Tag Archives: Rousseau


Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau biographer Leo Damrosch (2005, 1) wrote that the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau “developed a theory that deeply influenced the American founding fathers and the French revolutionaries, helped invent modern anthropology, and advanced a concept of education that remains challenging and inspiring to this day.”

Jean Starobinski (in Damrosch, 2005, 2) said “it took Kant to think Rousseau’s thoughts and Freud to think Rousseau’s feelings.” This only begins to hint at how important Rousseau’s ideas were in Western thought.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712 at a site that is now a department store. His family immigrated to France to escape Protestant persecution. They were quite comfortable until falling on financial difficulty, which seemed to plague Rousseau for most of his life. His meeting and relationship with Mme. De Warrens was so consequential that a marker lies at the spot of their first meeting.

Madame De Warrens

Rousseau was apprenticed to the engraver Ducommum, but abandoned this apprenticeship and became a private tutor in Lyon, France. He came to know Denis Diderot, editor of the first encyclopedia and the Scottish philosopher David Hume. In 1762, two of his most famous works appeared: his seminal work The Social Contract  and Emile, a book that had effects on fields as disparate as education and public health.

In 1767, under threat of impiety, he took on an assumed name. Rousseau died of cerebral bleeding outside Paris in 1778. In addition to his famous quote, “Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains,” Rousseau also noted that “the strongest man is never strong enough to be master all the time, unless he transforms force into right and obedience into duty.”

The Social Contract

The importance of his ideas to the development of both the American and French revolutions is well-known, and is seen in The Social Contract, which most clearly elucidated the idea the consent of the governed:

As soon as [a people] can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does better; for since it regains its freedom by the same right as that which removed it, a people is either justified in taking back its freedom, or there is no justifying those who took it away.

What does this have to do with Hawaiian history, you ask? Kamehameha III was reading guys like this (and Montesquieu, who’s next up) while constructing the modern Hawaiian nation-state – in this age when the very meaning of democracy seems to be being forgotten, we would do well to do the same.

This post is part of a new website Iʻll be launching in a few months – stay tuned.

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