Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Beza, Mutatus in Peius

Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously opens the first chapter of the first book of The Social Contract by saying, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”

One almost–almost–hears an echo of a poem of his fellow Genevan Theodore Beza from nearly 200 years before.1 In emblem 16 of the Emblemata, Beza says something superficially similar, but of profoundly different significance. First, the picture:

The picture of two bird cages, one broken open and the other still holding its captive, is explained by the following poem:

“Just as a bird once free,2 next enclosed in the prison of a cage,
again departs free when the prison has been broken open,3

[so] man, once born free, then enclosed in the cave of death,
again departs free to the stars with Christ as his leader.”4

If man is in chains, it is primarily the chains of death that we should think of; and that death was caused by sin. The fundamental cause of alienation–and alienation is properly alienation from God first, and from oneself and one’s environment second–is not economic, or political, or social. It is not “modernity,” or Donald Trump, or the suburbs, or Sam’s Club. It is sin. It is the dark rebellion of man’s moral and spiritual nature; and its solution is Christ, plus nothing. Beza understood this. It’s a pity Rousseau didn’t.

  1. Beza was not a native Genevan, of course, but it did become his adopted home.
  2. Lynyrd Skynyrd were obviously admirers of Beza as well.
  3. One might think of Psalm 124.7 here.
  4. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.