No two thinkers on the Social Contract Theory are at one as to the conditions that prevailed in the state of nature.
Some described it as a state of “ideal innocence and bliss”. Others gave a gloomy and dismal picture and characterised it as a state of “wild savagery”, where might was right. Some others considered it as a state of “insecurity”, though not of savagery, accompanied by some tangible inconveniences.
But whatever it was, all thinkers were agreed that those who lived in the state of nature were ultimately compelled, for one reason or another, to abandon it and substitute the state of nature by a civil society or a body-politic where each man led a life of union with his other fellowmen. The law of nature, which regulated the conduct of the individuals who lived in the state of nature, was replaced by man-made laws. Thus emerged civil society and it was the result of a mutual consent or contract, man taking upon himself the duty of observing and obeying all those laws which assured the safety and protection of all other members of the newly organised community or body- politic. These laws were prescribed by the mutually agreed authority. Human law was substituted for the natural law and in return for natural rights every man found “himself clothed with social rights.
” These rights were maintained and guaranteed by the mutually established authority. All this process of development was the result of a contract or “bargain dictated by the individual’s own interest, an exchange of obligations in return for privileges.” What were the terms of the contract, who were the parties to the contract, and what was the extent of the powers of the authority mutually appointed to enforce the laws of the body- politic? There were sharp differences of opinion on all those points as each thinker had sought to establish different conclusions and vindicate different principles. All advocates of the Theory of Social Contract were, however, unanimous on the essential idea that the State was a deliberate human creation, the result of consent or contract. There are three essential elements in the Theory of Social Contract. First is the state of nature wherein man had not organised himself in bonds of political cohesion and, therefore, in a political society.
He was independent and free and subject to no obligations and man-made laws. He simply obeyed the law of nature. What the law of nature precisely meant, was his own interpretation and determination. Such a condition in the state of nature created conditions of uncertainty for all as none felt secure both in his person and property. No man could for ever endure such conditions of life and ultimately decided to quit the state of nature. This he did by common consent or agreement or contract or covenant with his fellowmen who lived with him in the state of nature. This is the second element in the Theory of Social Contract.
The third is that as a result of common consent or contract or covenant a civil society was established where laws of the State and civil rights prevailed in place of natural law and natural rights. The final element is the process by which one way of life was given up for another way of life. History of the Theory: The Theory of Social Contract is as old as political thought itself and it had found adequate support both in the East and West.
Kautilya, the Minister of Chandragupta Maurya, elaborated it in his Arthasastra. He wrote, “People suffering from anarchy, as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of a large fish swallowing a small one, first elected Manu to be their King, and allotted one-sixth of the grains grown and one-tenth of their merchandise as sovereign’s dues. Supported by this payment Kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects.” The Greek philosopher Plato dealt with the Contract Theory in his works, the Crito and the Republic. Aristotle, on the other hand, repudiated the theory when he said that the State was a natural institution. Roman Law, which exercised so powerful an influence from the twelfth century onwards, made it clear that most of the positive rules obeyed by men were created by contract. The feudal relationship between the lord and the vassal was essentially a contractual relationship.
The Church Fathers, in their early writings, gave some support to the theory, although they abandoned it eventually. It was only during and after the Middle Ages that the idea of Social Contract found a significant place in the discussions of political thinkers. Manegold of Lautenbach maintained that the King could be deposed if “he violates the agreement according to which he was chosen.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the supporters of the Social Contract Theory multiplied and there was more or less universal acceptance of the doctrine. Hooker was the first scientific writer who gave a logical exposition of the Theory of Social Contract, though he used it to defend the Established Church against the attacks of its enemies. The theory also received impetus from the writings of Hugo Grotius, the Dutch jurist.
But it found real support at the hands of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. In our discussions of the theory of Social Contract we are primarily concerned with the political philosophy of these three writers, collectively known as the ‘contractualists’.