Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature Explained With Examples: Comparing Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau
By looking at how people lived in the state of nature, and by examining their natural rights and transition into civil society, we can better understand why people form societies, and how the civil laws of society should reflect the natural laws of nature.
An Introduction to Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature Argument
Many past political philosophers have looked to human history, naturally occurring social systems, and man’s transition from hunter-gatherer to civil society as the foundation of their political theories.
Consequently, “state of nature” and “social contract” theories, derived empirically from history and anthropology, have commonly been used to justify specific types of government, laws, taxes, subsidies, revolutions, and even the overthrowing of tyrants.
By examining history, philosophers, and their theories, we can understand many of the mechanics and justifications for principles like the separation of powers and checks and balances, the forms of governments like monarchies, republics, democracies, and mixed governments, and the rights of man, woman, and citizen in the civil state.
Below we explore the state of nature argument, social contract theory, and the corresponding theorists like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and more.
Do We Need Government? (The Social Contract) – 8-Bit Philosophy.
TIP: “Do we need government, what is its purpose, and from where does its power arise?” These questions are at the heart of the state of nature and social contract arguments, and at the center of the left-right, collectivism vs. individualism, rationalism vs. empiricism, and idealism vs. realism debates.
TIP: These theories, unlike some other theories in philosophy, are meant to be empirical and not a matter of pure reason. By considering the physical roots of the social contract we can make a much stronger argument for (or against) a constitutional representative free-republic than “…’cuz liberty.” It may seem unnecessary today, but that is because many of the current human rights we enjoy have already been won by Locke and Rousseau’s generations.
OTHER READING: See an essay on “the origin of the state of nature argument”. See an essay on “that liberty and equality are indivisible concepts” and an essay on “the general will” for other Rousseau ideas. Also, see an essay on “labor creates private property and value” for Locke’s price-labor theory.
The Major Social Contract Theorists: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau
Below we explain social contract theory in general, and then look at social contract theory as understood by the major social contract theorists including “the big 3” Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau:
- Thomas Hobbes said the state of nature is a war of all-against-all (a state of war). He favored conservative absolute monarchy to enforce the social contract. Unlike Locke and Rousseau, Hobbes says the people don’t have a right to resist tyranny and that governance does not require consent.
- John Locke said people have natural rights (they are naturally equality and natural liberty, but trade some of this in the civil state via the social contract). He favored liberal republicanism / constitutional monarchy / voter-based representative democracy by consent based on man’s natural rights to life, liberty, health, property, and consent (man’s natural and “inalienable” legal rights).
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw man as a noble savage and favored a constitutional, social democracy in an elected republic where the “general will” of the sovereign people can never diverge from the will of the leader and be legitimate, with government size and climate dictating the perfect mixed form of government for a given “political body” (state), and with voting ensuring consent via free elections.
Contractarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #37. Contractarianism is another name for social contract theory. Is there a social contract? That question bugs me, as I see it as an empirical self-evident truism, but i’ve heard the question asked and a “no” answer given.
TIP: See “what is the state of nature?” for a discussion on that aspect of social contract theory, likewise see the origin of the state of nature argument to understand the roots of the argument upon which the social contract argument is based.
TIP: The above theorists sum up the ideas of most of the other social contract theorists, and it is due to this, and the chronology of their works, that they tend to be the ones studied. In my opinion, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) is one of the best books for understanding the concept of a social contract (as it is written plainly and after the other major theorists chronologically). You can buy it online, read online for free, or listen to the audiobook for free. Free versions of Locke and Hobbes’ books (which are also excellent), and the books of other social contract theorists, are also available for download here, including Hobbes’ Behemoth, Leviathan, and Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.
The Other Social Contract Theorists
Although we can’t cover every social contract theorist here, we should also note briefly note, for a full picture, the other social contract theorists including:
- Plato (Idealist) and Aristotle (Realist), whose theories of government and general positions on idealism and realism form the foundation of which all the other theorists build off of, without exception. Hobbes is commonly thought of as the original modern contract theorist, but as with most things philosophy, it all starts with the Greeks. If you have to look one place for the origin of the state of nature argument and the social contract, look to Plato’s Laws chapter III (and generally Laws, Republic, and Aristotle’s Politics). See the origin of the state of nature argument.
- Niccolò Machiavelli, the father of political science, doesn’t spend much time making a pure state of nature argument, but he does touch on it. He also brings up an early version of the social contract in his Discourses on Titus Livy “the Republican manifesto” and a book about Titus Livius’ The History of Rome. He seeks to show the King derives his power from the people and that the best form of government is a free republic.
- George Buchanan, a liberal Protestant, and King James I invented the modern divine right of kings argument. This started the modern social contract discussion in the late 1500’s. See the origin of the state of nature argument where we explain Buchanan’s, James’, and Aristotle’s positions.
- Sir Robert Filmer lays out his far-religious-right conservative theory of the Divine Right of Kings in Patriarcha (1680) and equates society to a family, which is equated back to God’s creation Adam (the first father with absolute right). Filmer is typically discussed in terms of his rival Locke and is dismissed for his far-right views, but aspects of his analysis are arguably more compelling than Hobbes’ (who was more a liberal-conservative than Filmer and whose argument Filmer rejects on religious grounds).
- Montesquieu’s “model Republican” theory is very similar to Rousseau’s. Tellingly, Rousseau notes Montesquieu’s influence often in his work. The unique theory of Montesquieu is the rejection of Hobbes’ idea of the state of nature being “a war of all-against-all” and says that the state of war comes after society has formed. Man in a state of nature is timid and weak jumping at the sight of a shaking leaf. There is a natural equality in nature, but it is an equality of weakness and man is too timid to enter into a state of war with others. See the Spirit of Laws Book 1.
- Thomas Paine takes a stance similar to Locke’s and is a somewhat radical classical liberal democratic republican. He used the state of nature and social contract arguments to justify the American and French Revolutions in Common Sense and the Rights of Man respectively. Later he used a similar argument to justify early versions of taxes and subsidies including an early social security, estate tax, and Universal Income to benefit the citizens of the collective in Agrarian Justice. See Selected Works of Thomas Paine.
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels‘ socialist and communist theories include Marx’s theory of history and their general Theory of the State. Their theories of how left-right politics, abundance, scarcity, technology, alienation, and classism relate to the forms of government and the state of nature span a library of early and later works. They are well encapsulated in Friedrich Engels Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State and The German Ideology (but a good summary of all this is here). One theory divides early culture into Savagery, Barbarism, and then Civilization and then discusses the formation of the family and then government. The other theory, the theory of history, divides governments born from economics and technology into five historical social stages: Primitive communism or tribal society (a prehistoric stage), ancient society, feudalism, capitalism, and, lastly, their utopian Communism (“the end of history“). When these theories are paired, it paints a clear picture. Economics drives the evolution of society from the state of nature to the modern state. See Marx explained for western capitalists.
- Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations (1776) describes how Capitalism, the Free Market, and Moral Sentiment are ideal natural systems, and Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (1949) describes how human action is at the root of all socioeconomic and political systems (and how socialism is the bane of humankind).
- Most of America’s founders were students of Locke, Montesquieu, and the Greeks at the very least. The Constitution and Bill of Rights together ARE an explicit social contract.
- Lastly, one should note modern social contract theorist John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971) which presents a modern social liberal view of justice in a civil society. This is traditionally (since the 1970’s at least) compared to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia which presents a modern libertarian takes on social contract theory.
Now that you have those notes let’s get back to the social contract theory basics before we do a detailed look at the big three: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
TIP: This page doesn’t cover every social contract theory or theory of the state of nature. There are thinkers like Hugo Grotius who had early thoughts on the social contract and influenced Locke for example. Plato’s Socrates offered an implicit social contract when he chooses death by law over liberty, and Hume, who was a realist and empiricist suggested that musing on how things would have been in a state of nature results in “mere fiction.” He expressed this view in SECTION II.: Of the origin of justice and property of his Treatise of Human Nature – 1739. He was probably poking fun at Locke and Hobbes; he mentions them both by name in the text. Other important Social Contract theorists include but aren’t limited to, the controversial John C. Calhoun and less controversial David Gauthier. For another vantage point see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract. Luckily, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau read all the greats (up until their time), so we don’t have to and can learn through our big three instead.
Where the Social Contract Theorist Agree and Differ
The main disagreements between the Social Contract theorists isn’t over the concept of the social contract or the state of nature, almost all agree on the foundation.
The argument is instead generally over questions like the following, “What did the state of nature look like before the social contract?”, “To what extent should we trade freedoms for authority?”, “What should the structure of government look like?”, “How much does the state of war factor in?”, “How much power goes to the head of state or the rest of the government, and how much liberty goes to the people?” Also, “to what extent do humans have inalienable natural rights that can’t be traded or given to another person without consent?” and “does the state of nature tell us at what phase we are in in our social evolution?”  
Social Contract Theory as a broad concept can be thought of as one of the key philosophical foundations on which Western Democracy is built and on which it is still discussed today. It evolves from the early Greek political philosophies including Aristotle and Plato’s theories on government) until it develops into the later European political philosophies, so there is a lot of different theories that fall under the general catch-all concept.
Understanding Concepts Related to Social Contract Theory
If you want only to look at Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau you can skip this section (below the picture), with that said, the following section clarifies terms that the theorists used in their works and is helpful in that way.
Quick Definitions of Social Contract Theory Terms Before Moving Forward:
Below is a quick list of definitions used by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, but mostly Rousseau as he writes his Social Contract theory last chronologically and thus covers his counterpart’s terms. See the Glossary of Social Contract for some terms. Other terms must be found in these texts, although many can be gleaned from the first Chapter of Book 3 of the Social Contract, Government in General:
- What is the State of Nature? The state of nature is how people lived before governments.
- What is the State of War? The conflict between “states” in societies, or between single beings in nature when no groups are present. The term originally comes from Hobbes, as does the state of nature and the state of war.
- What is the Social Contract (or Social Compact)? It is the [typically unwritten] contract people enter into when they form any type of Commonwealth AKA State (from a family to a nation). It is an agreement to sacrifice some amount of natural equality and liberty for order and security.
- What is the Body Politic? All the members of a state or commonwealth. The body consists of a head(s) of state (like a President, Prime Minister, or King), limbs (or branches of government like executive, legislative, and judicial; state and federal; each with heads), and organs (like agencies created by the branches).
- What is the Sovereign? In a state of nature all people are equally sovereign (they have equal right over themselves). In civil society, the sovereign is a person or group of persons holding supreme power in a state (the ruler, even if that ruler is everyone). To the more democratically minded theorists like Rousseau all the people in a state sovereign like they were in nature (in a state of 1,000 each is 1/1,000 of the sovereign). To less the democratically minded like Hobbes, sovereignty may be limited to an absolute monarch. Thus, “the sovereign” can confusingly mean anything from “the King” to “all the people in the state” depending on context.
- What is Government? Government is the will-in-action of the people. In a state of nature each person is there own governor, but in a large group not everyone can act at once, as that would be chaos, so people delegate power to government as part of the social contract. According to Rousseau, the government can’t have its own will, that would be a “special interest“.
Now that we have the basics down, the next sections will detail some related concepts.
Caveat: When you enter into certain institutions in a state, you can be bound by additional laws. Don’t join the Marines and then start lecturing them on popular sovereignty, it doesn’t work like that. These are concepts that apply to those bound only by social contract in the civil state.
The General Idea of Social Contract Theory
The general idea behind social contract theory is that humans enter into a social contract when they form societies, and thereby agree to trade some amount of the liberty they had in “a state of nature” for order and protection within a group (they elect to limit liberty and embrace civil law to avoid “a state of war”).
Civil Law Vs. Natural Law
Natural law is the law of nature, civil law is the law that binds social beings.
When we leave the state of nature, we enter into a social contract and form a civil society. The laws we follow in civil society are the civil laws, these are laws made by man for man.
The idea behind the state of nature argument is that we should be able to understand which natural laws can be traded away upon entering a social contract (like the right to take whatever one wants) and which are inalienable (like the right to self defense).
See more on Civil law, Natural law, liberty, and equality.
TIP: Natural law can be understood empirically, by looking at history and anthropology, or it can be understood from a theological or purely metaphysical viewpoint (where unknowable, sometimes called “divine” laws are reflected in the natural world but are sometimes unknowable directly). Most of the famous theorists were empiricists, but a few looked to theology or pure reason for parts of their moral and ethical political theories (like Thomas Aquinas, Filmer, and arguably Plato).
The Family and the Social Contract
The simplest example of a social contract, according to Rousseau, Filmer, and others is the family (including all the authority/liberty paradigms that come with it).
We all must trade liberty for order when we enter into the implicit social contract of a family. Using this simple example helps us to empirically understand the difference between nature and civil society.
TIP: Filmer uses “the first family” (Adam and Eve) to justify a patriarchal society where the King has “Divine Right“, Hobbes does away with the Divine Right argument but argues for Absolute Right, but Locke argues that the father does not have either divine or absolute natural right over his family.
The General Will of a Sovereign People and their Government as their Will-in-Action
According to Rousseau, all the citizens of a state are sovereign. This sovereign body has a “general will“.
It is the government’s job to act (to preform executive, legislative, and judicial duties) in accordance with the general will, and thus the government is the “will-in-action” of the people (the will of the people, in action via delegates).
Governors are the officials of the sovereign people who carry out its will and help the body communicate with the head.
According to Rousseau, legislative power belongs to the people, as the will of the body can only be the will of the people. The government can not have its own will, it is simply the executive of the people’s will. The will of the body as a whole can be called “the Prince”.
TIP: The “head of state” describes either the highest-ranking position(s) in a sovereign state or the natural inalienable sovereignty of the citizens (this differs by philosopher and context). If we consider only the head sovereign then, in a pure democracy the whole people are the highest position and the whole people constitute the sovereign (in a state of 1,000 each are 1/1,000 the sovereign, regardless of wealth, birthright, or position in government). In a republic, a body of elected officials are sovereign. In an absolute monarchy, only the King is sovereign. Rousseau and Locke believed that for a government in any form to be legitimate, it must be subordinate to the general will and consent of the body politic (thus, to Rousseau for example, all people in society were always sovereign), Hobbes argued only the head-of-state is sovereign.
TIP: Under a social contract, all sovereign are theoretically subject to civil laws (but in America government entities, not the members who comprise the entities, have “sovereign immunity“; so, for example, a President is subject to civil law, but the United States itself can’t be sued by foreign governments).
The Head of State and the Anatomy of the Body Politic
Everyone bound by the social contract, including the head of state, is the body, but since not everyone in the state can act (as that would be anarchy), action is delegated to “heads”, “limbs”, and “organs” (AKA government, or “a governing body”).
Thus, the body politic has a head(s) of state (like a President, Prime Minister, or King), limbs (or branches of government like executive, legislative, and judicial; state and federal; each with heads), and organs (like agencies created by the branches).
The body politic can be seen in the picture below from Hobbes’ Leviathan where 300 people make up the body, and the king’s head sits atop with staff and scepter. The metaphor of a “political body” comes from Medieval times; See historian Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies (1957).
TIP: The body politic is a metaphor, above is my synthesis of the metaphor. Each philosopher is entitled to use it differently. I tend to discuss things using Rousseau’s idea that all people are sovereign, not all philosphers agree with this.
The Forms of Government: Heads of State and Limbs of States
The head or heads of state direct the will-in-action, but the heads look different depending on the basic classical form of government employed by the body: monarchy (one head; Leviathan), aristocracy (few heads; Hydra), democracy (many heads / headless), and then rouge factions and special interests, good or evil, official or unofficial faction, would be the Behemoth. (NOTE: The Biblical imagery is mostly from Hobbes, but the hydra and headless are mine. I have also drawn from the political philosophers [mostly; if you count Stan Lee], to round out the theory).
In a government with a separation of powers, we can take this metaphor further and say: “the executive”, “legislative”, and “judicial” are limbs each directed by heads, and we can also apply this logic to organs.
Thus, we can get one heck of a Frankenstein’s monster in a state that has delegated many roles (or has seen undelegated roles form anyways). When certain parts of the body take on a particular will of their own, and thus become rebellious “factions”, we can consider these new rouge entities “the Behemoth” (Hobbes suggests Cromwell and his supporters were “a Behemoth”, this is where the terminology comes from).
“Cut off a head; two more will take its place.” – Hydra
“You know the proverb, ‘the people is a monster of many heads.’ You are sensible, undoubtedly, of their great rashness and great inconstancy.” – George Buchanan on why pure democracy isn’t always as good as it sounds on paper.
“Can anyone capture it, or trap it, and pierce his jaw with a hook?” – Rough translation from Job 40:24 on the Behemoth (or, “you stab it with your Steely knives but you just can’t kill the beast” – the Eagles).
“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires” – James Madison describing why we can’t get rid of factions so easily.
“In adopting a republican form of government, I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better for worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all its bad qualities.” – Gouverneur Morris on why America’s Founding Founders finally settled on a Mixed-Republic
TIP: These concepts don’t just describe a single nation, they describe all nations separate and together. Consider the U.S. is a union of sovereign states and the U.K. is a union of kingdoms (the U.N. is essentially a federation of nations). In the U.S. we have a Republic, that governs 50 republics, and the federal state and 50 states and other entities each have heads, limbs, organs, and sovereign people who are sovereign in their state and under the federal state.
Summary of the Above Concepts
Given the above, we can say, humans, in a state of nature, enter into a social contract to avoid “a state of war” and to prosper and execute a collective “general will“.
When they enter this social contract, they form a body politic (a political body) consisting of all members of a state and the members of government. All members of this body are bound by the same general law.
In this state, the King is no more naturally sovereign than the peasant, but he is wisely delegated more power within the bounds of the social contract. His power is checked by other powers in the government, and by consent of the sovereign people.
Thus, it can be said, that the goal of the government is carry out the general will and protect liberty and equality by enforcing the social contract which binds together all members of the political body in the civil state.
A Comparison of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke Regarding Social Contract Theory
With everything else covered, we can say Social Contract Theory becomes clear when we examine the differences and similarities between the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as they all have different takes on the state of nature, the implications of the social contract, and the ideal form of government.
Hobbes came first chronologically, and it was Hobbes who coined the modern usage of the terms “state of nature” and “social contract,” so he makes a good starting point. All three Social Contract theorists hold equal importance in the modern day. If you click the links to each book below, Hobbes is a difficult read, Locke a little easier, and Rousseau the simplest.
- Thomas Hobbes: Nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” There are only three forms of government monarchy, aristocracy, democracy. Monarchy is the best system; Only a beast like the Bible’s Leviathan can ensure order. Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud). Hobbes’ says the will of the leader is absolute and supersedes the will of the people, especially majority rule; in part due to what we would call a fear of “the tyranny of the mob” or a powerful faction; AKA Behemoth. Hobbes’ social contract theory is from his Leviathan (1651). “The state of nature is a “war of all against all.”
- John Locke: Nature is ruled by natural law, man has natural rights. Locke agrees with Hobbes on the forms (but calls an aristocracy an oligarchy). A Constitutional Representative Democracy is best; One must consent to be governed and a social contract must be entered into willingly. There is no Absolute Divine Right of Kings. Locke’s social contract theory is from his Second Treatise of Government (1689). “We are all equal and independent; no one ought to harm anyone else in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Nature is good, man is naturally “a noble savage.” He disagrees with Hobbes and Locke on the forms of government. To Rousseau, the only true form of government is a Republic. It is societies’ obsession with property and status that is corrupt, just look what happened to the Native American when the West brought things like mirrors, alcohol, and economics. Small Direct Democracies (non-authoritative republics where everyone gets say directly) that mirror the noble state of nature are seen as best by Rousseau. As this isn’t practical, anywhere other than in small groups, we should err towards a Social Liberal Democratic Republic where elected officials carry out the will of the people, but where the people, not Representatives, make the laws like they do in say Britain and America. He thought that was akin to slavery, see Book 3 Chapter 15. Deputies or representatives). Rousseau thought different governments worked best for different countries, the larger the population, the better “the rule of the few works” (but remember, Rousseau says the will of leaders can’t differ from the will of the people and the people dictate the will). Rousseau’s social contract theory is from The Social Contract (1762). “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
Social contract theories
TIP: If someone thinks people are naturally good and work well in little communes. If this person thought the ownership of property was a corrupting force on the noble savage state of nature, and they thought the will of the sovereign could not be different than the will of the body politic, then we can call them socially-minded. In modern terms, we might call them a “socialist,” or if we ran a right-wing media outlet, we might call them a “Commie.” In this way, Rousseau is hardly anti-capitalist despite his idealist aversion to consumerism and property he remains a realist. Rousseau influenced socialism and is one of the earliest socialists although credit for the ideology usually goes elsewhere. So, in simple terms, Hobbes is the conservative, Locke the classical liberal, and Rousseau the classical social liberal. This is why you are being asked to study them or have ended up here via your self-learning as these three systems form the basis of all modern governments.
TIP: As noted above, a family is the simplest and most natural form of Commonwealth, Civil Society, Social Contract, etc. Thus, it is essentially impossible for humans to avoid a Social Contract and truly live in the state of nature (in lawless isolationism). Many would argue that politics arises naturally in groups. Politics, like mathematics or language, isn’t a construct of some brilliant human, it is a naturally occurring system revolving around the natural law and the necessary division of labor and resources.
Is the Social Contract a Myth? The idea that there is no social contract is a myth in my opinion, but if you want an opposition theory here it is. As noted above, the body politic is a naturally occurring entity. Thus it implies a social contract. Saying the contract is a myth is like saying the Calculus is a myth or economics is a myth. It’s not; it’s a naturally occurring system, a system that forms as an effect of people organizing.
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: Two Philosophers Compared
A Summary of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651)
Hobbes defends Absolute Monarchy to ensure a civil society. He is informed by the English Revolution (AKA The English Civil War) of 1642–1651 and the history of man (he is well read and mentions many classic texts and societies as examples in his book). He accepts the idea that we must trade liberty for security and order.
- The State of Nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
- Men naturally love liberty and dominion over others.
- There are only three forms of government “monarchy” “aristocracy” and “democracy.” People only call a monarchy “a tyranny,” an aristocracy “an oligarchy,” and a democracy “an anarchy” when they don’t like the government. They are different words for the same thing. NOTE: Hobbes is critiquing Aristotle’s government types.
- Since men love dominion, the only logical and efficient choice for defending liberty (from others in a state of nature) is entering into an absolute social contract in an absolute monarchy (which can rule any way it wants, its only stipulation is it must be strong).
- Hobbes justifies all abuses and censorships of “the State” (the Commonwealth), although he rejects most personally. Thus, we can read Leviathan as satire like Machiavelli’s Prince). This means slavery, state-imposed religion, and execution are all on the table.
- Hobbes finds solace in self-interest (the Adam Smith moral sentiment kind). As a ruler is only as rich as his or her citizens, is in the ruler’s interest to rule well and be a benevolent monarch.
- Hobbes is a realist, idealist, empiricist, absolutist, and monarchist. He defends a Monarchy. He casts aside the metaphysics of the Greeks and puts aside pure reason for what we can know from the passions (like Hume, another empiricist, would later). His inflexible stance makes him an idealist and absolutists. But his willingness to deal with the natural grit of the world makes him a realist.
POLITICAL THEORY – Thomas Hobbes
NOTE: Hobbes wrote his masterwork during the English Civil War where a monarch was overthrown in the first liberal revolution (see the origin of the left and right). The revolution was bloody and this informed Hobbes who realized people were less-and-less willing to supplicate to religion and kings (as they had historically done), and that people were beginning to long for liberty in the mid-1600’s in the age of reason. The state of natural liberty can be brutish, but order is less so; Hobbes witnessed this first hand. His Leviathan doubles as a Theory Of Everything. He explains everything from the senses to the laws of motion as metaphor for the State of Nature and the state. He also gives an extensive history lesson.
FUN FACT: Hobbes got a big ol’ spoonful of irony when King Charles II refused to let him publish his next book Behemoth. By Hobbes’ social contract he did not have the liberty to question his King. Behemoth was published after Hobbes died and remains pretty much forgotten by history.
A Summary of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (Written 1679 – 1689; Published 1689)
Locke defends a Constitutional Democratic Republic (Democracy by the rule of law and consent of the people). He is informed by Hobbes and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (an “almost” bloodless revolution) which he provided part of the philosophical backbone for. Locke was previously exiled (for being part of the liberal revolution) and his First Treatise is an extended attack on Sir Robert Filmer‘s Patriarcha (1680). Filmer mirrors Hobbes but focuses on the Divine Right of Kings, and not solely absolute power like Hobbes advocated envisioned. Locke advocates for power only if it respects human rights.
- The State of Nature is one of absolute liberty. When this state is violated by an aggressor, a state of war is entered into.
- In a state of war, the natural law of God says we can defend our life, liberty, and property (a non-aggression principle). Our property includes ourselves and our family; no person has the right to own slaves.
- We enter into a Social Contract to uphold the natural law. Power is given to a state, but that power is not absolute, even that power is upheld by the natural law of God.
- Man has a right to overthrow a tyrannical government and consent to be governed.
- Locke recognizes the forms of government “monarchy” “aristocracy” and “democracy.” He suggests a separation and balance of powers, a type of democratic aristocracy with a monarch. From this idea the Constitutional Parliamentary Monarchy, we today call the United Kingdom is born.
POLITICAL THEORY – John Locke
NOTE: Locke can be considered the father of liberalism. Unlike Hobbes, who spends 150 pages describing man’s faculties, he jumps right into Social Contract Theory in his Second Treatise; his first Treatise wasn’t published until much later. If you haven’t heard, I’ll tell you, not only is the English government based on Locke, the American one is too. Specifically, the American revolution is based on Locke’s justification (as reinterpreted by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence).
A Summary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762)
Rousseau defends Direct Democracy. Jean-Jacques comes later, so he is informed by Hobbes, Locke, the English revolutions, the scientific revolution, the birth of feminism, Montesquieu’s separation of powers, Voltaire’s work, all earlier texts (he is also well read), etc. His perspective gives him an advantage, but he is notably more optimistic and idealistic than his counterparts Hobbes and Locke. His views have a significant impact on society and in many ways pave the way for later “social liberal” thinkers.
- In the state of nature, man is a noble savage.
- Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. All societal constructs take man further and further away from his noble state of nature.
- No man naturally has power over another man; no person has the right to own slaves.
- The will of the sovereign is the will of the body politic, their wills cannot diverge, they are of the same body. This goes beyond Locke’s consent, as that treats the head of the state and body of the state as two separate entities.
- The only natural society is the family. It is nature’s Commonwealth, the father is the head of state, the whole family the body politic.
- The best societies mirror man in his most natural state. Thus they should promote liberty and the family. Small groups are best, large cities corrupt us and invite vices.
- Nothing invites more vice and war into our lives than the ownership of property. Notice how Hobbes and Locke base the need for government and the state of war largely around the ownership of property.
- A Direct Democracy is the best system of government, but because it isn’t practical then we must revert to a Representative Democracy and use a separation and balance of powers. Either way, we can describe all of this as a republic, as being of one will the people can only rule by Republic.
- The book is critical of religion and the ownership of property and any other device that corrupts men intentionally or not.
POLITICAL THEORY – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
NOTE: Rousseau never actually used the term “noble savage” despite being known for his theory related to their state of nature. Rousseau also wrote a very popular book on education Emile, or On Education, popularized breastfeeding and focused many of his works on Romanticism rather than political philosophy unlike Hobbes, and especially Locke. His solution might not be as good as Locke’s opinion, but his work is arguably the best reading of all those mentioned above. Rousseau is an early progressive social liberal in almost every way, but more “green” than cooperate liberal given his views on large cities and the state of nature.
Hobbes: The State of Nature and the Social Contract
Hobbes says: The state of nature is governed by passion, not reason. It is good and bad, but because it is also bad, it is very bad. The life of man in the state of nature is, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The state of nature is a state of war.
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
To avoid the state of war society enters into a social contract in which Absolute Right (but not Divine Right) is given to a leader. The leader leads as they see fit, even if that means entering into a state of war with its citizens. Absolute Monarchy is the only thing that can efficiently secure the liberty of the state, and this is the only means by which man can be protected from the state of nature. Order allows for property, arts, civil society, education, the law, and all the other fruits of civilization. Hobbes felt that Oliver Cromwell’s revolution, which he lived through, was not justified.
THE final cause, end, or design of men who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others is in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths [“the state”], is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants…
John Locke: The State of Nature and the Social Contract
To Locke, the state of nature is a state of natural law. The natural being “the non-aggression principle.”
The state of nature is governed by a law that creates obligations for everyone. And reason, which is that law, teaches anyone who takes the trouble to consult it, that because we are all equal and independent, no one ought to harm anyone else in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. This is because •we are all the work of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker; •we are all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order to do his business; •we are all the property of him who made us, and he made us to last as long as he chooses, not as long as we choose; •we have the same abilities, and share in one common nature, so there can’t be any rank-ordering that would authorize some of us to destroy others, as if we were made to be used by one another, as the lower kinds of creatures are made to be used by us.
Since the natural law guides us, it should be reflected in our government. Locke’s argument is as simple as that. Locke had lived through the post-Cromwell turmoil in England and wanted to provide justification for the new liberal revolution which brought Democracy to the west for the first time since Athens.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The State of Nature and the Social Contract
To Rousseau, the state of nature is a state of free bliss, and the only natural society is the family. The failings of mankind all come from our inability to function well as large groups. Large groups invite in vices, inequality, vanities, and envy.
Rousseau respects the rule of law and isn’t a pure idealist in practice (he discusses nitty gritty details and concessions), but his philosophy is none-the-less idealistic.
Like Locke, he doesn’t believe the government has any rights over man and favors whatever sort of system can give a man the most freedom and be the least corrupting.
(A) The sovereign may put the government in the hands of the whole people or a majority of them so that among the citizens the magistrates outnumber the merely private individuals. This form of government is called democracy. (B) Or the sovereign may restrict the government to a small number of citizens so that the private citizens outnumber magistrates; this is called aristocracy. (C) Or the sovereign may concentrate the whole government in the hands of a single magistrate from whom all the others—·i.e. all the other governmental officials·—hold their power. This third form is the most usual and is called monarchy, or royal government.
There have always been fights about what the best form of government is, ignoring the fact each form is in some cases the best and in others the worst.
No one form of government suits all countries. Liberty isn’t a fruit of every climate, so it isn’t within reach of every people. The more you think about this principle that Montesquieu laid down, the more you feel its truth; and the more you fight it, the more evidence you find in its favor.
The first and most important consequence of the principles I have laid down is that the directing of the state in the light of the object for which it was instituted, i.e. the common good, must be done by the general will. The •clashing of particular interests made it •necessary to establish a society, and the •agreement of those same interests made it •possible to do so. It’s the common element in these different interests that forms the social tie; and if there were there nothing that they all had in common, no society could exist. It is solely by this common interest that every society should be governed.
Who is Right? (Opinions and Food for Thought)
Depending on your political leanings you should by now have a favorite Social Contract Theorist.
Most people will choose Locke, especially in America, as Locke’s system of government is very classically liberal and thus very classic late 1700’s America. Despite this, and the reason we study all three is that THEY ARE ALL RIGHT in some ways.
We can consider these truisms as well for more food for thought:
- If we accept the idea that the General Will is the ideal spirit behind the laws, how do we determine it and avoid confusing it with the majority will?
- If an absolute monarchy is the most efficient in many respects, why isn’t it “the ideal system.” How does a “mixed Government” draw from this?
- If we protest the government without very valid reasons too often, do we risk weakening it? If we don’t have the right to protest and speak freely, does this weaken it too?
- Is it perhaps that the state of nature is both cruel and noble, and that all forms have their pros and cons be they be surrounding property, liberty, authority, or concerning the favoring of small or large groups?
- Is it that both idealism and realism are needed? Should we combine and temper our passions (senses) with our reason, or should we put one before the other?
- Are possessions the root of the state of war like Rousseau and Marx suggest? Or is there another bit of the puzzle (like moral sentiment and incentive)?
- Lastly, is civil society about avoiding a state of war? Is it more about cooperation and resource management. Is the true state of war something that only occurs after society is formed as Montesquieu suggests? Or, is it a war of all against all like Hobbes suggests? How does this inform our political thinking?
For more reading, check out the rest of our political science section or, share your opinion and ask questions below.
POLITICAL THEORY – John Rawls. Rawls is one of the more recent social contract theorists, and as such this video is a good place to end the discussion.
- State of nature
- the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract
- Social Contract Theory
- Second Treatise of Government
- The Social Contract
- Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract
- The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Book 3 Chapter 1, Government in general
- Body politic
"Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature" is tagged with: American Politics, Competition, Cooperation, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Left–right Politics, Liberty, Ludwig von Mises, Morality, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers, Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature, Types of Governments