The History of the Social Contract by Sir Robert Harry Inglis Palgrave 1899
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The doctrine of the social contract may be described as the doctrine that every state owes its existence and constitution to the free and deliberate agreement of its original members, and that its present members by continuing within it are presumed to acquiesce voluntarily in its authority by reason of receiving its advantages. It thus involves the assumption of a state of nature and a law of nature antecedent to civil society and to civil law. The date of its origin is difficult to fix, for the theory that society has its origin in convention is as old as the Greek sophists, and has been in vogue at intervals ever since. It is easier to fix the time at which the doctrine of the social contract had most influence. With the decline of mediaeval beliefs men felt the necessity of some justification for the authority of the state, apart from theological arguments or ideas of feudal tenure. Science was still so little advanced that hardly any one thought of asking how the state has actually arisen. The notion of an original compact became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The three most celebrated exponents of this notion are Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
Hobbes's conception of the social contract is set forth in his Leviathan (1651). As he had been profoundly impressed with the miseries of civil discord in England, he sought to found on the social contract a system of absolute government. He assumed an original state of nature in which man was subject only to the natural law of self-preservation, and was therefore justified in taking every advantage of his fellow-creatures. Such a state of nature was necessarily a state of universal war, and whilst it lasted the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The same law of self-preservation constrained men to seek for an escape from this wretched condition. Therefore they came together and entered into a covenant, every man with every other, whereby each resigned all his natural rights into the hands of a particular person or body of persons, on condition that every one else did the same. Thus they created a sovereign who was not indeed a party to the social contract, but who derived from it an absolute authority which could not be revoked, because the members of society had reserved no rights to themselves. The sovereign was subject neither to legal nor to moral restraint, and political liberty meant merely liberty to do that which the sovereign had not forbidden.
Locke, in his Treatise on Civil Government (1690), gave a new complexion to the theory of the social contract. According to Locke the state of nature was one of freedom and equality. Whilst in that state men were subject to the law of nature which restrained their rights over their own or their neighbours’ life and property. Thus the state of nature was not necessarily a state of war or of misery. It was, however, a state of insecurity, as there was no impartial and irresistible arbiter to protect each individual in the enjoyment of his rights. Therefore men agreed to form a society and to resign to a ruling authority so much of their natural rights as was necessary for this purpose. They could not invest their governors with unlimited rights over life and property, for they had not possessed such rights themselves. Nor could they be supposed to resign more of their natural rights than they were obliged to do, in order to secure the benefits of civil society. Therefore the sovereign could not claim more than a limited authority, and if he betrayed his trust, he might lawfully be deposed. In this way constitutional government was made to appear the logical corollary of the social contract.
On the Edge of Anarchy: Locke, Consent, and the Limits of Society by A. John Simmons
Rousseau published his famous book on the social contract in 1762. In this work he combines some elements derived from Hobbes, with other elements derived from Locke. He seeks to harmonise the absolute authority of the sovereign with the absolute freedom of the citizen. The aim of the social contract, he taught, was “to find a form of association which may defend and protect, with the whole force of the community, the person and property of every associate, and by means of which, each coalescing with all, may nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before." Like Hobbes, Rousseau held that, by the social pact, each individual surrendered the whole of his natural rights. But, unlike Hobbes, he held that the community formed by this pact necessarily remained sovereign. Sovereignty being inalienable and indivisible, the "prince," i.e. the government, could only be a subordinate authority. The "prince" wielded the executive power, but the legislative power always remained with the people, and when the people assembled they resumed plenary authority, and the "prince" was suspended from his functions. With ingenious sophistry, Rousseau tries to prove that this absolute power of the body means the absolute freedom of its members, so that when an individual suffers death in virtue of a law enacted by the people, he is really a consenting party to his own execution, and if he thinks otherwise, is not thinking clearly. It will be clear, from what has been said, that each writer will deduce from the hypothesis of a social contract the legitimacy of that form of government which he thinks most beneficial. The hypothesis rests on a sharp distinction between the state of nature and the social state, between the law of nature and the civil law. But these distinctions have no basis in history. From the first, men lived in rudimentary associations, and these passed by gradual development into what we call political society. How the state has arisen is a purely historical question which must be solved by the collection and interpretation of historical evidence. No genuine instance of a social contract has been found, nor, if found, would it support inferences like those drawn by Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. That savages could foresee the political needs of later generations, or bind those generations by their covenant, has been proved absurd by anthropology. Nevertheless, the theory of the social contract contains in mythical form a serious truth. Government cannot be justified simply on grounds of force, of tradition or even of instinct. It can be justified only on the ground that it conduces to the good of the governed. It is most powerful when it has their conscious approval. In this sense it is true that the consent of the governed is the basis of government. The theory of the social contract had the merit of contradicting the theories which based government on divine right, on patriarchal right, or on proprietary right. It was an instrument of intellectual and social revolution, not a scientific summary of historical fact.
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