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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Middle Ages. Following the decline of the
Roman Empire, Roman law lived on into the Middle
Ages, and became integrated into the philosophy of
practically all writers. Hints of governmental contract
do exist, but more generally the state was regarded
as a consequence of sin, a divine punishment, in which
the king was sent by God to execute His wrath on
evildoers. However, monarchical power was not
granted arbitrary usage, either from above or below.
Exhortations to the king to rule in the common good
were made in thousands. This already implied
monarchical obligation to the ruled, the idea of which
was familiarized through the Roman law concept of
Lex Regia, and had been given early practical expres-
sion in the German successor-kingdoms of the Western
Roman Empire. Such belief in the reciprocal obliga-
tions between monarch and people was made more
explicit in the coronation oath. This in itself was a form
of governmental contract, in the sense that the author-
ity of the king was not accepted unless he had bound
himself by oath to provide just and good government.

The use of contract as a basis for conditional popular
resistance to government, most frequently associated
with the name of Locke, was already apparent in the
eleventh-century writings of Manegold of Lautenbach.
In his view a monarch who oppresses his people breaks
the contract, and thereby absolves the ruled from any
further obligations of obedience. Not only was obedi-
ence no longer obligatory, but actual rebellion was
justifiable, for a king who degenerates into a tyrant
should be expelled like an unfaithful shepherd. This
precursor of later theories, it is only fair to mention,
had little influence among his contemporaries. It was
only two centuries later that Saint Thomas Aquinas
presented somewhat similar ideas to a wider audience.
However, his radicalism was reserved for the excep-
tional occasion, his main theme being one of obedience
to the accepted traditional order of church and king.
More clearly radical were the political ideas Marsiglio
of Padua and Bartolus of Sassoferrato derived from the
north Italian city-states of the fourteenth century. They
both regarded authority as stemming from the people,
and provided for the removal of governments infring-
ing the constitutional laws by which they were bound.
Bartolus comes close to contract theory in stressing the
obligations of a pactum which a Prince makes with
his city, but the notion is not given a central place
in his thought.

With the rise of “divine right” theory, belief in
contract was adapted to a changed ideological envi-
ronment, thereby losing its primary character as a curb
on monarchical power. Now it was not so much the
king who was bound to rule for the good of the people,
as the people who henceforth became bound to obey
their king. Thus, by the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries the origin of the state was seen to derive from
a contract of subjection, an act in which obligations
rather than rights received the main emphasis; a con-
ception of contract forwarded primarily by Engelbert
of Volkersdorf (1250-1311) and Nicholas of Cusa

The relevance of the Middle Ages to the contract
theory is not that this period was one in which contract
was as explicitly formulated, or as fully developed as
it was later to become. Rather it is that it thoroughly
prepared the ground for later theories of Social Con-
tract. The metaphor is not inapt, for it was the
dominant system of land tenure, that of feudalism,
which familiarized all classes of society with the con-
tractual idea. Thus these contract theorists stressing
reciprocal rights did more than just imitate the spirit
of the early coronation oath, for, in some respects, they
reflected the pattern of obligation that was typical of
feudal society. The whole feudal system was cemented
by relationships of mutual rights and duties between
lord and vassal, a system which recognized individual
rights even to the extent of allowing the vassal to reject
the contract if the lord had not abided by its terms.
That these reciprocal obligations extended up the social
scale even as far as the monarch was, perhaps, particu-
larly evident in England, for Magna Carta (1215),
although no more than an agreement between king and
barons, was at least an indication that the king was
to be regarded as an integral part of society, rather
than as an unlimited, all-powerful ruler controlling
from the “outside.” Thus throughout the Middle Ages
in England the conception remained of the king as
having been drawn into the web of political obligation.
This was much less the case in France, where successive
monarchs continued to stress their theocratic function
of obligation to God, and God alone. In general, how-
ever, the embodiment in law and in the social con-
sciousness of the contractual relationships of feudalism
predisposed men to regard the contract as a guarantor
of rights, and a basis of legitimate government—
attitudes which eventually replaced the view of the
contract as an act of total subjection.

The medieval conception of contract, formed in a
period when the church had intellectual predominance,
was later used by minority Protestant groups of the
Reformation era. It was thus that the notion of a proper
Social Contract came to be formulated, and the use
of contract as a democratic device more fully devel-
oped. It will be clear that belief in the “divine right
of kings” is profoundly undemocratic, presenting the
idea that power and authority derive from God, and


descend by delegation to the monarch, and so on, in
ever smaller quantities, down the social scale. This
“descending thesis” of authority provided no moral
basis for dissent, as disobedience to the king implied
disobedience to God.

Groups striving for religious freedom, however,
needed a rationale for their rejection of the orthodox
religious views. The Huguenot author (either Languet
or Duplessis-Mornay) of the Vindiciae contra tyrannos
(1579) justified the French wars of religion by stating
the right of the people to oppose a king who persecutes
religious truth, because such a king has broken the
contract between God and the people. This was the
Huguenot position so long as a Catholic monarch sat
on the throne. With the accession of the Protestant
Henry IV (1589), the Huguenots reverted to belief in
the divine right of kings, whilst certain Catholics,
most notably the Jesuits Juan Mariana, Luis Molina,
and Francisco Suárez, became converted to the idea
of Social Contract and to the right of resistance against
tyrannical kings.

By this time men had learned to present rejection
of divine right and disobedience to monarchy in a
manner which did not involve rejection of religion as
such. This theoretical feat was accomplished by the
combination of Natural Law and Social Contract. The
former notion provided a means by which the word
of God could be received by the mind of man without
the monarch acting as an intermediary. The moral need
to heed the monarch's command was further eased by
the belief associated with contract, that law derives
from consent and that obedience to arbitrary rule is
not obligatory.

The alignment of natural rights and contract is
instructive, for the attempt to derive rights from a
pre-social, natural condition led to the formulation of
the initial contract as an act forming society, rather
than an agreement between ruler and ruled in an
already established state. In this manner arose the idea
of a truly social contract. Rights deriving from God
via nature, rather than from God via the king, thus
provided a religious basis for opposition to tyranny.
It is no coincidence, then, that Juan Mariana, writing
in 1605, combines within the same work a compact
of society and a justification of tyrannicide.

With his popularization of Social Contract theory
in England, Richard Hooker (1552-1600) simulta-
neously provided an early example of a criticism that
was eventually to hasten the theory's downfall. If some
men found it useful to affirm the idea of a Social
Contract, others found it equally useful to deny it. This
they did by posing such questions as: “If the contract
is the basis of society, what exactly are its terms? What
evidence have we that a contract has actually been
made?” Hooker does at least realize the importance
of these difficulties. The terms, he tells us, “for the most
part are either clean worn out of knowledge, or else
known unto very few.” It required the arrival of a more
historically critical age before such unverified knowl-
edge came to be considered an inadequate basis for
an important social theory.

By the seventeenth century, with the writings of
Althusius, and Grotius, the major period of Social Con-
tract theory really begins. Emphasis comes to be placed
on both the individual and society as being historically
and logically prior to the monarchy and state. In this
manner the “descending thesis” of government sank
ever more into the background. Emphasis on Social
Contract and government by consent led to the
reformulation of what is called the “ascending thesis”
of government. This is the belief that authority is
delegated to government by society—from the ruled
to the rulers—up, rather than down, the social scale.

The wide application of contract theory to seven-
teenth-century politics stems most immediately from
its religious usage by Puritan groups in both England
and America. A church was regarded as a voluntary
association joined together in the pursuit of com-
munally agreed religious aims. On fleeing to America,
the persecuted religious minorities of western Europe
thereby each became not merely a religious commu-
nity, but also a political organization. In withdrawing
from the allegiance of an oppressive state power, they
became their own state in the same manner as they
were already their own church. In this situation,
allegiance to the state could only be based on the same
principle that already governed allegiance to the
church, that is, by voluntary agreement. In this way
the notion of religious contract provided an immediate
stimulus to the development of the idea of a Social
Contract, a variation of which is found in the covenant
made by the Pilgrim Fathers upon their arrival in New
England in November 1620.

This same alignment of religious and political atti-
tudes occurred in England without the stimulus of
resettlement. We see this quite explicitly in the writings
of the Leveller John Lilburne (ca. 1614-57). He had
initially concentrated on the problems of religion,
accepting the commonplace view that to reject the
king's authority is equivalent to disobeying God. This
approach did not survive his intermittent periods of
imprisonment, during which time he submitted the
question of the legitimacy of state power to deeper
examination. About 1636 he had written of the church
as a voluntary community of believers, bound together
in order to pursue common religious aims. Once the
English Civil War broke out, Lilburne aligned himself
with the Parliamentary side, and began applying a


similar approach to the composition of civil society.
The consequence of this was the use of contract theory
to justify disobedience against the monarchy. As
Lilburne now saw it, the king had broken his contract
with the people, thereby transforming their condition
into a State of Nature. Men were in no way obliged
to obey monarchical tyranny, and so the basic problem
remaining was to remake the social-political contract,
which the Levellers actually attempted to do by means
of their first “Agreement of the People” (1647).

Following the execution of Charles I “contract the-
ory became what may almost be called the official
theory of the Commonwealth party” (Gough, p. 99).
Cromwell declared “the king is king by contract”; the
poet John Milton went further still, declaring that
society is based on contract, but monarchy rests only
on trust. In his view

The power of kings and magistrates is nothing else, but what
is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in
trust from the people to the common good of them all, in
whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot
be taken from them, without a violation of their natural

(The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, 1649).