Idéhistoria A, mom 2.4
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and la volontè générale
Chris Bertram

The general will is the will the citizens, both collectively and in their role as citizens, individually. It is to be contrasted with the particular will that each of them has as individuals. It is expressed through laws which apply to all generally and universally. It content is given by commonality of interests (interests that individuals share as individuals, interest which individuals share as group members, interests which they share as citizens). In collective action prob lems, the general will wills the co-operative outcome. To emerge and be effective, men need to be transformed into citizens (the task of the Lawgiver); the community must be small and inequalities must be kept to a minimum. Citizens must be patriots.

Chris Bertram: Rousseau and the General Will


Maurice Cranston

Rousseau's definition of political liberty raises an obvious problem. For while it can be readily agreed that an individual is free if he obeys only rules he prescribes for himself, this is so because an individual is a person with a single will. A society, by contrast, is a set of persons with a set of individual wills, and conflict between separate wills is a fact of universal experience. Rousseau's response to the problem is to define his civil society as an artificial person united by a general will , or volonté générale. The social contract that brings society into being is a pledge, and the society remains in being as a pledged group. Rousseau's republic is a creation of the general will—of a will that never falters in each and every member to further the public, common, or national interest—even though it may conflict at times with personal interest.

Rousseau sounds very much like Hobbes when he says that under the pact by which men enter civil society everyone totally alienates himself and all his rights to the whole community. Rousseau, however, represents this act as a form of exchange of rights whereby men give up natural rights in return for civil rights. The bargain is a good one because what men surrender are rights of dubious value, whose realization depends solely on an individual man's own might, and what they obtain in return are rights that are both legitimate and enforced by the collective force of the community.

There is no more haunting paragraph in The Social Contract than that in which Rousseau speaks of “forcing a man to be free.” But it would be wrong to interpret these words in the manner of those critics who see Rousseau as a prophet of modern totalitarianism . He does not claim that a whole society can be forced to be free but only that an occasional individual, who is enslaved by his passions to the extent of disobeying the law, can be restored by force to obedience to the voice of the general will that exists inside of him. The man who is coerced by society for a breach of the law is, in Rousseau's view, being brought back to an awareness of his own true interests.

Encyclopedia Britannica


Nicholas Dent

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 poletariat 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.

This theme is taken up in Book Two. Here Rousseau appeals to the charisma of a quasi-divine legislator to inspire people to put the good of their whole community above their own narrow selfish interest and thereby gain a greater good for themselves. In the course of this Book, Rousseau alludes to Corsica as having a people who have the sentiments and capacities to establish just laws and a good state (Book Two, ch. 10 ). His passing remark that ‘I have the feeling that some day that little island will astonish Europe’ has caused some fancifully to suppose that he foresaw the emergence of Napoléon.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Peter P. Nicholson

The fundamental claim for general will is that the members of a political community, as members, share a public or general interest or good which is for the benefit of them all and which should be put before private interests. When the members put the general good first, they are willing the general will of their community. The claim was given special and influential shape by Rousseau. He produced a comprehensive theory of the legitimacy of the state and of government, revolving around the general will. Some contend this solves the central problem of political philosophy – how the individual can both be obliged to obey the state’s laws, and be free. If laws are made by the general will, aimed at the common good and expressed by all the citizens, the laws must be in accordance with the public interest and therefore in the interest of each, and each is obliged by the law yet free because they are its author. Rousseau’s formulation has been much criticized. But others have found it essentially true and have variously adapted it.

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Guillemette Johnston

In Du contrat social, the society Rousseau envisions functions as both a substitute for and a repetition or reflection of nature. Nature reappears in the society of the Contrat as both a simple doubling and an inverted double, or mirror image, since the general will both imitates and replaces pity, which in itself operates by representing the plight of the other in the self. This inversion can allow Rousseau to distinguish nature and society completely. By reproducing aspects proper to nature within society, representation presents itself as an epistemological doubling or intensifying of representation which forms a new image in relation to the "image" that nature produces through pity. Thus transforming itself, the social contract comes to represent itself rather than nature.

Rousseau stipulates that the social pact should try to discover a form of association that protects the person and goods of each associate. The pact does this first by re-establishing the basic structure of nature. Jean Lacroix suggests that the object of Du contrat social is to "realize the man of nature in society." "[G]uided by his notions of the state of nature," Rousseau thus tries to reproduce characteristics proper to the state of nature as he describes it in the Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité within the political structure of the Contrat. While protecting the well-being of each individual, the anonymous, understanding authority of the general will builds a sense of unified, organic community. The citizen/subject lives consubstantially with the general will, just as pre-societal individuals lived consubstantially with nature. Moreover, as these individuals knew independence in spite of their dependence on nature, so the participants in the social contract live with a sense of liberty and independence paradoxically based on their absolute dependence on the general will. In Marin's terms, we have a doubling of the state of humanity in nature via nature's recreation in society by the political constitution of the contract. The system of rapports created by Rousseau in Du contrat social literally repeats natural rapports insofar as these rapports reflect humanity's original consubstantiality with nature. Natural rapports reproduced in society thus mirror rapports available in nature. Patterns of poeticity and of representation operate within the social construction of a system which intends to reflect universal qualities and to visualize the social system as text and message.


Since the citizen helped create the law through participating in the general will, he or she cannot suffer any injustice. Each action of the state, whether it helps or harms him or her, is in fact his or her own action, since it is the fruit of his or her decisions.


Guillemette Johnston: "Representation, Poeticity, and Reading in the Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau" (French Forum 27.3 (2002) 31-54; quotes from pp. 36-37.


Kamilla Denman

Although Rousseau's political writings devote more space to political fathers, political brothers are nevertheless central to the formation of his ideal societies and to the establishment of political solidarity against the tyrannical fathers who govern corrupt societies. In this ideology, fraternity becomes the only enduring model for social and political relationships. Rousseau's domestic utopia is clearest in his comments on education in the "Discourse on Political Economy":

If children are brought up in common in the bosom of equality, if they are steeped in the laws of the state and the precepts of the general will, if they are taught to respect them above all things, if they are surrounded by examples and objects which constantly remind them of the tender mother who nourishes them, of the love she bears for them, of the inestimable benefits they receive from her, and of what they owe her in return, let us not doubt that they will thus learn to love each other as brothers, never wishing anything but what society [endowed with the authority of the political fathers on the previous page] wills. ("Political Economy," 73-74, emphases added)

Here, the ideal society is not only one in which citizens relate appropriately to mother and father, but one in which they "love each other as brothers." The two threats to this utopian harmony are brothers who desire what society does not and political fathers who make tyrannical demands.

Kamilla Denman: "Recovering Fraternité in the Works of Rousseau: Jean-Jacques' Lost Brother," Eighteenth-Century Studies 29.2 (1995-96) 191-210; quote from p. 193.


Devin McCorry

Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that in order to ensure the legitimacy of civil commitments and to prevent them from becoming meaningless, tyrannical, and abusive, one can be “forced to be free.” It is unclear, however, how forcing citizens to conform to the general will leads to a society which is any more reliable and capable of sustaining itself than the arbitrary rule of a few power-hungry individuals.

When a society forms a social contract, citizens determine together what is to be considered the general will—the law of the land. This compact is meaningless, however, unless there is a way to ensure adherence to the will of this majority. A problem arises in that “each individual can, as a man, have a private will contrary to or different from the general will that he has as a citizen” (472). This distinction between one’s will as a man and as a citizen arises in that one, in forming the social contract with his fellow citizens, chose laws which will benefit the community as a whole, yet as an individual, he cares only of his own self-benefit. It follows, therefore, that private interest all to often leads a man to becoming a “free-rider” who wishes to “enjoy the rights of a citizen without wanting to fulfill the duties of a subject, an injustice whose growth would bring about the ruin of the body politic” (472). The social contract must subscribe a solution to this problem, for it is an “empty formula” unless it “tacitly entails the commitment that whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body” (472).

To ensure commitment, society can therefore “force one to be free.” How is this free when you must abandon your own private will and submit to that of the majority? Since freedom correlates with autonomy and complete alienation from animal concern for oneself, upholding the commitments made through the social contract, even by force, is therefore ensuring the greater freedom of all citizens (473). The resulting autonomy guarantees you an absence of “all personal dependence” which in turn gives legitimacy to civil commitments. Without this enforced consent, civil commitments would be “absurd, tyrannical, and subject to the worst of abuses,” characteristics of a society in which there is most evidently a lack of freedom (472). In a society in which people are driven solely by their natural appetites is akin to slavery, for abuse of power is abundant, and a society in which there is obedience (even if forced) to self-prescribed law, one is in the state of liberty (473).

While on the surface “forcing one to be free” certainly seems to coincide with autonomy of the individuals of society, it remains questionable whether the general will was in fact yours, at any time. Since the formation of the social contract did not require any unanimous consent, but rather only that of the majority, Rousseau argues that even those opposed initially to the general will can be forced to demonstrate obedience (472). Yet how can such force be autonomous if the goal in this context is not yours? Rousseau says that a commitment to the general will is tacitly entailed, but simply by being in a country you cannot be making the statement that you agree with all of its goals/laws. And surely it would be nearly impossible for any individual to move to another society in which he agreed with all elements of the general will. It therefore seems that tacitly entailed commitment to a will which is merely that of the majority cannot be reasoned by means of an individual’s autonomy, except in the rarest of circumstances.

Moreover, Rousseau claims that through complete obedience to the general will justice replaces instinct (472). Yet in a society bound to a general will of the majority injustice can still abound. The problem of a single “free-rider” is admittedly removed, but what makes a majority, acting and agreeing in concert, any more reliable and capable of sustaining a society than the “free-rider”? Furthermore, a power-hungry individual, using Machiavellian techniques, could easily manipulate the minds of the majority, bypassing a commitment of obedience to the general will by using such influence to amend it, and quickly lead to the collapse of society and the rise of despotism. Thus, a general will of the majority can lead to oppression of minority factions, and the stability of such a society is not immune to the manipulations of a single individual.

Devin McCorry: Essays on Political Theory: Rousseau 2

Jean-Jacques Rousseau



© 2002 Mikael Hörnqvist
Idehistoria A, mom 2