An excerpt from “The Birth of Liberty”

By G.P. Fedotov (1886, Saratov–1951, Bacon, NJ), a major Russian philosopher and historian.

“Man is born free and dies in bonds.” There is nothing as false as this famous statement.

Rousseau meant to say that freedom is the natural state of man which he loses with civilization. In reality, the conditions of natural, organic life provide no foundation for liberty.

The biological world is dominated by iron laws–of instincts, of generic and racial strife, of the circular repetition of vital processes. Where everything to the ultimate is determined by necessity, it is impossible to find a breach, a crack for freedom to break in through. Where organic life acquires a social character, it is totalitarian to the core. Bees have communism; ants have slavery; the pack is under the absolute power of its leader. <…>

Rousseau, in essence, wanted to say: Man should be free, or: Man was created to be free–and in this lies Rousseau’s eternal truth. But this is not the same as to say: Man is born free.

Liberty is a late and delicate flower of Culture. This does not at all reduce its value. <…>

However, even in the world of culture liberty is a rare and late guest. Reviewing the ten or twelve high civilizations we are aware of–those of which, for the contemporary historian (Toynbee), the general historical process (once seemingly indivisible) is composed–it is only in one of them that we find freedom in our sense of the word, and even so, in the most recent phase of its existence. I mean, of course, our civilization and our time, so far leaving the boundaries of what is ours undefined in space and time.

All other cultures may strike us with their grandeur, captivate with refinement, amaze with the complexity and sensibility of their social institutions, even with the depth of religion and thought–yet nowhere shall we find liberty as the foundation of social life.

Amartya Sen would disagree.

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