General will

General will

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The general will made famous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

, is a concept in political philosophy
Political philosophy
Political philosophy is the study of such topics as liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why they are needed, what, if anything, makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it...

 referring to the desire or interest of a people as a whole. As used by Rousseau, the "general will" is identical to the rule of law
Rule of law
The rule of law, sometimes called supremacy of law, is a legal maxim that says that governmental decisions should be made by applying known principles or laws with minimal discretion in their application...

, and to Spinoza's mens una.

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
Dictatorship of the proletariat
In Marxist socio-political thought, the dictatorship of the proletariat refers to a socialist state in which the proletariat, or the working class, have control of political power. The term, coined by Joseph Weydemeyer, was adopted by the founders of Marxism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in the...

 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".


The phrase, "general will" as Rousseau intended 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.


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.


In 1952 Jacob Talmon
Jacob Talmon
Jacob Leib Talmon was Professor of Modern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem...

 characterized Rousseau's "general will" as leading to a Totalitarian Democracy
Totalitarian democracy
Totalitarian democracy is a term made famous by Israeli historian J. L. Talmon to refer to a system of government in which lawfully elected representatives maintain the integrity of a nation state whose citizens, while granted the right to vote, have little or no participation in the...

 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
Karl Popper
Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

, also interpreted Rousseau in this way. Modern Rousseau scholars, however, such as his Rousseau's biographer and editor Maurice Cranston, and Ralph Leigh, editor of Rousseau's correspondence, to name a few, do not consider Talmon's 1950s "totalitarian thesis" as sustainable.

It should be kept in mind 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
Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu
Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu , generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French social commentator and political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment...

 and Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance. He is one of the main founders of modern political science. He was a diplomat, political philosopher, playwright, and a civil servant of the Florentine Republic...

 were also of this opinion. Furthermore, Rousseau envisioned his Social Contract
Social contract
The social contract is an intellectual device intended to explain the appropriate relationship between individuals and their governments. Social contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept...

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
European Union
The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 independent member states which are located primarily in Europe. The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community , formed by six countries in 1958...

, gave an idea of the future direction of his thought.

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
Natural law
Natural law, or the law of nature , is any system of law which is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior. Natural law is contrasted with the positive law Natural...

, Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

 and Grotius
Hugo Grotius
Hugo Grotius , also known as Huig de Groot, Hugo Grocio or Hugo de Groot, was a jurist in the Dutch Republic. With Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili he laid the foundations for international law, based on natural law...

. 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 acknowledge his debt to the jurists and theologians who influenced him. Prior to Rousseau, the phrase "general will" occurs in the theological writings of Malebranche
Nicolas Malebranche
Nicolas Malebranche ; was a French Oratorian and rationalist philosopher. In his works, he sought to synthesize the thought of St. Augustine and Descartes, in order to demonstrate the active role of God in every aspect of the world...

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/malebranche/ (who had picked it up from Pascal
Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal , was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic philosopher. He was a child prodigy who was educated by his father, a tax collector in Rouen...

) and in the writings of Malebranche's pupil, Montesquieu. In his Discourse on Political Economy, Rousseau explicitly credits Diderot
Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer. He was a prominent person during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder and chief editor of and contributor to the Encyclopédie....

's Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert...

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. Diderot and Rousseau's innovation was to use the term in a secular rather than theological sense.

Quotations


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
Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert...

.

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 ...

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."
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. --Jean Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Book IV, Chapter 1.

See also

  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
    Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
    The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is a fundamental document of the French Revolution, defining the individual and collective rights of all the estates of the realm as universal. Influenced by the doctrine of "natural right", the rights of man are held to be universal: valid...

  • Natural Law
    Natural law
    Natural law, or the law of nature , is any system of law which is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior. Natural law is contrasted with the positive law Natural...

  • Natural Rights
    Natural rights
    Natural and legal rights are two types of rights theoretically distinct according to philosophers and political scientists. Natural rights are rights not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable...

  • Popular sovereignty
    Popular sovereignty
    Popular sovereignty or the sovereignty of the people is the political principle that the legitimacy of the state is created and sustained by the will or consent of its people, who are the source of all political power. It is closely associated with Republicanism and the social contract...

  • Rule of Law
    Rule of law
    The rule of law, sometimes called supremacy of law, is a legal maxim that says that governmental decisions should be made by applying known principles or laws with minimal discretion in their application...

  • Social Contract
    Social contract
    The social contract is an intellectual device intended to explain the appropriate relationship between individuals and their governments. Social contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept...

  • Common Good
    Common Good
    Common Good is a nonprofit organization in the United States that advocates a basic shift in legal structures "to restore common sense to American law." In June 2008, the organization, founded in 2002 by Philip K...