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General Will

The General Will Before Rousseau

The term general will originated in the debates over divine grace and providence nearly a century before Rousseau. The French philosopher Nicolas de Malebranche (1638–1715) first used the term in these debates to explain the divine governance of the realms of nature and grace through general laws as opposed to the notion that God operates through a continuous series of "particular wills." While the general will had little direct political bearing in these theological debates, the concept in its original usage did refer to the proper source and form of law.

The French political philosopher Montesquieu (1689–1755) was the first to give the general will a specifically political usage, doing so in one of the most important passages of his De l'esprit des lois (1748; On the spirit of the laws). In his discussion of the separation of powers, Montesquieu states that the "general will of the state" is located in the legislature but argues that the execution of the law must be placed in separate executive and judicial bodies. Uniting the legislative and executive functions in a single body would lead to tyranny since that body "can plunder the state through its general wills" in making law and then, in executing it, "destroy each citizen through its particular wills" (Montesquieu, I.6).


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), was born a "Citizen of Geneva," a title he used on many of his important works to suggest the challenge his thought posed to the regimes of his day. He ran away from his native city at sixteen, and led an unsettled life for the next dozen years, teaching himself a variety of subjects. He arrived in Paris in the early 1740s, hoping to make a name for himself as a composer and the inventor of a new system of musical notation. While his musical enterprises mostly failed, he became intimate with the circle of intellectuals who were soon involved in the Encyclopédie. He was commissioned to write the articles on music for the great compendium of enlightenment, but gained international celebrity with the publication of the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1751), in which he argued that the advancement of the sciences and arts had corrupted morals. He followed up the success of this first work with a series of increasingly provocative works published over the next decade: a well-received opera, Le Devin du Village (1752), a philosophical treatment of the historical development of human nature; the Discourse on Inequality (1755); a best-selling novel, Julie (1761); a pedagogical work, Emile (1762); and his political treatise, the Social Contract (1762). When the Social Contract and Emile were banned and burned both in Paris and his native Geneva, Rousseau fled Paris and lived essentially in exile for the rest of his life. During this time, apart from defenses of his works, he published his Dictionary of Music (1768), the first such lexicon, and wrote several autobiographical works published only posthumously, including the Confessions, usually considered the first modern autobiography, Dialogues, and Reveries of the Solitary Walker.

If Montesquieu put the general will on the political map, the most important influence on Rousseau's own development of the concept was the encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713–1784). In the article "Droit naturel" (Natural right) for the Encyclopédie (1755), Diderot described the general will of all humanity as the source and rule for justice and morality. The right to decide the nature of the just and unjust must come from all humankind "because the good of all is the only passion it has. Particular wills are suspect … but the general will is always good" (p. 27). Using their reason and consulting the principles of right of all civilized nations, individuals should address the general will of humankind to consult their duties. Rousseau first responded to his then-friend's argument in his own article for the Encyclopédie, "Économie politique" (Political economy, 1755), conceived as a companion piece to Diderot's article. Rousseau rejected the conception of the general will as the will of all humanity, instead finding it in the legislative will of a free people in the state. "The first and most important maxim of legitimate or popular government—that is, one that has the good of the people as its object—is therefore … to follow the general will in all matters" ("Économie politique," pp. 247–248). He would develop these ideas in Du contrat social.

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