Consider Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote in 1762 the classic treatise on freedom, The Social Contract, with its familiar opening line: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
But the liberty Rousseau envisioned wasnt freedom from state tyranny; it was freedom from personal obligations. In his mind, the threat of tyranny came from smaller social groupingsfamily, church, workplace, and the like. We can escape the claims made by these groups, Rousseau said, by transferring complete loyalty to the state. In his words, each citizen can become “perfectly independent of all his fellow citizens” through becoming “excessively dependent on the republic.”
This idea smacks so obviously of totalitarianism that one wonders by what twisted path of logic Rousseau came up with it. Why did he paint the state as the great liberator'
Historian Paul Johnson, in his book Intellectuals, offers an intriguing hypothesis. At the time Rousseau was writing The Social Contract, Johnson explains, he was struggling with a great personal dilemma.
An inveterate bohemian, Rousseau had drifted from job to job, from mistress to mistress. Eventually, he began living with a simple servant girt named Therese. When Therese presented him with a baby, Rousseau was, in his own words, “Thrown into the greatest embarrassment.” His burning desire was to be received into Parisian high society, and an illegitimate child was an awkward encumbrance.
Friends whispered that unwanted offspring were customarily sent to a “foundling asylum.” A few days later, a tiny, blanketed bundle was left on the steps of the local orphanage. Four more children were born to Therese and Jean-Jacques; each one ended up on the orphanage steps.
Records show that most of the babies in the institution died; a few who survived became beggars. Rousseau knew that, and several of his books and letters reveal vigorous attempts to justify his action.
At first he was defensive, saying he could not work in a house “filled with domestic cares and the noise of children.” Later his stance became self-righteous. He insisted he was only following the teachings of Plato: hadnt Plato said the state is better equipped than parents to raise good citizens'
Later, when Rousseau turned to political theory, these ideas seem to reappear in the form of general policy recommendations. For example, he said responsibility for educating children should be taken away from parents and given to the state. And his ideal state is one where impersonal institutions liberate citizens from all personal obligations.
Now, here was a man who himself had turned to a state institution for relief from personal obligations. Was his own experience transmuted into political theory? Is there a connection between the man and the political theorist'
It is risky business to try to read personal motives. But we do know that to the end of his life Rousseau struggled with guilt. In his last book, he grieved that he had lacked, in the words of historian Will Durant, “the simple courage to bring up a family.”