Reading Rousseau: The Social Contract, Part I (Paul Krause, December 15, 2023, Minerva Wisdom)

Rousseau opens his famous work on political philosophy by stating that “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Again, this is because in the state of nature man is free and equal, but in society he is enslaved and not free and not equal. “How did this transformation come about?” he asks. “I do not know,” he replies. This is the greatest sleight of hand in philosophical history. Whereas, say, Aristotle saw “natural inequality” as explained it metaphysically: That nature itself is not equal, Rousseau sidesteps the question. Instead, he wishes to discuss how a society can be made to be legitimate. For illegitimate society is the society in which man, having been born free, remains in his chains. This also means, very importantly, that Rousseau begins his political treatise with the understanding that political society is illegitimate.

Once you’ve miscast human nature there’s no way back to common sense for the Continent.