While the natural state of human beings, according to many philosophers of the Enlightenment and before, is freedom, humanities becomes constrained and chained by various social forces. These social forces can be seen as water, that being the liberty of the individual, constrained by a wall. This wall was composed of the inability to discuss inequalities, or the inability to understand the plight of others. This ability to discuss and to provide details with regard to constraints on liberty is one which started like a crack in that wall with fiction such as Voltaire’s Candide. The crack in the wall of constraint on liberty was further widened with Rousseau’s explorations. With each new topic uncovered the dialogue builds first through stories and discussion which is crystallized in the form of political declarations.

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When these liberties were uncovered as rights by the French National Assembly it was like a hole in the wall of oppression. This hole weakened the wall, allowing various philosophers and activists to target the various bricks which composed it. They revealed these bricks by names such as racism and the rights of all people regardless of skin color as well as sexism and the rights of all women. The battle for individual rights has been a collective struggle over generations led by the philosophers who have built on that which have gone before. This allowed them to build on, and to widen, the priority and potential of real individual freedom.
In the middle eighteenth century religion was a social force of control, and there was little room to disbelieve or to criticize the Church. Voltaire believed in God, but he had difficulty reconciling this with goodness. In his novel Candide, written in 1758, he exposed constraints on liberty as imposed by romantic ideas of religious superstition.

Still, Voltaire was unable to fully express his opinions, given that one could not challenge the authority of the church, the goodness of God, and the divine right of kings. In Candide a succession of terrible events unfolds. Good people, such as our hero Candide’s tutor, are struck and crippled by syphilis; natural disasters cause the deaths of thousands of innocents in Lisbon; further atrocities occur by the hands of men in the name of religion. Amidst this background is Candide’s optimistic belief in the goodness of the world as the product of the Christian God and this can be seen as ridiculous in the context of the terrors of the times.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract was written only a few years after Voltaire, and in this work Rousseau exposed the constraints on liberty that were created by the current framework of authority. It was authority which created constraint, by asserting powers, powers given by God to the crown. Specifically, Rousseau doubted that royalty was granted by divine privilege, and that power over oneself should not be given to such entities freely. He argued that we are born sovereign over ourselves, and that new forms of governance were required in order to accommodate that. The result, ultimately, would be democratic philosophies (“Enlightenment and Human Rights”, n.p.).

The French National Assembly wrote their “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” in 1789 at the culmination of French Revolution as a document which set forth the new social contract between man, which was equality and fraternity and individual liberty (National Assembly, 45). This was a breakthrough, because here those who were oppressed were using reason and logic to detail why they should have individual control over their own lives. Here they, like the Americans in their revolution two years before, declared themselves free from the monarchy (“Enlightenment and Human Rights”, n.p.). In America they had overthrown the colonial master who prevented the young nation from reaching its own aspirations, but in France the government that was overthrown was their own. While monarchies continue to exist, in Western Europe and elsewhere, the extent to which they are able to control the lives of people as subjects is limited today because of the progression of concepts that occurred in the middle eighteenth century well into the modern day.

Olaudah Equiano wrote the story of his life in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano in 1789 and with this the public was exposed to the slave trade from the perspective of the slave. Equiano had earned his freedom through conducting his own business on the side and then purchasing himself. From there he went to England, and established himself in society. From this he was able to gain the inside cultural perspective of the British, and this allowed him to tell them the story of the slave trade in a very personal way. Who could miss the absurdity of having to purchase oneself, and the wisdom of being born free? This idea might not have been popular had it not been in the context of the recent American Revolution and the ongoing French Revolution which were the timely topics. Equiano was able to build on this with a personal account which specified ownership of an individual, and the horrors which occurred at the cause of the slave trade, as morally wrong. One of Equiano’s arguments was an economic one (Equiano, 69-70). Equiano argued that Africans were a great potential source of consumption, and that by enslaving them and preventing those from participating in the consumption economy upon which the trade wealth of the British was built the British were in fact undermining their own potential economic opportunity (Equiano, 69-70).

Previously those who faced lives in the slave trade had not been able to share their story in a way that would be understood. Equiano was able to break down that wall. With Equiano’s account of his life, it was no longer possible to see Africans as faceless and far away, and these actions could no longer be tolerated in the name of business. People should not be owned. The public agreed, and the British abolished the slave trade soon after (“Enlightenment and Human Rights”, n.p.).

Marquis de Condorcet released his “Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship” in 1790, and with this he built on his actions in the French Revolution and the published ideals found in the treatise of the National Assembly with his own views regarding how far that individual liberty extended. In contrast to most of his brothers in arms, Condorcet believed that individual liberty extended to all people, and not just men. By putting forward these ideas he created divisions between himself and the new powers in France, however he created a foundation for future philosophers and authors to extend and build on his argument. He did however lose many friends and associates by stating such things; the wall with regard to the rights of women continued to exist, however he was one of the philosophers who cracked it.

Olympe de Gouges’s “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizeness” was published in 1791, and in this work Gouge added gender to the list of individuals making requests for individual liberty on their own behalf, which is a most compelling position from which to ask. By this time there was a clear political fervor and logical argument to the concepts associated with individual liberty and power over oneself (“Enlightenment and Human Rights”, n.p.).

In the “Declaration of the Independence of the Blacks of St. Domingo”, written in 1803, one sees what those oppressed by the French have done with the declaration of the French National Assembly- they had applied it to themselves. The French had intended their document as a model for all to use (“Enlightenment and Human Rights”, n.p.). They had not perhaps seen themselves in the position of oppressors. The oppressed slaves of Haiti noted that the document stated all men, and they intended to hold France to its pledge, building and extending the principles that were enshrined in the declaration. The wall was further broken as reason made it clear that oppression and oppressed were complicated matters, and the rights that were demanded by individuals were rights they had to accept for others.

The rights enshrined by the French National Assembly, the Olympe de Gouges, and the Chiefs of St. Domingo could be summarized as the right of a person to have control over their own life. The constraint on their individual liberty was therefore only that someone had already claimed authority over them. This was best expressed by giving a personal face to these rights over onself by those that did not have them, but give logical reasons why they should. While Condorcet championed the rights of women and was not a woman himself, the strength of the patriarchal forces were such that his voice was first required, in order for feminists to have a foundation from which to be heard given the value placed on the voices of women.

Many different writing strategies were used in the use of written philosophy to overthrow oppressive situations and forces. Particularly when a matter was very sensitive, or could result in difficulties for the author, fiction and poetry were often first steps. Like Voltaire’s Candide this allowed for the introduction of revolutionary ideas through stories. From a story it is much more difficult to allege or accuse the author of heresy or treason, given that the philosophy is not as such stated clearly, nor it is clear to all. As an idea matured the various authors who furthered the argument were able to clarify, crystallize and categorize these concepts. After the French Revolution, the concept of the liberty of man was no longer seen as a potentially heretical topic, and people like Equiano told their story, one that was not fiction but rather laid out the perspective of the other in such a way that denying the rights of another was personal. This has a great capacity to affect people. While reason may be the technique, the result is emotional and sympathetic, despite being rooted in logic. Such is the power of understanding the individual story.

The forces which constrained personal liberty were not consciously organized or coordinated beyond the exertion of control by the body with power against the people’s power. Individual liberty was nothing more than control over one’s own life, and what each of these authors and philosophers achieved is a display of the absurdity of the argument of the oppressor. While Voltaire was more subversive and mysterious in releasing his views in the form of fiction, others rapidly built on these ideas which resulted in the specific formulation of why equality of all individuals, and how. Ultimately it is this request that each of these works has in common, and this control over the self is to each of these works and concepts as the hydrogen bond is to the water which represents freedom in this analogy.

Voltaire exposed the constraints on liberty imposed by religious superstition and ultimately the authority of the church, Rousseau used that to question the authority that the church and state had over the individual, Equiano showed the constraints of ownership and slavery on all, and Condorcet espoused equality of all humans, rather than just white men. The response to the literary argument was often a political one, involving the reformation of governance.

With a small crack that lets in water, great dams can crack open, and no longer function to hold it back. It is similar with the power of people putting forward logical arguments for personal liberty. They have, through what started as small drips of water, flooded that wall of constraint that limited the power of an individual over themselves. The rights of individuals are enshrined in the constitutions of most modern countries and courts continue to interpret where such prejudice and injustice lies. The world is supported in converting to a more equal, just and democratic world based on such principles. These same forces continue to compel new generations to better understand personal liberty, the relation to equality and the continued seeking of remaining injustices to be corrected.

  • de Condorcet, Marquis: “Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship” (1790) ENG 2302 Electronic Course Reader. Ed. Giuliana Lund. UHD Online: Blackboard. University of Houston Downtown. July 2014. Web. 20 Feb 2016.
  • “Declaration of the Independence of the Blacks of St. Domingo” (1803) ENG 2302 Electronic Course Reader. Ed. Giuliana Lund. UHD Online: Blackboard. University of Houston Downtown. July 2014. Web. 21 Feb 2016.
  • Equiano, Olaudah: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) ENG 2302 Electronic Course Reader. Ed. Giuliana Lund. UHD Online: Blackboard. University of Houston Downtown. Web. 21 Feb 2016.
  • National Assembly: “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” (1789) ENG 2302 Electronic Course Reader. Ed. Giuliana Lund. UHD Online: Blackboard. University of Houston Downtown. Web. 20 Feb 2016.
  • Olympe de Gouges: “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizeness” (1791) ENG 2302 Electronic Course Reader. Ed. Giuliana Lund. UHD Online: Blackboard. University of Houston Downtown. Web. 20 Feb 2016.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: The Social Contract (1762) ENG 2302 Electronic Course Reader. Ed. Giuliana Lund. UHD Online: Blackboard. University of Houston Downtown. Web. 20 Feb 2016.
  • Voltaire: Candide. (1758) ENG 2302 Electronic Course Reader. Ed. Giuliana Lund. UHD Online: Blackboard. University of Houston Downtown. July 2014. Web. 20 Feb 2016.
  • “Enlightenment and Human Rights,” Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. N.p. Web. 20 Feb 2016. http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/chap3a.html