Concepts of General Will, Freedom and Obedience in Jean Jacques RousseauJune 27, 2021
In 1766, a little black-eyed man in a long fur coat went to see a play at the Drury Lane Theater in London.
King III. Most of the audience, including George, was more interested in this foreign visitor than in the stage play. However, he looked uncomfortable and worried because of the Alsatian sheepdog he had to leave locked in his room. This man did not enjoy the kind of attention he had received at the theatre, and he would have been more pleased to seek out wild flowers alone in the countryside. So who was this man? Why did everyone find him so interesting? The answer was that this man was the great Swiss thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
Rousseau, who is famous in the field of literature and philosophy, created the kind of excitement a famous pop star would create today and gathered the crowds in London, where he went with David Hume’s invitation. Until then, the Catholic church had banned several of Rouesseau’s books on the grounds that they contained inappropriate religious ideas. Rousseau believed that true religion comes from the heart and does not need religious rites. But what really got him in trouble was his political ideas. At the beginning of his book titled “The Social Contract”, he says “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. It is not surprising that the revolutionaries learned these words by heart. Like many leaders of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre found these words inspiring.
The revolutionaries wanted to free the poor from the chains of the rich. While the poor starved, their rich masters enjoyed a life of luxury. Revolutionaries like Rousseau were outraged by the behavior of the rich, while the poor could barely find food. They wanted true freedom along with equality and fraternity. Although, Rousseau, who died ten years ago, was unlikely to approve of Robespierre, who sent his enemies to the guillotine during the “age of terror”. Beheading the dissidents was spiritually closer to Machiavelli’s way of thinking than Rousseau’s. According to Rousseau, man is good by nature. If we lived in a forest on our own, we wouldn’t be causing many problems. But when we got out of this state of nature and settled in cities, things started to go wrong. We are obsessed with trying to dominate other people and getting other people’s attention. This competitive approach to life had terrible psychological effects, and the invention of money made things worse. Jealousy and greed arose as a result of living together in cities. In the wild, the “noble savage” individuals were healthy, strong and above all free, but civilization polluted man. However, Rousseau was optimistic that he had found a better way to organize society; it was a way in which all would work in harmony for the common good, enabling these individuals to develop and fully realize themselves.
The problem he raised in his “Social Contract” (1762) was to find a way for people to live together as freely as they were outside of society while obeying the laws of the state. This may seem impossible to achieve, and it probably is. If the price of being a part of society was some form of slavery, that would be a very high price to pay. Freedom and strict rules imposed by society conflict with each other; Rules can become chains that prevent certain actions. However, Rousseau believed there was a way out. His solution was based on the “General Will” idea. The General Will is what is best for the whole community and the whole state. When people choose to live together for protection, they apparently also have to give up most of their freedom. Hobbes and Locke thought the same way.
It is difficult to understand how you can truly be free when living in a large community. There must be laws to control people, rules to limit their behavior. But Rousseau believes that the individual living in a state can be both free and obey the laws of the state, and consider that these ideas of freedom and obedience can be combined rather than opposed. What Rousseau meant by the General Will is easily misunderstood. Let’s take a modern example: Most people say they prefer to pay lower taxes when asked. In fact, it’s a familiar way that governments get elected: The promise to lower the tax rate is enough. If people are given the choice between taxing twenty percent of their income or paying five percent in taxes, many will choose to tax at a lower rate. However, this is not the General Will. Rousseau’s that everyone says what they want when asked. It is what everyone would call the will. In contrast, the General Will is what everyone must want, which is good for the whole society, not for every selfish person in society. While trying to understand what the General Will is, we must ignore our own interest and focus on the good of the whole society, the common good.