• Course Introduction

        Political thought, or political philosophy, studies questions of power, justice, rights, law and other issues pertaining to governance. While political science often assumes these concepts are static, political thought asks how they came about, and to what effect. Just as the question Socrates posed, "how should we be governed?" led to his execution; the question, "what makes a government legitimate?" can lead to political turmoil at critical times. Political thought asks what form government should take and why; the duties a citizen owes their government, if any; and when citizens should overthrow an "illegitimate" government, if ever.

        In this course, we examine major texts in the history of Western political thought, where the authors often pose difficult questions about the political community, social order, and human nature. How do different views about human nature and history inform government design? We will explore how the thinkers, Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau, responded to the political problems of their times, and how they contributed to the broader conversation about human needs and goods, justice, democracy, and the ever-changing relationship between the citizen and the state.

        We will provide perspective for our current political situation by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various regimes and philosophical approaches. We will also look at the 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.

        In our first unit, we address the polis, or political community, centered upon the texts of Plato and Aristotle. In the second unit we explore the modern state and constitutional government, featuring the work of John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes. Finally, we focus on democracy and a critique of liberal ideology, from the perspectives of the texts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. These political philosophies have shaped various forms of government: from tyranny, to republican democracy, to welfare states.

        Note that we use the terms politics, political theory, and political science throughout the course—however, they are not interchangeable. Politics describes the use of power and the distribution of resources. Political theory is the study of the concepts and principles people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, the discipline of political theory approaches this study from three perspectives: classic, modern, and contemporary political theory. Here, we examine all three. 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."

        We will cater to those who enjoy reading philosophy, thinking about life's purpose and social organization, considering alternative viewpoints, and discussing politics. Western political thought has served as a philosophical and ideological foundation for governments around the world, including the United States. We give you historical, social and cultural context to relate to contemporary political society.

        After familiarizing yourself with the following course syllabus, enroll in this course using the "Enroll me in this course” button. Once enrolled, navigate to Unit 1 of the course to read the Unit Introduction and Unit 1 Learning Outcomes. Links and instructions for all unit specific course resources will follow the introductory materials.

      • Unit 1: The Polis

        Our first unit deals with the origins of Western thinking on the polis, 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 its famous 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 40 hours.

        Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:

        • describe the social order and governance of society as presented in Plato's Republic;
        • explain the narrative of Socrates' trial and subsequent death as told in Plato's Apology and Crito;
        • compare and contrast the arguments of Socrates in the Apology and Crito with his arguments in the Republic;
        • discuss the concepts of justice, equality, citizenship, and virtue as presented in the Republic with those presented in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics; and
        • explain how Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics forms the basis for conceptions of government in Politics, and why Aristotle considers aristocracy based in virtue as the ideal form of government over oligarchy or democracy.
      • 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.

        Our unit begins 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 40 hours.

        Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:

        • explain the difference between classical political thought and modern political thought both in terms of historical context and method;
        • describe the influence that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had on political thought;
        • define the "state of nature";
        • discuss and analyze the ideas and arguments regarding justice, equality, sovereignty, citizenship, and the nature of the individual in the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, with particular regard to "the social contract";
        • define constitutional government and explain Locke's arguments in support of it; and
        • explain Locke's influence on the content of the U.S. Constitution.
      • Unit 3: Liberal Democracy and Its Critics

        We conclude our 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 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.

        Alexis de Tocqueville considered participatory democracy when he examined government in young America. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did the same when they critiqued political liberalism as the ideology of the rich. Our unit serves as a historical 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 difference between how we act and what we believe.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 40 hours.

        Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:

        • describe the difference among Rousseau's notion of "the state of nature" with Hobbes and Locke;
        • explain Rousseau's thoughts about the origins of societal inequality and the relationship between freedom and equality;
        • compare and contrast the need for and design of a social contract as explained in the writings of Rousseau and Locke;
        • explain the role Tocqueville believed religion played in American society;
        • describe Tocqueville's thoughts on the notion of equality in America and France;
        • explain Marx's thoughts on the relationship among Christianity, the secular state, and capitalism;
        • describe Marx's theory of history, and how his economic worldview relates to political structure.
      • Study Guide and Review Exercises

        This study guide will help reinforce key concepts in each unit as you prepare to take the final exam. Each unit study guide aligns with the course learning outcomes and provides a summary of the core competencies and a list of vocabulary terms. Our study guides are not meant to replace the readings and videos that make up the course.

        The vocabulary lists include terms that may help you answer some of the review items, and terms you should be familiar with to successfully complete the final exam for the course.