This piece of political art, stamped on a metal surface (perhaps a post office drop-box) in Manchester, England, uses the famous phrase, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau to make a statement.
Rousseau, a French political ideologist of the 1700’s, originally coined the phrase while referring to governments at the time, which were organized under the divine-right theory. Under this structure, rulers were thought to have been appointed by God, and being so appointed, were given authority to do virtually anything. Rousseau was one of the first philosophers to openly disagree with this model.
With this rather cryptic phrase, Rousseau asserted that states at the time were in fact repressing the physical freedom that is the peoples’ birthright and were doing nothing to secure civil freedom for citizens. In other words, while man was free in theory, the number of social, political, and civil restrictions placed on him could not amount to true liberty.
The use of the phrase in modern society carries the exact same meaning: freedom isn’t really as free as it’s advertised.
Author of The Social Contract, Rousseau theorized about the most appropriate relationship between individuals and their government. Legitimate political authority, he suggests, can only be derived from a social contract agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual protection. Individuals assemble into a political society only after agreeing to abide by common rules and accept corresponding political duties to ensure a long-term effective government.
Rousseau deems the collective group of citizens the “sovereign” and claims that it should be considered in many ways like an individual person. While each individual has a particular will that aims for his own best interest, the sovereign expresses the general will that aims for the common good. The sovereign only has authority over matters that are of public concern, but in this domain its authority is absolute.
Rousseau’s Social Contract outlined four basic premises:
1) Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
2) The Sovereign, having no force other than the legislative power, acts only by means of the laws; and the laws being solely the authentic acts of the general will, the Sovereign cannot act save when the people is assembled.
3) Every law the people have not ratified in person is null and void — is, in fact, not a law.
4) The legislative power belongs to the people, and can belong to it alone.
As is clearly evident from the premises, The Social Contract argued against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered from God to rule and legislate. Rather, only the people, or the “sovereign,” are granted this all-powerful right. Rousseau’s ideas inspired political revolutions in Europe, particularly the French Revolution in France.
Furthermore, Rousseau’s social contract theory of government played an important historical role in developing the idea that political authority must derive from the consent of the governed, a principle regarded with the highest degree in American political ideology today.