Rousseau in Chains
Philosopher Jacques Rousseau famously wrote, ‘Man was born free; and everywhere is in chains (The Social Contract, 1762).’ He begins his treatise with this point very specifically to establish his notion that man, at his core, is good, and that he is inevitably corrupted by society. Interestingly, Rousseau’s pre-Darwinian take on human origins suggested that humankind began as a simian breed separated from the animal kingdom by free will and his potential for education and growth, but ultimately corrupted by developments in agriculture, metallurgy, and labor. Rousseau argued that a mandated social contract was the only hope for mankind, one in which man submits to the authority and the general will of society.It doesn’t take very long to realize the fundamental problem with this theory. If mankind has reached such a nadir of individual decadence, on what basis can a general will be established that is trustworthy and suitable to which to submit? In other words, if society is the product of man, how can man be the product of society? Webster defines society as ‘an enduring or cooperating group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.’ Society is a concept contingent upon not just mankind, but the collective conscious of individuals. Yet, rather than simply debunking Rousseau through my own semantic manipulation, I would like to suggest a revision of his initial premise.
I believe it is more accurately stated that ‘Man is born in chains, his freedom found not in an idea, but in a person.’ The chains I have in mind are those of the spiritual bondage to sin, which as the Apostle Paul reminds us, entered the world through one man, rather than the temporal oppression we may face at the hands of our fellow man (Romans 5:12). The issue depends on how the nature of man is understood, which in turn cannot be comprehended apart from a scenario of origins from which our character must emerge. That said, I might backtrack a bit and add that Rousseau’s theory depends on a naturalistic framework that would be rejected by even the most serious contemporary evolutionist. His concept of the ‘noble savage,’ though similar to at least one stage of an evolutionary framework, was terminally connected to some imposition of morality and the ability to comprehend it. Even the word ‘noble’ itself is qualitative. From where did this separation come? Who decided that a certain group of primitive ape-like creatures would be set apart for nobility from the rest of the animal kingdom? Roussau could not escape morality, yet it is society that he blames for the corruption of man. If man was by nature good, how could the society which he created corrupt him? The corruption must have come from him, or in other words, man has brought chains to himself and society. Psalm 51 reads, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ If the release from these chains cannot be found in man, then where do we turn for hope? The Bible tells the story of mankind by book-ending the narrative between two men. Adam, the first man, brought sin into the world by sacrificing intimacy with God for rebellion. But Jesus Christ was sacrificed for the sake of man, that he might be justified to God. He says to those who follow Him, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live (John 11:25).’ Contrary to Rousseau’s understanding of the nature of man, he is not everywhere in chains, but God is everywhere providing freedom to the bound; it is God’s Word that accounts for the separation of man from the animal kingdom, which Rousseau himself counted as a non-negotiable.
David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, however, brought a strong objection to this view when he said, ‘the Christian religion not only at first was attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, let us ask this question: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter-of-fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames for it can be nothing but sophistry or illusion.’ In other words, Hume says, ask of the Bible, is it mathematically reasoned, or does it make scientific claims? If not, throw it out. His claim is that the Bible has no explanatory power without these characteristics. The obvious problem is that his own statement satisfies neither constraint, thus, according to Hume himself, we must discard it. Edward John Carnell explains, ‘What one appeals to as a controlling presupposition in his system is not what determines the validity of the act; rather, granted the starting point, does it produce a system which is horizontally self-consistent and which vertically fits the facts? (The Problem of Evil, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, pg. 298)’ Hume may reject God as a logical ultimate, but he appeals to an ultimate himself that is horizontally inconsistent and vertically unfitting of the facts. Hume failed to recognize the very relationship between man and philosophy, thereby misjudging the very nature of man.
The failure of Rousseau’s appeal for a social contract reflects also its misinterpretation of the nature of man, and the horizontally inconsistent logic by which the argument itself was formulated. I appeal to the wisdom of God to identify the nature of man, for how else can an objective truth emerge but from an objective source?
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