The title of a book on the theory of the state written by Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762.
The problem Rousseau is seeking to solve is:
"To find that form of association which should protect and defend, with the whole force of the community, the person and property of each individual; and in which each person, by uniting himself to the rest, shall nevertheless be obedient only to himself, and remain as fully at liberty as before" (Social Contract, Bk. I, Chap. 6).
The solution he offers is the organization of the state by means of a social contract which, stripped of unessentials, he reduces to the following terms:
"We, the contracting parties, do jointly and severally submit our persons and abilities to the supreme direction of the general will of all; and in a col- lective body receive each member into that body all an indivisible part of the whole" (ibid.).
Rousseau recognizes the family as the most ancient society, and even as a natural society during the period of the dependency of the offspring.
This is the state of nature.
But a time arrives when mankind can no longer maintain itself in that stage; thereupon the organization of the state through the social contract becomes imperative.
Man cannot create new powers but only form an accumulation of existing ones; and this he does by contributing his force and liberties to make up the general will.
In passing from the state of nature to society man ceases to follow instinct and appetite as his rule of conduct, and accepts justice as the rule instead.
The general will set up by the social contract is sovereign in society, and its sovereignty is inalienable, indivisible, and always in the right because it constantly tends towards the general good.
A law is the exercise of the activity of the general will, and as the general will is always right, the law cannot be unjust.
It is admitted, however, that the general will may be insufficiently informed, and hence the need of the legislator who will bring about a union of understanding and will in the body politic.
Rousseau recognizes the conventional forms of government and further holds that, "every form of government is not equally proper to every country", but, "that government is the best under which the citizens increase and multiply most".
In establishing a government, the sovereign, i.e., the general will, enacts that a government should be established in such or such a form, and the people nominate the chiefs who are to administer it.
The outstanding weakness of Rousseau's theory is that it does not afford any basis for right.
If the individual will in the state of nature has only instinct and appetite for its rule of conduct, the mere aggregation of individual wills to make the general will cannot transform instinct and appetite into the voice of duty.
New Catholic Dictionary