A Comparison of Thomas Hobbes Versus Rousseau on Social Contracts in Western Political Thought

In Thomas Hobbes book Leviathan- Parts One and Two, he presents a commonwealth ruled by a sovereign leader that is based on the laws of nature and the kingdom of God. At the root of the commonwealth is a social contract, which is a covenant binding the individuals of the society to wills and judgments of the sovereign leader. The contract explores the asociality of the human specie and self-preservation which is fundamental to the human drive.

Influenced by Hobbes’ social contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau published On the Social Contract presenting his theory of the social contract that both expanded and differed from Hobbes’ principles. Rousseau’s social contract presented the governing factor to be the general will. Although Hobbes and Rousseau have differing Social Contracts they each are represented by the phrase “A kingdom divided cannot stand,” for, the former is a reference to a monarchy and the latter is a reference to the general will.

In Hobbes’ Leviathan he presents the asociality of human nature. Because, he notes, human kind is equal in both the body and the mind, men are in a constant state of war with one another. For, from equality arises the desire to attain our goals, which leads to competition between men who are seeking the same end. Thus, out of equality develops diffidence and war. In this state of war men live without any common power and thus, “every man is enemy to every man” (107). Their only security is their strength compounded with the strength of their associates. Because man has no common strength or power, there are no governing laws; hence, there are no injustices.

Accordingly, there is no place in the state of war for rights and wrongs. Hobbes notes, “[F]orce and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues” (108), both of these virtues are unjust. He concludes that the only motivation man has to seek peace is the fear of the consequences of war. The motivation of fear does not connote social tendencies of the human specie to aid one another; instead, it clearly notes humankind’s selfish disregard of each other.

In addition to humankinds’ tendency towards asociality, Hobbes presents people as being inclined towards self-preservation above all other concerns. The theme of self-preservation is presented in what Hobbes calls the right of nature. He explains this fundamental concept to be, “the liberty each man has to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature- that is to say, of his own life” (109), meaning that any man can go to whatever lengths necessary in order to preserve his own life. Furthermore, an additional law of nature notes that, as a general rule, a man is prohibited from behaving in a manner that is destructive to his life.

Hobbes also supports what the Christian bible has entitled “the golden rule,” or the declaration that one should behave as he or she would wish to be treated. This is a law of self-preservation which, if ardently followed, would greatly increase peace. Yet, the golden rule is not often followed in the state of war, for, one is disinterested in any other man’s desires besides his own. Thus according to Hobbes, in a state of war man is allowed to behave in any manner he wishes; however, his primary interest and natural guide are the rules of self-preservation.

Both humankinds’ nature of asociality and tendency towards self-preservation are incorporated into Thomas Hobbes’ social contract. His social contract presents a commonwealth in which there is one sovereign leader, to which all of his subjects have pledged a covenant to surrender their judgments to those wills and judgments of the sovereign. The covenant between the subjects and the sovereign entails very specific rules of conduct.

First, the subjects are bound to maintain the same form of the government. They cannot lawfully make a new covenant among themselves; nor, can they break their covenant to the sovereign in any form. For, if one man dissents all of the other subjects should leave the commonwealth and return to a state of war, but this is a great injustice. In addition, they cannot try to replace their covenant to the sovereign with a covenant to God, for a covenant with God must be a lie, unless a subject was contacted by God, himself, which, one must admit, is highly unlikely.

Second, a sovereign cannot break the covenant with his subjects. Thus, none of his subjects can be freed from his discretion and will. Third, the subject is never endowed with the power to punish the sovereign. Fourth, the roll of the sovereign is to perform whatever is necessary in order to maintain a state of peace and to defend for all of his subjects. Also, the sovereign determines what doctrines are appropriate to teach his subjects. Fourth, the sovereign is endowed with the right to create governing rules. According to such rules, a subjects must lead his life. Furthermore, he has the right to declare peace or war. Last, he develops a hierarchy within the subjects, pending on their level of honor. Thus, the sovereign has ultimate control.

Hobbes believed that the sovereign ruler must be endowed with utter control; for he believed, “a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand” (150, 257). He recognized that often the dissolution of a commonwealth occurs due to the division of the sovereign power. For instance, if two states join together, yet each maintains their previous rulers, the subjects will never have a definitive ruler or social code.

Dissolution of the commonwealth is also spurred by abuse of power, monopolies, conquering of a state during wartime, and private judgments of good and evil. Although it is always an injustice if a subject questions the rulings of the sovereign, Hobbes occasionally acknowledges that it is necessary. Thus the premise of Hobbes’ social contract lies in a single leader with entirely obedient subjects.

It is clear that Hobbes’ Leviathan influenced the social contract put forth by Jean-Jacques Rousseau entitled On the Social Contract. At the onset of his book, Rousseau presents the fundamental problem for which he has developed his social contract. Find a form of association which defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before (148).

Rousseau presents the predicament of an association which protects each associate, while heeding the common good, yet still obeys each associate’s judgment and will. To this he proposes a social contract, which is composed of clauses defined by the nature of the act. These clauses are generally accepted and thus sprout from one’s reasoning. A violation of this social contract leads to each person regaining their liberty established prior to that association, but losing the liberty the association provided. Rousseau further simplifies his social contract by explaining that these clauses are reducible to one clause.

This simplified clause states that the man who breeches the contract from each associate in the community, shall incur alienation from all associates. Rousseau finally condenses his social contract into one statement: “Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (148). Rousseau is concluding that each man places his power under the control of the general will or the balance of the sum of private wills with the sum of general interests.

The largest difference between Rousseau’s social contract and Hobbes’ is the state of nature. For, as previously stated, Hobbes’ state of nature between men, was that of war and diffidence. Additionally, Hobbes believes that social order is a state of nature. Yet, Rousseau diverts from Hobbes on this matter. At the onset of his book, Rousseau notes that although the social order is sacred it is not a natural order. Also, Rousseau explains that the state of war cannot exist solely between individuals, but a private war is one between two states. In such a case, individuals are enemies only due to the nature of war, not due to the nature of mankind (145).

This gap is the primary reason that Rousseau and Hobbes’ social contracts differ. For, Hobbes’ social contract is pendant on the natural, perpetual state of war between men. Because of such a state, Hobbes feels that it is necessary to implement the strongest form of government, Monarchy. Accordingly, because Rousseau does not believe in this natural state of war, he finds the people more capable of reasoning the public’s best interest. Thus, he relies on the general will of all to determine the actions of the governing body.

Despite this difference, Rousseau’s social contract is very similar to that of Hobbes. They each are rooted in the principle of “a divided kingdom cannot stand.” It is clear that Hobbes’ social contract upholds said principle for it is based on the premise of the one sovereign leader. Additionally, Rousseau’s social contract unifies the kingdom differently. For, according to Rousseau, the unity of the citizens lies in their general will. Thus, the government will act in a manner favorable to the general will and accordingly, the public is united.

Hobbes’ Leviathan: Parts One and Two, presents a moral code of conduct established through prudence and science. His proposed commonwealth attempts to protect men from one another by unifying a group of subjects under one sovereign leader. His theory, however, does not account for potential lunatic dictators who incur mass genocide on their peoples or develop a state of divided classes, with an extremely impoverished lower class and an unnecessarily wealthy upper class, or overall misuse of their ultimate control. Yet, Rousseau’s social contract has faults too.

As Rousseau admits, the general public does not have the intellectual capability to rationalize the general good. Individuals may maintain the best intentions of determining the general will, yet each response will be skewed. Thus one needs to take into account only their intentions; yet, it is impossible to accordingly determine the general will. Hence, neither Hobbes nor Rousseau’s social contract is perfect. A better proposal for a social contract may combine the two philosophies. It would include a representative body of the general will in addition to a leader to guide this will, each working in harmony with the other in a balance of power. Accordingly, the divided kingdom will stand stronger.

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