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The desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of the people – or the collective opinion of the people of a society or state on an issue or problem – is called public opinion. The English term "public opinion" dates back to the seventeenth century work by John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which contains an early consideration of the importance of public opinion in the ordering of politics. The term was derived from the French word l'opinion, which was first used in 1588 by Michel de Montaigne.
This concept came about through the process of urbanization and other political and social forces. For the first time, it became important what people thought, as forms of political contention changed.
It was introduced by James Madison that for a government to be democratic, it would be essential to have strong and knowledgeable citizens that hold educated opinions that could be shared and expressed. Active citizens would then use this knowledge to participate in their government, while also being able to inform other citizens of current issues. In terms of political science, public opinion is defined as being "the aggregate of public attitudes or beliefs about government or politics". Public opinion is considered to be the factor that guides an indirect democratic government. It is only through the approval of the public that a government gains the authority to function. Public opinion is thought to develop from these main sources: "political socialization, education, life experience, political parties, the media, and the government". Public opinion is considered a dynamic part of today's government. Continually changing, it has the power and influence to shape the government in new ways.
The emergence of public opinion as a significant force in the political realm can be dated to the late 17th century. However, opinion had been regarded as having singular importance since far earlier. Medieval fama publica or vox et fama communis had great legal and social importance from the 12th and 13th centuries onward. Later, William Shakespeare called public opinion the 'mistress of success' and Blaise Pascal thought it was 'the queen of the world.' John Locke in his treatise An Essay Concerning Human Understanding considered that man was subject to three laws: the divine law, the civil law, and most importantly in Locke's judgement, the law of opinion or reputation. He regarded the latter as of the highest importance because dislike and ill-opinion force people to conform in their behaviour to social norms, however he didn't consider public opinion as a suitable influence for governments.
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