Early Political Theories

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Course Level:
600 or above
Course Length:
15 weeks

Why should we study early political philosophy?

The general purpose of this lecture-course is “to show the relevance of the classics of political thought for understanding modern/contemporary politics”. This statement of purpose implies that the political thought of men who lived more than two thousand years ago, in the present instance Plato (429-347 BC), Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Cicero (106-43 BC), remains crucial to us as political scientists. As a matter of fact, what distinguishes Plato and Aristotle from all subsequent political philosophers or scientists – including Cicero – is the fact that they were the first philosophers to write about their study of the political world.

Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics shed a particular light in the firmament of political philosophies in that they do not rely on any preceding tradition of political thought. Their political philosophy is a direct reaction to political phenomena. It operates the difficult transition from the pre-theoretical or commonsensical understanding of political things – the understanding of the citizen – to a more philosophical/scientific understanding of the same things. By so doing, Plato and Aristotle gave “political science” or “political philosophy” its foundation. If contemporary political science has to go back to the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, it is precisely for the reason that their political philosophy has been the foundation upon which all subsequent political philosophies, whether favorably or unfavorably disposed towards Plato and Aristotle, have been built.

And yet, this return to the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle is not only recommended to us as curious political scientists who want to revisit the distant foundation of their own scientific discipline. More importantly, perhaps, such a return has become a necessary detour for us as citizens anxious to improve our own understanding of the political world in which we live and operate. In its turn, this last assertion presupposes two things:

  1. In spite of all the revolutions and upheavals that have transformed our political world, thereby separating it from the political world of the ancient Greeks (the emergence of Christianity, the radical revolution brought about by modern natural science and modern technology, etc.), the nature of political reality and political action hasn’t substantially changed from what it was four hundred years BC. Otherwise, what Plato, Aristotle and Cicero wrote about political things would now be politically and scientifically irrelevant, as would also all subsequent political philosophies/sciences founded in theirs. Early political theory would be a matter best left to historians of political thought, and not a matter worth being read and studied by men and women whose ultimate desire is to better their understanding of political things.
  2. For reasons that we are about to explore together, contemporary political science is no more able to effectively guide citizens eager to develop and clarify their own understanding of political things. For want of competent contemporary guides, we have to seek political guidance from Greek and Roman political philosophers more in tune with the commonsensical understanding of politics.

In order to understand why contemporary political theory has lost its ability to improve our understanding of our own political experience, we have to inquire into the peculiar nature of political reality. By their very nature, political things ask for a philosophical/scientific clarification.

The specific nature of political reality and the need for political theory:

What is political reality, and why do we need political theory? Very simply put, we are always in need of political theory because politics itself is everywhere and always already founded upon a specific kind of knowledge: politics essentially implies that an answer has been given to the ultimate political question, that of the nature of the perfect political society. One cannot understand political reality while disregarding the fact that each political actor – citizen or political leader – acts or refrains from acting because of a certain opinion about what is politically preferable or good. Ultimately, a man’s political actions and decisions rest on a particular notion of the complete political good (the ideal political society).

Since political reality is already based on it, the explicit theme of early political philosophy was the perfect – i.e. perfectly just – political society. Early political philosophy wanted to clarify the meaning of a notion that each man already relies on as a member of some existing political community. As we can see, early political philosophy did not separate the study of what political reality ought to be (the study of the ideal or perfect political society) from the study of what political reality actually is (the study of real, imperfect political societies). Plato and Aristotle both argued that the only way to properly understand the political “is” – i.e. actual political reality – was to have a clearer idea of the political “ought to be” – i.e. the perfect political society. More than any other, this last assumption made by early political philosophy distinguishes it from all that came after it.

Early political philosophy, a wild-goose chase:

Indeed, if we are justified in separating contemporary/modern political theory from early political theory, it is to a large extent because the former has ceased to ascribe any scientific value to the study of the ideal/perfect political society. Contemporary political science wants to study the political “is” – real, existing political societies – while ignoring the task of clarifying our idea of the political “ought to be”. Present-day political scientists usually consider that the scientific knowledge of the complete political good, i.e. of the ideal political society, is simply impossible to obtain, and that early political philosophers were mistaken who naively thought the contrary. Now, why have we come to consider Plato’s, Aristotle’s and Cicero’s long and careful study of the political “ought to be” as a wild-goose chase? To this last question, we can give the following answer: contemporary political science abandoned all dreams of knowing the essence of the perfect political community under the influence of modern science and its methodological progeny, “positivism”.

The positivist distinction between facts and values, its influence on contemporary political life and philosophy, and the urgent need for early political theory:  

What is positivism? In a nutshell, positivism refers to the view – popularized by modern natural science – according to which scientific knowledge, i.e. scientific knowledge about real, identifiable “facts”, is the only kind of genuine knowledge. According to positivism, everything that exists is and must be known as a “fact”. In contradistinction to what they call “factual judgments”, i.e. potentially scientific judgments about “facts” (“Mr. X weighs 188 pounds”), positivists argue that “value judgments” (“Mr. X is a good citizen”), i.e. all judgments potentially relevant for determining a man’s actions (“hence I’m going to vote for him”), only express subjective preferences, i.e. arbitrary “values” that can never be scientifically known as true or false.

Starting from the 1950s in North America, both normal citizens and political leaders gradually began to show signs of the profound influence that positivism was already exerting on them. The result of this influence is everywhere around us today. As we know, it is now common for citizens and political leaders to hold forth on their so-called “values”. This last development in the way we in the West understand our own political experience is hardly a happy one: a group of citizens who cherish a specific political way of life only because of their “values” implicitly admit that there is no real reason to cherish it. What they believe to be politically preferable or good cannot be known by any science to be so. In fact, once this point was reached, contemporary political science could no longer provide citizens or political leaders with any kind of help: the positivist distinction between facts and values had long become one that it too felt obligated to perform. To find the help that they so desperately needs, contemporary political theory and present-day political life have no choice but to seek out the guidance of early political philosophers.

Course Requirements:

Reading Assignments:

Read very carefully all assignments with care and arrive at class ready to listen attentively, take notes, and make an informed contribution to the discussion that will be taking therein.

Most of the reading assignments are relatively important in terms of number of pages (see “Class and Reading Schedule” at the end of this document). All of them demand very close attention. Therefore, you should begin your reading early to avoid having to read too hastily. You’ll get a lot more out of the course that way.

Writing Assignments:

Major writing assignments:

During the semester, each student will have to write at least 10 pages in response to two distinct major writing assignments.

For these two major writing assignments, I will ask students to come up in advance with a question of their own that they will then - provided that their question is approved by yours truly - try to answer as best as they can in a short essay (5 to 10 pages each), the first one to hand in after the break, and the other to hand in at the end of the semester. Each essay will count 35% towards the final grade.

Minor writing assignments:

In addition, at the beginning of each class, I will ask students to hand in a short reaction paper (approx. one page long) in which they will answer a question about the reading assignment of the day. These short reaction papers will be graded "pass" or "fail". All that is required is a clear proof that you have i) read carefully what you were supposed to read and ii) engaged with the reading in a serious way. An honest effort – emphasis put on both words – is all I am asking here. These "response papers" will count 30% towards the final grade.


You must purchase the following books, all of which are available at the campus bookstore.  Be sure to get the exact editions listed.  Other readings will be available on-line through WebCT or will be handed out in class.


• Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1991). ISBN#0465069347.

• Aristotle, The Politics and the Constitution of Athens, trans. Stephen Everson (Cambridge University Press, 1996). ISBN#0521484006.

• Cicero, The Republic and The Laws, trans. Niall Rudd (Oxford University Press, 2009). ISBN#01995401XX.


Class and Reading Schedule:


Tue Aug 24                 Welcome and Introduction.

Thu Aug 26                Introductory remarks on Plato.


Tue Aug 31                 Plato, Republic, Book I.

Thu Sept 2                   Plato, Republic, Book II.


Tue Sept 7                   Plato, Republic, Book III.

Thu Sept 9                   Plato, Republic, Book IV.


Tue Sept 14                 Plato, Republic, Book V.

Thu Sept 16                 Plato, Republic, Book VI.


Tue Sept 21                 Plato, Republic, Book VII.

Thu Sept 23                 Plato, Republic, Book VIII.


Tue Sept 28                 Plato, Republic, Book IX.

Thu Sept 30                 Plato, Republic, Book X.


Tue Oct 5                    Recap and introductory remarks on Aristotle.

Thu Oct 7                    Aristotle, Politics, Book I, chs. 1-7.


October 11-17 ------- Semester recess.


Tue Oct 19                  Aristotle, Politics, Book I, chs. 8-13.

Thu Oct 21                  Aristotle, Politics, Book II, chs. 1-6.


Tue Oct 26                  Aristotle, Politics, Book II, chs. 7-12.

Thu Oct 28                 


Tue Nov 2                   Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chs. 1-10.

Thu Nov 4                   Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chs. 11-18.


Tue Nov 9                   Aristotle, Politics, Book IV, chs. 1-8.

Thu Nov 11                 Aristotle, Politics, Book IV, chs. 9-16.


Tue Nov 16                 Aristotle, Politics, Book V, chs. 1-7.

Thu Nov 18                 Aristotle, Politics, Book V, chs. 8-12.


Tue Nov 23                 Aristotle, Politics, Book VI, chs. 1-8.

Thu Nov 25                 Thanksgiving Break (No Class).


Tue Nov 30                 Aristotle, Politics, Book VII, chs. 1-9.

Thu Dec 2                   Aristotle, Politics, Book VII, chs. 10-17.


Tue Dec 7                    Deemed a Friday Class. No class.

Thu Dec 9                   Recap and concluding remarks.