The European Enlightenment: Glossary

Social Contract


Reformation Glossary
Voluntary Associations
   Europe shook with political instability throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Reformation ideas, such as freedom, the religious equality of believers, and "voluntary associations," spread political dissension and doubt across the face of Europe. Monarchies began to slowly erode as democratic sentiments rose and this led to serious doubts about the nature of human political institutions, and a variety of philosophical answers were produced to meet these doubts. Among these answers was the idea that states were governed by natural laws; these laws were immutable, rational, and understandable by human reason. Although these laws were not necessarily followed, the originator of the idea that states were governed by natural laws, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), believed that they should be. However, by far the most influential of these thinkers was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who originated the concept of the social contract.


   Hobbes believed that all phenomena in the universe, including political institutions, could be understood using principles of geometry. In 1651, Hobbes printed his most famous book, Leviathan , in which he argued that all humans are driven by two and only two impulses: fear of death and desire for power. If left unchecked, human beings would act on these impulses and live violent, brutish, inhumane, and solitary lives. In order to keep these impulses in check, human beings, according to Hobbes, drew up a social contract among themselves; the people ceded all authority and sovereignty to a single person in exchange for security from each other and from foreign invaders. The single ruler would control the violent and selfish impulses of individual members in a society through brute force; individuals would lose their liberty, but they would gain security and community. Hobbes did not care what form this single rule might take, whether a monarch or a dicatator, only that absolute power was required to keep society together.


Enlightenment Glossary
Absolutism

European Enlightenment
Rousseau
The Discourse on Inequality
   For Hobbes, however, this social contract could not be revised; it was established at some distant time in the past and if people revise this contract, that is, if people attempt to regain some measure of sovereignty or power, society will fall into violent chaos since the purpose of the monarchy is to hold the people in check. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, however, radically revised Hobbes' social contract; in Rousseau's view, the people agreed to cede authority to some group in order to gain the benefits of community and safety. If those in power refused to guarantee community and safety, the governed were free to disobey and establish a new political contract. While Hobbes believed in absolute rule, Rousseau believed that absolute rule was a perversion of the original intent of the primordial social contract. Rousseau's fundamental argument in his two famous works, The Social Contract and the Discourse on Inequality, is that modern human society is built on an imperfect social contract, since it fosters inequality and servitude. All government is fundamentally flawed—Rousseau was calling for a rebuilding of the social contract from the ground up in order to ensure equality and freedom.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97