Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture No. 19
Rousseau - II: General Will & Critical Assessment of his Thought
(Refer Slide Time: 00:34)
Hello and welcome everyone! This is the second and concluding lecture on Rousseau. In this
lecture, today, we are going to focus on his notion of ‘general will’. It was the basis of
sovereignty in the political society or political community that Rousseau envisaged. In the
first part of the lecture, we are going to focus on his views on ‘general will’ and before that
how this political community was constituted through a covenant.
What were the conditions of such constitutions? In the second part, we will look at the critical
assessment of Rousseau’s political thought or philosophical position. And finally, we will
have a summary of the contribution of social contradiction tradition in the history of western
political thought. The first lecture that we had on Rousseau, we have discussed his personal
life and how he was a self-taught thinker and developed many paradoxes.
Thus, he was a modern thinker and someone who was looking at the pre-modern or social
living and associational life. The value of morality that would create a public spirited citizen.
In contrast, to that the modern, secular, atheistic rationalized living had Rousseau despised.
His social contract was a kind of argument against such kind of corrupting influence that was
there in modern life, particularly, in Paris and many other states in Europe as well. As a theorist of popular sovereignty, how Rousseau envisaged a new kind of social
association which would enable the individual to live a free life without being corrupted by
the socialization or corrupting influence of society or religion. Some of these thoughts we
have discussed in the previous lecture. Today, we will study, how he argued about political
community and its formation, and what role the ‘general will’ played in the political stability
or ensuring the equality and liberty of individuals.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:19)
Rousseau’s argument about popular sovereignty was based on his idea of ‘general will’ and
this idea in Rousseau’s philosophy was somewhat ambiguous and controversial. Many
scholars believed that this idea of ‘general will’ or popular sovereignty was based on ‘general
will’. It was something that led to the rise of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century.
And Rousseau, drew a strong connection between his idea of ‘general will’, political
authority, sovereignty and the laws there in the state.
Rousseau argued about a popular sovereignty based on the ‘general will’ and this idea of
‘general will’ was complex than it appears. So, there was a kind of strong connection
between his idea of popular sovereignty and ‘general will’. That was the basis of all forms of
political authority and laws in the society. In that sense, there was a sense of continuum
between ‘general will’, popular sovereignty, political authority and laws in the state that
Thus, Rousseau was both a celebrated and despised political thinker in Europe. We have
discussed this in the previous lecture that how his former alias or colleagues regarded many of his thoughts or ideas as contrary to the enlightenment project based on the refinement of
him and character on the basis of region and rationality.
Rousseau was a celebrated thinker. But as a despised political thinker in Europe, he led to the
wide reading of his work. At the same time, simultaneous condemnation banning and public
learning of his work. There were many paradoxes in his thought and this we will discuss in
detail, when we look at the critical assessment of Rousseau’s political thought. He argued that
‘general will’ should be binding to all and those who refused to obey the ‘general will’ should
be forced to obey it.
There were a number of paradoxes in Rousseau. Where on the one hand, he said that the
‘general will’ was the expression of individual’s own will, when they were guided by the
public spirit or life of the community. And not by their private selfish interest. However, he
argued that individual would be individuals. Man would be as they were and laws as it should
be. Thus, Rousseau’s objective was to create a law, public institution or republic which
would enable the individuals to live a more harmonious or unified life.
And that is possible when individual realised the need of community and associate his or her
own self with the self of community. And thereby, there was no scope of disobeying the
‘general will’. In that sense, Rousseau’s paradoxes that human beings could be forced to be
free. And there was a use of force and yet that use of force was according to Rousseau for the
freedom of individuals. And there were many such paradoxes that we will discuss. And this
‘general will’ need not be the aggregate will of the majority or even few.
His characterization of ‘general will’ was somewhat ambiguous. That is the ‘general will’
that is not the aggregate or collective will of every member in the society. Every member was
sitting in the assembly, expressing their will and aggregating those wills. That would be the
‘general will’. It was not the case, according to Rousseau. ‘General will’ had a very specific
Rousseau, as a republican thinker wanted to create a political community in which human
beings could live a free and equal life. So, the central pillar in Rousseau’s political
philosophy was his emphasis on liberty and equality. And that becomes the slogan of French
revolution along with the idea of liberty, equality, and fraternity. According to Rousseau,
men could genuinely realise this freedom in civil society by following the laws, they
themselves legislated. Thus, citizens in a political community would be both author and being
author that means citizen and also the subject of laws. There is a kind of another paradox in Rousseau’s thought, where he envisaged members of
political community as both citizen and subject. And citizen, is a modern concept, where the
member of the political community had certain rights that a state was supposed to protect.
And it is different from the idea of subject that is obligation which members have towards the
king without having any rights.
The difference between the modern notion of citizenship with the pre-modern idea of subject
is that the modern citizens have certain rights which are inalienable and state must uphold or
protect those rights. Whereas, the subject is someone having obligation towards the state
without having any recognisable rights. So, in the monarchy during the pre-modern times,
individuals in the state were nearly subjects and not the citizen. Thus, they could not
rightfully demand from the state to recognize their rights and protect it.
Whereas in Rousseau, you have this kind of paradox, where he envisaged a political
community. In the political community, individual member would be both the author and
being author as citizen and also the subject of law. And subjecting to that law, Rousseau
argued that he would be free and achieve self-mastery. Freedom for Rousseau was not a kind
of private choice or a kind of personal self-aggrandisement. But it was living in association
with the community. Thus, the individual and community was in perfect harmony. By
following the laws of community, individual followed their own self-legislated laws. And this
was the kind of another paradox that we had in Rousseau.
However, deriving from the writings of Montesquieu, Rousseau also argued that the kind of
freedom that existed vary from society to society depending upon their natural conditions of
people and physical circumstances. Rousseau being a pragmatic thinker followed his idea of
spirit. It was the freedom that he was talking about would be within the confine of laws of the
community or ‘general will’. By following the ‘general will’, human beings would realize
their freedom that enabled them to live a moral life.
He argued that this kind of freedom was not available to all kinds of community across the
circumstances. It would vary from people to people depending upon their own nature. The
giving primacy to republican ideas or active participation of the people was the basis for the
realization of this kind of freedom. Thus, it varies from society to society, depending upon
the nature of individuals in those society or natural circumstances.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:25)Rousseau’s argument on the formation of body politic was the basis of political rights or civil
rights for the individuals. It was different from the freedom that individual enjoyed in the
‘state of nature’. So, Rousseau in Social Contract envisaged a body politic that would create
the conditions of freedom and equality of the individuals. This combination of freedom and
equality was at the very centre of Rousseau’s philosophy.
So, his second discourse on inequality and how to overcome it, how to legitimise a political
rule or system of rule would create the conditions for everyone and not just the few
propertied to live the life of liberty and equality. In the social contract of imagination of body
politic, it was about creating those conditions that would provide equality and liberty to every
member of the community and not just a few privileged or propertied ones.
The formation of the body politic was based on a covenant. It was the artificial construct and
not natural. Human beings in the ‘state of nature’ did not lived in associational life. His
association with others was episodic and based on the need such as for when they would go
for hunting. Otherwise there were no ties in the ‘state of nature’. It is only in the society that
human beings began to live with the family and community. That living had certain
obligations to tie them to family or community that was a kind of bondage for the individuals.
So, to live in, the associational life in the political community was the artificial construct.
That is in accordance with the social contradiction. The social or political situation were not
something that was natural. It was result of covenant or contract among the free, independent
and consenting individual. And the consent was then the basis of legitimacy of the political
rule. The formation of the body politic was based on a covenant that transformed the multitude of people into what Rousseau called ‘A People’. And that was a kind of hint
towards the idea of nationalism.
When multitude of people coming together through a covenant, it created a political society
that had its own culture. It had its own ‘general will’ that was decided on the active
participation. It was decided through the active participation of all its members. This kind of
imagination also had a hint of modern nation or nationalism. This multitude of people and
their transformation into ‘a people’ was the result of covenant among the free independent,
autonomous individual who are also equal.
The constitution of the body politic, according to Rousseau, was the basis of all social,
economic, and political rights for individuals. Individuals enjoyed their right only after the
formation of this body politic through a covenant. Prior to death, there was no recognized
rights. Individuals were free and equal in the ‘state of nature’. But there was no recognition of
that by any other body.
Where after the formation of body politic, all the rights of the individual, social, economical
and political rights were guaranteed and protected in a sense, put in a firmer footing or having
greater protection of these rights after the formation of political community. According to
Rousseau, the act by which people become ‘a people’ that means having a very distinct
identity. Having a distinct would he called a ‘general will’ that was crucial and the real
foundation of society. In this society, freedom implies following the rules that individuals
In this body politic, individual would remain as free as they were by following those laws
which they themselves had legislated. The terms of contract or covenant that became the
basis of society required that each individual totally alienated himself and all his rights to the
whole community. The first term of this contract was that for the multitude of people to
become ‘a people’, it was required that all individuals should alienate himself. That is his
own person and all his rights to the whole community.
Once they were part of the political community, they associated and identified themselves
with the whole community. There was no gap and personal rights which were different from
the community rights and its existence. Thus, individual gave way to their natural freedom
and rights to the community. This was done on the strict condition of equality. That means,
other individual when they agreed to be a part of that political community should forego their
individual rights or belonging. In Rousseau’s imagination, the political community was completely identified with the
individuals and whole of the community. So, the individual remained sovereign and free by
completely identifying themselves with the community, that is the whole. There was a kind of
organic relationship between the individuals and community that Rousseau envisaged.
Individuals had no personal or private rights, when they agree to become the part of a
Second, the alienation of rights was unconditional. It was not based on certain conditions as
in Hobbes for the protection of life or in Locke, for the protection of life, liberty and property.
This alienation of rights by the individuals to the political community was unconditional. The
union of the individuals with community was as perfect as it could be. This kind of political
community would be a community for which human beings would give up all that is precious
to him, even his life for the protection of his community.
And there is nothing that one can think of worth living for or worth protecting for outside the
community. This union between the individual and community is a kind of organic union
where nothing is left outside this union. And that way, the political community would be as
perfect as it could be. Therefore, he argued that the alienation of individual rights to the
political community was unconditional and not on any conditions.
Not like Hobbes and Locke for the protection of certain rights. But this was voluntarily
giving away of one’s rights for the sake of achieving self-mastery or achieving freedom as
they had in the ‘state of nature’. And that one could do by completely identifying with the
community and community identifying with the people. Finally, the unity, thus, constituted
would be a source of order and beneficial for all as it was based on a strict reciprocity of
equal and mutual dependence, ‘since each man gives himself to all, and not to other man or
group of men’.
The relationship between the individual and community was that of the whole to the
particular and the particular to the whole. Not one particular to the other particular group of
men. So, ‘Since each man gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one’. That is the rules
of the community or the ‘general will’. Thus, it was constituted on the basis of the political
community where the reflection of individual’s own will were guided by the public spirit and
not by their personal spirit.
Thus, constituted, the political body, a small community of free and equal members, where
no one would have enough wealth to buy another and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself. And this was another characteristic of Rousseau’s political community, where he
despised all forms of hierarchy, particularly, the economic inequality. And he argued that you
cannot think of equality and liberty in a society, where one person or few persons had
resources enough to buy the other person. And multitude of people would be living in the
condition of servitude.
He wanted to create a political community which would be a small community, where no
particular person would have enough wealth to buy another person. And none would be poor
enough to be forced to sell himself. Though directly and actively participating in legislative
laws, these members then remained as free as before and enjoying the life of liberty and
perfect equality in the society.
(Refer Slide Time: 23:21)
Thus, in such a community, ‘Each one of us puts in the community, his person and all his
powders under the supreme direction of the general will, and as a body, we incorporate every
member as an indivisible part of the whole’. So, if some of you can recall, the Gandhian idea
of oceanic circle, where the individual member of the community was part of the larger
community and larger community were not done away with that particular individual.
The part sustained in the whole and who sustained the part. There were some kinds of similar
arguments in Rousseau’s idea of individual member to the body politic. The paradox was
Rousseau’s description of men as both citizens and subject of the body politic. They were
citizens as they were its creator. The whole body politic or ‘general will’ was created or
authored by citizen. But they were subjects, obliged to obey its law. So, once the ‘general will’ was formed, its citizen turned into subjects. And they had
obligation to follow the ‘general will’. And if they refused to do so, they would be forced to
obey it in that sense, forced to be free, according to Rousseau. Rousseau argued that real
freedom was in following the ‘general will’ and those who refused to obey it would be forced
to do so. He explained that it was in such a community that men would learn moral freedom
The freedom for Rousseau was not in living the private life or in the pursuit of personal
interest. But living the associational life in the community guided by the public spirit or in the
pursuit of public spirit. There was no kind of divide in the personal interest of the individual
and public interest of the community. It had created a kind of divide itself, according to
Rousseau in modern social political life. So, there was a kind of argument for organic
associational life of individuals with the community and both were indispensable to each
other and willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of other.
Then the realization of freedom was the moral freedom or achievement of self-mastery were
through the participation in the life of community. Now, let us discuss, his ideas on ‘general
will’. ‘General will’ in Rousseau’s thoughts was an ambiguous concept. It was a
controversial concept. So, the first characteristic of this ‘general will’, it could not be
delegated to any other body or presented to any other body. That means, it must be legislated
by the people themselves and it could not be delegated to or presented to any other body than
the people themselves.
There was a kind of direct republican notion reflected again. ‘General will’ was constituted
by the people themselves through direct participation. He despised English parliament or
periodic election and representative form of government, where people were free only once in
five or four years when elections were held. So, after the day of voting, the representative
would take over and there was the condition of unfreedom for the masses or citizens.
In contrast, to that Rousseau argued that ‘general will’ was something which could not be
delegated to or represented by any other body than the people themselves. So, they legislated.
Now, this ‘general will’ could be the will of the majority or it could be the will of the few of
its members or even one enlightened citizen who was guided by the real will of everyone in
the community. Only condition for that was they were free from their personal or selfish
interests. The constitution of ‘general will’ required not the aggregate will of the whole community.
That is the collective expression of each members and you decide what is ‘general will’? It
could be will of the majority or few or even one member of the political community, when
they were guided by the enlightened interest of the community and not their personal, selfish
or sectional interests.
The ‘general will’, therefore, is the will of the whole community and not the particular will or
the sectional will of any group of the community. And it was binding on all. However, it was
not the aggregate will of all its members. It was the characteristic of ‘general will’ and its
formation. Now, its characteristic was that it must be followed wholly or neither. There could
not be modification or alteration in the implementation or following of ‘general will’.
So, general will must be followed and there is a kind of continuum between the idea of
‘general will’ and the popular sovereignty or political authority of the state or government or
its laws. All these derived its authority from the ‘general will’. And it must be wholly
accepted or followed by all the institutions and members in the community without
exception. And if they do so, they can be forced to be free, according to Rousseau. Now, it
must be ‘general will’ which is different from the personal or private will of the individual.
It must be general in its purpose as well as in its nature that it should spring from all and
apply to all. That is the characterisation of ‘general will’ that Rousseau argued. The ‘general
will’ was to be decided on the basis of its purpose. So, the individual’s will and his private or
personal will towards gratifying his personal interest or selfish interest. And a group of
people and there would be for the gratification of their sectional or private group interest.
However, ‘general will’ must be something that caters towards the collective will or ‘general
will’ of the community and not the particular or sectional interests of its members. And then,
suppose, the private will as an individual. It should be followed by that private individual or a
group of individuals. But ‘general will’ must be followed by every single member in the
community. That distinguish ‘general will’, again, from the private will or sectional interest
in the society.
In other words, ‘general will’ is the expression of what is already in everyone’s heart. It may
be expressed by the majority; it may be expressed by the few or by one person. But it gives
expression to what is already there in each one’s heart. So, many people may not be aware of
it, may not be consist of it, and therefore, they live the life of bondage and unfreedom. Now,the task of the community is to force that individual to realize what is general and what is free
for himself. And in that sense, he should be forced to be free.
So, the general will be the expression of what is already in everyone’s heart, when they are
guided by public interest and not by their selfish interest. So, the general will, thus constituted
will be sovereign and is always rightful and always tend to the public good. So, thus, general
will guided by the public spirit would always be rightful, there is no question of corruption or
wrongdoings on the basis of general will. It always it is always right and catered to the needs
of the whole community, not the private individual or the group or the sections in any society.
So, if you compare it with, let us say, modern plural democracy, so, they are multitude of
groups in the society with varying and often contradictory interests. Rousseau do not consider
that all of them should represent the will of the community or the political community. That
is very different from the private or sectional group interest that different groups or parties
propagate and strive to achieve in modern liberal plural democracy.
Rousseau gave a kind of platonic idea of harmony of human will. That is individuals should
live not a divided life, one for the self and other for the rest of people or group members in
the community. But a kind of harmonious whole within and the ‘general will’ should be the
expression of harmony that should be there with individuals in the ‘state of nature’. The
corrupting influence of society has taken away that internal harmony presents there and that
should be there in the individual. In the similar way, the ‘general will’ should be the
expression of that harmony. It can be expressed by majority or few or one person. But that
represent the will there in each one’s heart, whether they are consisted of it or not. (Refer Slide Time: 34:23)
It cannot be wrong therefore. So, the laws guarantee the rights of individuals in society.
Therefore, there are the expressions of ‘general will’. So, the laws are necessary as human
beings cannot enjoy or exercise their rights without the laws. As laws guarantee or protect the
rights. But these laws themselves are an expression or ‘general will’ of the community.
However, Rousseau realized that for the simple and natural man who lived the life of free and
equal members in the ‘state of nature’, it is difficult to see what is good for the people,
although they desire for it.
The majority of people in the community would desire that the state should function for the
interest of all. But they themselves do not see or identify which course of action would be
beneficial for the whole community. To resolve this tension, Rousseau envisaged the role of a
legislator who presumed some kinds of semi-divine characteristic that enables him, the
legislator, to persuade the sovereign body without force. As it is necessary for redeeming
corrupt people behind them, the authority of God.
So, there are some kinds of established theological ideas that guided Rousseau’s argument. It
would sustain the ‘general will’ or political stability in the community. He did not want a
kind of debate and discussion about what is ‘general will’ and acrimonious or conflicting
positions about ‘general will’. He wanted some kind of stability that would be something like
semi-divine naturally command respect or obligation from the people without the recourse to
violence or use of force.
People will be willing to subject themselves to such notion of ‘general will’, when it is
persuaded to them. That it is some kind of a semi-divine or having the authority of god. Andremember, in Rousseau, there was a kind of suspicion towards atheists. Because of their
loyalty or patriotism to the state can be questioned. Rousseau resolved this tension of
identifying and constituting the ‘general will’ through this idea of legislation who would
make it more acceptable, established, or more firm than everyday interaction and debated
Thus, Rousseau argued that this lawgiver, whom he called the wise lawgiver began not by
laying down laws good in themselves. But by finding out whether the people for whom the
laws are intended able to support them. So, he was reflecting a kind of excuse or arguments
about the spirit of laws. That means, the laws and its applications, and success of the law
depends on the nature or characteristic of the people. And it varies from community to
Rousseau recognized the inner conflicts between the particular and sectional interest of the
people and the ‘general will’. However, rather than seeking reconciliations like all politics,
particularly if you recall Aristotle in Machiavelli, politics is all about having conflicting
position and reconciling those conflicting positions and to arrive at certain workable
proposition. Rousseau, however, like Plato wanted to transcend these conflicts between
personal interest or sectional interest and ‘general will’ by creating a harmonious existence
between the self and community.
So, there is a kind of complete identification of the whole with the part and the part with the
whole, thereby creating a state or sovereign based on ‘general will’ which would have more
power than Hobbesian Leviathan. Thus, everyone must obey ‘general will’, unconditionally
without exceptions. If they do so, then they can be forced to be free. First, Rousseau created a
political community, where part and the whole has a perfect union.
There is perfect identification of the political community with its individual member and an
individual member with its political community, thereby the ‘general will’ which is the
expression of that community must be followed universally, unconditionally, without
exception. If there are exceptions, then it is the responsibility of community to forcefully
apply or implement or force them to obey the ‘general will’.
So, civil religion, he talked about as a kind of mechanism would enable individuals to
develop these civic responsibilities and public spiritedness, and participation in the life of
community that was not natural, unlike, Aristotle who said that ‘My men are by nature, a
social being or a social animal’. Rousseau did not consider man as naturally a social being. So, in the ‘state of nature’, that association with others is episodic, casual, and need based.
Whereas, in the community, men must learn how to live with others and participate in the life
To learn that he envisaged a kind of civil religion that would be different from the Christian
religion which teach men to live other worldly only, for other worldly life and have less and
less participation in the temporal world or in this life. So, Civil religion is the new faith for
the citizens which imbibed in them, their duty and obligation towards the republic. Rousseau
advocated the existence of censorial tribunal to shape the morality of cit