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Rousseau sees clearly that it is impossible to place any limits upon the power of the State; when the people combine into a State, they must in the end submit to be guided in all things by the will of the effective majority. Limited Sovereignty is a contradiction in terms; the Sovereign has a right to all that reason allows it, and as soon as reason demands that the State shall interfere, no appeal to individual rights can be made. What is best for the State must be suffered by the individual.

This, however, is very far from meaning that the ruling power ought, or has the moral right, to interfere in every particular case. Wherever State intervention is for the best, the State has a right to intervene; but it has no moral right, though it must have a legal right, to intervene where it is not for the best. The Edition: current; Page: [ xxxvi ] General Will, being always in the right, will intervene only when intervention is proper. Since the General Will cannot always be arrived at, who is to judge whether an act of intervention is justified?

But how is it possible to avoid such a conclusion?

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Rousseau has already given his reasons for objecting to a limited Sovereignty Book I, chap. No doubt the machinery will be imperfect; but we can only try to get as near the General Will as possible, without hoping to realise it fully. The answer, therefore, to the critics who hold that, in securing civil liberty Rousseau has sacrificed the individual may be put after this fashion. Liberty is not a merely negative conception; it does not consist solely in the absence of restraint. The purest individualist, Herbert Spencer for example, would grant that a certain amount of State interference is necessary to secure liberty; but as soon as this idea of securing liberty is admitted in the smallest degree, the whole idea has undergone profound modification.

This principle once admitted, the precise amount of State interference that is necessary to secure freedom will be always a matter for particular discussion; every case must be decided on its own merits, and, in right, the Sovereign will be omnipotent, or subject only to the law of reason. The rights of man as they are preached by the modern individualist, are not the rights of which Rousseau and the revolutionaries were thinking. When, therefore, government becomes despotic, it has no more right over its subjects than the master has over his slave Book I, chap.

This natural right is in no sense inconsistent with the complete alienation supposed in the Contract; for the Contract itself reposes on it and guarantees its maintenance. The Sovereign must, therefore, treat all its members alike; but, so long as it does this, it remains omnipotent. If it leaves the general for the particular, and treats one man better than another, it ceases to be Sovereign; but equality is already presupposed in the terms of the Contract.

It is more profitable to attack Rousseau for his facile identification of the interests of each of the citizens with those of all; but here, too, most of the critics have abused their opportunity.

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What he asserts is, first, that the Sovereign, as such, cannot have any interest contrary to the interest of the citizens as a whole—that is obvious; and, secondly, that it cannot have an interest contrary to that of any individual. The second point Rousseau proves by showing that the omnipotence of the Sovereign is essential to the preservation of society, which in turn is necessary for the individual. His argument, however, really rests on the fundamental character of the General Will. He would admit that, in any actual State, the apparent interest of the many might often conflict with that of the few; but he would contend that the real interest of State and individual alike, Edition: current; Page: [ xxxviii ] being subject to universal law, could not be such as to conflict with any other real interest.

The interest of the State, in so far as it is directed by the General Will, must be the interest of every individual, in so far as he is guided by his real will, that is, in so far as he is acting universally, rationally and autonomously. It is in this recognition of the State as a moral being, with powers of determination similar to the powers of the individual mind, that the significance of the General Will ultimately lies. Even, however, among those who have recognised its meaning, there are some who deny its value as a conception of political philosophy.

If, they say, the General Will is not the Will of All, if it cannot be arrived at by a majority vote or by any system of voting whatsoever, then it is nothing; it is a mere abstraction, neither general, nor a will. Clearly, it must be granted at once that the General Will does not form the whole actual content of the will of every citizen. This, however, is so far from destroying the value of the conception that therein lies its whole value. In seeking the universal basis of society, we are not seeking anything that is wholly actualised in any State, though we must be seeking something which exists, more or less perfectly, in every State.

The point of the Social Contract theory, as Rousseau states it, is that legitimate society exists by the consent of the people, and acts by popular will.

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The State is not a mere accident of human history, a mere device for the protection of life and property; it responds Edition: current; Page: [ xxxix ] to a fundamental need of human nature, and is rooted in the character of the individuals who compose it. The whole complex of human institutions is not a mere artificial structure; it is the expression of the mutual dependence and fellowship of men. Without this basis of will and natural need, no society could for a moment subsist; the State exists and claims our obedience because it is a natural extension of our personality.

The problem, however, still remains of making the General Will, in any particular State, active and conscious.

Non-Fiction

It is clear that there are States in which visible and recognised institutions hardly answer in any respect to its requirements. Even in such States, however, there is a limit to tyranny; deep down, in immemorial customs with which the despot dare not interfere, the General Will is still active and important. It does not reside merely in the outward and visible organisation of social institutions, in that complex of formal associations which we may call the State; its roots go deeper and its branches spread further.

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It is realised, in greater or less degree, in the whole life of the community, in the entire complex of private and public relations which, in the widest sense, may be called Society. We may recognise it not only in a Parliament, a Church, a University or a Trade Union, but also in the most intimate human relationships, and the most trivial, as well as the most vital, social customs. But, if all these things go to the making of the General Will in every community, the General Will has, for politics, primarily a narrower sense.

The problem here is to secure its supremacy in the official institutions and public councils of the nation. This is the question to which Rousseau chiefly addressed himself. Here, too, we shall find the General Will the best possible conception for the guidance of political endeavour. For the General Will is realised not when that is done which is best for the community, but when, in addition, the community as a whole has willed the doing of it.

The General Will demands not only good government, but also self-government—not only rational conduct, but good-will. Rousseau said that aristocracy Edition: current; Page: [ xl ] was the best of all governments, but he said also that it was the worst of all usurpers of Sovereignty. Nor must it be forgotten that he expressly specified elective aristocracy. There is no General Will unless the people wills the good.


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General Will may be embodied in one man willing universally; but it can only be embodied in the State when the mass of the citizens so wills. It would be possible to find in Rousseau many more anticipations of the views of Kant; but it is better here to confine comment to an important difference between them.

As we can see from a passage in the original draft of the Social Contract, the General Will remains purely rational. The nature of this guiding sentiment is explained in the Discourse on Inequality p. Naturally, Rousseau holds, man does not want everything for Edition: current; Page: [ xli ] himself, and nothing for others. His view as a whole can be studied only by taking together the Social Contract and the Emile as explained by the Letters on the Mount and other works.

The fundamental dogma of the natural goodness of man finds no place directly in the Social Contract; but it lurks behind the whole of his political theory, and is indeed, throughout, his master-conception. His educational, his religious, his political and his ethical ideas are all inspired by a single consistent attitude.

Here we have been attending only to his political theory; in the volume which is to follow, containing the Letters on the Mount and other works, some attempt will be made to draw the various threads together and estimate his work as a whole. The political works, however, can be read separately, and the Social Contract itself is still by far the best of all text-books of political philosophy.


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  • This new philosophy is the work of the future; but, rooted upon the conception of Rousseau, it will stretch far back into the past. Of our time, it will be for all time; its solutions will be at once relatively permanent and ceaselessly progressive. By far the best treatment is to be found in Mr.

    Georges Beaulavon. Rousseau is useful, if not inspired, and there are interesting works by MM. Chuquet, Fabre and Lemaitre. A companion volume, containing the Letters on the Mount and other works, will be issued shortly. Wynne, , by anonymous author, , by H. Smithers, ; Devin du Village opera , , translated by C. Waring, ; Lettres sur son exil du Canton de Berne, Rousseau, ; translated, with additional letters, by T.

    The Social Contract and Discourses - Online Library of Liberty

    Martyn, , 7th edition, ; Testament de J. Rousseau, Payne, ; Emile et Sophie, by Nugent, ? Harrington, with Introduction by E. Walter, ; by H. Tozer , , ; Confessions, 2 vols. Holyoake, ; complete translation privately printed , 2 vols. Works: 6 vols. Jansen, Latour de Tranqueville et M. Dupin in Le Portefeuille de Mme. Roy de Latour , published by H. Translations: Original letters to M. Life, etc.


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    • Morley, Rousseau, , ; H. Macdonald, Jean Jacques Rousseau, a new criticism, ; J. Collins, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau in England, This little treatise is part of a longer work which I began years ago without realising my limitations, and long since abandoned. Of the various fragments that might have been extracted from what I wrote, this is the most considerable, and, I think, the least unworthy of being offered to the public. The rest no longer exists.

      I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be. In this inquiry I shall endeavour always to unite what right sanctions with what is prescribed by interest, in order that justice and utility may in no case be divided.