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Strengths and Weaknesses of Classicism in Comparison with Social Contract Theory

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Compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of classicism with one other theoretical perspective that you have encountered in Block 1, and critically evaluate which perspective is most useful in considering issues of crime and justice.

The ideas of modern ‘justice’ have at their core two concepts, around which have shaped the way Western liberal democracies have constructed the legal relationship between the ‘people’ and ‘state’. Those two concepts are Classicism and Positivism. This essay will compare and contrast the two perspectives and evaluate which is the most useful regarding the contemporary issues of ‘crime and justice’. To do this it will look at the classical perspective, putting it into context; centring on Thomas Hobbs ‘social contract theory’, and using the work of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria to outline the core beliefs of Classicism. The essay will then use the Positivistic perspective, using the work of Adolphe Quetelet to highlight the ‘individualism’ that separates the two perspectives. The ‘biological’ ideas of Cesare Lombroso will be looked at to show the link between classicism and positivism.

The Enlightenment of the 17th Century challenged the thinking about law and ’justice’. That new way of thinking was the 'classical' ideas of justice or ‘classicism’. Thomas Hobbes, in his seminal work Leviathan (1660) argued that violence is central to human interaction and must be controlled. For Hobbes ‘violence’ was core to his ideas about the creation of a civic society or 'State'. Hobbes (1660) argued that in the 'state of nature' man has a natural right to defend himself to live; even using violence to kill others. Essentially, there is no moral imperative or responsibility to respect others life or property. However, Hobbes argued, though it is a 'natural right' in the 'state of nature' for man to be free to live how he thinks best, it is not the best way to live and survive. Hobbes' solution was to create a ‘Common-wealth’ or State with order being ‘imposed’ by a 'Leviathan’ or sovereign: a person or assembly given executive power over the people.

Hobbs had developed 'social contract theory’ – the term was coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) (McCulloch, Phoenix and Copson, 2019). Social contract theory attempted to put into context the ideas of justice within society, a triumvirate of the State, Law and Citizen; that a 'contract' existed between the Sovereign and the People. The main strength in the ideas of Hobbs and others, like Cesare Beccaria in his On Crimes and Punishments (1764) and Jeremy Bentham (1995 [1791]) on penal reform, was to create a ‘framework’, for the concept of ‘the rule of law’.

Classicism had within it a set of core beliefs about the 'nature' of man: that criminality was essentially part of the human condition and that people have 'free will', that is they make ‘rational’ decisions whether to commit crime or not; and, importantly, that they are ‘hedonistic’ and seek happiness and pleasure (Beccaria, 1963 [1764]; McCulloch, Phoenix and Copson, 2019). In dealing with crime and punishment the classical theory believes that justice should be 'neutral' and seen to be fair and should apply to all; that the punishment should fit the crime; also, that the punishment should not be excessive; and that punishment must act as a deterrent – that crime should be a zero sum game. However, the classical view of punishment was that it should be ‘utilitarian’ in its effect, which is arguably one of the weaknesses with classicism; in that the utilitarian philosophy of ‘the greater good’ – though laudable in many ways – defeats the very idea of ‘justice’ (in a contemporary sense) because it removes the ‘individual’ from the process.

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However, importantly, central to social contract theory was that of 'consent', that the people must freely give consent to be governed and importantly ‘punished' (Hobbs, 1660; McCulloch, Phoenix and Copson, 2019). The idea of ‘consent’ and consenting to be ‘punished’ are weaknesses within the classical theory of justice: that those giving consent should be able to influence the ‘law makers’ – or Leviathan. The socio-economic stratification of society in 18th Century Britain meant that only the ‘elites’ had access to Parliament and Law, and therefore able to question consent. Moreover, the above raises arguably Classicism's main weakness, that of 'equality'. The application of ‘law’ may be equitable, as in ‘everyone’ is subject to the same law. Nevertheless, that does not mean the ‘justice’ is applied equally – in the modern sense – at a time when society was anything but equal. Laws cannot be equally applied in an unequal society if justice is to be done; for example, if a well-fed man steals bread as opposed to a starving man stealing bread. Essentially, classicism lacked the concept of ‘mitigation’. Moreover, what the above has shown was that classicism had no concept of the ‘individual’; however, that was going to change with theories of Positivists thinkers who would bring into focus the idea of the ‘individual’.

By the 19th Century, thinkers like Charles Darwin, and Positivist thinkers like Emile Durkheim and Adolphe Quetelet who will identify and attempt to address the perceived problems with classicism, were beginning to influence the ideas on crime and justice. Key to understanding the positivist viewpoint is that of the 'individual'; that is, unlike the classical theory, which sees criminality as an innate part of the human condition, positivism argues that the person and their circumstances need to be considered and examined.

Therefore, whereas classicism was essentially moralistic – having Christian core values – positivism was essentially Darwinian, looking at mankind as a ‘natural’ biological phenomenon as opposed to religious dogma which saw mankind as divinely inspired. That difference is fundamental to the positions both theories take on crime and punishment. The sociological positivist view was that people were not innately ‘rational’ in their behaviour and choices as argued by classicism, but were subject to circumstance, for example the work of Adolphe Quetelet who looked at demographic, socio-economic and environmental data from 19th Century France, established a correlation between the above and crime rates (McCulloch, Phoenix and Copson, 2019). The positivist ideas on ‘punishment’ were at odds with the classical thinkers. Whereas, the classical idea of punishment, like that of Jeremy Bentham (1995 [1791]) and his ‘Panopticon,’ were about that ‘the punishment should fit the crime’; essentially retribution and deterrence. The positivistic view was about ‘rehabilitation’; turning the classical view on its head arguing that ‘the punishment should fit the criminal’. The positivists were attacking head on the idea of ‘free will’, arguing instead that socio-economics played their part in offending too. However, Positivism was not without its problems. The ‘biological’ positivism of Cesare Lombroso for example, theorised that criminals were ‘less developed’ evolutionarily, and that they had characteristics of primates and rodents – which may say more about Lombroso that his ‘subjects’ (Lombroso, 1911 [1876]; McCulloch, Phoenix and Copson, 2019). In effect Lombroso was aping classicism by throwing ‘individualism’ away and adopting the classical idea of innate behaviour, such as ‘free will’ and hedonism, making the assumption that people are predisposed to crime; though, not as ‘individuals’ but as a ‘group’. Lombroso was in essence ‘labelling’ people as members of a ‘criminal class’.

Essentially, both Classicism and Positivism are core to the ideas of ‘crime and justice’ in the post Enlightenment modern sense; that is, they laid the foundations of the ‘Rule of Law’ that Western Democracies claim is their legitimating concept – however, the Brexit debate and Parliament’s inability to resolve the ensuing deadlock is bringing that ‘concept’ into question. The classical perspective is still today the very foundation on which the modern idea of ‘justice’ stands; therefore, it must be seen in that light. The ideas behind Hobbs et al are just as relevant today as at any time since they were developed as argued in this essay – especially the ‘social contract’. However, those ideas, as revolutionary as they were – and still are – can only go so-far in an understanding of contemporary issues of crime and justice. The idea of the ‘Individual’ must be central to any meaningful understanding of contemporary justice. Therefore, the sociological positivistic perspective is arguably the most useful approach in considering issues of crime and justice. It builds on the classical perspective’s strengths of establishing the ‘rule of law’ and adds the ‘individual’ to the idea of justice; for without the concept of individual rights, the rights of ‘groups’ such as the Working Class and political, ethnic and sexual minorities would not exist.

In conclusion, this essay compared and contrasted the strengths and weaknesses of classicism with the Positivistic perspective. It used Thomas Hobbs’ social contract theory to frame Classicism; and its core beliefs of ‘free will’ and ‘rationality’ to show the important ‘framework’ it provided. The Positivistic approached was used to show the limitations of classicism, using the positivistic idea of the ‘individual’, to highlight the ‘utilitarian’ nature of classicism; therefore, highlighting positivisms strength of bring the concept of individual ‘equality’ to the concept of ‘crime and punishment’. The essay found that Classicism and Positivism together had a holistic effect on dealing with the limitations of justice in the past. Moreover, the essay found that though the classical perspective was key in creating the concepts behind contemporary ideas of ‘justice’, it was the Positivistic approach which should be seem as more relevant in today’s world.


  1. Beccaria, C. (1963) [1764] ‘On crimes and punishments’, reproduced in McLaughlin, E. and Muncie, J. (eds) Criminological Perspectives: Essential Readings,3rd edn, London, Sage, pp. 5–15.
  2. Bentham, J. (1995) [1791] The Panopticon Writings, London, Verso
  3. Hobbes, T. (1660) The Leviathan. Available at: (Accessed: 20 October 2019).
  4. Lombroso, C. (1911) [1876] The Criminal Man (trans. G. Lombroso-Ferrero), New York, The Knickerbocker Press.
  5. McCulloch, D. Phoenix, J. and Copson, L. (2019) Week 2: ‘Classicism and positivism in criminology’ DD804 Block 1 [Online]. Available at (Accessed 12 October 2019).
  6. Quetelet, A. (1842) A Treatise on Man, Edinburgh, Chambers.
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Strengths and Weaknesses of Classicism in Comparison with Social Contract Theory. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from
“Strengths and Weaknesses of Classicism in Comparison with Social Contract Theory.” Edubirdie, 14 Jul. 2022,
Strengths and Weaknesses of Classicism in Comparison with Social Contract Theory. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 Feb. 2024].
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