Rousseau and the General Will – Government (300 Level Course)
The general will is defined by Jean Jacque Rousseau as the common good of all of the people that live in the state. While this explanation of general will is vague, Rousseau does in fact delve deeper into a working definition of it by expressing its crucial role in the creation of a strong and fair government. Yet merely defining the term does not give justice to its meaning. One may ask where general will is indeed cultivated, in other words, from where did it come? Also, is it in fact necessary in a society to promote freedom to its people? These questions require a simple analysis of Rousseau’s work, which has had and will continue to have lasting impressions on modern political thought.
For Rousseau, the general will is not just important, it is crucial for the existence of a strong and fair government. Though it is defined easily as the good of all, when instituted in the world it becomes much more than that. The general will therefore are the overall welfare of the whole (state) at any given time and the source of all governing laws. And while it pertains to all of the members of the state, that is where it stops, as it does not apply to those living outside of the lines of that society. Interestingly, it is not a tangible thing that can be grasped and unraveled, it is more of an evasive presence that is present always and acknowledged by those living with it and around it. In this way, Rousseau dodges a literal definition of general will. It must then exist more in the readers mind than in a physical sense. These characteristics suit the general will more appropriately.
Knowing the meaning of the general will does not explain where the theory was cultivated. While the general will is implemented and adhered to by the government, it never really exists in their hands. It is the citizen’s actions together that create the existence of this will. Rousseau states that virtue is achieved through a combination of general will and particular will, still it seems as if at times the two overlap. Furthermore, it is stated that to will at all a citizen must be free and must will between public liberty and the authority of government. This would mean that the citizen find a happy medium somewhere between total freedom and the restrictions that government places upon their actions. Once the will is established it must be followed for there to be any hope of a popular and legitimate government existing. And in this government, the legislator, who makes the laws, must do so in a way that they reflect benefit to the general will and in any case where the law may fail, the general will would be consulted for a quick resolution. The best for all in the state is the ultimate goal of the general will be both cultivated and implemented.
This leads to the question of whether or not the state needs to adhere to this general will in order to promote freedom. Even after long deliberations no clear answer comes to mind for this perplexing question. It is clear that the general will is dependent on those that are free to create it, but that is not the question at hand. When thinking about promoting freedom, Rousseau clearly states that the general will is always on the side most favorable to the public interest, and it is known that general will exists as a pervasive force and that is a direct product of the individual and their thoughts and contributions to society as a whole. So it can be broken down even further so as to say what if there was no general will, if there is no concern for the good of all, or worse yet, no general good? Not only will the citizens run amok, but also the government could be in a position to impose limitations on its citizens and the state would resemble a dictatorship. Likewise, a situation could in fact arise in which the state does adhere to a Rousseauian general will, yet the people are constantly asking themselves to distinguish between good or bad, or even right and wrong. That would be a case in which the general will placed constraints on the people and thus they would not truly be experiencing freedom. Therefore both situations could easily exist and while it may be fair to say that many citizens that enjoy freedom were both assisting and enjoying the general will it does not guarantee freedom. So as no clear-cut answer arises immediately, by creating a scenario it can be deduced that the general will can produce freedom but a state does not have to adhere to the general will in order to assure it.
Thus while the general will may have a number of meanings, the reader can interpret it as the common good of all. Not only can it be known as this common good, but also it is the source of laws and when those laws are not effective, the general will acts as the mediator that can settle any differences. The free citizens that have to execute it and place it somewhere between their own personal liberty and the authority of the government that rules them cultivate the will. And ultimately while it may lead to freedom of people a strict adherence to the general will may not automatically result in the enjoyable peace of all those citizens of the state. For that it seems that a balance is needed to create success in the general will. This balance must be somewhere between the private will and the general will of all those that live and work the state. That is what Rousseau meant by his general will.