Citizenship in Rousseau’s Republic

(A continuation of my notes from ; Page numbers from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social, ou principles du droit politique. Paris: Messidor, 1987.)


Locke has a moral notion of the State of Nature (SoN), whereas Rousseau’s notion of the State of Nature is immoral, with morality only coming into play after the development of the state. Within Locke’s SoN, citizens already have the right to property, whereas in Rousseau’s SoN, citizens cannot hold property, but only have land; only by entering civil society can someone have property. Locke tries to preserve human rights already available in the SoN, whereas Rousseau generates rights by entering a civil state. Humans had certain freedoms in Rousseau’s SoN such as the right of free appropriation, but Rousseau does not think that these can be described as fundamental rights, insofar as no state guarantees that one has a right to them. The notion of a “natural right,” or a right prior to entering a state, is foreign to Rousseau. Rousseau might agree that humans have a tendency to defend themselves when threatened, but this is not evidence of some right of self-defense, but rather a useful biological impulse. We can only have some right of self-defense when we institutionalize it as such.

Rousseau distinguishes between amour de soi (self-love) and amour-propre (vanity). On a lexical level, “soi” refers to oneself in the third person, whereas “propre,” which shares roots with property, refers to oneself in the first. When I love myself in the third-person, I love myself as I would imagine any human would love themselves. All humans want to be safe, fed, and cared for. When I love myself in the first-person, I compare myself with others around me, such that I can only love parts of myself that differ from others. As humans develop in the SoN, Rousseau writes that they develop vanity in addition to self-love. Their desire for vanity causes all sorts of conflict. The civil society resolves some of the inevitable conflicts that vanity causes. The members of the Republic can agree on certain laws and rights its individual members have. The Republic stages a return to self-love by defining the precise ways every abstract human should be cared for. To have self-love includes, for instance, freedom from unlawful harm, freedom of speech, and freedom from unpredictable expropriations of property. Laws that Rousseau’s republican state pass do not implicate any individuals or social groups in the Republic, but rather implicate the abstract subject, who Rousseau imagines that every individual subject doubles as.

Rousseau’s Republic therefore claims to protect the citizen’s right to enjoy both self-love and vanity by generating human and property rights through a nonpartisan law implicating abstract citizens. In the SoN, vanity and self-love conflicted because the pursuit of vanity could mean causing other humans to lose out on basic needs such as food and safety. Rousseau might say that there is no point in talking about having property if in a state of anarchy, no greater power guarantees property rights. Entering a civil society, people can pursue their private vanities as much as they want while knowing that the law details exactly the limit after which they would be infringing upon individual rights. Furthermore, if the society finds that these legal limits are too extensive or insufficient, they can vote to revise them. Lastly, the purely juridical nature of the state more or less guarantees that justly gained vanities such as status and wealth cannot be unpredictably deprived by the sovereign, but can only be shorn away by passing general laws that would implicate all citizens, such as a graduated income tax. This system relies on an assumption that all citizens will identify themselves both with their own citizens and with the good of the Republic as a whole, the desire of the common good of the Republic being the axis of a reinvigorated self-love.


Rousseau does not think that any state can become a Republic: some pre-states have not developed enough cultivation, whereas other states have already been through too many regime chances to reformulate themselves. Rousseau lists plenty of qualifications that would make state-building more difficult, concluding that the only state in the Europe of his time that could become a Republic was Corsica (132, II.8). The potential Republic should be neither too rich nor too poor, it needs to be safe from neighborly invasions, and it needs to have “la simplicité de la nature joint aux besoins de la société” (Ibid.) To become a Republic, the state must undergo a profound political crisis in which depending on the preset conditions and the leader during the crisis, the state can turn into either a tyranny or a Republic (131–2, II.8).

The founding of the Republic involves the creation of a People. The People does not mean any cultural or linguistic group, but having markers of unity makes things easier. Indeed, the Europe of Rousseau’s time had a few elite languages such as French and High German that almost nobody outside of the social elite spoke, such that if unity was a condition for statehood, Rousseau would have a hard time making his case. The People is a constituted group who join together on the basis of the Social Contract; eventually, they are to share a civic culture and a common language, but at the onset, an agreement should suffice.

Even if the citizens of a formed Republic share little in terms of content, the agreement that ties together their Republic has the grounding of force. I quote at length here, for this appears to me to be the heart of Rousseau’s argument:

Ce pacte social ne soit pas un vain formulaire, il renferme tacitement cet engagement, qui seul peut donner de la force aux autres, que quiconque refusera d’obéir à la volonté générale, y sera contraint par tout le corps ; ce qui ne signifie autre chose sinon qu’on le forcera d’être libre ; car telle est la condition qui, donnant chaque citoyen à la patrie, le garantit de toute dépendance personnelle, condition qui fait l’artifice le jeu de la machine politique, et qui seul rend légitimes les engagements civils, lesquels, sans cela, seraient absurdes, tyranniques, et sujets aux plus énormes abus. (101–2, I.7)

All citizens of Rousseau’s Republic are subsumed within the state, which acts as a Leviathan forcing them to respect laws they do not support. This is what Rousseau means when he writes that his law would “give each citizen to the fatherland.” However, the Republic also turns the citizen into the principal source of law within this fatherland as well as distances her from its authority. The Republic is intended to protect citizens from “personal dependence” on this state; what does this mean? For instance, if a ruler provides services to the people such as a police system or food subsidies, then the people will not be able to live without this ruler. In contrast, in the Republic, the citizens’ general will will allow citizens to provide their own services by giving each member a share of the state. In this way, Rousseau’s Republic gives each citizen to the State while also giving citizens the positive freedom to resolve their own problems democratically. Indeed, Rousseau does not give his Republican citizens freedom, but “forces them to be free”: citizens have no choice but to be responsible for their problems, and have no right to surrender their responsibility for their collective well-being.

Rousseau’s state therefore amalgamates human rights, state citizenship, and individual responsibility. A human outside of a Republic cannot have human rights because rights are protected by the Republic and determined by neutral laws. These laws create human rights through legislation rather than defend human rights against external infringement. Because the problem of rights is citizen-constituted rather than natural, the work of government is not suspicion of government, but a continuous debate about the nature of rights that must culminate in legal innovation. Moreover, because legislation creates rights at the level of the individual human unit, social groups have secondary political standing compared to individuals vis-à-vis the state. All citizens in the state are requested to identify as abstract citizens within this state who have a responsibility to determine the limits of their rights. The idea of double nationality or double identification is foreign to Rousseau: one must be fully committed to the state, for there is no source for justice, human rights, or human being outside of it.

Yet, this is not how many people think of the state in our world today, I suppose. Many people might see such claims that one should sacrifice themselves before the nation as nationalist or even totalitarian. They might think that universal human rights exist before the state, such that if my country violates my rights, I can appeal to the United Nations. Rousseau might say that it would be better to appeal to one’s state.



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