‘Man is Born Free, and Everywhere He is in Chains’: Meaning and Origin

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ Who said, or wrote, this well-known sentence? Karl Marx? Vladimir Lenin?

Not either of those political figures, but someone who lived quite a long time before either of them.

For the thinker who actually said ‘man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’ was a figure of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer: a man of many talents who wrote novels such as Julie and Emile, which dramatised his theories of education, as well as a work regarded as the first modern autobiography, Confessions.

As well as writing these works, Rousseau is also remembered for The Social Contract, which was first published in 1762.

This book, whose full, longer title is On the Social Contract; or, Principles of Political Right is a work of political philosophy which attempts to devise the ideal society, with an emphasis on the relationship between the citizen and the state.

The Social Contract begins with the most famous words in the whole book: ‘man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’.

This quotation is the one for which Rousseau is most remembered, but the meaning of the quotation is often misunderstood, or at least only half-grasped. This is how The Social Contract begins:

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.

In other words, Rousseau’s statement that ‘Man is born free’ implies that freedom is our natural state, or was once, in some earlier golden age. And yet in the modern world, man’s ‘chains’ are everywhere.

We are all ‘slaves’ in a political if not a literal sense (it’s worth remembering that Rousseau was writing at a time when the European slave trade was still very much in operation, and the abolitionist movement was in its infancy). He goes on:

If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: ‘As long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for, regaining its liberty by the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it away.’ But the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from nature, and must therefore be founded on conventions.

It is these ‘conventions’ which form our ‘chains’; Rousseau’s aim is to discover how strike the best balance between individual liberty and the happiness of society as a whole.

Another way of analysing this is to say that Rousseau is concerned with the ways in which society removes the innate freedom we’re born with.

He asserts that there exists a ‘social contract’ between the individual and the state, and this cuts both ways: just as the state must respect the individual’s freedom (where possible), the individual must subordinate their own wants in the name of the collective good of society.

The Social Contract is best-known to people who have never read or closely analysed Rousseau’s book for that famous opening line, ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.’

This makes The Social Contract sound as though it’s going to be a rallying cry for liberty and revolution, but in fact, Rousseau’s book is, if anything, more in favour of those ‘chains’ than with true freedom. Such freedom isn’t really attainable, but nor is it desirable.

This is because Rousseau is interested in the good of society and the needs or desires of the individual often come into conflict with that. Indeed, paradoxically, the individual can only be truly free once the needs of society as a whole are met. Otherwise, nobody is free. In other words, nobody’s free unless we’re all free.

Yet Rousseau’s critics might argue that this puts the needs of society ahead of the needs of the individual. From there, it’s a small step to Utilitarianism, and perhaps even, if taken to extreme, to totalitarianism, limited individual freedoms, and enforced compliance.

It should set alarm bells ringing that Rousseau argues that any individual who fails to act for the ‘greater good’ of society (what he calls the ‘sovereign’ will) should be put to death.


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