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The social contract theory according to Socrates

By Shahram Arshadnejad.


This essay aims to trace the idea of the social contract in the western tradition to Socrates’ trial. Of course, the major works on ‘social contract theory’ were written in closer proximity to our age, initiated by Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government,” Rousseau’s “The Social Contract,” and Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws.” However, there is a great deal of understanding found in Plato’s dialogues, particularly in Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito. Plato also writes extensively on this topic in the “Republic” (especially, Book II) and the “Laws.”

There is a fundamental question I try and tackle; why for Socrates does ‘escaping’ lead to the destruction of the city? ‘Destruction’ is viewed as the result of breaking the laws of the city. Thus the integrity of the city is nothing but its laws. There is no city and no civilization without its laws.

Socrates’s exposure to the laws of the city is due to the indictment against him. For this reason the concept of law is of paramount interest to him. It seems his dialogue with Euthyphro was not just to teach him, but also to learn from him. Socrates wanted to equip himself with a better knowledge of the law to conduct a swift defense for himself.

Meletus, as we know, has indicted Socrates,
“…Tell me, what does he say you do to corrupt the young?
SOCRATES: Strange things, to hear him tell it, for he says that I am a [b] maker of gods, and on the ground that I create new gods while not believing in the old gods, he has indicted me for their sake, as he puts it” [3b].

The charges against Socrates are about bringing different gods to the city and consequently corrupting its youths rather than worshipping the old gods, serious charges based on religious dogma. In the English text, however, they do not use the term ‘infidel’ or the ‘act of blasphemy’ against Socrates. If anybody is convicted of this charge there is execution as punishment awaiting him, of course. However, the English translation does not utilize these terms; instead, it uses the term ‘innovation of gods’ [3b]. The absence of the right terminology, however, makes us fail to appreciate the gravity of the charges against Socrates. According to Euthyphro, Socrates claims that the divine sign keeps coming to him. It is a blasphemy, offending the religious authority of the city.

This indictment, however, triggers the whole dialogues about understanding ‘justice,’ ‘law,’ ‘the right of parents over their children,’ and consequently ‘the rights of the city over its citizens.’ It is a gold mine to uncover several aspects of the obligations of the city and its citizens towards one another, which leads us to the concept of the ‘agreement.’ The agreement leads citizens to a binding contract.
There is an analogy in the dialogues between the relationship of parents and their children and cities and their citizens. Richard Kraut in his great work on Socrates and the concept of State elaborates that. “… Socrates imputes no fault to the laws that concern conception, marriage, nurture, and education. Furthermore, they claim that by virtue of those laws, Socrates owes his existence and his upbringing to Athens, and accordingly violence against the city is no more appropriate than violence against his parents (50d1-51c3).”


It is a voluntary, deliberate, and legally binding agreement between two or more competent parties. Contracts are usually written but may be spoken or implied, and have to do with employment, sale or lease, or tenancy. A contractual relationship is evidenced by (1) an offer, (2) acceptance of the offer, and a (3) valid (legal and valuable) consideration. Each party to a contract acquires rights and duties relative to the rights and duties of the other parties.
Perhaps the term ‘employment’ in the provided definition above had a different meaning and social connotation back in Socrates’ era. Therefore, in this context it is ignored. However, the true nature of a contract remains the same, and that is its ‘binding’ nature because of the mutual consent over the common thing in which both parties have interests.

Different types of Contract

Prior to any civilization, life was under the rule of wild Nature and solitary. In that lifestyle, a man or a small group of men lived in absolute liberty. It was only a matter of survival. They lived by the laws of nature. They were subjugated to the Nature’s rules and nothing else. Life in that context was free, but lacked security and order, therefore; it was violent. They were hunters or gatherers, but they could fall victims to violence at any time and in any place. Life under such condition was quite unpredictable and uncertain. This unpredictability was the precursor to fear and violence. There was no chance for prosperity under such a condition. Thus, the first contract was between Man and Nature.

Another contract is that people establish order among themselves to provide security and trim off violence from the fabric of their social lives. This contract is between people. In this mutual and voluntary agreement, all parties come to terms. Because of that tacit agreement, each party assumes some responsibilities and enjoys some interests and benefits as rewards. Those responsibilities and mutually agreed terms lay the foundation of laws among them. Laws provide those things they could not muster on their own; therefore, laws curb the absolute freedom once enjoyed living under Mother Nature in the past, and give them security and order instead, leading to prosperity and happiness. It is worth noting here that the existence of the second contract is the result of the first.

Two types of Contracts in Historical Context

The contract among people themselves (deliberately devised) to set up their communities in the first place is the oldest one. The other type is among the people and an authority. It is in this society that people develop a political system as their society becomes bigger and more people live there and they accumulate more wealth . Thus rises recognition of the right to property. We know, in fact, without laws there is no trade. No society without trade could properly flourish and prosper in history. It was true then and it is true now.

The social interaction in such a society becomes complex and requires the establishment of norms and covenants, the so-called laws of the society. Those laws need to be enforced by an authority, thus emerges the notion of government. Therefore, laws and government are the necessities for each other. Without laws, there is no government and without government, laws are not enforced.

The authority enacts the laws and gives them security, and peace, and people give the authority pieces of their liberty as they consent to its power. The measure of submission differs among communities depending on how much a society leans towards power. Some societies lean completely towards obedience and people relinquish all their freedom and liberties, as in tyrannical societies; or part of their liberties, as in democracies.

In Socrates’ time, the society has already an established government and the laws are in place, because of the government. Therefore, the dialogues (Euthyphro, Crito, and Apology) mainly are focusing on the very well developed and enforced notion of the social contract that Socrates and other citizens rely on. The core concern in Crito is to decide which laws are to be obeyed and which are to be ignored. There is no revolt against laws. It gives rise to the unsettling question about the method of how to improvise ideologically or morally the idea of prioritizing some laws over others. Socrates upholds just laws to preserve his soul as the main concern for his reasoning and actions.

Plato in ‘Laws’ (Bk, I) has a splendid argument to define ‘law.’ From the mouth of Athenian he says,
ATHENIAN: Are we to assume, then, that each of us is a single individual? CLINIAS: Yes. ATHENIAN: But that he possesses within himself a pair of witless and mutually antagonistic advisers, which we call pleasure and pain? CLINIAS: That is so. ATHENIAN: In addition to these two, he has opinions about the future, whose general name is ‘expectations’. Specifically, the anticipation of pain [d] is called ‘fear’, and the anticipation of the opposite is called ‘confidence’. Over and against all these we have ‘calculation’, by which we judge the relative merits of pleasure and pain, and when this is expressed as a public decision of a state, it receives the title ‘law’ [644cd].
Socrates in the ‘Republic’ (Bk, II) extensively talks about ‘justice’. It is crucial to note that justice has a fundamental social element. It is in relation between people themselves, and also between government and its subjects or citizens. It does not exist in a vacuum and it does not exist in a solitude life. It is woven into the fabric of the social life of people. ‘Individuality’ has no take on the concept of justice as long as there is one man living in the world. Justice in the solitary life has no significance, neither does morality. Justice is for the mass.

Socrates’ method in approaching the meaning of justice looks like the rule of Reductio ad Absurdum. He begins talking about ‘injustice’ first, and tries to persuade his audience to understand and appreciate ‘injustice’, so that when he discredits that, they would credit its counter argument, which is ‘justice’. Injustice is an activity derived from self-interest. It serves the self-determined interests of the doer regardless of the effect(s) of that act on others. It does not matter if it hurts somebody. It’s easy to do, and it is beneficial, thus people if left alone tend to do injustice by nature, since they naturally motivated by self-interest and self-preservation. However, justice does not allow a person to do freely according to their interest without considering the interests of others. Therefore, justice means not to do harm on others even if this limits one’s interests. It is hard and of course rewarding, but not as rewarding as doing injustice.

In Republic Book II, Socrates says,

‘Then let’s discuss the first subject I mentioned—what justice [e] is and what its origins are. They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a means between these two extremes’ [358e, 359a].

It seems there is a utilitarian approach towards the definition of injustice and justice. They are valued based on the outcome they produce. It would be the easiest approach to distinguish between the two. Suffering is the measure to determine the justness of an act if there is any. The agreement between the city and its citizens creates just laws, because it is based on cost analysis. Both sides have calculated their interests before reaching an agreement. They passed laws based on the tacit agreements. Therefore, they have to be the just laws. The city of Athens had laws on that premise.

Socrates considers any deviation from the agreement as an unjust act. In the dialogue with Crito, he asserts this conclusion after a long deliberation about avoiding harm to others under any circumstances. Here Socrates enters the realm of defining the glory of the social contract as the symbol of the civilized Athens.

SOCRATES: Then I state the next point, or rather I ask you: when one has come to an agreement that is just with someone, should one fulfill it or cheat on it? CRITO: One should fulfill it.
SOCRATES: See what follows from this? If we leave here without the city’s permission, are we harming people whom we should least do harm to? And are we sticking to a just agreement, or not (49e, 50a)?
Simplifying the logic in Crito:
Premise (A) doing an unjust act is wrong. One must not do an unjust act.
Premise (B) a voluntary agreement on a mutual basis obligates both parties to stick with it.
Premise (C) an act based on a voluntary agreement is a just act.
Conclusion (C*) one must not break any voluntary agreement.

This syllogism above gives us a picture of the Crito dialogue. First, Socrates describes a just act. Of course, the layout of getting to the point of ‘just act’ was set up in the Euthyphro dialogue over the debate as to whether piety causes an just act or not. In any case, the just act is either truly independent of gods’ consent or enjoys gods’ love and consent. This approach leads to the absoluteness of the ‘just act’. In Crito, Socrates concludes that a truth is agreed regardless of people’s opinion for or against it. We learn this point also in the Apology when Socrates ignores the order of the oligarchic government to fetch Leon of Salamis, whom had been condemned to death in his absence. Socrates believes that the order was an unjust ruling, because the institution which issued that order was unjust and unlawful. Socrates fearlessly walks home. In his trial, however, he receives an offer to save his skin so long as he abandoned preaching philosophy and innovating new gods. He refuses that offer on the premise that he was appointed by gods to preach philosophy. He projected a self-righteous character of himself. He had the truth; therefore, he rejected the offer. This act, however, put him at odds with the city that he had an agreement with. This breach of the agreement seems okay with Socrates. He did not compromise his righteousness in his trial, nor did he when refused fetching Leon. However, one question remains unanswered. Why did Socrates not counter offer his punishment to the jury? We know that, in the Greek law, the defendant could offer his sentence in addition to the sentence the plaintiff offered, and the jury had to choose between the two sentences. So, he did have a chance to receive a milder punishment, but he refused.

The era in which Socrates lived was already a developed society. It was a city with courts, laws, the ruling class, trade, war, peace, and politics. All these elements were in place when Socrates began to challenge the established norms of his society. It is worth noting that any imposed changes to a system cause entropy and that leads to chaos. Chaos in any society develops insecurity and, therefore, injustices occur. Fundamentally, any social contract is supposed to avoid such a situation in a society. So, if Socrates attempts to challenge the established norms and religion of the city, then he should expect fierce resistance and backlash.

Richard Kraut delivers a beautiful passage in his book,
“We should expect his objective conception of ethics and his contempt for the many to lead him to the conclusion that sometimes in a democracy a virtuous man will have to disobey his city’s commands. And that is precisely what he does say, in Apology. He assures the jury that if they were to order him to give up his philosophical mission; he would disobey them (29b9-d5). Furthermore, democracies are not the only political systems in which a virtuous citizen might have to defy the state. He reminds his audience that when he was commanded by the Thirty Oligarchs to bring in Leon of Salamis for his execution, he merely walked away, because he thought their order impious and unjust (32c4-3e1). Evidently, Socrates was clear-headed enough to see that you cannot be unconditionally committed both to justice and to obedience. He insists that when an order calls upon a citizen to act in a way that conflicts with virtue, he must refuse (p.12.)”

Now, Socrates in the early dialogues seems to be working on a social contract. Although, he does not use this term exclusively, however; there are some passages, which help us greatly to appreciate Socrates’ views on this matter. He in the Apology develops the ideas of what a social contract should be.

A social contract is mainly concerned about two major factors: justice, and laws to deliver justice. Piety, however, at the time was the measure of just laws, approved by gods, according to Euthyphro. Justice was considered pious. It was not conceivable to consider ‘justice’ or ‘laws’ impious. Socrates, however, participates in a dialogue with Euthyphro to challenge him over piety and the true concept of just act. Although, that dialogue is not conclusive in establishing pious acts and pious behavior, but this much we learn that ‘justice’ can be independent from Pieties’ support.

The absoluteness of Justice

What is justice to Socrates? The preliminary response is that it is not a pious act. Gods can endorse the opposite acts as pious. The focal point in the Euthyphro is on the definition of pious and impious acts as the core foundation for justice. According to Euthyphro, gods love all pious actions, but not impious actions. What are the possibilities for validating an action prosecuting a wrongdoer? We need to consider these points:
(1) Is the prosecution an act of justice, since gods in Greek polytheistic system condone it ?
(2) Socrates in his own right challenges Euthyphro on the definition of a pious act, which constitutes the core part of the dialogue.
(3) Does Euthyphro have any right to prosecute his father?

Socrates focuses on what pious is and how we know it. Euthyphro claims the wrongdoers must be punished regardless of their status, or relationship, or their wealth. He does not exonerate his father. He accuses him of killing a man, involuntarily, who had already committed a murder.

J. Beversluis delivers an interesting critique on the main concept of the Euthyphro’s dialogue. He says, “The fact is, however, that Euthyphro has already justified his litigation by invoking the principle that wrongdoers ought to be prosecuted, including friends and relatives – a principle Socrates accepts. So, if Euthyphro’s father is a wrongdoer, the morally required course of action seems crystal clear: he ought to be prosecuted. So, why does Euthyphro need a definition of piety? The answer cannot be: in order to determine whether it is pious to prosecute his father.”

Socrates is questioning Euthyphro about piety as a form. He is not concerned about pious actions, but that form of it which makes all pious actions pious. And of course, he gets no answer.

Furthermore, he asks Euthyphro the question: is the pious act the same in every action? This is while Euthyphro has failed to deliver any definitive answer about the essence of piety; ‘what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.’ This approach of defining an attribute or essence in theology is called ‘theological voluntarism,’ according to R. E. Allen.

Socrates challenges Euthyphro by concluding that gods disagree about many matters. It is possible the same action is loved and not loved by gods. Socrates concludes that that action is pious and impious at the same time. Therefore, piety cannot be the measure of a just act. This conclusion is important, because there is an indictment against Socrates which relies on piety. One of the charges against him is that he preaches different gods.

Euthyphro, however, objects to that conclusion and claims that all gods agree on some things, such as murderers ought to be prosecuted. There is a unanimous agreement on this. Socrates devises this maxim: what all the gods hate is impious, and what they all love is pious.

The next attack that Socrates delivers is more important than the case of Euthyphro’s prosecution of his father. Socrates has lured Euthyphro to conclude that what is pious and what is loved by gods are not the same.

Here is Socrates’s argument:
(i) What is pious is loved by the gods, because it is pious, it is not pious, because it is loved by the gods.
(ii) But what is loved by the gods is loved because they love it; they do not love it, because it is loved.
(iii) If what is loved by the gods and what is pious were the same, then since the pious is loved because it is pious, what is loved by the gods would be loved because it is loved; and if what is loved by the gods is loved because they love it, then the pious would also be pious because they love it.
(iv) However, precisely the opposite is the case: the one (what is loved by the gods) is of a sort to be loved because it is of a sort to be loved.
(v) Therefore, the pious cannot be defined as what is loved by all the gods.

However, according to J. Beversluis, an interesting point has emerged from this argument, and that is that morality and religion are different. Socrates proved that morality is not based on religion. He needs this conclusion for his defense in the Apology.

Virtue as the atomic essence of morality

It is not the purpose of a juryman’s office to give justice as a favor to whomever seems good to him, but to judge according to law, and this has sworn to do (35c.)

The contract between these people (virtuous people) is commendable and therefore the agreement is a voluntary agreement. This nature of the agreement bonds every soul in that community to obey its laws, because they are just laws extracted by virtuous people voluntarily agreed upon. This is what Socrates stands for. If an agreement is voluntary then it must be obeyed. However, the involuntary agreement is not commendable and, therefore, its laws are not just. So, any virtuous man is obligated to break the unjust laws, according to Socrates. He walks home instead of following the order of the oligarchic government of the Thirty, which was not a virtuous government. He puts his life in jeopardy because of that disobedience.

‘When oligarchy was established, the Thirty summoned me to the Hall, along with four others, and ordered us to bring Leon from Salamis, that he might be executed…. Death is something I could not care less about, but that my whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious’. (32cd.)

To Socrates it was an illegal and tyrannical government. There was not a voluntary contract between the government and the people. Therefore its rulings were not just. Its edicts were not virtuous. Socrates did not find himself obligated to carry out the mission and arrest the man and endanger his life because of it. He did not break the laws of a just government, therefore, he did not seek to persuade, either. What is of utmost importance to Socrates is the preservation of his soul.

This course of action raises the fundamental question about the integrity of government. What government is just and what is not? In ‘The Apology,’ we face the objection to the government of the Thirty. They were a group of military men who seized the power after the war and removed the democracy of Athens. Thus, the consent of the people was missing.

Do not do an unjust harm

Socrates also believed one must not cause any unjust harm under any circumstances. It was the law and it was absolute to him.The order to arrest Leon issued by an unlawful government could have violated this absolute law. Therefore, Socrates was obligated to disobey. He did not even bother to persuade anyone before disobeying the law.

‘I served as a member of the Council, and our tribe Antiochis was presiding at the time when you wanted to try as a body the ten generals who had failed to pick up the survivors of the naval battle. It was illegal, as you all recognized later. I was the only member of the presiding committee to oppose your doing something contrary to the laws, and I voted against it ‘(32b.)

And later he utters,

‘I have never come to an agreement with anyone to act unjustly, neither with anyone else nor with any one of those who they slanderously say are my pupils’ (33a.)

However, the same man does not find unjust the verdict issued against his life. He extensively defends himself in Apology, but when he loses, he accepts the verdict. Even if the ruling was harsh, that did not diminish the fact that the ruling was just. Harshness is not ‘unjust’ if it is on a just basis. Socrates argued against the court ruling, but failed. Therefore, he accepted it. This is the submission of the man who spent his life challenging Sophists and government in the past; it is absolutely shocking to his pupils and friends.

He argues against escaping in the Crito, against the wishes of his close friends. The outcome of his argument results in the fundamental concepts of social contract theory. He established in the Apology that justice is absolute; just laws must be obeyed, and unjust laws must be disobeyed. This disobedience to unjust laws is a moral duty based on the ‘one must not do harm’ principle. He showed this in the Apology by not arresting Leon of Salamis. He believed in the conviction of this principle. He expanded on that principle and concluded, ‘even if one is a victim of an unjust act, one must not retaliate in an unjust manner.’

An unjust act is always an unjust act in any circumstances. If Socrates believes by escaping prison he may do harm to his soul and violate his principles then he will refrain from escaping, the same way he refrained from arresting Leon of Salamis.

Persuade or Obey

There are two courses of actions according to the laws of the city: persuade or obey. If you are in disagreement with an order, you are actually obligated to argue. You must try and persuade the authority that issued the unjust order to change their minds, but if you fail, you must obey. This is the core formula to sustain the system. The integrity of the system depends on this procedure. Of course, there are circumstances that are unpleasant to us, and we would wish it otherwise, but we cannot overrule the system at our leisure.

That conclusion is the result of the debate with Crito about the value of expert opinion of the few over the opinion of the majority. He convinces Crito that the view of a few experts matters, but not the lame opinion of the majority. The ‘Body’ that Socrates addresses in his argument with Crito can be considered as an analogy for the city and the expert physicians are the ones in the jury.

Life is not worth living if the body is corrupted and ruined (47e.)

He reiterates the primacy of truth over the majority’s opinion. Above all, is the truth such as we used to say it was, whether the majority agrees or not and whether we must still suffer worse things than we do now, or will be treated more gently, that nonetheless, wrongdoing or injustice is in every way harmful and shameful to the wrongdoer (49b)?

Socrates concludes that one must never do wrong even if the majority believes in the contrary. This egocentric view is one of the main premises that he develops in his dialogue with Crito.

One should never do wrong in return, nor do any man harm, no matter what they may have done to you (49cd.)

The destruction of cities should be considered universally wrong. No exceptions are granted on a just basis. This is because, if allowed, it will create a subjective stand for the destruction of cities (breaking the laws of cities), where the consequence of that act is an objective matter. Therefore, even the possibility of the destruction of cities under certain circumstances is wrong.


Socrates established his views regarding the absoluteness of truth and just acts. He believed ‘one must not do unjust acts.’ He believed this and put his life in danger practicing it. That was the first rule in his moral system. Moreover, this notion happened to be fundamental for the fabric of the society although Socrates may have not had the welfare of the society as the primary concern , but rather the outcome of his act.

The absolute nature of this rule in Socrates’ ethical system led to the concept of the ‘agreement.’ There are two types of agreements: voluntary and involuntary. Socrates did not find himself responsible for the second type. He had no concerns to put his life in danger to prove that. At the court where he was accused of corrupting the youths of Athens he fiercely defended himself. He rejected the offer to quit teaching philosophy because it was a just act to do and he rejected the opinion of the majority. Here he highlighted his egocentric and narcissistic character. He was found guilty and condemned to death because of it. Shockingly, he accepted the verdict. The assembly of the jury was just; the city was just, and Socrates found himself obligated to the tacit agreement between him and the city, since he was brought up there and enjoyed the security, nourishment and every other services that the city could offer him. Now the very same city wanted him to die on the basis of protecting the fabric of the very same society, to protect its laws.

A City is nothing without its laws. He had to honor the agreement. Therefore, he had to die. Remember his motto: ‘One must not do harm to others.’ Disobeying a law is an unjust act. It is harmful to the laws of the just city. An unjust act also corrupts the soul. His death is a glorious death, and it is not in vain. It was to support the point of the social contract. In this regard, his death is the triumph of philosophy.

1. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works, Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Five dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and the Republic Bk I, II, Laws
2. Beversluis, John. Cross-Examining Socrates: A Defense of the Interlocutors in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Kindle Edition.
3. Kraut, Richard. Socrates and the State, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1984.
4. http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/contract.html

Shahram Arshadnejad earned his undergrad degree in Persian Literature and was a publisher in Iran for four years. He is currently a graduate student in Philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, California USA.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 7th, 2015.