In the last paragraph of Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right by Jean Jacques Rousseau, book I, chapter 6, there is the following paragraph:

At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will. This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons formerly took the name of city,4 and now takes that of Republic or body politic; it is called by its members State when passive. Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and severally are called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State. But these terms are often confused and taken one for another: it is enough to know how to distinguish them when they are being used with precision.

What is the difference between passive and active in the sentence "it is called by its members State when passive. Sovereign when active"?

I tried to find in the text, but the keywords "passive" and "active" are not defined or explained before.

  • This sounds like a homework question
    – user1873
    Jan 29, 2014 at 14:43
  • 2
    It is not a homework; it is a question from a physicist who got stuck on that paragraph while reading it, but if you think it makes sense, I can tag it as such. Jan 29, 2014 at 14:49

1 Answer 1


My understanding of it based on the general meanings of the words (and I couldn't find any sources to back this up) is as follows:

  • When the "body politic" is acting (i.e. passing or enforcing laws), it is considered a Sovereign
  • When the "body politic" is not acting, and just existing (i.e. discussing it), it is considered a State
  • When the "body politic" is being compared to other States, it is considered a Power

In other words: When the State acts, it is called the Sovereign, or The State is, and the Sovereign does.

  • " When the State acts for/against its people is called the Sovereign, or The State because it exists, and a Power when it can act against another similar body." Doesn't that read better? +1 otherwise. (Youhave Soverign twice and are missing Power in your last paragraph.
    – user1873
    Jan 29, 2014 at 15:44
  • 2
    @user1873, in my opinion it does not read better. His point was exactly that, when the state acts independently of whether is for people or other entity, is sovereign. I agree with the sentence. Jan 29, 2014 at 15:51
  • @user1873 - My understanding is that Power only applies to comparisons, both actively and passively. As in, "The two Powers exist" (vs "The State exists") or "The two Powers agreed" (vs "The Sovereign agreed").
    – Bobson
    Jan 29, 2014 at 16:28

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