Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Freedom and Happiness

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Rousseau - 1712-1778AD


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"Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains."

Rousseau's opening line of The Social Contract is 'Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains'. It suggests that man is neither free nor happy, but this is not really what he thinks. The statement should not be taken in isolation. The Social Contract is thought by many to be his greatest work, and it has been used by many revolutionaries to justify their actions for more than two centuries. But Rousseau also stated that those who fail to act for the general good of the state should be 'forced to be free'.

"People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little."1

Rousseau proposed that a 'social contract' between government, or those in authority, and those being governed would enable the rulers to protect the rights, property and happiness of the ruled. He aimed to explain the sources and limits of legitimate authority and extolled the benefits of humans collaborating and forming a state for their mutual advantage.

In his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau suggests that civilization has robbed individuals of their natural freedom. Prior to us achieving our current 'civilised' state, humanity looked to itself for its values and happiness, but now civilized human beings look to others and defer to the opinions and authority of others. He argued that the price of civilization is the loss of human freedom and individuality.

Rousseau believed the self-interested desires that you have as an individual should always be subservient to the higher aims of the 'general will', that is, the wish of the state as a whole to pursue the common good. The continuation of the state depends on its individual members setting aside their private interests where they conflict with the states interests. Whilst this may involve curtailing a person's freedom, and therefore also potentially their happiness, in the short term, he argues that the benefits will be worthwhile in the long term.

In Emile, Rousseau proposes the possibility of a 'natural' education, free of the corruptions of modern society. Emile, more so than any of his other writing, brings out his way of thinking in relation to his philosophical beliefs.

A natural education would enable individuals to be brought up to be cooperative and respectful of their fellow humans. He focuses on the fundamental importance of the earliest steps in rearing children, during the 'puerum infantem' (pre-lingual infancy) period. Emile's rearing during this period, in which he is introduced to the salutary 'education of things' but is prevented from learning too much about the wills of other men, represents the beginning of the child's journey along 'the road of true happiness'.

From 'the happiness of natural man' Emile will eventually come to know the 'happiness of the moral man' for which nature's proper development, even from the first years of infancy, is an indispensable preparation.

Unfortunately for Rousseau, his beliefs, honesty and forthright writing resulted in many of his works being banned, leaving him in fear of persecution, and failing to achieve the true happiness that he wrote about in Emile. He had to flee his home on more than one occasion for his own safety. Unsurprisingly, in later years he became paranoid, believing that he was the victim of an international conspiracy.

For more information about the great philosophers and their views on narcissism and happiness, read Finding Happiness.

1 Rousseau (The Social Contract)