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The Social Contract – History of a Big Idea: Melissa Lane

”We’re co-creators of political outcomes and social outcomes.”

Melissa Lane is the Director of the University Center for Human Values and politics professor at Princeton University. Her work focuses on the history of political thought and political philosophy. We discuss the origins of social contract theory, it’s evolution, and examine how it works today.

Melissa Lane is the Director of the University Center for Human Values and politics professor at Princeton University. Her work focuses on the history of political thought and political philosophy. We discuss the origins of social contract theory, its evolution, and examine how it works today.

The Social Contract

The state of nature is a human condition that exists in any space that lacks civil authority. With the social contract, we’re prepared to make a deal with each other in order to live together as best we can and exit the state of nature. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed versions of the social contract that influence governments around the world today.

Co-Creating Reality

We are all co-creators of our community politics and social outcomes. The ancient Greeks embraced civic thought as a pervasive and abiding concern for the matters belonging to the community in common. Classical ideas can provide a lens for choosing to embrace or to abandon the obligation to sustain and participate in a mutually beneficial reality.  

Mutual Aid

Where is the social contract working today? In response to the pandemic, mutual aid sprung up to meet people’s needs in many communities. Members participate as much as they’re able to and ask for what they need. In doing so, the group can work together to sustain and provide for its members. 

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Melissa Lane is the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics and the Director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. Her research and teaching fois focused in the area of the history of political thought, with a special expertise in ancient Greek thought, and in normative political philosophy, including especially environmental ethics and politics. She is an associated faculty member in the Princeton Department of Classics and Department of Philosophy.

Her books include The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter (PUP, 2015); Plato’s Progeny (Duckworth, 2001); and Method and Politics in Plato’s Statesman (CUP, 1998). 

At Princeton, she was the first director of the Program in Values and Public Life, and is co-chair of the Steering Committee for Service and Civic Engagement and of the Climate Futures Initiative. She received a Phi Beta Kappa teaching prize in 2015. Before joining the Princeton faculty in 2009, she taught in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge and was a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. She is a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Royal Historical Society, and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA).

Melissa Lane Transcript

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