Jean-Jacques Rousseau The Social Contract Term Paper

  • Length: 8 pages
  • Subject: Government
  • Type: Term Paper
  • Paper: #49639305

Excerpt from Term Paper :


Rousseau on Political Representation, Democracy, Law, and the Need for Legislators:

In Book II, Chapter 3, Rousseau expresses the position that a representative form of democratic government undermines a true democracy where each individual maintains his own point-of-view without aligning himself with any sub-group or political party, because:

when factions arise, and partial associations are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State: it may then be said that there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations.... It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts... "

On the other hand, Rousseau acknowledges (Book III, Chapter 4) that true democracy is valid in principle, but impossible in strict practice, because the reality is that any form of political representation necessarily requires some to make decisions for others, and therefore, to obtain some measure of power over them:

If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed.... In fact, I can confidently lay down as a principle that, when the functions of government are shared by several tribunals, the less numerous sooner or later acquire the greatest authority, if only because they are in a position to expedite affairs, and power thus naturally comes into their hands."

Additionally, in the same passage, Rousseau points out the impracticality of expecting every single individual to actively participate in self-government in society:

It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without the form of administration being changed..."

Rousseau addresses the concept of law in Book II, Chapter 6, in which he distinguishes the laws of man from the laws of God. He considers all true justice to originate exclusively from God, but suggests that the role of laws in society is to administrate the closest approximation of Divine justice, because man has no way of knowing the mind of God, and therefore, cannot rely on God's justice in everyday human life. More importantly, according to Rousseau, if every individual is left to obey only his own conscience in determining right from wrong and justice from injustice, the result is that those who are naturally good will do good, while those who are naturally bad will simply take advantage of those who make the effort to be good:

All justice comes from God, who is its sole source; but if we knew how to receive so high an inspiration, we should need neither government nor laws.

Doubtless, there is a universal justice emanating from reason alone; but this justice, to be admitted among us, must be mutual. Humanly speaking, in default of natural sanctions, the laws of justice are ineffective among men: they merely make for the good of the wicked and the undoing of the just, when the just man observes them towards everybody and nobody observes them towards him.

Conventions and laws are therefore needed to join rights to duties and refer justice to its object.... "

Rousseau further explains that laws must always be expressions of objective principles and never expressed in terms of what any specific person must do or not do:

When I say that the object of laws is always general, I mean that law considers subjects en masse and actions in the abstract, and never a particular person or action. Thus the law may indeed decree that there shall be privileges, but cannot confer them on anybody by name.... "

Finally, in the same passage, Rousseau argues that laws in society are nothing more than the collective agreement of all its members for "conditions" of their society.

Nevertheless, Rousseau argues that the possibility of selfish motivation and the limits of the masses to understand their own needs well enough to administrate social laws requires the appointment of legislators to administer human law, even if it is the collective will of the people who define those laws in the first place:

Laws are, properly speaking, only the conditions of civil association. The people, being subject to the laws, ought to be their author: the conditions of the society ought to be regulated solely by those who come together to form it. But how are they to regulate them? Is it to be by common agreement, by a sudden inspiration? Has the body politic an organ to declare its will? Who can give it the foresight to formulate and announce its acts in advance? Or how is it to announce them in the hour of need? How can a blind multitude, which often does not know what it wills, because it rarely knows what is good for it, carry out for itself so great and difficult an enterprise as a system of legislation? Of itself the people wills always the good, but of itself it by no means always sees it. The general will is always in the right, but the judgment which guides it is not always enlightened.

A public enlightenment leads to the union of understanding and will in the social body: the parts are made to work exactly together, and the whole is raised to its highest power. This makes a legislator necessary."


In many ways Rousseau was a social and political visionary. This is even more true if one considers the existing forms of aristocratic monarchies that governed most of the modern world during his life. To recognize Rousseau's contribution to political philosophy, one must remember how acceptable concepts like slavery and aristocracy were during his life. Ultimately, many of Rousseau's observations about human rights and the sovereignty of the individual were not fully recognized and expressed in…

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