jean jacques rousseau - general will

June 2016
Jean-Jacques Rousseau quite effected 18th century enlightenment and modern period
political develeopments with his social contract theory and the other writings. Unlike his
contemporaries he followed a different path when creating this theory and came up with
different concepts, one of them was undoubtedly the concept of the General Will as in terms
of ensuring the legitimacy of his social contract theory.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a Genevan-born writer, composer, political
philosopher, musical theorist, educationalist, novelist, autobiographer. Namely he was
multitalented man. He wrote his social contract theory in response to his predecessors',
Hobbes and Locke, social contract theorists. Rousseau criticized Lockean state "by giving
inequalities among individuals the backing of law, also threatened freedom by fostering
relations of dependence among individuals" (Bertram, 2004). His political philosopy affected
Enlightenment in France and across Europe (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, n.d.). His political
philosophy also contributed to French Revolution (Atakan, 2007, p.63)
and over all
development of modern political an educational thought (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, n.d.).
According to Kalfa and Ataay (2015, p. 459) the popularity of Rousseau’ political theory
come from creating an alternative to liberal democracy.
According to Özgüç Orhan (2012, p. 1) Rousseau’s The Social Contract was too
critical with present ideas, the effects to the later thinkers. and movements. The general will
appears as a key concept both The Social Contract’s and Rousseau’ entire political
philosophy. That's why understanding the concept correctly is important to understand the
philosophy of Rousseau.
Rousseau wanted to give freedom to human with his social contract theory and at this
point the general will emerged as a key concept. He portrayed the theory with integrated
concepts as natural state, social contract, sovereignty, general will, and so on. Therefore,
while explaining the general will we also touch upon the others conceps for better
understanding. In this sense we handle the concept of state of nature, social contract,
sovereignty one by one and finally general will.
As the other philosophers Rousseau based his social contract theory on a state of
nature. So, to understand why people need to make social contract can be understood by
illuminate the concept of state of nature (Atakan, 2007, p. 39).
Rousseau hypothetically accepted state of nature but his conceptualization is different
according to Locke and Hobbes. Rousseau' natural man neither too quarrelsome as Hobbes'
natural man nor too free as Locke' natural man. According to Rousseau man in natural life
need limited requirements and requests which do not pass beyond physical needs and can be
easily met by with resources in natural life. So, there is no need for competition and conflict.
This natural man has a natural compassion and it prevents them from doing any harm to each
other by suppressing the sense of self-love. This wild man lives seperated and alone and
thinks very few. There is an overlap between desires and existing resources and the man lives
relatively happily without any passions except for a few essential passions such as self-love.
People pass to social life gradually because of many reasons. Thus intelligence, technical
skills and dependance to each other increases but the needs becomes irretrievable. Afterwards
mining and agriculture production starts and the division of labor occurs which leads to show
the impact of natural inequality between people and further dependence relations. economic
inequality and private property. Over time, the differences between people demonstrates itself
in economic inequalities and private property. Ownership causes competition and conflict is
inevitable after a certain point. Anymore it is impossible to return to natural state and it is
needed the establishment of the political society status which is provided by the social
contract (Atakan, 2007, p. 40-42). In brief, according to Rousseau men are free and equal in a
state of nature but civilizing corrupts them and it should be corrected.
According to Rousseau will is the source of morality and freedom. Mind is not the
main factor that impacts on human nature but feelings and passions are. Man is under the
yoke of dersire, not mind. Human behavior is guided by two motives. The first one is
avoiding pain and pursuing the pleasures, namely self-love. The second one is the compassion
feeling. As a result, Rousseau claims that the natural rights occurs from the combination of
these two motives. The love-self will not be an issue for the man living in the state of nature
as the two motives balance each other. But this situation changes in time and the sense of selflove outweighs. Man starts to pass to the community life and the nature of state is disrupted
and the social contract becomes a necessity (Orhan, 2012, p. 7-9).
Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Here’s one who thinks he is the master of others,
yet he is more enslaved than they are. How did this change come about? I don’t know. What can
make it legitimate? That’s a question that I think I can answer (Rousseau, 1762, p. 1).
The Social Contract was the answer of Rousseau to the issue of freedom (Smith, 2006,
p. 1). The aim of social contract is to regain the lost freedom. Rousseau defines the
fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution as:
Find a form of association that will bring the whole common force to bear on defending and
protecting each associate’s person and goods, doing this in such a way that each of them, while
uniting himself with all, still obeys only himself and remains as free as before. (Rousseau, 1762, p.
According to Rousseau men could be free in social life as in a state of nature if they
come together around a social contract. With the formation of a contract each member of the
society will be protecting own rights and will have won freedom. But it is necassary
fulfillment of certain conditions. Each member of society is involved in the community along
with all their rights and then a collective body is formed instead of personal life. Each
member of society is in the same condition in the sense of fully participatetion. Everyone gets
equivalent rights for the their lost when making the contract and gain greater power to protect
their rights. The collective body formed by contract is no longer an indivisible whole and a
public entity which has own unique life, a common identity and the will. Thus, sovereign is
formed by coming together of all individual citizens. While people are connected to state with
nationality bond they are connected to sovereign with citizenship bond. The social contract
occurs with consensus. Everyone makes a choice by free will and nothing can be imposed
anyone. A few contrary opinions do not affect the validity of the social contract. When the
state is establisted with the social contract anyone should obey the contract rules. The social
contract could be cancelled by consensus as formed. The sovereign entity formed by social
contract should protects general interests. Because men only get rid of someone else's yoke
with equitable and a more superior force. According to Rousseau compling with the general
rules is superior than following personal desires and men get more stable and free after the
social contract come into force. Sometimes the interests of group or personal interests may be
seen more attractive and social contract abused. So, how can the general interest will be
provided? According to Rousseau it could be provided with “General Will” (Atakan, 2007, p.
42-48). In brief, men became social slave with socialization, but they regained their freedom
as state of nature with the social contract.
Rousseau wants to give freedom to people who have lost it. To do this he uses the
concept of equality as a tool. According to him, the greatest threat to freedom is the
dependence of man by man. So the solution is clear: removing the loyalty to human and
putting loyalty to the law, equipping the general will with superior strength according to each
individual will (Orhan, 2012, p. 17).
There is a close relationship between Rousseau’ social contract and general will. The
basis of the general will, the only legitimate power is thrown by the social contract. According
to Rousseau actual sovereign is not kings, parliaments, presidents or council parliament but it
is the general will of the whole community (Smith, 2006, p. 2). Rousseau expressed the
relationship as "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme
direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an
indivisible part of the whole" (Rousseau, 1762).
As we said before a sovereign power appears above all of individuals and groups with
making the social contract. At this point general will appears as functioning mechanism of
this paddle system formed by social contract. General will is the will of the collective whole
and it is above the individual will. It is something different from the sum of the individual
will. After the acceptance of social contract general will appears through legislation. General
will is always right and it emphasizes equality between citizens. Although general will is
generally based on the same mind it varies from society to society. Therefore, the general will
differs in different countries. General will heads to the benefit of the general public and so it
is differed from the private will. General will is determined by public vote. If consensus can
not be achieved majority vote is taken into account. Everyone must abide by the decision that
ultimately determined by majority. While determining the general will two conditions must be
ensured. Firstly, citizens should be informed about issues and secondly, citizens should be
able to act according to their own opinion. So, there should be no different class structures as
associations, foundations or political parties that could affect their views (Atakan, 2007, p. 4851).
Acording to Robert Stone (2013, p. 86) Rousseau’ Generall Will was a response to the
inadequancies of contractualism of Hobbes and Locke. Whereas Hobbes and Locke tried to
find appropriate balance betweeen freedom and authority, Rousseau followed a different way.
Find a form of association that will bring the whole common force to bear on
defending and protecting each associate’s person and goods, doing this in such a
way that each of them, while uniting himself with all, still obeys only himself and
remains as free as before (Rousseau, 1762, p. 6)
Rousseau defines individuals as equal citizens in the community. The individuals get
their freedom with complete devoting themselves to the community and thus an organic
whole, sovereignty, is formed. The aim of sovereignty is to practise the general will.
According to Rousseau the General Will is the true wishes of the individuals (Stone, 2013, p.
88-89): “When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither
more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not
so” (Rousseau, 1762, p. 56). So, if individual wishes do not match with the wishes of the
General Will then citizens could be forced to be free, namely could be forced to follow the
wishes of the General Will. Isaiah Berlin opposes the General Will discourse with his Two
Concept of Liberty as the General Will suppresses individual thoughts or wishes and puts
forward an authoritarian attitude. This is too critical especiall if there is an opposed minority
group in democratic sovereign. Because The wishes of majority could be imposed on
minorities under the name of the General Will. But the aim of Rousseau’s General Will is an
educative lesson to increase civic vitues for the citizens rather than a political manifesto.
Rousseau believes that man has a friendly and uncompetitive nature and so he rejects
competitive approach of Locke's contract. Rousseau dreams the General Will as a source of
rights and the best interest of citizens. But the General Will must be more dominant any
citizens’s individual interest. So, it is possible to see the General Will as totaliterian. Bu if the
General Will is less totaliterian then individuals interests will be visible and a competition
will break out among those who contract. At this point perception has a key role
understanding. If the people believe that the Genaral Will exists then it exists or does not.
Smilarly perception is very important in determining whether the Geral Will is free or despot.
Namely, it is possible to look at Rousseau as either liberal or totalitarian viewpoints. (Smith,
2006, p 89-104).
Rousseau seee the private individual and group wills quite dangerous to the Genaral
Will as they divide and divert the loyality of people. According to him the General Will
determided by vote and it is a matter of citizen. There is a distinction between an ordinary
man and citizen. If a citizen refuses the General Will he can be forced to follow the General
Will, namely "forced to be free". Thus, the citizen is provided to follow his own will, the
General Will, and he could be free. On the other hand determining the General Will becomes
a difficult process. Because sometimes the will of the majority determined by voting results
does not reflect the General Will. According to Rousseau majority is more likely to be right.
But sometimes mojority could be mistaken as Rousseau said (Dagger, 1981, p. 362-371).
According to Rousseau the state's legitimacy and stability of society are based on the
provision of the General Will. But determining the General Will is sometimes quite difficult
and it is possible to determine so-called a General Will rather than the General Will. To do
determine the real one Rousseau draw attention to be fulfill certain conditions such as to avoid
conflict of interest in society there should not be too extreme rich and wealthy, there should
be a free debate atmosphere and decisions should be given in accordance with the public
interest. According to Rousseau sometimes these measures are not enough. So, Rousseau
additionally want to a wise guide as Plato’s philosopher king who redirects the community to
the in line the General Will (Kalfa & Ataay, 2015, p. 467-468). But, in crisis times the wise
charismatic leaders emerged as wise guides and their commands were accepted as the General
Will. In 20th century the way to the fascist regimes was opened. Under the name of national
will populist parties used the General Will to obtain the power. Herein feelings, thoughts and
psychological factors were effective. As a result the governments inspired Rousseau’s
theories were drawn to authoritarian and totalitarian regimes (Kalfa & Ataay, 2015, p. 479485).
There is some uncertainties in the liberating notion of Rousseau's general will.
Because the general will is determines by the comminity voting and the results could take to
freedom or the tyranny of the majority. At this point Rousseau emphasizes that individual
citizens should be independent of each other for the emergence of the real general will. If the
general will is determined accurately everyone will be free. Because while determining the
general will each individual citizens conributes and so obeying the general will does not differ
obeying their own rules. In the new situation gained new freedoms would be determined by
the general will. Freedoms, detemined under the general will and freedoms in the state of
nature are not same. There is a moral aspect of freedom determined by the general will.
Citizens can not do whatever they want, but they can do anything with the law determined.
The transition to the civil society from nature of state led to radical changes in human nature.
The transition puts justice rather than instinct in human behavior and gives a moral character.
Rousseau's conception of freedom is different from Hobbes and Locke. According to
Rousseau freedom starts with the law but it ends with the law according to Hobbes and Locke.
General will is applied to everyone. If anyone refuse to obey it force can be used to free them
and this brings to mind law despotism. Rousseau expects everyone to actively participation to
make decisions about public issues and opposes representatives. If possible, the
implementation of direct democracy is the best option for the general will, but Rousseau was
doubtful about implementation of direct democracy. According to Rousseau the general will
can not be determined accurately without the active participation and individual or group
interests is regarded as general interests (Smith, 2006, p 3-8).
General will is the will of political whole and public who is entegrated to the state.
Rousseau wanted to give sovereignty to the public with his social contract. The public was to
give decide everything with their general will. At that times French revolutionaries wanted to
end the monarch's absolute sovereignty and Rousseau’s ideas drew their attention. Thus, after
French revolution the doctrine of national sovereignty of the constituent assembly was created
with inspiration from Rousseau. While the doctrine was being created, a few changes made in
Rousseau’s theory. The term “nation” was used instead of the “community” and the term
“national will” was used instead of “genral will”. The national will was the source of all kinds
of legality and legitimacy as general will was. The national will was on top of all the other
wills (Atakan, 2007, p. 62-). Namely, Rousseau’s theory had contributed to the transition
from monarcy to modern nation-state republics. According to Smith (2006, p 9-10) there are
many areas of modern life marked by Rousseau and his ideas affected especially French
revolutionaries and many countries in different areas.
The General Will especially after with the French Revolution became a very popular
concept and it was quite influential in the shaping of modern political life. So, many political
developments in the 20th century can not be explained without referring to this concept.
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