Topic outline

  • Course Introduction

    Political thought, or political philosophy, is the study of questions concerning power, justice, rights, law, and other issues pertaining to governance. Whereas political science assumes that these concepts are what they are, political thought asks how they have come about and to what effect. Just as Socrates' simple question "How should we be governed?" led to his execution, the question "What makes a government legitimate?" leads to political turmoil when posed at critical times. Political thought asks what form government should take and why; what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any; and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever. Generally speaking, political thought, political philosophy, and political theory are terms often used interchangeably to mean the study of philosophical texts related to politics.

    This course examines major texts in the history of political thought. Many of these texts pose difficult questions concerning the political community, social order, and human nature. This course asks how different views on human nature and the uses of history inform the design of government. It also considers the ways in which thinkers like Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau have responded to the political problems of their times, and the ways in which they contribute to a broader conversation about human goods and needs, justice, democracy, and the ever-changing relationship between the citizen and the state.

    One of our central aims in this course will be to gain a critical perspective on our times by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various regimes and philosophical approaches. We will also work to better understand those assumptions and basic concepts that define the field of political science. Each of the three units that comprise this course is devoted to a broad theme central to understanding politics. The first unit, centered upon the texts of Plato and Aristotle, will address the polis, or political community. The second unit, featuring the work of John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes, will explore the modern state and constitutional government. The third unit, introducing the texts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, will focus on democracy and the critique of liberal ideology. You will find that these political philosophies have shaped various forms of government, from tyranny to republican democracy and welfare states.

    It should be noted that the terms politics, political theory, and political science are used throughout the course, but not interchangeably so. While they all relate to each other, each has a different meaning. Politics is the use of power and the distribution of resources. Political theory, on the other hand, is the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, the discipline of political theory has approached this study from three different perspectives: classic, modern, and contemporary political theory - all will be covered in this course. Finally, political science is an academic discipline concerned with the study of the state, government, and politics. Aristotle defined political science as "the study of the state."

    If you're interested in reading philosophy or thinking about life purpose and social organization, this might be a good course for you to take. Additionally, if you like to debate, consider alternative viewpoints, or talk about politics this course will likely interest you. Also, Western political thought has served, in one form or another, as the philosophical and ideological basis for governments around the world for centuries, including the United States. Hopefully, this course will allow you to put yourself within an historical, social, and cultural setting so you may relate to contemporary political society.

  • Unit 1: The Polis

    This first unit deals with the origins of Western thinking on the polis, which is the Greek word for city-state. We will read Plato's famous work, the Republic, which presents an extended argument in dramatic form for what might constitute the ideal polis, encompassing consideration of all aspects of governance, citizenship, social order, and personal virtue. Speaking through the character of his teacher Socrates, Plato's model of the ideal city-state mirrors the order of nature as based in his metaphysical Theory of Forms, famously articulated here in the Republic through the Allegory of The Cave.

    Plato's streamlined view of political and social life holds that the city-state should be governed by a ruler with philosophical training capable of comprehending the true nature of reality, justice, and wisdom, and where one's place in society is determined by one's natural abilities. By contrast, Plato's student Aristotle, while incorporating and responding to many aspects of Platonic thought, develops a decidedly organic, or this-worldly, system of ethics and a corresponding structure for the polis as embodied in the texts of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics. Aristotle's famous claim that "man is by nature a political animal" captures his belief that a natural order between the individual and the community exists as both a power struggle and a distribution of resources, which has as its own end the good held both individually and in common. Such ideal notions of the city-state, whether Platonic or Aristotelian, and the particulars therein, have been a point of departure for political philosophers since the time of Plato's Athens to the present day.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 45 hours.

  • 1.1: The Just and the Unjust

  • 1.2: The Ideal City

  • 1.3: The Philosopher-King

  • 1.4: The Socratic Method

  • 1.4.1: Socrates Asks to Be Judged on the Truth

  • 1.4.2: Poetry and Philosophy

  • 1.5: The Ideal Citizen and the Ideal State

  • 1.5.1: Crito's Appeal for Socrates to Confess to False Crimes

  • 1.6: The Good Life: Virtue and Happiness

  • 1.6.1: The Doctrine of the Mean

  • 1.6.2: The Preconditions of Virtue: Voluntary vs. Involuntary Action

  • 1.6.3: Justice as a Virtue

  • 1.6.4: The Importance of Contemplation

  • 1.7: Rule of Law

  • 1.7.1: Man as a Political Animal

  • 1.7.2: The Importance of Public Service

  • 1.7.3: Distributive Justice as the Task of the Polis

  • 1.7.4: The Primacy of the Law

  • Unit 2: Modern Political Thought

    The Greek polis served as an influential model of citizenship and governance for centuries. Modern political philosophers, however, found that they needed to rethink politics according to a new, more realistic understanding of the way humans actually behave. As a result, modern government requires both a keen historical sense and the pragmatic use of power.

    This unit will begin with the Italian political philosopher and civil servant Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli is credited with the distinctly modern notion of an artificial (rather than natural) state in which the leader should rule swiftly, effectively, and in a calculated manner. Many associate his theories with the use of deceit and cunning in politics; after Machiavelli, politics was conceived of as an art in which the best rulers governed shrewdly, carefully calculating about enemies, populations, and the timing of certain actions.

    Thomas Hobbes adapted this Machiavellian approach on a much larger scale. For Hobbes, the state should be sovereign and secular; the citizens should give up both their allegiance to the Church and their rights in exchange for physical security. However, while modern political thought has been built upon the Machiavellian notion of the artificiality of the state, the moderns disagreed on how people behaved and on the degree of a government's strength and pervasiveness necessary to properly govern citizens.

    John Locke responded to a strict concept of sovereignty with the idea of constitutional government. Like Hobbes, Locke imagined a civil society capable of resolving conflicts in a civil way, with help from government. However, Locke also advocated the separation of powers and believed that revolution is not only a right but, at times, an obligation of citizenship. These three thinkers represent the foundation of modern state theory.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 39 hours.

  • 2.1: Timing and Cunning in Politics

  • 2.1.1: Hereditary and Conquered Principalities (States)

  • 2.1.2: Volunteer Armies and Mercenaries

  • 2.2: Sovereignty

  • 2.2.1: The State of Nature: A World of All against All

  • 2.3: Constitutional Government

  • 2.3.2: Slavery and Private Property

  • 2.3.3: Representative Government and Revolution

  • Unit 3: Liberal Democracy and Its Critics

    We will conclude this course by discussing various conceptualizations of political and social equality and addressing ways that political thought shifted away from a belief in the primacy of the sovereign state and the legitimacy of elites. We will also discuss how Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed the notion of participatory democracy, the egalitarian view that constituents should be directly involved in the direction and operation of political systems. This concept would be used in both Alexis de Tocqueville's examination of government in young America and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' critique of political liberalism as the ideology of the rich. This unit will serve as both a historical study and a platform for discussing today's competing political theories about the role of the state in the redistribution of resources, the government's role in the economy, and the differences between what we do and what we believe.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 48 hours.

  • 3.1: Discourse on Inequality

  • 3.1.2: Dependence, Property, and Inequality

  • 3.2: Democratic Participation

  • 3.3: Democratic Statecraft

  • 3.3.1: Equal Rights and Popular Sovereignty

  • 3.3.2: The Importance of Civic Associations

  • 3.4: Karl Marx as an Enlightenment Thinker

  • 3.4.1: Alienation and Secular Governance

  • 3.4.2: The Marxian Challenge

  • 3.4.3: Marx's Theory of Capitalism

  • 3.4.4: From Capitalism to Socialism to Communism

  • 3.4.5: Alienation: Separating Workers from the Results of Their Work

  • 3.4.7: Understanding Modes of Production (Materialism)

  • 3.5: The Boundaries of Civil Liberties

  • 3.5.1: Mill on Rights and Utility

  • 3.5.2: Problems with Neoclassical Utilitarianism

  • 3.5.3: Perfectionism in Mill's On Liberty

  • Course Summary