Need, Benefit, Fear: Ancient Thinkers on the Origin of the Social Contract

We often make a lot of noise about our political beliefs and affiliations without coming straight out and saying what we think a government is for. Such questions are not merely ‘academic’–without an articulation of core beliefs, politics devolves into mere tribalism.

Today is the start of a virtual conference  “Teaching Leaders and Leadership Through Classics” . (You can participate by registering). In teaching courses on leadership, I have found that students are sometimes surprised by the questions “What is a state for? Why do we have government?”

In thinking about ancient politics and leadership, it is important to consider what authors say about where governments come from: Ancient states did not have constitutions and guiding treatises, they had traditions. But, sometimes, authors spoke to the issue directly.

A city develops to help us pursue the good?

Aristotle, Politics 1252a1-8

“Since we recognize that every state is some kind of a partnership and that every partnership has been undertaken for the sake of some good—for it seems that all people do everything for what seems good—it is clear that all states pursue some benefit, but that the most powerful state of all pursues the most powerful benefit which also includes all others. This state is called the city and this partnership is political.”

    ᾿Επειδὴ πᾶσαν πόλιν ὁρῶμεν κοινωνίαν τινὰ οὖσαν καὶ πᾶσαν κοινωνίαν ἀγαθοῦ τινος ἕνεκεν συνεστηκυῖαν (τοῦ γὰρ εἶναι δοκοῦντος ἀγαθοῦ χάριν πάντα πράττουσι πάντες), δῆλον ὡς πᾶσαι μὲν ἀγαθοῦ τινος στοχάζονται, μάλιστα δὲ καὶ τοῦ κυριωτάτου πάντων ἡ πασῶν κυριωτάτη καὶ πάσας περιέχουσα τὰς ἄλλας. αὕτη δ’ ἐστὶν ἡ καλουμένη πόλις καὶ ἡ κοινωνία ἡ πολιτική.

What is good? Is it to supply something we’re missing?

Plato, Republic 369b

“A city develops, I believe, because each of us isn’t self-sufficient— we lack much of what we need. Is there any other reason to build a community?”

γίγνεται τοίνυν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, πόλις, ὡς ἐγᾦμαι, ἐπειδὴ τυγχάνει ἡμῶν ἕκαστος οὐκ αὐτάρκης, ἀλλὰ πολλῶν ὢν ἐνδεής: ἢ τίν᾽ οἴει ἀρχὴν ἄλλην πόλιν οἰκίζειν;

Perhaps the good is to avoid what is bad…

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1145-1160

“The human race, tired of living in a state of violence 
and languishing in feuds, was eager 
to submit to law and strict judgments.
Otherwise, each person would turn to vengeance
More harshly than our current laws allow,
And this is why people have avoided living in a state of violence.
From here comes the fear that alters life’s rewards
Since violence and pain entrap the one who wields them
And tend to return most to those who acted first.
It isn’t easy to lead a quiet and peaceful life
If you break the faith of a community’s written peace.
Even if you deceive the races of god and man,
There’s no way to be sure to keep a secret forever.
Often many reveal themselves by speaking in sleep
Or confused by a lengthy illness, they finally
Disclose their deeply hidden memories and sins.”

nam genus humanum, defessum vi colere aevom,
ex inimicitiis languebat; quo magis ipsum
sponte sua cecidit sub leges artaque iura.

acrius ex ira quod enim se quisque parabat
ulcisci quam nunc concessumst legibus aequis,
hanc ob rem est homines pertaesum vi colere aevom.
inde metus maculat poenarum praemia vitae.
circumretit enim vis atque iniuria quemque
atque unde exortast, ad eum plerumque revertit,
nec facilest placidam ac pacatam degere vitam
qui violat factis communia foedera pacis.
etsi fallit enim divom genus humanumque,
perpetuo tamen id fore clam diffidere debet;
quippe ubi se multi per somnia saepe loquentes
aut morbo delirantes protraxe ferantur
et celata [mala] in medium et peccata dedisse.

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Xenophon Memorabilia 2.1.12-14

Socrates: “Come now, if only this path wouldn’t lead through men at all, just as through slavery or dominion, you would be saying something. But, as it is, since you live among human beings, if you think it right neither to rule nor to be ruled, nor again to serve rulers willingly, I think that you may see that the stronger know how to make those weaker weep in public and in private—and how to use them as slaves. Or does it escape you that they cut the grain and harvest the trees where others have sown and planted, or that the powerful set siege to the weaker in every way until they “persuade” them to choose to serve as slaves instead of warring against the stronger? Don’t you think it’s the same in private life—that brave and capable men prey upon the weak and powerless once they have enslaved them?”

Aristippus said, “But, indeed, to avoid suffering these things, I do not bind myself to any state—I am a stranger [guest/foreigner] everywhere.”

Socrates: “You have now described a clever trick!” For since the time of Sinis, Skeiron and Procrustes died, no one has done a stranger wrong! But now men gathered together in their states and make laws so that they might not suffer harm, that they might acquire friends as help beyond what they have acquired by birth, and they have built defenses around their cities and acquired weapons to defend themselves against those who might do them wrong and, in addition to this, they have managed to make alliances in other lands. And even those who have done all these things still suffer injustice. Now you, who have none of these advantages, you spend time on the roads where men suffer harm the most and in every city you arrive you arrive you are weaker than all of the citizens—you are the sort of man who are especially exposed to those who want to harm someone. Given all this, you think that you will not suffer harm because you are a “guest”? Is it because the cities announce your safety when you are coming and going that you are so bold? Or is it because you think that you’re the kind of man who’d be of profit to no master? For who would welcome a man into his home who delights in living well but is unwilling to work?”

᾿Αλλ’ εἰ μέν, ἔφη ὁ Σωκράτης, ὥσπερ οὔτε δι’ ἀρχῆς οὔτε διὰ δουλείας ἡ ὁδὸς αὕτη φέρει, οὕτω μηδὲ δι’ ἀνθρώπων, ἴσως ἄν τι λέγοις· εἰ μέντοι ἐν ἀνθρώποις ὢν μήτε ἄρχειν ἀξιώσεις μήτε ἄρχεσθαι μηδὲ τοὺς ἄρχοντας ἑκὼν θεραπεύσεις, οἶμαί σε ὁρᾶν ὡς ἐπίστανται οἱ κρείττονες τοὺς ἥττονας καὶ κοινῇ καὶ ἰδίᾳ κλαίοντας καθίσαντες δούλοις χρῆσθαι· ἢ λανθάνουσί σε οἱ ἄλλων σπειράντων καὶ φυτευσάντων τόν τε σῖτον τέμνοντες καὶ δενδροκοποῦντες καὶ πάντα τρόπον πολιορκοῦντες τοὺς ἥττονας καὶ μὴ θέλοντας θεραπεύειν, ἕως ἂν πείσωσιν ἑλέσθαι δουλεύειν ἀντὶ τοῦ πολεμεῖν τοῖς κρείττοσι; καὶ ἰδίᾳ αὖ οἱ ἀνδρεῖον καὶ δυνατοὶ τοὺς ἀνάνδρους καὶ ἀδυνάτους οὐκ οἶσθα ὅτι καταδουλωσάμενοι καρποῦνται;

᾿Αλλ’ ἐγώ τοι, ἔφη, ἵνα μὴ πάσχω ταῦτα, οὐδ’ εἰς πολιτείαν ἐμαυτὸν κατακλείω, ἀλλὰ ξένος πανταχοῦ εἰμι.

καὶ ὁ Σωκράτης ἔφη· Τοῦτο ἤδη λέγεις δεινὸν πάλαισμα. τοὺς γὰρ ξένους, ἐξ οὗ ὅ τε Σίνις καὶ ὁ Σκείρων καὶ ὁ Προκρούστης ἀπέθανον, οὐδεὶς ἔτι ἀδικεῖ· ἀλλὰ νῦν οἱ μὲν πολιτευόμενοι ἐν ταῖς πατρίσι καὶ νόμους τίθενται, ἵνα μὴ ἀδικῶνται, καὶ φίλους πρὸς τοῖς ἀναγκαίοις καλουμένοις ἄλλους κτῶνται βοηθούς, καὶ ταῖς πόλεσιν ἐρύματα περιβάλλονται, καὶ ὅπλα κτῶνται οἷς  ἀμυνοῦνται τοὺς ἀδικοῦντας, καὶ πρὸς τούτοις ἄλλους ἔξωθεν συμμάχους κατασκευάζονται· καὶ οἱ μὲν ταῦτα πάντα κεκτημένοι ὅμως ἀδικοῦνται· σὺ δὲ οὐδὲν μὲν τούτων ἔχων, ἐν δὲ ταῖς ὁδοῖς, ἔνθα πλεῖστοι ἀδικοῦνται, πολὺν χρόνον διατρίβων, εἰς ὁποίαν δ’ ἂν πόλιν ἀφίκῃ, τῶν πολιτῶν πάντων ἥττων ὤν, καὶ τοιοῦτος, οἵοις μάλιστα ἐπιτίθενται οἱ βουλόμενοι ἀδικεῖν, ὅμως διὰ τὸ ξένος εἶναι οὐκ ἂν οἴει ἀδικηθῆναι; ἦ διότι αἱ πόλεις σοι κηρύττουσιν ἀσφάλειαν καὶ προσιόντι καὶ ἀπιόντι, θαρρεῖς; ἢ διότι καὶ δοῦλος ἂν οἴει τοιοῦτος εἶναι οἷος μηδενὶ δεσπότῃ λυσιτελεῖν; τίς γὰρ ἂν ἐθέλοι ἄνθρωπον ἐν οἰκίᾳ ἔχειν πονεῖν μὲν μηδὲν ἐθέλοντα, τῇ δὲ πολυτελεστάτῃ διαίτῃ χαίροντα;

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