When Freedom does not mean Freedom

What do we mean by freedom? This question is a cornerstone of European Enlightenment curiosity and the conclusions reached were undeniably contradictory.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin categorised the position of John Stuart Mill and others as advocates of negative freedom in contrast to positive freedom which was championed by the likes of Jean Jacque Rousseau.

What do these dual notions of freedom mean? Negative freedom begins with the premise that individuals have the right to do as they please so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others; in our time it remains the dominant understanding of freedom. In contrast positive freedom refers to the use of political power to emancipate subjects.

Positive freedom’s most successful proponent is undoubtedly Rousseau. Rousseau begins in his magnum opus, ‘The Social Contract’ with the captivating premise that, “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. Rousseau follows his observation with an extraordinary maxim, that those who fail to act for the general good of the State should be “forced to be free”.

In his work, ‘Freedom and its Betrayal’, Berlin highlights the impact that Rousseau’s ideas had, “there is not a dictator in the West who in the years after Rousseau did not use this monstrous paradox in order to justify his behaviour. The Jacobins, Robespierre, Hitler, Mussolini, the Communists all use this very same method of argument, of saying men do not know what they truly want – and therefore by wanting it for them, by wanting it on their behalf, we are giving them what in some occult sense, without knowing it themselves, they themselves ‘really’ want.”

Berlin goes onto conclude, “Rousseau, who claims to have been the most ardent and passionate lover of human liberty who ever lived, who tried to throw off every shackle, the restraints of education, of sophistication, of culture, of convention, of science, of art, of everything whatever, because all these things somehow impinged upon him, all these things in some way arrested his natural liberty as a man – Rousseau, in spite of all these things, was one of the most sinister and most formidable enemies of liberty in the whole history of modern thought.”

The effects of Rousseau’s ideas are not a historical anomaly, rather they have significance in our time. If you look at the arguments that are made by many today to constrain the basic freedom of others in their cultural norms, they are a verbatim spew of Rousseau’s ‘enlightened’ principle. Unchecked it will continue to act as a voice for demagogues to impose their singular values upon all of society in the guise of emancipation. To add, whilst historically Rousseau’s ideas were particularly successful in continental Europe, they are now unmistakably gaining wider favour.

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