3. Unity and Faction in the Republican Tradition

3.2 Rousseau, On Social Contract

About This Text

Like most in the republican tradition, and unlike Machiavelli, Rousseau argued that factional conflict was dangerous to a republic.  In On Social Contract, Rousseau argues that to be legitimate political power must be exercised in accord with the general will, which we might think of as analogous to the common good or “public thing.” The general will comes into being when individuals form a community, and the general will is expressed by the people gathered in a deliberative assembly.  In the passage below, Rousseau argues that the general will is “indivisible.”  To imagine the general will divided among different individuals or groups is to imagine it as something other than truly general.   Far from preserving the republic, as Machiavelli argued, divisions or factions destroy the general will and so destroy the republic itself.  Machiavelli and Rousseau, then, offer two different republican visions, one which welcomes division or faction, one which portrays division or faction as an existential threat.  In the American context, Madison’s argument in Federalist #10 that factions are dangerous but unavoidable forms part of the backdrop to his particular version of the separation of powers.


excerpts from On Social Contract (source)

Translated by C.D.H. Cole



THE first and most important deduction from the principles we have so far laid down is that the general will alone can direct the State according to the object for which it was instituted, i.e., the common good: for if the clashing of particular interests made the establishment of societies necessary, the agreement of these very interests made it possible. The common element in these different interests is what forms the social tie; and, were there no point of agreement between them all, no society could exist. It is solely on the basis of this common interest that every society should be governed.

I hold then that Sovereignty, being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, “the Sovereign … cannot be represented except by himself”and that the Sovereign, who is no less than a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself: the power indeed may be transmitted, but not the will.

Stop & Think

The Declaration of Independence says that certain rights are “inalienable,” meaning that they cannot be given away by or taken away from individuals.   What do you think Rousseau means when he says that the Sovereignty cannot be alienated?  How does this inalienability of the general will relate to the fact that it cannot be “represented?

In reality, if it is not impossible for a particular will to agree on some point with the general will, it is at least impossible for the agreement to be lasting and constant; for the particular will tends, by its very nature, to partiality, while the general will tends to equality. It is even more impossible to have any guarantee of this agreement; for even if it should always exist, it would be the effect not of art, but of chance. The Sovereign may indeed say: “I now will actually what this man wills, or at least what he says he wills”; but it cannot say: “What he wills tomorrow, I too shall will” because it is absurd for the will to bind itself for the future, nor is it incumbent on any will to consent to anything that is not for the good of the being who wills. If then the people promises simply to obey, by that very act it dissolves itself and loses what makes it a people; the moment a master exists, there is no longer a Sovereign, and from that moment the body politic has ceased to exist.

This does not mean that the commands of the rulers cannot pass for general wills, so long as the Sovereign, being free to oppose them, offers no opposition. In such a case, universal silence is taken to imply the consent of the people. This will be explained later on.


SOVEREIGNTY, for the same reason as makes it inalienable, is indivisible; for will either is, or is not, general; it is the will either of the body of the people, or only of a part of it. In the first case, the will, when declared, is an act of Sovereignty and constitutes law: in the second, it is merely a particular will, or act of magistracy — at the most a decree.

But our political theorists, unable to divide Sovereignty in principle, divide it according to its object: into force and will; into legislative power and executive power; into rights of taxation, justice and war; into internal administration and power of foreign treaty. Sometimes they confuse all these sections, and sometimes they distinguish them; they turn the Sovereign into a fantastic being composed of several connected pieces: it is as if they were making man of several bodies, one with eyes, one with arms, another with feet, and each with nothing besides. We are told that the jugglers of Japan dismember a child before the eyes of the spectators; then they throw all the members into the air one after another, and the child falls down alive and whole. The conjuring tricks of our political theorists are very like that; they first dismember the Body politic by an illusion worthy of a fair, and then join it together again we know not how.

This error is due to a lack of exact notions concerning the Sovereign authority, and to taking for parts of it what are only emanations from it. Thus, for example, the acts of declaring war and making peace have been regarded as acts of Sovereignty; but this is not the case, as these acts do not constitute law, but merely the application of a law, a particular act which decides how the law applies, as we shall see clearly when the idea attached to the word law has been defined.“whenever Sovereignty seems to be divided, there is an illusion”

If we examined the other divisions in the same manner, we should find that, whenever Sovereignty seems to be divided, there is an illusion: the rights which are taken as being part of Sovereignty are really all subordinate, and always imply supreme wills of which they only sanction the execution.

Stop & Think

Suppose Rousseau were to study the political system of the United States by carefully reading the U.S. Constitution.  Where would Rousseau say sovereignty should be located in the U.S.?  Where would he say it is in fact located?  Would he critique the Constitution for trying to divide sovereignty?


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