Where Did the Social Contract Theory Come From?


Martha Robinson

The Social Contract Theory is a fundamental concept in political philosophy that seeks to explain the origins and legitimacy of governments. It posits that individuals voluntarily enter into a social contract with one another to form a society and establish a government to protect their rights and promote the common good.

But where did this theory come from? Let’s delve into its origins and development.

The Ancient Philosophers

The roots of the Social Contract Theory can be traced back to ancient philosophers who pondered over the nature of society and governance. Among them, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero laid the groundwork for later thinkers to develop this theory further.

Plato believed that individuals are born with certain inherent abilities and roles in society. He argued that a just society would be one where these roles are fulfilled, and people work together harmoniously for the greater good.

Aristotle, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of natural law and justice in governing societies. He believed that humans are social creatures who naturally seek companionship and cooperation, leading to the formation of communities and governments.

Cicero, a Roman philosopher, explored notions of natural law, individual rights, and justice. He argued that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed, highlighting an early idea of popular sovereignty.

The Enlightenment Thinkers

The Social Contract Theory gained significant prominence during the Enlightenment period in Europe (17th-18th centuries). Influential thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed elaborate theories on this subject.

Thomas Hobbes painted a bleak picture of human nature in his book “Leviathan.” According to Hobbes, humans are inherently selfish and driven by self-preservation.

In this state of nature, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. To escape this chaos, individuals willingly surrender some of their liberties to a sovereign authority that can maintain order and protect their lives and property.

John Locke, in contrast to Hobbes, had a more optimistic view of human nature. He believed that individuals are born with natural rights to life, liberty, and property.

Locke argued that people enter into a social contract to secure these rights and establish a limited government that derives its power from the consent of the governed. If the government fails to protect these rights or becomes tyrannical, the people have the right to revolt.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau further built upon these ideas in his influential work “The Social Contract.” He proposed that individuals must surrender their natural liberties to the general will of society in order to achieve true freedom and equality. Rousseau emphasized the importance of direct democracy and popular sovereignty.

Modern Interpretations

The Social Contract Theory continues to be relevant in modern political philosophy. Various scholars have offered their interpretations and criticisms of this theory.

John Rawls, a contemporary political philosopher, developed the concept of “justice as fairness” based on the principles of equal basic liberties for all individuals and fair distribution of resources. His theory aims to address inequalities present within societies while still upholding the principles of social contract.

Robert Nozick, on the other hand, challenged some aspects of the Social Contract Theory by emphasizing individual rights and minimal state intervention. Nozick’s theory focused on protecting individual freedom and allowing voluntary associations rather than enforcing a comprehensive social contract.

In conclusion,

The Social Contract Theory has evolved over centuries, starting with the ancient philosophers and flourishing during the Enlightenment period. It provides a framework for understanding the relationship between individuals and governments, emphasizing consent, natural rights, and the common good. While various interpretations and criticisms exist, this theory remains a crucial pillar of political philosophy.