general will (wikipedia)

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The general will (volonté générale), made famous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a concept in political philosophy referring to the will of the people as a whole.

Basic ideas

As used by Rousseau, the “general will” is identical to the rule of law,[1] and to Spinoza’s mens una.[2]

The notion of the general will is wholly central to Rousseau’s theory of political legitimacy . . . . It is, however, an unfortunately obscure and controversial notion. Some commentators see it as no more than the dictatorship of the proletariat or the tyranny of the urban poor (such as may perhaps be seen in the French Revolution). Such was not Rousseau’s meaning. This is clear from the Discourse on Political Economy, where Rousseau emphasizes that the general will exists to protect individuals against the mass, not to require them to be sacrificed to it. He is, of course, sharply aware that men have selfish and sectional interests which will lead them to try to oppress others. It is for this reason that loyalty to the good of all alike must be a supreme (although not exclusive) commitment by everyone, not only if a truly general will is to be heeded but also if it is to be formulated successfully in the first place”.[3]

The phrase, “general will” as Rousseau used it, occurs in Article Six of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen), composed in 1789 during the French Revolution:

The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, are equally admissible to all public dignities, positions, and employments, according to their capacities, and without any other distinction than that of their virtues and their talents.[4]

James Swenson writes:

To my knowledge, the only time Rousseau actually uses the formulation “expression of the general will” is in a passage of the Discours sur l’économie politique, whose content renders it little susceptible of celebrity.. . . But it is indeed a faithful summary of his doctrine, faithful enough that commentators frequently adopt it without any hesitation. Among Rousseau’s definitions of law, the textually closest variant can be found in a passage of the Lettres écrites de la montagne summarizing the argument of Du contrat social, in which law is defined as “a public and solemn declaration of the general will on an object of common interest.”[5]


Early critics of Rousseau included Benjamin Constant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel argued that, because it lacked any grounding in an objective ideal of reason, Rousseau’s account of the general will ineluctably lead to the Terror. Constant also blamed Rousseau for the excesses of the French Revolution, and he rejected the total subordination of the citizen-subjects to the determinations of the general will.[6]

In 1952 Jacob Talmon characterized Rousseau’s “general will” as leading to a Totalitarian Democracy because, Talmon argued, the state subjected its citizens to the supposedly infallible will of the tyranny of the majority. Another writer during the Cold War period, liberal theorist Karl Popper, also interpreted Rousseau in this way. Other prominent critics include Isaiah Berlin.

Defense of Rousseau

Some Rousseau scholars, however, such as his Rousseau’s biographer and editor Maurice Cranston, and Ralph Leigh, editor of Rousseau’s correspondence, do not consider Talmon’s 1950s “totalitarian thesis” as sustainable.[7]

Supporters of Rousseau argued that Rousseau was not alone among republican political theorists in thinking that small, homogeneous states were best suited to maintaining the freedom of their citizens. Montesquieu and Machiavelli were also of this opinion. Furthermore, Rousseau envisioned his Social Contract as part of a projected larger work on political philosophy, which would have dealt with issues in larger states. Some of his later writings, such as his Discourse on Political Economy, his proposals for a Constitution of Poland, and his essay on maintaining perpetual peace, in which he recommends a federated European Union, gave an idea of the future direction of his thought.

His defenders also argued Rousseau is one of the great prose stylists and because of his penchant for the paradoxical effect obtained by stating something strongly and then going on to qualify or negate it, it is easy to misrepresent his ideas by taking them out of context.

Rousseau was also a great synthesizer who was deeply engaged in a dialog with his contemporaries and with the writers of the past, such as the theorists of Natural Law, Hobbes and Grotius. Like “the body politic”, “the general will” was a term of art and was not invented by Rousseau, though admittedly Rousseau did not always go out of his way to explicitly acknowledge his debt to the jurists and theologians who influenced him. Prior to Rousseau, the phrase “general will” referred explicitly to the general (as opposed to the particular) will or volition (as it is sometimes translated) of the Deity. It occurs in the theological writings of Malebranche,[8] who had picked it up from Pascal, and in the writings of Malebranche’s pupil, Montesquieu,[9] who contrasted volonté particulière and volonté générale in a secular sense in his most celebrated chapter (Chapter XI) of De L’Esprit des Lois (1748).[10] In his Discourse on Political Economy, Rousseau explicitly credits Diderot‘s Encyclopédie article “Droit Naturel” as the source of “the luminous concept” of the general will, of which he maintains his own thoughts are simply a development. Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau’s innovation was to use the term in a secular rather than theological sense.


Diderot on the General Will [emphasis added]:

EVERYTHING you conceive, everything you contemplate, will be good, great, elevated, sublime, if it accords with the general and common interest. There is no quality essential to your species apart from that which you demand from all your fellow men to ensure your happiness and theirs . . . . [D]o not ever lose sight of it, or else you will find that your comprehension of the notions of goodness, justice, humanity and virtue grow dim. Say to yourself often, “I am a man, and I have no other truly inalienable natural rights except those of humanity.”

But, you will ask, in what does this general will reside? Where can I consult it? . . . [The answer is:] In the principles of prescribed law of all civilized nations, in the social practices of savage and barbarous peoples; in the tacit agreements obtaining amongst the enemies of mankind; and even in those two emotions — indignation and resentment — which nature has extended as far as animals to compensate for social laws and public retributions. –Denis Diderot, “Droit Naturel” article in the Encyclopédie.[11]

Rousseau on the General Will [emphasis added]:

AS long as several men assembled together consider themselves as a single body, they have only one will which is directed towards their common preservation and general well-being. Then, all the animating forces of the state are vigorous and simple, and its principles are clear and luminous; it has no incompatible or conflicting interests; the common good makes itself so manifestly evident that only common sense is needed to discern it. Peace, unity and equality are the enemies of political sophistication. Upright and simple men are difficult to deceive precisely because of their simplicity; stratagems and clever arguments do not prevail upon them, they are not indeed subtle enough to be dupes. When we see among the happiest people in the world bands of peasants regulating the affairs of state under an oak tree, and always acting wisely, can we help feeling a certain contempt for the refinements of other nations, which employ so much skill and effort to make themselves at once illustrious and wretched?

A state thus governed needs very few laws …[12]

However, when the social tie begins to slacken and the state to weaken, when particular interests begin to make themselves felt and sectional societies begin to exert an influence over the greater society, the common interest then becomes corrupted and meets opposition, voting is no longer unanimous; the general will is no longer the will of all; contradictions and disputes arises, and even the best opinion is not allowed to prevail unchallenged.”[13]

For this reason the sensible rule for regulating public assemblies is one intended not so much to uphold the general will there, as to ensure that it is always questioned and always responds.[14] –Jean Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Book IV, Chapter 1.


  1. Jump up ^ See Maurice Cranston’s introduction to the Social Contract, Penguin Classics, 1968, pp. 9-42.
  2. Jump up ^ for Spinoza’s mens una, see Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 274.
  3. Jump up ^ Entry, “Rousseau” in the Routelege Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward Craig, editor, Volume Eight, p. 371
  4. Jump up ^ quoted in James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Stanford University Press 2000), p. 163.
  5. Jump up ^ Lettres de la montagne, quoted in Swenson (2000), p. 164. See also: Patrick Riley, The General Will before Rousseau (Princeton University Press, 1988) and Mark Hulliung “Rousseau, Voltaire and the Revenge of Pascal” in the Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, edited by Patrick Riley (Cambridge University Press: 2000), pp. 57-77.
  6. Jump up ^ Joseph Reisert (2010). “General Will”. In Bevir, Mark. Encyclopedia of Political Theory. pp. 551–553. ISBN 1412958652.
  7. Jump up ^ For a rejoinder to Talmon see R. A. Leigh, “Liberté et autorité dans le Contrat Social” in Jean-Jacques Rousseau et son oeuvre, (Paris, 1963).
  8. Jump up ^ See the “Nicolas Malebranche” entry in the Stanford History of Philosophy (revised 2009).
  9. Jump up ^ Patrick Riley, “The General Will Before Rousseau”, Political Theory 6: 4: Special Issue: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Nov., 1978): 485-516
  10. Jump up ^ Rousseau at one point, states that the most profound metaphysics are to be found in “Plato, Locke, or Malebranche” P [IV: III], quoted in Charles William Hendel, Rousseau Moralist [Oxford University Press, 1934], p. 169. See also Nicolas Malebranche, Malebranche: The Search After Truth: With Elucidations of The Search After Truth, Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, editors (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 742.
  11. Jump up ^ Diderot: Political writings: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, edited by John Hope Mason and Robert Walker (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 20. Compare Rousseau: “Cast your eyes on all the nations of the world, go through all the histories. Among so many inhuman and bizarre cults, among this prodigious diversity of morals and character, you will find everywhere the same ideas of justice and decency, everywhere the same notions of good and bad” (Emile, 288, [IV 597-98]).
  12. Jump up ^ Of the Social Contract, Book IV, Chapter 1, Paragraphs 1 & 2
  13. Jump up ^ The Social Contract, Book IV, paragraph 5.
  14. Jump up ^ The Social Contract, Book IV, Paragraph 7.

Further reading

See also

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