Introduction to Political Philosophy

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Course Level:
Course Length:
16 weeks
3 hrs

Course Texts

Primary Texts

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Pericles’ Funeral Oration)

Plato, Menexenus, Republic,  and  Apology of Socrates

Xenophon, Apology of Socrates to the Jury

Aristotle, Politics  and  Nicomachean Ethics

Polybius, Universal History (On the Roman Constitution)

Machiavelli,The Prince

Hobbes, On the Citizen and Leviathan

Locke,Letter Concerning Toleration  and  Second Treatise on Government

Rousseau, Second Discourse – On Inequality

Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays

Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

Secondary Texts

Harvey Mansfield, A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy  (ISI Books, 2001)

Leo Strauss & Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy (University of Chicago, 1987)

Scott Crider, The Office of Assertion: Art of Rhetoric for Academic Essays (ISI Books, 2005)

Course Purpose

The purpose of the course is to engage in a sustained examination of texts and thinkers, inquiring into the following questions of political philosophy: What is Politics? What is a Regime? What is Law? What is Justice? What, in light of Human Nature, is the Best Regime? What is the proper relation of Philosophy to Politics? What are limits of the Philosophic Life and the Political Life, vis-à-vis each other? How do Opinions regarding Virtue and the Best Way of Life for Human Beings inform our understanding of the ends (and means) of Politics? Do these Opinions change or progress through History? Is the State of Nature, rather than Human Nature and Opinion, the appropriate (or necessary) starting point for Reflections on Politics? Are the Laws governing human communities thus derived from Nature or from human beings? Is the aim of Politics finally to care for the soul, or the body, or (somehow) both? Answers to these questions, or at least tentative answers, emerge from the writings of political philosophers, only a selection of whom we will study in this course. Disputes have been made as to which (if any) of (the particular writings of) these particular thinkers are absolutely essential to political philosophy; it is agreed that all of the selections we will read have influenced profoundly the history of political philosophy, and thus have staked an enduring claim to their inclusion among the canon of “great books” written by political thinkers of the first or highest order. However it is not this claim itself, but the arguments within the texts themselves that are truly worthy of our consideration. Such reasonable arguments support, in the most fundamental way, the ‘answers’ proposed by each thinker to those questions at the heart, or core, of political philosophy. Through the exercise of our rational faculty, we discover and engage these texts and thinkers in that sustained dialogue which is the activity of political philosophy.

Course Requirements

Grading Percentages

Attendance/Participation               15 %

First Writing Assignment               20 %

Midterm Exam                                  20 %

Second Writing Assignment         20 %

Final Exam                                        25 %

Attendance and Participation

Attendance is mandatory. Students are required to attend each class session, and to participate in class discussions–listening attentively, making comments, and taking notes. Active participation is strongly encouraged. Liberal education is never compulsory; the free mind must learn to educate itself. Sincere efforts to contribute to our class discussion (with thoughtful observations and questions as well as comments) will assist all of us to form sound opinions and arrive at reasoned judgments about questions raised in and by these texts. All readings should be prepared in advance, according to the Schedule of Readings.

Reading and Studying

Class discussions depend on your presence and participation, as well as preparation. For each hour of class time per week, please be ready to spend at least three hours outside of class preparing, reading, and writing. Endeavor to think seriously about what you are reading. In preparing for class, please pay attention to current political events at the national level, particularly those involving constitutional issues and/or disputes between the three branches of government. 

Criteria for Grades

  • Written work or examinations meriting the grade of “A” (excellent) must:
  • address the assigned question(s) and topic(s) directly;
  • demonstrate a careful and considered reading of the relevant primary text(s);
  • offer a lucid and coherent thesis defended by a persuasive, detailed argument;
  • weave together thesis and argument, with fitting quotations and full citations;
  • use correct grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, and academic style;
  • exhibit thoughtfulness, originality, and insight.

Written work or examinations awarded the grade of “B” (good) fulfill a majority of these criteria with areas of improvement indicated in grading remarks and comments. The grade of “C” (average) is assigned to submissions that fail to meet at least half of these criteria; students should make an appointment to discuss specific methods for improvement. The grade of “D” (unacceptable) is assigned to work that fails to meet a majority of these criteria, in which case students must make an appointment to discuss revising and resubmitting the assignment.

Graded Work

Late submissions that are not pre-approved will be subject to a grade deduction and are unacceptable after five days (including weekends). Written work suspected of plagiarism, cheating, collusion, or other flagrant violations of the Academic Honesty Policy will not be graded; students will be asked to meet formally with the professor to discuss the suspected violation. Further action may be taken if the student cannot account for the suspected violation to the professor’s satisfaction.


Students are strongly encouraged to visit me during office hours or to make an appointment for some more convenient time to discuss any aspect of the course, especially any assigned readings. I’ll look forward to hearing your questions and thoughts on the readings.

Schedule of Readings

I.          Classical Political Philosophy and the Foundations of Political Theory

In order to reflect on the important questions outlined above (see “Course Purpose”), we must begin with a close reading and discussion of the fundamental texts in the history of political philosophy, starting with the classical Greek period. The works of Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle are the foundational texts in political philosophy. They guide us not only toward provisional answers to perennial questions of political philosophy, but also toward reflection on deeper, more fundamental questions about what it means to live well and flourish as human beings in political communities.

We begin with the classical origins and tradition of political philosophy, in particular with Socrates and his philosophic life of inquiry. Cicero, the Roman philosopher-orator-statesman, looked back to Socrates, an Athenian who lived four centuries before, as the one who first called Philosophy down from the Heavens, and examined the peculiar character of being human in the community known in ancient times as the polis. The Socratic Tradition of reflection on the best way of life and the proper regime or constitution (politeia) of the soul and of political communities continued through the works of his students, including Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle. A variation on this tradition emerged in the writings of Cicero (Roman republicanism); but Christianity rejected this pagan tradition as essentially flawed and, on the basis of a universalizing Revelation, established a radically new foundation for understanding human dignity and virtue in its fullness that transcends politics. With the advent of the Italian Renaissance and Enlightenment science, a ‘new’ tradition began – modern political thought.


Week One

Introduction: What is Political Philosophy?                       

  • Mansfield, SGPP, “Introductory Note” and “Partisan Differences”

  • Strauss & Cropsey, HPP, “Preface to the First Edition” and “Introduction”

  • Samuel Huntington, “One Soul at a Time”

  • Patrick Deneen, “Patriotic Vision”


Reading Questions:

  1. How does the essay by Huntington indirectly offer an apologia, or defense speech, for the study of political philosophy – or at least for the importance of remembering that the study of politics is finally not reducible to a ‘science’?

  2. What would it mean to study political life from an ‘objective’ perspective or stand-point?

  3. How does the essay by Deneen prepare the way for thinking about what might be required of us, if we are to think philosophically about politics?


Week Two

Justice and the Socratic Life

  • Thucydides, “Pericles’ Funeral Oration”

  • Plato, Menexenus & Apology of Socrates

  • Xenophon, Apology of Socrates to the Jury

  • Mansfield, SGPP, “The Origin of Natural Right”


Reading Questions:

  1. Why does Thucydides’ Pericles praise Athenian democracy as a meritocracy?

  2. What does Pericles mean when he says that the Athenians consider only someone who is “a-political” to be completely useless?

  3. What is the relationship between democracy and empire?

  4. In what sense is Socrates engaged in politics, if at all, according to his “Apology”?

  5. When he offers a version of the Periclean Funeral Oration, how does his praise of Athens differ, and in what sense does he make his speech and the deeds of the Athenians adhere to the principle of Justice?


Week Three

Theories of Justice and Political Foundations                                 

  • Plato, Republic  I-IV

  • Aristotle, Politics  I.1-2; II.1-5; VII.4-7, 10-12, 16-17; VIII.4-7

  • Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (selections)

  • Strauss & Cropsey, HPP, “Plato”


Reading Questions:

  1. What are the different definitions of Justice offered in Republic I?

  2. Why do Glaucon and Adeimantus desire that Justice be defended by Socrates, and on what explicit terms is that argument to be based?

  3. To what degree would the equalization of wealth and education result in a community contrary to human nature, even if the purpose of that equalization is to establish justice?

  4. Does the desire for perfect justice on earth implicate our reason as well as passions in a totalitarian scheme of government?

  5. Is the “best regime in speech” proposed here by Socrates a Marxist utopia?


Week Four

Enlightenment and the Rule of Philosopher-Kings  

  • Plato, Republic  V-VII

  • Aristotle, Politics  III.14-18; VII.8-9

  • Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”


Reading Questions:

  1. Why must philosophic education be the pinnacle of the just regime?

  2. Why must the philosophers, once enlightened, be compelled to rule?

  3. If the pursuit of justice is the political problem, is “Enlightenment” the answer?

  4. What is the difference between the classical view of philosophy (with its relation between nature and education), on one hand, and the modern project of Enlightenment according to Kant’s essay, on the other hand?


First Writing Assignment due


Week Five

Citizens and Citizenship (or: Parts and Participation) in the Polis

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics  X.9  &  Politics  I.1-2

  • Mansfield, SGPP, “The Political Animal”

  • Strauss & Cropsey, HPP, “Aristotle”


Claims to Rule and the Regime, or Way of Life, of the Polis

  • Aristotle, Politics  III.1-12; IV.1-2


Reading Questions:

  1. Why does Aristotle’s Ethics end with an argument that points to Politics?

  2. What is the proper relation between the moral or ethical life of virtue and perhaps contemplation, on one hand, and the active or political life, on the other hand?

  3. How does Aristotle define the political community as distinct from the other forms of natural human association? What is a “regime” or way of life?

  4. What does it mean for human beings to live well, and not just to live?

  5. On what grounds are the various claims to rule established, according to Aristotle?

  6. Why, and how, must the rival claims to rule be adjudicated – and by whom?


Week Six

The Best Regime in Speech and in Deed

  • Aristotle, Politics  III.13; VII.1-3, 13-15; VIII.1-3         


Polity and the Second Sailing

  • Aristotle, Politics  IV.7-9, 11-16


Reading Questions:

  1. Which is the best regime, according to Aristotle, and why?

  2. Why is it better to have a government of men rather than of laws?

  3. Why is it better to have a government of laws rather than of men?

  4. Why is the “second sailing” inevitable and good for human beings?


Week Seven

Comparative Studies: ‘Mixed’ Regimes and Regime-Change (Revolution)

  • Aristotle, Politics  IV.3-6, 10; V.1-12

  • Plato, Republic  VIII-IX

  • Polybius, “On the Roman Constitution”


Reading Questions:

  1. What characteristics are possessed by the ‘mixed’ regime called Polity?

  2. How does blending Democracy and Oligarchy, with Aristocracy, lead to the establishment of the most practicable or most stable regime?

  3. What is different about the ‘mixed’ constitution of the Romans, described by Polybius?

  4. How does the Roman constitution resemble the American Constitution in certain respects?


Mid-Term Exam


II.        Modern Political Thought and the Science of Politics

In the second part of this course, we turn our attention towards the birth of a new science of politics. Machiavelli first broke with the tradition of classical political philosophy (and also with Christianity) regarding the ends and means of political life. In the writings of Machiavelli, then Hobbes and Locke (followed by Romantic and Enlightenment thinkers, such as Rousseau and Kant), more familiar political concepts have their origins. The polis as the context for political life is abandoned, in favor of “the state” (vs. “society”); history, rather than first principles or nature, governs the progress of human affairs, and a theoretical or conceptual “state of nature” is invented to reflect on (even explain) “the human condition” as it really is, and not as it ‘ought’ to be; virtue, justice, and the ‘best’ regime fade as the principal ends of politics, replaced by practical / “realistic” (vs. moral / ‘idealistic’) aims, such as fulfilling the human desire for self-preservation, power (over chance, nature, and people), safety, sovereignty, liberty, free will, and/or property. Thus narrowing the horizon of political ends, modernity first posited (in successive developments) a human condition; then proposed solutions for improving and overcoming it. Along the way, the tradition (and study) of political philosophy was overtaken by political science. This course serves as an introduction to the history of that tradition of political philosophy, and its perennial questions, which modern political science – try as it might to change the subject or terms of the inquiry – cannot finally answer in a sufficient or persuasive way.


Week Eight

The Beginning of Modernity and a New Science of Power                          

  • Machiavelli, The Prince,  Epistle Dedicatory, I-II, XXVI

  • Mansfield, SGPP, “Godly Politics” and “The Perpetual Republic”

  • Strauss & Cropsey, HPP, “Machiavelli”


The Acquisition and Maintenance of ‘State’ and Principates

  • Machiavelli, The Prince III-XI


Reading Questions:

  1. What precisely does Machiavelli “hold most dear or so esteem” among his equipment?

  2. By what two (or four) methods are “dominions…acquired”?

  3. What kind of prince has “fewer causes and necessity to offend”?

  4. Who does Machiavelli say “observed well” the matters for acquiring province (that is, who did “all that wise princes ought to do” with respect to new states)?

  5. What don’t the Italians understand and what don’t the French understand?

  6. What are the “two diverse modes” by which “the principates of which we have memory”    have been governed?

  7. What is it “very natural and ordinary” for human beings to desire?

  8. Who are the four “most excellent” examples of those who have become princes                     “by their own virtue and not by fortune”?

  9. Which one of these excellent princes owed nothing – or the least – to fortune?

  10. What was the cause of Cesare Borgia’s “ultimate ruin” according to Machiavelli?

  11. What “trite proverb” contradicts Machiavelli’s opinion about the favor of the people?

  12. Princes of which kinds of principates are alone “secure and happy” in their states?

  13. What are the “principal foundations which all states have”?


Week Nine

Arming the Prince: Machiavelli’s New Modes and Orders

  • Machiavelli, The Prince XII-XIV


Educating the Prince: Effectual Truth, Armed Faith, and the Vulgar

  • Machiavelli, The Prince XV-XIX


Reading Questions:

  1. What was the first cause of the ruin of the Roman Empire?

  2. In what two “modes” must a prince exercise his art of war?

  3. When more than ever ought a prince turn his thoughts to the exercise of war?

  4. What – above all else – ought a prince do to exercise his intellect?

  5. What kind of thing does Machiavelli intend to write for the one “who understands”?

  6. What does Machiavelli hold to be “more profitable” than the imagination?

  7. How does Machiavelli here declare war on classical political philosophy?

  8. Which quality (or aspect of virtù) permits a prudent prince to use the ‘virtue’ of ‘liberality’ but without enjoying its reputation?

  9. Whose “wonderful actions” and “infinite virtues” include the use of “inhuman cruelty” and made him both “venerated and terrible” at least in the eyes of his soldiers?

  10. How does Machiavelli here declare war on Christianity?

  11. What are said to be the two modes or ways of fighting?

  12. Which Roman emperor knew how to “use the persona” of the fox and of the lion well?


Week Ten

Testing the Prince: Machiavellian Prudence and the Nature of Things

  • Machiavelli, The Prince XX-XXV


Reading Questions:

  1. Who was the “first king of the Christians” and by what actions did he acquire this title?

  2. What should a prince always show himself to be a lover of?

  3. How many kinds of brains are there?

  4. How or in what mode should a prudent prince “deliberate”?

  5. What makes the ministers of princes good, or not?

  6. What is a “common defect of men” and hence of princes as well?

  7. What two metaphors or images does Machiavelli create to describe fortuna?

  8. What is “necessary, before all else, as the true foundation of every enterprise”?

  9. What is the defining virtue of Machiavelli’s prince? Why or how is this particular virtue both ancient and modern? (Why is his prince at once an ancient ‘Roman’ and a modern ‘capitalist’?)

  10. Who is the only writer Machiavelli explicitly advises his readers to read?


 Second Writing Assignment due


Week Eleven

The Human Condition and/in the State of Nature

  • Hobbes, Leviathan,  Epistle Dedicatory, Introduction, XIII

  • Hobbes, On the Citizen,  Epistle Dedicatory, Preface, I

  • Strauss & Cropsey, HPP, “Hobbes”


The Dictates of Reason, or Natural Laws and Natural Rights

  • Hobbes, On the Citizen, II-III


Reading Questions:

  1. What are the foundational principles or postulates of human nature, according to Hobbes?

  2. Why does Hobbes for the sake of his argument need to posit a State of Nature in which human beings live pre-politically? What problem or defect in human beings is the State of Nature intended to help us understand or remedy?

  3. What are the Natural Laws in the State of Nature? What are our Natural Rights?

  4. Is equality (not to mention virtue or property) even possible in the State of Nature?

  5. What right or rights of all human beings in the State of Nature must be renounced for a civil society and Sovereign to come into being?

  6. By what sequence of actions do we enter into society as citizens?

  7. How does war impel all human beings toward the proper use of reason – and establishing the conditions of peace?


Week Twelve

A Modern Political Science: Government and the Impersonal State

  • Hobbes, On the Citizen  V-VI, XIV.1-15

  • Mansfield, SGPP, “Political Systems”


On the Kinds of Commonwealths and the Causes of Dissolution

  • Hobbes, On the Citizen  VII, X, XII-XIII


Reading Questions:

  1. In what sense is the power of the Sovereign (or Commonwealth) “absolute”?

  2. What is the proper end of civil or political society, according to Hobbes?

  3. What constitutes Liberty?

  4. How does the rational principle of non-contradiction limit the Sovereign’s power?

  5. What is political virtue in civil society?

  6. How does the social contract shift “liberty” and “virtue” on to a new foundation?


Week Thirteen

Narrowing the Political Horizon and the State of Nature

  • Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration

  • Mansfield, SGPP, “The Bourgeois Self” and “The Historical Turn”

  • Strauss & Cropsey, HPP, “Locke”


Narrowing the Political Horizon and the State of Nature

  • Locke, Second Treatise  I-IV

  • Rousseau, Second Discourse: On Inequality

  • Kant, “Idea for a Universal History” & “To Perpetual Peace”


Reading Questions:

  1. Why are religious sects the most divisive kind of faction, according to Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, and the cause of extreme political instability (even more than tyranny)?

  2. What are the attributes of the “True Church”?

  3. How is the principle of Toleration, introduced to define the “True Church”, later incorporated into the institutions of good government, according to Locke?


Week Fourteen

Property and the Foundation of the Modern Liberal Republic

  • Locke, Second Treatise  V, VI.52-59, VII.87-94


Limited Government and the Legitimate Ends of Politics

  • Locke, Second Treatise  VIII.95-99, 119-122, IX


Reading Questions:

  1. What are the Natural Laws in the State of Nature? What are our Natural Rights?

  2. How does Locke’s State of Nature differ from Hobbes’ State of Nature?

  3. In what sense are human beings equal by nature?

  4. What are obligations to others in the State of Nature?

  5. What distinguishes the State of War or Slavery from the State of Nature itself?

  6. What is the definition of Property? Why and how is Liberty “the fence of Property”?

  7. How does the definition of Property depend on a radical new (or modern) interpretation of human labor as virtue? How does this reinterpret the State of Nature?

  8. What is the role of Consent in the transition from the State of Nature to civil society?

  9. What is the role or operation of Consent within civil society?


Week Fifteen

Separation of Powers and the Dissolution of Government

  • Locke, Second Treatise  X-XIX

  • Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776

  • Constitution of the United States, 1787


Reading Questions:

  1. What is the proper end of civil and political society, according to Locke?

  2. What are the powers of legitimate government, and how are they rooted in the rights of all human beings to both execute and judge in the State of Nature?

  3. Which of the several powers of government is Supreme, and why?

  4. From what origin or source, and through what transaction, does government acquire the Right to use this power?

  5. What precisely limits legitimate government for Locke?

  6. How is the American “Declaration of Independence” and “Constitution of 1787” fundamentally and rhetorically rooted in a Lockean (rather than Machiavellian or Hobbesian) view of politics?


Week Sixteen

Review Session

Final Exam