The General Will before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic

The General Will before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic

by Patrick Riley

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This is a study of the transformation of a theological idea, the general will of God to save all men, into a political one, the general will of the citizen to place the common good of the city above his particular will as a private self, and place, in French moral and polity.


This is a study of the transformation of a theological idea, the general will of God to save all men, into a political one, the general will of the citizen to place the common good of the city above his particular will as a private self, and place, in French moral and polity.

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Library Journal
This book chronicles the transformation of the idea of the ``general will'' from its theological roots in St. Paul and Augustine to its emergence as a purely political concept. Rousseau, it argues, gave the long-established Christian idea of the general will of God to save all men a permanently secular meaning by placing the common good of the community above the particular will of the individual. Focusing on the century between the death of Pascal, the first great writer on general will, and the publication of The Social Contract , the book brilliantly illustrates the evolution of this idea as the older religious world-view gradually gave way. An important work of intellectual history, highly recommended for academic libraries. Raymond Frey, Philosophy and Religion Dept., Montclair State Coll., Upper Montclair, N.J.
From the Publisher
"A most important contribution to the study of Enlightenment political and social ideas, accessible to public library patrons as well as academic readers. The author presents a very convincing claim that the doctrine of the general will emerged as a theological idea, predating by over a century Rousseau's famous political application in the Social Contract. There is a very impressive marshaling of literary evidence, moderated by a clear facility with the argumentative and writing styles of the major participants."Choice

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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The General Will Before Rousseau

The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic

By Patrick Riley


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07720-8



"The phrase 'general will,'" says the eminent Rousseau scholar Judith Shklar, "is ineluctably the property of one man, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He did not invent it, but he made its history." And he made that history by giving the notion of volonté générate a central place in his political and moral philosophy. Rousseau himself insists that "the general will is always right," that it is "the will that one has as a citizen" — when one thinks of the common good and not of one's own "particular will" (volonté particulière) as a "private person." Even virtue, he says, is nothing but a conforming of one's personal volonté particulière to the public volonté générale — a conforming that "leads us out of ourselves," out of egoism and self-love, and toward "the public happiness." If this is well known, it is perhaps only slightly less well known that, at roughly the same time as Rousseau, Diderot used the notions of volonté générale and volonté particulière in his Encyclopédie article, "Droit naturel" (1755), saying that the general will is the rule of conduct that arises from a "pure act of the understanding," an understanding that "reasons in the silence of the passions about what a man can demand of his fellow-man and what his fellow-man has a right to demand of him." It is "to the general will that the individual man must address himself," Diderot adds, "in order to know how far he must be a man, a citizen, a subject, a father, a child"; and that volonté générale, which "never errs," is "the tie of all societies."

But if, as Shklar correctly insists, Rousseau "made the history" of the "general will" without inventing it, who, then, should be credited with the invention? Not Diderot; for, as Shklar shows, Montesquieu had already used the terms volonté générale and volonté particulière in the most famous book (11) of De l'esprit des lois (1748). But, where, then, did Montesquieu find those ideas? And how could he count on their being immediately understood, since he used them without explaining them?

The mystery is solved when one realizes that the term volonté générale was well established in the seventeenth century, though not primarily as a political idea. In fact, the notion of "general will" was originally a theological one, referring to the kind of will that God (supposedly) had in deciding who would be granted grace sufficient for salvation and who would be consigned to hell. The question at issue was: if "God wills that all men be saved" — as St. Paul asserts in a letter to his disciple Timothy — does he have a general will that produces universal salvation? And if he does not, why does he will particularly that some men not be saved? There was a further question as well, namely, whether God can justly save some and condemn others, particularly if (as St. Augustine asserted) those whom God saves are rescued not through their own merit but through unmerited grace conferred by the will of God. From the beginning, then, the notions of divine volonté générale and volenté particulière were parts of a larger question about the justice of God; they were always "political" notions, in the largest possible sense of the word "political" — in the sense that even theology is part of what Leibniz called "universal jurisprudence." The whole controversy over God's "general will" to save all men — and how this is to be reconciled with the (equally scriptural) notion that "many are called but few are chosen" — was very precisely summed up in a few words from the last work (Entretiens de Maxime et de Thémiste, 1706) of Leibniz's contemporary and correspondent, Pierre Bayle: "The God of the Christians wills that all men be saved; he has the power necessary to save them all; he lacks neither power nor good will, and nonetheless almost all men are damned." The effort to explain this state of affairs led directly to the original theory of volonté générale.

The controversy about the nature of divine justice is nearly as old as Christian philosophy itself; it was fully aired in the struggles between St. Augustine and the Pelagians, and resurfaced in seventeenth-century disputes about grace between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. The actual terms "general will" and "particular will," however, are not to be found in Augustine or Pelagius, nor, for that matter, in Jansenius's Augustinus or in the Jesuit Molina — though Jansenius uses the phrase volonté particulière once, in passing, in his last extant letter to St.-Cyran. Those terms, in fact, are the modern successors to the Scholastic distinction between the "antecedent" and the "consequent" will of God: according to this doctrine, God willed "antecedently" (or generally) that all men be saved, but after the Fall of Adam he willed "consequently" (or particularly) that only some be saved. The distinction between antecedent and consequent divine will is to be found in Scholastic philosophy as late as Suarez, and even Leibniz used the terms "general" and "particular" interchangeably with the older words, as did Antoine Arnauld, the great Port-Royal logician.

So far as diligent inquiry will reveal, the first work of consequence to use the actual term "general will" was Antoine Arnauld's Première Apologie pour M. Jansénius (1644). This work was written to refute a series of anti-Jansenist sermons that had been preached by the theologian Isaac Habert in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame (1642-1643) at the express order of Cardinal Richelieu. (Quite early on, then, volonté générale figured in high politics: it didn't have to wait for Robespierre's transmogrified Rousseaueanism, for the claim that the Committee of Public Safety constituted the general will.) Richelieu may well have ordered Habert's anti-Jansenist sermons for the wrong reasons — he was convinced that Jansenius had written a famous anti-French libel called Mars gallicus, accusing Richelieu of aiding German Protestants during the Thirty Years' War. Although this proposition is by no means certain, Habert preached publicly against Jansenius at Richelieu's command, and Arnauld, in refuting Habert, developed the notion of volonté générale. Even a mistake can give rise to consequential doctrines: Richelieu may have aimed to strike Mars gallicus obliquely by hitting Augustinus directly, but what he essentially produced was an occasion for the idea of general will to be thrust forward in a publicly conspicuous way.

Before Arnauld's Première Apologie, certainly, one does not find the term volonté générale in the place or at the time that one might reasonably expect to find it. It does not appear, for example, in the protracted exchange of letters between Descartes' associate Father Mersenne and the Calvinist theologian Andre Rivet, though the most interesting of these letters date from 1640 (the year of Augustinus's publication) and deal precisely with the universality or nonuniversality of salvation. In these letters Père Mersenne asserts that, in order to avoid horror and desperation, one must believe that "God does not will the damnation of anyone, but [wills] that each be saved, if he wills to cooperate in his salvation"; Rivet replies that, since many are damned, Mersenne's alleged universal salvation imputes to God "des désirs vains, et des volontés frustratoires" and tries to reestablish "the paradise of Origen," in which even the devils are included. But if the Mersenne-Rivet letter exchange provided a perfect occasion to assert or deny a divine volonté générale to save all, the term did not actually appear; and this is probably an indication that before 1644 the expression was not current, even in the writings of a man such as Mersenne, who corresponded with every great figure of the age.

How Jansenism should be defined is beyond the scope of this work; whether it was an orthodox (though severe) Augustinianism or a kind of heterodox semi-Calvinism need not be settled here. What does matter, for present purposes, is that it was the conflict between Jansenism and its critics, Jesuit and otherwise, that served as the occasional cause of a revived dispute over the meaning of the scriptural assertion that "God wills that all men be saved." Justly or not, Jansenius's Augustinus was accused — first by Habert's Richelieu-inspired sermons, then by Nicolas Cornet, syndic of the Sorbonne, then by a letter to the Pope drafted by Habert using Cornet's charges, and finally by several papal bulls, including Cum occasione and, much later, Unigenitus — of having maintained "five propositions" judged "heretical" and "scandalous." The last of the five propositions imputed to Jansenius asserted that "it is a semi-Pelagian error to say that Jesus Christ died or spilled his blood for all men without exception." Whether the five propositions were, in fact or in effect, contained in the Augustinus, as the Jesuits maintained, or were malicious fabrications of Cornet and Habert designed to ruin the reputation of St. Augustine as the "doctor of grace," as the Jansenists insisted, what is indisputable is that, when Jansenists such as Arnauld and Pascal tried to defend Jansenius, they had to show that the bishop of Ypres had correctly (that is, in the manner of St. Augustine) understood the notion that Deus vult omnes homines salvos fieri: that a truly general will to save all was fully reconcilable with the Jansenist notion that only the "elect" actually enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In short, had Jansenius and his principal apologists not tried to restrict radically the meaning of St. Paul's letter to Timothy, the question of just and justifiable "general will" might never have become one of the great disputes of the seventeenth century. The whole tradition of volonté générale thus began life as a mere gloss on a passing phrase in a letter of St. Paul.

Antoine Arnauld, then, invented, or at least first made visible, the notion of general will; but he did this, ironically enough, as part of a Jansenist effort to minimize (without annihilating) the notion that all are saved, that salvation is "general." In Antoine Arnauld, the "general will" is as little general as possible. In the Première Apologie pour M. Jansénius, Arnauld acknowledges the nominal existence of a "general will of God to save all men" but immediately narrows this generality by insisting, with Jansenius, that it is "semi-Pelagian" to construe St. Paul's letter to Timothy au pied de la lettre, to understand divine volenté générale as requiring salvation "generally for all men in particular, without excepting any of them." God's saving will is "general," Arnauld argues, only in the sense that it applies "to all sorts of conditions, of ages, of sexes, of countries," but it does not rescue every last single man en particulier. Indeed, he insists — and here Jansenist rigorism is at its clearest — that

it is certain that the source of all the errors of the semi-Pelagians is [their] not being able to endure the absolute and immutable decree of God, who ... chose, from all eternity, without any regard for merit, a certain number of men, whom he destined for glory; leaving the others in the common mass of perdition, from which he is not obliged to pull them.

Since God is not obliged to pull all men from perdition, his "general will" to save them all is attenuated, to put it mildly. In slightly later works, such as his Apologie pour les Saints Pères (1651), Arnauld carries this attenuation further still. God's antecedent will for the salvation of all men, he insists, "is only a simple velléité and a simple wish, which involves no preparation of means" to effect; his volonté générale "is based only on a consideration of human nature in itself, which was created for salvation," but which, since the Fall, has richly deserved perdition. Actually, Arnauld goes on, one could even say that God had a volonté générale to save "the devils," who were once angels; but fallen angels, like fallen men, are now damned. All this is clearer, in Arnauld's view, if one sees that God's judgments, which are "very just" though "very secret," are like the decisions of an earthly judge who condemns a thief or a murderer to death, but who "at the same time wills and wishes, by an antecedent will," that the life of this criminal, considered simply "as a man and as a citizen," be saved.

Obviously, Antoine Arnauld tries to weaken the force of "God wills that all men be saved" in two main ways: sometimes by diminishing the compass of "all," sometimes by shrinking the meaning of "will." As Jean la Porte has shown in his brilliant pro-Jansenist La Doctrine de Port-Royal, it is characteristic of St. Augustine and the Augustinians (including, usually, the Jansenists) to attempt to pare down the term "all," while it is typical of St. Thomas and the Thomists to deflate divine "will." St. Augustine, in De correptione et gratia and in the Enchiridion, glosses "all" to mean all kinds of persons (of all professions, ages, sexes, countries); this equation of "all" with "some" (provided they are distributed over "all" categories) is most often favored by Arnauld. For the Augustinians, then, God wills to save not all men but all sorts of men; in the magnificent Latin of the Enchiridion,

omnes homines omne genus hominum intelligamus per quascumque differentias distributum, reges, privatos, nobiles, ignobiles, sublimes, humiles, doctos, indoctos, integri corporis, debiles, ingeniosos, tardicordes, fatuos, divites, pauperes, mediocres, mares, feminas, infantes, pueros, adolescentes, juvenes, seniores, senes; in Unguis omnibus, in moribus omnibus, in artibus omnibus, in professionibus omnibus.

On this point, at least, the claim that Jansenius was a perfectly orthodox Augustinian seems warranted, for in the section of Augustinus entitled "De gratia Christi Salvatoris," Jansenius urges that, if one wants to avoid Pelagian and semi-Pelagian heresy in interpreting "God wills that all men be saved," one must understand "all" to refer, not to a divine salvific will "for each and every single man" (pro omnibus omnino singularibus hominibus), but rather to a will for the salvation of every kind of man (pro omni genere hominorum) — Jews and Gentiles, servants and free men, public and private persons, wise and unwise. One should add, however, that in his effort to reduce "all" men to the "elect," Jansenius also relies on other Patristic writings. In particular, he invokes St. Prosper's argument that Christ died for all men only in the sense that his sacrifice was sufficient to redeem all, but that the actual effect of his death was to redeem only a few — or, as Jansenius paraphrases St. Prosper, "Christum omnes redimisse sufficienter, non efficienter." Nonetheless, Jansenius relies mainly on St. Augustine and on the notion that "all" really means "some."

Aquinas's method, occasionally followed by Arnauld, as in the Apologie pour les Saints Pères, is very different. He preserves what one is tempted to call the natural meaning of "all" — La Porte calls it the "unforced" meaning — and makes "will" the variable term, saying in De veritate that "God wills by an antecedent [or general] will that all men be saved, by reason of human nature, which he has made for salvation; but he wills by a consequent will that some be damned, because of the sins that are in them."


Excerpted from The General Will Before Rousseau by Patrick Riley. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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