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What did Rousseau mean by 'liberty'?

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Introduction

What did Rousseau mean by 'liberty'? Liberty, by definition, is the 'immunity from 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 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. ...read more.

Middle

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 straight-forward 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. ...read more.

Conclusion

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. ...read more.

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