The Presociologists


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 [2]

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 [2] 1948, 13ff)

  1. 1. mankind by nature social (following Aristotle and Stoics)
  2. 2. golden age, state of nature without coercive government was garden of Eden prior to the fall
  3. 3. government was necessary after the fall because of human vices
  4. 4. government is a divine institution, leaders are agents of god, rebellion is a sin
  5. 5. earthly utility of the state is incidental, heaven is what is important
  6. 6. improving worldly conditions not a priority (“you’ll get your reward in heaven”)
  7. 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:

  • Hobbes = people descend into dog-eat-dog chaos unless a strong leader/state keeps order.
  • 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
  • Rousseau = natural state = solitude, Equality is Natural, Inequality Unnatural. Discovery of agriculture, property, etc. as downfall
  • Smith = natural inclination to truck and barter, invisible hand brings about social order with no centralized source.
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
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 discovery of private property
role of 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 guarantee contracts?
1. Aron, Raymond. 1965. Main Currents of Sociological Thought Vol. 1 : Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, and the Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848. London: Penguin.
2. Barnes, Harry Elmer. 1948. An Introduction to the History of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
3. Coser, Lewis. 1971. Masters of Sociological Thought. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
4. Farganis, James. 2003. Readings in Social Theory. New York: McGraw Hill.
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