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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The notion of Social Contract, although particularly
influential in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
has a history which reaches back to the time of the
ancient Greeks. The term refers to the act by which
men are assumed to establish a communally agreed
form of social organization. This act has been given
varying characteristics by the numerous theorists who
have described it. They may refer to the establishment
of society as prior to the inauguration of government,
or alternatively to the state and society having arisen
concurrently. In the first case the Social Contract is
often thought of as a pact that all men make with each
other as equals, whilst in the latter case it may be a
less egalitarian agreement by which the rulers and the
ruled are differentiated, and their various rights and
obligations made explicit.

In order to express certain variations in the assumed
agreement, some writers chose to use the closely re-
lated notions of “compact” or “covenant,” rather than
that of “contract.” A further difference is that the
contract is sometimes regarded as an act that has been
made and ought to be adhered to, and at other times
as one that ought to be made. Amongst all these varia-
tions, however, some points of agreement do emerge.
First, there is the view that human society and govern-
ment are the work of man, constructed according to
human will, even if sometimes operating under divine
guidance. Such a notion implies a conception of man
as a free agent, rather than a being totally determined
by external forces. Second, the emphasis on contract
implies that the nature both of society and of govern-
ment ought to be based on mutual agreement rather
than on force. We shall later see how these beliefs
played an important role in justifying the acceptance
of liberal democratic views.

The belief that men once came together to form a
contract implies the prior existence of a pre-
governmental condition. It is this which is usually
referred to as the State of Nature. This image, by
portraying what man was like without government,
serves to demonstrate exactly what it is man owes to


government. The idea of a State of Nature became
acceptable in that it had formed part of popular myth-
ology from the times of antiquity, being portrayed
as a former Golden Age of complete equality in both
Greek and Latin literature. This assumption, found in
the Metamorphoses of Ovid and in the writings of the
Stoics, gained further expression amongst the Scholas-
tics of the later Middle Ages, and much later still was
more than echoed in Rousseau's Discours sur l'inégalité
(1754). Most later Social Contract theorists, from the
time of Hobbes onwards, have taken this accepted
notion of a pre-political condition, but by altering its
character have inverted its function. The State of Na-
ture, rather than being an ideal, is now provided with
deficiencies. It is in order to remedy these deficiencies
that the contract has to be made. The method, then,
has many uses. Sometimes the State of Nature has been
portrayed as a Golden Age of peace and equality,
obviously superior to anything that has replaced it.
Alternatively, in order to demonstrate the extreme
necessity of strong government, the nongovernmental
situation can be described as a terrible and wretched
condition in which

there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is
uncertain; and consequently no culture of the Earth, no
Navigation... no commodious building... no account
of time; no arts; no letters; no Society; and which is worst
of all, continual feare, and danger of violent death; and
the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short

(Hobbes, Leviathan [1651], Part I, Ch. XIII).

Or again, if one's argument is that man requires gov-
ernment, whilst not owing all advantages to it, the
State of Nature can be portrayed as reasonably ade-
quate, but still containing deficiencies which only a
state structure can remedy (Locke, Second Treatise of

Thus the Social Contract serves the intermediary
function of explaining how man transforms his condi-
tion from the State of Nature to a proposed form of
civil society. The particular form of contract used will
bear the marks of this relationship, of its connection
both with the condition it supposedly replaces and
with that which it is intended to inaugurate.

If such an account of social and governmental origins
sounds both involved and implausible, we might men-
tion that there were influential factors promoting belief
not only in a State of Nature, but also in the usual
narrative accounts of its replacement by society and
government. Thus, the notion of contract was made
familiar by Old Testament accounts of covenant, such
as those that God made with Noah, and with Abraham,
and that at Hebron between King David and the elders
of Israel. Once the Christian faith gained predominance
in Europe, belief in the absolute historical accuracy
of the Old Testament was, for many centuries, largely
taken for granted. The one society of which men had
early records appeared to be founded on covenant or
compact, so what could be more plausible than to
assume a somewhat similar origin for other societies?

That the notion of contract is also, and more usually,
associated with legal and commercial terminology is
a further important factor explaining its acceptance.
For what metaphor could be more apt in aiding the
understanding of a certain conception of government,
than one derived from an activity with which men
were familiar in their daily life?

Greece and Rome. The use of contract by the
Greeks, whilst not having the significance it was later
to acquire, does at least indicate the comparatively
secular nature of their political thought. Being notable
constitution framers, idolizing the great lawmakers,
they were easily convinced that laws were the work
of man rather than of the gods. Contractual views were
certainly not widely held, but they were prevalent.
Among the better known accounts of contract is the
version in Plato's Republic (359a); Glaucon suggests that
“men decide they would be better off if they made
a compact neither to do wrong nor to suffer it. Hence
they began to make laws and covenants with one
another.” In Plato's Crito, Socrates informs us of a
practice that was later to become closely connected
with contract theory: he presents the device whereby
contract theorists allow for the consent of those citizens
dwelling in the state in the period after its inception.
This consists of the notion of tacit consent, in which
all people dwelling within the state are assumed,
merely by their continued residence within its bounda-
ries, to consent to the laws that have been made.

Further hints of contract can be found in the writings
of the Sophists, the school of Diogenes (the Cynics),
Epicurus, Xenophon, and occasionally in Roman writ-
ings of the fourth century, but on the whole such
sporadic use of the term is of interest mainly on ac-
count of later developments. Thus far the contract was
used as a means of reinforcing obedience to law. That
it might also provide the basis for resistance against
the state was not yet apparent.

It is worth pointing out that those occasional writers
who maintained a belief in contract were referring to
a contract of government, rather than one of society.
The latter only emerged from the later postulate of
natural individualism, which neither the Greeks nor
the Romans held. With Aristotle, they regarded man
as naturally social, as the conscious instigator of gov-
ernment, but not as the creator of society.


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).

The Age of Social Contract. With the English Civil
War begins the century and a half in which Social
Contract theory was most predominant. The reasons
for this are not hard to find when one considers the
problems which men sought to solve by this method.
These were usually concerned with the origins and
legitimacy of government, and the vital question of
when governments might rightfully be disobeyed. It
was such issues which were directly relevant in a pe-
riod encompassing the English Civil War, the estab-
lishment of new communities in North America, the
English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the American
Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789.
The major long-term consequence of these various
upheavals was the practical inauguration of the liberal
democracy which still predominates in Western society
today. Though our modern state system may have
arrived by force of arms, the values associated with
it were only considered secure once it had won the
philosophical battle against its predecessors. It was
here that the idea of Social Contract played a crucial

Perhaps we should consider whether the framework
in which obligation to obey government is presented
may not logically impel the theorist towards a certain
limited range of conclusions. At first sight such a sug-
gestion seems implausible, as the various values held
by Social Contract theorists cover such a large area
of the political spectrum. However, we must note that,
whatever their differences, Social Contract theorists
did hold some assumptions in common. One of the
major presuppositions implicit in this particular ap-
proach concerns the degree of man's possible control
over his environment. It seems that users of the Social
Contract method are disposed towards viewing society
as artificial rather than natural, primarily as being the
work of man rather than of God or of Nature. In
consequence, we often find those who accept this
method having an attitude towards religion somewhat
at variance with that of their opponents. They see the
world of man as deriving from man's own will, rather
than being merely the expression of external forces.
This is certainly not to say that people holding such
views were atheists, even if their opponents occa-
sionally regarded them as such, for belief in God does
not necessarily imply His being given a continuous
central role in the human drama.

Coupled with belief in the human creation of society
is the strong emphasis placed on the idea of consent.
Contract is presented as a voluntary agreement of those
who will be bound by the rules of the system they
establish. In this we see the emergence of our contem-
porary notions of individual freedom and the self-
determination of peoples, for the implication is that
the authority of the system derives from the free con-
sent of those who compose it, rather than from the
commands of God or king. In this sense the contract's
radical function was as a justification of the breakdown
of the “descending thesis” of government. Although
Richard Hooker accepted the view that some kings
might possibly rule by divine right, his view was the
exception rather than the rule among Social Contract
theorists. More typical was the attack on divine right
made by Locke in the first of his Two Treatises of

Connected with belief in the importance of consent,
we tend to find the notion of the individual as the
possessor of certain inalienable rights, which the con-
tract is intended to secure, and which the state should
not infringe. This is the manner in which contract
reinforced arguments for limiting government and
exalting the individual, and was the basis on which
resistance was considered justified against those gov-
ernments not abiding by the terms of the supposed

In postulating natural freedom and natural equality,
in providing a basis for the notion of merely conditional
obedience to government, the Social Contract was used
as a framework for a theory that had potentially dis-
ruptive implications for any society with a predomi-
nantly aristocratic power structure. The emphasis on
government by consent made Social Contract a
weapon against not only the divine right of kings, but
against any form of absolute government. As good a


justification of government by consent as we are likely
to find was provided by the Leveller Col. Rainborough:

Really, I think that the poorest he that is in England hath
a life to live as the greatest he: and therefore truly, Sir,
I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a
government ought first by his own consent to put himself
under that government: and I do think that the poorest
man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that
government that he hath not had a voice to put himself

(Clarke, p. 301).

To base obligation on consent may not have been
original, but it was still a highly radical proposal in
the hierarchical societies of seventeenth-century

However, the full scope of the theoretical poten-
tialities of Social Contract was rarely apparent to those
who used the method. What to us may sound like the
thin edge of a democratic wedge did not always con-
tain such implications for the men of the seventeenth
century. Government might be said to rest on consent,
power might be thought of as deriving from the people,
but in such instances all that was meant was that the
wealthy and influential classes might provide a curb
against the possible excesses of the monarchy. Rarely
was it suggested that the laboring masses of the popu-
lation also possessed full natural rights. “The people”
connoted those who were habitually regarded as en-
titled to take part in the political process, and no
others. This political assumption again is correlated
with contemporary religious views. Thus, the New
England Puritans clearly distinguished between their
own congregation and the unregenerate remainder of
mankind. The right to liberty was thought of in terms
of rights for their own religious liberty, rather than
as rights for all men irrespective of their religious
beliefs. Yet, if these various groups had no intention
of formulating a theory of popular sovereignty, that
was just the way that others were eventually led by
the logic of their anti-absolutist argument. Not for the
first time in the history of thought did works of philos-
ophy become associated with movements which their
authors would have rejected.

So we see that consent need not imply democracy
unless consent refers to the consent of all concerned.
In the same manner Social Contract need not neces-
sarily imply liberal democracy unless the contract is
given liberal democratic terms. It has been argued that
this was the general tendency during the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries. This, however, should not
blind us to an important counter-current, the most
notable example of which consists of Hobbes' revival
of the contract of subjection. In his Leviathan (1651)
Hobbes contended that men should regard government
as if they had made a contract with it, of such a kind
as to

confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon
one assembly of men that may reduce all their wills, by
plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much as to
say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their
person; and every one to own, and acknowledge himself
to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person,
shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern
the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their
wills, everyone to his will, and their judgements, to his

(p. 89).

This surrender of rights, this establishment of almost
uncontrolled sovereignty, is not advocated as a unilat-
eral individual act. It is a contract only to be made
by “every man with every man.” Behind the much
criticized absolutism of Hobbes is the basic belief that
peace and security are the initial prerequisites of
human society, and are to be pursued even at the cost
of certain individual freedoms. The State of Nature
is so disadvantageous that extreme measures are justi-
fied in saving mankind from relapsing into it. Whereas
contract had usually been regarded as a means of
limiting sovereign power, with Hobbes such power is
placed outside the restraints of contract. The people
make an agreement with each other, but not with the
sovereign. This is a logical derivation from Hobbes'
belief that “Covenants, without the Sword, are but
Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
Agreements are only valid when there is a superior
power to enforce them. In the State of Nature cove-
nants are void, for there is no power to enforce com-
pliance. In civil society, there can be no agreements
with the sovereign, because there can, by definition,
be no superior power to enforce obedience. Thus the
sovereign is still in the State of Nature in respect of
his relations with the society he rules. He is not bound
by any obligations to the people. Thus

there can happen no breach of Covenant on the part of
the Soveraigne; and consequently none of his Subjects, by
any pretence of forfeiture, can be freed from his Subjection.

That Hobbes' views clashed violently with the more
general “spirit of the age” is evident from even the
most cursory acquaintance with late seventeenth-
century opinion. Conservatives were offended by
Hobbes' neglect of divine right, whilst radicals rejected
his absolutism. Somewhat similar hostility greeted
Spinoza's Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670), a work
strongly influenced by the writings of Hobbes, and in
which Spinoza held that “the sovereign is bound by
no law, and that all citizens must obey it in all things.”
Such a contract of submission was again based on the


need for defense against insecurity, and was presented
as a necessity “advised by reason itself.”

In spite of these pronouncements, the individualist
and democratic kernel of contract theory could not
be entirely ignored. Hobbes may have written of the
individual surrendering all rights of governing himself,
and of his authorizing all the actions of the sovereign,
even to the extent that “every Subject is Author of
every act the Soveraign doth,” yet he only applied this
within the limits imposed by Natural Law. Thus certain
rights were maintained by the individual, and situations
were envisaged in which disobedience to the sovereign
was justified. First, man was at liberty to disobey if
the sovereign command him to kill himself, as this was
contrary to the Law of Nature “by which we are
forbidden to do anything destructive of our own life.”
Second, he need not allow other men to kill him, even
though the sovereign demand it, for the Right of Na-
ture stipulates “the liberty each man hath, to use his
own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation
of his own Nature.” Likewise, a man interrogated by
the sovereign concerning a crime he has committed,
is not bound to confess, for there is a Law of Nature
that “no man... can be obliged by Covenant to accuse
himselfe.” Finally, the obligation to obey the sovereign
is conditional upon the provision of security, for which
purpose government is established. Thus, the apparent
total absolutism of Hobbes is limited within the indi-
vidualist demands of Natural Law. This is not to say
that the individual is granted explicit rights of resist-
ance against the sovereign, but merely that circum-
stances are envisaged in which obedience is neither
obligatory nor rational.

In spite of these individualist concessions, is the
Hobbes-Spinoza position one which enables us to deny
any logical connection between contract and democ-
racy? I would argue not, and would assert the contrary
proposition that their position actually highlights an
important paradox in democratic theory. In spite of
the apparent surrender of numerous rights to a nearly
unlimited sovereign, we must bear in mind that the
resulting condition is still one of voluntary contract,
representing a definite choice by the members of soci-
ety. That this choice is a strange one, that submission
may not seem a particularly worthwhile action, is not
denied. Choice is still choice, whether other people
find it rational or not. Social Contract theory, being
based on consent, may support all manner of values
that the people might hold. In exactly the same way
democratic elections may be the means by which the
widest conceivable range of governments come to
power. This wide range of conceivable contracts, how-
ever, does not mean that Social Contract theory has
no specific values attached to it. The right to choose
is a value, even though shared basic premisses may
lead to widely divergent conclusions. Belief in the right
of choice does not logically provide a limitation of the
range of choice. The difficulty occurs if we envisage
a situation in which the people may choose not to
choose. The contract of submission can be a self-
annihilating contract, in the same way that freedom
to commit suicide can be a self-annihilating freedom,
or the choice of Bonapartist or totalitarian govern-
ments can be a choice annihilating use of democratic
rights. The contract of submission, then, is an extreme;
it is an act of voluntary surrender on a par with the
democratic choice of governments which destroy de-
mocracy. Freedom, at its full extent, includes the
freedom to extinguish freedom. This paradox is shared
by both Social Contract theory and democratic theory,
and as such serves to demonstrate their similarities
rather than their differences.

In spite of Hobbes and Spinoza, it is generally true
to say that by the end of the seventeenth century those
writers who were most virulent in their attacks on
Social Contract were also those who held basically
antiradical views. They rejected the presumptuous
notion that man could have been the creator of the
imposing hierarchical edifice of society. The views
previously forwarded by James I of England, that the
people could not limit monarchy, that rule was by
hereditary right according to the will of God, and that
God was the only judge of whether the coronation oath
had been infringed, were all sympathetically revived
in the writings of Sir Robert Filmer. In his Patriarcha;
or the Natural Power of Kings
(1680), Filmer argued
that monarchy was natural rather than conventional.
Royal power derived from paternal power, as granted
at the creation by God to Adam. Since that time this
power had been transferred by hereditary right to the
various sovereigns, who are regarded as Adam's heirs.
The power of the sovereign, then, derives from God,
and can in no way be limited by the king's subjects.
Natural equality and freedom were condemned as
contrary to biblical evidence, as were “such imaginery
pactions between Kings and their people as many
dream of.” Leaving aside the weighty question of
historical evidence, Filmer asks whether the contrac-
tual act could be considered plausible. Was it likely
that men in a State of Nature could ever agree on the
form a contract was to take? Were they to do so, why
should their terms be binding on subsequent genera-
tions? All in all Filmer regarded the idea of contract
as practically implausible, socially pernicious, and the-
ologically heretical, views which were readily received
by the more conservative sections of English society,
and which John Locke attempted to refute in his fa-
mous Two Treatises of Government.


In 1688 the Convention parliament had passed a
resolution declaring that King James II of England had
“endeavoured to subvert the constitution of the king-
dom by breaking the original contract between king
and people.” It was Locke's intention to justify the
so-called “Glorious Revolution” which deposed King
James, thereby to “establish the Throne of Our present
King William; to make good his Title, in the Consent
of the People.” This required the justification of con-
ditional rights against the monarchy, and the rejection
of Filmer's belief in the divine right of kings. To do
this Locke meets Filmer on his own ground, the writ-
ings of the Old Testament. Both men fully accepted
the Bible as historically accurate, Locke merely claim-
ing that Filmer had misinterpreted the texts. In Locke's

Adam... being neither Monarch, nor his imaginary Mon-
archy hereditable, the Power which is now in the World,
is not that which was Adam's since all that Adam could
have... either of Property or Fatherhood, necessarily Died
with him, and could not be convey'd to Posterity by

In addition, there is no divine law of primogeniture,
nor is there any evidence that the monarchs of the
world were actually descended from Adam. In reply
to Filmer's rejection of contract, Locke manages to
disprove Filmer's argument on divine right.

As a replacement for it, Locke takes a position
characteristic of Social Contract theory, that civil so-
ciety has been consciously constructed by men. This
presupposition is fully accepted as a fact of history,
no less true for being unrecorded, and no less important
for being of long vintage. In reply to the appeal for
evidence of an original State of Nature, Locke provides
an explanation, ingenious rather than convincing,
which amply demonstrates his faith in reason as the
key to historical knowledge. Thus

it is not at all to be wonder'd, that History gives us but
very little account of Men, that lived together in the State
of Nature... if we may not suppose Men ever to have
been in the State of Nature, because we hear not much
of them in such a state, we may as well suppose the armies
of Salmanasser, or Xerxes, were never Children, because
we hear little of them, till they were Men, and imbodied
in Armies. Government is everywhere antecedent to
Records... For 'tis with Commonwealths as with particular
Persons, they are commonly ignorant of their own Births
and Infancies.

With regard to the consequences Locke draws from
contract, they certainly would have appeared perni-
cious to those sharing Filmer's approach. With Locke
the act by which individuals mutually agree to leave
the State of Nature is referred to as a “compact.” It
is only consent “which did, or could give beginning
to any lawful Government in the World.” Meaningful
consent, however, is confined to history, for after the
creation of society consent becomes tacit rather than
explicit, and is signified by mere residence within the
territory of a government.

Locke clearly differentiated the origins of society
from the establishment of government, a point he
might have learned from Pufendorf's De jure naturae
et gentium
(1672). Pufendorf saw society as resting on
two covenants and a decree. The first covenant forms
society, the decree settles the particular form of gov-
ernment, whilst by the second covenant sovereign
power is constituted. Locke accepted the importance
of differentiating between society and government, but
explained it in rather a different way. The agreements
embodied in compact are of a character in which all
sides are equally bound. Locke found this type of
agreement eminently suitable to describe his notion of
the social relationships of mankind, but quite unsuit-
able as a description of the strictly political relationship
that he wished to advocate. For Locke the people and
their rulers were not on a par, not equally bound by
arrangements made between them. Rather, he believed
that the government was the servant of society, bound
by the provisions for which it had been constituted
by the people. To express this relationship Locke made
use of the common seventeenth-century notion of
“trust.” The main obligation this entails is that the
government should serve to implement the will of the
people. Its role is, therefore, passive; it forfeits its
legitimate authority when it formulates a will of its
own, and seeks to distort, alter, or silence the voice
of the people.

This explains why the notion of contract was only
of limited use to Locke, why he sought to differentiate
the inauguration of society from the establishment of
government, and why he has come to be regarded as
a radical. If security is to be maintained in the general
interest, then the people must be dominant. If the
people are to be dominant, the government must be
subservient. A contractual relationship would have put
the rights of the government on a par with those of
the ruled, whereas one of trust stipulates their sub-
servience. Thus rule is exercised on the people's terms,
the way apparently being left open for the creation
of the conditions they desire. When a breach of this
trust occurs, power quite simply “devolves to the Peo-
ple,” for “Governments are dissolved... when the
legislative, or the Prince... act contrary to their
trust.” This conditional right of resistance is Locke's
justification of the events of 1688.


If “trust” is used to limit arbitrary power, “compact”
is used to delineate the proper scope of government.
This is done by means of his description of the State
of Nature. We have already mentioned that the State
of Nature, in describing man prior to government,
serves to demonstrate what man owes to government.
With Hobbes man owes virtually everything to gov-
ernment, his security, trade, culture, and knowledge.
With Locke this is not so. Locke's vision of the State
of Nature includes a market economy, wage labor,
large landed estates, and the use of money. The only
thing men lack is a “common Judge to Appeal to on
Earth for the determination of Controversies of Right
betwixt them.” The function of proposing such an
implausible situation is to stress that economic activity
and the basic rules of personal relationships do not
derive their impetus from the state. His positing a
tolerable pre-political condition derives from an atti-
tude in which government is seen as of merely supple-
mentary importance. The function of the state is not
to control the economy, but rather to ensure conditions
of safety in which a presumably self-regulating econ-
omy can operate. Similarly, the function of Locke's
placing freedom in the natural pre-social stage is to
demonstrate that this freedom does not derive from
government, which merely guarantees it. Thus, Locke's
positing of natural rights, of property accumulation
prior to the social compact, and of the limitation on
state power imposed by the notion of trust, are all
intended to protect the individual from the encroach-
ments of governmental power.

The complete rejection of the contract of govern-
ment is also found in Rousseau's Du contrat social
(1762). Here it is made clear that only the establish-
ment of society can be based on a contract, for the
role of government is one that precludes them from
a position of being able to bargain with the people.
Sovereign power belongs to the people, the govern-
ment merely being their servants, and having no right
to complain about their conditions of service.

Thus, those theorists who deny that the act by which a
people submits itself to leaders is a contract are wholly
correct. For that act is nothing other than a commission,
a form of employment in which the governors, as simple
officers of the sovereign, exercise in its name the power it
has placed in their hands...

(The Social Contract, trans.
M. Cranston, p. 102).

We noted with Locke how the solely social contract
was a means of alleviating fears of governmental tyr-
anny. A similar purpose was obviously shared by
Rousseau, who took numerous opportunities of ridicul-
ing the contract of subjection, which he associated with
Hobbes and Grotius. Such an act he saw as sheer

... and right cannot rest on madness.... Whether as
between one man and another, or between one man and
a whole people, it would always be absurd to say: “I hereby
make a covenant with you which is wholly at your expense
and wholly to my advantage; I will respect it so long as
I please and you shall respect it so long as I wish”

pp. 54, 58).

Thus far it might appear as if Rousseau and Locke
had both used Social Contract for the same purpose
of securing individual rights. This, apparently, was
Rousseau's purpose. The object of the Social Contract,
he told us, is to

find a form of association which will defend the person and
goods of each member with the collective force of all, and
under which each individual, while uniting himself with
the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free
as before

(ibid., p. 60).

Rousseau differs from Locke in that he does not
allow the people a right to decide the terms of the
contract, for these are invariable, being logically
determined by the problem they are designed to solve.
Thus the contract can be revoked, but not amended.
Its institution requires unanimity, and its terms allow
the body politic absolute power over all its members.
It also involves the total alienation of the individual
and his property to the community.

However, the contract itself is not dominant in
Rousseau's overall plan. Once it has been concluded,
it sinks into a place of secondary importance. Its major
function is then seen as the means by which the people
consent to the condition, not of liberal individualism,
but of extreme social cohesion guaranteed by adher-
ence to the General Will.

The General Will expresses the common interest of
all the citizens. It is what each individual would will
if he saw what his real interests were. It can be arrived
at when the correct attitude of mind is displayed, when
men manage to subordinate their personal and sec-
tional interests. Such an achievement is not a mark
of high intellectual endeavor, but merely of simplicity
and honesty, such as Rousseau assumed to exist among
the Swiss peasantry. It was rather in the inane sophis-
tication of urban society that men made government
more complex than need be, by giving their own selfish
aims priority over the good of the whole community.
If such people can learn to will the General Will, so
much the better. If not, Rousseau suggested, they “will
be forced to be free.” This apparent contradiction is
explained by pointing out that all people really want
to follow their best interests, without always knowing


what they are. To allow them to follow a false path
would be to deny them their aim, and so decrease,
rather than increase their freedom. The assumption
behind this is that the good of each individual is to
be found within the General Will. Society as a whole
is given overwhelming predominance over its parts.
All is merged within the General Will.

Such a theory has led to the plausible suggestion
that in guarding against the dangers of the govern-
mental contract of subjection, Rousseau had unwit-
tingly replaced it with a Social Contract of subjection.
Rousseau would argue that man, being a member of
such a society, could not be in a state of subjection
to it, for the body cannot wish to hurt its parts. The
Social Contract, by placing sovereignty in society,
ensures rule in the interests of society. This is in con-
trast to a governmental contract, which, in granting
sovereignty to the government, thereby ensures rule
solely in the interests of the government.

At this point we must note that, unlike Locke,
Rousseau did not regard the contract as a historical
reality. Rather it was an “ideal,” an arrangement that
would have to be made were political right to be
instituted. Hobbes had likewise suggested his system
as an “ideal,” but was far more optimistic regarding
its practical inauguration. “I recover some hope,” he
wrote, “that one time or other, this writing of mine,
may fall into the hands of a Soveraign, who will...
convert this Truth of Speculation, into the Utility of
Practice.” Rousseau had no such hopes. Men might
strive after his ideal, but were destined never to reach
it, for individual wills are always threatening to under-
mine the dominance of the General Will. “The body
politic, no less than the body of a man, begins to die
as soon as it is born, and bears within itself the causes
of its own destruction” (ibid., p. 134). Du contrat social,
then, is not a call to arms. It is a criticism of existing
states, the portrayal of an ideal, carrying little hope
that the ideal will be put into practice. Rousseau's
influence, however, was considerable, his theories
having been frequently invoked by Robespierre and
Saint-Just during the French Revolution. However, it
might be thought that their attempts to establish an
ideal political order merely served to confirm
Rousseau's warning, found in The Origin of Inequality:

People once accustomed to masters are not in a condition
to do without them. They nearly always manage, by their
revolutions, to hand themselves over to seducers, who only
make their chains heavier than before.

With Rousseau the line of major Social Contract
theorists came to an end. Belief in contract continued
into the nineteenth century, but its significance was
greatly decreased—alternative grounds for political
obligation being considered preferable. However, the
notion, increasingly discarded by the political philoso-
phers, was still found useful by practicing politicians,
and nowhere more so than in North America. It was
here that belief in the historical validity of contract
was most firmly and plausibly rooted, and here also
that, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the
problem of obligation to government was most clearly
at the forefront of political concern. The writings of
this period abound with accounts of contract or com-
pact. We find it, for example, in the Boston Gazette
of 1766, in the 1772 “Rights of the Colonists,” the latter
largely written by Samuel Adams, and in the views
proclaimed by the General Court of Massachusetts on
January 23, 1776.

Usually it is a contract of government, rather than
of society, to which reference is made. A common
theme was that George III had broken the contract
by which the American colonists gave allegiance to
the British crown. The action of the colonists was
viewed not as rebellion, but as resistance to the illegal
use of authority. Their original right was to institute
government on the basis of the consent of the ruled.
Were these conditions no longer fulfilled, the people
could reallocate political power in the manner they
found most suitable. Perhaps it was this preoccupation
with the exact terms of the origins of government that
led a newly independent United States of America to
make its distinctive contribution to modern political
practice in the formulation of a written constitution.
Certainly there was a widespread view that the consti-
tution was a governmental contract instituted for the
purpose of limiting state power and guaranteeing indi-
vidual rights.

It is probably no mere coincidence that by the clos-
ing years of the eighteenth century the only notable
English advocate of Social Contract was Tom Paine,
a man who had fought in the American army during
the War of Independence.

In The Rights of Man (1791) Paine uses the explana-
tory form we have already found in Locke's writings—
that is, to speak of society as based on “compact,” and
government on “trust.” Paine's usage of these terms,
however, is more satisfactory than Locke's attempt to
prove that the compact was a historical reality. Thus,
like Rousseau, he stated not that all government and
society had been formed in this way, but that they
ought to be. A compact between the people “to
produce a government... is the only mode in which
Governments have a right to exist.” The government
is neither a superior body nor an equal partner with
the people. It is a trustee, with duties rather than
rights, obliged to serve rather than command. In prac-
tice Paine saw “compact” and “trust” as reaching a


mutual alignment through a constitution. The consti-
tution is a compact; it contains the terms according
to which the people agree to form their society. It is
the arrangement they make with each other; it is also
the limitation within which government is contained.
Without a constitution a government has full legislative
freedom, for good or ill, during its period of office.
Where there is a constitution, this freedom is curtailed;
the people maintain their basic rights. “Government
without a constitution is power without a right.” The
examples of this ideal, and mankind's hope for the
future, Paine saw in the recently inaugurated govern-
ments of the United States of America and France.
This he hailed as the end of violence and superstition.
The Age of Reason was coming into being. The social
compacts of America and France had been its inaugu-
ration; and in their constitutional form, its guarantee.

By this time use of the contract was in decline even
among those consciously adhering to the views of
Locke. Thus we find in his Observations on the Nature
of Civil Liberty
(London and Boston, 1776), that
Richard Price had shown himself not particularly
concerned with the origins of the state. What now
seemed of far more value was the Lockean notion of
a trust between rulers and ruled. It was in Germany,
rather than England, that, particularly under the influ-
ence of Rousseau, the notion of contract continued to
find favor. Not least among the reasons for this is the
fact that the German philosophical tradition has always
been more juristically inclined than its English
counterpart, and so was better able to absorb a term
with strong legal connotations. Thus in Fichte's
Grundlage des Naturrechts (1796), we are granted the
luxury of three contracts as an explanation of the state.
The first is the property contract, which leads on to
the second, the protection contract, and finally the
union contract (Vereinigungsvertrag). Kant's Philosophy
of Right
(Rechtlehre), appearing in the same year,
contained no pretense that the contract was a historical
reality. It was merely to be regarded as an “idea of
reason,” by means of which the relationship between
the individual and the state might be better understood.

The Decline. It is clear that by the end of the
eighteenth century acceptance of the idea of Social
Contract was in rapid decline. It may seem strange
that the explanatory method of Locke and Rousseau
came under most serious attack just at the time when
the views they held were at their most influential. Such,
however, was the case. The hundred years separating
the English from the French Revolution contain the
most explicit arguments both for and against Social

Not that rejection of Social Contract was anything
new. An important body of opinion had never accepted
it. The publication of Hobbes' Leviathan had previ-
ously stimulated numerous hostile replies based on the
implausibility of supposing that men in a State of
Nature could ever have made a Social Contract. The
celebrated Sacheverell trial of 1710 was faced with the
tricky historical question of whether the original con-
tract was made before Magna Carta, and if so why
no mention of the contract was to be found within
it. Answers to questions such as these were increas-
ingly demanded, and decreasingly supplied, thereby
gradually reducing the value that could be derived from
the use of Social Contract theory.

The major eighteenth-century attack on Social Con-
tract appeared in David Hume's essay “Of the Original
Contract” (1748). Here it is suggested that we have
no evidence of a Social Contract ever having taken
place, and, in any case, the very idea is “far beyond
the comprehension of savages” in the State of Nature.
It was clear to Hume that the idea was spread by
philosophers, for the ordinary person does not usually
act as if his allegiance to government stems from con-
tract. In fact, “were you to ask the far greatest part
of the nation, whether they had ever consented to the
authority of their rulers, or promis'd to obey them, they
would be inclined to think very strangely of you.”
Government, Hume concludes, “was formed by vio-
lence, and submitted to from necessity.” Any legiti-
macy that may attach to it derives from gradual
acceptance, rather than from original explicit consent.
This criticism, of course, only applied to thinkers such
as Locke, who regarded the contract as a historical
event, and not to those who considered the contract
as an act that ought to take place. It was as a philo-
sophical inquiry of the way in which society should
be understood, or the structure it ought to have, that
the Social Contract method was best suited. Never-
theless an increasingly historical attitude towards soci-
ety was one of the main factors leading to the rejection
of Social Contract, even though not all of its propo-
nents had regarded the contract as a historical reality.

We might note that rejection of contract on grounds
of its historical implausibility did not immediately
result in a major attempt to find a historically accurate
account of the state's origins. Rather the question of
historical origins was deemed irrelevant to the problem
of political legitimacy and obligation. Philosophical
criteria, which had always been taken into account,
became, with the rise of utilitarianism, the sole stand-
ard. Such an approach had actually been near the
surface even with the most important Social Contract
theorists. Thus Hobbes passed lightly over the question
of the state's actual origins, merely pointing out that
men should behave “as if” a contract had been made.
Also his “commonwealth by acquisition” had exactly


similar claims to obedience as the “commonwealth by
institution”; a foreign conqueror was to be obeyed for
the same reasons as an indigenous monarch. In the last
resort the criterion of obligation was not so much that
of origins, as that of performance. If protection is
secured, then obedience is the only rational reaction.

Signs of emergent utilitarianism also occur in Locke's
justification of both property and political power ac-
cording to the criterion of beneficial use. Property can
be owned to the extent that it can be used—none must
go to waste. Political power can be rightfully exercised
only in accordance with the aims for which it was
supposedly instituted. Locke, therefore, is torn between
alternative modes of political legitimacy—the one
based on origins, stressing the importance of the correct
method of institution, and the other based on practice,
stressing that the rulers should govern in accord with
the purposes for which government was supposedly
first instituted.

We have already mentioned the way in which con-
tract was given a radical function by being used as
a means whereby conditional resistance to state power
could be justified. By the end of the eighteenth century
this usage was all but discarded, in response to the
gradual realization that the method's apparent radical-
ism had inherent limitations. The belief in contract
began to appear double-edged; radical when presented
in terms of an improvement, either as an old standard
to which society ought to return (Locke), or as a new
agreement that ought to be made in order to remedy
current deficiencies (Rousseau); but static when pre-
sented as an agreement that has been made, is in force,
and ought to be adhered to. Insofar as he used the
notion of contract, Burke employed it in this latter
sense. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France
(1790), we learn of a contract that is in no way a Social
Contract made by men. It has nothing to do with
historical origins, free choice, or individual consent to
government. Rather it is a kind of implicit under-
standing whereby the hierarchy of God, man, and
nature is perpetually maintained.

Society is indeed a contract... but between those who
are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be
born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause
in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking
the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible
and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned
by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral
natures, each in their appointed place.

In the panic engendered by the French Revolution,
Burke wished to stress obedience rather than resistance,
duties rather than rights. Being a Whig, Burke might
have found it useful to use Whig terminology, but he
did so without impairing his aim, for he turned the no-
tion of contract in a thoroughly conservative direction.

Burke's contemporary, William Godwin, was also
aware of the conservative twist that could be applied
to contract. The fact that it could be given this twist
was one of Burke's reasons for accepting it in highly
amended form, and Godwin's for rejecting it in any
form. What troubled Godwin was the notion that a
present generation could be shackled by decisions
taken long before their time. This would be to deny
the benefits of later knowledge. As such, a contract
is an absurdity, for it can only have been made with
the object of improving the human lot rather than
impairing it. Thus the contract method was considered
incompatible with the increasingly dominant Idea of
Progress. Most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century op-
ponents of contract had been believers in divine right,
and had rejected the attempt to provide guarantees
against misuse of state power. By the late eighteenth
century it appeared that the form of these attempted
guarantees also acted against hopes of continual
improvement. Godwin criticized the contractualist
assumption that improvement could be brought about
by the immediate transformation of the unjust present
into the just future. To be successful, such an act would
have to be a miracle. Godwin saw as more likely a
steady and continual process, in which knowledge
always precedes novelty. This was the characteristic
basis on which radicals came to reject the Social Con-
tract. Improvement was desirable, but could only be
achieved gradually. Progress came to be based on
pseudo-scientific foundations, on apparent laws of
historical development, rather than on the sudden
decision of men totally to transform their society. An
additional factor is that the contract was further
discredited, at least in England, by its association with
Rousseau and the French Revolution. The panic
aroused served to create an atmosphere in which the
least spark of discontent was rigorously suppressed, lest
it flare into a conflagration beyond all human control.
Those who had the courage to advocate reform had
to do so without recourse to Social Contract or the
“Rights of Man,” for both were considered pernicious
notions which, having reaped such havoc just across
the English Channel, threatened to do likewise some-
where else.

By the nineteenth century the age of Social Contract
theory was virtually at an end. The one country in
which the idea remained current was that in which
it had the most recent historical roots, the United States
of America. Here we find it referred to in various
debates on the nature of the Constitution, and of the
relationship of the separate states to the central gov-
ernment. In 1831 John Quincy Adams suggested that


the Massachusetts Constitution was a social compact
and likewise the “Declaration of Independence was a
social compact, by which the whole people covenanted
with each citizen of the united colonies, and each
citizen with the whole people, that the united colonies
were, and of right ought to be, free and independent
states.” Final survivals of contract could be found in
various state constitutions, as in those of Arkansas, until
1868, and Texas, where it reappeared in 1876, but as
elsewhere, did not long survive the realization of its
historical implausibility.

In Europe there was no longer any pretense that
Social Contract had any historical reality, and yet there
was a reluctance to discard an idea that had served
the valuable purpose of emphasizing government by
consent. The best that could be done was to accept
contract merely as an idea expressing the moral rela-
tionship between ruler and ruled. Society could not
be held together entirely by force; it still needed a
kind of tacit contract, a feeling of moral obligation.
It is in this sense that we find the idea employed by
such diverse figures as Kant, the poet Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, and later by T. H. Huxley. T. H. Green also
ably defended this usage of contract by pointing out
that “The supposition that some events took place that
as a matter of history did not take place may be a
way of conveying an essentially true conception of
some moral relation of man.” It was for this nonhistor-
ical and nonlegal notion of contract that in 1896 the
French politician Léon Bourgeois resurrected the term
“quasi-contract,” which had already been employed
over a century earlier by Josiah Tucker, Dean of
Gloucester. Yet even this extreme modification of con-
tract theory was not enough to ensure its survival, for
the contractualist position had been eroded on both
flanks. First, there was the movement of thought which
saw man no longer as the creator of his own environ-
ment, but rather as a being determined by wider forces
operating according to inexorable historical laws. We
have already seen how the idea of progress undermined
Social Contract theory by its insistence that change
could only be gradual rather than cataclysmic. This
at least did not deny the role of human will in forming
society. Once the idea of human progress was regarded
as scientifically inevitable, laws of historical change,
whether based on natural selection, or economic
determinism, made the conscious role of human beings
less significant. Secondly, Social Contract theory be-
came redundant when its postulates of popular consent
to government became more of a reality. The assumed
consent of ancestors, or the assumed implicit consent
of contemporaries gave way, at least in western Europe
and North America, to the relatively frequent explicit
choice of governments by increasingly large sections
of the adult population. The general election thus
rendered contract theory unnecessary by explicitly
fulfilling its major demand.

The Social Contract, then, is no longer in favor. Its
relevance for us, however, stems from its historical
connection with the ideas of individual rights and
government by consent. Social Contract thus remains
of interest as the procedural mode which helped intro-
duce the set of ideas which form the basis of contem-
porary liberal democratic thought.


The major classical texts are: T. Hobbes, Leviathan
(London, 1962); B. Spinoza, Tractatus theologico-politicus
(1670); S. Pufendorf, De jus naturae et gentium (Of the Law
of Nature and of Nations
), trans. Basil Kennett (London,
1729); J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge,
1962); D. Hume, Theory of Politics, ed. F. Watkins (London,
1951); T. Paine, The Rights of Man (London, 1958). J. J.
Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. and Introduction
Maurice Cranston (Harmondsworth, 1968).

The secondary material includes: F. Atger, Essai sur
l'histoire des doctrines du Contrat Social
(Nêmes, 1906);
C. E. Vaughan, Studies in the History of Political Philosophy
before and after Rousseau,
2 vols. (Manchester, 1925); idem,
The Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, 2 vols.
(Cambridge, 1915; Oxford, 1962); O. Gierke, The Develop-
ment of Political Theory
(London, 1939); E. Barker, Social
(London and New York, 1948); J. W. Gough, The
Social Contract
(Oxford, 1963); M. Levin, “Uses of the Social
Contract Method: Vaughan's Interpretation of Rousseau,”
Journal of the History of Ideas, 28, 4 (October-December,
1967). For Clarke, see his Papers, ed. C. H. Firth, Vol. I,
Camden Society, N.S. 19 (1891), 301.


[See also Balance of Power; Conservatism; Democracy;
Equality; General Will; Law, Ancient Greek, Ancient
Roman; Liberalism; Nature; Primitivism; Progress; Revo-
lution; State;
Stoicism; Totalitarianism; Utopia.]