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What did Rousseau mean by ‘liberty’?

Liberty, by definition, is the ‘immunity from the arbitrary exercise of authority; political independence.’1 However Rousseau distinguishes two specific types of liberty, natural liberty and civil or moral liberty. Natural liberty, Rousseau states, is the freedom to pursue one’s own desires whereas civil liberty is the freedom to pursue the general will. The general will is a key concept in Rousseau’s The Social Contract; Rousseau defines the general will as the majority opinion of what is most beneficial to the common interest without any influence from a private interest.

Freedom and liberty for the individual were hugely popular topics during the time that Rousseau was writing. However, where Rousseau stood apart from the other major political and philosophical thinkers of the time was in the manner that he laid out the problem of loss of liberty in society and the way he went about trying to find the solution to retrieving it. In his first essay, The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau contended that through the arts and sciences man has lost his morals, corrupting him, causing wants and creating inequalities which in turn has lead to dependency and hence a loss of liberty.

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Rousseau opens part two of his second paper, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, with ‘The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.’2 By this Rousseau is showing the origins of inequality in modern society however he doesn’t stop there, he then goes on to trace inequality back to man’s loss of isolation. He argues that as man’s first concern was survival, his instinct taught him to adapt, he learnt to hunt and to forage. Soon he realised that there could be common good in working with his fellowman and so the first communication became necessary. For Rousseau this is where the loss of independence and therefore liberty starts:

‘As long as [men] applied themselves exclusively to tasks that a single individual could do and to the arts that did not require the cooperation of several hands, they lived as free, healthy, good and happy as they could in accordance with their nature…But as soon as one man needed the help of another, as soon as one man realized that it was useful for a single individual to have provisions for two, equality disappeared, the property came into existence, labour became necessary. Vast forests were transformed into smiling fields which had to be watered with men’s sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow with the crops.’3

Rousseau then follows the development of society to the point where one individual is granted complete control over society and the loss of liberty is complete. In his subsequent works, especially Emile and The Social Contract, Rousseau looks for an answer to this problem; to find a form of society in which liberty and property could both be protected while an individual remains answerable to no one but himself.

Before one can fully understand what Rousseau was trying to accomplish in these papers one must look in more detail at the dimensions of the liberty that he is trying to protect. The simplest way of explaining the various forms of liberty is by referring to the ways in which it can be denied. The most conventional form of denial is a restriction of actions and although this holds for Rousseau’s contract, he never explicitly refers to physical liberty. He does, however, refer regularly to the liberty of man’s will; the most straightforward example of denial of this is to will something that is unattainable. I.e. the restrictions of society prevent man from obtaining his will through lack of resources or prevention. In a more abstract approach, it could be the wills themselves that are being restricted by society. In either case this is a loss of liberty in Rousseau’s opinion. In Emile Rousseau links freedom to the relationship between will and power and the disparity between them. In referring to the upbringing of children he states that ‘by teaching them from the first to confine their wishes within the limits of their powers they will scarcely feel the want of whatever is not within their power.’4

However, it is in The Social Contract, Rousseau’s most well-known piece that he lays down the format for a society that incorporates these parameters. He argues that the contract can only be legitimate if the sovereign is made up of the entire society, therefore implying that the will of the sovereign is a general will. The terms of this contract are very precise, ‘Each one of us places in common his person and all his powers under the supreme direction of the general will; and we receive back as a corporate body, each member, as an indivisible part of the whole.’5 By placing ourselves and our powers under the general will, Rousseau is saying that we are giving up our natural liberty in return for civil liberty. This exchange seems to happen on two different levels. Firstly natural liberty is the freedom to obtain and keep what one can, whereas civil liberty is the right of ownership. And secondly, natural liberty is, as mentioned at the start, the freedom to pursue one’s own desires whereas civil liberty is the freedom to pursue the general will. This implies that it is not just a social contract that is being entered but a change of personality.

There are two major questions that need to be clarified about this contract. Firstly what if an individual’s view of the general will were to disagree with the majority view of the general will and secondly what if an individual’s personal will be to disagree with the general will, and he held that personal will above that of the general will? Rousseau answers the first question very clearly he states that if the individual’s opinion differs then he is incorrect in his opinion and must resort to the majority opinion. The second question is more complex because if an individual held his personal view above that of the general will then he is rejecting the contract, however, Rousseau adds that compliance with the general will can be forced by society in one of his more famous quotes; ‘whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole of society, which means nothing more or less than that he will be forced to be free.’6 This paradox that an individual can be forced to be free seems problematic but on closer inspection is not that troublesome. If a free act was going to cause a state of unfreedom, then the restraint of such acts would be encouraging liberty and still fit the paradox of being ‘forced to be free.’

Liberty, along with equality, is the overriding aim of Rousseau political theories. He expands on the definition of liberty, linking it to the physical and the metaphysical, the natural and the civil. He argues against the loss of liberty in his two discourses and then designs a social contract to regain this lost liberty for society as a whole and the individual. But what does Rousseau mean by ‘liberty? In chapter VIII of The Social Contract, he proposes a number of meanings for liberty but quickly adds in a statement at the end of the chapter that not one of these was designed to define ‘liberty. The most common answer to this question is that his ‘liberty’ is a theoretical absolute freedom where an individual only has to obey himself in the form of the general will, in accordance with his social contract.


Hampshire-Monk, A History of Modern Political Thought, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003

Roche, Kennedy F., Rousseau -Stoic & Romantic, London: Methuen & Co, 1974

Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, London: Routledge, 2002

Wotton, David, Modern Political Thought, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996

Definition of Liberty,

1 Definition of Liberty (2003),

2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men,” published in Modern Political Thought, Ed. David Wotton (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1996) pp 431.

3 Ibid., p.436.

4 Jean-Jacques Rousseau “Emile”, Iain Hampsher-Monk, A History Of Modern Political Thought, (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2003) pp. 174.

5 Jean-Jacques Rousseau “The Social Contract”, Iain Hampsher-Monk, A History Of Modern Political Thought, (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2003) pp. 178.

6 Jean-Jacques Rousseau “The Social Contract”, Iain Hampsher-Monk, A History Of Modern Political Thought, (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2003) pp. 179.

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What did Rousseau mean by 'liberty'?. (2021, Apr 09). Retrieved June 15, 2021, from