Essay on the Concept of General Will by Rousseau



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The unique feature of the General Will was that it represented collective good as distinguished from the private interests of its members. It was the will of all the citizens when they were willing not their own private but the general good; it was the voice of all for the good of all.

Rousseau went further and said that my will which willed the best interests of the State was my best will and it was, indeed, more real than my will which willed my private interests. All actions were the result of the will, but my will for the good of the State was morally superior to any other will, private or associational, which might, from time to time, determine my conduct.

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The General Will being the compound of the best wills of all citizens willing the best interests of the community and its lasting welfare, it must be sovereign. Since it was my will, my own real will, I ought always to follow it. If I did not, because some private and selfish interests induced me not to follow it, then the General Will could legitimately compel me to obey it.

Indeed, it was the only authority that could legitimately coerce me, for it was my own will coming back to me even though I did not always recognise it as such. And in following it, I was fulfilling myself and was, thus, finding true freedom.

Whoever refused to obey the General Will would be compelled to do so by the whole body. “This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which secures him against all personal dependence.”

The General Will, though by definition it could only deal with matters of public not private interest, was alone the judge of what constituted public or private interest. The General Will, moreover, could not allow anything to stand between it and the complete loyalty of its citizens.

It was better, Rousseau believed, that other associations than the State should not exist, but if they did, they must always be subordinate, and if any conflict of loyalties should ever occur, citizens must always obey the State, because it was infallible and the custodian of the real interests of all.

The General Will must also, Rousseau said, “be inalienable and indivisible.” Hence it could not be represented in parliamentary institutions. “As soon as a nation appoints representatives,” he said, “it is no longer free, it no longer exists.” England, he declared, was only free during elections, after which it “is enslaved and counts for nothing.” Nor could the General Will be delegated in any manner whatever. Any attempt to delegate it would mean its end. “The moment there is a master; there is no longer a sovereign.” Here is Rousseau, the apostle of popular sovereignty.

Rousseau made a clear distinction between government and the sovereign people. He said that General Will could not be an executive will. The people, who were sovereign, ought not to be responsible for the details of government. Those who made the law should not carry it out, for it was the characteristic of the sovereign General Will that it must be impersonal, and the decrees of government might frequently be particular and personal.

Rousseau meant by government only the executive power. Law making was not a function of government but that of the sovereign. The people entrusted their executive power to their agent, the government. Government was, thus, only a subordinate authority; the result of the decree of the sovereign and not the creation of the contract. “There is only one contract in the State,” emphasised Rousseau, “and this excludes every other.”

Two consequences follow from this. First, that the power of government can be limited modified or taken away by the people, the master, whenever they choose so. Secondly, as government is subordinate to the sovereign, the actual form of government is a matter of secondary importance to Rousseau.

So long as General Will is sovereign it matters not what form of government it may be, though he was convinced that the States should be small so that, when necessary, all citizens could get together and make laws.

“The larger the State the less the liberty.” By “liberty” Rousseau obviously means not freedom from political control but freedom for political control; freedom to determine the course of legislation.

Such a direct democracy is the only legitimate form of government, because only in such a constitution does each man “obey him alone and remain as free as before.” Rousseau regarded representative government as a specious form of slavery.

For Rousseau, law is not the will of a class, but the will of the whole nation. “This will,” he said, “is to be discovered simply by asking the nation to meet together and declare it. Only when I actively assist in legislation am I really a citizen and genuinely free; and, since the fewer the citizens are the more weight my voice has amongst them.”

Rousseau believed in direct government by citizens, who should themselves, in public meetings, make the laws; without being betrayed by elected representatives. His choice of direct democracy among the forms of government was largely based upon the Swiss Cantons, which he knew, and the ancient City-States, of which he had read.

Law is, accordingly, an expression of the General Will, which is the will of the society for the common good. It, therefore, demands my respect. But the common good is also my good; and so, finally, in obeying the law I am pursuing my own best interests and achieving what I really will.

“It is to law alone that men owe justice and liberty….It is the celestial voice which dictates to each citizen the precepts of public reason, and teaches him to act according to the rules of his own judgment, and not to behave inconsistently with himself.”

Another important result of the contract is that life and liberty of each member of the community is secured and founded on the General Will of the society as a whole. Equality and liberty, Rousseau said, are ensured, because each individual makes a complete surrender of himself and all his rights to the community. While doing so, he receives his person and rights back again as indivisible part of the sovereign community.

Rousseau said, “Since each gives himself up to all, he gives himself up to none; and as there is acquired over every associate the same right that is given up by himself, there is gained the equivalent of what is lost, with greater power to preserve what is left.” Each individual, thus, has a dual capacity. He is both a member of the sovereign body, and a subject.

He is sovereign, as he himself is an integral unit of the community. He is subject, because he must obey the General Will and the General Will stands for public interest.

No individual can, therefore, justifiably disobey the General Will. The General Will, adds Rousseau, is infallible; it is always right and conducive to the public advantage. Moreover, by obeying the General Will the individual simply obeys himself as he himself is the creator of the General Will. Nor can the individual complain of any coercion.

Real coercion, Rousseau says, never occurs in society. Even a criminal wills his own punishment. “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking….that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.

This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free….This alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.” No act of the sovereign can, thus, be coercive. And how can it be coercive when the General Will is the repository of the interests and welfare of all.

An individual can act capriciously when he wants something different from what the interests of the community demand. He does not, then, rightly knows his own good or his own desires. Only the General Will can know it.

Therefore, Rousseau repeatedly said that the General Will is always right. It cannot be wrong, because the General Will stands for the social good, which is itself the standard of right. “What is not right is merely not the General Will.”

In this way, Rousseau brought about a thorough submergence of the individual in the State. His emphasis throughout is that the real interest of the whole community must always be the real interest of each of us, even though it may not be our interest as we ourselves see it.

This is what Rousseau means by complete surrender and he tried to prove, though not very successfully, that in making this complete surrender each of us is securing for himself the only true liberty.

The State, to Rousseau, is a collective person, and “I obey it because only in so doing am I really myself, am I truly free.” Freedom, in brief, is obedience to self-imposed laws. The law of the General Will is the highest law.

We now know a good deal about the General Will. It is the result of all men willing their best wills for the good of the State. It is sovereign, inalienable, indivisible, unlimited and one which cannot err.

Yet we do not know how it is to be found and Rousseau himself can never tell us how we can be sure of finding the General Will. At times, he seems to suggest that the General Will is to be sought only when all unanimously agree, though he holds that the will of All is something very different from the General Will.

The “will of all,” he says, “is a mere total of selfish and casually coincident wills.” At times, he implies that it is the majority will, though at other places he tells us that this can only be so “if all the characteristics of the General Will are still in the majority.”

At times, it appears that the residue left after cancelling out the differences expressed by all the citizens is to be regarded as the General Will. Rousseau is, thus, very vague in what he tells us about the General Will.

“So much vagueness about something as important as the finding of the General Will,” observes Wayper, “is to be regretted. Rousseau, who has told us so much about the General Will, has still not told us enough; indeed he has left us in such a position that nobody can be sure what the General Will is on any particular point.”

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