The Social Contract
The meaning of the expression. ‘general will’ can be understood without any reference to politics. It is as a principle underlying the moral thinking of the individual that it is originally introduced in the two Encyclopédie articles of 1755 — ‘Natural (moral) law’, by Diderot, and Pol. Econ. by Rousseau; though it was thought of from the start as having a political application. A good form of government must operate in accordance with moral laws; and if the general will underlies all moral laws it must be the ultimate principle of conduct not only for individuals but also for governments. Furthermore, the general will must always (as we saw in the last section) be general relatively to a particular association, and the association that Rousseau had from the start most in mind was the politically independent nation or city, to which he gives the name body politic. But other associations too (whether political or not) have their general wills (Pol. Econ. p. 237), and the body politic has special importance (at this stage of Rousseau’s thinking) not because it is political but because it is the most all-inclusive association to which an individual can belong. For Diderot it is not the body politic at all, but the whole human species that is the source of the most important general will; though every society (even a criminal one) also has its own general will, which forms its bond of union.
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