chapter  14
16 Pages

Émile in Chains

A New Perspective on Rousseau, Slavery, and Hegel’s Phenomenology
WithJeremy D. Popkin

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is considered one of the great eighteenth-century proponents of human liberty, but he wrote very little about the issue of slavery. One overlooked treatment of the subject is found in his novel Emile et Sophie, where the protagonist embarks on a Mediterranean voyage and is captured by Barbary pirates. Emile is initially downhearted when he finds himself enslaved in Algiers, but he soon concludes that he retains his human freedom, since he can choose to risk his life by defying his master. In an anticipation of Hegel’s famous dialectical analysis of the master-slave relationship, Emile’s owner finds himself compelled to recognize his slave as an autonomous individual. Rousseau’s text demonstrates the impact that the enslavement of Europeans on the Barbary Coast had on one of the leading writers of the Enlightenment.