Don’t Talk to Sociologists

November 18th, 2008

Now in the relations between man and man, the worst that can hapen is for one to find himself at the mercy of another, and it would have been inconsistent with common sense to begin by bestowing on a chief the only things they wanted his help to preserve. What equivalent could he offer them for so great a right? And if he had presumed to exact it under pretext of defending them, would he not have received the answer recorded in the fable: ‘What more can the enemy do to us?’ It is therefore beyond dispute , and indeed the fundamental maxim of all political right, that people have set up cheifs to protect their liberty, and not to enslve them. ‘If we have a prince,’ said Pliny to Trajan, ‘it is to save ourselves from having a master.’
Politicians indulge in the same sophistry about the love of liberty as philosophers about the state of nature. They judge, by what they see, of very different things, which they have not seen; they attribute to man a natural propensity to servitude, because the slaves within their observation are seen to bear the yoke with patience; they fail to reflect that it is with liberty as with innocenceand virtue; the value is only known to those who possess them, and the taste for them is forfeited when they are forfeited themselves. ‘I know the charms of your country,’ said Brasidas to a Satrap, who was compaing the life at Sparta with that at Persepolis, ‘but you cannot know the pleasures of mine.’


We cannot therefore , from the serility of nations already enslaved, judge of the natural disposition of mankind for or against slavery; we should go by the prodigious efforts of every free people to save itself from oppression. I know that the former are forever holding forth in praise of the tranquility they enjoy in their chains, and that they call a state of wretched servitude a state of peace: miserrimam servitutem pacem appellant. But when I observe the latter sacrificing pleasure, peace, wealth, power, and life itself to the preservation of that one treasure, which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see free-born animals dash their brains out against the bars of their cage, from an innate impatience of captivity; when I behold numbers of naked savages, that despise European pleasures, braving hunger, fire, the sword, and death, to preserve nothing but their independence, I feel that it is not for slaves to argue about liberty.

Jean-Jaques Rousseau, A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

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