Jean-Jacques Rousseau

150 word response for EACH post 




The general will is a phrase used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract to refer to the wants of the people. All members of society decide together what they want in and from their ruler. By doing so, people in society are truly “free” (The Social Contract, chap. iv). The general will is an agreement to which citizens will forego some of their individual freedoms to a government and gain rights in return from the establishment of that sovereign. Rousseau stated that in order for the general will to be truly general it must come from all and apply to all (Bertram, 2012). And as Rousseau stated:

“Thus, from the very nature of the compact, every act of Sovereignty, i.e., every authentic act of the general will, binds or favours all the citizens equally; so that the Sovereign recognises only the body of the nation, and draws no distinctions between those of whom it is made up” (The Social Contract, Book I. Sect. 4).

The difference between Rousseau’s “general will” and the meaning of “will of all” is about perspective: “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 will” (The Social Contract, chap. iv). Rousseau is showing that the will of all is a culmination of what I want from government, what my neighbor wants from government, and what my other neighbor wants from government, and so on. The will of all is nothing more than adding all of our wants together, despite differences. 

Rousseau is not concerned with a specific style of government and even concedes that it could be a monarchy, so long as the general will is followed through with by that sovereignty. In the selection of a sovereign or of the laws themselves, it is not that the process needs to be unanimous, but that all votes must be counted (The Social Contract, Book II. Sect. 2).

One aspect of Rousseau struck me and that was something that I have had conversations with students about when we have talked about the scope and size of government. I have asked students, and conversations ensued, about our nation being too large–has the U.S. grown to the point where it is unmanageable? And here in Rousseau’s writing has he made a claim of that nature:

“In this proportion lies the maximum strength of a given number of people; for, if there is too much land, it is troublesome to guard and inadequately cultivated, produces more than is needed, and soon gives rise to wars of defence; if there is not enough, the State depends on its neighbours for what it needs over and above, and this soon gives rise to wars of offence.” (The Social Contract, Book II. Sect. 10)

I suppose that he might be correct about this assertion. Although it is possible to have this type of social contract in which the general will is possible, it is probably better suited for smaller and less diverse (socially, economically) states.




Rousseau’s state of nature is more complicated than that of Hobbes & Locke’s, though Rousseau does agree somewhat with Hobbes state nature that humans are natural self-interested. Rousseau agrees with that notion but, goes a step further to say yes humans are natural self-interested. But there is also another principle in Rousseau state of nature & that is pity, he believes that man hate to another human being suffer. “Rousseau says that unlike all other creatures, humans are free agents. They have reason, although in the state of nature it is not yet developed. But it is this faculty that makes the long transition from the state of nature to the state of civilized society possible (”Rousseau doubts if man were ever in pure state of nature because of historic texts that, tells us God directly endowed the first man with understanding.
Rousseau state of nature & human nature seems to describe man’s evolution of man from state of nature to a more civil & social being because, he believes man has this free agency in them that will guide their moral compass neither virtuous nor vicious. Rousseau goes through a lengthy series of man transition of how, man’s transformation from a state of nature to a more constructed civil society. In my opinion Rousseau state of nature & human nature seems more convincing because, of this history that I have heard throughout life. This history pertaining to God creating man, to the caveman, & finally the discoveries of Ancient civil societies that we often hear about. Rousseau teaching doesn’t paint this rosy description of what he wish man to be like Locke’s view of state of nature or the lack of intelligence that Hobbes believed that mankind suffers from in his state of nature. Rousseau’s gives mankind some benefit of the doubt that we are natural intelligent beings though, it might be the high intelligence Hobbes seeks but there is a level of reason that man maintains in order to live a life. We have all seen movies of how societies of less intelligence lived, it was not the best be those societies seem to take of themselves the best way they could.

 Rousseau’s focus on his Social Contract or General Will as he called it is a moral idea. “As an ideal, it is meant to bring together a cohesive community whose individual interests and community interests are one and the same- a common good.” (APUS) Rousseau starts his Social Contract with the phrase, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”(Rousseau) “The GW is the true common good.” (APUS) Everyone in the community joins together for the good of the community and in return everyone receives moral freedom. “Only this kind of freedom makes a man his own master, saving him from personal dependence.” (APUS) As part of the General Will men become citizens in civil society that is ruled by the General Will and then they are able to acquire a moral basis. Duty and reason are the two main focuses under the General Will. 

            “While the will of all is a sum of individual wills, hence merely an aggregation of self-interest unconcerned with the common will, interest, or good, the General Will is the expression of all for all.” (APUS) Basically it is differing from the will of all because it is focusing on interests of the group and not the individual. Everyone then focuses on gaining moral freedom and doing what is best for the group versus the will of all where it focuses on the individuals wills. “The authority directed by the general Will is a proposal for a new kind of popular sovereignty, one that is direct not representative as Locke had it.” (APUS) In this type of society or sovereignty, the sovereign only has authority over things that concern the group and what it decides goes. 

            Looking at the sovereignty of the General Will it makes you question whether it is good or bad to want to attain. “By forcing someone to conform to the General Will, society is only compelling him to obey his own true will; his own true will can only be identical with the common good.” (APUS) This statement makes me feel like they are pushing or forcing people to conform and be a part of the General Will because it is almost giving them no other option but to conform with what the group wants. With Rousseau sort of pushing them to this idea that, “it’s for the common good” it makes me feel that it is somewhat a totalitarian style society that he is aiming for with his theory. “If the general Will wishes for something, then the individual citizen must also wish for the same thing.” (Social Contract) This just shows you that the General Will is almost forcing them to do what the sovereign thinks is right for society, not what the individual wants. 

            I do think that this type of General Will is and can be found especially in countries with totalitarianism. Look at Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in charge he executed numerous people of his own country for going against how he thought the country should be run. In Iraq it was just common knowledge for the citizens to join in on the Hussein rallies because what he was doing was for the “good” of his country and its people. When you read the General Will at a quick glance then you do not think anything of it, you think that it is taking into consideration what each individual wants and that is what makes up the common good, but I think there is more to it than that.

Open chat