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Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “General Will”
From: The Social Contract
"As long as several men in assembly regard themselves as a single body, they have only a single
will which is concerned with their common preservation and general well-being. In this case, all
the springs of the State are vigorous and simple and its rules clear and luminous; there are no
embroilments or conflicts of interests; the common good is everywhere clearly apparent, and
only good sense is needed to perceive it. Peace, unity and equality are the enemies of political
subtleties. Men who are upright and simple are difficult to deceive because of their simplicity;
lures and ingenious pretexts fail to impose upon them, and they are not even subtle enough to be
dupes. When, among the happiest people in the world, bands of peasants are seen regulating
affairs of State under an oak, and always acting wisely, can we help scorning the ingenious
methods of other nations, which make themselves illustrious and wretched with so much art and
Liberal thinkers have criticized the concept of General Will from a variety of angles:
The idea that there is one path which benefits everyone is itself contested. Under the
pluralist tradition, the common good is considered to be an aggregate of private interests,
which needs balancing, rather than one over-arching, quasi-metaphysical concept.
Even if there was one path which benefited everyone, it is a mistake to say that it is then
their will. There is a difference between interest and desire. Thus the imposition of the
General Will is not consistent with autonomy or freedom.
The concept depends on a distinction between a person's "empirical" (i.e. conscious) self
and his "true" self, of which he is unaware. This idea is essentially dogmatic and
mystical, and is incapable of logical or empirical verification or even discussion.
Rousseau offers no mechanism for the articulation of the General Will. He suggests that
under some conditions it may not actually be expressed by the majority. But who is in a
position to rule on what the General Will is? Thus, the concept could be manipulated by
totalitarian regimes, which compel people against their actual will. A manifestation of
this effect may be seen in the infamous Reign of Terror during the French Revolution,
during which, a tiny group of the most radical Jacobins on the Committee of Public
Safety, inflicted their vision of the General Will by means of the guillotine. Robespierre
sought to coerce dissenters to virtue:
“If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at
the same time virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror; without which
virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible, justice; it is therefore
an emanation of virtue.”