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Rousseau's Argument on General Will

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1792 words Published: 14th Apr 2017

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the most influential thinkers during the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe. He was born on June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland. Rousseau won recognition as a writer, although the authorities make every effort to suppress Rousseau’s writings.

His notion of individual liberty and his convictions about political unity helped to fuel the romantic spirit of the French Revolution.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau authored a series of philosophical essays between 1754 and his death in 1778 that had a decisive impact on political events in Europe and the world at large. A political and moral philosopher during the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed provocative ideas about human nature, education, and the desired relationship between individuals and the ideal society.

Like Locke and Hobbes, Rousseau is a “state of nature” theorist. This means he starts his argument with individuals wandering about in a state of nature and then brings them together to show how society is created through their “social contract”.

Rousseau published Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality in 1754, arguing that the natural, moral state of man had been corrupted by society.

Rousseau saw a fundamental divide between society and human nature. Rousseau contended that man was good by nature, a “noble savage” when in the state of nature ,

History,for Russeau,is the story of corruption,wherebya healthy innocence gives away to a corrupt sophistication with the onset of farming and techonology . (Lecture notes)

In Rousseau’s philosophy, Men and woman in the state of nature are seen as simple free creatures at ease with themselves .To make this more clear men and woman in the state of nature are self -regarding, they feel a compassion for the suffering of others. Human beings in the state of nature experience a relatively healthy form of Self-love, amour de soi. This benign self -regard, though, is turned into more sinister form of self-love, amour proper in the development of more sophisticated societies. (Lecture notes)

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s most important work is The Social Contract ,which coined the basis for a legitimate political order based on the social contract that is formed by the society from state of nature to civil society and state. The book was published in 1762, where it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the social contract theory. The book begins with the dramatic opening lines, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks he the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they.” Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality.

This is the basic principle that he tried to put forward in his writing. In the state of nature that describe by Rousseau is where men are possess with their personal liberty. In the state of nature there are no legitimate and political authorities.

As society developed, division of labour and private property required the human to adopt institutions of law. Men lives in isolation and fear of conflict, but due to the motivation of self improvement, development of society to govern their rights that they possess men gave up the rights and liberty in order to form government.

Rousseau thinks that the fear and the pressure made the people abandoning their natural rights to came and joins through the social contract into civil society. The problem Rousseau poses in the beginning of The Social Contract is how to reconcile individual liberty with civil society. His solution is to offer two conceptions of liberty, ‘natural liberty’ and ‘civil liberty’, which is the superior of the two. The forming of societies involves a social contract in which individuals sacrifice freedom in the name of self preservation

What a man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and the absolute right to anything that tempts him and that he can take; what he gains by the social contract is civil liberty … we must clearly distinguish between natural liberty, which has no limit but the physical power of the individual concerned, and civil liberty, which is limited by the general will … man acquires with civil society, moral freedom, which alone makes man the master of himself … obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom. (Rousseau, 1968:p 65)

According to Rousseau, no one will give up his liberty without getting something in return. We all agree that people are born free, but for Rousseau they need to enter into social contract to achieve the natural freedom .

Men by nature are possessed with individual liberty, but men gave up this liberty in order to enter into Social Contract .They giving up the liberty in order to receive social freedom , In giving up the liberty in order to form state with legitimate authority it is must the based on the condition of general will..

In other words Rousseau thinks that the natural independence of man in state of nature is exchanged for the public freedom of citizenship. General will is introduced by Rousseau as a foundation of a transition from state of nature towards civil state, Rousseau claims in The Social Contract to have solved a ‘fundamental problem’ (Book 1, iv)

“Find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole of it’s joint strength the person and property of each associate and under which each of them, uniting himself to all, will obey himself alone and remain free as before.” (Rousseau the Social Contract p 54)

the concept of general will used by Rousseau means the will by which a group of people enter into social contract ,it refers to the will of the citizen the state

“It tends toward the public utility” (Rousseau, 1996: 477)

The general will is always right and promote public interest. The general will can be seen as distinct from a sum of coinciding private interests. This does not however mean that the general will is not in the interest of each individual. It is, in so far as “It is not the interests of others that we are to follow but rather the interests of all, all includes us.”(Hall an introduction to Rousseau p.73)

For Rousseau’ living according to the general will instead of individual will are namely that it is noble and good to do so, but also because a person achieves ‘civil liberty’ by doing so. “Obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself is liberty”. (Rousseau, Block 3, p.111)

Rousseau believes that only general will can direct the society towards common good. The idea of the general will is at the heart of Rousseau’s philosophy. When individuals have been transformed into a state by enter into social contract ,they are united by common goods .The general will is the will of a state as a whole .

The concept of the general will is probably easier to understand as the will of all.

Rousseau specifically makes distinguish between the two concepts about common will, the will of all and the general will:

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences Social Contract, (Vol. IV, p. 146).

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The general will is not the will of the majority. The general will is not the sum of all the separate wills of individuals who enter the social contract. It is not majority decision .It is the general will only when it aims at the common good and when it is supported by all citizens of good will. It is a moral, qualitative idea .The “general will” in action is sovereign.

He therefore insisted on the sovereignty of the people, who are united individuals in the general will, because their common interest let them seek for the most suitable form of government and society to fulfil this basic need.

Rousseau also argues that sovereignty should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between sovereignty and government. The government is charged with implementing and enforcing the general will and is composed of a smaller group of citizens

Rousseau theory of sovereignty differs obviously from those other political philosophers including Hobbes, Rousseau asserts that the people should exercise sovereignty rather than bend to the whims of an absolute monarch. Common interest of the public could not be preserve and protected of there is no medium of separation of power and check and balance in governing the state.

The ideas of Rousseau that he coined in his book of Social Contract would gives an impact on modern form of democratic society based on his understanding of general will and theory of sovereignty would bring us the understanding of the power of people in modern society. His ideas are near to what we have today in understand the good government and democratic society.

The importance of the will for Rousseau was not merely social, but also psychological. He knew that men behaved differently in groups than in isolation, but “without a perfect knowledge of the inclinations of individuals” one could not understand society (ibid.,p. 202).


For Rousseau the object of General Will is the common good not what individuals want for themselves. The common good is taken to be the aim of moral choices. The General Will is the will each person has as a citizen of moral agents. It is not that the common good is what we morally ought to aim at, but that this is what we really want.

A person may want something that is not good for him or her. What is good for someone is what he would want if he had complete wisdom. For the General will theory a man’s real good is what he really wants although he does not know it.

Since the state aims at securing the common good the state or the law is the concrete expression of General Will. We ought ,therefore ,to obey the state, and if we do we are following our real will: the will that is the general or common to all members of the state If an individual does not realise what he really wants and is unwilling to fall into lines ,the state is justified in forcing him to conform .


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