There seems to be an implicit assumption in Western philosophy that social contract theorizing begun -- or only begun in earnest -- with Hobbes. As an example, this Stanford Encyclopedia entry assumes the earliest social contract account worth mentioning is Hobbes'.

However, the idea wasn't new in England (the Civil Wars discussion, for example, mention related ideas) and I have a faint recollection that Grotius was on the same track, though possibly not using it in the same way (I can't remember the little I knew on Grotius any longer).

Thus my question: what other noteworthy social contract theories were made famous before Hobbes'? Was there any that influenced him in particular?

  • @Conifold The second comment is an almost perfect answer, please post it as such.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 12, 2023 at 13:48

1 Answer 1


The general sentiment is that while Hobbes had precursors he was the first to systematically develop and defend a theory of "social contract" (so named a century later after the title of Rousseau's book). So say both IEP:"social contract theory is rightly associated with modern moral and political theory and is given its first full exposition and defense by Thomas Hobbes", and SEP:"In its recognizably modern form, however, the idea is revived by Thomas Hobbes".

Ritchie in Contributions to the History of the Social Contract Theory gives details on ancient and medieval pre-history, see also older The Theory of the Social Compact: A Sketch of Its History by Lowell. The idea can be traced as far back as ancient sophists (Protagoras, Glaucon in Plato's Republic) and Socrates (in Plato's Crito), but "the political philosophers of the seventeenth century did not borrow their theories directly from the Greeks". In the middle ages and early modern age, it manifested in the form of interpreting monarchy as a "compact" between a king and the people, e.g. by Manegold, a priest of Lutterbach in Alsatia:"Medieval form of the contract theory is that which appears in works of the sixteenth century which were written in defence of the principle that people might depose tyrannical kings, and it finds its way into public and official documents."

Closer to Hobbes's time, Buchanan, in his dialogue De Jure Regni apud Scotos (c. 1570), expands on the compact view of monarchy, with Regent Morton talking of the "covenant between the king and his subjects". The idea became so prominent in England that king James himself affirmed the "paction made to his people" to the English Parliament in 1609.

However, Ritchie traces the emergence of the modern view of social contract to the English priest and theologian Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594):

"Borgeaud... contrasts the Biblical and mediaeval form of the theory... with the theory of a contract between individuals which we find in Rousseau, but before him in Locke, in Hobbes and in Hooker. The last-named is apparently the first political writer after the Greeks in whom this form of the theory can be traced... he has laid stress on the element of consent or agreement in a way which suggests the theories of Hobbes and Locke.

Hooker probably had not particularly in mind the mediaeval theories of a compact between ruler and subject, but was unconsciously influenced by the traditional habit of thinking about government under the formula of contract... Further, Hooker inherited from the ecclesiastical politicians of the middle ages the doctrine of "the sovereignty of the people," i.e. the doctrine that kings and other rulers derive their power from the people... In adopting such ideas Hooker uses the words "consent," " agreement," etc., and thus implicitly unites the two distinct theories that political society is based upon a contract and that the people is sovereign..."

In the 17th century, similar ideas were promoted by Grotius in Netherlands and Althusius and Perendorf in Germany, with Grotius adapting them to republics as well as monarchies and Althusius writing in 1603 that contracts were the basis of all associations, from families to the state. Back in England, Milton developed the idea in his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which came out just two years before Hobbes's Leviathan, in 1649.

Hooker was a major influence on Locke, who cites him abundantly. Both Hooker and Hobbes base themselves on Aristotle's political theories and Hooker anticipates the "state of nature" argument (it was also sketched by Bodin), see Moore, Recycling Aristotle. Milton, and through him Buchanan, is also a likely influence, although, as Wolfe writes in Milton and Hobbes: A Contrast in Social Temper:"Both men believed in the law of nature and the social contract; but their definitions of these terms stand in utter disagreement".

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