The Truth About Freedom

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.

CONTRADICTION - This stamped message uses a famous quote from French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to send a message about the truth of freedom.

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.

ON GOVERNMENT - Rousseau's highly influential book, The Social Contract, theorized about the best possible and most effective relationship between a government and its people.

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.

Live Free or Die

I have no idea where this piece of political art exists, but when I saw it online, I thought—of all things—of Patrick Henry’s famous speech in which he closes with “give me liberty or give me death!” Same idea.  Different wording.

This work of political street art reflects a core foundation of America: the importance of freedom and the willingness to fight for it at any cost.

The words ‘live free or die’ are iconic to American political philosophy. They capture and reflect the assertive independence typically found in our nation’s politics, which tends to hold an attitude that even death is preferable to life without freedom.  Any self-respecting American can identify with the phrase in this artwork and appreciate its significance to our cultural and political history. Even the most unpatriotic citizen can surely agree that America, despite whatever problems it may have, can at least be credited for consistently standing by its thoughts on freedom.

To distract from that paragraph, which unintentionally became a soap box lecture, here’s a fun fact: “Live Free or Die” happens to be the official state motto of New Hampshire, adopted in 1945.

Apparently, the phrase comes from a toast written by General John Stark, New Hampshire’s most famous soldier of the Revolutionary War. On July 31, 1809, Stark declined an invitation to an anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington, but included in his note a toast for the evening which read:

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

More than two centuries later, Americans still agree.