The General/Popular Will and Liberal Democracy

By Jeremy Daggett on in Finding My Political Philosophy. Permalink.

Orestes Brownson -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In this essay we will be examining the concept of the general, or popular, will as understood by French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and American all-around intellectual giant Orestes Brownson.  In explaining the positions of Rousseau and Brownson, we will look at the particular issue of law and authority as it relates to the success of a liberal democracy.

The concept of general will in Rousseau is best explained in his work The Social Contract.  In this essay, Rousseau offers his theory of the way political society evolves from a simple, completely free existence.  This state of natural liberty where man has a right to whatever he can successfully attain is called by Rousseau the state of nature But he is not the first to have employed this concept as an explanation for the way things are now.  In another work, A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind, he acknowledges that other philosophers have felt the need to return to the state of nature in their political theorizing.  But he then says “not one of them has got there.”[1]  He goes on to explain he means that this state of human existence has never been substantiated historically and he finds it odd that so many never even stop to wonder whether this fabled state of nature ever existed.  Not to worry though, Rousseau says, making the following astounding statement:

Let us begin by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question.  The investigations we may enter into, in treating this subject, must not be considered as historical truths, but only as mere conditional and hypothetical reasonings, rather calculated to explain the nature of things, than to ascertain their actual origin; just like the hypotheses which our physicists daily form respecting the formation of the world.[2] (emphasis mine)

It seems to be extremely odd that one would form a whole political theory on the basis of a mythical “state of nature” which we have no evidence ever existed.  Yet Rousseau goes on to write his Social Contract with that very presupposition as a starting point.  The question then becomes, how is it that man left this state and formed political society?  “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”[3]  What could compel man to give up his natural liberty and unconditional right to possess whatever he can?

Rousseau offers a hypothetical solution wherein “obstacles” (whatever they may be) to the state of nature are greater than man’s ability to preserve the state of nature.  Man must come together and combine their force to overpower the obstacle.  But in so doing, an individual may be putting his own interests at risk.  How can one preserve his own interests while preserving his life?

“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.[4] (emphasis mine)

And what is this Social Contract?

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.[5] (emphasis mine)

Here we have the idea of the general will.  This concept seems to be not entirely clear in the text and there has been much debate about its precise meaning.[6]  However, we can see that the general will is the will of the state, which is nothing else than a persona ficta[7], which is “formed wholly of the individuals who compose it…”[8]  Answering how one determines what the general will is, Rousseau contends that general will is concerned with the common interest, and not the interest of all particular wills, and which is expressed in the laws determined by a majority vote of the citizens.[9]

Rousseau, thus, advocates a republican form of government (broadly speaking) as the only legitimate kind.  The citizens make the laws, yet it is unthinkable that all the citizens would govern in the strict sense.  He sees pure democracy as unimaginable given the impossibility that the “people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs.”[10]  How that is exactly carried out is not so much a concern, for the end, or goal, of political society is:

… [t]he preservation and prosperity of its members.  And what is the surest mark of their preservation and prosperity? Their numbers and population. Seek then nowhere else this mark that is in dispute. The rest being equal, the government under which, without external aids, without naturalisation or colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most, is beyond question the best. The government under which a people wanes and diminishes is the worst.[11]

Finally, let us examine what Rousseau means by law.  There are two statements that offer themselves to us.

[W]hen 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.[12]


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.[13]

Upon reading these two quotes, one is struck immediately with the bold departure from the traditional definition of law by Thomas Aquinas, which is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.”[14]  Taking into account what else we have said here about Rousseau’s political theory, we can see that only one or two of the four marks of a law may apply to Rousseau’s definition, and that may only obtain by stretching definitions.[15]

Orestes Brownson is highly critical of this conception of the general will.  While never referring to Rousseau by name, he nevertheless castigates the notion central to Rousseau’s political theory, which is “the purely human origin of government, [which] rejects all law enjoined by any authority above the people.”[16]  Brownson sees this as the democratic principle, which may seem contrary to Rousseau’s personal rejection of democracy as a viable form of government.  But it seems that Brownson is here speaking of democracy in the sense of the general will advocated by Rousseau, especially as it relates to the origins of authority and law.[17]

Rousseau argues that the state’s powers of legislation and authority derive from humanity.  There is no authority above this authority.  Brownson knows that this kind of reasoning explicitly denies not only natural law, but divine law.  Governments under the “democratic principle” reject “eternal justice”, demoting it to “mere conventionalism.”[18]  But if this is the case, it follows that the people are greater than the government by which they are supposedly governed, since the government derives its power solely from the consent of the governed.  This “leaves their will supreme, subject to no authority, bound by no law.  It is, therefore, simply the principle of political atheism.”[19]

Brownson maintained that it is impossible to order a state on the final authority of the people.  The attempt is futile to secure order, liberty, and happiness which does not have an authority above the will of the people.  Government must have its foundation in the divine order, else it can have no claim of obligation to obedience on the conscience.

It has nothing in it that one is morally bound to treat as sacred and inviolable.  Its violation is no moral offense, for it is the violation of no moral law, of no eternal and immutable right.  […]  The constitution, to be respected, must be clothed with a moral authority, an authority for conscience, which it cannot be, if of conventional origin; and the government constituted has no just powers not derived from the assent of the governed.[20]

Another failing of this system, voiced in the quote just now, is that it eradicates objective morality from politics, for the will of the majority (which is the general will) is not necessarily good or evil.  Let us recall Rousseau’s own admission that we are not to question whether a law is just or unjust, since this mystical “person” of the state is the general will and no one wills to be unjust to himself.  But how can the people be made good or urged to goodness if true morality is banned from consideration?  This is a grave concern for Brownson, and he notes several historical examples where the godless popular will has been the catalyst to expel the Catholic Church and her servants, priests and religious, from the public life, as well as many other vices that are encouraged by this principle.[21]

As noted before, the end of the political society is not the perfection of man, as traditionally believed, but the materialistic preservation and prosperity of the people.  The materialism inherent in this thought further leads men into a moral pit.  The prosperity may be gained by whatever “legal” means.  The laws aiding the procuring of wealth are neither just nor unjust.  They are what they are: the supreme general will.  Contrast that with the noble political philosophy of Aristotle who asserts that the state exists to perfect the people, to curb vice and encourage virtue.  Brownson wonders how long our democracy can survive if it continues to lurch towards this kind of political atheism.

But how do we explain the authority of the state?  It cannot be derived solely from the will of the people (which is repugnant as we have seen) or directly from God (since it is secular and not papal).  Yves Simon argues for a Transmission Theory of Authority.  This seems to incorporate the democratic ideal of authority residing in the people, yet with this authority coming ultimately from God.

[This] theory holds that the first bearer of civil authority is not the king or any governor but the people as a whole, the civil multitude. Whenever there is a distinct governing personnel, men have done two things and not one… they have designated the ruling person, and they have transmitted to him the power given by God to the people.[22]

Simon marshals support for this thesis from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (Treatise on Law), Cajetan’s commentary on that Treatise, St. Robert Bellarmine’s “Discussions on the Members of the Church”, and Suarez in his treatment of the errors of King James (Defensio fidei catholicae ea apostolicae adversus anglicanae sectae errors) on this very issue of the source of authority.[23]  These writers are unanimous in the belief that the “ruler is a vicar of the people, to rule under God for their good.”[24]  This retains the right of the people to depose a wicked ruler.[25]

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind, Great Book of the Western World, Vol. 38. 333.

[2] Ibid., 333-4.

[3] Rousseau, The Social Contract, Great Books, Vol.38. 387.

[4] Ibid., 391.

[5] Ibid., 392.

[6] Cf. Christopher Bertram, “Jean Jacques Rousseau”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <>.

[7] Social Contract., 393.

[8] Ibid., 392.

[9] Ibid., 396, 399.  Later, he writes, “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.” (425)

[10] Ibid., 411.

[11] Ibid., 417.

[12] Ibid., 399.

[13]  Ibid., 399-400.

[14] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 90, Art. 4.

[15] It may be that the marks of 1. promulgation, and 2. by him who has care of the community could apply; however, what “him who has care” means seems to be slightly different for Rousseau and Aquinas.  What appears to be obvious is that law for Rousseau is not an ordinance of reason (which presupposes a rational nature) for the common good as understood by St. Thomas.  The redefinition of these key terms resulted in the contradiction of the definitions.  In fact, Brownson claims the following: “Laws that emanate from the people, or that are binding only by virtue of the assent of the governed, or that emanate from any human source alone, have none of the essential characteristics of law, for they bind no conscience, and restrain, except by force, no will.” (Orestes Brownson, “Democratic Principle”, Orestes Brownson Society, <>. Emphasis mine.)

[16] Orestes Brownson, “Democratic Principle”, Orestes Brownson Society, <>.

[17] Brownson states in the essay that he refers not to a system of government, per se, but “any political order which asserts the national will as supreme and free from all authority or law which does not emanate from the nation itself.” (Democratic Principle.)

[18] Brownson, “Democratic Principle.”

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.  In fairness to Rousseau, he would think that breaking the law is bad, but not morally so.  It is bad in that it is an impediment to the end he specified, and quoted above.

[21] Brownson, “Democratic Principle.”

[22] Yves Simon, “Philosophy of Democratic Government”, University of Notre  Dame: Jacques Maritain Center, <>.

[23] Ibid.

[24] John Hittinger, “Political Philosophy: Lesson 7. Natural Law and the Roots of Authority.”  International Catholic University. <>

[25] Simon, “Philosophy of Democratic Government.”

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