getting closer to the spirit ofthe thing and, for
better or worse, the kind ofman Machiavelli was, offering
To conclude then: fortune varies but men go on regardless.
When their approach suits the times they’re successful, and
when it doesn’t they’re not. My opinion on the matter is
this: it’s better to be impulsive than cautious; fortune is
female and ifyou want to stay on top ofher you have to
slap and thrust. You’ll see she’s more likely to yield that way
than to men who go about her coldly. And being a woman
she likes her men young, because they’re not so cagey,
they’re wilder and more daring when they master her.
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0 100 Miles
0 150 Km50 100
T y r r h e n i a n
S e a
A d r i a t i c
S e a
e d
i t e
e a
Italy in 1500
Boundary of the
Holy Roman Empire
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9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 1 28/05/2015 14:14
Letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici
People trying to attract the good will of a sovereign usually
offer him something they care a lot about themselves, or
something they’ve seen he particularly likes. So rulers are
always being given horses, arms, gold brocades, jewels and
whatever finery seems appropriate. Eager myself to bring
Your Highness some token of my loyalty, I realized there was
nothing more precious or important to me than my know-
ledge of great men and their doings, a knowledge gained
through long experience of contemporary affairs and a con-
stant study of ancient history. Having thought over all I’ve
learned, and analysed it with the utmost care, I’ve written
everything down in a short book that I am now sending to
Your Highness.
And though this gift is no doubt unworthy of you, I feel
sure the experience it contains will make it welcome,
especially when you think that I could hardly offer anything
better than the chance to grasp in a few hours what I have
discovered and assimilated over many years of danger and
discomfort. I haven’t prettified the book or padded it out with
long sentences or pompous, pretentious words, or any of the
irrelevant flourishes and attractions so many writers use; I
didn’t want it to please for anything but the range and serious-
ness of its subject matter. Nor, I hope, will you think it
presumptuous that a man of low, really the lowest, station
should set out to discuss the way princes ought to govern
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 2 28/05/2015 14:14
Letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici
People trying to attract the good will of a sovereign usually
offer him something they care a lot about themselves, or
something they’ve seen he particularly likes. So rulers are
always being given horses, arms, gold brocades, jewels and
whatever finery seems appropriate. Eager myself to bring
Your Highness some token of my loyalty, I realized there was
nothing more precious or important to me than my know-
ledge of great men and their doings, a knowledge gained
through long experience of contemporary affairs and a con-
stant study of ancient history. Having thought over all I’ve
learned, and analysed it with the utmost care, I’ve written
everything down in a short book that I am now sending to
Your Highness.
And though this gift is no doubt unworthy of you, I feel
sure the experience it contains will make it welcome,
especially when you think that I could hardly offer anything
better than the chance to grasp in a few hours what I have
discovered and assimilated over many years of danger and
discomfort. I haven’t prettified the book or padded it out with
long sentences or pompous, pretentious words, or any of the
irrelevant flourishes and attractions so many writers use; I
didn’t want it to please for anything but the range and serious-
ness of its subject matter. Nor, I hope, will you think it
presumptuous that a man of low, really the lowest, station
should set out to discuss the way princes ought to govern
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 3 28/05/2015 14:14
4 t h e p r i n c e
their peoples. Just as artists who draw landscapes get down
in the valley to study the mountains and go up to the moun-
tains to look down on the valley, so one has to be a prince to
get to know the character of a people and a man of the people
to know the character of a prince.
Your Highness, please take this small gift in the spirit in
which it is given. Study it carefully and you will find that my
most earnest wish is that you should achieve the greatness
that your status and qualities promise. Then if, from the high
peak of your position, you ever look down on those far below,
you will see how very ungenerously and unfairly life continues
to treat me.
Different kinds of states and how
to conquer them
All states and governments that ever ruled over men have
been either republics or monarchies. Monarchies may be
hereditary, if the ruler’s family has governed for gener-
ations, or new. New monarchies can either be entirely new,
as when Francesco Sforza captured Milan, or they could be
territories a ruler has added to his existing hereditary state
by conquest, as when the King of Spain took Naples. An
additional territory won by conquest will be accustomed
either to living under a monarch or to the freedom of self-
government and may be conquered by the new ruler’s own
army or that of a third party, by luck or deservedly.
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 4 28/05/2015 14:14
4 t h e p r i n c e
their peoples. Just as artists who draw landscapes get down
in the valley to study the mountains and go up to the moun-
tains to look down on the valley, so one has to be a prince to
get to know the character of a people and a man of the people
to know the character of a prince.
Your Highness, please take this small gift in the spirit in
which it is given. Study it carefully and you will find that my
most earnest wish is that you should achieve the greatness
that your status and qualities promise. Then if, from the high
peak of your position, you ever look down on those far below,
you will see how very ungenerously and unfairly life continues
to treat me.
Different kinds of states and how
to conquer them
All states and governments that ever ruled over men have
been either republics or monarchies. Monarchies may be
hereditary, if the ruler’s family has governed for gener-
ations, or new. New monarchies can either be entirely new,
as when Francesco Sforza captured Milan, or they could be
territories a ruler has added to his existing hereditary state
by conquest, as when the King of Spain took Naples. An
additional territory won by conquest will be accustomed
either to living under a monarch or to the freedom of self-
government and may be conquered by the new ruler’s own
army or that of a third party, by luck or deservedly.
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 5 28/05/2015 14:14
Hereditary monarchies
I won’t be considering republics since I’ve written about them
at length elsewhere. Instead I’ll concentrate on monarchies,
taking the situations mentioned above and discussing how
each kind of state can best be governed and held.
So I’ll begin by noting that hereditary monarchies where
people have long been used to the ruler’s family are far easier
to hold than new ones; all a monarch need do is avoid
upsetting the order established by his predecessors, trim
policies to circumstances when there is trouble, and, assum-
ing he is of average ability, he will keep his kingdom for life.
Only extraordinary and overwhelming force will be able to
take it off him and even then he’ll win it back as soon as the
occupying power runs into trouble.
An example of this situation in Italy is the Duchy of Ferrara.
In 1484 and 1510 the Duchy was briefly conquered by foreign
powers, first the Venetians, then Pope Julius, but these defeats
had nothing to do with the territory’s having a well-
established ruling family. A ruler who inherits power has less
reason or need to upset his subjects than a new one and as a
result is better loved. If he doesn’t go out of his way to get him-
self hated, it’s reasonable to suppose his people will wish him
well. When a dynasty survives for generations memories fade
and likewise motives for change; upheaval, on the contrary,
always leaves the scaffolding for building further change.
Mixed monarchies
When a monarchy is new, things are harder. If it’s not entirely
new but a territory added to an existing monarchy (let’s call
this overall situation ‘mixed’) instabilities are caused first and
foremost by what is an inevitable problem for all new regimes:
that men are quick to change ruler when they imagine they
can improve their lot – it is this conviction that prompts them
to take up arms and rebel – then later they discover they were
wrong and that things have got worse rather than better.
Again this is in the normal, natural way of things: a ruler is
bound to upset the people in his new territories, first with
his occupying army and then with all the endless injustices
consequent on any invasion. So not only do you make enemies
of those whose interests you damaged when you occupied the
territory, but you can’t even keep the friendship of the people
who helped you to take power, this for the simple reason that
you can’t give them as much as they expected. And you can’t
get tough with them either, since you still need them; because
however strong your armies, you’ll always need local support
to occupy a new territory. This is why Louis XII, King of
France, took Milan so quickly and equally quickly lost it. The
first time this happened Duke Ludovico was able to retake
the city with his own forces, because the people who had
previously opened the gates to Louis saw their mistake, real-
ized they wouldn’t be getting the benefits they’d hoped for
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 6 28/05/2015 14:14
Hereditary monarchies
I won’t be considering republics since I’ve written about them
at length elsewhere. Instead I’ll concentrate on monarchies,
taking the situations mentioned above and discussing how
each kind of state can best be governed and held.
So I’ll begin by noting that hereditary monarchies where
people have long been used to the ruler’s family are far easier
to hold than new ones; all a monarch need do is avoid
upsetting the order established by his predecessors, trim
policies to circumstances when there is trouble, and, assum-
ing he is of average ability, he will keep his kingdom for life.
Only extraordinary and overwhelming force will be able to
take it off him and even then he’ll win it back as soon as the
occupying power runs into trouble.
An example of this situation in Italy is the Duchy of Ferrara.
In 1484 and 1510 the Duchy was briefly conquered by foreign
powers, first the Venetians, then Pope Julius, but these defeats
had nothing to do with the territory’s having a well-
established ruling family. A ruler who inherits power has less
reason or need to upset his subjects than a new one and as a
result is better loved. If he doesn’t go out of his way to get him-
self hated, it’s reasonable to suppose his people will wish him
well. When a dynasty survives for generations memories fade
and likewise motives for change; upheaval, on the contrary,
always leaves the scaffolding for building further change.
Mixed monarchies
When a monarchy is new, things are harder. If it’s not entirely
new but a territory added to an existing monarchy (let’s call
this overall situation ‘mixed’) instabilities are caused first and
foremost by what is an inevitable problem for all new regimes:
that men are quick to change ruler when they imagine they
can improve their lot – it is this conviction that prompts them
to take up arms and rebel – then later they discover they were
wrong and that things have got worse rather than better.
Again this is in the normal, natural way of things: a ruler is
bound to upset the people in his new territories, first with
his occupying army and then with all the endless injustices
consequent on any invasion. So not only do you make enemies
of those whose interests you damaged when you occupied the
territory, but you can’t even keep the friendship of the people
who helped you to take power, this for the simple reason that
you can’t give them as much as they expected. And you can’t
get tough with them either, since you still need them; because
however strong your armies, you’ll always need local support
to occupy a new territory. This is why Louis XII, King of
France, took Milan so quickly and equally quickly lost it. The
first time this happened Duke Ludovico was able to retake
the city with his own forces, because the people who had
previously opened the gates to Louis saw their mistake, real-
ized they wouldn’t be getting the benefits they’d hoped for
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 7 28/05/2015 14:14
8 t h e p r i n c e
and didn’t want to submit to the harsh conditions imposed
by the new king.
Of course, when a king returns to win back a territory that
has rebelled like this, he is less likely to lose it a second time.
Having learned from the rebellion, he’ll have fewer scruples
when it comes to punishing troublemakers, interrogating sus-
pects and strengthening any weak points in his defences. So
while the first time Louis invaded Milan it took no more than
a little sword-rattling along the borders from Ludovico to
force a retreat, the second time it would take the whole world
to defeat his armies and drive them out of Italy. This for the
reasons listed above. All the same, they were driven out both
The general reasons behind the first French defeat have
been discussed. It remains to explain why Louis lost Milan
the second time and to see what counter-measures he could
have taken and what options a ruler has in a situation like
this if he wants to hold on to his conquest.
Needless to say, any territory annexed to the realm of a
conquering ruler may or may not be in the same geographical
region and share the same language. If it is and the language
is shared, the territory will be much easier to hold on to,
especially if its people are not used to the freedom of self-
government. In that case all you have to do is eliminate the
family of the previous ruler and your hold on power is guaran-
teed. Everything else in the territory can then be left as it was
and, given that there are no profound differences in customs,
people will accept the situation quietly enough. Certainly
this has proved true in Burgundy, Brittany, Gascony and
Normandy, all of which have now been under French rule for
many years. Even where there is some difference in language,
the customs of these territories are similar and people can get
along with each other. So a ruler who has taken territories in
these circumstances must have two priorities: first, to elimin-
ate the family of the previous rulers; second, to leave all laws
m i x e d m o n a r c h i e s 9
and taxes as they were. In this way the acquired territory and
the king’s original possessions will soon form a single entity.
But when a ruler occupies a state in an area that has a
different language, different customs and different insti-
tutions, then things get tough. To hold on to a new possession
in these circumstances takes a lot of luck and hard work.
Perhaps the most effective solution is for the new ruler to go
and live there himself. This will improve security and make
the territory more stable. The Turkish sultan did this in
Greece, and all the other measures he took to hold on to the
country would have been ineffective if he hadn’t. When you’re
actually there, you can see when things start going wrong and
nip rebellion in the bud; when you’re far away you only find
out about it when it’s too late. Another advantage is that the
new territory won’t be plundered by your officials. Its subjects
will be happy that they can appeal to a ruler who is living
among them. So, if they’re intending to be obedient, they’ll
have one more reason to love you, and if they’re not, all the
more reason to fear you. Anyone planning an attack from
outside will think twice about it. So, if you go and live in the
new territory you’ve taken, you’re very unlikely to lose it.
Another good solution is to establish colonies in one or
two places. These work rather like chains to bind the captured
state to your own. If you don’t do this you’ll have to keep
large numbers of infantry and cavalry in the territory.
Colonies don’t cost a great deal. You can send and maintain
them very cheaply and they only arouse the hostility of the
people whose houses and land are expropriated to give to the
colonists. Since that will only be a very small proportion of
the population, and since these people will now be poor and
will have fled to different places, they can hardly cause much
trouble. Everyone else will be unaffected (hence prone to keep
quiet) and at the same time frightened of stepping out of line
for fear of having their own houses and land taken away.
In conclusion, colonies are cheap, more loyal, provoke less
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 8 28/05/2015 14:14
8 t h e p r i n c e
and didn’t want to submit to the harsh conditions imposed
by the new king.
Of course, when a king returns to win back a territory that
has rebelled like this, he is less likely to lose it a second time.
Having learned from the rebellion, he’ll have fewer scruples
when it comes to punishing troublemakers, interrogating sus-
pects and strengthening any weak points in his defences. So
while the first time Louis invaded Milan it took no more than
a little sword-rattling along the borders from Ludovico to
force a retreat, the second time it would take the whole world
to defeat his armies and drive them out of Italy. This for the
reasons listed above. All the same, they were driven out both
The general reasons behind the first French defeat have
been discussed. It remains to explain why Louis lost Milan
the second time and to see what counter-measures he could
have taken and what options a ruler has in a situation like
this if he wants to hold on to his conquest.
Needless to say, any territory annexed to the realm of a
conquering ruler may or may not be in the same geographical
region and share the same language. If it is and the language
is shared, the territory will be much easier to hold on to,
especially if its people are not used to the freedom of self-
government. In that case all you have to do is eliminate the
family of the previous ruler and your hold on power is guaran-
teed. Everything else in the territory can then be left as it was
and, given that there are no profound differences in customs,
people will accept the situation quietly enough. Certainly
this has proved true in Burgundy, Brittany, Gascony and
Normandy, all of which have now been under French rule for
many years. Even where there is some difference in language,
the customs of these territories are similar and people can get
along with each other. So a ruler who has taken territories in
these circumstances must have two priorities: first, to elimin-
ate the family of the previous rulers; second, to leave all laws
m i x e d m o n a r c h i e s 9
and taxes as they were. In this way the acquired territory and
the king’s original possessions will soon form a single entity.
But when a ruler occupies a state in an area that has a
different language, different customs and different insti-
tutions, then things get tough. To hold on to a new possession
in these circumstances takes a lot of luck and hard work.
Perhaps the most effective solution is for the new ruler to go
and live there himself. This will improve security and make
the territory more stable. The Turkish sultan did this in
Greece, and all the other measures he took to hold on to the
country would have been ineffective if he hadn’t. When you’re
actually there, you can see when things start going wrong and
nip rebellion in the bud; when you’re far away you only find
out about it when it’s too late. Another advantage is that the
new territory won’t be plundered by your officials. Its subjects
will be happy that they can appeal to a ruler who is living
among them. So, if they’re intending to be obedient, they’ll
have one more reason to love you, and if they’re not, all the
more reason to fear you. Anyone planning an attack from
outside will think twice about it. So, if you go and live in the
new territory you’ve taken, you’re very unlikely to lose it.
Another good solution is to establish colonies in one or
two places. These work rather like chains to bind the captured
state to your own. If you don’t do this you’ll have to keep
large numbers of infantry and cavalry in the territory.
Colonies don’t cost a great deal. You can send and maintain
them very cheaply and they only arouse the hostility of the
people whose houses and land are expropriated to give to the
colonists. Since that will only be a very small proportion of
the population, and since these people will now be poor and
will have fled to different places, they can hardly cause much
trouble. Everyone else will be unaffected (hence prone to keep
quiet) and at the same time frightened of stepping out of line
for fear of having their own houses and land taken away.
In conclusion, colonies are cheap, more loyal, provoke less
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 9 28/05/2015 14:14
10 t h e p r i n c e
hostility among your new subjects, and, as I’ve said, those
few who are provoked can’t fight back since they’ll be dispos-
sessed refugees. In this regard it’s worth noting that in general
you must either pamper people or destroy them; harm them
just a little and they’ll hit back; harm them seriously and they
won’t be able to. So if you’re going to do people harm, make
sure you needn’t worry about their reaction. If, on the other
hand, you decide to send an occupying army rather than
establish colonies, the operation will be far more expensive
and all the revenues from the new territory will be used up in
defending it, turning what should have been a gain into a loss.
And you’ll provoke more hostility: an army moving about
and requisitioning lodgings will do damage across the entire
territory, something that has consequences for the whole
population and turns them all into enemies. And these are
enemies who can hit back, people beaten but still on their
own ground. So however you look at it military garrisons are
as pointless as colonies are useful.
A ruler who has moved into a new region with a different
language and customs must also make himself leader and
protector of the weaker neighbouring powers, while doing
what he can to undermine the stronger. In particular, he must
take care that no foreign power strong enough to compete
with his own gets a chance to penetrate the area. People who
are discontented, whether out of fear or frustrated ambition,
will always encourage a foreign power to intervene. It was
the Aetolians who invited the Romans into Greece. Every
time the Romans moved into a new region it was on the
invitation of local people. And it’s in the nature of things that
as soon as a powerful foreign ruler moves into a region, all the
weaker local powers support him, if only out of resentment
towards the stronger states that previously kept them down.
So the new ruler will have no trouble winning their support;
they’ll all run to ally themselves with the territory he has
taken. He just has to watch out that they don’t grab too much
m i x e d m o n a r c h i e s 11
power and authority. Then, with his own strength and their
support, he can easily undermine the more powerful neigh-
bours and hence dominate the region. However, an invader
who fails to manage relations with his new neighbours will
soon lose what territory he has taken; and even while he’s
still holding on to it, he’ll be up against all kinds of trouble
and hostility.
The Romans followed these principles whenever they took
a new province: they sent colonists; they established friendly
relations with weaker neighbours, though without allowing
them to increase their power; they undermined stronger neigh-
bours and they prevented powerful rulers outside the region
from gaining influence there. Their handling of Greece will
be example enough: they established good relations with the
Achaeans and the Aetolians; Macedonia’s power was under-
mined; they drove out Antiochus. They didn’t reward the
good behaviour of the Achaeans and the Aetolians by
allowing them any new territory and whenever Philip con-
vinced them to establish friendly relations with him they made
sure he was weakened as a result. Antiochus, for all his
strength, was never allowed any influence in the region. The
Romans were simply doing what all wise rulers must: not
restricting themselves to dealing with present threats but using
every means at their disposal to foresee and forestall future
problems as well. Seen in advance, trouble is easily dealt with;
wait until it’s on top of you and your reaction will come too
late, the malaise is already irreversible.
Remember what the doctors tell us about tuberculosis: in
its early stages it’s easy to cure and hard to diagnose, but if
you don’t spot it and treat it, as time goes by it gets easy to
diagnose and hard to cure. So it is with affairs of state. See
trouble in advance (but you have to be shrewd) and you can
clear it up quickly. Miss it, and by the time it’s big enough
for everyone to see it will be too late to do anything about it.
However, since they had this capacity for seeing a threat in
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 10 28/05/2015 14:14
10 t h e p r i n c e
hostility among your new subjects, and, as I’ve said, those
few who are provoked can’t fight back since they’ll be dispos-
sessed refugees. In this regard it’s worth noting that in general
you must either pamper people or destroy them; harm them
just a little and they’ll hit back; harm them seriously and they
won’t be able to. So if you’re going to do people harm, make
sure you needn’t worry about their reaction. If, on the other
hand, you decide to send an occupying army rather than
establish colonies, the operation will be far more expensive
and all the revenues from the new territory will be used up in
defending it, turning what should have been a gain into a loss.
And you’ll provoke more hostility: an army moving about
and requisitioning lodgings will do damage across the entire
territory, something that has consequences for the whole
population and turns them all into enemies. And these are
enemies who can hit back, people beaten but still on their
own ground. So however you look at it military garrisons are
as pointless as colonies are useful.
A ruler who has moved into a new region with a different
language and customs must also make himself leader and
protector of the weaker neighbouring powers, while doing
what he can to undermine the stronger. In particular, he must
take care that no foreign power strong enough to compete
with his own gets a chance to penetrate the area. People who
are discontented, whether out of fear or frustrated ambition,
will always encourage a foreign power to intervene. It was
the Aetolians who invited the Romans into Greece. Every
time the Romans moved into a new region it was on the
invitation of local people. And it’s in the nature of things that
as soon as a powerful foreign ruler moves into a region, all the
weaker local powers support him, if only out of resentment
towards the stronger states that previously kept them down.
So the new ruler will have no trouble winning their support;
they’ll all run to ally themselves with the territory he has
taken. He just has to watch out that they don’t grab too much
m i x e d m o n a r c h i e s 11
power and authority. Then, with his own strength and their
support, he can easily undermine the more powerful neigh-
bours and hence dominate the region. However, an invader
who fails to manage relations with his new neighbours will
soon lose what territory he has taken; and even while he’s
still holding on to it, he’ll be up against all kinds of trouble
and hostility.
The Romans followed these principles whenever they took
a new province: they sent colonists; they established friendly
relations with weaker neighbours, though without allowing
them to increase their power; they undermined stronger neigh-
bours and they prevented powerful rulers outside the region
from gaining influence there. Their handling of Greece will
be example enough: they established good relations with the
Achaeans and the Aetolians; Macedonia’s power was under-
mined; they drove out Antiochus. They didn’t reward the
good behaviour of the Achaeans and the Aetolians by
allowing them any new territory and whenever Philip con-
vinced them to establish friendly relations with him they made
sure he was weakened as a result. Antiochus, for all his
strength, was never allowed any influence in the region. The
Romans were simply doing what all wise rulers must: not
restricting themselves to dealing with present threats but using
every means at their disposal to foresee and forestall future
problems as well. Seen in advance, trouble is easily dealt with;
wait until it’s on top of you and your reaction will come too
late, the malaise is already irreversible.
Remember what the doctors tell us about tuberculosis: in
its early stages it’s easy to cure and hard to diagnose, but if
you don’t spot it and treat it, as time goes by it gets easy to
diagnose and hard to cure. So it is with affairs of state. See
trouble in advance (but you have to be shrewd) and you can
clear it up quickly. Miss it, and by the time it’s big enough
for everyone to see it will be too late to do anything about it.
However, since they had this capacity for seeing a threat in
9780141442259_ThePrince_TXT.indd 11 28/05/2015 14:14
12 t h e p r i n c e
advance, the Romans always knew how to respond. They
never put off a war when they saw trouble coming; they knew
it couldn’t be avoided in the long run and that the odds would
simply shift in favour of their enemies. They chose to fight
Philip and Antiochus in Greece, so as not to have to fight them
in Italy. They could have put off both wars, but they didn’t.
They never took the line our pundits are constantly giving us
today – relax, time is on your side – but rather they put their
faith in their own foresight and spirit. Time hurries everything
on and can just as easily make things worse as better.
But let’s get back to the King of France and see if he took
any of the measures we’ve been discussing. And when I say
the King, I mean Louis, not Charles, since Louis held territory
in Italy for longer than Charles and it’s easier to see what his
methods were. You’ll notice that he did the opposite of what
a ruler must do to hold on to conquests in a region whose
customs and language differ from those of his home kingdom.
It was Venetian ambitions that brought Louis into Italy.
The Venetians planned to take half of Lombardy while he
seized the other half. I’m not going to criticize Louis for
agreeing to this. He wanted to get a first foothold in Italy, he
didn’t have any friends in the region – on the contrary, thanks
to King Charles’s behaviour before him, all doors were barred
– so he was forced to accept what allies he found. And the
arrangement would have worked if he hadn’t made mistakes
in other departments. Taking Lombardy, the king recovered
in one blow the reputation that Charles had lost. Genoa
surrendered. The Florentines offered an alliance. The Marquis
of Mantua, the Duke of Ferrara, Bentivogli of Bologna,
Caterina Sforza of Forlı̀, the lords of Faenza, Pesaro, Rimini,
Camerino and Piombino, as well as the republics of Lucca,
Pisa and Siena, all queued up to make friends. At which point
the Venetians were in a position to see how rash they had
been when they proposed the initial deal: for two towns in
Lombardy they had made Louis king over a third of Italy.
m i x e d m o n a r c h i e s 13
Think how easily Louis could have held on to his position
in Italy if he had observed the rules outlined above and
guaranteed security and protection to all those friends. There
were so many of them and they were so weak and frightened,
either of Venice or Rome, that they were simply forced to side
with Louis. Then with their help he could easily have defended
himself against the states that were still powerful. But no
sooner had he arrived in Milan than Louis did the opposite;
he helped Pope Alexander to invade Romagna. He didn’t see
that this decision weakened his own position, losing him
friends and the support of those who had run to him for help,
while reinforcing the pope, adding temporal dominion to the
spiritual power that already gives a pope so much authority.
Having made that first mistake, he was dragged in deeper,
since, to curb Alexander’s ambitions and prevent him from
taking control of Tuscany, he was forced to advance further
into Italy himself. Not content with having lost his friends
and increased the power of the Church, he was eager now to
get hold of the Kingdom of Naples and so made an agreement
to split it with the King of Spain. Until then Louis had been the
dominant power in Italy, but this move introduced another
equally great power into the peninsula, with the result that
anyone in the region who had ambitions or was disgruntled
with Louis now had someone else to turn to. Louis could
have kept Naples under a client king but instead he kicked
the man out and brought in a king who was powerful enough
to kick him out.
The desire to conquer more territory really is a very natural,
ordinary thing and whenever men have the resources to do
so they’ll always be praised, or at least not blamed. But when
they don’t have the resources, yet carry on regardless, then
they’re at fault and deserve what blame they get. If Louis was
in a position to capture the Kingdom of Naples with his own
forces, then he should have gone ahead and done it; if he
wasn’t, he certainly shouldn’t have split the territory with
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12 t h e p r i n c e
advance, the Romans always knew how to respond. They
never put off a war when they saw trouble coming; they knew
it couldn’t be avoided in the long run and that the odds would
simply shift in favour of their enemies. They chose to fight
Philip and Antiochus in Greece, so as not to have to fight them
in Italy. They could have put off both wars, but they didn’t.
They never took the line our pundits are constantly giving us
today – relax, time is on your side – but rather they put their
faith in their own foresight and spirit. Time hurries everything
on and can just as easily make things worse as better.
But let’s get back to the King of France and see if he took
any of the measures we’ve been discussing. And when I say
the King, I mean Louis, not Charles, since Louis held territory
in Italy for longer than Charles and it’s easier to see what his
methods were. You’ll notice that he did the opposite of what
a ruler must do to hold on to conquests in a region whose
customs and language differ from those of his home kingdom.
It was Venetian ambitions that brought Louis into Italy.
The Venetians planned to take half of Lombardy while he
seized the other half. I’m not going to criticize Louis for
agreeing to this. He wanted to get a first foothold in Italy, he
didn’t have any friends in the region – on the contrary, thanks
to King Charles’s behaviour before him, all doors were barred
– so he was forced to accept what allies he found. And the
arrangement would have worked if he hadn’t made mistakes
in other departments. Taking Lombardy, the king recovered
in one blow the reputation that Charles had lost. Genoa
surrendered. The Florentines offered an alliance. The Marquis
of Mantua, the Duke of Ferrara, Bentivogli of Bologna,
Caterina Sforza of Forlı̀, the lords of Faenza, Pesaro, Rimini,
Camerino and Piombino, as well as the republics of Lucca,
Pisa and Siena, all queued up to make friends. At which point
the Venetians were in a position to see how rash they had
been when they proposed the initial deal: for two towns in
Lombardy they had made Louis king over a third of Italy.
m i x e d m o n a r c h i e s 13
Think how easily Louis could have held on to his position
in Italy if he had observed the rules outlined above and
guaranteed security and protection to all those friends. There
were so many of them and they were so weak and frightened,
either of Venice or Rome, that they were simply forced to side
with Louis. Then with their