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Born free?

Replicated by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and only recently, John Rawls, each with his own differing conclusions, Rousseau's political theory only proved to have no solid footing to keep itself in balance.

forest, top, beautiful Photo: Charles Yeager (Unsplash, CC)

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

This opening line of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's magnum opusThe Social Contract  aptly summarizes in a nutshell the philosophical underpinnings upon which his socialist theory of politics rests.

The "natural man," as one would recall what this Genevan political genius had left off in his earlier work Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, used to be living happily in the forest. 

Now confronted by unprecedented challenges in the context of the modern world characterized for the most part by social disequilibrium, dependency, discords and despondency, it was about time for this "born free" man to give up his freedom.  In an accidental journey, as Rousseau put it, from the "natural" to a social state, he must now adjust himself accordingly to the unfamiliar modern social rearrangements.

So there goes Rousseau's vision for the naturally "born free" humanity in the modern world: a re-engineered political environment where people consent to give up their sovereignty to a certain government or state authority in order to promote social order under the rule of law. 

Replicated by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and only recently, John Rawls, each with his own differing conclusions, Rousseau's political theory only proved to have no solid footing to keep itself in balance.

Why?  Because he capitalized rather too much on the alleged innate goodness of man, ineptly dubbed by him as man's "perfectibility," though he himself seemed to have realized that it did not endure.

Through the course of time, Rousseau's social contract theory, in addition to Friedrich Nietzsche's "death of God" gospel, would evetually inspire most, if not all, of the framers of godless ideologies responsible for making the 20th century so far the bloodiest of all centuries: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler and Mao Tze Tung.

So notes Christian philosopher and apologist Ravi Zacharias, "That which [Rousseau] envisioned was never to be because his fundamental postulate on the nature of man was wrong.  His notions were soon decimated, just as the utopian dreams of the rebirth of man anticipated by the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century were shattered by the Napoleonic Wars.  Any philosophy that has built its social structure assuming an innate goodness finds its optimism ever disappointed.  History belies that belief."

The same applies to the 21st century postmodern man's rather opposite quest for absolute autonomy in an open protest against absolute standards that govern the world to keep our depraved tendencies in check.

Built on the same assumption, as did Rousseau's, that the human nature is inherently good, however the postmodernists insist to define "goodness" in their own relativistic, pragmatic terms, this postmodern quest is doomed to suffer the same fate.  Such would be the case with every other notion that miscalculates the real inclinations of the human heart, which according to the Bible, is essentially enslaved to its own depravity (Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; John 3:34; Rom. 1:18-32; 3:10-23).

It was against this that the French philosopher, mathematician, physicist and inventor Blaise Pascal took a rather opposite direction only a few years before the advent Rousseau's "born free" man.

The newly "enlightened" world of his day would then hear Pascal preaching like a prophet, "It is in vain, oh men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for all your miseries. All your insight has led to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you discover the true and the good." 

"The philosophers promised them to you," Pascal continued, "but they were not able to keep that promise.  They do not know what your true good is or what your nature is.  How should they have provided you with a cure for ills which they have not even understood?" 

Or as an elderly American evangelical pastor quips, "Philosophers are people who talk about things they don't understand, but they then make it sound like it's your fault."

With the Divine unveiling in Holy Scripture about the plight of Adam and his progeny under the curse of sin to back him up, Pascal proclaimed, "Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God, and sensuality, which binds you to the earth. And [the philosophers] have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies."

To which he was quick to point out, "If they have given you God for your object, it has been to pander to your pride.  They have made you think you were like him and resemble him by your nature.  And those who have grasped the vanity of such a pretension have cast you down in the other abyss by making you believe that your nature is like that of the beast of the field and have led you to seek your good in lust, which is the lot of animals."

Where do we turn then for help?  Not to the god of the philosophers and the wise.  Not to their speculations and imaginations, however they sound like the wisest of men at times.  But to the God of the prophets and the apostles.

To whom Augustine of Hippo lifted up his voice seventeen hundred years ago, saying, "Thou has created us for Thyself; and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee."

Rightly so. For He alone is able to set people free by His word of truth perfectly made known in and through the person of His Son Jesus Christ. So that only them alone that the Son has set free are trully free (John 8:32, 36; cf. Gal. 5:1; Rom. 8:2).

Edwin Mejia Vargas, bi-vocational evangelical minister and writer-researcher. Manila, Philippines



Pascal, Blaise. The Mind on Fire. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1989.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right. 1762.

Zacharias, Ravi. Can Man Live Without God. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 1994.




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