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Ancient Philosophy on Social Contract - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 308
Social contract/Ancient Philosophy/Keyt/Miller: The Greek word for a compact or a covenant is synthéké. There are four passages spread among Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus in which the word is used to express a view identifiable as a kind of social contract theory.
Crito/Plato: In the Crito Socrates imagines what the Laws of Athens might say to him if he attempted to escape from prison: they would, he says, remind him of the covenants (synthékas) and agreements (homologias) through which he contracted with them to live as a citizen (Cr. 52d).
Republic/Plato: In the Republic Glaucon, posing as devil's advocate, asserts that the origin of justice lies in laws and covenants (synthékas) (Rep. II.359a).
Politeia/Aristotle: In the Politics Aristotle rejects the idea associated with the sophist Lycophron that law is a covenant (synthéké, 'a surety to one another of just actions') (Pol. III.9.1280a34-b12; for Lycophron see Mulgan, 1979(1)).
Epicurus: (...) in his Key Doctrines Epicurus says that 'there never was a justice in itself, but only La justicel in dealing with one another in whatever places there used always to be a covenant [synthéké] about neither harming nor being harmed' (KD XXXl-XXXVD.L. X. 150-1).
Literature: For the origins of social contract theory see Chroust (1946)(2) and Kahn (1981)(3).
The two ideas that are shared are connected with the basic antitheses underlying Greek political thought.
1) The first of these is that covenants are man-made, not gifts of the gods or of nature.
2) The second is that the covenant to live as a citizen is also a compact to be of one mind (homonoein).
Homonoia: This idea rises to the surface in an interchange between Socrates and the sophist Hippias in Xenophon's Memorabilia (IV .4). Hippias challenges Socrates to say what justice is, and
Socrates responds like a contractarian by identifying the just with the lawful (Mem. IV .4.12). He
goes on to connect obedience to the laws with concord, or homonoia, and to note that such homonoia is consistent with sharp disagreement on particular issues (Mem. IV .4.16). >Contractualism/Ancient philosophy.


1. Mulgan, R. G. (1979) 'Lycophron and Greek theories of social contract'. Journal of the History of Ideas, 40: 121-8.
2. Chroust, Anton-Hermann (1946) 'The origin and meaning of the social compact doctrine'. Ethics, 57: 38-56.
3. Kahn, Charles H. (1981) 'The origins of social contract theory'. In G. B. Kerferd, ed., The Sophists and Their Legacy: Proceedings of the Fourth International Colloquium on Ancient Philosophy. Wiesbaden: Steiner.

Keyt, David and Miller, Fred D. jr. 2004. „Ancient Greek Political Thought“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Ancient Philosophy
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2021-07-27
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