World History 2 97 - 7.1.3 Social Contract Theory

At the core of Enlightenment debate about the relationship between state authority and natural rights was the fundamental character of the social contract. This implicit agreement, or “contract,” compels those living in a society to abide by its rules and regulations or suffer punishments for violating them. In essence, those who enter into the social contract implicitly surrender their natural rights to the state, which is then charged with the task of maintaining and protecting those rights. However, according to many social contract theorists like Rousseau, when a state fails to maintain the general will or protect natural rights, citizens may in turn withdraw their social and moral obligations to the state.

The ultimate goal of social contract theory was to demonstrate that the rules imposed by civil society could be rationally justified, and that in its ideal form, government would effectively serve the interests of the people and uphold the general will. As a result, stability and social order would prevail for all. The roles of justice and liberty in civil society thus formed the focus of much debate among philosophers and European rulers concerned with preserving the balance between individual rights and political authority.

The social contract is not the same thing as democracy. A democracy is a government in which the power to govern rests in the hands of the people. Under social contract theory, kings and queens could determine what was in the best interests of their people and take such actions as they believed best protected their subjects. The two parties to the contract were the people on the one hand and the monarch on the other. The people surrendered their rights to the monarch and allowed the monarch to govern them, and the king or queen protected the people’s interests. As social contract theory and the concept of natural rights gained greater recognition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some absolute monarchs in Europe, such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia, embraced the influence of the Enlightenment and became known as an enlightened despot (Figure 7.5). Although they maintained the absolute jurisdiction of their rule, enlightened despots differentiated themselves from other monarchs by claiming they received their power from the social contract to rule in the best interest of their subjects.

A portrait of Catherine II. She wears ornate robes and jewelry.
Figure 7.5 Commonly known as Catherine the Great, Empress Catherine II of Russia was an “enlightened despot” whose rule remained authoritarian even as she claimed to derive her political power from the social contract. This oil painting of Catherine by an unknown artist was probably made during her lifetime. (credit: “Portrait of Catherine II of Russia” by Kunsthistorisches Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Enlightened despots often invited renowned philosophers to their courts to help design laws and policies that would—at least in theory—protect the essence of the social contract. Frederick of Prussia, for example, invited the French philosopher Voltaire to live at his palace in Potsdam in 1750. Although the nature of authoritarian rule may seem at odds with the preservation of natural rights and the social contract, many philosophers developed political models that appealed to enlightened despots. Locke, Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes are often lauded in traditional historical narratives for their defense of rights and freedoms. Hobbes maintained that an absolute government, characterized by unlimited centralized political authority, provided the best means of preserving rights and freedoms in what would otherwise be an anarchic state of nature, while Rousseau and Locke extolled the virtues of more democratic political models.

Beyond the Book

A Vision of the Social Contract in Leviathan

In his influential political treatise Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that a strong government in the form of an absolute monarchy was the best means of ensuring political order and social stability. He asserted that without the guidance of a powerful sovereign, people would naturally be inclined toward self-interest, which would ultimately lead to chaos and anarchy. This image of the frontispiece from Leviathan presents a striking visual representation of Hobbes’s vision (Figure 7.6).

This image is a collage of several smaller images and blocks of text. At the top, a giant man is covered in scales and appears to be rising out of the sea. He wears a crown and holds a sword as he overlooks a city. Smaller images below include a castle, a crown, a cannon, and crossed stacks of weapons. A large text box reads “Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil by Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbvry.” A smaller text box reads “London Printed for Andrew Cooke 1651.
Figure 7.6 This 1651 engraving by Abraham Bosse is the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s treatise Leviathan, named for the mythological sea creature. (credit: “Leviathan by Abraham Bosse/Thomas Hobbes” by Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • Look closely at the image to understand the nature of the relationship between monarch and subjects. How would you describe it, and how does it reflect Hobbes’s vision of the social contract?
  • What appear to be the obligations of the monarch and subjects in this relationship?

Despite their adoption of a seemingly progressive vision of universal rights, however, the societies in which Enlightenment thinkers lived did not offer freedoms to all people, nor were their writings as inclusive as they appear. The advance of Enlightenment ideals did result in increased liberties for many—predominantly White men of the upper and middle classes in western Europe and what later became the United States—but most women, men at the lower end of the social hierarchy, and people of color were generally excluded from participating in the Enlightenment or benefiting from its ideals of social and political equality.

Some elite women, such as the French philosophers Émilie du Châtelet and Germaine de Staël, assumed leadership roles in the era’s vibrant intellectual debates and gained recognition for their contributions. Some Enlightenment thinkers, however, did not consider women to be equal in status to their male counterparts. Rousseau, for example, described women as subordinate to men based on the assumption that they were weaker and less rational by nature. On this premise, Rousseau argued that women belonged in the domestic space of the home, while the public space of politics and business was the preserve of men. Other thinkers such as Locke supported women’s increased access to education and participation in the public sphere, but they asserted that men should retain leadership roles within the household and in public life due to their greater strength and ability. Although a small number of women played important roles in the Enlightenment, most did not immediately benefit from its emphasis on ideals of equality and freedom.

In what later became the United States and in some European countries, Enlightenment theories coexisted with the institution of slavery, the appropriation of lands from Indigenous people, and access to political participation and the protections afforded by the state that were generally limited to White men of property. Social contract theorists generally justified such contradictions by asserting that because Indigenous peoples resided in a nonpolitical state, and because they were believed to lack the capacity to reason, they were not entitled to the rights and protections afforded to other peoples. Enlightenment lawyers, moreover, used social contract theory to defend slavery, on the grounds that either it was a justifiable consequence of conquest or Black people were incapable of governing themselves without the protection of White owners. Although social contract theory ultimately formed the foundations of seminal documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the ideals of rights and freedoms it espoused coexisted with engrained racial injustices that formed the foundation of slavery and colonialism.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax