This should, of course, be called “some” not “the presociology social theorists,” but time allows us just a short visit before we need to get back on the bus and start driving through the mid- to late-19th century.
Today we’ll briefly consider three thinkers who effectively pose several questions that have continued as reference points to social theorists for the next several hundred years.

They are, of course, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and Adam Smith (1723–1790). To give a little chronological perspective, recall that the pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620, Galileo (1564-1642) dealt with the inquisition in 1633, and the English (or Puritan) revolution (Cromwell, etc.) was 1640-60. Sir Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) Principia appeared in the summer of 1687, just five years before the Salem witch trials. Benjamin Franklin flew his kite in 1752, the American revolution was 1776 and the French revolution in 1789.

Our focus is the soup of ideas to which these 16th and 17th century thinkers contributed ingredients. Like all thinkers, though, they stood on the shoulders of giants – thousands of years of theorizing about humans and their collectivities.

The Ancients (Barnes 1948)

We are skipping over “sociological” ideas to be found in the works of the Egyptian scribes, the Babylonians (you remember the code of Hammurabi carved into that stone column shown in high school world history textbooks?), Hebrew legal codes, Chinese sources even older than the Greeks, and the so-called “pre-Socratics” of Greek philosophy.

We will mention Plato’s Republic as perhaps the earliest systematic analysis of society and the state, his Laws as an early treatment of the evolution of societies, and Aristotle’s Politics as a sort of “founding text” for Western social theory. Aristotle bequeathed us three important ideas: inductive study of society (start from observations and try to generalize) ; his assertion that humans are fundamentally social by nature; and “necessity of social relations for complete development of the human personality” (Barnes 1948 8).

This brings us to our first contrast or antinomy. Aristotle STARTS with humans as having a social instinct and says society develops as an expression of this tendency. How it happens can be affected by geography, climate, etc. Plato, by contrast, takes the utilitarian view of humans as individuals first. For him, society emerges from conscious analysis of self-interest – people realize they’ll be better off if they band together.
This pairing of contradictory theories was recapitulated by the differences between the Stoics (Zeno, et al. 350-250 bce) and the Epicureans. The former held with Aristotle that humans are essentially social and must be social to be whole while the latter were in the “contract” camp and held that rational self interest was the basis of society.
The latter view implies the idea of a “pre-social” and “more natural” state of human existence based on a world of isolated individuals who come together because of the material advantage they perceive such arrangements would have.

In an early pre-echo of Durkheim’s “mechanical solidarity,” another theme that shows up in classical sources is the role played by friendship and perceptions of similarity. Groups form, people band together because they recognize likeness among their fellows. Justice and morality arose from “group approval and disapproval” (Barnes 1948 10).

Early Christian Sources

The basic logic inherited from early “Christian Fathers” goes like this (Barnes 1948, 13ff)
1. mankind by nature social (following Aristotle and Stoics)
2. golden age, state of nature without coercive government was garden of Eden prior to the fall
3. government was necessary after the fall because of human vices
4. government is a divine institution, leaders are agents of god, rebellion is a sin
5. earthly utility of the state is incidental, heaven is what is important
6. improving worldly conditions not a priority (“you’ll get your reward in heaven”)
7. poor, etc. exist as opportunity for almsgivers (cf. gospel of John – Lazarus as opportunity for Jesus)

In St. Augustine’s City of God this comes together as measuring the value of social institutions in terms of whether they get people to heaven

Medieval Sources

Important inheritances include idea that all institutions of state are inventions that post-date a “golden past.” Specific ideas about popular sovereignty and consent of governed from Romans. From church the idea of the fall and divinity of political power and separateness of the spiritual life. Christian ideas about brotherhood of man and the medieval social organization in terms of clergy, nobility, citizens and peasants resonated with Plato’s picture of social whole depending on a division of labor. The re-introduction of Aristotle revived the idea of the natural sociability of humans.
Result : society is natural but government also necessary for stability.

Challenge of “middle ages” : resolve division of power between church and state. Distinct realms but princes divinely appointed and church is big land holder. Secular and spiritual intertwined. Needed an ideology that legitimated this.

Overall, medieval conception of society based in harmony of individual and social, everything in its place. Organic metaphor. Hints of later functionalism. Consensus and stability key. Individuals’ needs fulfilled by participation in collective. Church is the superior institution.

Aquinas (1225-74) : (1) man is social; (2) society is community of purpose/interest, only by joint effort can best interests be realized; (3) superior power necessary to direct society for common good and ruler puts superior talents to work for community (by analogy to patriarchal rule in family)

Questioning the Medieval Synthesis

Time : 14th century or so. Lots of secular monarchs getting stronger. Revival of Roman law (which put state over any social institution) was important influence. Scholar activists challenged papal meddling in political affairs, questioned conventional wisdom about church hierarchy deriving from St. Peter.

Ideas about society originating from purely utilitarian and individualistic basis supports what might be called “strong humanist” approach and resonates with criticism of church.

Machiavelli comes along (1469-1527) and effectively separates ethics and politics. His model of man is as self-interested creature with insatiable appetite. He gave us a first rate study of leadership and organization. It is purely pragmatic with ends justifying the means. His, then, is a social theory of what works not of what values one should work toward. He also added an important appreciation for social dynamics – states must develop and grow or they will wither and die. This pushes aside the emphasis on stability as the main “function” or “goal” of society.

Our Texts

Our texts cover the period from 1651 to 1776. These thinkers had behind them several hundred years of writings about the natural state of humans, the emergence of states, the relationship between the secular order and the spiritual order. What will they have to say?

Here’s the blurb on the back of the book version of each of these thinkers and then a table:

  1. Hobbes = people descend into dog-eat-dog chaos unless a strong leader/state keeps order.
  2. John Locke = state of nature is one of natural equality prior to government subject to natural lawocke, natural condition = social Sociability and Natural Inequality, natural rights
  3. Rousseau = natural state = solitude, Equality is Natural, Inequality Unnatural. Discovery of agriculture, property, etc. as downfall
  4. Smith = natural inclination to truck and barter, invisible hand brings about social order with no centralized source.
Factor Hobbes Locke Rousseau Smith
human nature selfish and only rational in selfish sense sociable and reasonable self-sufficient and independent and naturally equal Selfish but ready to exchange
state of nature war, nasty brutish, short, war of all against all. pre-state equality, do what every you want, subject to laws of nature; Pre-political;Barter possible without social contract b/c of natural law solitude, pre-social, pre-family Individuals less than sufficient on their own? Differently abled.
spark emergence of Leviathan cell-content discovery of private property cell-content
state achieve/preserve order more efficient to delegate order keeping social contract implemented by owners to preserve what they’ve got, creates political inequality, despotism not far behind cell-content

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Hobbes is a contemporary of Descartes and Galileo. Leviathan is written in 1651. It’s written in the midst of the English Civil War (1643-1646) a struggle between parliament and Charles I. Question was about monarchy as over against republic as form of state organization. Even if it can be seen as rocking the idea of the absolute monarch, the chaos the followed gave lots of pause.
Hobbes basic model was that individuals are mutually dangerous ==> band together ==> contract ==> civil society ==> need for absolute authority. Man should give up natural liberties for artificial peace. Although not the first to articulate these ideas, he is generally cited as the foundation for the “humans fall into disorder without government” and “government involves transfer of power from individuals to sovereign” lines of thinking.
What is the argument of the text? Just to get a sense of how to do this, let’s look at it step by step:

  1. Nobody is so physically strong as to never be challenged and people are even more equal in terms of mental capacity
  2. Everybody wants similar things and two wanting one thing can become enemies. You build something, an invader takes it, and then the same thing happens to him.
  3. (a)There is really no way to protect yourself, (b) but it is OK to try. (c) Some try to conquer more than is really necessary to be safe, though, and (d) others, happy with what they have, will get trampled in the process, so (e) you have to let folks go for dominance.
  4. Three causes of quarrel: (a) competition, (b) diffidence (distrust, hesitance resulting from lack of confidence, shyness), (c) glory and so these mutual invasions happen for gain, safety, and reputation.
  5. Without common power to fear ==> all are in a state of war and if you have to survive based only on your strength, life is very unpleasant.
  6. Is there empirical proof of this? Think about taking a trip. Don't trust strangers. And no laws can help with strangers until people agree on a lawmaker.
  7. Sovereigns can fight one another, but they still keep their subjects in line saving them from "the misery of liberty" and without sovereign, in war of all against all, there is no law, right, justice, no sense of ownership ("mine and thine distinct") in the "natural state" but passion plus reason CAN help us out…
  8. Fear of death and desire of comfort and hope by industry to get these things ==> "contract" of peace ==> laws of nature.

For Hobbes, individuals give up power to a sovereign but he does not suggest that there is a process whereby they can get it back. Government does, for Hobbes, possess the sovereignty and more or less permanently.
Quotes you should know from Hobbes:
1. "The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short…."
2. "bellum omnium contra omnes" (= war of all against all)
Spinoza follows Hobbes but takes the contracting as explicit so that individuals get a guarantee of natural rights. He includes idea of a “just rebellion” if the rule does not hold up his end of the contract.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Rousseau is one of the so-called "Philosophes" and was a contributor to Diderot's Encyclopedia. his most famous work is "Emile," a book on education (take-aways : development of whole person instead of mere discipline and facts).
Rousseau, in early writings, took the opposite position from Hobbes : the state of nature is idyllic, not chaotic. “Civilization” has been our downfall. Results have been corruption, tyranny, etc.
In later writing he was more like Locke : state of nature not war but one in need of some improvement through cooperation. There are things we want that we might only be able to achieved jointly. Joining together via social contract creates civil society (note, NOT government, per se). Sovereignty goes to the state from the general will. Governmental authority is delegated authority.
For our purposes, the innovation here is the concept of "The General Will" as a sort of new sovereign and the implicit social contract in which the "pure individual" gives something up to become a part of a collective. There are hints here of an idea we'll see in Durkheim and in Simmel in slightly different forms. One way to express this is that the social person is not only an individual but is literally "part social."
As a little social structural aside, a part of Rousseau’s innovation was to think about voting in terms of spatial districts rather than categories based on vocations (e.g., guilds and such). Simmel, we will later see, would identify this as a fundamental move in the direction of socially generic (counting students off by ten, for example, removes any suggestion that you are treating them like anything but generic students).
Outline of reading

  1. I. Introduction in which he says
  2. II. Subject of the first book
  3. III. Right of the strongest
  4. IV. Slavery
  5. V. Look back to first convention
  6. VI. The social compact
  1. I. Civil Order: Note that he writes "born a citizen of a free state"
  2. II. "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." How does this happen? Who knows? How legitimate? Read on.
  3. III. Social order as right. Basis of other rights. Not from nature. Founded on conventions.
  4. IV. Right of the strongest — like Hobbes — strength can get you on top, but others will topple you. How do you transform strength into a right? "Might makes right" is meaningless. There is no way in which a "right" is added. That is, there is no moral force, no matter how well you can beat up the other guy. "At best prudence," he says (people obey/respect because they don't want to get hurt). Force does not create rights/obligations.
  5. V. Slavery
    1. A. No natural authority of one person over another
    2. B. Force creates no rights
    3. C. ==> convention is the only basis for legitimate authority
    4. D. Slavery Argument
      1. 1) man has no natural dominion over others
      2. 2) force does not create a right
      3. 3) => legitmate authority comes from mere convention
    5. E. But can a people simply yield its freedom to a king?
      1. 1) Individuals can forfeit liberty in return for something but a people cannot
        1. (a) since they produce whatever the king has, there is no exchange here.
        2. (b) You can't say they get peace since he sends them to war or fights in their villages
        3. (c) Voluntary self alienation is absurd and madness creates no right
        4. (d) Parents can't give away children's liberty so new deal would have to be made with each generation
        5. (e) to renounce liberty is to renounce being a person
        6. (f) no way to exchange absolute authority and unlimited obedience : it would set up a relationship between non-equivalent beings
      2. 2) Old argument : victory => right to kill => right to buy back life for liberty. But, following Rousseau, state of war does not give right to kill the conquered
      3. 3) Primitive men, prior to society, cannot have sufficient relationships to either war or peace
        1. (a) War is a relation between things not persons
        2. (b) war requires "real relations" (state as distinct from king or people)
        3. (c) => no war in state of nature — no property (contra Hobbes)
        4. (d) => no war in social state under law (contra Hobbes)
        5. (e) Duels, etc. are not war
        6. (f) War is a relation between states.
        7. (g) Individuals are enemies by accident of role playing. You only kill them while they are at arms.
      4. 4) ==» NO RIGHT TO SLAVERY
  6. VI. That we must always go back to a first convention
    1. A. Subduing the multitude is not same as ruling a sociey
      1. 1) Aggregation not same as association
      2. 2) no "public good," no "body politic"
    2. B. Grotius : a people can give itself to a king
    3. C. Rousseau : but how did it become a people?
    4. D. Rule of majority is itself a social construct
  7. VII. The Social Compact
    1. A. Life eventually gets tough to go it alone
    2. B. Only option: form groups
      1. 1) But how to joing FOR self preservation without losing sense of self?
      2. 2) Problem : find a form of association which gives advantage of combining forces AND allows individuals to remain free.
      3. 3) Answer : SOCIAL CONTRACT (trade natural liberty for conventional liberty)
        1. (a) each person surrenders all rights to whole community
        2. (b) even trade, no on on top
        3. (c) "submission" is to "general will"
        4. (d) creates a "moral and collective body" (cf., corporation)

"This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons, formerly took the name of city, and now takes that of Republic or body politic; it is called by its members State when passive, Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself."
"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."

Adam Smith

Even with their emphasis on democracy, a lot of 17th and 18th century thinkers were very heavily focused on the state as the paramount institution in the social world. It was a radical change from the ideas of divine right monarchy, to be sure, but another set of ideas was about to capture the attention of thinkers who were wondering just what society was and how it worked.

Trend in Reductionist Theories

Galileo and Newton had turned cosmology on its head and had shown how whole systems could be understood in terms of simple laws such as the inverse square law of gravitation or the law of inertia. Furthermore, they had accomplished these things by applying “pure reason” to observations of the natural world. The correctness of mathematical formulations lies in their “self-evident” character.

Humanist Urges

Simultaneously, a number of new religious ideas had been emerging to challenge the received orthodoxy of the church. An important component of these was the revision of the core idea of humans as fundamentally evil and depraved. Another was a de-emphasis on a controlling god or an order ordained by the bible.


Industrial revolution starting to really make the world look like everything was changing. Growth of cities. Initial appearance of factories. Replacement of individual craft with division of labor. Machines. An awareness of changes in population, patterns of settlement, etc.
And so, a confluence of a critical outlook, alarm at rapid change, an admiration for rational laws, new conceptions of the human condition….

Laissez Faire

In the mid 18th century a group of French writers known as the “physiocrats” held that social, political, and economic phenomena were governed by same sort of natural laws that Newton had found for the physical universe. They were convinced that the human condition could best be improved by allowing the “system” to return to the equilibrium of its natural order. This meant that government should refrain from getting in the way of “nature.” Misery was caused by archaic regulations that prevented natural forces from playing out.
This “get out of the way and let nature take its course” ideology is what is referred to as “laissez faire” (let it happen).
Adam Smith took up the idea in his 1776 An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Smith focused on the value of commerce and manufacturing and brought back Plato’s focus on the division of labor and specialization. He emphasized the role of labor and we’ll later see this picked up by Ricardo and Marx in the notion of “the labor theory of value.”
Most notable in Smith is the idea that humans’ natural tendency is to “truck and barter” and that left to their own devices people will naturally trade and then recognize the value in focusing their energies on specialties. His parable of the pin maker vs. the team of pin makers illustrates the value in terms of productivity of division of labor and specialization (we will later note that he does not ask whether or not there is a cost to the craftsman who used to make pins if he becomes a mere pin pointer). The big picture in Smith’s work is connected to the image of “the invisible hand” which is the metaphorical source of order that emerges when people meet in the free market to work things out. There is no need for centralized coordination. Thus, we have the antithesis of the Leviathan.
Later we’ll ask, with Durkheim, a fundamental question : what is it that allows strangers to engage in barter in the first place? Or, for that matter, what allows them to engage in a social contract in the first place? How do they know how to bargain? Whom to trust?

Reading: The Wealth of Nations

Quotes from Smith

  • THIS division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”
  • “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
  • The invisible hand:
  • "Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.
  • The Wealth of Nations, Book IV Chapter II

A Closing Bit on Social Contract Theory

"Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that the state of nature is not a state of war, but a state of individual freedom where creativity flourishes. Since a fully mature person is a social person, a social contract is established to regulate social interaction. This contract between citizens establishes an absolute democracy which is ruled by the general will, or what is best for all people. Interest in social contract theory declined in the 19th century with the rise of utilitarianism, the theory that actions are right when they produce more benefit than disbenefit for society. Contemporary versions of social contract theory attempt to show that our basic rights and liberties are founded on mutually beneficial agreements which are made between members of society. John Rawls argues in A Theory of Justice (1971) that in an original position, a group of rational and impartial people will establish a mutually beneficial principle of justice as the foundation for regulating all rights, duties, power, and wealth." <>

Sources (almost certainly incomplete)

  • Aron, Raymond. 1965. Main Currents of Sociological Thought Vol. 1 : Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, and the Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848. London: Penguin.
  • Barnes, Harry Elmer. 1948. An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Coser, Lewis. 1971. Masters of Sociological Thought. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
  • Farganis, James. 2003. Readings in Social Theory. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Course Notes: Rosel 1983; Linz 1987; Zerubavel 1997.

Extra Material

John Locke (1632-1704)

Locke’s big starting point is that the state of nature was NOT one of unsocial individualism and war and disorder. The situation was not preSOCIAL but prePOLITICAL. What such a society lacked was impartial ways to settle such disputes as would arise, especially in regards to private property.
Important distinction between society, on the one hand, and government. The latter can be dissolved when majority judges that those in power have breached the contract.

Text Explication (after

  1. Two purposes to the text are (1) to refute doctrine of divine and absolute right of the Monarch; and (2) to establish theory which would reconcile liberty of citizen with political order.
  2. The state of nature knows no government; but in it, as in political society, men are subject to the moral law, which is the law of God.
  3. Men are born free and equal in rights. Whatever a man "mixes his labour with" is his to use. As long as there was enough for all…
  4. when men have multiplied and land has become scarce, rules are needed beyond those which the moral law or law of nature supplies.
  5. But the origin of government is not to economic necessity, but moral or natural law which is always valid, but it is not always kept.
  6. In the state of nature all men equally have the right to punish transgressors: civil society originates when, for the better administration of the law, men agree to delegate this function to certain officers.
  7. Thus government is instituted by a "social contract"; its powers are limited, and they involve reciprocal obligations; moreover, they can be modified or rescinded by the authority which conferred them.

Important take-aways from Locke are social vs. political, reliance on naturally social humans, and emphasis on capacity of individuals to revoke the social contract.