POLSC201 Study Guide

Unit 2: Modern Political Thought

2a. Explain the difference between classical political thought and modern political thought both in terms of historical context and method

  • Consider the historical context surrounding classical political thought. What characterized the political landscape of ancient Greece and Rome?
  • Next, consider the historical context of modern political thought. How did events like the Renaissance (1300–1600), the English Civil War (1642–1651), the American Revolution (1765–1783), the European Enlightenment (1715–1789), and the French Revolution (1789–1799), shape the ideas of the European philosophers Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and John Locke (1632–1704)?
  • Do you see classical political thought reflected in the views of modern political thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke? What do they have in common, and how are they different? For example, consider how Machiavelli's perspective on virtue in The Prince differs from Plato's perspective on virtue.
  • How do their methods compare to those of the classical political thinkers? Think about which approach is more practical, and which is more theoretical.

All political thinkers are influenced by the era in which they live. As they formulate their ideas about politics, society, and governance, they are observing and experiencing events in the world around them.

Review comparisons of Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli in New Modes and Orders: Machiavelli's The Prince 1-12, and a comparison of Hobbes with Aristotle in The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan I.


2b. Describe the influence that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had on political thought

  • What were the key values of the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment?
  • How did the Renaissance and the Enlightenment change how people thought about government, individualism, religion, reason, and the state?
  • How did the events of the Renaissance and Enlightenment influence Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke?
  • Why do political scientists consider the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1651 to be a significant political development? How did it influence the writing of Hobbes' Leviathan?
  • How did the scientific revolution influence political thought?

The European Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century and spread throughout Europe until the 17th century, when the Age of Enlightenment began. Review how the Renaissance influenced the idea of the self in The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan II-III.

Make a timeline that historically maps out when Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke were formulating their ideas on politics and governance. What do you observe? The Renaissance and the Enlightenment resulted in new and complex political issues. Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke experienced events Aristotle and Plato could not have imagined. Review this material in The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan I, and in Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Review how Hobbes envisioned himself as part of the scientific revolution in The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan I. Also revisit The Significance of Mercenaries, which studies humanism, Machiavelli, and the values of the Renaissance.


2c. Define the state of nature

  • What does Hobbes think about human nature, and how do these beliefs relate to his concept of the state of nature? Do you agree with Hobbes' view of human nature?
  • According to Hobbes, why is the "state of nature" characterized by insecurity and war?
  • Hobbes argues that we need government, law, and civilization due to the "state of nature". A key question is: how does the "state of nature" make legitimate authority possible?
  • How does Locke's view of the state of nature differ from Hobbes? In particular, consider how Locke's emphasis on property rights influences his definition of "state of nature".

The concept of the "state of nature" represents a critical theme in Hobbes' writings. To Hobbes, the "state of nature" is the natural condition of all mankind. It is what we would experience in a world where we have no laws or civilization to constrain human action. Review this in Book I, Chapter XIII of Leviathan, where Hobbes describes life as "nasty, brutish, and short". Also review The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan, Part I and The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan II-III.

Locke also discusses the "state of nature". Review Constitutional Government: Locke's Second Treatise 1-5.


2d. 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

  • How does the social contract arise out of the state of nature? How does the social contract give a government legitimacy?
  • Describe Locke's doctrine of consent to government.
  • As you compare the views of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke regarding the social contract, what do each of these thinkers believe is the main responsibility of government?
  • What is individualism? Why is the freedom of an individual an important part of social contract theory?
  • Define citizenship. According to the ideas of the social contract, what are the benefits of citizenship, and what do we have to give up to be citizens?
  • Do Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Locke believe all men are equal? Why is your response to this question important when considering their views about the social contract?

A social contract is an implicit agreement between a government and a citizen of that government. For example, the government may agree to provide security and order. In exchange, citizens are willing to give up some of their freedoms and autonomy, and accept the government has a legitimate right to rule. Review Hobbes' view of the social contract in Book II, Chapter 17-19 of Leviathan and in The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan I. Review Locke's view of the social contract in the Second Treatise of Government.

Review the doctrine of consent in the Second Treatise of Government and in Constitutional Government: Locke's Second Treatise 1-5.

Review the views on the main responsibility of government in Chapters I-IV of The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli and in the Second Treatise of Government by John Locke.

This idea of the social contract influenced how Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke understood other key values, such as justice, equality, sovereignty, citizenship, and individualism. Review Hobbes' views on individualism in The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan II-III.

Review how Machiavelli and Locke viewed the concept of citizenship in Chapters V-VII of The Prince and Chapters 1-2 of the Second Treatise of Government.

Review the key themes surrounding the social contract for Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke in Constitutional Government: Locke's Second Treatise 1-5.


2e. Define constitutional government and explain Locke's arguments in support of it

  • In the Second Treatise, Locke outlines what is necessary for a government to be considered legitimate. Why is consent necessary for legitimacy? How does a constitutional government achieve consent?
  • Why does Locke argue that government is necessary because of the state of nature?
  • Define natural rights.

A constitutional government is, quite simply, a government that is constrained by a constitution. In what ways does a constitution constrain the actions of a government? Review this in Chapters 3-4 of Locke's Second Treatise of Government and in Constitutional Government: Locke's Second Treatise 7-12.

Throughout his Second Treatise, Locke argues in favor of constitutional government, and against monarchies, focusing on the importance of property rights. Review Locke's explanation of what constitutes the natural rights of man in Chapter 7, section 87, of his Second Treatise of Government.

Finally, in order to explain why Locke argues in favor of constitutional government, it may help to explain why Locke argues against monarchies. Monarchies can take away citizens' property or lives without penalty, which violates their natural rights. Consider how constitutional governments protect natural rights. Review the right to property in Constitutional Government: Locke's Second Treatise 1-5. Review Chapters VI to VII of Locke's Second Treatise of Government.


2f. Explain Locke's influence on the content of the US Constitution

  • The U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence emphasize the inalienable rights of man. How do these inalienable rights compare to the natural rights Locke describes in Chapter II of his Second Treatise of Government?
  • An important principle expressed in the U.S. Constitution is the idea of limited government, restrained by the rule of law. What does Locke say about limited government?
  • Locke wrote extensively on the doctrine of consent. Do you see this doctrine at work in the foundational documents of the U.S. government?
  • What did Locke say about legislative powers and the separation of powers within government? How is this theme reflected in the U.S. Constitution?

Thomas Jefferson and other U.S. Founding Fathers were familiar with Locke's work: Locke's ideas reflected in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In many ways, the U.S. Constitution embodies a written expression of the social contract that Locke described. Besides this influence on the Constitution, Locke also influenced specific ideas found within the U.S. Constitution.

Review this material in Constitutional Government: Locke's Second Treatise 7-12 and in Locke's Second Treatise of Government.

Unit 2 Vocabulary

  • American revolution
  • Citizenship
  • Classical political thought
  • Constitutional government
  • Doctrine of consent
  • English Civil War
  • Era of Enlightenment
  • Equality
  • French Revolution
  • Human nature
  • Inalienable rights
  • Individualism
  • John Locke
  • Legitimacy
  • Modern political thought
  • Monarchy
  • Natural law
  • Natural rights
  • Niccolo Machiavelli
  • Property rights
  • Renaissance
  • Renaissance humanism
  • Scientific revolution
  • Separation of powers
  • Social contract
  • Sovereignty
  • State of nature
  • Thomas Hobbes
  • Treaty of Westphalia
  • Virtue