General will

General will

The general will ("volonté générale"), first enunciated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a concept in political philosophy referring to the desire or interest of a people as a whole. It is most often associated with socialist traditions in politics.

Rousseau characterized the general will with four characteristics - it is inalienable, infallible, indivisible and absolute. Rousseau's doctrine of the general will was criticized by Israeli historian Jacob Talmon as a Totalitarian Democracy because the state subjected its citizens to the supposedly infallible will of the tyranny of the majority.


"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 mystery?" [On the Social Contract, Book IV, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1]

When minorities begin to exercise an influence over the majority, the General Will ceases to be the will of all. The General Will then becomes subordinated to other wills. Contradictory views and debates arise and the best advice is not taken without question. (The Social Contract; Jean-Jacques Rousseau Translated by G.D.H Cole/ Publisher: Barnes & Noble Books New York 2005 pg. 114-115)


Liberal thinkers, for example Isaiah Berlin, 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.

ee also

* Popular sovereignty
* Absolute monarchy, a monarchy where the ruler has the power to rule his or her country and citizens freely with no laws or legally-organized direct opposition.
* Political absolutism, one person (generally, a monarch) should hold all power.


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