Bertrand de Jouvenel: On Obligations

The famous battle-cry “Man is born free,” is the greatest nonsense if it is taken literally as a declaration of original and natural independence.

Man is born and remains throughout his life in dependence. At his birth he is completely helpless; unable to subsist by himself, he has to be nourished and guided by his parents, and his state of utter dependence on them lasts much longer in the case of the young human being than in that of the young of any other animal—indeed it continues the longer the more advanced and admirable is the society in which he is born. Man arrives at adult age and puts on the characteristics of a finished man only by means of the prolonged efforts of others; thereby obligations are created for him of which he will be the more sensible the more he deserves the name of man.

A man’s dependence does not cease when he enters adult life. Thanks to the habits and to the store of knowledge and skills which he has received from others, he is able to take his place in an association where his activity, just because it fits into a whole, is able to assure him fruits of every kind—fruits which, unassisted, he could not get himself. . . .

For this reason every individual with a spark of imagination must feel deeply indebted to these many others, the living and the dead, the known and the unknown. So logical is this piety as regards human association that it is found among peoples incomparably less advanced than our own; and it is a major folly of modern times to fill the individual with ideas of what society owes to him rather than of what he owes to society. The wise man knows himself for debtor, and his actions will be inspired by a deep sense of obligation. . . .

If every man is a debtor, then the feeling of obligation, so utterly incompatible with using our powers as we please, should never leave him. Not for a moment is he completely out of debt. His energies and his time are pledged to those countless associates by whose service and collaboration he lives as he does live, and to that smaller number who are directly dependent on him, whose potentialities it is for him to actualise, even as his own were actualised. How can he ever feel himself free? Never, if freedom consists in exemption from obligation. But it is in fact something quite other.

A man is free when and to the extent that he is his own judge of his obligations, when none but himself compels him to fulfil them. A man is free when he acts sponte sua, spontaneously, as the executor of a judgment passed in foro interno, in the forum of his own heart.


(Bertrand de Jouvenel: Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good, 316-17. Trans. J.F. Huntington. Liberty Fund 1999; originally English publication 1957.)

One thought on “Bertrand de Jouvenel: On Obligations”

React! Reply! Challenge!