The General Will After Rousseau
A quarter century after the publication of Rousseau's political treatise, the French Revolution began, and the fortunes of the general will and the philosopher who gave the concept currency have been forever tied to the epochal event. Revolutionaries such as Maximilien de Robespierre (1758–1794) and the Abbé Sièyes (1748–1836) pressed the general will into service to legitimate their rule in the name of the nation. On the philosophic front, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Johann Fichte (1762–1814), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) appropriated and analyzed the concept itself as well as its seeming political instantiation. Kant's categorical imperative, although explicitly universal in scope, exhibits the direct influence of Rousseau's general will as self-legislation in the form of a generalizable law. Hegel associated the general will with the Terror and criticized what he saw as its one-sided subjectivity and arbitrary or absolute freedom. Later thinkers attempted to adapt the general will in less radical form. Grappling directly with the revolutionary inheritance, Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) criticized Rousseau's affinity for the liberty of the ancients, but still began his own Principes de politique (1815; Principles of politics) by stating: "Our present constitution formally recognizes the principle of the sovereignty of the people, that is, the supremacy of the general will over every particular will" (p. 310). The tension between the individual and the community that Rousseau tried to reconcile in his own way through the general will continues to dominate contemporary debates in political theory and practice.
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John T. Scott