Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 7 – the monster in your bed

Last post began talking about Rousseau’s view of government. What I want to note here is how strikingly ambivalent it is. He says on the one hand that it’s necessary – to have a society without it would be impossible. And yet he also says explicitly that any government will eventually turn on its society and become a parasite and a cannibal. He writes “just as the particular will acts unceasingly against the general will, so does the government continually exert itself against the sovereign…sooner or later it is inevitable that the prince [government] will oppress the sovereign [people] and break the social treaty. This is the inherent and inescapable defect which, from the birth of the political body, tends relentlessly to destroy it, just as old age and death destroy the body of a man.”

This is bizarre, as though he were to tell us that we are required for our own good to invite a monster into our bed, despite knowing that it would eat our heart and then eat our brain. What’s going on?

Even his perhaps most unconventional and radical demand – periodic sovereign assemblies, in which the population assumes direct legislative power – does not prevent this inevitable corruption. For, he grants, “one cannot observe with too great care all the formalities required to distinguish a correct and legitimate act from a seditious tumult, and the will of a whole people from the clamour of a faction.” This is a more verbose way of expressing Blair’s (possibly apocryphal, don’t make me do research) comment on the million-strong anti-war march in London: that there are, after all, 59 million people not marching.

But immediately after making this concession, Rousseau explains that it gives any government “a great opportunity of holding his power in defiance of the people, without it being possible to say that he has usurped it. For while appearing to exercise only his rights it is very easy for him to enlarge those rights and to prevent, on the pretext of public tranquillity, assemblies designed to re-establish good government; thus he exploits the silence which he prevents men breaking, and the irregularities which he makes them commit.” Once again, we find ourselves wondering why Rousseau advocates the setting up of such sinister and dangerous institutions.

A further complication is that strictly, the need for some sort of government, on Rousseau’s terms, is only semantic – the people themselves, as the sovereign, cannot execute their own laws simply because then they would not be considered the sovereign. But they can get around this by simply constituting themselves as a government – i.e. making the government a full democracy. In such a case, for the government to ‘sacrifice the people’ to itself would seem impossible – and yet Rousseau regards this as unworkable. “If there were a nation of gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men.” So understanding Rousseau’s apparently contradictory stance on government requires an examination of what he says about different forms of government – democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy.

In sketch form, he regards democracy as an unrealistic ideal, and monarchy as close to the worst form of realistic government – though he calls hereditary aristocracy ‘the worst’. The best, he says, is an elective aristocracy. The relationship between such an aristocracy and a representative system such as Canada’s, which he despises as entirely missing the point of popular sovereignty, is not entirely clear, but I won’t consider that question. His three most extended evaluations concern democracy (too hot), monarchy (too cold), and the right sort of aristocracy (just right!).


His primary criticism of democracy is not, as one might think, that it is ‘impractical’ – while he admits that it requires a population with leisure time available, and a relatively small territory, his own requirement that all governments be judged periodically by popular assemblies imply that it’s possible. He does say that “in the strict sense, there has never been a true democracy” because day-to-day affairs are always put in the hands of smaller commissions – but this itself need not prevent the system being democratic, any more than a monarch’s extensive staff of ministers and servants makes their rule any less monarchical.

Instead, the primary criticism seems to be along these lines: that “it is not good that…the body of the people should turn its attention away from general perspectives and give it to partoicular objects…the abuse of the law by the government is a lesser evil than that corruption of the legislator which inevitably results from the pursuit of private interests.” He says that “no government [is] so liable to civil war and internecine strife…for there is none which has so powerful and constant a tendency to change to another form.”

Things become most puzzling when he says that “things which ought to be kept apart are not, and the prince and sovereign being the same person constitute, so to speak, a government without government.” One would think, after all, that this is precisely the point? Or does he mean that the government is not ‘governed’ with sufficient wisdom? He does say in praising aristocracy that “the credit of the state is better upheld in the eyes of foreigners by venerable senators than it is by an unknown and despised multitude.”


Rousseau says a lot about monarchy: “there is no government more vigorous than monarchy, [but] there is also none where the particular will [of the government] has more command…Kings want to be absolute…Their personal interest is primarily that the people should be weak, wretched and never able to resist them.” Moreover, “when someone is brought up to command others, everything conspires to rob him of justice and reason” and “those who rise under monarchies are nearly always muddled little minds, petty knaves and intriguers with small talents which allow them to rise to high places in courts.”

The monarch, it seems, best embodies what Rousseau says about government in general: that it serves its own interests at the expense of society’s, and prefers the security of own power to the security of its citizens. And so, in between monarchy, where government eats your heart, and democracy, where the despised multitude governs so poorly, he advocates aristocracy – “it is the best and most natural arrangement for the wisest to govern the multitude”. But only if, he continues “we are sure that they will govern it for its advantage and not for their own.” Which, of course, we cannot – indeed, given enough time, we can be sure that they will not.

It seems, in essence, that Rousseau simultaneously will not trust people to run their own affairs, and cannot believe anyone’s promise to run their affairs well for them. This leads him to an overarching pessimism – even the best constituted society will descend into tyranny and injustice before long. The only task of political philosophy is to enquire how we may best delay this. But to fully understand Rousseau’s lack of faith in democracy – which, it seems here he should support for practical reasons, and which we saw last post he should support for principled reasons – we will need to consider the issue of wealth and class.

One Response to “Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 7 – the monster in your bed”

  1. Q Says:

    He predates Marx! Shame he merely predicted corruption and oppression rather than a consequent uprising of the proletariat. He’d be much more famous if he had.

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