The Social Contract: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau


One of the theories concerning the origin of the governmental state of the society is the theory of the social contract. Although philosophers gave a lot of thought to the questions of how society should function, and what the ideal governor should be like, back in the ancient times and during the Middle Ages, the idea and the detailed model of the social contract was developed during the Age of the Enlightenment in Europe. Its basic objective is to try to explain the means and reasons that would explicate the origins of the society and government, as well as justify the authority of the society over the separate individuals. Thomas Hobbes first shaped the conception of the social contract into the elaborate form in his work Leviathan. Such prominent thinkers as John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau contributed largely to the development of the theory, and each of them re-introduced it with the regard to the new political context and social developments. Over the years, the theory was refined and revised by the other philosophers and is still a subject of the debate. Hence, the objective of this paper is to explore the specifics of the representation of the conception of the social contract in the works of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and to find similarities, contrasts and controversies of their work, as well as to define the realistic, practical value of this theory in the modern philosophical discourse.

The origins of the concept of the social contract in the works of Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was the first philosopher to view the governmental stance of the society in the context of its authority over the individual. In many ways, this idea of his was the reflection of the zeitgeist of the Age of the Enlightenment. Due to the advancements in social freedom, the intellectual elite, and especially philosophers started to pay more attention to the individuality of the human nature, and to the contrast between the individual and social, between the private and public. In fact, the accent on the individuality in Hobbes’s works was so strong that some scholars define him as a radical individualist (Hampton 6). He depicted the society not as the united synergized whole, but as the separate individuals, who had to form the governmental sovereign state; otherwise, they would start the war against each other.

The concept of the war of all against all is one of the primary ideas of the Hobbes’s the most well-known work Leviathan (1651). The title of the book at the same time represents the leading metaphor of the whole Hobbes’s conception of social contract. The philosopher compares the sovereign state to the Leviathan, the horrendous Biblical creature. The societal stage of the human development comes when people by means of making a contract, agree to obey the something bigger than themselves, that is the state, but at the same time, they receive the guarantee that the society would protect their rights. It is a crucial nuance for Hobbes; he contrasts the societal sovereign state and the state of nature. In the state of nature, there are no restrictions and obligations imposed on the humanity; people are free to do what they want. However, they cannot protect neither themselves, nor anything that belongs to them, which makes such state of life dangerous and anarchic, and most importantly, unprofitable for everyone. Hence, by making a contract, they are granted with the sovereign protecting their lives, but Hobbes goes further and claims that in authorizing the ruler of the state with power, “the subjects alienate their rights to him” (Gauthier 59). According to Hobbes, such agreement creates the profitable relationships between the ruler and the covenant, since the latter is interested in making the sovereign stronger and supporting him, the ruler is supposed to protect his covenants to stay in power.

Locke’s critique of Hobbes’s interpretation of the social contract

While the Hobbes’s interpretation of the humanity in the state of nature without government can be perceived as pessimistic since people are depicted as egoistic, anarchic and immoral. They transform to the state of government due to the selfish reasons and motivations as well, according to Hobbes. It is one of a number of points in his theory, which the English philosopher John Locke finds quite objectionable. Locke, who was more engaged in the Enlightenment movement than his predecessor, viewed the human nature as, first of all, moral. The philosopher introduces the concept of the Law of Nature, the law supposedly, according to which all human are bound together into the groups by their moral values. When those groups become larger, it is possible for them to create a governmental structure (Taylor 7).

His work Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689) explores the nature of the authorization of the ruler not in the same way that Hobbes does. The latter mostly thinks of a government as a body that has the limitless authority, to which the subjects sacrifice their rights and freedom in exchange for protection. Whereas Locke’s approach advances closer to the democratic state of the government, in which authority comes from within the system, to protect the subjects of the government. Thus, it has the same functional content as in the Hobbes’s theory but the people, according to Locke, also have their power over the government, so that the sovereign can be replaced if it malfunctions. Also, Locke inclines to a certain theocentrism, as he recognizes the divine element in the morality of laws of nature; and therefore, sees them as more important than the governmental structure.

Rousseau’s philosophical advancements on the subject of the social contract

The philosophy of Jean-Jacque Rousseau contributed significantly to the modern principles of law. One of the notions the philosopher explores in his studies is the idea of rights in his treatise The Social Contract (1762). Through the reviewing and developing the principles of the Locke’s theory, Rousseau tries to grasp how to maximize the freedom of each individual in the society without rejecting the notion of government. While Locke recognizes the moral component behind the laws of nature, and considers them primary for the humanity, in the works of Rousseau, the social component is more important (Boucher 67).

Furthermore, Locke allots the rulers, the government with the same inherent moral qualities, with the understanding of concepts of consent and obligation. At this point, Rousseau rejects Locke’s interpretation, and formulates an entirely divergent explanation.

Rousseau’s representation of the notion of the social contract deals with the two main categories, autonomy and interdependence (Coben 191). The objective of Rousseau is essentially finding the optimal ways of how to preserve the maximum of human freedom while making compromises for the functioning of the society. Unlike John Locke, the philosopher does not relate to the idea of natural rights and inherent moral values (Taylor 7). He recognizes the morals as the result of the upbringing, and the freedom as something that humanity should be taught rather than the inborn quality. Thus, for the Rousseau basis of the social contract is recognition of the freedom of the individual himself and the freedom of others, understanding that the rights of each individual are autonomic, yet they can affect the other people’s rights. Hence, according to Rousseau, the government is needed for controlling extend of everyone’s freedom.

Controversies and further debate on the notion of the social contract

Over the years, the model of the social contract was refined and revised by the other philosophers, that either tried to improve and adapt it to the circumstances and events modern to them, or objected to the primary idea of the social contract, and considered the theory false. Nevertheless, today Rousseau’s theory is viewed in the context of understanding social and political justice. Prominent philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick elaborated the ideas of the social contract to explore the issue of equality and justice. They mostly find fault with the Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau’s interpretation of what is profitable for the individuals in the society, and what is the best governmental structure for each individual to benefit the most. The ideas are revised because some principles that fitted for the 17th through 19th centuries do not function in the same manner today.


The theory of the social contract, initially introduced in the works of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, is still a significant part of a philosophical discourse. While the basics of the theory, such as principles of interaction between an individual and the society, and defining the extend of one’s freedom stay the same, some aspects of the social contract are revised in the context of the modern society. Most importantly, this theory seeks to find the practical solutions of how to find compromises between individuals and society. However, the on-going debate on the subject of the validity and reliability of the theory of the social contract proves its significant as a major philosophical conception.


Boucher, David, and Paul Kelly. The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls. London: Routledge, 2003.

Coben, Joshua. “Reflections on Rousseau: Autonomy and Democracy.” The social contract theorists: critical essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Ed. Christopher Morris. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. 191-205. Print.

Hampton, Jean. Hobbes and the social contract tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Gauthier, David. “Hobbes’s Social Contract.” The social contract theorists: critical essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Ed. Christopher Morris. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. 59-73. Print.

Taylor, Benjamin. “Second Treatise of the Social Contract: A Comparative Analysis of Locke and Rousseau.” Black & Gold 1.1 (2015): 7-9. Print

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DemoEssays. "The Social Contract: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau." December 30, 2022.