The social contract theory is a political concept that suggests the legitimacy of the state arises from a social contract between the government and the governed. This idea has been around for centuries, but when exactly did it originate? Let’s take a closer look.

The Origins of Social Contract Theory

The concept of a social contract dates back to ancient Greece, where philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle explored the idea of an agreement between rulers and citizens. However, it was not until the Enlightenment period in the 17th and 18th centuries that the social contract theory as we know it today began to take shape.

Thomas Hobbes

One of the earliest proponents of social contract theory was Thomas Hobbes. In his book “Leviathan,” published in 1651, Hobbes argued that in a state of nature, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To avoid this chaos, individuals would voluntarily enter into a social contract with one another to form a government that could maintain order.

John Locke

Another influential philosopher who contributed to the development of social contract theory was John Locke. In his book “Two Treatises on Government,” published in 1689, Locke argued that individuals have natural rights such as life, liberty, and property. He believed that government exists to protect these rights and that individuals have the right to rebel against a government that fails to do so.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau also played a significant role in developing social contract theory. In his book “The Social Contract,” published in 1762, he argued that individuals must surrender some of their individual liberties for the good of society as a whole. He believed that only through this collective agreement could individuals achieve true freedom and equality.

The Legacy of Social Contract Theory

The social contract theory has had a lasting impact on political philosophy and the development of modern democracies. It has helped to shape the idea of government as a social institution that exists to serve its citizens, rather than vice versa. The concept of a social contract also emphasizes the importance of individual rights and the role of citizens in shaping their own government.


In conclusion, while the concept of a social contract has been around for centuries, it was during the Enlightenment period that it began to take shape as a political theory. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were all influential thinkers who contributed to its development. Today, the social contract theory remains an important concept in political philosophy and helps to inform our understanding of government and citizenship.