How does Rousseau define slavery?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Rousseau is making a critical argument in his political philosophy in linking civic activism to enslavement.  For Rousseau, individuals can only be considered to be free if they possess political freedom.  Autonomy is seen as the ability to construct laws and initiatives that express one's own state of being in the world.  For Rousseau, when individuals do not possess this political freedom or autonomy, they are empowering other individuals to make these decisions for them, contributing to a type of enslavement.  In this light, Rousseau is influenced by the Classical Greek thinkers who recognized the primacy and purpose of political freedom.  If one did not have control over the laws and rules of their own political reality, the result is a form of enslavement because of the lack of autonomy.  In this light, Rousseau believes that when individuals do not voice their own sense of political autonomy, governments lose their legitimacy for they do not speak for the "general will," as individuals do not have a voice.

...The source of sovereignty is always the people and that the people may not legitimately relinquish sovereignty to despots who would subvert the general will. If a government acts contrary to the will of the people, the people have a right to replace it.

The emphasis on political freedom is the point of differentiation between freedom and enslavement for Rousseau.

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