Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains

(Rousseau, 1973, 181)

This is how Rousseau opened his book The Social Contract, written in 1762.  

What did he mean by this? Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains 

How is man (sic) born free and yet lives as if a slave? 

The origin of this view lies in his earlier work. In his first essay on The Arts and the Sciences (1750) he lamented that people acted in their lives more to gain public acceptance and less according to their true selves.

He said, 

‘To be and to seem became two totally different things’ (Rousseau, 1973, p. 95). In social relations the person becomes a mere illusion of ‘sociability’, for public life is a pretence, and is wholly artificial. Behind the civility lies the selfishness and greed of the person who works solely for his own self-interest. But the mask is useful, for, like the law, it hides the real inequality behind the merely formal assurances of equality. Rousseau writes that before civil society, ‘men found their security in the ease with which they could see through one another’ (1973, p. 6). In civil society, enjoying social relations based upon private property, that transparency has vanished, and every person is now merely a false show and an appearance.

‘We no longer dare seem what we really are, but lie under a perpetual restraint… we never know with whom we have to deal… What a train of vices must attend this uncertainty! Sincere friendship, real esteem, and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate and fraud lie constantly concealed under that uniform and deceitful veil of politeness’

(1973, pp. 6–7).

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains of civil society

The falsity of the person is what Rousseau calls amour-propre. Pretending to be something we are not speaks of our being slaves to what people think of us. Whilst this has its existential cost for us of leading lives that are filled with lies, Rousseau went much further, and explored its implication for what he called ‘civil society’. Civil man invented new strategies to ensure his own success at the expense of others.

‘Insatiable ambition, the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another, and with a secret jealousy, which is the more dangerous, as it puts on a mask of benevolence, to carry its point with greater security. In a word, there arose rivalry and competition on the one hand, and conflicting interests on the other, together with a secret desire on both of profiting at the expense of others. All these evils were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality’

(1973, p. 96).

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains of property

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains
The Familiar Objects (1928) Rene Magritte

Property therefore gave rise to a society where each was at war with the other, a war masked by the pretense of ‘civility’. So often seen as the natural state of man, for Rousseau this war of all against all was a corruption of natural man, a corruption inevitably brought about when one man co-operated with another for reasons other than his own self-preservation. To be able to have more than was necessary for self-preservation, and to see the advantages over others of doing so, were the beginnings of the evils of civil society. The coup de grâce was achieved

‘when the right to inequality was enshrined in the universal right of private property. Rousseau argues that the rich realised quickly that the force by which they had appropriated their riches was a force that others could use against them. To secure themselves from such usurpation, the rich ‘conceived at length the profoundest plan that ever entered the mind of man’ 

(1973, p. 98)

Masking the benefit which such a plan gave the rich, they argued to all those who had less and were a threat:

‘Let us join… to guard the weak from oppression, to restrain the ambitious, and secure to every man the possession of what belongs to him: let us institute rules of justice and peace, to which all without exception may be obliged to conform; rules that may in some measure make amends for the caprices of fortune, by subjecting equally the powerful and the weak to the observance of reciprocal obligations’

(1973, p. 98)

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains made by himself

The ruse was successful, for the weak were also busy trying to gain rewards for themselves, and saw in political institutions at least some advantage to their attempts. What they did not see was how the law served to ensure that social inequality was preserved, and mitigated against their own attempts for riches. ‘All ran headlong to their chains…’ (1973, p. 99), unable to see through the mask of political equality how law enshrined social inequality. Rousseau concludes on the origin of civil society that it: 

‘bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery, and wretchedness’

(1973, p. 99)

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains made by the privileged few

His conclusion is as pertinent nearly 300 years later as it was for him in his day.

‘It is plainly contrary to the law of nature, however, defined, that … the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life’

(1973, 117)

Nigel Tubbs

Based on Tubbs, N. (1997) Contradiction of Enlightenment, Aldershot, Ashgate.

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