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The role of government and the nature of people have been discussed for centuries. This paper will analyze three famous works of political philosophy that operate under the idea of a social contract.
Plato proposed his work “Republic” in approximately 380 BCE. It quickly became a highly influential text of political philosophy. The text is presented as a Socratic dialogue spread over ten books. Plato covers a wide variety of ideas from justice, to government, and even what is an appropriate story for children. The first five books are the most relevant to this paper due to their focus on the utopian state that Plato proposes. Socrates talks about a “fevered state.” He presents a luxurious city with a new kind of government that focuses on a class system where a guardian class is responsible for the protection and leadership of the state (Plato 37). These guardians would need to be strictly educated from their birth to be virtuous and physically fit (Plato 68). In Plato’s opinion, because the guardian class would be the judge of the people, there would be no need for laws, and this would make it easier to run the city. Plato believed that people would feel just when they fulfill their appropriate roles while giving what they owe to the city. Plato says, “our aim in founding the State was not the disproportionate happiness of any one class, but the greatest happiness of the whole (98).”
Unfortunately, I cannot see this as a viable form of government due to a multitude of reasons. Although laws can be unjust, redundant, and even malicious, they can provide a base standard of justice. Leaving everything to the judgment of the guardian class and philosopher-king is bound to provide uneven judgments because the personality and life experiences of every judge would be different. I believe Plato did not see this as a possible scenario due to his perception of education being the main decision-making factor. Overall he provides both progressive and bizarre ideas. Plato argues for the same level of education being applied to both sexes in the guardian class, which is very progressive. On the other hand, separating children from their parents in that same class just does not seem like a just action, even with his arguments. Life in this society could be fulfilling, but it is so foreign that it is hard to imagine how it would work in reality.
“Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes was first published in 1951. It proposes a similar state united by a social contract. Named after a great sea beast of the Bible, it describes a commonwealth ruled by a sovereign power with the absolute authority granted to ensure the protection of the state. People of such a state would make up the body of the creature, with the sovereign serving as the head (Hobbes 138). Hobbes described human nature to be in a state of “war of every man against every man (79),” and that this state is so horrific that people have to unite in a commonwealth like a leviathan to get away from it.
There is a variety of similarities between Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan. Both of them argue that a governmental system is required to keep people safe from their destructive desires. However, their perceptions of human nature are different from one another and lead to different roles assigned to different people. Plato can be described as being optimistic about the nature of people, almost to a fault. On the other hand, Hobbes has the opposite view. This situation results in two similar, but inherently different political philosophies. Both Plato and Hobbes talk about the importance of hierarchy. Plato’s idea of morally superior philosopher kinds can be argued to be similar to the Leviathan’s sovereign idea. But unlike Plato, Hobbes finds that people make their decisions according to their individual perceptions, which make it impossible to call any truth universal. This belief leads Hobbes to believe that the government has no superior morality and therefore, should not be trying to pass moral or spiritual understanding. He completely separates government and morality. The only role of his state is to maintain the rights of its citizens and prevent their bodily harm. Surprisingly, Hobbes writes this about equality “yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable (76).” He sees no difference between the physically or mentally strong and the weak. This could be seen as another reason for the differences in their states. Hobbes’ state does not provide moral enforcement but instead focuses on law enforcement. People in his state would live a hard life in exchange for protection.
Locke’s Two Treatises of Government
John Locke proposes another state of government based on the idea of the social contract in his essays “Two Treatises of Government,” which was published in 1689. The first treatise was written in opposition to patriarchalism, and the second outlines his personal political beliefs and how a state can be created based on them. The most important notion that Locke proposes concerns his theory of natural law and rights. He does not share the pessimistic views of human nature that Hobbes had, and instead, sees people as social creatures who have the right to live and be protected justly and impartially. Locke writes that people honor their obligations and keep their promises when they are in the state of nature (Locke 60). As examples, he cites the American frontier, Rome, Venice, and Soldania (Locke 111). He believes that in such a state, people live in peace due to it being socially acceptable for the people to punish those who have done wrong against them (Locke 149). His idea of a social contract revolves around giving up this right to retribution in return for impartial justice backed by a powerful force. In this contract, people would retain the right to life and liberty while gaining the right to just and impartial protection of their property (Locke 141).
John Locke’s ideas cannot be farther from the ones outlined by Hobbes. While he is not completely optimistic about the nature of people as Plato was, Locke has a much more positive outlook on this issue. Locke writes, “every man being, as has been showed, naturally free, and nothing being able to put him into subjection to any earthly power, but only his own consent (Locke 157).” Unlike Hobbes, Locke finds people to be free by nature, with certain rights that should be protected. In contrast, Hobbes saw that people in his state should give up all of their rights in exchange for protection. Although in some way they do have similarities. For example, they both find that the main role of the state is to ensure justice. This belief is not unlike the idea of Plato’s Republic. However, Hobbes believed that the government decides what is just, and Locke talks about the inherent rights of people. Living in his state would not differ too much from our current world.
Ideas about the nature of people have been changing throughout history. Sometimes they are forged by the philosopher’s upbringing or the state of the world. These ideas form their beliefs of how the world should be run. I hope that the future will bring a new system of the state that would be appropriate for the modern world.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Simon and Schuster, 2013.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. John Wiley & Sons, 2014.
Plato. The Republic. My Ebook Publishing House, 2016.