Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains

Rousseau in 1753, by Quentin de La Tour
(Image credit: Wikipedia)

This must surely be a contender for the most well-known opening line of a personal treatise on political theory. Written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) in, possibly his most famous work, The Social Contract (first published in 1762). Is it not more readily identifiable than the opening lines of works by Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx? OK, let’s not argue about it. That would be a distraction…

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they. (Rousseau)

I have been aware of Rousseau (and this quote) for some time – at least since coming to appreciate the importance of the seventeenth century Age of Enlightenment. For ease of reference, the relevant Wikipedia article begins thus: “The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in the late 17th and 18th century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange…” To long-established readers of this blog (and/or those that do not question my motives or integrity), it may seem odd that I acknowledge the benefits of the Age of Enlightenment. This is because I am socially-conservative; and would argue that modern science is founded upon the rational belief in an existential Universe (rather than argue that it is undermined by irrational belief in a non-existent God). In my defence, I would say that this is part of what makes me what Stewart Brand calls an eco-pragmatist (as opposed to either an idealist or a radical). I believe that the way we do things needs reformation – not revolution. This is the essence of the school of thought known as ‘Ecological Modernisation’ – which I summarised on this blog in a three part series of posts (i.e. starts here) in September 2011. However, let’s try and get back to Rousseau… I was recently reminded of this Rousseau quote (and of the political, religious and societal turmoil caused by Enlightenment thinking) while watching yet another DVD. If I am hard to pigeon-hole politically, this is probably why I have suddenly become such a fan of the Danish film director Susanne Bier – whose films are hard to categorise cinematically. This all started with me watching Love Is All You Need (2012) – and being really impressed by Trine Dryolm who almost outshines her co-star Piers Brosnan. Susanne Bier admits that she sets out to make her films hard to categorise and, unquestionably, she succeeds. I enjoyed the film – and Trine Dryholm’s performance – so much that I decided to get out two more films featuring the latter. This resulted in me watching Bier’s previous film, In A Better World (2010) and A Royal Affair (2012), by Nicolaj Arcel (another excellent Danish film director I had never heard of) and co-starring fellow-Dane Mads Mikkelsen – best known (by me at least) for playing the main Bond villain, ‘Le Chiffre’, at the roulette table opposite Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006). If you have not seen any of the above three Danish films, I would heartily recommend them all. However, it is A Royal Affair that brought me back to thinking about the Age of Enlightenment in general and Rousseau in particular. As I will now try to explain… The Age of Enlightenment was generally a good thing but, as I have said now many times, it is also the basis for one of the most significant fallacies of modern times – the belief that humans are superior to Nature (rather than being part of it). However, the reason for my focus on the quote from Rousseau is that, although I may be taking it out of context, I believe it may explain why so many humans are failing to appreciate the seriousness of our current predicament. On the Wikipedia page for Rousseau, the Political Theory section is quite helpful – if you want to understand the context within which The Social Contract was written. However, I am, quite unashamedly, going to take it out of that context; and apply it to environmental politics today. To me, at least, the opening quotation resonates with my understanding of how and why so many perfectly intelligent people can be so blinded by ideology that they choose to believe that: — “Climate scientists are over-stating a problem in order to perpetuate the funding of their research.” Rather than accept that: — “Business leaders are down-playing a problem in order to perpetuate the viability of their business.” However, there is no significant precedent for research scientists over-stating environmental problems – nor any evidence (that has not been examined and found to be groundless) that climate scientists are doing this or have done this at any time in the last twenty years. Whereas, there is a very significant precedent for business leaders (in the tobacco industry) down-playing environmental problems – and a great deal of evidence that this is exactly what fossil fuel executives have been doing for at least the last 20 to 50 years. It is hard to understate how angry this makes me. However, as John Ashton, former climate change advisor to the British government said in a speech given at the Bedford School recently, we should be angry about this but getting angry is not enough. We should put this anger to use and – rather than give up on the political process – engage in it in order to change it. He also suggested that this requires us to stop being fatalistic and see the future as something we can change (rather than something that is just going to happen to us). Here is that talk, which is well worth watching. I will conclude this missive by reproducing below two comments I posted elsewhere recently: (1) In support of an article, entitled ‘Rocks Hold The Truth About Climate Change’, written by Ted Nield (the editor of the Geological Society’s website and Geoscientist magazine), on the Telegraph website:

Well done, Ted, for setting the (palaeoclimatic) record straight. Given the massive conflict of interest that any petroleum geologist automatically has – when facing the reality that it is impossible to explain the totality of post-Industrial climate change unless burning fossil fuels is its primary cause – it is hardly surprising that the occasional ‘contrarian’ view gets aired on the Geological Society’s website. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics but it helps. It helps even more not to allow your ideological prejudices to determine which science you will accept (e.g. cosmology and/or particle physics) and which you will reject (e.g. evolutionary biology and atmospheric physics). The denial of inconvenient science did not end well for the Catholic Church 400 years ago. Today, however, the only obscurantist Establishment is the Fossil Fuel Lobby (FFL), which now stands isolated and alone – following the demise of the Tobacco industry’s campaign – trying to turn residual uncertainty in science into unreasonable doubt. Given that the Tobacco industry set up the first ‘Astroturf’ groups 20 years ago to deliberately campaign against climate science and other things (i.e. not just to defend smokers’ interests) – and that this is now all in the public domain – it amazes me that so many perfectly intelligent people continue to be fooled by the same strategy as perpetuated by the FFL. Whatever happened to: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!”…?

(2) In support of an article, entitled ‘Super Typhoon Haiyan: Realities of a Warmed World’, written by Michael Mann (Penn. State Uni. and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars), on the Huffington Post website:

You don’t have to be a scientist to understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics but it helps. It helps even more not to allow your ideological prejudices to determine which science you will accept (e.g. cosmology and/or particle physics) and which you will reject (e.g. evolutionary biology and atmospheric physics). More water evaporates from a warmer ocean; and a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. Evaporation is what drives our weather; and more moisture in the atmosphere more of the time provides more energy for more storms of greater intensity. Thus, so-called ‘global weirding’ was predictable (and therefore was predicted) from the basics of atmospheric physics. What is amazing is that so many are ideologically prejudiced against accepting this fact (and that it is now being validated by unfolding events). The ideologically-driven denial of science did not end well for the Catholic Church over 400 years ago. The only obscurantist Establishment today is the Fossil Fuel industry. However, deniers of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) would have done well to heed the warning of George Santayana from over 100 years ago: “Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it”. All those who pick a fight with history and/or science are destined to lose eventually. However, it is just a shame that we are all – along with those who dispute the nature of reality – tied to the railway track and unable to get out of the way of the approaching train that is ACD.

So here’s to those chains of ideological blindness being broken very soon.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Cognitive Dissonance, Denial, Ecological Modernisation, Environment, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains

  1. Patrice Ayme says:

    The Enlightenment was one of many. I have argued for years the biggest one was around 500 CE when Christian terror theocracy was outlawed. In the 18C Enlightnment there were several currents, at least half a dozen I see, and some were violently opposed to each other. Some consider (I am among them) that Rousseau (like Kant and Herder) led to the Kaiserreich and then Hitler (among others). But that particular quote “man is born free, but everywhere…” sounds good, until one digs a bit. Turns out the mistake on temperatures was done the other way. In their anxiety to look conservatives, scientists have deliberately underestimated the heating at the poles and Africa. I have an essay coming, on this, but I was busy destroying the rabidly racist but very admired in the USA, anti-European Oprah Winfrey….


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment, Patrice. I will dodge the bullet on Christianity (simply because theology is not the primary subject of this blog – although it was me that raised it here). If you have not seen it, you really should watch ‘A Royal Affair’, which is about the affair between the British wife, Caroline, and German doctor, Johann Streunsee, of King Christian VII of Denmark (1766-1808) who, together, enacted Enlightenment thinking into Danish law sooner than most of Europe. The contextual link is provided here for the benefit of others – as I am sure you know the history – but it really is an excellent film. With regard to Rousseau, I agree that he is a bit of a conundrum: He lived in an era when many men where patently not born free and women – along with the poor – could not even vote. Furthermore, Rousseau did not even believe in the need for representative democracy. He considered the ideal State to be the size of a city, where direct democracy (i.e. exercised by the men) was feasible. Therefore, although French (but living in Geneva), Rousseau considered France to be too big to be governed as a Republic (or Empire). I guess that enabled him to ignore all the anti-democratic and/or unpleasant stuff that was going on. One other peculiar thing I noted, however, was that Rousseau considered it better to live in the country rather than in a city. If so, how did he expect people to be governed if they chose not to live in (ideal-State-sized) cities? Would I be right to think that he thought the aristocracy to be above the Law? What was his position with regard to serfdom (rather than slavery)? He seems to have been ambivalent about these things at best; and hardly the revolutionary he is often made out to be.


      • Patrice Ayme says:

        Rousseau was born in the City-State of Geneva, a republic unfortunately durably highjacked by a fanatical French lawyer (Calvin) at some point. French, but not under full Parisian control (to this day). The Alps tended to be like that, but Dauphine’ went bankrupt (!)… A lot about Rousseau can be explained, if one considers him to be an hypocrite. He is sort of the anti-Sade (Sade said worst, and did good). Voltaire also profited handesomely (got very rich), but, at least was not an hypocrite. So your analysis is entirely correct. But that means his philosophy is suspect, because it was born from a lying heart. (There are other ways a philosophy can be suspect; see Herder, or Kant.) What’s sure is that we need a new Enlightenment, and real quick! PA


      • Rick Altman says:

        OK, I apologise for suggesting Rousseau was actually French. However, I am glad I am not the only one to find him to be – shall we say – “inconsistent”? (I am trying to be generous here.) On Wikipedia, I noticed that Rousseau converted to Catholicism (in the section on his Youth) and that this was in response to the hard line taken on the doctrine of original sin by Calvinism. However, I have little sympathy with humanists in this respect: Even if you dispense with the Biblical language, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that human beings are both imperfect and incapable of perfection. If it were otherwise, I think I would be both a humanist and a socialist. For sure, we are (or have been) living through an ‘Age of Endarkenment’.


  2. Patrice Ayme says:

    “there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that human beings are both imperfect and incapable of perfection. If it were otherwise, I think I would be both a humanist and a socialist. For sure, we are (or have been) living through an ‘Age of Endarkenment’.”

    Nice neologism. Obscurity is gaining, at least among the leaders. No hope? The quote above makes you all too close to Rousseau. I both agree, and disagree. Yes, man is terrible. However, he can be de facto perfected to near perfection. Otherwise planes could not fly. There is such as thing as civilization. and it’s our true religion. PA


    • Rick Altman says:

      Although Wikipedia confirms that I have not just invented ‘Age of Endarkenment’ ex nihilo, I am flattered by the compliment from such a polymath as you, Patrice. However, I must admit that – despite having enough Greek to know ‘neo’ means ‘new’ and ‘logos’ means ‘word’ – I had to double-check because I was expecting you to accuse me of making a self-negating statement. I am tempted to make this the subject of another post but, if I did, it would be ‘off message’. I hope, therefore, that the following will suffice: I said that I would be a humanist and a socialist if I thought humans were capable of perfection. Upon further reflection, this statement alone is evidence of that imperfection! As I have done before, once again I have here conflated socialism with Marxism. Many Christians are socialists but, because of its basis in atheism, there are very few who are (or have been) Marxists. There is, of course, the fascinating case of Hewlett Johnson – the so-called ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury Cathedral (1931-63), who chose to ignore all the anti-religious, anti-libertarian and outright despotic things Josef Stalin did. However, Johnson was able to do this because he was pro-Communist, not pro-Marxist. No doubt he would have said that Communism is Biblical (i.e. as practiced by the disciples and early apostles of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth). Having said all that, it is very obvious that not all atheists are Marxists. In fact, a great many atheists are Capitalists. As I pointed out back in April this year, the Bible calls them “lovers of money” (etc). Given all of the above, I am inclined to think that although we share a passionate concern regarding the – now seriously endangered – future of humanity and civilisation on this planet, we appear to have starkly different views of religion: You seem to view religious belief negatively – inclined to see it as the cause of everything from the Anschluss to Zionism (and much in between)? Whereas I view religious belief positively – inclined to see it as a moderating influence upon people who might otherwise become extremists of all kinds (including anarchists and nihilists). If so, I hope we can resolve this by agreeing that it is more important that the right things be done than that they be done for any particular reason (i.e. see Chapter 2 of Robert Goodin’s Green Political Theory [1992]).


  3. pendantry says:

    I didn’t find John Ashton, in that TEDx talk, to be the kind of inspirational, motivational speaker that I’m used to seeing at TED, and one that the theme of his talk required. He spoke on the need for anger — without even a trace of it in his voice. He did the usual trick of passing off responsibility for the future onto youngsters (most, if not all, of whom must Altman his understanding of the situation and how best to navigate the pitfalls of the establishment). And the smattering of applause at the end of his talk was clearly a politeness only, issuing from unconvinced minds, where what is needed is a standing ovation accompanied by thunderous applause and a stamping of feet — immediately followed by a decampment to march in angry protest on the corridors of power! I’m sure that Mr Ashton has many gifts. He can’t be all bad: after all, he’s familiar with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. But he spoke of irony in his opening reference to the best film ever made; while clearly oblivious of the important one: Is it any surprise that a man who, according to his brag sheet, is “one of the world’s top climate diplomats”) has left us in the UK with such a Altmanlustre attitude towards the problem of dealing with climate change? Not to me. His political overlords would have considered such a man perfect for the role of climate change advisor to the British government.


    • Rick Altman says:

      I get your criticism and I too am disappointed (but not surprised) that he failed to have greater influence on government policy.


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