What Is One Difference Between Rousseau’s Version of Social Contract Theory and Hobbes?

When discussing social contract theory, two prominent names that come to mind are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. Both philosophers presented their own unique interpretations of the concept, but one key difference stands out between Rousseau’s version and Hobbes’ perspective. Let’s delve into this difference and explore how it shapes their respective theories.

Hobbes’ Perspective

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher of the 17th century, developed a pessimistic view of human nature. According to Hobbes, humans are inherently self-interested and driven by a desire for power and self-preservation.

In his famous work Leviathan, he argued that in a state of nature, without any form of government or authority, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short. “

Hobbes believed that to escape this chaotic state of nature, individuals must enter into a social contract with each other and surrender some of their rights to a higher authority or sovereign ruler. This sovereign would be responsible for maintaining law and order in society. In return for giving up certain freedoms, individuals would gain security and protection from one another.

Rousseau’s Perspective

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, had a more optimistic view of human nature compared to Hobbes. According to Rousseau, humans are born free and innocent but become corrupted by societal influences over time. He believed that society creates inequality and fosters competition among individuals.

In his influential work The Social Contract, Rousseau put forth the idea that individuals should enter into a social contract with each other rather than surrendering their rights to an external authority like a sovereign. This contract, in Rousseau’s view, would be based on the general will of the people and aimed at promoting the common good of society as a whole.

Difference in Approach

The key difference between Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s versions of social contract theory lies in their approach to authority. Hobbes advocated for a strong central authority, represented by a sovereign ruler, to maintain order and prevent chaos in society. In contrast, Rousseau emphasized the importance of collective decision-making and direct participation by individuals in shaping the laws and governance of society.

Hobbes’ approach can be seen as more authoritarian, where power is concentrated in the hands of a single ruler or governing body. Rousseau’s approach, on the other hand, aligns with democratic principles and emphasizes the active involvement of citizens in decision-making processes.


In summary, while both Rousseau and Hobbes contributed significant ideas to social contract theory, one key difference stands out: their contrasting approaches to authority. Hobbes believed in a strong central authority as a means to maintain order and security, whereas Rousseau emphasized collective decision-making and direct citizen participation. Understanding this distinction helps us appreciate the nuances within social contract theory and how different philosophers have shaped our understanding of governance and societal structures.