The social contract theory throws light on the origin of the society. According to this theory all men are born free and equal. Society came into existence because of the agreement entered into by the individuals. The classical representatives of this school of thought are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Rousseau.
Thomas Hobbes was of opinion that society came into being as a means for the protection of men against the consequences of their own nature. Man in the state of nature was in perpetual conflict with his neighbors on account of his essentially selfish nature. 'The life of man was solitary poor, nasty, brutish and short'. Every man was an enemy to every other man.
Hobbes in his book Leviathan has made it clear that man found nothing but grief in the company of his fellows. Since the conditions in the state of nature were intolerable and men longed for peace, the people entered into a kind of social contract to ensure for themselves security and certainty of life and property.
By mutual agreement they decided to surrender their natural rights into the hands of a few or one with authority to command. The agreement was of each with all and of all with each other. The contract became binding on the whole community as perpetual social bond. Thus in order to protect himself against the evil consequences of his own nature man organized himself in society in order to live in peace with all.
John Locke believed that man in the state of nature was enjoying an ideal liberty free from all sorts of rules and regulations. The state of nature was a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance and preservation.But there was no recognized system of law and justice. Hence his peaceful life was often upset by the corruption and viciousness of degenerate men. The men were forced to live in full of fears and continual dangers.
In order to escape from this and to gain certainty and security men made a contract to enter into civil society or the state. This contract Locke called social contract. This contract put an end to the state of nature and substituted it by civil society. The social contract was no more than a surrender of rights and powers so that man's remaining rights would be protected and preserved. The contract was for limited and specific purposes and what was given up or surrendered to the whole community and not to a man or to an assembly of men. According to Locke the social contract later on contributed to the governmental control. The governmental contract was made by the society when it established a government and selected a ruler to remove the inconveniences of ill –condition.
Jean Jacques Rousseau Rousseau the French writer of the 18th century in his famous book The Social Contract wrote that man in the state of nature was a noble savage who led a life of primitive simplicity and idyllic happiness. He was independent, contented, self-sufficient, healthy, fearless and good. It was only primitive instinct and sympathy which united him with others. He knew neither right or wrong and was free from all notions of virtue and vice.
Man enjoyed a pure, unsophisticated, innocent life of perfect freedom and equality in the state of nature. But these conditions did not last long. Population increased and reason was dawned. Simplicity and idyllic happiness disappeared. Families were established, institution of property emerged and human equality was ended. Man began to think in terms of mine and yours.
When equality and happiness of the early state was lost, war, murder, conflicts became the order of the day. The escape from this was found in the formation of a civil society. Natural freedom gave place to civil freedom by a social contract. As a result of this contract a multitude of individuals became a collective unity- a civil society .Rousseau said that by virtue of this contract everyone while uniting himself to all remains as free as before.
There was only one contract which was social as well as political. The individual surrendered himself completely and unconditionally to the will of the body of which he became a member. The body so created was a moral and collective body and Rousseau called it the general will. The unique feature of the general will was that it represented collective good as distinguished from the private interests of its members.
The theory of social contract has been widely criticized as historically there is nothing to show that the society has ever been deliberately created as a result of voluntary agreement or contract. Nor can we suppose that man could ever think of entering into a contract with others when he lived under conditions of extreme simplicity, ignorance and even brutality. The theory seemed to be mere fiction as state of nature never existed. The most primitive people even lived in some form of society however rudimentary or unorganized. There are always two parties to the contract. There cannot be a one-sided contract as was conceived by Hobbes. The advocates of the theory hold that the early individuals entered into the contract for their individual safety and security of property. But history tells us the other way.
Early law was more communal than individual and the unit of society was not the individual but the family. Society has moved from status to contract and not from contract to status as the theorists of the social contract argued. According to Sir Henry Maine contract is not the beginning of society but the end of it.