Rousseau and the Nature of Human Freedom

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Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712, although his works were written in French and he was deemed a French freethinker and philosopher heavily intellectually tied to the French Revolution. In 1762 he wrote ‘The Social Contract’ a ‘thought experiment’ concerning political philosophy. It opens with one of his most famous quotes: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains” (Rousseau, 1968, p.49); this short essay is an attempt to interpret this epigram paying particular attention to Rousseau’s different accounts of freedom concerning mankind.

It is important to understand how Rousseau saw man in his primitive form, and his concern towards societies becoming riddled with inequality due to exploitation and the formations of social classes, based on culture, wealth and possession.

‘The Social Contract’ was Rousseau’s outline of civil society that truly expressed the general will beneficial to all, returning man to equality and freedom. Rousseau defined man in a ‘state of nature’ as a “noble savage” (Rousseau, cited in Germino, 1972, p.

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188). He lived a solitary life concentrated on self-preservation. He was innately good, free and independent. General thought on right or wrong were believed, by Rousseau, to be constructed by society. Therefore man in a state of nature was free to ensure his natural liberty governed by his instincts, emotions and compassion, living in a natural state free from the societal constraints of language, reason or the need for power and possessions, above what was needed for self-preservation. He was his own master and it was only though convention that society was formed, not for man’s social needs.

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These original convention-based societies would be small and co-operative, generally assisting survival.

However Rousseau observed that, over time, as populations and technology increased so would the demand for resources, therefore there was a tendency for the people who owned the means of production, e.g. land, machines or factories, to become more wealthy and adopt cultures and lifestyles not all could attain. It was this inequality, to Rousseau, that was actually a regression in the state of man and society, as he felt man were “all, being born free and equal” (Rousseau, 1968, p.50/51) According to Rousseau man in society adopts a second nature and represses his natural instincts and impulses. A society made up of men solely concerned with their own liberty, acting selfishly in accordance with their own personal wants and needs, was not in man’s best interest. Naturally equal and free, it was a problem if power or authority was gained by force to achieve individual wants and interests towards liberty or power, if constricting another man’s natural freedom and liberty.

Rousseau’s concern was with the ‘General Will’ of society, the common good or public interest. He felt the only way a legitimate civil society could be formed was to cultivate this general will into a sovereign or covenant adhered to by all citizens. The general will was void of private or personal interest and was purely in light of what was good for society. The assumption was that if the general will expresses common interest no one would vote for oppressive or unnecessary laws, as it would be in no one’s interest. Citizens were expected to give up any powers or natural liberty they possessed to the state, to create a sovereign power that expressed the general will. The political organisation or structure of the state was not categorically displayed, however the people’s will must be displayed by agents of the people and not representatives, or else it would not be the general will.

Rousseau believed that with enough discussion and debate – similar to Greek style direct democracy – the general will would be identified. A charismatic enlightened ‘prince’ or legislator must be appointed by a free vote of the people to further express the general will and outline laws of society – a concerned and highly democratic leader whose power comes from the consent of the people. As the individual relinquishes all he had to the sovereign, it would suggest he was going to become a slave to the state. However, this is exactly what Rousseau was trying to avoid. This sovereign was not concerned with a simple majority; in fact Rousseau expressed distain for existing forms of civil state and their limited freedoms; “ England regards itself as free, it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of its Members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” (Rousseau, as cited in Garrard, 2012, p.33)

His general will was a more a greater, almost spiritual consciousness, which Rousseau outlined, somewhat abstractly, as “a form of association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys only himself and remains as free as before” (Rousseau, 1968 p.60). The laws or constraints “never formally stated, they are everywhere the same, everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised” (Rousseau, 1968, p.60). Yes, you would give up natural liberty, but you would gain civil liberty, thus achieving freedom, however now within the constraints of the general will, a structure that you had helped prescribe. You would have moral freedom and be your own master as you had committed to obedience of the sovereignty and were ruled by the protection of the general will.

Inequality would not exist; providing you didn’t act selfishly you would be free to find peace and happiness that adhered to the state. Anyone who tried to act independently would ultimately be “forced to be free” (Rousseau, Cited by Germino, 1979, p.187) by society. You could only expect equality or possessions when living in accordance with the general will. ‘Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains’ exudes the belief that once the state of nature is corrupted for the benefit of a group of individuals, it is impossible for man to exist peacefully if ‘chains’ of inequality arise in society and power is forced and concerned with ownership and wealth.

In an almost communistic approach Rousseau believes that everyone should be solely equal and legitimate property could only be obtained in the connotations of the public force or will. This would be through agreed laws, and the people who help to forge them, not violence. In Rousseau’s society man is technically still in chains, but they are chains prescribed to free people from inequality and help to protect a man’s freedom in the conventions of society, as close as possible to a state of nature, a state we could never quite return to.


Garrard, G. (2012), ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778)’, Philosophy Now,
vol. 90, pp. 32-34. Germino, Dante. (1979) Machiavelli to Marx Modern Western Political Thought. (Paperback edition). Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press. Rousseau, J-J, (1968) The Social Contract. London, Penguin Books


Phelan, JW. (2005) Philosophy Themes and Thinkers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Magee, Brain. (2010) The Story of Philosophy. (Paperback Edition). London: Dorling Kindersley. White, Michael J. (2003) Political Philosophy: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Oneword Publications. Wolff, Jonathan. (2006) An Introduction to Political Philosophy. (Revised Edition). New York: Oxford University Press. Doyle, M E and Smith, M K. (2007) Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education Infred [Internet] Available: [Accessed 16 Jan 2013]

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Rousseau and the Nature of Human Freedom

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