Adler on the Social Contract

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


“Human beings and some other nonhuman animals are gregarious and are naturally impelled to associate with one another. But while man is not the only social animal, humans are the only political animals. Because they have intellects and free will, they voluntarily constitute the societies in which they live–their domestic, tribal, and political associations. All animal societies or groupings are instinctively determined, and thus they are all purely natural societies, differing from species to species but everywhere the same in the same species. Only human societies are both natural and conventional, natural by natural need, not by instinctive determination. Motivated by natural need, they are conventionally instituted by reason and free will; and so, within the same species, they differ at different times and places.

The most important of the modern philosophical mistakes about society is to be found in the theory of the social contract as the conventional origin of the state or civil society. It rests on two myths.

One is the myth that goes by the name of “the state of nature.” This phrase, when used by Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau in their slightly varying accounts of the origin of civil society, signifies a condition of human life on earth in which individuals live in isolation from one another and live anarchically with complete autonomy.

What is called a “state of nature” is utterly mythical and never existed on earth. This should be manifest to everyone in the light of the incontrovertible fact that the human species could not have survived without the existence of families for the preservation of infants unable to take care of themselves.

The second myth, inseparable from the first, is the fiction that human beings, dissatisfied with the precariousness and brutality of living in a state of nature, decided to put up with it no longer and to agree upon certain conventions and rules for living together under some form of government that replaced anarchy and eliminated their isolation and autonomy.

Of the three modern exponents of this social contract theory, Rousseau at least concedes that the social contract and the state of nature have no historical reality, but only constitute a hypothesis to explain how civil society came into existence. That might take the curse off the theory if the hypothesis were necessary for explanatory purposes. But it is not. The origin of the state can be satisfactorily explained without any recourse to such fictions as the social contract and the state of nature. Therein lies the philosophical mistake that needs correction.”

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]