Rousseau's silence on trans-Atlantic slavery: Philosophical implications

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For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, freedom functions as a foundational value for his entire political philosophy. Parallel to this emphasis is his deep and abiding condemnation of “slavery”, at least the slavery that he claims marked the social existence of his European contemporaries living under unrepresentative monarchical systems. However, the striking aspect of Rousseau's work is his virtually complete silence concerning the institution of chattel slavery of his day. Despite his ubiquitous condemnation of the “slavery” of his “civilized” contemporaries, Rousseau wrote next to nothing about the actual enslavement of millions of people who pervaded the social landscape of the European–African–American triangle in the 18th century. In this paper, I trace out the various passages in Rousseau that could be seen as touching on the subject of contemporary slavery practices and show how very scant they were. I also discuss his views on the relation between climate, character, and persons' fitness for democratic forms of government (and hence freedom). I combine these points to draw particular lessons about the dangers of neglect and exclusion inherent in Rousseau's views of democratic freedom, suggesting how similar dangers lurk for contemporary visions of democracy inspired by his views.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1458-1472
Number of pages15
JournalEuropean Journal of Philosophy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy


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