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General Will

Rousseau's General Will

Rousseau's Du contrat social was epoch-making in its argument that law legitimately comes only from the sovereign people legislating for itself: from the general will. Rousseau followed in the social contract tradition of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and others, but sought to find a form of political association in which naturally free individuals can join with others and yet remain as free as before. His solution was direct democratic self-legislation in which each citizen, as a member of the sovereign, makes laws that apply equally to all. "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole" (Contrat social, I.6). Rousseau pressed a radically voluntarist principle into service as the binding force of the political community. Although he recognized a "universal justice emanating from reason alone," he argued that this justice is ineffective for want of a natural sanction (Contrat social, II.6). Rousseau's general will was confined to the limits of the state.

"The general will is always right," claimed Rousseau. His statement has often been taken to imply a kind of mystical popular will in whose name the force of the state can be exercised. The general will is not something that transcends the state, but is the will of the citizens qua citizens in their capacity as members of the sovereign. Immediately after claiming that the general will is always right, Rousseau pointed to what he saw as the central problem of the state: "But it does not follow that the people's deliberations will always have the same rectitude" (Contrat social, II.3). The people may err in their deliberations for several reasons, but the rectitude of the general will is distorted most importantly by the natural tendency of individuals to consult the particular will they have qua individuals. "Indeed, each individual can, as a man, have a private will contrary to or differing from the general will he has as a citizen. His private interest can speak to him quite differently from the common interest." Such a person, Rousseau infamously concluded, "will be forced to be free." While this paradoxical statement has been interpreted as an authoritarian element in Rousseau's thought, less noticed is the continuation of the passage: "For this is the condition that, by giving each citizen to the fatherland, guarantees him against all personal dependence" (Contrat social, I.7). The mutual obligations of the political association ensure that the citizens are dependent only on the law of their own making, and not on the will of another individual (see Melzer). The law must come from everyone and apply equally to all. The general will is always directed toward the common justice and utility by virtue of its very generality: "the general will, to be truly such, should be general in its object as well as in its essence; that it should come from all to apply to all" (Contrat social, II.4). Proper civic education and favorably egalitarian conditions are necessary for the deliberations of the citizens to have the rectitude they require to make the general will triumph over particular interests. Self-legislation as part of the sovereign makes possible a new kind of freedom, a civil and moral freedom that transcends the natural freedom we have as individuals. Rousseau's general will inspired his followers with what they saw as a promise of revolutionary moral and political transformation.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGeneral Will - The General Will Before Rousseau, Jean-jacques Rousseau, Rousseau's General Will, The General Will After Rousseau