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Social Contract

Updated on January 8, 2012

The philosophical term 'social contract' is used in attempting to explain why Man abandoned the natural or wild state and developed an organized society. The government of any society can be seen as being based on mutual trust or contract between the ruler(s) and the people, if the people have the power to choose it. This idea was first formally stated in the writings of the seventeenth century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He saw the organization of society in aristocratic terms, that is, being based upon the authority of some individuals over others.

No doubt Hobbes' work was influenced by the social revolution going on during his time. The commercial middle classes were rapidly developing and they weakened the exclusive power of the nobility. Hobbes saw the basis of social behavior and organization as the search for pleasure and the desire for honor. If Man was alone he had a continual battle to gain the things he wanted from other men and to prevent them from attacking him. It was only in a group that individuals were prevented from attacking their neighbors by the sanctions set by the community.

Hobbes saw the natural state as being one of chaos caused by personal and selfish desires. Man could only avoid chaos in a rational social organization. The social order within the organization was based on the establishment of the nobility and other special groups.

Hobbes' ideas were very important because human nature was seen as something that could be objectively understood and also because they showed that it was possible for society to organize itself and control individuals and then create a stable system of social relations. Hobbes' ideas were expanded by John Locke (1632-1704) who stressed the rationality of Man and his capacity to achieve an understanding of himself and the world.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) in the mid-eighteenth century saw Man in his natural state as being a 'noble savage', and thus society should evolve as a result of the natural responses of Man. Rousseau was the first to use the term 'social contract', when a book of that title was published by him in 1762. He also saw society based upon a contract but he saw the leaders of the society being representatives of the people, not their masters. Within the society all men should be guided by their intuitions, which are Man's link to the good and happy natural state.

The philosophical ideas involved in the social contract underlie many modern ideas, such as the Rights of Man and the freedom of the individual within a society.

The responsibilities of the individual to others and the purpose of government are also related to the social contract.


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