'Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains' | The Asian Age Online, Bangladesh (2023)

'The Social Contract' outlines what ought to be in place for a legitimate and publicly supported political order. It is possibly the most influential work of political philosophy in the West. The treatise begins with the often-heard opening lines, "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they."

When the French Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau used these dramatic opening lines in his treatise "The Social Contract", what he really meant was that man leads a truly free and unrestricted life till he enters society. He meant to say that man was born inherently good but becomes corrupted by the pernicious influences of human society and the institutions created by it.

Once man realizes the existence of civil society around him, all his liberty and freedom vanish. He starts living an artificial life: a life lived more to show off to others, rather than one lived for oneself; a life lived against the tenets of nature. He becomes formal and sophisticated, greedy and wicked and lives an ostentatious life full of pomp and show.

This life, lived by man, is not natural-the way God meant us to live life.

Rather it is pretentious, and makes man follow double standards. He becomes civilized, yet a hypocrite.

Social, Martial and Government laws and conventions, impose chains upon him which bind him. These chains of restraint, restriction and limitation are the real obstacles in the path of progress in his life.


To be born free literally means not to be born to slavery. This encompasses, broadly to include mental slavery too. However, this is exactly what society does to man-it enslaves us to a great extent.

The child has to do what the parents say; in school he has to obey his teachers, and at work, we have to do what the boss says. Family life itself also acts like a chain, keeping us locked in our mental prison.

A husband is expected to be an honorable role model, having a job, which provides for the family. A wife is expected to cook and take care of the home and have children. Children in turn are expected to get good grades and behave.

All these expectations are added by society. In fact, since his birth itself, the chains of prejudice, based on caste, creed and color are set loose on man by society.

Although, some of these "chains", it may be argued, are necessary and desirable to maintain law and order and for the orderly functioning of society, a vast majority of them are merely applied upon us, by others around us, based on what they believe to be commonly and morally acceptable.

This system of artificially induced, interlocking chains, makes it nearly impossible for people to be who they truly are. Thus, most often, the people we meet turn out to be true facades of themselves, because they constrict to the chain's society has cast upon them.

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To be really free, man will have to cast aside these chains and listen to "his inner voice".

He will have to undertake what we term as the small, but lengthy journey from his mind to his soul. Even Socrates has said that to be really free, one needs to explore oneself, or take the "journey within". I quote "A person is born free under the laws of justice, but already in chains by the same laws, because they - the freeborn cannot examine themselves to find there is no less difference between rule over a free man and rule over slaves, than between what by nature is free and what is by nature slavish.

Even Aristotle, in his book 'The Politics,' stated that any rule or authority puts chains on people, whether for order or punishment. He said, "freedom is existent because of politics and yet taken away by politics to ensure equality for all."

The scriptures have said that only those who repent can be fee and reach heaven. Saint Augustine said, "Good man, although he is a slave is free, but the bad man, in spite of being free, is a slave". The bad man is enslaved in the chains of dead habit, by his own doings. Aristotle goes on to say, "The struggle for power and selfishness, that they think can bring the freedom, is leading them away from freedom. Everyone is born with the same freedom, yet it is how that person will maintain that freedom, that tells us which people will put themselves into chains."

When Adam was born, he was absolutely free. Free he was, even in the Garden of Eden, till such time he ate the forbidden fruit.

This was an act of passion, which immediately cast upon him the chain of morality.

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This implies that man must, despite their various passions live lives out of reason. Passion can get swayed. Reason cannot. Thus, passion needs to be tempered with reason for judicious living.

John Luke has stated that most men can live lives in a world of freedom, but it is for those who do not use reason, that there has to be law. To control, and if need be to punish them. However, as soon as these laws are made, a little freedom is taken away from everyone. This does not mean laws should not be there. They certainly are a necessity for modern civilized living, but there should be more of natural laws so that more and more men can live a truly free life and explore both themselves and the world outside; just the way God meant it to be.

Rousseau followed the work of Hobbes and claimed that the state of nature was a human existence that was without law or morality, which humans needed to leave behind in order to truly thrive and survive. As society developed, the human race was required to have institutions of law in order to protect themselves and to ensure that all people in a society or community kept their word to one another.

According to Rousseau, by joining together through the concept of a social contract and giving up some of their inborn freedoms, individual people could both protect themselves and remain basically free to live as they chose. This is because obeying the general will of the people through the laws that are agreed upon by the community guarantees all individuals both physical safety and protection from tyranny because they are, as a whole, the authors of those accepted laws.

The Sovereign must, therefore, treat all its members alike; but, so long as it does this, it remains omnipotent. If it leaves the general for the particular, and treats one man better than another, it ceases to be Sovereign; but equality is already presupposed in the terms of the Contract.

This is the passage expressing that humans can only approximate Social Contract: "When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked is not exactly whether it accepts or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is its will…. When, therefore, the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will be not so."

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In Rousseau's version of the social contract, "Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains," one discovers the meaning of this quote. What is meant by Rousseau's quote 'Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.' is that every person is born is born free, but in the world, he becomes tied and not free. That freedom is in the state of nature, rather that there is no such thing as freedom in society.

Just as Locke did before him, Rousseau claims that man is a social creature. It is for the reason that man is afraid of the state of nature. "Every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it. Has it ever been said that a man who throws himself out the window to escape from a fire is guilty of suicide?" This is Rousseau's expression of what the state of nature had been like. However, he again gives the impression to that he is saying the state of nature is still in man. It never leaves.

"Force does not constitute right… obedience is due only to legitimate powers." This is Rousseau's implies here that government is given its power by man, and when man loses faith in his government, then man has the duty to disobey the law. Rousseau continually defines the difference throughout his social contract between being a citizen and being a subject. A subject is someone who obeys the government but doesn't believe the government is a high power. A citizen is a person who obeys the law and puts it at a high power. Rousseau divides the sphere of the private and public. Rousseau seems to deem that the government has control of everything in public.

We may conclude by quoting Marx, "We humans are living in an illusory world, which obscures the true nature of humans. The true nature of humans is yet to come, where all conflict will end, as well as all history. Till this time, even if we are all born free, for a vast majority of us, these self-imposed chains are making us act like machines."

The writer is an independent political observer who writes on politics, political and human-centered figures, current and international affairs.

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What does Rousseau mean when he says man was born free and he is everywhere in chains '? ›

With the famous phrase, "man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains," Rousseau asserts that modern states repress the physical freedom that is our birthright, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for the sake of which we enter into civil society.

Who said man was born free and everywhere he is in chains? ›

“Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” This quote made the Geneva-born political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, world famous.

What was Rousseau's famous quote? ›

Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” “Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things.” “Patience is bitter, but ...

Who said man is born free and everywhere he is in chains comes up with the idea of a noble savage and states that humans are corrupted by society? ›

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.”

What is the simple meaning of man is born free and everywhere he is in chains? ›

The Social Contract, with its famous opening sentence 'Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains', stated instead that people could only experience true freedom if they lived in a civil society that ensured the rights and well-being of its citizens.

What was the main idea of Rousseau? ›

Rousseau repeatedly claims that a single idea is at the centre of his world view, namely, that human beings are good by nature but are rendered corrupt by society.

What does man being born free mean? ›

Human Rights Essay. Human right #1 of the UDHR: We are all born free and equal. That means that people everywhere, no matter where they are, who their parents are, or what religion they believe in, is equal.

What does freedom is the power to choose our own chains mean? ›

Freedom is the power to choose our own chains

Meaning: We can choose whether on not to make fun of people or we can choose whether or not to listen to those making fun of us, by doing this we are choosing if we want to be free or not. Philosophy.

What made Rousseau famous? ›

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan born political and moral philosopher of the Enlightenment Era. He is well known for his work On the Social Contract, which questioned the purpose and place of government and its responsibility for its citizens.

What are some quotes from Rousseau on nature? ›

Nature made me happy and good, and if I am otherwise, it is society's fault.” “Everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do.

What was Jean Paul Sartre's famous saying? ›

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

Why is Rousseau important today? ›

Rousseau's notions about natural human kindness and the emotional foundations of ethics still furnish the core of today's moral outlook, and much of modern political philosophy likewise builds on the foundation of Rousseau's On Social Contract (1762).

What are human beings like in the state of nature according to Rousseau free good? ›

Rousseau sees the humans in the state of nature as remote, timid and peaceful, living in line with his needs without experiencing internal conflicts with himself, either with other individuals around him.


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