In 1837, Victor Hugo wrote to his friend, Juliette Drouet, “A letter is a kiss sent by mail.” Hugo’s brief phrase captures the essence of the rich tradition of epistolary novels in France.
Hugo’s definition underscores the expressive powers of letters to convey through language a sense of intimacy and immediacy of communication that rivals, and sometimes even exceeds, direct contact.
For Hugo, as for the epistolary novelists, passionate love is the privileged subject of letters.
Rousseau wrote La Nouvelle Héloïse at Monmorency. This novel was in part inspired by his love for Sophie d’Houdetot, who was in turn in love with the poet St.-Lambert. When he was 20, Madame de Warens took him to be her lover. He considered as well for her the love of his life.
1. Rousseau’s book Confessions effectively invented modern autobiography.
2. Before Rousseau, not many public figures were prepared to spill the beans about the intimate details of their private lives – their regrets, their desires, their deepest and darkest secrets – but Rousseau bared all, or very nearly all, in his Confessions.
3. Rousseau is also famous for his Social Contract, and its famous opening – but misunderstood – lines. The Social Contract (1762) begins with the well-known words, ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ But contrary to popular understanding, Rousseau is not arguing that the chains are necessarily bad. Indeed, in a paradox that Rousseau never fully explained, man’s chains actually guarantee his freedom. This is because Rousseau saw the metaphorical ‘chains’ which bind us all as part of the general will.
4. In 1750, Rousseau came to public attention for an essay arguing that the arts and sciences didn’t make people more morally upright. Ironically – given that he had written entries for Diderot’s Encyclopédie on music and had even written an opera, Le Devin du village (1745) – Rousseau argued, in the first Discourse of 1750, for the banning of music and theatre, and thought that the arts damaged people’s morality! Rousseau mostly had the contemporary theatre in mind here, where luxury had replaced the primal purity that Rousseau held so dear.
5. Indeed, this primal purity led to Rousseau’s concept of the ‘noble savage’ – and made him a proto-Romantic figure. Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ – an idea central to his Social Contract – is purer than modern man because he is uncorrupted by modern civilisation and by the notion of property. This view not only looks forward to the Romantics’ dream of childhood as a purer time of life because it is untainted by the more materialist realities of existence, but also helps to ‘square the circle’ and explain Rousseau’s argument in the first Discourse that the arts and sciences were corrupting influences, because they took man further away from this purer state.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Swiss born French philosopher and writer who lead a life rich in contradiction. He lived in an unhealthy garret, but taught hygiene. He wrote about nature, but lived in crowded Paris. He promoted virtues that he obviously lacked. He abandoned his children to an orphanage and became a child rearing theorist.
“Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. This conspicuous paradox between liberty and human oppression is reflected in Rousseau’s entire politico-moral philosophy and so it is no surprise that he has been much criticized for seeming ambiguities within his works. There is apparent contradiction that Rousseau strongly criticizes the social contract tradition and at the same time defends a social contract theory as the only solution to save mankind from corruption and degeneration.
When he came to Paris he became increasingly aware that ordering society was unjust. The rules were made by the rich to suit their own interests not those of the common people.
Where previous philosophers had spoken of elites, Rousseau became the champion of the common person. His perfect world was one in which the will of the people was most important.
Rousseau was untypical among the Enlightenment philosophers he had arguments with Voltaire, who called him a ‘Judas’; Diderot called him an ‘anti-philosophy
He believed (i) the passions were more important than reason, whilst of course ‘reason’ was the central concern of most of the philosophes.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was born in the independent Calvinist city-state of Geneva in 1712, the son of Isaac Rousseau, a watchmaker, and Suzanne Bernard. Rousseau's mother died nine days after his birth, with the consequence that Rousseau was raised and educated by his father until the age of ten.
In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract and another major work, Emile, or On Education (1762). Confessions (1789). Discourse on Inequality (1755). Both works criticized religion, and were consequently banned in France and his native Geneva. As a result, Rousseau was forced to flee his homeland and live under the protection of others for the rest of his life. The Social Contract influenced governments throughout Europe and helped to promote political reform and revolution. Although Rousseau, for the most part, avoids discussion of contemporary political affairs, his criticism of luxury and his emphasis on popular sovereignty certainly contributed to the ideals of the French Revolution. In addition, many political leaders believed that Rousseau's political theories provided a solid foundation for any state. Rousseau was invited to draft constitutions for both Corsica and Poland, although his recommendations were never implemented because of foreign invasions. The Social Contract is, in many ways, a follow-up to Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men. In the earlier work, Rousseau attacks private property for causing inequality and exploitation. These vices are responsible for the "chains" that Rousseau refers to in the first sentence of On the Social Contract. Accepting that some loss of liberty is inevitable, Rousseau seeks to establish a legitimate, political authority. The Social Contract thus examines what constitutes such an authority.
Rousseau believed that man is naturally good and that vice and error are alien to him. This creates a conflict between “nature” and “artifice” in attitudes to society, education and religion. According to Rousseau, nature is man’s state before being influenced by outside forces. At the same time, he asserts: “If man is left… to his own notions and conduct, he would certainly turn out the most preposterous of human beings. The influence of prejudice, authority… would stifle nature in him and substitute nothing.”
In other words, human beings need outside intervention to develop their natural propensity for good. “We are born weak, we have need of help, we are born destitute… we have need of assistance; we are born stupid, we have need of understanding.”
Humans Deface and Confound
Man needs to work with nature, not against it. Rousseau says, in his treatise, that man is discontented with anything in its natural state and claims that everything degenerates in his hand… “…he mutilates his dogs, his horses and his slaves; he defaces, he confounds.”
The correct balance of these three categories in human nature, enables man to develop naturally. Rousseau claims that outside influences, for example, society and custom, are responsible for deviations from natural, healthy development in humans and this creates a dilemma. Education should respect individuality rather than bow to social conventions.
Citizen or Man?
“Instead of educating a man for himself, he must be educated for others… we must chuse (sic) either to form the man or the citizen; for to do both at once is impossible.” Here Rousseau reinforces the value of reason, abhorring distortion and prejudice, asserting how difficult it is for man to be true to his inner nature and also accommodate the demands of society, “…held in suspense… without being able to render ourselves consistent, and without ever being good for anything to ourselves or others.”
Unnatural Nature and the Woman of Sparta
Rousseau says that feeling is a component of faith, sometimes presenting “nature” in a way that is positively unnatural, yet calling it “noble”. The woman of Sparta, having lost her five sons in a battle, cries, “…who asked you of my sons? – But we have gained the victory.”
Rousseau attempts to present an individual as a whole, therefore, as both true citizen and heroic mother, stretching credibility to its limits. This is an unlikely account of a natural, maternal reaction. She has repressed her natural behaviour – and this is a problem for Rousseau’s attempt to reconcile citizen and man. A child must first be a man, before choosing a profession: “Nature has destined us to the offices of human life, antecedent to the destination of our parents.”
Rousseau’s preoccupation with reason and enlightenment leads him to similar conclusions to those of the French philosophes. He argues for what he sees as rational liberation, making objections to the ways in which babies are unnaturally swaddled so that they cannot move, or wet-nursed instead of nursed by their natural mothers.
However, he is not averse to encouraging stoical endurance and abhorring indulgence: “…when she makes an idol of the child… prevents every approach of pain or distress… This is the rule of nature.”
Later, he becomes even more extreme in his claims: “Man is born to suffer in every stage of his existence… Happy are we, who in our infancy, know only physical evils… We lament the state of infants, whereas it is our own that is most to be lamented.”
This seems to contradict earlier assertions about not swaddling children, and not keeping them from their mother’s breast, but Rousseau’s point is that the swaddling and wet-nursing are man-made evils, due to the caprices of women. “…such is the man made by our own caprices; that of nature is differently constituted.”
Evils that Spring from Weakness
Rousseau believes the education of man commences at birth and that experience is the forerunner of the precept. The child must be guided in order to facilitate its natural, good tendencies: “Prepare early for his enjoyment of liberty and the exercise of his natural abilities… unrestrained by artificial habits.”
Ideally, the child is left free to develop, but by example. When children begin to observe objects, proper choices should be made. Therefore, a good influence is exerted that does not interfere with the natural propensity of the child to strive for good. Sometimes, the influence is exerted passively, for example, avoiding allowing weakness in a child by not giving in to them.
Design versus Disorder
Rousseau’s ideas are compatible with religion and the argument from design. He denies that matter organises itself by chance, and that disorder is the work of man
The word “powerful” inspires good, since evil springs from weakness. “Many evils, such as the “apprehensions” and “miseries” engendered by medicine, are manmade and constitute an “outrage” to the laws of nature. Natural evils, like physical pain, have a useful function: pain alerts us to the need for a remedy.” So – nature may be harsh but it is ultimately beneficial.”
Rousseau says that manmade evil is separate from divine providence. “Enquire no longer, man is the author of evil; behold him in yourself. There exists no other evil in nature than what you either do or suffer… in the system of nature I see an established order which is never disturbed.”
There is a free choice to be made here, according to Rousseau; man may do good or evil.
Distrust of Revealed Religion
Natural religion, Rousseau, feels, has been tampered with and worship made too ceremonial. “Religion should be studied in the lives of men and in the book of nature.” He disapproved of, and found suspect, revealed religion.
Rousseau’s concept of the word “nature” is that man is naturally good if exposed only to good influence and his goodness is adversely affected only by external forces. There are contradictions in Rousseau’s attempts to reconcile nature with society. While many of his arguments are sound, where he is guided by compassion, this compassion actually fails him because strong traditions influence him.
“Man by nature is formed to suffer with patience.” This is the traditional, stoical fortitude of Rousseau’s era.
There are other instances where he appears cold-hearted, for example, in analysing his ideal student: “…he must have no disabilities” suggesting an elitism which is lacking in compassion in a piece of writing where compassion is held in high regard.
A further example is the argument that men and women are unequal in many respects.
Rousseau’s Ideas: Instrumental to Kant and Marx
Rousseau’s ideas were taken up by the leaders of the French Revolution and were instrumental in influencing both Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx. His greatest work was The Social Contract about freeing man from his chains through the creation of an ideal society.
State of Nature
A social contract implies an agreement by the people on the rules and laws by which they are governed. The state of nature is the starting point for most social contract theories. It is an abstract idea considering what human life would look like without a government or a form of organized society (Lloyd, Sreedhar, 2009). For Rousseau, the purpose of studying the state of nature is three-fold: firstly, it is supposed to deliver an account of the original primitive condition of mankind, secondly, it helps identify the main characteristics of human nature in man’s original state, and thirdly, it helps describe and evaluate the ‘new state of nature’ which, in other words, is present-day society (MacAdam, 1972: 308). Rather than emphasizing the historical aspect of the state of nature, Rousseau uses this concept as mind-play picturing an ideal (Cole, 2007: 11).
According to Rousseau, in the state of nature “man is naturally peaceful and timid; at the least danger, his first reaction is to flee; he only fights through the force of habit and experience” (2002: 417). It seems that primitive men “having no moral relations or determinate obligations … could not be either good or bad, virtuous or vicious” (Rousseau, 20071: 113). Man is ‘pre-moral’ and innocent (Brown, Nardin, Rengger, 2002: 384). He is only concerned with his own well-being and happiness, satisfying his personal needs and disregarding “everything he did not think himself immediately to notice” (ibid: 117); he is solitary and independent (Grimsley, 1973: 116). This feeling of self-love termed ‘amour de soi’ can only accidentally be good or bad (Green, 1950:16). Man has not yet discovered reason, knowing no rights and acting upon his instincts (ibid: 15). He does not know the feeling of love and so beauty has no importance to him; nor does wit or cunning (Rousseau, 2007: 117). Therefore, he hardly knows what inequality is except for physical inequality (ibid.). Locke agrees with Rousseau that man is “born equal and free” but believes natural man to already have certain rights, like freedom, as well as some reason to make moral decisions (Grimsley, 1973: 116). “… that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (Locke, 1994: 117). While Locke is more positive than Rousseau, Hobbes’ view is filled with pessimism, describing life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and as a war of “every man against every man” (Hobbes, 1968: I. Ch. 13). Though Rousseau accepts that man is irrational (Grimsley, 1973:116), he argues that he is ignorant of the passions, “honour, interest, prejudices and vengeance” (Rousseau, 202: 417); natural law is thus rendered irrelevant (Noone, 1970: 697).
The individual’s first encounter with other men represents a critical juncture in Rousseau’s writings. Man finds out that in certain cases which are of mutual interest, he can cooperate with others and rely on them (Rousseau, 20071: 119). Loose associations are formed, but the absolute turning point is when man begins to live in huts with his family; he starts living in a small society (ibid: 119-120).
Everything now begins to change its aspect. Men, who have up to now been roving in the woods, by taking to a more settled manner of life, come gradually together, form separate bodies, and at length in every country arises a distinct nation… (ibid: 120)
By living with his wife and family, man discovers love and thus develops the ideas of beauty and merit, giving rise to competition, as well as vanity, contempt, shame and envy (ibid.). “With love arose jealousy; discord triumphed, and human blood was sacrificed to the gentlest of all passions.” (ibid.) Man enters an artificial society, thus hoping to be able to produce more through cooperation (Knutsen, 1994: 248). Only from then onwards does he have the ability to act morally and rationally, choosing his own opinions and no longer merely following his instincts, exercising will, reason and conscience (Grimsley, 1973: 116). Through reason a wise man’s ‘amour de soi’ can lead him to humanity and virtue (Voisine, 1996: 32-33). However, constant comparison to others and seeing oneself as ‘above’ others can lead to pride or ‘amour-propre’; man is corrupted by his environment (ibid.). Unlike Hobbes’ and Locke’s atomistic view of mankind, meaning that man is mainly formed before entering society, Rousseau thus depicts man’s psychological transformation in society, emphasizing the importance of his social environment (Chapman, 1968: 98). “I cannot repeat too often, that the error of Hobbes and other philosophers is to confuse natural man with the man before their eyes…” (Rousseau, 2002: 424).
Once man enters society, he enters dependence. The creation of private property and the division of labour generate differences in wealth, power and status (Knutsen, 1994: 249).
The first man who, having bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind … (Rousseau, 20071: 118)
Thus, Rousseau reasons, inequality is created through the corrupt interdependence that constitutes society. Though man originally thought that society would increase his freedom, he has lost it. “All ran headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty.” (ibid: 124) By giving up his liberty, Rousseau argues, man does not only degrade his life, he “annuls” it (ibid: 127). “Through some fatal accident, which for the public good, should never have happened” (Rousseau, 20071: 121), man has moved from the original state of nature to a ‘new state of nature’ characterized by oppression (MacAdam, 1972: 308).
Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau thus doesn’t see a civil society as a necessary advancement from the state of nature. He criticizes the form of society and social contract tradition of his day, which he regards as wretched, as well as the theories of previous important and influential social contract thinkers. Above all, he considers Hobbes’ social contract theory endorsing an absolute sovereign Leviathan a “horrible system” (ibid), as he despises despotism. He also frequently criticizes Grotius for supporting the notion of slavery (20072: 29f.). Society has degenerated man, making him both physically and morally weak and dependent on others, and adding to all this pessimism, Rousseau sees no way back to the state of nature; primitive independence is lost (Levin, 1970: 502).
The new-born state of society thus gave rise to a horrible state of war; men thus harassed and depraved were no longer capable of retracing their steps or renouncing the fatal acquisitions they had made … brought themselves to the brink of ruin. (Rousseau, 20071: 123)
He argues that the rich have become dependent on the poor, as they no longer know how to provide for themselves, while peasants are used to manual labour and could be to some extent self-reliant; a point that differentiates his philosophy from that of Marx (Levin, 1970: 497). Rousseau considers this dependence as the greatest deprivation of freedom (Rousseau, 20072: 28) and thus writes in Émile, that man must be reeducated. He still believes that in essence man is perfectable; education is supposed to create a new man who can fend and think for himself and care “nothing for the weight of popular opinion” (Rousseau, 2004: 248), as well as live in society (Charvet, 1980: 69).
In addition to new forms of education, Rousseau sets out to create a better political system; and acknowledges the possibility of moving on from corruption (Charvet, 1980: 69). “It is my purpose to inquire whether it is possible for there to be any legitimate and certain rule of administration in civil society, taking men as they are and laws as they may be” (Rousseau, 20072: ’28). Confusingly, though he has so far criticized the social contract tradition, he names his solution le contrat social or the Social Contract. It is supposed to make men equal and free; the protection of liberty is most important (Grimsley, 1973: 93).
The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before (Rousseau, 20072: 32)
In order to become free, every individual must give up all his rights to the entire community, creating the same conditions for all and thus equality (ibid: 32-33). “Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody” (ibid.). After all, it would not be Rousseau if there weren’t a little paradox. Men are thus all subject to what Rousseau names volonté générale or the general will. It is not the will of all the individuals or of the majority, as even the majority may be mistaken, but it is always to public advantage and for the ‘greater good’ (ibid: 33f.). “Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than he will be forced to be free” (Rousseau, 20072: 34). This again reminds us that man is “everywhere in chains”. Man’s freedom is thus relative, he cannot endanger anyone else’s freedom and he must follow the law and above all, the general will, so to maintain an ordered society (Grimsley, 1973: 93). Man is only free by obedience; he must become dependent (on law) in order to be independent (MacAdam, 1972: 309).
In the Social Contract, Rousseau repudiates two traditional features of society (ibid: 92): Firstly, political authority is not to be based on force, as the use of force can never be right. “Since no man has natural authority over his fellow men, and since might in no sense makes right, conventions remain as the basis of all legitimate authority among men” (Rousseau, 2002: 8). Secondly, man has no innate sociability, which means society is not a natural occurrence; but if he decides to, he has the potential to enter into a relationship with his fellows (Grimsley, 1973: 92). Society must thus be formed upon rational choice; oppression is never right (ibid.). This thus rejects the view of Grotius that permanent enslavement of a captive people is acceptable, and certainly that of Hobbes, who advocates absolutism.
Apart from there being an apparent paradox in Rousseau advocating a social contract in the first place, there are several problems that arise when reading the Social Contract (Noone, 1970: 707f.; Bertram, 2010). First of all, he does not specify what the general will is by giving examples (Noone, 1970: 708). How can the general will be found, how do individuals know what it is and know that it is their best (and only) option to follow it, if it is not, as Rousseau writes himself, “formally set forth” (Rousseau, 20072: 32)? At the same time, the rule of the general will almost seems to be an absolute regime in itself, something that Rousseau so thoroughly rejected in Hobbes, as it must always be obeyed. Furthermore, if any of the relations between the Social Contract, obligation, the state of nature and the general will were changed, this would distort Rousseau’s entire political and moral philosophy (Noone, 1970: 708). “The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective” (Rousseau, 20072: 32). In addition, though Rousseau defines political obligation as following laws and the general will, there is no specification of individual obligations (Noone, 1970: 707). Also, while he defines sovereignty as the “exercise of the general will” (Rousseau, 20072: 36), he does not mention specific laws that should be sovereign (ibid.). Other problems are to be found in Émile; though Rousseau despises the rich, Émile would hardly have a private tutor were he not wealthy ((Levin, 1970: 511). Moreover, though Émile is supposed to learn to think for himself, he is under the ‘guidance will’ of his teacher, which in some way is similar to ‘thought control’ (ibid: 512). Again, this leads to our favourite paradox, Émile, while free, is still “in chains”.
In conclusion, Rousseau is in fact both a critic and an advocate of social contract theory. Throughout his work, he considers society to have corrupted mankind and most of all, he rejects Hobbes’ idea of an absolute Leviathan. At the same time, in order to create his own rather different Social Contract which he sees as the only solution to escape corruption, he uses the ideas of the social contract tradition that the people should give up sovereignty to an authority to preserve their freedom; sovereignty lies within the whole, in this case with the general will. Simply by naming his work le contrat social, Rousseau implies that he wants to be understood in the context of contractarianism. He thus makes a transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’ with his conception of society and politics (Cole, 2007: 10). The system Rousseau sees as the solution to overcome corrupt society is at the same time vague and unalterable. This is problematic, as Rousseau fails to give us practical examples of how to apply his Social Contract and it is therefore unclear how it could function in practice. Furthermore, it seems strange that it cannot be changed, considering that he seems to acknowledge that mankind can evolve. On the other hand, it is important not to take him too literally, after all, his method is to create concrete and universal principles from generalizations of the human condition, based less on facts than on political ‘right’.
Social contract - The agreement with which a person enters into civil society. The contract essentially binds people into a community that exists for mutual preservation. In entering into civil society, people sacrifice the physical freedom of being able to do whatever they please, but they gain the civil freedom of being able to think and act rationally and morally. Rousseau believes that only by entering into the social contract can we become fully human.
Freedom or Liberty - The problem of freedom is the motivating force behind The Social Contract. In the state of nature people have physical freedom, meaning that their actions are not restrained in any way, but they are little more than animals, slaves to their own instincts and impulses. In most contemporary societies, however, people lack even this physical freedom. They are bound to obey an absolutist king or government that is not accountable to them in any way. By proposing a social contract, Rousseau hopes to secure the civil freedom that should accompany life in society. This freedom is tempered by an agreement not to harm one's fellow citizens, but this restraint leads people to be moral and rational. In this sense, civil freedom is superior to physical freedom, since people are not even slaves to their impulses.
Sovereign - Strictly defined, a sovereign is the voice of the law and the absolute authority within a given state. In Rousseau's time, the sovereign was usually an absolute monarch. In The Social Contract, however, this word is given a new meaning. In a healthy republic, Rousseau defines the sovereign as all the citizens acting collectively. Together, they voice the general will and the laws of the state. The sovereign cannot be represented, divided, or broken up in any way: only all the people speaking collectively can be sovereign.
Government - This is the executive power of a state, which takes care of particular matters and day-to-day business. There are as many different kinds of government as there are states, though they can be roughly divided into democracy (the rule of the many), aristocracy (the rule of the few), and monarchy (the rule of a single individual). The government represents the people: it is not sovereign, and it cannot speak for the general will. It has its own corporate will that is often at odds with the general will. For this reason, there is often friction between the government and the sovereign that can bring about the downfall of the state.
Law - An abstract expression of the general will that is universally applicable. Laws deal only with the people collectively, and cannot deal with any particulars. They are essentially a record of what the people collectively desire. Laws exist to ensure that people remain loyal to the sovereign in all cases.
General will - The will of the sovereign that aims at the common good. Each individual has his own particular will that expresses what is best for him. The general will expresses what is best for the state as a whole.
Will of all - The sum total of each individual's particular will. In a healthy state, the will of all is the same thing as the general will, since each citizen wills the common good. However, in a state where people value their personal interests over the interests of the state, the will of all may differ significantly from the general will.
State of Nature - When Rousseau talks about the state of nature, he is talking about what human life would be like without the shaping influence of society. So much of what we are is what society makes us, so he suggests that before society existed, we must have been very different. In a different book, Discourse on Inequality, he speaks very highly of this prehistoric state, but in The Social Contract he is more ambivalent. In the state of nature, we are free to do whatever we want, but our desires and impulses are not tempered by reason. We have physical freedom but we lack morality and rationality. Still, Rousseau believed that this state of nature was better than the slavery of his contemporary society.
Civil society - Civil society is the opposite of the state of nature: it is what we enter into when we agree to live in a community. With civil society comes civil freedom and the social contract. By agreeing to live together and look out for one another, we learn to be rational and moral, and to temper our brute instincts.
Common good - The common good is what is in the best interests of society as a whole. This is what the social contract is meant to achieve, and it is what the general will aims at.
General willThe general will, (French, volonté generale) first enunciated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778), is a concept in political philosophy referring to the desire or interest of a people as a whole. It is most often associated with socialist traditions in politics.
General will is what a fully-informed body politic (community of citizens) would unanimously do if, by using good reasoning and judgment unclouded by bias and emotion, it would make general laws and decisions intended to ensure the common good. General will presupposes the existence of a generally-accepted political and social ideal. Rousseau characterized general will as being always abstract, establishing rules and setting up systems of government, but never being specific about which individuals were subject to the rules or about who the particular members of social classes or the particular rulers in the government were. The general will (volonté générale) was not merely the sum of all the individual wills of those who participate in the social contract, nor was it expressed simply in social customs and mores; rather, it was an over-arching concept that infallibly sought the good of society as a whole. Those who surrendered their individual rights to the general will were exercising their personal freedom, because they themselves were authors of the law.
Though abstract and difficult to articulate in practice, the concept of general will had a powerful influence on modern political thinking and on the structure of modern representative governments and civic institutions.
he idea of "general will" was first formulated by Nicolas Malebranche, who argued that all laws in the phenomenal world are manifestations of God's "general will." Denis Diderot re-interpreted the idea of "general will" as the will of humanity, which desires the goodness of humanity and determines the obligations of human beings. The general will underlies all positive laws and social regulations and is the basis of universal obligations that are applicable to all. Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticized Diderot's concept as "empty" for the reason that we develop our concept of humanity based upon particular society we live in. Rousseau's formulation became the prevailing notion of "general will."
The concept of the general will was first introduced in two of Rousseau’s essays, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), and the Discourse on Political Economy (1755), and was further developed in Social Contract (1762). In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau asserted that in a savage and uncorrupted state, human beings were guided by feelings of pity and love for each other and had no need of concepts such as morality or duty. In this primitive state there was no inequality among men. When, through mutual cooperation, men began to engage in agriculture and industry and to possess private property, inequalities arose and along with them, the need to establish a stable government by means of a contract that unites many wills into one. Rousseau distinguished two types of freedom—personal freedom that arose from basic human instincts and natural selfishness prompting the individual to act for his own benefit, and social freedom which was achieved when the individual made his individual desires subservient to the general will, in order to receive the benefits that it guaranteed to all individuals.
Rousseau tied the concept of general will directly to sovereignty. True sovereignty did not imply simply having power over the rest of society, but was always directed at the public good. The general will, therefore, infallibly pursued the benefit of the people. Another characteristic of the general will was that it was always abstract, or general. It could establish rules, set up social classes, or even a monarchial government, but it could never specify the particular individuals who were subject to the rules, particular members of the social classes, or the particular rulers in the government. The general will was directed at the good of the society as a whole, and was not to be confused with the collection of the wills of individuals, who would put their own needs, or the needs of their particular factions, above those of the general public.
Rousseau emphasized that the general will (volonté générale) was not merely the cancelled-out sum of all the individual wills of those who participate in the social contract, the will of all (volonté de tous).
There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter looks only to the common interest; the former considers private interest and is only a sum of private wills. But take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel each other out, and the remaining sum of the differences is the general will (Rousseau, Social Contract, Vol. IV, 146).
Rousseau warned that the influence of parties representing special interests would impede the kind of public deliberation that could arrive at a consensus regarding the welfare of all. Each individual must completely surrender his own interests to the whole and seek only the welfare of the community.
Although the general will must be arrived at through reasoned deliberation by the state as a whole, its execution depends upon its being embodied in the structure of government. Rousseau examined various forms of government in terms of how well they might be able to execute the sovereign laws. He considered democracy to be dangerous in application to particular cases in which the general will could easily be lost in the pressure of private interests; aristocracy was acceptable as long as it executed the general will rather than serving the welfare of the ruling elite; and monarchy clearly raised the temptation to seek private benefit at the expense of the common good. The appropriate form of government for any state depended upon the character of its people, and even on its physical climate.
Rousseau believed that the establishment of any government should be provisional and temporary, and subject to continued review and appraisal by its subjects. A representative legislative body could not determine the general will, because the social contract depended on the unanimous consent of all the governed. Sovereign general will could only be fully determined in an assembly of the entire population.
The fundamental problem of all social organization was to secure the participation of every individual in the general will. Rousseau maintained that general will, which could be considered in abstract to be a commitment to the welfare of the whole, was in principle indestructible, although in practice it might be obscured by the undesirable motives of some individuals. Since it was impractical to assemble the entire population every time a particular decision was to be made, Rousseau proposed that major questions should be decided upon by a majority of the population, but that matters requiring quick action could be determined by a simple majority. Leadership positions requiring skill should be filled by an election, while those which only require the exercise of good sense should be chosen by lot. In every case, Rousseau assumed that open debate would eventually result in an awareness on the part of each individual of what was truly in the best interests of the community as a whole, the general will.
Rousseau pointed out that general will was distinct from social customs that might be endorsed by public opinion. Social customs were not a conscious and deliberate determination of what was best for all, but simply social expressions of traditional mores. Even when traditional values were incorporated into the civil religion and therefore supposedly sanctioned by God and by the people, they did not necessarily express the general will.
InfluenceThe concept of the general will presented some philosophical difficulties. Rousseau argued that following the general will allowed for individual freedom. However, in promoting the interests of the whole, the general will might easily conflict with the interests of particular individuals. This conflict caused some intellectuals to criticize Rousseau’s political thought as hopelessly inconsistent, while others attempted to find middle ground between the two positions.
Liberal thinkers, such as Isaiah Berlin, criticized the concept of general will on various grounds. Pluralists argued that the “common good” was a balanced aggregate of private interests, rather than one over-arching, quasi-metaphysical concept. Some pointed out that “desire” does not necessarily coincide with “best interest,” and that the imposition of the General Will was not consistent with autonomy or freedom. The distinction between a person's "empirical" (conscious) self and his "true" self, of which he is unaware, was essentially dogmatic and incapable of logical or empirical verification or even discussion. Rousseau did not offer any practical mechanism for the articulation of the general will, and suggested that under some conditions it might not actually be expressed by the majority, making the concept open to manipulation by totalitarian regimes that could use it to compel people against their actual will.
In spite of these difficulties, the concept of general will influenced political thinking during the formation of modern representative governments, and became incorporated in many aspects of civic planning, the judicial system, and institutions of social welfare.