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Thu Nguyen

Does Rousseaus conception of the General Will create a genuine paradox of


freedom?
Rousseau was a controversial man of his time, his ideas went against those introduced
before him by Hobbes, Locked and Pufendorf. His works center around the principle
that man is naturally good and its the modern society that has corrupted him by
formulating self-interested desires, and it is society that creates inequalities. 1 The
paradox that human beings have to face, according to Rousseau, is that while they
want to be free, they also want to enjoy the benefits resulting from living in a society.
Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. 2 The problem here is to find a
form of society that can protect the rights of its people, and in which man, while
uniting himself with all, still obeys only himself and remains as free as before. 3
Rousseaus answer is the social contract where all the people consent to a political
authority for the sake of their mutual preservation. General will is the only force that
maintains the existence of a society. Rousseau created a contradicting statement when
he wrote whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the
entire body. This means that he will be forced to be free. 4 Surely if someone is forced
to do something, he is not free. Then how can he be forced to be free? This argument
may propose a paradox of freedom. However, I believe the conception of the General
Will is not as problematic as it may seem, and I will support this claim by looking at
different types of freedom and what Rousseau actually meant when he said forced to
be free.
There are two types of will: particular will and general will. One has the particular
will when he is dominated by passion, whereas the general will is dominated by
reason and it aims at the common good of the society. Rousseau believes the general
will is the real will that man has, but sometimes it is contaminated by self-interest and
it is turned into the particular will. The general will is not necessarily the will of the
majority, it can be of one person in many cases where most people are dominated by
their appetite. Therefore, even though the general will is desired, it can be
overshadowed by peoples passion and the laws that the sovereign makes may not
reflect the general will but the particular will of many.5 Hence, we need a lawgiver to
formulate the principles in which a society is to be governed. 6 In a way, it is like an
education that will help the people realize what they truly want in a society, which is
the general will.7 Here, it can be argued that people are not actually free if they are
told what to do by the legislator. However, we need to consider the case in which man
is dominated by passion he is not free either, hes a slave of his own appetite. So the
legislators duty is to eliminate the appetites that enslave man in order for him to
1 Boucher, David., and Kelly, P. J. Rousseau. Political Thinkers : From Socrates to the Present. New
York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print. 243.
2 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Cranston, Maurice. The Social Contract. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1968. Print. Penguin Classics. 49.
3 Ibid. 60.
4 Ibid. 64
5 Boucher, David., and Kelly, P. J. Rousseau. Political Thinkers : From Socrates to the Present. New
York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print. 247.
6 Ibid. 248
7 Riley, Patrick. "A Possible Explanation of Rousseau's General Will." The Social Contract Theorists:
Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. N. pag.
Print. 178.

Thu Nguyen
recognize what his will truly is, and it is always the will for the common good. Most
importantly, the legislator cannot impose his laws upon the people, the general will
must be willed by the people.8 If he fails to do so and the sovereign cannot see
through their particular will, he must let them be for if a people is pleased to do itself
harm, who has a right to prevent it from doing so? 9 Therefore, a free people remains
free with or without a lawgiver.
Rousseau society is governed by general laws that are the creation of a general will.
Laws must be perfectly general and applicable equally to everyone; 10 they cannot
favour or disadvantage anyone. By entering a society, man gives up the freedom he
had in the state of nature and as long as he is a citizen of that society, he is subjected
to the general laws. Then how can one while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only
himself and remains as free as before if he has to let go of his freedom? Indeed he has
to give up himself totally, to all, but this is done by all, to him too. Hence, he gains the
equivalent of all that he loses, and probably even more force to protect what he has. 11
Since he has given up himself to the whole community, he should be concerned of the
Sovereign as much as with his own life because now the sovereigns interests and
rights are his interests and his rights. [45 mins] As the people make the laws that
apply to them, it would be absurd if they made the laws that harm the sovereign since
it would mean to harm themselves. 12 Therefore, because man gains as much as he
loses and the laws he abide to benefit his own preservation, he remains as free as
before, even better.
Ideally, a society is at its peak of perfection when the general will is willed by
everyone. However, it is rarely the case. This brings us to the problem mentioned in
the introduction: whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by
the entire body. This means that he will be forced to be free. The question here is
whether the citizen obeys himself when he obeys the general will. He does. Those
who obey the laws they did not vote for remain bound by a will that is their own, the
democratic process allows them to discover the content of the general will in which
that they share. This corresponds with the idea that the general will is the real will of
everyman, if their wills do not match with the general will, they are dominated by
passion and hence, are particular wills. In this case, they are not aware of what the
general will is, as Rousseau put it the judgment that guides it is not always
enlightened, so the democratic process shows them what is actually good for the
community and eventually themselves. Furthermore, when each citizen is constrained
to obey the general will of the whole community, he is thereby protected from being
subject to the will of any particular person, from the tyranny of anyone, which
guarantees his own republican freedom.
We shall now discuss what man gains and loses when he enters the social contract.
While he gives up natural freedom that involves the unlimited right to all things, he
gains civil freedom, moral freedom and republican freedom. 13 Civil liberty avoids
personal servitude by making the individuals dependent on the community which
8 Ibid. 182.
9 Ibid. 183.
10 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Cranston, Maurice. The Social Contract. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1968. Print. Penguin Classics. 63.
11 Ibid. 61.
12 Ibid. 63.

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protects the goods and person of every citizen. What he gains is civil liberty and the
proprietary ownership of all he possesses.14 The general will promises the legal status
of ones property, which makes him the rightfully owner of his belongings and is
inviolable. Furthermore, according to Rousseau, man is free when he is liberated from
his own lower nature.15 Man is his own slave when he gives in to his appetite.
Because the general laws are made by the general will of the sovereign, when a
person obeys the general laws, he is obeying the laws that he prescribes to himself,
and by doing so, he becomes his own master, he is morally free. 16 The republican
freedom has been explained in the previous paragraph as the independence of one
person from anothers will. Hence, when one is forced to comply to general will, he
gains civil, moral and republican freedom. Forced in this context is not a kind of
oppression, but it is a way to transform the individual from a stupid, limited animal
into an intelligent being of a man.17 It relieves man from all dependence he has with
his lower nature and any individuals or institutions.18
In conclusion, the conception of the General Will would be paradoxical with freedom
if man gained the same kind of freedom that he was forced to give up, but he does not.
He is still free after complying with the general will, but he is certainly not free in the
same way that he was in the state of nature. He is free in a far better way. He is civilly
free in his property. He is morally free and not governed by appetite. And because he
is an indivisible part of the sovereign, when he obeys the sovereign, he obeys himself.
Thus, it is not a contradiction to be forced to be free by the general will, because the
general will is his will and it is freedom when one abides to ones own rules.

13 Bertram, Christopher, "Jean Jacques Rousseau", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter
2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/rousseau/>.
14 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Cranston, Maurice. The Social Contract. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1968. Print. Penguin Classics. 65.
15 Boucher, David., and Kelly, P. J. Rousseau. Political Thinkers : From Socrates to the Present.
New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print. 250.
16 Ibid.
17 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Cranston, Maurice. The Social Contract. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1968. Print. Penguin Classics. 65.
18 Boucher, David., and Kelly, P. J. Rousseau. Political Thinkers : From Socrates to the Present.
New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print. 250.

Thu Nguyen

Bibliography:
Bertram, Christopher, "Jean Jacques Rousseau", The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/rousseau/>.
Boucher, David., and Kelly, P. J. Rousseau. Political Thinkers : From Socrates to
the Present. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
Riley, Patrick. "A Possible Explanation of Rousseau's General Will." The Social
Contract Theorists: Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. N. pag. Print.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Cranston, Maurice. The Social Contract.
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968. Print. Penguin Classics.