Brief essay on 'General Will' as expounded by Rousseau



The concept of 'General Will' is the crux of Rousseau's political philosophy and his most important contribution to political thought.

Sabine says, "The general will and the criticism of natural rights comprised everything of importance that he had to say". According to Matey, it is 'his most distinctive contribution to political thought'.

The theory of 'General Will' is a plea for popular sovereignty, individual freedom and consent as basis of political authority and sovereignty of state; it was a refutation of the theory of natural rights.

Rousseau accepts the theory of social contract as Hobbes and Locke had done earlier but obtains conclusions altogether different from them. He tried to conciliate between individual freedom and state authority- Individual was free in state of nature and could not divest himself of his liberty.

Here Rousseau introduces social contract through which individuals enter into the Commonwealth and merge their will into the 'General Will' which is the concrete manifestation of sovereignty. By doing so he enters the Commonwealth and yet remains free.

Common, wealth is a collectivity of the individuals and General Will is the will of the Commonwealth, of which individual is a part and in the making of which individual will has participated. Thus while subject to the General Will individual remains free since he obeys none else but himself.

To Rousseau the Commonwealth is an "association" not an "agnation" of individuals, a moral and collective personality. He goes further to say, "Each of us puts his person and all his powers in common under the specific direction of the general will, and in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as the individual part of the whole".

Thus Rousseau argues that in this corporate capacity, the individual still obeys himself alone and remains as free as before. The freedom of the; individual could not be impaired by joining the Commonwealth or by obeying the General Will, the will of the Commonwealth, because the Commonwealth could have no will or interest against the common interests of the individuals.

He further argues that since the General Will is the will of the community and wills always common good, it is moral and absolute. To him, 'the General Will is always right and tends to the public advantage'.

The individual, thus, should be compelled to obey it, if he has an interest' different from the common interest as expressed in the General Will. The individual, in being forced to obey the General Will, is being made free.His immediate will may be selfish while the General Will is moral and wills good of all which includes individual's good as well.

If individual was free, he would never will against common good and hence when he is forced to follow common good as manifested in the General Will, he is being forced to be free.

Thus Rousseau confers absolute powers on the state which embodies the General Will and makes sovereignty, as Hobbes had done earlier, absolute, omnipotent, indivisible and inalienable. He says that the community is the sole judge of what is good for the community and individual has no rights against the community.

There could be no individual rights in defiance of general good. There could be no 'natural rights' against the society or the commonwealth. He says, "the social contract gives the body politic absolute powers over all its members" and that 'community is the sole judge of what is important'.

Hence the General Will (1) is will of the Commonwealth; (2) desires common good; (3) is moral; (4) is real will of the individual; (5) is never in conflict with individual's interests; (6) is absolute because individual has no rights against it; (7) is inalienable because it is the will of the collectivity and cannot be expressed by anyone else; (8) and is infallible because it is never against common good.

Thus Rousseau conciliates between liberty and sovereignty and subordinates the individual com­pletely to the state and General Will. Sovereignty is made absolute, inviolate, inalienable and sacred.

How to find the General Will:

The real paradox of General Will is that of eliciting it. How to find General Will? To Rousseau General Will is not the totality of individual wills because individual's will has both common and selfish interests. It is not the will of the majority because majority is a part of the whole and not the whole.

It is the will which "must both come from all and apply to all" and what makes it General is "less the number of voters than the common interest uniting them". It may be registered by making difference of individual wills cancelling each other.

The residue is the General Will because only common element in the individual wills would be left after the selfish clement in each will conflict with and cancel the similar element in other individual wills. It is thus the will of the people functioning as a corporate body.

Wayper says, "So much vagueness about something as important as finding of General Will is to be regretted. Rousseau, who has told us so much about the General Will, has 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 question".


The theory of General Will has been subject to various criticisms some of which are stated below:

(1) This theory is based on the presumption of Social Contract. Society and state are not made by contract but arc an evolution. Thus the very premises on which the theory of General Will is constructed are faulty

(2) It is paradoxical to find out the General Will. Rousseau con­ceived a small city-state where all the adults could participate in making the General Will.

Today it is not possible to have such city-states or village communities; in fact, it was not possible even during his own time.

Rousseau is against representative form of government. Genera] Will, he says, is inalienable and cannot be represented except by the whole body politic. In modern states, representation is the only possible method of government. In such states, majority represents the community. But Rousseau rejects the majority's will as General Will and there could be no other method to discover it.

(3) It is held by Rousseau that 'General Will' always wills common good and is therefore moral and absolute. This is a fallacious presumption.

No will can be made on a priori ground a moral will. The will of the Slate has to justify itself by its performance and achievement. It is only an individual that can accord it morality if he adjudges its achievement as moral.

(4) It is again a fallacious assumption that there is no conflict between common good and the good of the individual. To subordinate the individual on a priori assumption to the society and the state is to divest him of his personality; it is to install naked absolutism and decay all individual liberties and freedoms. It denies fundamental rights, which are the crux of democratic theory of state.

(5) Sovereignty is neither absolute nor sacred as Rousseau defines it on the basis of his theory of General Will. Sovereignty is limited by the purpose that it has to serve. Sovereignty exists because it is needed for performance of the end of the state. Sovereignty is not an end but a means to that end.

(6) General Will or the will of corporate body politic is a myth. It does not exist. It is fictitious to accord a personality or will to state, independent of that of the individual.

(7) To say that when individual is forced to obey the laws of the state he is being forced to be free and to obey his own real will is extremely a paradoxical argument. A thief is punished by law but to say that he willed his own punishment can only be a flight of imagination.

(8) Maclver says Rousseau equated 'will for the general good' with the 'will of the generality'. General will could be a will for the common good but to say that it is will of the Commonwealth is beyond facts of state life.

Value of the Theory:

However, the theory of General Will has served a useful purpose, in spite of all its illogicalities and contradictions:

(1) It refuted the theory of absolute and inalienable natural rights.

(2) It put the authority of the state on consent of the people.

(3) It provided the theory of popular sovereignty. Commonwealth is made sovereign.

(4) Sovereignty is provided an ethical basis in so far as it is based on 'General Will' which is moral and wills common good.

(5) It failed to guarantee individual freedom yet Rousseau based it on individual freedom. Rousseau gives the theory of 'General Will' to conciliate individual liberty and state sovereignty.

That is why Lord Morley said. "Would it not have been better for the world if Rousseau had never been born?" He feels if Rousseau had not lived the awful insanities of French Revolution might have been averted. Rousseau's phrases, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity became the guiding spirit of French revolution and have been influencing political philosophy and political movements since then. G.D.H. Cole has described the "Social Contract" as "by far the best of all text-books of political philosophy" and says that "Rousseau's influence, so far from being dead, is everyday increas­ing...".

Points to Remember

1. (i) The concept of General Will is the crux of Rousseau's philosophy.

(ii) It conciliates liberty and authority.

(iii) It is a refutation of theory of natural rights.

(iv) It is a plea for popular sovereignty.

(v) Commonwealth is an "association" and a corporate person­ality, not an "aggregation".

(vi) General Will is the will of the Commonwealth.

(vii) It wills common good and is moral and absolute.

(viii) Individual has no right against it, when he is forced to obey the General Will he is forced to be free.

(ix) State sovereignty is thus made absolute inviolate, indivisible and inalienable, even sacred.

(x) It is a will neither of the majority nor a sum total of individual wills; but will of the people functioning as body politic.

2. Criticism:

(i) The assumption of Social Contract on which the concept of General Will is based is wrong.

(ii) It is not practicable to ascertain the General Will.

(iii) General Will cannot be made on a priori ground moral will

(iv) It is wrong to assume that there is never conflict between individual good and social will.

(v) Sovereignty is neither absolute nor omnipotent.

(vi) General Will is myth.

(vii) To say that when individual is forced to obey the will of the state he is being forced to be wrong. Will for general good cannot be equated with 'will of the generality'.

3. Value:

(i) It refuted the theory of natural rights.

(ii)It is a plea for popular sovereignty and consent as the basis of state.

(iii) It is a plea for individual liberty.

(iv) Sovereignty is provided on ethical basis.