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Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins by Hubert Robert (Photo credit: Web Gallery of Art)
“I transfer my right of governing myself to X (the sovereign) if you do too.” (Thomas Hobbes)
English: Thomas Hobbes Македонски: Томас Хобс ...

Thomas Hobbes, John Locke & Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although political thinking dates back to antiquity, the only political philosophers discussed in this post are closer to us and all express the need for a Social Contract. I will first provide a comprehensive definition of the Social Contract and suggest you that you complete this summary by clicking on Social Contract.

Du Contrat social (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Wikipedia defines the social contract as follows:

“In political philosophy the social contract or political contract is a theory or model, originating during the Age of Enlightenment, that typically addresses the questions of the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. The question of the relation between natural and legal rights, therefore, is often an aspect of Social Contract theory.” (Social Contract)

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes or Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679), effected a revolution.  He broke away from Aristotle on the subject of human nature.  In De Cive Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society, written in 1651, he claimed that in the state of nature, man did not behave in a morally acceptable manner.  Hobbes better known work on political philosophy is his Leviathan, also published in 1651.  But in De Cive (The Citizen) Thomas Hobbes makes it clear that societies require a civilizing force he calls the Social Contract.  The full text of De Cive, in English translation and edited by Jon Roland is online.  To read it, click on De Cive.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “[a]fter only a few paragraphs, Hobbes rejects one of the most famous theses of Aristotle’s politics, namely that human beings are naturally suited to life in a polis and do not fully realize their natures until they exercise the role of citizen. Hobbes turns Aristotle’s claim on its head: human beings, he insists, are by nature unsuited to political life.”[i]

Thomas Hobbes’s De Cive and his Leviathan (1651) open the debate on the notion of the Social Contract, a term he was the first to use.  Thomas Hobbes believed that “in a state of nature each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a ‘war of all against all’ (bellum omnium contra omnes).”  In other words, in a state of nature, each person would be free “to plunder, rape, and murder.”  Hence the need for a social contract that ensures safety.  “The social contract was an ‘occurrence’ during which individuals came together and ceded some of their individual rights so that others would cede theirs.” (Social Contract, Wikipedia)

John Locke

John Locke (29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704) held a kinder view of human nature.  According to Locke, human nature is characterised by reason and tolerance.  In a state of nature, all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his ‘Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions’.”

Yet, Locke did not think that, in a state of nature, man could defend his life, health, liberty and possessions. He therefore advocated a Social Contract.  In other words,  although John Locke’s view of human nature is less pessimistic than Hobbes’, his political theory is nonetheless founded on a Social Contract ensuring the safety of individuals.  For John Locke, the innate rights of man were life, liberty and property.

John Locke was influenced by Anthony Ashley Cooper, later 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who “stood for constitutional monarchy, a Protestant succession, civil liberty, toleration in religion, the rule of Parliament.”[ii]

Locke believed in the divine right of kings and defines power as a “right of making Laws with Penalties of Death, and consequently all less Penalties, for the Regulating and Preserving of Property, and of employing the force of the Community, in the Execution of such Laws and in defence of the Common-wealth from Foreign Injury, and all this only for the Publick Good.”[iii]

Locke is considered the father of Classical Liberalism which advocates representative government and various civil liberties.  His major works on political philosophy are his Two Treatises of Government, published anonymously in 1689.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

For his part, Rousseau believed in innate goodness in man (see Émile, Or Treatise on Education [Émile ou De l’éducation]).  Yet he was also in favor of establishing a Civil Society.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778), “[the Social Contract] can be reduced to the following terms: Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. (Wikipedia)  Liberty is not otherwise possible. Man must be “forced to be free.” (The Social Contract)

Rousseau’s theory, the body, is called collectivism.  “The earliest modern, influential expression of collectivist ideas in the West is in Jean-Jacques Rousseau ’s Du contrat social, of 1762 (see Social Contract), in which it is argued that the individual finds his true being and freedom only in submission to the ‘general will’ of the community.” (Britannica)[iv] However, the ruler is the general will (la volonté générale) or the people viewed as a collectivity.  But the general will needs a government and laws.

Rousseau did not approve of a representative government.  He preferred a direct government.  The citizens of Geneva–Rousseau was born in Geneva–lived in a small city-state where representation could be direct, at least to a point.

So although Rousseau believed in innate goodness in man, he also believed in man’s corruptibility.  He therefore wished to avoid terrifying anarchy by entering into a social contract and insisted on legislation.  In other words, he agrees that men must “surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.”

Rousseau’s Social Contract is an online publication.  Simply click on Social Contract.


All of the above is inspiring, but it would be my opinion that most relevant at the moment is the notion of individual needs versus collective needs.  The two seem inseparable in a healthy social contract.  How brilliant of Thomas Hobbes to have used the words the social contract.


[i] Political Philosophy, The Encyclopædia Britannica online, accessed on 13 October 2012
[ii] John Locke,The Encyclopædia Britannica online, accessed on 13 October 2012
[iii] John Locke, The Encyclopaedia Britannica online, accessed on 13 October 2012
[iv] Collectivism, The Encyclopædia Britannica online, accessed on 13 October 2012
composer: Giuseppe Tartini (1692 – 1770) 
piece: Concerto for violin, strings, and basso continuo in A major D. 96, 2&3 mvt
performers: Venice Baroque Orchestra, Giuliano Carmignola, violin
conductor:  Andrea Marcon


© Micheline Walker
13 October 2012
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
by Maurice Quentin de La Tour