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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Man IS NOT Born Free. The Chains of Reality

One of the most famous thinkers of all time is the French philosopher Jean Jacque Rousseau. One of his most famous quotes is “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. Just think about it. People come into this world and are thrust into all sorts of expectations, duties, norms etc. Does it really have to be that way? A later french thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre, expanded on this idea with his notion that our existence precedes our essence. In other words that we, as a free human being, just by existing precede any sort of essential characteristic given to us by society. The idea is that we are born free with a blank canvas before us and it is ours to paint however we want. It’s the classic romantic picture of the free human spirit!

But is man really born free?

No. Not even close. Look at a baby. A baby is a slave to its needs and totally dependent on others for basic survival. Instead, what we actually witness is that it is GROWTH that provides this baby with greater and greater levels of freedom. But does this only apply to babies? No. Babies are not the only human beings with constraints placed on them by reality itself. They are not the only human beings who, through growth, can experience greater levels of freedom.

Do you recall the childhood story of the grasshopper and the ants?

This is exactly what that story was about. Rousseau and Sarte are like the grasshopper bouncing about in the world saying how nice it was to be free while ignoring the brutal chains of winter that were coming whether the grasshopper liked it or not. The ants, like the sages of history, understood that reality itself was going to smack you down if you ignore the laws that govern it. And so while the ants conformed their behavior to deal with reality by gathering food all summer (the adoption of responsibility), the grasshopper ignored it and starved when winter came. Who was more free in the end? What is the true path to freedom?

Human history can rightly be seen as human beings working together to free themselves from the chains of reality both in the physical and metaphysical domains. Certainly human beings have often been misguided, but the long arc of progress shows that human beings today are immensely more free than we were when we lived in caves and died en mass from changes in the weather.

So how did we do it?

Just like the ants did. By adopting responsibility. In other words we observed the cause and effect relationships in reality (the laws the govern how reality works) and then RESPONDED accordingly. In other words we responded by creating rules for living which were instantiated in norms, institutions, traditions, value systems, religion etc. We created civilization.

Westminster Abbey

The wisdom of our civilizations act like maps to help us expand our freedom by harnessing the laws of reality to our benefit. Not all civilizations and societies do this equally well. Some maps are more accurate, some maps are terrible. Every society tries to give you a map to copy from, but ultimately you will have to construct your own. Yes, you could just incoherently doodle enjoyable things and ignore the treacherous journey of life that you inevitably will take. But don't be surprised when the chains of reality wrap themselves around you like the cold wind that was the demise of our friend the grasshopper. Freedom is only found on the other side of responsibility.

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