Please explain this type of sentence structure and meaning of the following:

By what inconceivable art has a means been found of making men free by making them subject; of using in the service of the State the properties, the persons and even the lives of all its members, without constraining and without consulting them; of confining their will by their own admission; of overcoming their refusal by that consent, and forcing them to punish themselves, when they act against their own will? —The Social Contract

It is quoted in the prologue to Invisible Hands.

  • The type of structure is called fustian. Commented May 20, 2015 at 18:55
  • @JohnLawler Or, to employ another textile metaphor, bombast. Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:00
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    – amdn
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 20:02
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Social_Contract: "In this desired social contract, everyone will be free because they all forfeit the same amount of rights and impose the same duties on all. Rousseau argues that it is illogical for a man to surrender his freedom for slavery; thus, the participants must have a right to choose the laws under which they live. Although the contract imposes new laws, including those safeguarding and regulating property, a person can exit it at any time (except in a time of need, for this is desertion), and is again as free as when he was born."
    – amdn
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 20:09

2 Answers 2


John Locke (Is it?) No, in fact Jean-Jacques Rousseau strings together four rhetorical questions to describe aspects of life and society where people have surrendered their "natural" rights and freedom. The semi-colons show the end of each question.

In each case he asks, 'How have people let this happen so willingly?'

By what art/ technique did anyone manage to .1. turn them into subjects? .2. persuade them to part with their money in taxes? .3. let them chose to restrict their own freedom in legislation? .4. consent to imprisonment and other cruelties in their communities ?

If this quotation had been extended by one more sentence you would learn the answer to all four questions,

"These wonders are the work of law. It is to law alone that men owe justice and liberty". Social Contract: Rousseau

And Is it worth it? Yes, says Rouseau (answering his own question, Anthypophera )

It is this salutary organ of the will of all which establishes, in civil right, the natural equality between men.*

  • @John Lawler and StoneyB, Yes you are both right. But it isn't a rant. The language is self-indulgent, But the debate is worth having.
    – Hugh
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:37
  • @Ramakrishna , delayed by much reading, hope this helps.
    – Hugh
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 0:40
  • @Ramakrishna More apologies. I've found the quote in Invisible Hands and in Rousseau. May I edit your Original question? Introduce Rouseau?
    – Hugh
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 19:32

It's a wh question: "Q [A means of ... has been found by wh+some conceivable art]", where there is a questioned constituent, "some conceivable art", which becomes "what conceivable art", then a phrase containing that constituent, "by what conceivable art", is moved to the beginning of the sentence. Since the question constituent was not the subject, there is inversion of the subject with "has".

And that's it. The part I've omitted, the complicated "of ...", is extraposed to the end of the sentence, and otherwise has no relation to the overall structure of the question.

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