Course Syllabus

Welcome to POLSC201: Introduction to Western Political Thought

Specific information about this course and its requirements can be found below. For more general information about taking Saylor Academy courses, including information about Community and Academic Codes of Conduct, please read the Student Handbook.


Course Description

Examine the major texts and figures in the history of political thought, including Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. Topics of analysis include power, justice, rights, law, and issues of governance.


Course Introduction

Political thought, or political philosophy, studies questions about power, justice, rights, law, and other issues related to governance. While some believe these concepts are static, political thought asks how they originated and to what effect. Just as Socrates' question "how should we be governed?" led to his execution, the question "what makes a government legitimate?" can lead to political turmoil. What form should government take? What do citizens owe their government? When should citizens overthrow an illegitimate government?

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

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 while we use the terms politics, political theory, and political science throughout the course, 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, political theory approaches this study from three perspectives: classic, modern, and contemporary political theory. Here, we examine all three. Political science is the academic discipline concerned with the study of the state, government, and politics. Aristotle defined political science as "the study of the state".

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.

This course includes the following units:

  • Unit 1: The Polis
  • Unit 2: Modern Political Thought
  • Unit 3: Liberal Democracy and Its Critics


Course Learning Outcomes

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

  • summarize the passage of political thought through the classical, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods based on the works of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Marx;
  • compare and contrast the differences between Plato and Aristotle with regard to their understandings of the nature of the person, ethics, society, citizenship, and governance;
  • explain the historical and intellectual context in which the political thought that helped to develop the modern state came to be;
  • compare and contrast the concepts of justice, freedom, equality, citizenship, and sovereignty in the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau;
  • explain the different versions and importance of the state of nature to political thought;
  • identify the influences of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau on the development of the United States Constitution;
  • summarize the thoughts of Alexis de Tocqueville on the American political landscape, particularly with regard to religion and equality, and why this has importance beyond the American context;
  • explain Karl Marx's worldview, with particular regard to his critique of democracy and the modern, politically liberal state; how it came to be; and its fundamental link to capitalism; and
  • explain John Stuart Mill's theory on utilitarianism and how he applies it to society and the state.

Throughout this course, you will also see learning outcomes in each unit. You can use those learning outcomes to help organize your studies and gauge your progress.


Course Materials

The primary learning materials for this course are articles, lectures, and videos.

All course materials are free to access and can be found in each unit of the course. Pay close attention to the notes that accompany these course materials, as they will tell you what to focus on in each resource and will help you to understand how the learning materials fit into the course as a whole. You can also see a list of all the learning materials in this course by clicking on Resources in the navigation bar.


Evaluation and Minimum Passing Score

Only the final exam is considered when awarding you a grade for this course. In order to pass this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the final exam. Your score on the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you may take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt. Once you have successfully passed the final exam, you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.

There are also end-of-unit assessments and other quizzes in this course. These are designed to help you study and do not factor into your final course grade. You can take these as many times as you want until you understand the concepts and material covered. You can see all of these assessments by clicking on Quizzes in the course's navigation bar.


Earning College Credit

This course is eligible for college credit via Saylor Academy's Direct Credit Program. If you want to earn college credit, you must take and pass the Direct Credit final exam. That exam will be password-protected and requires a proctor. If you pass the Direct Credit exam, you will receive a Proctor Verified Course Certificate and be eligible to earn an official transcript. For more information about applying for college credit, review the guide to college credit opportunities. Be sure to check the section on proctoring for details like fees and technical requirements.

There is a 14-day waiting period between attempts of the Direct Credit final exam. There is no waiting period between attempts for the not-for-credit exam and the Direct Credit exam. You may only attempt each Direct Credit final exam a maximum of 3 times. Be sure to study in between each attempt!


Tips for Success

POLSC201: Introduction to Western Political Thought is a self-paced course, which means that you can decide when you will start and when you will complete the course. There is no instructor or an assigned schedule to follow. We estimate that the "average" student will take 120 hours to complete this course. We recommend that you work through the course at a pace that is comfortable for you and allows you to make regular progress. It's a good idea to also schedule your study time in advance and try as best as you can to stick to that schedule.

Learning new material can be challenging, so we've compiled a few study strategies to help you succeed:

  • Take notes on the various terms, practices, and theories that you come across. This can help you put each concept into context and will create a refresher that you can use as you study later on.
  • As you work through the materials, take some time to test yourself on what you remember and how well you understand the concepts. Reflecting on what you've learned is important for your long-term memory and will make you more likely to retain information over time.


Suggested Prerequisites

In order to take this course, you should:


Technical Requirements

This course is delivered entirely online. You will be required to have access to a computer or web-capable mobile device and have consistent access to the internet to either view or download the necessary course resources and to attempt any auto-graded course assessments and the final exam.

  • To access the full course, including assessments and the final exam, you will need to be logged into your Saylor Academy account and enrolled in the course. If you do not already have an account, you may create one for free here. Although you can access some of the course without logging in to your account, you should log in to maximize your course experience. For example, you cannot take assessments or track your progress unless you are logged in.
  • If you plan to attempt the optional Direct Credit final exam, then you will also need access to a webcam. This lets our remote proctoring service verify your identity, which is required to issue an official transcript to schools on your behalf.

For additional guidance, check out Saylor Academy's FAQ.



This course is entirely free to enroll in and to access. Everything linked in the course, including textbooks, videos, webpages, and activities, is available for no charge. This course also contains a free final exam and course completion certificate.

This course also has an optional final exam that can give you an opportunity to earn college credit. This exam requires the use of a proctoring service for identity verification purposes. The cost for proctoring for this optional exam is $5 per session.

Last modified: Monday, September 25, 2023, 4:28 PM