POLSC201 Study Guides

Course Review

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 by considering governance, citizenship, social order, and personal virtue. Essentially, their works ultimately ask the question of what the ideal state is. 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 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 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 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 focused on 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' 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. Still, he believed that any government that rules without the consent of the people could, in theory, be overthrown. He did argue that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God. From this, he explains 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, and 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. For example, Rousseau 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 following natural law. Rousseau calls these unjustifiable, unacceptable forms of inequality moral inequality, and he concludes by clarifying that this sort of inequality must be contested.

During his travels in 19th-century America, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville 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 the possible dangers of democracy (including the 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 that controls production and a lower class which produces the labor for goods. Again, they were both warnings of the 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 the redistribution of resources.