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.
Source: Rousseau, A Discourse on Political Economy

What does the following mean here?

one must begin with oneself

And what does the following mean?

only the most sublime virtue can afford sufficient illumination for it.

  • Please add your own attempt at interpretation, or at least which specific words are difficult. As it stands, someone attempting to answer you could spend all their time defining the sense each of these 16 words has in this context and still not know what it actually is about the sentence that confuses you. Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:49

1 Answer 1


The point of the quote is: A good government will do what the majority of the people want. But it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what I myself want is what the majority of the people want, and it takes great mental discipline to recognize this in any given case.

So specifically: By "the general will", he means, "what the people in general want". By "the particular will" he means "what one specific person or small group of people want". "The particular will, beginning with one's self" means what one particular person wants, namely, yourself. So you see, he's drawing a distinction between what the people as a whole or the majority of the people want, and what one specific person, most likely yourself, wants.

The last sentence has several rarely-used, perhaps slightly out-of-date words.

"Virtue" means moral rightness, something that is good or the generally idea of good. "Sublime" means most noble, holy, or worthy. So "sublime virtue" is the greatest goodness. "Illumination" means light, in this case metaphorical. Illumination -- light -- makes something visible. So he is saying that it takes the greatest goodness to be able to see this. That is, it takes someone with a very good character to realize that what he wants is not necessarily what everyone wants.

I think you can see the problem he is describing in politics all the time. I often hear people talk about their pet political cause in a way that makes it clear that they just take it for granted that everybody except maybe some tiny minority of self-serving extremists agree with them. Sometimes they'll flat out say that. I don't want to get into a debate about specific political positions here, but I read a statement on a forum just recently where a writer said that only a tiny minority agree with ... let's say "X". I replied by pointing out that a Gallup Poll this year showed that something like 45% of Americans agree with X, a pretty substantial minority. He didn't reply. He probably didn't believe me, because he just KNOWS that X is crazy, and all his friends agree that X is obviously crazy, and all the magazines and books he reads all agree that X is crazy, etc. You could probably fill in many examples for X. It just never occurs to many people that "me and my friends all believe ..." is not necessarily the same thing as "most people in this country believe ..."

    – nima
    Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 5:40

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