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's 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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's 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.

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  • Course Summary

    Hopefully this course has given you a thoughtful and lucid account of the most important political thinkers and the enduring themes of the last two and a half millennia. As you've seen, Western political thought encompasses a variety of differences and schools of thought. For example, in Unit 1 we discussed the origins of Western thinking on the polis, or city-state. Plato and Aristotle both discuss the ideal polis through their consideration of governance, citizenship, social order, and personal virtue. Essentially, their works ultimately ask the question "what is the ideal state?” While Plato feels that a ruler with philosophical training should govern the polis, he also asks several questions in the Republic, such as: Why do men behave justly? Do the stronger elements of society scare the weak into submission in the name of law? Or do men behave justly because it is good for them to do so? Is justice, regardless of its rewards and punishments, a good thing in and of itself? How do we define justice? In the Apology, Socrates (on trial for his life) is less concerned with political doctrine than in defining the ideal philosopher.

    In Crito, interestingly enough, Socrates seems quite willing to accept his imminent execution, because in his estimation he would be aiding his enemies in wronging him unjustly, and would thus be acting unjustly himself, essentially violating the social contract. And, finally, in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle's most comprehensive work on ethics, he conceives of ethical theory as a field distinct from the theoretical sciences. Its methodology must match its subject matter - good action - and must respect the fact that in this field many generalizations hold only for the most part. We study ethics in order to improve our lives, he argues, and therefore its principal concern is the nature of human well-being. Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well-lived life. Like Plato, he regards the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex rational, emotional, and social skills. But he rejects Plato's idea that training in the sciences and metaphysics is a necessary prerequisite for a full understanding of our good. To quote Socrates, "the unexamined life is not worth living.” These ancient Greek philosophers did just this, laying the foundation for the first comprehensive examination of the state and its relationship to its citizens.

    In Unit 2, we turned our focus to modern political philosophers - Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. While the ancient Greek polis served as influential models of governance and citizens for centuries - the world was becoming much more complex. As such, these thinkers approached the relationship of the state to its citizens in a much more realistic way. Machiavelli's The Prince is essentially an extended analysis of how to acquire and maintain political power. Machiavelli draws many of his examples in The Prince from contemporary Italian politics and its main political powers. He was one of the first political philosophers to conceive and create politics as an art form, in which the best rulers should be cruel rather than merciful, should break promises if keeping them would be against their interests, undertake great projects to enhance their reputation, and avoid making themselves hated and despised (the goodwill of the people is a better defense than any fortress).

    Thomas Hobbes was an admirer of Machiavelli and used his principles on the artificiality of the state in Leviathan, which established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory. Hobbes was a champion of the absolutism of the sovereign. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede some rights for the sake of protection. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. There is no doctrine of separation of powers in Hobbes's discussion. According to Hobbes, the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial, and ecclesiastical powers.

    John Locke, one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, was also a proponent of a strict sovereign, but he believed that any government that rules without the consent of the people can, in theory, be overthrown. He did argue that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God. From this, he goes on to explain the hypothetical rise of property and civilization, in the process explaining that the only legitimate governments are those that have the consent of the people - a constitutional government. The theories of these three philosophers helped in the development of the modern state.

    The final unit of this course focuses on contemporary political philosophy, mostly in the mid-19th century. Historically, this was a time of tremendous technological advancement - rapid industrialization coupled with clear social class divisions. Here, these thinkers consider issues of the legitimacy of the elites, the notion of participatory democracy, and the redistribution of resources between the rich and the poor. Rousseau, for example, argues in his Discourse that the only natural inequality among men is the inequality that results from differences in physical strength, for this is the only sort of inequality that exists in the state of nature. As Rousseau explains, however, in modern societies the creation of laws and property have corrupted natural men and created new forms of inequality that are not in accordance with natural law. Rousseau calls these unjustifiable, unacceptable forms of inequality moral inequality, and he concludes by making clear that this sort of inequality must be contested.

    The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, during his travels in 19th-century America, analyzed why republican representative democracy succeeded in the United States while failing in so many other places. However, he warned of possible threats to democracy and possible dangers of democracy (including tyranny of the majority).

    Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels crafted theories about society, economics and politics - collectively known as Marxism - which hold that all societies progress through the dialectic of class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class which controls production and a lower class which produces the labor for goods. Again, they were both warning of Industrial Revolution, which was spreading rapidly throughout Europe. This unit served as both a historical study and a platform for discussing today's political debate on class inequality and the role of government in the economy and in the redistribution of resources.

  • Optional Course Evaluation Survey

    Please take a few moments to provide some feedback about this course at the link below. Consider completing the survey whether you have completed the course, you are nearly at that point, or you have just come to study one unit or a few units of this course.

    Link: Optional Course Evaluation Survey (HTML)

    Your feedback will focus our efforts to continually improve our course design, content, technology, and general ease-of-use. Additionally, your input will be considered alongside our consulting professors' evaluation of the course during its next round of peer review. As always, please report urgent course experience concerns to and/or our Discourse forums.

  • Final Exam

    Quizzes: 2