In Plato's dialogue, Crito, where Socrates is urged by Crito to flee before he is executed, Socrates refuses and outlines a theory of social contact between a citizen and the city.

I had understood social contact theory to have begun with Rousseau's Social Contract.

What are the major differences and innovations between these two statements?

2 Answers 2


Modern social contract theory is said to begin with Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (not Rousseau). I will give an overview of the main points in all social contract theories, including the one in Plato's Crito (although technically, it is not a social contract theory!). Note that this is a broad and very brief overview. For a more nuanced view, I recommend the SEP or IEP.

Form of modern social contract theories

State of nature and its problems (=reasons to have the social contract)

They always begin with an hypothetical state of nature. What would happen if there were no laws, no form of government intervening?

Ways to resolve these issues (=the social contract)

After describing the state of nature, it is clear that there should be an intervening body (=government). For this government to work, the citizens should hand over some of their freedoms to this government. Social contract theories include which freedoms and justification for handing these over (i.e. the role of the government).

Plato's Crito and Republic

Socrates says in Crito he cannot evade the laws of the city, because they made his life possible. You can't avoid laws when you want to; you were born in a city with laws that gave you protection and possibilities. You also have to accept them when they 'turn against you'. Citizens here, however, can leave the city when they grow up. If you stay however, you must accept the conditions (laws) of that city. So Socrates accepts his death sentence.

In the Republic, he outlines his 'state of nature' (though he doesn't call it as such). People would do all sorts of unjust things if they can get away with it (Ring of Gyges). They also want to avoid being treated unjustly and not be able to treat them unjustly back. A just society is one in which these extremes are avoided. Justice is worth having for its own sake (i.e. needs no external justification). The dialogue goes on to justify this view. It is not a social contract theory, because it does not say you give up something to a governing body for certain reasons; you just live a good life because it's worth it by itself.

Hobbes' Leviathan

(As a side note, Hobbes (and other after him) believe all men are made by nature to be equal. This is very different from the notion in Greek Philosophy, where for instance Aristotle said some people are just meant to be slaves and some people are meant to lead.)

During Hobbes' time, religious civil wars were commonplace. It is no surprise then that Hobbes' main goal of the social contract is public safety. Hobbes' state of nature was a place of war of "all against all" (he clearly was influenced by these religious wars). It was the most pessimistic world view of any contract thinker.

To resolve this, he proposes a social contract. The citizens sign the social contract, however, the sovereign is not a party of the contract (the citizens can't abandon the contract because the sovereign breaks the rules (compare with Locke!)). You can never resist him; he is the only thing that stands between this state of affairs and the awful State of Nature! For Hobbes', the sovereign is the most powerful man on Earth (even a God on Earth). The title page of the book says "There is no power on earth which can be compared to him".

My thoughts: this absolutist point of view may seem extreme nowadays, but consider the religious, civil wars he lived in. He wanted peace and was willing to give up a lot to get it, even if that means giving up your freedom to be ruled by a potentially tyrannical sovereign. A lot of people in the same situation nowadays would agree. Think of the people in the Middle East who prefer Saddam Hussein's (horrible) regime to the unrest of having no real leader, for instance.

Locke's Second Treatise on Government

Locke's State of Nature is very different from Hobbes'. The State of Nature is not that bad. Contrary to Hobbes' version, it is not a lawless state (there are indeed morals). There is the Law of Nature (which has been given to us by God). We all belong equally to God, we can't take away what is God's, so we shouldn't harm each other. As long as you don't harm others, you are free to do as you please. It is, in other words, a peaceful place. But, conflicts may arise. A property dispute, for instance, and there is no government to intervene. There is no civil authority, so disputes are likely to escalate (instead of being resolved by a third party). This is the main reason for the social contract.

For Locke, to goal of the government is to serve the citizens (i.e. those who signed the contract). The sovereign has fiduciary power (we entrusted him with this power); if the sovereign doesn't do this, the citizens can rebel (i.e. abandon the contract). The role of the government is to protect"life, liberty and estate, which I call by the general name of property" (property in Locke is much broader than what it means to us today); to protect our rights which are given to us by the Law of Nature.

Rousseau's Social Contract

Rousseau has two social contract theories. The first is a descriptive theory, outlined in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. The second is a normative theory, outlined in his Social Contract.

Rousseau's develops his idea of the State of Nature historically. In the beginning, with few people, everyone was happy on their own. They had few needs which were easily satisfied by nature (an abundance of resources for few people). Since people lived solitary lives, there was no competition, no fear, etc. Since pity is an essential trait of these people, they would not harm each other.

But, times change. More people were trying to get by with the same amount of resources, so they had to start living differently. They started living in small communities and divisions of labour were introduced. Living in communities, however, had some nasty side effects: people started comparing themselves with others, which lead to shame, contempt,... It was in this phase that private property came into existence, which led to competition, greed, and inequality.

Those who came out best in the competition think it's a good time to start a government to protect their rights. It is supposedly to guarantee that everyone is equal, but in reality it just makes sure the inequalities that benefit those with private property are kept in place.

His normative social contract theory is attempt to deal with this state of affairs. His book begins with "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains"; he clearly wants to offer a solution to resolve this issue. Since the State of Nature is so peaceful, it would be reasonable to expect that he would propose to go back to this state. He does not do this; it would not only be not feasible, but also not desirable, he says. So the question becomes: how can we live together (in a community), but at the same time be free (i.e. avoid the nasty side effects I talked about). This is where he introduces his very controversial concept of the General Will. We submit our own, individual wills to the General Will. This General Will is not just the sum of particular wills; individual persons become a people and this becomes the foundation of society; this is the sovereignty, which, according to Rousseau, is undividable. The General Will is directed towards the common good.

This concept has been very controversial, especially when Rousseau said that people who do not comply must be "forced to be free". This all sounds very totalitarian and even gives justification for it. Robespierre was influenced very much by this book and said to lead his Terror regime "in the name of the people"; it was the "will of the people". Rousseau also said the "General Will cannot dwell"; for some, this is even more evidence of his totalitarian viewpoints, for others, it just follows from the definition of the General Will, namely that it is the norm, what reasonable people ought to want.

  • Sartre said we are condemned to be free too. It sounds to me that Rousseaus General Will is metaphysical that is he doesn't want a utilitarian conception of the Good - a Good that is measured - the greatest good for the greatest number. Robespierre is a politician and will use tools that are available. Similar abuses occur in democracies ie the 'free world', in communist regimes 'the people' etc. It seems Rousseaus 'free' means within the laws enacted by the General Will, in the UK for example if one doesn't obey the laws one is punished until one accepts them.This free is not the pure free. Commented May 31, 2013 at 16:58
  • Nice, short and as far as I can see very adequate, +1.
    – iphigenie
    Commented May 31, 2013 at 22:41

The major difference is that in the Crito the idea is that if Socrates escapes he will break his tacit agreement to obey the laws of Athens, and so act unjustly. In Rousseau's Social Contract, only by all citizens' relinquishing all their rights and engaging in collective decision-making under the conditions of the General Will is any citizen free and the political system genuinely legitimate. Under the earlier versions of social contract theory in Hobbes and Locke, the social contract is simply a rational arrangement to ensure security or civil peace (Hobbes) and to avoid each person being a judge of their own rights and acting disproportionately or vindictively in their defence (Locke, who sees the social contract as not essential but a device of convenience).

In the answer below, there is rather an extended reconstruction of Socrates' 'dialogue' with the laws of Athens. The reconstruction matters in point of scholarship but you can jump it if you just note that the point being made is that Socrates has tacitly agreed to obey the laws of Athens and is acting unjustly if he escapes and breaks his agreement.


The central issue of the Crito is briefly stated. Socrates, lying in prison awaiting execution, is presented with an opportunity to escape. He chooses instead to go to his death because the law requires his execution and it would be unjust to break the law. As a complicating factor in his decision, it is held that the particular application of law which requires his death is itself unjust, in that he is not guilty of the charge of impiety under which he lies condemned. (R. E. Allen, 'Law and Justice in Plato's Crito', The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 69, No. 18, Sixty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division (Oct. 5, 1972), pp. 557-567 : 557-8.)

Limited role of social contract in Socrates' obligation not to escape

In an imaginary dialogue between Socrates and the Laws of Athens the Laws are representing as arguing against Socrates' escape on four grounds, of which the social contract is only one :

The laws present four distinct arguments to show Socrates that he should not carry out his supposed intention to flee Athens. That is, Socrates presents Crito with four distinct arguments against Crito's proposal that Socrates flee Athens:

(A) By running away Socrates intends to destroy the city and its laws (50 a-c).

(B) Socrates stands to the city and laws as slave to master and as child to parent, and therefore he must submit to them (50 c-51 c).

(C) Socrates has made an agreement with the laws, an agreement whose terms require that Socrates stay to meet his death (51 c- 53 a).

(D) Socrates' flight will have bad effects upon his friends, himself, and his children (53 a-54 b).

Social contract argument in the Crito

Socrates has, he argues, agreed to obey the laws of Athens :

This agreement is mentioned at the very start of the preceding section (50 c). There the laws ask Socrates, "Was that the agreement between you and us, or was it that you would stand by whatever judgments the city might make?" But this suggestion is not developed until 51 c-53 a. The argument seems to be this:

  1. Whoever among the Athenians remains in Athens, seeing how the laws pass judgments and govern the city in other respects, has by his/her deed (ergon)) already agreed to do whatever the laws command him/her to do, if he/she fails to persuade them that they are wrong (i.e. in commanding it).

  2. Socrates has remained in Athens even though he has seen how the laws pass judgments and govern the city in other respects.

  3. From 1 and 2: Socrates has agreed, by his deeds, to do whatever the laws command him to do, if he fails to persuade them that they are wrong.

  4. The laws have commanded Socrates not to flee, but to drink the hemlock.

  5. From 3 and 4: If Socrates does what he has agreed to do, then, if he fails to persuade the laws that their command [that he drink the hemlock] is wrong, he will drink the hemlock and not flee. (b) A person ought to do what he or she has agreed to do, if what he or she has agreed to do is dikaion.

  6. From 5 and (b): If what Socrates has agreed to do is dikaion, then, if he fails to persuade the laws that their command is wrong, he ought to drink the hemlock and not flee.

  7. What Socrates has agreed to do [viz. whatever the laws command him, if he fails to persuade them they are wrong] is dikaion.

  8. From 6 and 7: If Socrates fails to persuade the laws that their command [that he drink the hemlock] is wrong, then he ought to drink the hemlock and not flee.

  9. Socrates failed to persuade the laws that their command is wrong.

  10. From 8 and 9: Socrates ought not to flee.

(Gary Young, 'Socrates and Obedience', Phronesis, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1974), pp. 1-29 : 18-19.)

Rousseau and self-government

In the Crito the laws are 'given'. No mention is made of Socrates' being obliged to obey the laws because he has participated in the making of them. No doubt he had, given that he was a citizen but this consideration plays no role in the social contract argument. Matters are quite different in Rousseau. The social contract is the only political means by which we can attain personal autonomy and collective self-government. In an important sense, quite in contrast to Socrates' situation, we - the citizens - make the laws and this is the basis of our obligation to obey :

Central role of social contract in Rousseau's citizens obligation to obey the law

...by the time we get to chapter 4 of Book I of The Social Contract, Rousseau is ready to tell us that the problem that the contract is designed to solve is how to establish a mutual defense system in which "each one, uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before." And in chapter 8 we learn that "to the. .. acquisitions of the civil state could be added moral freedom, which alone makes man truly master of himself. For the impulse of appetite alone is slavery, and obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself is freedom. (William T. Bluhm, 'Freedom in "The Social Contract": Rousseau's "Legitimate Chains"', Polity, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Spring, 1984), pp. 359-383 : 361.)


Rousseau's prescription for freedom defined in terms of citizenship is found in The Social Contract, whose focal concept is the "general will." Establishing the mutual dependence of all citizens upon an impersonal system of law obviates, in Rousseau's view, the dependence of anyone on the will of another, which was the great impediment to individual freedom. Finally, as each gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one and since there is no associate over whom one does not acquire the same right one grants him over oneself, one gains the equivalent of everything one loses, and more force to preserve what one has.

Rousseau sought to demonstrate the liberal character of his model society by linking the will of the individual with the general will. By virtue of our capacity for compassion, we are outgoing, sharing persons, not closed monads like the men of Hobbes's and Locke's state of nature. Each of us has a moi commun, a self which is capable of living in community with other selves. This community-directed self can emerge and dominate the particular self (moi propre) when it acts in concert with other persons who are in all relevant respects its equals. There must be rough equality of material possessions, of the same sort of property (for example, land, capital), to make identity of interests pos- sible. There must also be a broad value consensus, shared opinions about the good and desirable. And there must be equality of participation in the formulation and application of the general will. It is a genuine community of interest that makes the general will possible.

[Rousseau] It is what these different interests have in common that forms the social bond, if there were not some point at which all the interests are in agreement, no society could exist. Now it is uniquely on the basis of this common interest that society ought to be governed.

When the requisite degree of community is present for the existence of a general will, decisions can be taken by a simple majority. Each citizen will ask himself, when voting, not how he can profit from the decision, but rather what it is that the general will requires. If he finds himself in a minority, he will simply conclude that he was mistaken as to the general will and abide by the majority decision. For under such circumstances all of the characteristics of the general will are to be found as much in a majority as in the whole. It is well, however, that the more weighty the matter under consideration, the closer the majority should approach unanimity. (Bluhm, 372-4.)

'The general will' translates Rousseau's la volonté générale. It is hard to sum this up in a formula but roughly the general will is the expression of the sovereign people's - citizens' - views when the people make laws with solely the strictly common interest in mind. (Rousseau, Social Contract, II.3.)

Distinctive contribution of Rousseau to social contract theory

We have seen that the social contract forms only one, and not the paramount, ground for Socrates' obligation not to escape - to obey the law. Hobbes and Locke in their different ways advance the social contract argument as the foundation of legitimate government on grounds of personal safety (Hobbes) and social convenience (Locke). Rousseau gives the social contract argument a different twist by construing it as the sole way in which we both attain freedom and attain legitimate government by obeying laws which, under the conditions of the general will, we have prescribed to ourselves. Socrates does not attain freedom in obeying the law; he merely acts justly in obeying the law even when the law is unjust.

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