Jean Jacques Rousseau on General Will

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an influential Genevan philosopher and writer active during the 18th-century Enlightenment period. He made significant contributions to political philosophy and educational theory. Rousseau believed that human beings are inherently good but are corrupted by the evils of society. He viewed civil society as an artificial construct that limits humans’ natural freedom. In his 1762 treatise ‘The Social Contract’, Rousseau proposed that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, who voluntarily unite for their mutual preservation. This concept of popular sovereignty is expressed through the “general will” of the people. Rousseau’s political philosophy emphasized individual freedom, equality, and democratic self-governance. His radical ideas influenced French revolutionaries and many modern political movements. The general will remains one of Rousseau’s most important and controversial contributions to democratic theory. This article will examine the key features of Rousseau’s conception of the general will.

What is General Will?

General Will refers to the collective will of the community that is aimed at serving the common interests. According to the political philosophy of the famous 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the General Will is central to a functioning society and democratic governance. Rousseau believed that in an ideal community, citizens collectively hold sovereignty and are guided by General Will, which aims at upholding the common good above any particular interests. He viewed the General Will as the proper expression of citizen sovereignty and believed that following it leads to freedom. General Will is born out of deliberation and consensus among citizens. It represents the shared interests and desires of the community at large. Rousseau differentiated the General Will from the particular or individual wills of citizens that may be motivated by narrow self-interest. According to Rousseau, when citizens come together, become engaged, and orient themselves towards the common good, they express the General Will that benefits everyone.

Origin of General Will

The concept of general will has its roots in Christian theology. Rousseau, who was raised as a Calvinist, was influenced by the theological ideas of a universally binding will or divine will that guides right action. Rousseau adapted these religious concepts into a secular political philosophy, transforming the divine will into the general will of the people. Where divine will represents the universal good in Christian thought, Rousseau conceived of the general will as expressing the interests all citizens hold in common in a just society. The general will embody an ideal of unity and shared purpose within a political community. This unity arises not through a formal aggregation of individual desires but through each citizen transcending their individual perspective to focus on the common good. Though general will has theological influences, Rousseau argues it is fundamentally rational and arises through thoughtful self-legislation within a society.

Jean Jacques Rousseau on General Will

The general will is core to Rousseau’s political philosophy. Rousseau believed that sovereign power should be in the hands of the people, not a monarch. He viewed the general will as an expression of popular sovereignty – the will of the people as a whole. Rousseau saw the general will as ideally leading to consensus and the common good rather than just majority rule. He argued that citizens must subordinate their personal desires and interests to the general will in order to establish a legitimate state. Rousseau writes, “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” According to Rousseau, in order for the general will to lead to freedom and a well-ordered society, citizens must participate in the creation of laws and accept them willingly, not just submit to the rule of a sovereign. The general will represents the real interests of the people more than any individual or group. Rousseau believed that by collectively exercising the general will, citizens could promote the common good and achieve freedom.

Features of Rousseau’s General Will

Rousseau’s conception of the general will has several key features that differentiate it from other notions of the public or collective will.

First, Rousseau makes a strong distinction between the general will and the particular or individual will. The general will aims at the common good of all people, whereas the particular will aim at private interests.

Second, Rousseau argues that while the general will is always right and tends toward the public advantage, the unanimous will of all individuals does not necessarily equate to the general will. The general will represents the true interests of each citizen, not just their desires at the moment.

Third, Rousseau holds that the general will is fundamentally infallible. He claims it cannot err as it represents the universal will of the people toward justice and the common good. The general will remains fixed on solid principles of right, even if individuals make missteps.

Fourth, Rousseau argues the general will represents the highest or best will of each citizen. By pursuing the common interests through the general will, each person fulfills their duties as a citizen and thereby achieves their own good as well.

Fifth, Rousseau views the general will as permanent, inalienable, and indivisible. It cannot be transferred or divided, as it fundamentally belongs to the whole community united as a body politic.

Sixth, Rousseau advocates compulsion to abide by the general will, so that dissenters uphold their duties and obligations as citizens, even if they disagree. The entire social body must be guided by the general will.

Seventh, the general will remains impersonal, abstract, and detached from specific individuals or groups. It transcends any private interests or circumstances.

Eighth, as Rousseau states, “The law is but the declaration of the general will.” The laws of a state should flow from and align with the interests of the nation.

Finally, Rousseau demands complete loyalty to the general will on the part of all citizens. The particular interests of individuals must be subsumed to the greater common good.

General Will as Popular Sovereignty

According to Rousseau, the general will represents the sovereign will of the people. In his view, sovereignty does not lie with a monarch, government, or ruling class but with the people as a whole. The people are the legitimate source of law and political authority. Rousseau believed that in a properly constituted state, citizens collectively exercise their sovereign power through the general will. The general will aims to further the common good rather than any individual or factional interests. As such, laws express the will of the people regarding matters of broad public concern. The government’s role is simply to enact and enforce laws in accordance with the general will. So in Rousseau’s framework, the people are sovereign rather than the government. The government does not dictate the general will but rather carries it out on behalf of the people. The general will represents an act of popular self-legislation and self-governance for the common welfare. Sovereignty rests with the citizen body as a whole.

Differentiated General Will and Particular Will

AspectGeneral WillParticular Will
DefinitionRepresents the collective will of the people, aiming at the common good or general interest of society.Represents the individual and personal interests of each citizen, focusing on private goals and benefits.
FocusEmphasizes the broader welfare of society as a whole, transcending individual and private interests.Centers on the narrow self-interests and desires of each person, often conflicting with the common good.
RightnessConsidered inherently right, always seeking the public good and reflecting reason and collective wisdom.May be misguided or driven by selfish desires, leading to conflicts with the general will and societal harmony.
AuthorityViewed as sovereign authority, embodying reason and serving the greater good, prevailing over individual desires.Holds authority over personal matters and daily life but is subordinate to the general will in matters of state and law.
Formation ProcessEmerges through a process of rational deliberation, debate, and consensus-building among citizens.Arises from individual preferences and interests, often influenced by personal desires and motivations.
Role in GovernanceGuides decisions in matters of state and law, reflecting the collective interests of society as a whole.Influences personal choices and actions in daily life, guiding behavior based on individual interests and goals.
Resolution of ConflictResolves conflicts and promotes societal harmony by prioritizing the common good over individual interests.May lead to conflicts with the general will, requiring compromise or suppression in favor of the broader public interest.

This table highlights the key distinctions between Rousseau’s Differentiated General Will and Particular Will, focusing on their definitions, focus, perceived rightness, authority, formation processes, roles in governance, and resolution of conflicts.

General Will is Infallible

Rousseau argued that the general will is always right and cannot err. He believed that when people come together to express their general will, they cannot make mistakes or be unjust. Rousseau stated that the general will always tend towards the public good and utility. It cannot have any other objective than the common good. Therefore, it cannot err or be corrupted, as long as it remains truly general and not influenced by partial associations and private interests. The general will express the real interests of each citizen, abstracted from particular circumstances. Rousseau wrote: “It is always on the side most favourable to the public interest, that is to say, the most equitable; so that one needs only to be just to be assured of following the general will.” Since the general will seek the common good, it cannot err. Rousseau asserted that the general will is “always right and always tends to the public utility.” He argued that the entire people, whose interests are identical, cannot agree to anything unjust or contrary to public utility. Rousseau acknowledged that citizens can be mistaken about particular matters and details. But he maintained that when it comes to the whole, the general will is infallible in matters of public utility. The people may occasionally make individual errors but collectively will always choose what is best for the community.

Criticisms of Jean Jacques Rousseau on General Will

Rousseau’s conception of the general will has been subject to significant criticism. A major issue is that enforcing conformity to a single general will lead to the oppression of minority groups and dissenting individuals. Rousseau argues that individuals must be “forced to be free” and compelled to obey the general will. However, this could enable totalitarian policies aimed at forcing unanimity and oppressing any who refuse to conform. In addition, Rousseau’s general will lacks institutional constraints and protections for individual rights. Because the general will is deemed infallible, if the majority supports oppressive policies there are no checks or balances to override this. Minorities would have no legal recourse against the general will of the people. Rousseau also rejects representative government and believes citizens should participate directly. However direct democracy lacks protections for minority groups that representative systems provide. The general will could also lead to destabilizing mob rule. Rousseau trusts the people collectively to identify the common good. But public passions can be easily inflamed, leading to hasty and extreme decisions. The general will lacks moderating influences and could change radically with shifts in public opinion. Rousseau offers no safeguards against this. Finally, Rousseau’s conception is vague about how the general will is determined. It is unclear what mechanism translates individuals’ wills into the single general will of the people. This ambiguity leaves the general will open to manipulation by demagogues claiming to speak for the people. Overall, Rousseau’s general will privileges theoretical unity and conformity over pluralism and individual liberties. The general will grants unlimited sovereignty to the collective people with few institutional constraints, which creates significant risks of majoritarian tyranny.


Rousseau’s concept of the general will is an important contribution to political philosophy and the theory of sovereignty. It represents the collective will of the people aimed at the common good. Rousseau believed that by following the general will, individuals could transcend their narrow self-interest and unite around their shared interests as citizens. The general will embody the highest wisdom and moral rightness of the community. While individuals may err, Rousseau had faith that the general will, being the sum of individual wills, would point unerringly toward justice and the common welfare of citizens truthfully consulted their conscience. The general will is infallible in this sense, though its expression in any specific law may remain imperfect. Rousseau also sharply distinguished the general will from the particular will of factions, parties, or interest groups. The general will emerge from citizens’ shared identity, while particular will represent partial or private interests. For Rousseau, the general will is inalienable – it cannot be delegated or represented by others but must find expression directly through the active participation of citizens. It is indivisible – citizens must set aside differences and unite as a whole. While Rousseau’s ideas have been controversial and opposed by those who favour the representative government, his conception of the general will remains highly influential. At its core is the democratic ideal that the people are sovereign, and their collective wisdom should guide politics for the common good. Rousseau’s principles continue to inspire visions of greater political participation and civic virtue.