The one political outlook to which it(general will) remain fundamentally inimical, not surprisingly, was that of royal absolutism-which is not to say that there were no attempts to confiscate the "general" will for royalist ends, but merely that these arebetter seen as desperate signs of the growing prestige of the formula in this period than anything else.(The French Idea of Revolution ed. by Dale Van Kley: 215)

I get confused about "desperate sign". The sign of growing prestige of the "general will" is very positive. Desperate may be used to describe the royalists' attempt to confiscate the "general will". But can it be used to describe "sign"? What does it exactly mean?

2 Answers 2


They are signs of how desperate those in authority were to grasp control of public opinion, in order to stave off revolution. What you may not realise, but which became abundantly clear to me when studying 1790s' Britain, was how petrified the ruling classes were, all across Europe, of the popular mob. All those heads (of French aristocrats) on spikes in Paris put fear into the gentry class. As one put it, all those severed heads had faces, 'and many were faces which had smiled in London drawing rooms'.

  • Thank you very much, your answer is particularly useful for me!
    – benlogos
    Commented Nov 15, 2013 at 16:54

I think mostly we can chalk this down to complicated writing, honestly. The general meaning of "desperate sign" is that something (usually an action) has a meaning or significance which highlights the desperation of situation or actor (i.e. the one performing the action).

For example, if a celebrity is no longer popular, they might pull a publicity stunt (such as releasing a raunchy video) that will instead be a "desperate sign" of their decreased fame.

So if I am reading this paragraph correctly, the author is saying that "general will" as a force grew during this period, and that Royalist attempts to overturn this were seen as "desperate signs" of its growing power.

So in this usage, and in similar usage, an agent does something to prove one thing, but instead this action becomes a "desperate sign" that proves the opposite.

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