Essay on Social Contract Theory

(a) Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679):

Thomas Hobbes, an English thinker, was of the opinion that society came into being as a means for the protection of men against the consequences of their own nature.

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Man in the state of nature was in perpetual conflict with his neighbours on account of his essentially selfish nature. To quote Hobbes, the life of man was “solitary poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Every man was an enemy to every other man.

Hobbes in his book “Leviathan” has made it clear that man in the state of nature was not at all social According to him; man found “nothing but grief in the company of his fellows”—all being almost equally “selfish, self-seeking, cunning, egoistic, brutal and aggressive”. Thus, men in the state of nature were like hungry wolves each ready to pounce on the other with all its ferocity.

Since the conditions in the state of nature were intolerable and men longed for peace, the people entered into a kind of social contract to ensure for themselves security and certainty of life and property.

By mutual agreement they decided to surrender their natural rights into the hands of a few or one with authority to command. The covenant or agreement was of each with all and of all with each. The covenant was, of course, a social contract and a governmental contract. The contract became binding on the whole community as a perpetual social bond. Thus, in order to protect him­self against the evil consequences of his own nature man organised himself in society in order to live in peace with all.

Individual and Society:

(b) John Locke (1632-1704):

John Locke, another English political philosopher, believed that man in the state of nature was enjoying an ideal liberty, free from all sorts of rules and regulations.

The state of nature was a state of “peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation”. But there was no recognised system of law and justice. Hence his peaceful life was often upset by the “corrup­tion and viciousness of degenerate men”. Man was forced to face such an “ill condition”.

John Locke, the British writer who supported the cause of limited monarchy in England, main­tained in his “On Civil Government” that the “ill condition” in which men were forced to live was “full of fears and continual dangers”. In order to escape from this and to gain certainty and security men made a contract to enter into civil society or the state.

This contract Locke called ‘social con­tract’. This contract put an end to the state of nature and substituted it by civil society. The social contract was no more than a surrender of certain rights and powers so that man’s remaining rights would be protected and preserved.

The contract was for limited and specific purposes, and what was given up or surrendered to the whole community and not to a man or to an assembly of men (as Hobbes said). Locke made it clear that the social contract later on contributed to the governmental control.

The governmental contract was made by the society when it established a government and selected a ruler to remove the inconveniences of “ill-condition”.

(c) Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778):

J.J. Rousseau, the French writer of the 18th century, in his famous book “The Social Contract” (1762) wrote that man in the state of nature was a ‘noble savage’ who led a life of “primitive simplicity and idyllic happiness”. He was independent, con­tented, self-sufficient, healthy, fearless and good.

It was only primitive instinct and sympathy which united him with others. He knew neither right nor wrong and was free from all notions of virtue and vice. Man enjoyed a pure, unsophisticated, innocent life of perfect freedom and equality in the state of nature, Rousseau argued. Men were free from the influence of civilisation, and sought their own happiness uncontrolled by social laws and social institutions.

But these conditions did not last long. Population increased and reason was dawned. Simplic­ity and idyllic happiness disappeared. Families were established, institution of property emerged and human equality was ended. Man began to think in terms of ‘mine’ and ‘thing’. Difference between stronger and weaker, rich and poor, arose.

Emergence of Civil Society:

When equality and happiness of the early state was lost, war, murder, conflicts, wretchedness, etc., became the order of the day. The escape from this was found in the formation of a civil society.

Natural freedom gave place to civil freedom by a social contract. As a result of this contract a multitude of individuals became a collective unity—a civil society. Rousseau said that by virtue of this contract “everyone while uniting himself to all remains as free as before”.

General Will. There was only one contract according to Rousseau which was social as well as political. The individual surrendered himself completely and unconditionally to the will of the body of which he became a member.

The body so created was a moral and collective body and Rousseau called it the ‘general will’. The unique feature of the general will was that it represented collective good as distinguished from the private interests of its members. The will was ‘inalienable and indi­visible’ according to him.


The theory of social contract has been widely criticised. (1) Historically, the theory seems to be a mere fiction. There is nothing in the whole range of history to show that the society has ever been deliberately created as a result of voluntary agreement or contract. Nor can we suppose that man could ever think of entering into a contract with others when he lived under conditions of extreme simplicity, ignorance and even brutality.

Secondly, the theory is far away from the facts. Nothing like the state of nature has ever ex­isted. The most primitive peoples that the anthropologists have described lived in some form of society or the other, however rudimentary or unorganised it may be. It is quite unhistorical to sup­pose, that such men would resort to a contract.

More communal than individual and the unit of society was not the individual but the family. Each man was born into his family, and into his status in society. “Society has moved from status to contract and not from contract to status” as the champions of the theory argued. Contract is not the beginning of society but the end of it, said Sir Henry Maine.

Fourthly, our own common sense tells us that there are always two parties to the contract. There cannot be a one-sided contract, as was conceived by Hobbes (Moreover, every contract lapses after the death of one of the contracting parties).

Fifthly, conception of natural rights and natural liberty, as is said to have existed in the state of nature, is illogical and fallacious. Liberty cannot exist in the state of nature. Law is the condition of liberty. Without restraint liberty is nothing short of licence, and condition of licence is anarchy. Rights, too, arise only in a society. If there is no society we cannot think of rights.

Finally, there can be no rights without a consciousness of common interest on the part of members of a society and common consciousness was conspicuous by its absence in the state of nature.


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