Social Contract Theory: Serpent or Dove?

A Response to Douglas Wilson

In De Regno, Thomas Aquinas begins his advice to the King of Cyprus by outlining the need and basis for society and civil rule. All creatures are ordered toward an end. Man, as an intelligent being, is led to that end in a way distinct from purely instinctual animals. But because men are intelligent moral agents, there is no guarantee that their “methods in proceeding towards their proposed end” will cohere. Rather it is likely that given a multiplicity of immediate pursuits and actions conflict will arise.

Men have the light of reason implanted in them by nature to guide them to their proper end. If man was isolated, he “would require no other guide to his end.” He would “be a king unto himself, under God,” governed only by God’s law and revelation. The rub, however, is that man is created to be social and, therefore, political. “[T]o live in a group” is a “necessity of man’s nature.” Dependence (vertical and horizontal) is written into his existence.

As a matter of fact, man needs others first and foremost to help procure the necessities of life, which he cannot accomplish on his own. “It is therefore natural that man should live in the society of many.” Mutual assistance is taken by Aquinas to refer to necessities as mundane as harvesting crops and hunting game to higher, intellectually based endeavors like medicine. But notice that he is focusing on the material necessities first; self-preservation is basic.

The Angelic Doctor does not stop there. Humans are distinguished from other creatures not only by these initial necessities but also by their possession of speech and a concomitant need to communicate. He quotes Solomon: “It is better that there be two than one; for they have the advantage of their company.” Physical self-preservation is not all there is to man’s sociability; he needs companionship and cooperation unto higher ends.

To acquire these social necessities government is required:

For where there are many men together and each one is looking after his own interest, the multitude would be broken up and scattered unless there were also an agency to take care of what appertains to the commonweal… there must exist something which impels towards the common good of the many, over and above that which impels towards the particular good of each individual.

This is not so different from Thomas Hobbes—in a limited sense—and his theory in Leviathan of the constitutive element of rule for society itself.

Man is naturally driven to society because 1) God has created him to need the assistance of others in order to survive; and 2) God has made him a reasonable creature capable of speech which implies and requires someone else to speak to, we might say. The need for companionship is baked into the equation. In turn, government is required to shift the energy or initiative of each individual to the preservation of the whole. Without the existence of the whole, the existence of the individual would cease. If man is made for society, then he must orient himself toward its preservation which, by extension, orders him to the preservation of himself. Jumping ahead, the 1777 Vermont Constitution says: “All government ought to be instituted and supported, for the security and protection of the community.”

Thomas did not yet have the term, but he is engaged in what can be fairly called a “state of nature” inquiry culminating in a social contract, a hypothetical mechanism of socio-political genesis. He is considering the theoretical basis of society and government with a thought experiment wherein man begins alone—albeit since Genesis, he has never been isolated—but joins with others to form an association and then government to command and preserve the same, and each is formed through affinity-based coalescence followed by agreement or covenant… or contract predicated on shared aims and interests.

Of course, De Regno never suggests that such an isolated existence actually existed. Neither did late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century American critics of Rousseau and his ilk, like Nathaniel Chipman (Principles of Government), James Wilson (Lecture on Law), or Zephaniah Swift (System of Laws).

The social contract exercise is purely hypothetical, as stated, but useful in establishing the non-negotiables of human life and the purpose for politics and government, all of which is God-ordained and unavoidable because the sequence of necessities naturally sought by all men is baked into the system. Society and government are inevitable. Isolating and identifying the causality at each stage in man’s hypothetical progression toward society and government does not negate the naturalness of the result nor does it supplant a preexistent, higher law ethic.

This preliminary demonstration in De Regno was conducted repeatedly throughout the subsequent centuries but arguably reached its zenith in the eighteenth century, the shorthand of which by then was the “state of nature,” the solution to or for which was the social contract, compact, or covenant—whichever label you prefer; for our purposes they are synonymous.

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are, of course, well-known for their versions of the inquiry.  

And that’s the point: the state of nature idea and social contract—we can group the two as “social contract theory,” given their interdependence—result have fallen on hard times, identified now solely with “Enlightenment” liberal political theory and, therefore, antithetical to the classical Christian counterpart. Namechecking the social contract is often considered an indicator of liberal, Enlightenment sympathies.

The question then is, given the ubiquity of the social contract in the history of Western political thought, are all references thereto created equal? Are Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau to be granted a monopoly on the idea such that any reference thereto is unredeemable, and always and everywhere a signal of liberal thought and declension?

Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed), D.C. Schindler (The Politics of the Real), Bradley Thompson (America’s Revolutionary Mind), and now, Doug Wilson, seem to think so. They are lumpers on this topic, but the testimony of Aquinas suggests more splitting should be done than the aforementioned four authors do. More fundamentally: abusus non tollit usum.

By way of analogy, much of the social contract literature is akin to discussions on the logical order of God’s decrees, which is fruitful but always understood as not constituting any real secession of choices or declarations in God himself. The whole exercise is one of creaturely accommodation. It is only if that caveat is dropped that the inquiry can become dangerous for theology proper.

To attack the most recent, representative, lumper example: in his new essay for Chronicles, Wilson says social contract theory performs a “mythological function for moderns” that undermines any precursor teleology. He takes issue with the fact that, as myth, contract theory offers an inadequate “foundation for our society” because it imposes obligations on contemporary citizens when on a mythical, non-factual basis. In effect, contract theory erects an arbitrary, idolatrous state that suffers no accountability.

All this somehow leads to a secularist, Darwinist ethic, assures Wilson. The antidote is the “primal covenant” of the Garden of Eden, not an “artificial substitute,” the genuine article. But all this is to misunderstand the mode and purpose of social contract theory.

The social contract is not actually an origin story. And in its proper form, the state of nature does not invoke a “prehistoric fantasy” of the “autonomous self,” as Deneen labels it.

To be fair, Deneen’s critique of the state of nature, the social contract heuristic is valid insofar as he is homing in on one particular expression of it that has proven instrumental to the expedition of late-stage modernity. If the “state of nature” precludes or precedes man’s natural sociability then man’s “rights” become inherently antagonistic to authority and quite literally anti-social, since man’s pristine existence lies behind him. Under that account, the purpose of politics is liberatory and leveling.

But his case is not exhaustive, and the use emphasized reveals a moral-theological problem not in the theory but in the priors and predetermined aims of the users. Not all social contract expressions are created equal.

When intended as a non-prescriptive, non-substantive inquiry into the motives and causes of human society, and where the natural, sociability of man is appreciated, the state of nature-social contract discourse is useful and basic. When applied in Rousseau’s mood, where man’s best days are behind him in a fanciful wilderness state, the inquiry yields exactly what Deneen says it does: a disposition toward radical autonomy and a hatred for the ties that bind. But then, Rousseau is not so much interested in societal and governmental formation as he is in its radical critique and deconstruction unto re-formation.

Correctly applied, social contract theory has some resemblance to societal genesis, the primary purpose of which is to contemplate the purpose and boundaries of civil authority for a particular people. Dan Foster, in a Short Essay on Civil Government (1774), described the “state of nature” simply as “where no civil government is yet erected.” It is a sort of parenthetical period between the formation of society (or nation) and its organizing, adjudicative structure.

A contract between nation members renders the latter. This frustrates Thompson’s erroneous claim that the “state of nature” reflected the conscious, and real, “social reality” of late-eighteenth-century American colonists, as if they conceived of themselves as having reverted to a condition of unalloyed, socially detached choice. (Moreover, Foster demonstrates that the “social contract” does not inaugurate some kind of comprehensive societal ethic, nor does it carry teleological significance.)

Likewise, in 1778, the anonymous author of the tract “A public defence of the right of the New-Hampshire Grants (so called) on both sides Connecticut-River, to associate together, and form themselves into an independent state” asked whether New Hampshire had found themselves in a state of nature. Intended is only the question of pre-governmental authority, for no one was desirous of imposing a societal tabula rasa or to conjure something anew out of thin air. The rights of Englishmen were at stake, after all.

Even still, the anonymous New Hampshire pamphleteer answered in the negative. The people had not reverted to a state of nature but rather to their “their first legal stage, viz., their town incorporations.” That is, the most basic (colonial) governmental unit. They were not starting from scratch—an important point for right-liberals that still harbor anachronistic, sensationalist, and pietistic narratives of American beginnings. New Hampshire was not anarchic in 1778.

Whereas the nation proper does not emerge from the social contract, the governing structure does. (New Hampshire had returned behind the latter, not the former.) Indeed, the terms of the contract acquire meaning and, thereafter, authority from the context of the nation in which it is (metaphorically) drawn up and administered. Said structure acquires purpose and texture from its precipitating events and background.

Ethically, the contract is the object of patriotism, whereas the nation is the object of nationalism, to borrow from Michael Lind’s distinction in The Next American Nation. The former serves to preserve the latter and ceases to exist when it ceases to serve the nation, the people, for which it was formed.

The difference between nation and state in this regard requires a heuristic—real or imagined—to consider the relationship between the same. The social contract is not the generator of the nation as such—nor, certainly, of morality—but only its structural, functional, procedural coherence; more broadly it serves to memorialize the terms of adjudication. At bottom, social contract theory is a constitutional exercise that assumes the theological, moral, and political priors inherent in man as he joins in a common project with other members of his race. This is why Lind’s distinction lands: fealty to the constitutional order is patriotic, but the patriotic must submit to national love if the former does not serve the preservation of the latter since the latter necessarily precedes the former. In terms of ordered loves, then, the love of the nation supersedes the defense of the organizing principle or adjudicative structure which were, by definition, always meant to facilitate national preservation.

All this leads us to a quick rebuttal of Wilson’s complaint.

Many gross ills may be blamed on the “Enlightenment,” whatever that is, but “social contract theory,” as such, is not the source code for what ails us presently. To deny its legitimacy is to detach present socio-political reevaluations from the grander tradition. Perhaps worse, such a denial results in pietist politics wherein universal, theological, and transcendent truths are expected to govern temporal realities directly and definitively, or assumed to provide alternative but weightier texture, more stable socio-political glue. A theory of compact is not the impediment to national godliness and moral sanity Wilson imagines it to be. That serpent lies elsewhere in the garden.

In America, the structure—real or hypothetical—is generally fine; the moral inputs are what plague us. To insist on the reverse is to introduce distraction and, more foundationally, to miss what government is for with regard to human nature. To mix some metaphors, Wilson is barking up the wrong tree when he seizes this seemingly low-hanging fruit.But why does it matter that Wilson is off target? Well, if social contract theory is per se Enlightenment-liberal, then American Protestant political theory that has made use of it is problematic and worthy of repudiation, especially if social contract theory inaugurated soul-killing alternative realities as Wilson suggests. My counterargument is simple: there are big problems with the thought of many social contractarians, Hobbes, Locke, and certainly Rousseau included. But social contract theory as such is not one of those problems even as, like anything, it can be abused unto deleterious ends.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.