I am not able to comprehend the meaning of the sentence:

By what inconceivable art has a means been found of making men free by making them subject; of using in the service of the State the properties, the persons and even the lives of all its members, without constraining and without consulting them; of confining their will by their own admission; of overcoming their refusal by that consent, and forcing them to punish themselves, when they act against their own will?

From: The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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    This is a 20th century English translation of an 18th century French work. What in particular is giving you trouble?
    – TimR
    Jun 23, 2015 at 10:35
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    @Manish Thank you for quoting this text. I haven't read this text before, and it took me more than one minute before its meaning sank in. My plain English would be something like: Is there anything that can make men free by forcing them doing what they do not want to? -- You can find more details about this meaning of this sentence in this post: english.stackexchange.com/questions/247623/…. Jun 23, 2015 at 11:33
  • It might be a bit easier if you read the whole paragraph (starting from: "I. The first and most important rule of legitimate or popular government, of government whose object is the good of the people, is therefore, as I have observed, to follow in everything the general will. [...]" Some reading about Rousseau might also help - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Social_Contract. In context, this sentence actually does make sense, but without it as @DamkerngT. said it takes a while for it to sink in. I had to read it three times
    – Lucky
    Jun 23, 2015 at 11:47

1 Answer 1


This loses some subtleties, and bear in mind that the entire passage is a question, which Rousseau then goes on to expand upon and answer. He uses a rhetorical device, stating a series of things which seem contradictory, but which are completely logical in the context of the Social Contract. I have capitalised The State throughout in an attempt to make it clearer. (Please edit if I've missed something, I've rushed through this quickly)

How is it possible that people can be free if they are subjects of The State?

The people that make up The State are made use of by The State without any constraints. The State does not explicitly ask what they, as individuals, want: The State uses them, their lives and their property freely, without consulting them.

The State, by its own admission, prevents them exerting their own free will, and the people consent to this.

Their will is therefore that of The State. If they refuse to consent to what the state wishes, then they are acting against their own will. If they act against The State, they (seemingly willingly) punish themselves.

It doesn't quite mean "Is there anything that can make men free by forcing them doing what they do not want to?", rather it is asking how people can be free if they are subjects of the state (the answer being that the people are the state). Subtle difference, but important in context.

  • Agree. Anyway, please note that I didn't have even a clue when I read that, and definitely didn't have even the slightest idea what the State is (why it was capitalized, and such). Still, I don't think that my rough translation (to plain/simple English) was very far from the original. At this point (still haven't read into his work), I think Is there anything that can make men free by preventing them from being able to do what they want to? is a little closer than my first attempt. Jun 24, 2015 at 16:49
  • ha, I just realised I emphasised the not in "does not" for some reason, it wasn't supposed to be. Should just have been a normal not - it's not far off, but the [subtle] difference I think is important in this context.
    – DanCouper
    Jun 24, 2015 at 20:49
  • No worries. I'm afraid that my comment seems to be a bit clipped. (I notice that I tend to compress my comments so they can stay within the 600-letter limit. Sometimes I wish I could write longer so I can speak a little more casually.) I posted that comment under the question because I worried that this question might've gotten closed real soon. On behalf of the OP, I thank you for this nice answer. :) Jun 24, 2015 at 23:54
  • Just edited the original answer very slightly in response to the above :)
    – DanCouper
    Jun 25, 2015 at 13:55

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