I guess this simple question has a simple answer, but I have not found it.

I am reading "The Social Contract" and am really loving it. I understand Rousseau's distinction of sovereign and government. However, I do not understand what he means by "the state". What is "the state" for Rousseau? Is it the country, the populace, everything together? I am yet to understand and I have the idea that thoroughly understanding this is fundamental.

Thank you so much.

  • 1
    it might help to include a passage where he uses the term, thanks :)
    – user35983
    Dec 1 '18 at 18:57

State is the institution.

Chapter VI : The social pact

Right away, in place of the particular individuality of each contracting party, this act of association produces a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly has voices, and which receives from this same act its unity, its common self (moi), its life, and its will. This public person, which is thus formed by the union of all the individual members, used to be called a city, and now is called republic or body politic. When it is passive, it is called by its members State, and sovereign when it is active, power when it is compared to similar bodies.

With regard to the associates, they take collectively the name of people, and are called individually citizens, inasmuch as they participate in the sovereign power, and subjects, inasmuch as they are subjected to the laws of the State. But these terms are often confused and are mistaken for one another; it is sufficient to be able to distinguish them when they are used with precision.

The multitude, with the "pact" (the contract) become a people. Thus, the contract "gives life" to the collective body : the polis, i.e. the Republic.

When passive, this body politic is called the "State"; when active, it is called the "Sovereign".

This means that the collective body when legislates it acts as the Sovereign and when "operates" according to the laws it is the State.

  • yes, this is good. i recall there is a difference between the legislature and the executive, but that is all
    – user35983
    Dec 1 '18 at 20:01

Rousseau refers to “the state” as a government, or governments which divide the world or the nation. But then Rousseau also refers to the state separate from this, “thus the will of the people..the prince, the public force of the state and the particular force of the government” where the state may refer to some manifestation of force that embodies an abstract concept of a social contract or general will toward such an idea. He also makes differentiation and rules about a state, or a perfect state, so perhaps he means this is where the majority are formed from the individual. And that the state is the common denominator of the individuals and what they can agree to. But It could be described as meaning an overwhelming force which dictates rules and rights beyond the parameters of written law or social or moral law. Because even inside an oligarchy, a dictatorship, a democracy, and even a fascism, the people are actually in some sense in agreement to allow themselves to be governed by this entity.

“It is called by its members ‘state’ when passive, ‘sovereign’ when active and ‘power’ when compared with others like itself”.

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