Metaphysics of Rousseau’s General Will as a Will of One

Goran Sunajko (University of Zagreb)

1. Introduction

Rousseau is interpreted mainly as a political philosopher, but not as a metaphysician, which will be the case in this paper. The paper also discusses the possibility of understanding Rousseau’s philosophy as the one that allows the philosophy of existence. The fact is that the philosophy of existence builds itself on the metaphysical concept of the will, which is the central concept of Rousseau’s philosophical system. It seeks to establish itself as a new philosophy, as a non-philosophy that will allow humans their own individual existence, primarily through the concept of the will. According to Jaspers, philosophy itself has the existential status. It cannot impose any general perspective of reality, but it can be a system of individual existence “that I am living as an individual.”[1] Despite this very clear Jaspers’ definition of the philosophy of existence, as a philosophy of the individual and his own will which is not derived from the transcendental generality, Rousseau’s general will proves to be a guarantor of individual existence. Therefore, as the most influential representative of the philosophy of existence, Nietzsche wrote on the 18th century as Rousseau’s: all this is the eighteenth century. “What, on the other hand, has not been inherited from it: insouciance, cheerfulness, elegance, brightness of the spirit. The tempo of the spirit has changed; the enjoyment of refinement and clarity of the spirit has given place to the enjoyment of color, harmony, mass, reality, etc. Sensualism in matters of the spirit. In short, it is the eighteenth century of Rousseau.”[2] Was he right? The 18th century was rather seen as the century of the French Enlightenment rationalism (LaMettrie, d’Holbach, Diderot, etc.) that tried to turn man into a rational being like the machine. However, what Nietzsche considered crucial and what is important to us is the notion of the will that in the philosophy of existence, especially Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s, holds a key position and the fact that its most important theorist was exactly Rousseau.

On the other hand, the metaphysical concept of existence completely changes only in the philosophy of existence which sought to consider the concept of existence as a principle of individuation. This way was to go contrary to metaphysics, as the existence of One, because man now mastered his own existence. It is also the problem of the concept of existence (within the philosophy of existence) because it is a metaphysical concept that should serve as a weapon against metaphysics. This is why Russell wrote: “I think an almost unbelievable amount of false philosophy has arisen through not realizing what ‘existence’ means.”[3] The concept of existence, of course, can be traced back to the very beginning, that is from Parmenides to Sartre, but the key difference within the philosophy of existence is the rejection of the notion of being or einai (εἶναι) and the introduction of the concept of existence (hyparkein) that were synonymous, especially after the appearance of Christian metaphysics and the notion of a God who is equal in its essence and existence. He should be exactly what he already is! So, within the philosophies of existence men mastered their own existence, and therefore the concept of existence as hyparkein (ὑπάρχειν) gets precedence over the notion of being, especially in Heidegger’s philosophy of existence. Therefore Christopher Williams wrote: “Everything that can be called philosophy of existence that was written by the Greek philosophers of antiquity was expressed with the help of ‘einai’, the Greek equivalent of ‘be’; and it is impossible to reach any clear understanding of their doctrines without examining how they used this word, and how its synonyms in other languages are used.”[4] According to Charles Kahn ὑπάρχειν originally means “to make a beginning”, “to take the initiative”, “to take the first step.”[5] It should be pointed out that this use of ὑπάρχειν for the real existence (in contrast to the mere word or an imaginary object) seems to be in dominant use in late Greek philosophy. Such campaigns of “taking the initiative” for this world through the notion of existence have become a cornerstone of the philosophy of existence, but the path begins only with using the notion of the will which has its metaphysical background.

2. The History of the Concept of the (General) Will Before Rousseau

Despite the fact that the concept of the will began to be considered within Augustine’s position of the free will, its systematic development begins with Thomas Aquinas, who in his philosophy incorporated Aristotle’s metaphysics of the first mover who is not only causa finalis, like in Aristotle’s case, but a God who works by the power of will. Unlike Aristotle’s first mover, God, if he wanted to, could create a different world because he has the will. That kind of God’s contingency has developed further in Duns Scotus’ and William Ockham’s nominalism and voluntarism. According to Thomas Aquinas, all of three principles of the nature (matter, form, privation) cannot be brought into existence without the voluntary act of God, so that is the will which is the fundamental precondition of existence.[6] While opposing the Augustinian cosmological determinism, Aquinas argues in favor of the human will which is not subordinate to the necessity of the stars; otherwise the free will would fail. So every Christian should with the greatest certainty hold that all depends on the human will – as all human works – not by necessary subjection to the stars.[7] But despite of that, Providence has primacy over any causation. It is the base of Thomas’ doctrine and what enables the personal freedom of will is conditioned by the will of God that created the conditions and assumptions of the free will.

In this meaning, Thomas’ distinction between the general and individual wills, that will be the basis of Rousseau’s philosophy, becomes crucial. According to Thomas, God is the mover of all individual wills because his first will is the general one, which is itself righteous and the individual wills are prescribed by the general will of God as potentia ordinata.[8] In the same way, we will see later, the position of Rousseau’s general will is the one which directs individual wills to the purpose of which is to be the one political body.

The concept of the will in Duns Scotus’ metaphysics has a key role. According to Duns, God cannot be known by the use of man’s reason because it would mean that our mind is equated with God’s. So, the only way we can understand God is by using intuition which is enabled by the will. This will is equated with love as the basis of Christian wisdom. The only way to know God is to love him. Duns proposes five propositions, any one of which, if proved, entails the initial thesis according to which there is one infinite intellect, one infinite will, one infinite power, one necessary being and one infinite goodness. According to one infinite will, as a crucial thesis Duns wrote: “Such a will supremely loves what is supremely lovable; but A does not love B supremely, both (a) because, if by nature it loves itself more, then also by a free and upright will it loves itself more; and (b) because it would be made happy by B; and yet if B were destroyed, it would be no less happy. It is impossible then that one and the same thing should be beatified by two, yet this would follow were there two such wills; for A does not use B, therefore it rests in B as its end; therefore A is happy in B.”[9] This will is in a direct relation to the fifth conclusion on the good because for the pursuit of the good, the will is needed. “Any will is set at rest completely by the one infinite good; but if there were another, one could rightly wish that both exist rather than one alone; therefore the will would not be fully satisfied with the single infinite good.”[10] In the same way, we will see later, Rousseau’s position is to show that the general will is the supreme good because it is indivisible.

Only the will is free because it acts contingently. “Likewise, something causes contingently. Therefore the first cause causes contingently; consequently it causes voluntarily. Proof of the first implication: Every secondary cause causes insofar as it is moved by the first cause. If the first cause moves necessarily then every [other] cause is moved necessarily and everything is necessarily caused. Proof of the second implication: The only source of contingent action is either the will or something accompanied by the will. Every other cause acts by a necessity of its nature and consequently not contingently.”[11]

In the fourth meditation of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes discusses the true and false and introduces a postulate of the will by which he continues and elaborates medieval metaphysics. Descartes concludes that God did not give him a perfect will, but at the same time he concludes that the will is the most perfect possible power from everything that is God-given. If I compare, writes Descartes, the ability of understanding, memory or imagination, still I cannot imagine that it could be higher than the will. It cannot be greater and more perfect than the will is.[12] “It is free-will alone or liberty of choice which I find to be so great in me than it is for the most part this will that causes me to know that in some manner I bear the image and similitude of God. For although the power of will is incomparably greater in God than in me, both by reason of the knowledge and the power which, conjoined with it, render it stronger and more efficacious, and by reason of its object, inasmuch as in God it extends to a great many things.”[13]

Descartes’ metaphysics of subjectivity as ego cogito is not reduced only to the cogito but to the will which goes beyond the limits of the cogito. It is man’s will, which he received from God. Descartes concludes: “From all this I recognize that the power of will which I have received from God is not on itself the source of my errors–for it is very ample and very perfect of its kind–any more than is the power of understanding.”[14] On the other hand, because it is more powerful compared to reason, the will goes beyond the intellect and therefore can go wrong (error). The errors come from the sole fact, Descartes wrote, that since the will is much wider in its range and compass then the understanding, we do not restrain it within the same bounds, but extend it also to things which we do not understand. And as the will is of itself indifferent to these, it easily falls into error and sin, and chooses the evil for the good, or the false for the true. Rousseau will take precisely Descartes’ position of the will and it (the will) is not able to err only if it is general as the general will of God, which will be evident further in Malebranche’s Cartesian philosophy of God’s general and particular wills applied directly by Rousseau. Thus, within Rousseau’s system the will also be able to make mistakes, but only when it is human, particular will with the particular goal, separated from its own orientation to the divinized general will that is unique, good and just.

Ernst Cassirer concludes that in Descartes’ system only the divine will is not linked to any external condition, nor any inner essence or the possibility that preceded it, it just defines that essence and possibility.[15] Cassirer points out that the metaphysical question of the will leads to the problem of theodicy. God could have prevented error, but then he would take away from man the freedom and deny what grounds his authentic value. On the contrary, he rejected this solution and chose freedom, and so he put the decision into the hands of man, because without the possibility of such a decision one would at the same time become a mere automaton, a puppet in the hand of God.[16] This is why the will takes the crucial role in Rousseau’s thinking of human existence which produces the political community in which existence is possible. For the same reason Kant claimed that the first who solved the problem of theodicy in the history of philosophy was no other than Rousseau.[17] Jacques Maritain also concludes that the process of knowledge in Descartes’ system no longer belongs to understanding, but to the will, which is only active in the same way as it will be in Rousseau’s system.[18]

Nevertheless, all this did not have such a direct impact on Rousseau, as it was the case with Nicolas Malebranche’s Cartesianism that directly deals with the relationship between the general and the particular will of God. Some contemporary research of Rousseau’s political theory proves theological origins of the volonté générale that is transformed into Rousseau’s political theory. Patrick Riley is going deeper into the problem of the origin of the concept of the general will and shows that the most important concept of Rousseau’s political theory is first elaborated in the theological argumentation of French Augustinians, then in the position of the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld and the Oratorian Nicolas Malebranche, and finally within the position of the Calvinist Pierre Bayle.[19] Riley also warns that the tradition of the general will “need to be taken seriously, because it is an amalgam of two major traditions of political thought; ancient harmony and modern voluntarism.”[20] Riley shows that the origin of the concept is in Paul’s Epistle to Timothy and in the question of whether God has a general willingness that would produce a universal salvation of all people. That is, may God save just one, but damn the rest. Since then the concept of the general will, shows Riley, is tied to the question of the justice of God. So for Antoine Arnauld, who according to Riley found the terms of the general and particular wills, the term related to the salvation of all, and for Blaise Pascal, who first introduced the concepts of universality and particularity, God has a general and conditional will to save all people. Regardless of the impact of some theorists that discussed the relationship of the general and particular wills, only with Malebranche, concludes Riley, the general will begins to take on political implications, above all because God, according to Malebranche, acts through the general will only as a general law. We should therefore consider Malebranche’s position of the will.

Before that, we need to know why the will becomes a fundamental animating principle. The answer is in the whole metaphysical tradition of St. Augustine, through Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, to Descartes and Malebranche, who determine the will as a principle more powerful than intellect or mind. The will is always a demand for freedom, while our mind restricts us because it is limited with that what can be known. To want becomes more important than to know. Nicolas Malebranche, whose influence is decisive, developed the concept of dichotomy of the general and particular wills by which God works, where, according to Riley, the generality is the main determinant of God’s righteousness as Providence and in terms of the general will of God, all men are to be saved only by the general will. The main theological-political debate on this dichotomy is oriented toward issues of the theology of salvation. God’s general will (volonté générale) is directed at the salvation of all people, and God’s particular will (volonté particulière) at the special, which will decide on the salvation of some. Originally, the debate is scholastic, based on the distinction between the antecedent and consequent will of God that is present in Jansenius, from where it was taken by Malebranche. The will of God before the fall is antecedent (or general) when he wants the salvation of all, and after Adam’s fall consequential (or particular), because he wants the salvation of some people.[21] According to Malebranche, God as the infinitely perfect being naturally operates on the principle of simplicity, because he is perfect, which means that he himself established just, perfect and simple general laws. “I say that God acts by general wills, when he acts in consequence of general laws which he has established.”[22]

Malebranche proves God’s activity always as the activity by the general laws which can only be a reflection of the general will, because it is logically impossible that God may act particularly by the particular will. In fact, if God acted according to the particular will, therefore individually and arbitrarily (case by case), it would mean that his general laws, as a reflection of his general will, are not perfect. Therefore, the particular laws, which are a reflection of the particular will, must reclaim their general laws, which is logically impossible, because it does not only deny God perfection, but also the unity of his will, which is a requirement of justice. Malebranche claims that God acts by general wills when he acts in consequence of general laws which he has established. For example, God acts in me by general wills when he makes me feel pain at the time I am pricked; because in consequence of the general and efficacious laws of the union of the soul and the body which he has established, he makes me feel pain when my body is ill-disposed. In the same way, when a ball strikes a second one, God moves the second by a general will, because he moves it in consequence of the general and efficacious laws of the communication of motion. God generally established that at the moment that two bodies collide, the motion is divided between the two according to certain proportions; and it is through the efficacy of this general will that bodies have the power to move each other.[23]

On the contrary, according to Malebranche, God acts by particular wills when the efficacy of his will is not determined at all by some general law to produce some effect. He acts in that way when the body begins to move itself without being struck by another, or without any change in the will of minds, or in any other creature that determines the efficacy of some general laws.

According to these definitions, Malebranche concludes: “one sees that, far from denying Providence, I suppose on the contrary that it is God who does all in all things; that the nature of the pagan philosophers is a chimera; and that, properly speaking, what is called nature is nothing other than the general laws which God has established to construct or to preserve his work by very simple means, by an action which is uniform, constant, perfectly worthy of an infinite wisdom and of a universal cause.”[24] Finally Malebranche claims that we have “to believe that this way of acting is general, uniform, constant, and proportioned to the idea that we have of an infinite wisdom. These are the marks by which one must judge whether an effect is or is not produced by a general will. I now prove that God diffuses grace in men by general laws, and that Jesus Christ has been established as occasional cause to determine their efficacy.”[25] It is precisely because the general and particular wills of God cannot be separated. On the contrary, they form one single unity of God’s will (the will of One), which is general (générale) even when it is particular (particulière). That is the reason why the general will takes a central role in Rousseau’s system in the way of its unity with the particular will, because it will never contradict the general will. But in Rousseau’s system this relationship of the two wills does not remain within the metaphysical discussions; it has been transformed into the relations of existence within the political community. Metaphysical concepts have thus become the concepts of the political existence. This is why Raymond Plant concludes that such a tradition finds itself in the political discourse because the “prophetic tradition of the Old Testament could be taken as uniting the universal and the particular: the nature of God and the world of politics with all its particularity.”[26]

3. Rousseau’s Metaphysical Concept of the General Will

Before we start with considerations of Rousseau’s philosophy, it is necessary to specify two important conclusions of two important interpreters of Rousseau’s philosophy. The first is Riley’s interpretation that it is very important to note that Rousseau knew the works of French theologians very well. According to this tradition, and contrary to the English and the German, généralité is good, particularité is bad – that is, if one is just, one will embrace the general good of the body, to which one will subordinate egoism and self-love. It is also important to highlight Riley’s conclusion that Rousseau’s position is indeed political, while the previous ones stay more metaphysical. It is evident in Riley’s consideration that citizen has the general will when he thinks of the common good and civic membership. In that case, his will is “always right”, like a God’s will. In insisting on the general will, Rousseau is insisting on a kind of will that everyone ought to have. For all his links to Pascal and Malebranche, Rousseau would have said that neither of his predecessors had an adequate notion of the human will, even if they did have some idea of the will of God (to save all men, for example). “From Rousseauean perspective, Pascal cannot really hope that all men (as body-members) will have the general will that they ought to have, because Pascal’s own Augustinian theory of grace does not leave man sufficiently independent and self-determining to have a will.”[27] It is the same with Malebranche and Descartes. If Malebranche’s human beings are not only the occasional causes of their own actions, while God acts as the sole veritable cause générale – if a person cannot really will anything, since for Cartesianism the thinking substance cannot modify the body as the extended substance – then one cannot have a general will (in particular) because one cannot have any will at all. That is why, Riley concludes, Rousseau not only wants to secularize the general will, to turn it away from theology and from God’s wish to save all men; he wants to endow human beings with a will, a really efficacious power, that can then be subjected to the generalizing influence of a civic education for the republican existence.

The second interpretation, which follows from the first, is the one that states that such a direction of the transformed will is towards pure existence, which is political and human at the same time. It is Roger D. Masters’ interpretation that shows the will in Rousseau’s system as the only certain principle of the political right. Masters shows that Rousseau introduced the concept of the general will to shed light on the necessity and inevitability of the tension between the sovereign “which is therefore what he always should be” and the individual whose “private interest can say to him something completely contrary to the common good.”[28] Such a position is confirmed by Mark Hulliung when he wrote that “in his reflections on the ʻgeneral will’ Rousseau secularized the concept and transformed it from a divine to a civic conceptˮ.[29] Judith Shklar writes that the general will is not Rousseau’s invention, but he has created its history.[30]

So now we are left to research how Rousseau managed to transform the general will as a metaphysical position of God into man’s general will of existence. In his metaphysical Proffesion de foi du vicaire savoyard, Rousseau wrote the position of the will as the position of the first mover: “The more I observed the action and reaction of the natural forces acting on each other, the more I find that from effects to effects, we must always go back to some will for the first cause; for to suppose a progress of cause to infinity is not to suppose at all. In short, any movement that is not produced by another can only come from a spontaneous, voluntary act.”[31]

In the same book Rousseau wrote that the will is known to man by its acts, not by its nature. We know this will as a motor case, but to conceive matter as the producer of movement is clearly to conceive an effect without a cause, which is to conceive absolutely nothing. Therefore, Rousseau made a fundamental principle of his metaphysics:  Je crois donc qu’une volonté meut l’univers et anime la nature (I believe that some will runs the world and revives the nature). So the will as a metaphysical principle has become the cornerstone of Rousseau’s political philosophy and has provided a salvation of human existence from the corrupted society. Individuals who form a political community will be more free if they take part in the general will of the collective political body (demos).

The crucial sentence that Rousseau wrote is from the article on political economy (economie, morale et politique) published in the famous Encyclopedia. An individual should be given to see how the general will is in his particular interest, and therefore as it is “an indisputable proof that the most general will is always the most just also and that the voice of the people is in fact the voice of God.”[32]

As Riley shows, at the end of political time, the “general will one has as a citizen” would have become a kind of second nature, approaching the true naturalness of volonté générale in Malebranche’s version of the divine modus operandi.[33]

Rousseau’s position is that society has wrong political institutions that have corrupted the naturally good man and turned him into a competitive rational egoist. This is presented in Rousseau’s Discourse on inequality. His Émile is the first attempt to change the immoral order by the education of the young man in the direction of mastering his own existence by the principles of the nature. But a key effort Rousseau makes in The Social Contract that we are considering here relates to the position of the general will as the interpretative key for understanding Rousseau’s position of existence as political existence. The last sentence is crucial because the notion of existence at all in Rousseau is equated with political existence. There is no separation, because all depends on politics. How can it be possible when he wrote in Émile: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man”.[34] Here we show that this can be possible if the metaphysical concepts become secularised.

The Social Contract is written in order to change the corrupt society that is corrupted due to corrupt political institutions. Its changes should be made in a political way, but the political will is based on a metaphysical concept of the general will. So the way is described in the first sentence: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.”[35] Rousseau considered that men have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence. That kind of existence should be the new political order, which begins with the original contract based on the general will. So the question is: how does the corrupt individuals’ will fail to achieve the general order of justice? The answer is only if they follow the general will which is not in contradiction with their particular will, because these clauses may be reduced to one – “the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.”[36] So the essence of the social contract that creates the sovereign general will means: “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.”[37]

At once, Rousseau wrote, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will. This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons, formerly took the name of the city, and now takes that of the Republic or the body politic; it is called by its members the State when passive, the Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and some are called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State. So the crucial fact for understanding Rousseau’s attempt is to see that the State is passive (the State is the realised mind according to Hegel, but remains passive), but the general will as the sovereign is active as the will of God is within the metaphysical arguments we mentioned earlier (Aquinas, Duns, Descartes, Malebranche). The reason why the will is crucial is metaphysical, because the will confirmed me as a person (like Augustine’s position of the libero arbitrio), and the will cannot be separated from me as a being. In opposition to Hobbes to whom the will is transferred to the state (Leviathan), according to Rousseau it remains individual that becomes the part of the collective body. It is a very strong position of existence which is directed at me and the whole at the same time because I am a part of it and I never cease to be. That is why Rousseau wrote that the social contract shows us that the act of association comprises a mutual undertaking between the public and the individuals, and that each individual, in making a contract, we may say, with himself, is bound in a double capacity; as a member of the Sovereign he is bound to the individuals, and as a member of the State to the Sovereign. The general will can produce a situation of unity according to which “each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody.”[38]

According to this view, the body politic or the Sovereign, drawing its being wholly from the sanctity of the contract, can never bind itself, even to an outsider, to do anything derogatory to the original act, for instance, to alienate any part of itself, or to submit to another Sovereign. Violation of the act by which it exists would be self-annihilation; and according to the metaphysical argument, nothing can create nothing, as Rousseau wrote. This is an extremely important argument showing how the sovereign general will is made of individuals participating in the exercise of the sovereign will, but individuals who remain individual. All this proves that free political existence is possible only through the general will, as human existence is possible only by assuming the existence of God (like in Descartes’ position) in which all individuals participate.

It is evident from Rousseau’s argumentation that as soon as this multitude is so united in one body, it is impossible to offend one of the members without attacking the body, and also to offend the body without the members resenting it. Duty and interest therefore equally oblige the two contracting parties to help each other; and the same men should seek to combine, in their double capacity, all the advantages dependent upon that capacity. The Sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs; and consequently the sovereign power needs to give no guarantee to its subjects, because it is impossible for the body to wish to hurt all its members. “The Sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be.”[39] This is exactly as Thomas Aquinas considered God; as a being that “always is what he should be”, because only God is a being in which the essence and existence are identical. A problem that occurs is that the individual has the particular will that may be contrary to the general will, like falling off or deprivation of a whole in the metaphysical sense that Augustine and Aquinas considered as a privation. But Rousseau gives the answer by the immanent logic of the social contract and the general will.

According to Rousseau, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest. In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, Rousseau writes that it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, “that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free[40]; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.”[41] In this lies the key to the functioning of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.

A crucial argument when considering the general will is that it is, as a secularized God’s will, inalienable, indivisible, infallible, as Rousseau wrote down in the second book of The Social Contract. Here he also reveals the position of the existent will of the individual that is existent because it cannot be alienated from him. He participates together with it in the general will. This is of course a metaphysical position understood as the participation of the human particular will in God’s general will in the way that one does not contradict the other. Rousseau’s argument is that the first and most important deduction is that the general will alone can direct the State according to the object for which it was instituted, i.e. the common good: for if the clash of particular interests made the establishment of societies necessary, the agreement of these very interests made it possible. The common element in these different interests is what forms the social tie, and were there no point of agreement between them all, no society could exist. It is solely on the basis of this common interest that every society should be governed. “I hold then that Sovereignty, being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the Sovereign, who is no less than a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself: the power indeed may be transmitted, but not the will.”[42]

So the will is the only reason that sovereignty is inalienable because it must remain in its basis and this is the one. So the will is the sovereign itself as the sovereignty of one in the one political body which is general. It cannot be separated like in Hobbes’ position of Leviathan who has his own will, different from the citizens’. So the sovereign will is the general will.

For the same reason that makes it inalienable, Sovereignty is indivisible; for the will either is, or is not, general; it is the will either of the body of the people, or only of a part of it. In the first case, the will, when declared, is an act of Sovereignty and constitutes the law: in the second case, it is merely a particular will, or an act of magistracy – at the most a decree.[43] For the reason of its perfection, the general will is also infallible. It follows from what has gone before that the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will, says Rousseau, is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is; the people are never corrupted, but are often deceived, and on such occasions they only seem to will what is bad. There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills; but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another and the general will remains the sum of the differences.[44]

A very important fact is that the general will is sovereign, not the people. The people (demos) are the sovereign only when they have a general will which is not always present. That is only when they vote on the general law that is directed towards the whole (res publica). Contrary to that is the will of all (volonté de tous) which is the sum of the particular wills (volonté particulière). This means that the vote is not from the individual, but from the association (class or party). That is why the will cannot be general but is diminished for the number of associations and there is no act of sovereignty.

If the State is a moral person whose life is in the union of its members, and if the most important of its cares is the care for its own preservation, it must have a universal and compelling force, in order to move and dispose each part as may be most advantageous to the whole. As nature gives each man absolute power over all his members, the social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members also; and it is this power which, under the direction of the general will, bears, as I have said, the name of Sovereignty.[45]

That means that the general will is there only under the assumption of the inclusion of all citizens in the constitution of the political community. Then and only then the general will acts as a moral and just will. But when factions arise, and partial associations are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State: it may then be said that there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations. The differences become less numerous and give a less general result. Lastly, when one of these associations is so great as to prevail over all the rest, the result is no longer a sum of small differences, but a single difference; in this case there is no longer a general will, and the opinion which prevails is purely particular. “It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts.”[46]

So the crucial fact is that the individual is free only through the general will through which he himself becomes the citizen because the undertakings which bind us to the social body are obligatory only because they are mutual; and their nature is such that in fulfilling them we cannot work for others without working for ourselves. Why is it that the general will is always in the right, and that all continually will the happiness of each, unless it is because there is not a man who does not think of “each” as himself, and consider himself in voting for all? According to Rousseau, this proves that equality of rights and the idea of justice which such equality creates originate in the preference each man gives to himself, and accordingly in the very nature of man. It proves that the general will, to be really such, must be general in its object as well as its essence; that it must both come from all and apply to all; and that it loses its natural rectitude when it is directed to some particular and determinate object, because in such a case we are the judge of something foreign to us, and have no true principle of equity to guide us.

The whole position of the social contract rests finally on the concept of the law and the legislator showing an even deeper and more developed metaphysical position. “What is well and in conformity with order is so by the nature of things and independently of human conventions. All justice comes from God, who is its sole source; but if we knew how to receive so high an inspiration, we should need neither government nor laws.”[47] So Rousseau writes that by the social compact we have given the body politic existence and life; we now have to give it movement and will by legislation. For the original act by which the body is formed and united still in no respect determines what it ought to do for its preservation. According to Rousseau, the law cannot remain in metaphysical terms[48], it must be “landed” to real politics.[49]

But this does not mean abandoning the metaphysical idea of the whole which is the general will, that is an expression of the law, because any particularity (as privatio) means the absence of the general will or privatio of the individual from the One sovereign general will as the body politic. It is evident from Rousseau’s argumentation on the whole. He writes that there can be no general will directed at a particular object. Such an object must be either within or outside the State. If outside, a will which is alien to it cannot be, in relation to it, general; if within, it is a part of the State, and in that case there arises a relation between the whole and the part which makes them two separate beings, of which the part is one, and the whole minus the part the other. But the whole minus a part cannot be the whole; and while this relation persists, there can be no whole, but only two unequal parts; and it follows that the will of one is no longer in any respect general in relation to the other. “But when the whole people decrees for the whole people, it is considering only itself; and if a relation is then formed, it is between two aspects of the entire object, without there being any division of the whole. In that case the matter about which the decree is made is, like the decreeing will, general. This act is what I call a law.”[50] So the object of laws is always general which means that the law considers subjects en masse and actions in the abstract, and never a particular person or action.

This is where Rousseau writes a crucial argument that the general will is an expression of the free will of the individual which proves our hypothesis: “On this view, we at once see that it can no longer be asked whose business it is to make laws, since they are acts of the general will; nor whether the prince is above the law, since he is a member of the State; nor whether the law can be unjust, since no one is unjust to himself; nor how we can be both free and subject to the laws, since they are but registers of our wills.”[51]

But here appears another problem that will reinforce the necessity of the metaphysical argument. This is the position of the legislator that will be necessary because people with the general will often not see a whole, so they need a guide – the legislator. Rousseau argues that in order to discover the rules of society best suited to nations, a superior intelligence beholding all the passions of men without experiencing any of them would be needed. This intelligence would have to be wholly unrelated to our nature, while knowing it through and through; its happiness would have to be independent of us, and yet ready to occupy itself with ours; and lastly, it would have to, in the march of time, look forward to a distant glory and, working in one century, to be able to enjoy in the next. “It would take gods to give men laws.”[52]We can see that the legislator indeed has a divine position that is out of order, like a God, with a mission to direct the community toward the justice and good. He is like a God.

That is why Rousseau writes that the legislator occupies in every respect an extraordinary position in the State. If he should do so by reason of his genius, he does so no less by reason of his office, which is neither magistracy, nor Sovereignty. This office, which sets up the Republic, nowhere enters into its constitution; “it is an individual and superior function, which has nothing in common with human empire; for if he who holds command over men ought not to have command over the laws, he who has command over the laws ought not any more to have it over men; or else his laws would be the ministers of his passions and would often merely serve to perpetuate his injustices: his private aims would inevitably mar the sanctity of his work.”[53]

Completely contrary to his argument in Émile[54] in which he discusses the importance of human nature in the education of the individual, in The Social Contract Rousseau shows that the legislator must be able to change human nature. So Rousseau writes that he who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions ought to feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual, who is by himself a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a greater whole from which he receives his life and being; of altering man’s constitution for the purpose of strengthening it; and of substituting a partial and moral existence for the physical and independent existence nature has conferred on us all. He must, in a word, take away from man his own resources and instead give him new ones alien to him, which he cannot use without the help of other men. The more completely these natural resources are annihilated, the greater and more lasting are those which he acquires, and the more stable and perfect are the new institutions; “so that if each citizen is nothing and can do nothing without the rest, and the resources acquired by the whole are equal or superior to the aggregate of the resources of all the individuals, it may be said that legislation is at the highest possible point of perfection.”[55]

The legislator is an extraordinary person who directs generally by the exceptional methods that are not human, so Rousseau warns that the legislator, therefore, is unable to appeal to either force or reason, he “must have recourse to an authority of a different order, capable of constraining without violence and persuading without convincing.”[56] It is about moving toward divinity and its perfection on which Rousseau insists because this sublime reason, far above the range of the common herd, “is that whose decisions the legislator puts into the mouth of the immortals, in order to constrain by divine authority those whom human prudence could not move.”[57] It should be taken into account that for Rousseau politics and religion do not have the same goal, but that “one is used as an instrument for the other.”[58]

Finally, after having shown that the general will is inalienable, indivisible and infallible, and that it directs by the wise legislator with his metaphysical attributes, it is necessary to conclude that the general will is indestructible, which is the final position of the metaphysical argument discussed in the fourth book. For such evidence is enough to bring forth Rousseau’s conclusion according to which 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 interest; 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. The metaphysical origin of the general will Rousseau shows only according to its indestructibility as it is the will of God in the previously mentioned metaphysics. Even when the social contract is in crisis and the State is in danger of dissolution, the general will does not disappear but becomes mute. “Does it follow from this that the general will is exterminated or corrupted? Not at all: it is always constant, unalterable and pure; but it is subordinated to other wills which encroach upon its sphere. Each man, in detaching his interest from the common interest, sees clearly that he cannot entirely separate them; but his share in the public mishaps seems to him negligible beside the exclusive good he aims at making his own. Apart from this particular good, he wills the general good in his own interest, as strongly as any one else. Even in selling his vote for money, he does not extinguish in himself the general will, but only eludes it.”[59]


In this paper, which is limited to Rousseau’s Social Contract as his most influential book, we have tried to show metaphysical foundations of Rousseau’s philosophy. It is based on the ontological concept of existence as the existence of one through the metaphysical concept of the will as a general will of One. The will as a fundamental metaphysical and ontological concept, like we showed, is a dynamic existence opposite to the mind and reason as cognitive powers, as is argued in Aquinas’ argument. In opposition to rationalism of the epoch of his colleagues encyclopedists (Les Philosophes), Rousseau used the will as the basis of his philosophical position which we find deeply metaphysical. The crucial concept is the general will as secularized God’s will that operates in general as a universal will of humanity in the same way the political general will acts toward all its citizens. The general will has metaphysical attributes of inalienability, indivisibility, infallibility and indestructibility as God’s attributes. The will is also metaphysically grounded in the concept of the law and the legislator as an exceptional person who stands outside the order and directs the will toward the good and justice. It is important to note that Rousseau’s position is not religious (especially Christian), but he used metaphysical arguments only to ensure the unity of the political community and the free position of the individual (subject) in it. The position of a general will is considered here as the position of existence of one seen as free only if it is a part of the One general will. In this case human individual will is free and existent only as a general will which releases him from the society of selfishness. With Rousseau, man finally becomes his own sovereign through the participation in the decisions of the general will, of which he is an inseparable part. The crucial condition Rousseau set is that one has to remain free as he was before the social contract.

  1. Cf. K. Jaspers, Philosophy of Existence, University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania 1971.
  2. F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Wintage Books Edition, New York 1967, p. 62.
  3. B. Russell, Logic and Knowledge. Essays 1901-1950, Macmillan, New York 1956, p. 234.
  4. C.J.F. Williams, What is Existence?, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1981, p. 3.
  5. Cf. C.H. Kahn, “On the Terminology for Copula and Existence”, in: S.M. Stern, A. Hourani and V. Brown (eds.), Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition, Bruno Cassirer, London 1972.
  6. Cf. T. Aquinas, “On Being and Essence”, in: R. McInerny (ed.), Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings, Penguin, London 1998, pp. 30-50.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Cf. T. Aquinas, “Summa theologiae”, in: R. McInerny (ed.), Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings, Penguin, London 1998, pp. 360-368.
  9. J. Duns Scotus, Treatise on God as First Principle, 2010, p. 71.
  10. Ivi, p. 72.
  11. Ivi, p. 39.
  12. Cf. R. Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, The Philosopical Works of Descartes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1911.
  13. Ivi, p. 21.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Cf. E. Cassirer, Descartes: Lehre, Persönlichkeit, Wirkung, Felix Meiner, Hamburg 1995.
  16. Cf. Ibid.
  17. Cf. I. Kant, Bemerkungen in den “Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, Felix Meiner, Hamburg 1991, p. 48.
  18. Cf. J. Maritain, Trois réformateurs; Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, Plon-Nourrit, Paris 1925.
  19. Cf. P. Riley, The General Will before Rousseau, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1986.
  20. P. Riley, “A Possible Explanation of Rousseau’s General Will”, in: Christopher W. Morris (ed.), The Social Contract Theorists. Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham 1999, p. 167.
  21. Cf. N. Malebranche, Treatise on Nature and Grace, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1992, p. 4.
  22. Ivi, p. 194.
  23. Ivi, p. 195.
  24. Ivi, p. 196.
  25. Ivi, p. 200.
  26. R. Plant, Politics, Theology and History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003, p. 44.
  27. P. Riley, The General Will Before Rousseau, p. 255.
  28. R.D. Masters, The Political Philosophy of Rousseau, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1968, p. 324.
  29. M. Hulliung, “Rousseau, Voltaire, and the Revenge of Pascal”, in: P. Riley (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006, pp. 57-77, here p. 70.
  30. Cf. J. Shklar, Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory, University of Cambridge, Cambridge 1985.
  31. “Plus J’observe l’action et réaction des forces de la nature agissant les unes sur les autres, plus je trouve que d’effets en effets, il faut toujours remonter à quelque volonté pour première cause; car supposer un progrès de cause à l’infini, c’est n’en point supposer du tout. En un mot, tout mouvement qui n’est pas produit par un autre ne peut venir que d’un acte spontané, volontaire”, J.-J. Rousseau, Proffesion de foi du vicaire savoyard, GF-Flammarion, Paris 2000, p. 62.
  32. “[…] preuve invincible que la volonté le plus générale est aussi toujours la plus juste est que la voix du peuple est en effet la voix de Dieu”, J.-J. Rousseau, “Economie ou oeconomie morale & politique”, in: D. Diderot & J. le Rond d’Alembert (ed.), Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Sociétés Tipographiques, Lausanne et Bern 1779, pp. 776-796, here p. 779.
  33. Cf. P. Riley, “Rousseau’s General Will”, in: Patrick Riley (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006, pp. 124-153.
  34. “Tout est bien, sortant des mains de l’auteur des choses: tout dégénére entre les mains de l’ hommeˮ, J.-J. Rousseau, Émile ou De l’éducation, Galimard, Paris 1969, p. 81.
  35. J.-J. Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Dover Publications, Mineola, New York 2003, p. 1.
  36. Ivi, p. 9.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ivi, p. 11.
  40. This argument is strongly criticized by the liberal philosophers who believed that the general will leads to an authoritarian or totalitarian order. For Isaiah Berlin, Rousseau’s Social Contract is a “manual for the tyranny”, because of the position of sovereignty of the nation as a collective body with its will threatening individual freedom of which this body is constituted. According to Bertrand Russell, “Hitler is an outgrowth of Rousseau”. Cf. I Berlin, Four essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1969; B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, New York 1972.
    On the other hand, among the better connoisseurs of Rousseau’s philosophy, the prevailing opinion is that such evaluation is wrong because Rousseau is a theorist of individualism. Charles Edwyn Vaughan writes that Rousseau’s work opened up a new era of political philosophy, and The Social Contract for many represents an extreme form of individuality. Robert Derathé argues the consistency of Rousseau’s theory as the original modern theory of natural law and sovereignty. He shows that Rousseau is seen as a revolutionary and an aristocrat, but also as a champion of individualism. Cf. C.E. Vaughan, The Political Writtings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, vol. I, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1915, p. 18; R. Derathé, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la science politique de son temps, J. Vrin, Paris 1995, p. 8.
  41. J.-J. Rousseau, On the Social Contract, p. 11.
  42. Ivi, p. 15.
  43. One of the most important Rousseau’s contributions to the concept of democracy is that the government as a state body is only the implementer of decisions of the demos, which is sovereign. And that is why the government is not a sovereign body because it has a particular will that cannot be sovereign. Only the decision of the demos is general but not always as it was mentioned above.
  44. The will of all and the general will differ in the fact that the will of all assumes the sum of the particular wills whereas the general will is more than that. Namely, it is not the sum of the wills but rather the generality which has its own existence, and that means that it only exists when it is expressed in the most abstract possible law which includes a whole.
  45. J.-J. Rousseau, On the Social Contract, pp. 18-19.
  46. Ivi, p. 18.
  47. Ivi, p. 23.
  48. “But what, after all, is a law? As long as we remain satisfied with attaching purely metaphysical ideas to the word, we shall go on arguing without arriving at an understanding; and when we have defined a law of nature, we shall be no nearer the definition of a law of the State”, Ibid.
  49. Such a position of the order is a crucial position of Rousseau’s metaphysics as a Platonic cosmology in which justice as an idea precedes society. According to Rousseau, it remains only a divine idea as long as it is not confirmed by the social contract.
  50. Ivi, p. 24.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ivi, p. 25.
  53. Ivi, p. 26.
  54. In Émile Rousseau wrote that his young man “demands nothing of anyone and believes he owes nothing to anyone. He is alone in human society; he counts on himself alone (…). Without troubling the repose of anyone, he has lived satisfied, happy, and free insofar as nature has permitted.”, J.-J. Rousseau, Émile ou De l’éducation, p. 324.
  55. J.-J. Rousseau, On the Social Contract, p. 27. Rousseau also wrote: “Every true republican sucks, with the milk of his mother, the love for his homeland, that is to say, the love for the laws and freedom”, J.-J. Rousseau, Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, Flammarion, Paris 1990, pp. 177-178.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ivi, pp. 27-28.
  58. Ivi, p. 28.
  59. Ivi, p. 72.

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