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From A Discourse in Political Economy by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755):

The first and most important rule of legitimate or popular government, that is to say, of government whose object is the good of the people, is therefore, as I have observed, to follow in everything the general will. But to follow this will it is necessary to know it, and above all to distinguish it from the particular will, beginning with one's self: this distinction is always very difficult to make, and only the most sublime virtue can afford sufficient illumination for it. As, in order to will, it is necessary to be free, a difficulty no less great than the former arises ? that of preserving at once the public liberty and the authority of government.

Could you possibly explain the words in bold? I have read it 10 times in total, but I still don't understand it yet. And, should that the question mark be there?

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This is an interesting passage; it sounds to me like something that Thomas Jefferson might have written. [Edit: it is from A Discourse in Political Economy by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755).]

I would say first that the question mark is out of place. Substitute a colon, so: "...no less great than the former arises: that of..."

Now, the writer is saying that there is the individual ("particular") will, and the collective ("general") will. He is also saying that these can come into conflict, because the collective will can be in conflict with one's own. He is further saying that it is often difficult to distinguish one's own will from the will of the people, in particular because it is the collective will of the people to have free will! How do you preserve both the authority of the collective will (as imposed by government) and the free will of individuals (the "public liberty")?

Note that "will" here is being used as a standalone verb; it does not have anything to do with future tense here. To "will" something is to use one's will to bring it into being. To be able to do this requires freedom. Hope that helps.

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  • Thank you so much, but I am confused yet...
    – nima
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 5:56
  • Ok, break it down. Do you understand what "in order to will" means?
    – BobRodes
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 13:08
  • this distinction is always very difficult to make, and only the most sublime virtue can afford sufficient illumination for it. This part is also hard.
    – user2492
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 8:03
  • @username901345 Yes it is, because some of the wording is old-fashioned. 250 years will do that to a language! "Only one who has the most sublime virtue can have sufficient understanding for it" is a more modern way to say it. To afford something used to mean to show or bring forth. Illumination used to mean understanding or awareness.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Jun 12, 2014 at 22:14
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The first and most important rule of legitimate or popular government, that is to say, of government whose object is the good of the people, is therefore, as I have observed, to follow in everything the general will.

  • A legitimate government is a government of the people. (Here, popular means "of the people", rather than "widely liked".)
  • A legitimate government aims to benefit its people.
  • The most important rule is for the government to follow what the people want (the general will).

But to follow this will it is necessary to know it, and above all to distinguish it from the particular will, beginning with one's self: this distinction is always very difficult to make, and only the most sublime virtue can afford sufficient illumination for it.

  • But what do the people want? It's not necessarily the same as what each individual person wants (the particular will).
  • It's hard to know what the people want.

As, in order to will, it is necessary to be free, a difficulty no less great than the former arises ? that of preserving at once the public liberty and the authority of government.

  • Only free people have dreams and desires.
  • That raises an even more difficult question: how to balance freedom and government power?

As for your question of punctuation: the question mark is incorrect. I suspect you may have encountered a case of Mojibake — in this version I see an em dash, which is reasonable. Since the em dash is wider than the usual single-width character and is not part of the ASCII character set, perhaps your text got corrupted, and your computer rendered the unrecognized character as a question mark instead.

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