The notion of the social contract -- the concept that human society is fundamentally a human construct -- originated in seventeenth-century European thought and was developed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, receiving perhaps its most dramatic and influential expressions in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, published in 1651, and Jean-Jacque Rousseau's The Social Contract, published in 1762. The notion of the social contract itself arises from a conception of the condition of humanity before the contract was established, the so-called 'state of nature', and each of these works embodies a contrasting view of the state of nature from which human society has arisen.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed that politics was a science kin to geometry, and that political institutions could be understood using scientific principles. He perceived humans as objects pushed back and forth by powerful forces similar to those that acted upon objects in the physical universe, and sought means of constraining those forces as the underpinnings of a stable society. He regarded the fundamental principles of human social and political organization as 'Lawes of Nature' akin to those of the sciences (Hobbes 223). Thus, in Leviathan, Hobbes argues that all humans are driven by two impulses, fear of death and desire for power, which would condemn them to living violent, brutish, inhumane, and solitary lives if left unchecked. The social contract was the means of controlling these impulses and making society possible. The people, according to Hobbes, establish a social contract among themselves, ceding all authority and sovereignty to a single person in exchange for security from each other and from external attack: 'reduc[ing] all their Wills, by plurality of voices, unto one Will' (Hobbes 227). This ruler would exercise absolute power, controlling the violent and selfish impulses of individuals through force. People would thus lose their liberty, but would gain security.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau also used the notion of the social contract as a human creation, 'not a natural right' but 'one founded on covenants' (Rousseau 50), but radically changed the concept put forward by Hobbes. Rousseau, like Hobbes, argued that people agreed to cede authority to a particular group in return for the benefits of social organization and mutual security: 'the only way in which they can preserve themselves is by uniting their separate powers in a combination strong enough to overcome any resistance, uniting them so that their powers are directed by a single motive and act in concert' (Rousseau, 59-60). However, while Hobbes argued that the social contract could not be changed once established, for to change it would invite social breakdown and anarchy, Rousseau asserted that if those in power failed or refused to fulfil the contract by providing safety, the people were free to break the contract with them and establish a new social contract: 'Despite their common interest, subjects will not be bound by their commitment unless means are found to guarantee their fidelity' (Rousseau 63).
Hobbes's vision of the state of nature is clearly fundamental to his concept of the social contract. By the state of nature he means that condition which will prevail for humanity without the establishment of any contract or agreement through which authority can be exercised and the natural laws of existence curbed. As a consequence, Hobbes's view of the state of nature is famously bleak, amounting in his view to a state of war: 'during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man against every man' (Hobbes 185). This view arises from Hobbes's conviction that the fundamental motivations in human nature are selfish and competitive, and will always find expression through physical competition through which the strong will be able to impose their will upon the weak. This is incompatible with any form of civilization:
In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain ... no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. (Hobbes 186)
For Hobbes the state of nature is a state of equality, in which 'Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind' (Hobbes 183) so that every individual is equally vulnerable to every other; any man can hope to overcome any other by cunning or by massing sufficient force against him. This is not a condition of equal obligation or equal rights, but one of equal vulnerability. Motivated as individuals are by desire and the need to fulfil the requirements for life, competition is another essential characteristic of Hobbes's state of nature, competition that will, he believes, inevitably lead to discord and war: 'if any two men desire the same thing, which neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and ... endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other' (Hobbes 184). Hobbes not only identifies the state of nature with a state of war, he also expands his definition of war to encompass readiness for war and preparedness for war, holding that in the state of nature these conditions will inevitably prevail even when actual armed conflict does not, 'For Warre, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known' (Hobbes 185-6). Finally, and in some ways most importantly, there is no established morality in a state of nature, with no ideas of wrong or right, justice or injustice, good or evil. Such concepts are not innate to human nature but are dependent on authority. Where there is no authority, there can be no such concepts: 'The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law; where no Law, no Injustice' (Hobbes 188).
Thus in the Hobbesian state of nature man is governed by his passions. The only escape from the state of nature is thus for individuals to rise above those passions. Just as there are motivating forces within humanity that dispose people to war, so there are others that have the potential to incline them to peace: 'The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them' (Hobbes 188). It is by harnessing these motivations collectively that the social contract, ceding liberty to authority in return for security, can be established. And once that contract is established it cannot be overthrown or changed, for to do so would be to revert to the barbarity of the state of nature: 'they that are subjects to a Monarch, cannot without his leave cast off Monarchy, and return to the confusion of a disunited Multitude' (Hobbes 229).
Rousseau similarly sees the state of nature as that condition that existed among humanity before an agreement to live collectively, motivated ultimately by self-preservation, was instituted: 'I assume that men reach a point where the obstacles to their preservation in a state of nature prove greater that the strength that each man has to preserve himself in that state' (Rousseau, 59). This follows from Rousseau's conviction that the state of nature is a brutish condition incompatible with any idea of civilization. Civilized man is an impossibility in the state of nature:
The passing from the state of nature to the civil society produces a remarkable change in man; it puts justice as a rule of conduct in the place of instinct, and gives his actions the moral quality they previously lacked ... [it] lifted him for ever from the state of nature and from a narrow,…