1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Social Contract

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SOCIAL CONTRACT, in political philosophy, a term applied to the theory of the origin of society associated chiefly with the names of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, though it can be traced back to the Greek Sophists. According to Hobbes (Leviathan), men lived originally in a state of nature in which there were no recognized criteria of right and wrong, no distinction of meum and tuum. Each person took for himself all that he could; man's life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The state of nature was therefore a state of war, which was ended by men agreeing to give their liberty into the hands of a sovereign, who thenceforward was absolute. Locke (Treatise on Government) differed from Hobbes in so far as he described the pre-social state as one of freedom, and held that private property must have been recognized, though there was no security. Rousseau (Contrat social) held that in the pre-social state man was unwarlike and even timid. Laws resulted from the combination of men who agreed for mutual protection to surrender individual freedom of action. Government must therefore rest on the consent of the governed, the volonte générale. Though it is quite obvious that the theory of a social contract (or compact, as it is also called) contains a considerable element of truth—that loose associations for mutual protection preceded any elaborate idea or structure of law, and that government cannot be based exclusively on force—yet it is open to the equally obvious objection that the very idea of contract belongs to a more advanced stage in human development than the hypothesis itself demands. Thus the doctrine, yielding as a definite theory of the origin of society to the evidence of history and anthropology, becomes interesting primarily as revolt against medieval and theocratic theories of the state.