Political Philosophy

1. Definition And Key Questions

2. Bibliography

3. Important Works

1. Definition And Key Questions

Political philosophy is the study of human social organization and of the nature of man/woman in society. A political philosopher is likely to ponder the following questions: What is the ideal form of government? Is it aristocracy, monarchy, theocracy, democracy, some mix of the different systems, or absolutely no government at all (anarchy)? And which economic system is best? A predominantly capitalistic one, a socialistic one, or perhaps a mix of the two? At what point in history did people agree upon the "need" for government? How did they live before the inauguration of government -- i.e., in the "state of nature"? Are people inherently good or bad, or neither? Are the problems of society owing mostly to man's fallen nature, to bad social organization and management, or to something else? What remedial agency does the world most need? More religion and spirituality? Wiser, abler rulers? Fewer laws and regulations? By what criteria can a society be judged good? By its wealth? By the way in which it treats its poorest members? By the richness of its art and culture? By the ease with which personal bonds are formed? Are we "our brothers' keeper"? Do we have any responsibility to those less fortunate than ourselves? These are merely a few of the many questions that political philosophers ponder.

2. Bibliography

    Thucydides: History of the Pelopponesian War. An excellent history of the long war which includes the famous Melian Dialogue and the funeral oration of Pericles. Thucydides was arguably the greatest historian of antiquity. His work touches upon the perennial themes of war and power, human nature and aggression, justice and virtue.

    Plato: The Republic. A ten-volume work which looks at the meaning of justice. Questions such as the equality of women and the meaning of virtue are considered. Other philosophical areas are touched upon as well (e.g., theory of forms).

    Aristotle: Politics. Aristotle examines the nature (and origin) of states, embraces slavery, and considers the many forms of government (constitutional government the best, he thought).

    Polybius: The Histories. The Greek historians examines the nature of change and considers different forms of social organization.

    Cicero: Republic; Laws. "True law is right reason in agreement with nature," he says. In these two works (so named out of respect for Plato) Cicero considers social responsibilities, ideal constitutions, and natural law.

    St. Augustine: City of God. One of the best known works of political philosophy. Dichotomy between city of man /city of God introduced. The work is less a commentary on the nature of social organization, more a vision of the good life.

    Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica. St. Thomas looks at the nature of laws, particularly natural law, alongside use of human reason and argues that government is necessary because "man is a social being".

    Dante Alighieri: De Monarchia. A work not nearly as well-known as La Commedia, but one in which the poet argues in favor of a world government.

    Machiavelli: The Prince. The harbinger of modern notions of realpolitik, The Prince looks at the ways one may go about procuring and keeping power.

    Jean Bodin: Six Books On The State. Bodin was the first to elaborate upon sovereignty ("the absolute and perpetual power of the state, that is, the greatest power to command"). In this work he proposes both an end to slavery and a strong central government.

    Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. One of the earliest of the so-called social contract philosophies. Hobbes argues pragmatically in favor of a monarchy (leviathan). Life, he said famously, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

    John Locke: Two Treaties Of Government. Another of the famous social contract philosophies, Locke's begins with a law of nature, the law being reason: that "no one ought to harm another in his health, liberty, or posessions." The work impassioned the framers of the American Constitution and gave voice to constitutional government.

    Montesquieu: The Spirit Of The Laws. Montesquieu examines the principles of democracy, the constitution of England, and the role of religion in society.

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse On The Origin Of Inequality; The Social Contract. Earlier philosophers had respected civilized man (i.e., men and women who lived under government and developed the arts and sciences); Rousseau instead honored "man in the state of nature". Source of personal corruption and sundry maladies is society, he thought. The Social Contract outlines his view of civil society and the General Will and begins with a famously paradoxical line: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."

    Edmund Burke: Reflections On The Revolution In France. Burke opposed the revolution and championed conservative causes.

    Jeremy Bentham: Principles Of Morals And Legislation. Bentham embraced a hedonistic ethics (utilitarianism) and thought that human beings are corrigible. His work examines the principle of utility and the nature of laws.

    Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy In America. A work that draws upon the author's experience travelling throughout America. Tocqueville describes the tyranny of the majority in public opinion and foresees the coming of universal democracy.

    John Stuart Mill: On Liberty. An oft-quoted exposition on liberty that embraces individualism and urges tolerance and open-mindedness.

    Karl Marx: The Communist Manifesto. A work equally reviled and revered. Abolition of private property, attainment of the classless society are the ends toward which an enlightened consciousness would naturally work. The Manifesto denounces capitalism and urges workers to rise up against their tyrannical masters.

    Friedrich Nietzsche: The Will To Power. Hardly a work of political philosophy, but it offers aphoristically clever and provocative commentary about truth, religion, knowledge, justice, and power.

3. Important Works

    Sigmund Freud: Civilization And Its Discontents. A thin work which examines two aspects of man's instinctual life: the impulse to love and get along and the impulse to attack and destroy (eros and thanatos, or love and death wishes, respectively). Freud argues that civilization is an ongoing battle between cooperative and aggressive impulses.

    Jose Ortega y Gasset: The Revolt Of The Masses. A widely influential volume that casts suspicion on revolution and the collectivization of society. Since the masses are for the most part shiftless, they are unable to pull off revolution successfully; indeed, the outcome more often than not is mere dissolution of society. Ortega y Gasset was an essayist and philosopher known chiefly for his existentialist views.

    George Santayana: Dominations And Powers. A work written near the end of the philosopher's life, being as much an aesthetic treatment of the subject as political/philosophical. Santayana examines the "generative order" of society, the economic and liberal arts, the military and, not least, rational government -- all in his characteristically lucid way.

    C. Wright Mills: The Power Elite. An influential volume which explores the oligarchic nature of American society in general and the lives of the affluent and powerful in particular. The work includes an indispensable analysis of what he calls the "mass society".

    Daniel Bell: The End Of Ideology. A collection of essays that argues that the older normative, humanistic questions about politics and society -- questions that dominated nineteenth-century social thought -- have run their course, and that more technical and parochial questions and issues have superseded them.

    Reinhold Niebuhr: The Nature And Destiny Of Man; Children Of Light, Children Of Darkness. Protestant theologian who rejected the notion that human beings can triumph over sin and injustice through history. This position runs counter to Marxist theory. Niebuhr accepted a realist interpretation of politics, one that sees democratic controls as necessary but one that steers clear of socialism.

    Lewis Mumford: The Myth Of The Machine (2 volumes). An outspoken denunciation of "technological progress" and modern "civilization" by an influential social critic. The two volumes of this work are Technics and Human Development (1967) and The Pentagon of Power (1970).

    R.D. Laing: The Politics Of Experience. An informal work, written by an existentialist psychotherapist, which sees alienation and impersonalization emanating from contemporary social structures. Social norms, Laing thought, contribute mightily to "maladjusted" and "conflicted" personalities.

    John Rawls: A Theory Of Justice. Imagine, before being born, that you're given a choice. You do not know ahead of time what your social and economic status in life is going to be. You have no idea how genetics will treat you, or what your talents and abilities will be. You might be affluent or you might be destitute; you might be very handsome or very plain; you may have unusual abilities, or you might be very average. Either way, you're given a choice. You can live in a society that is egalitarian, that has a strong safety net, in which the split between rich and poor isn't that big, and in which everyone is "his brother's keeper," or you can live in a highly stratified society -- a society with great inequality; a lot for a few, misery for the many. If you turn out very talented and very rich, you might not mind a highly stratified society, but if you turn out very poor, you might mind very much. Which type of society would you choose before being born, not knowing what kind of life you're going to have? Rawls' point is that people will end up fashioning a society that will be fair to everyone because they don't want to risk ending up in a weak and vulnerable position themselves. This is what he means by defining justice as fairness.

    Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, And Utopia. Nozick sees the ideal state as anarchistic. An original work written in the mid-1970s, partially in response to Rawls' A Theory of Justice.

    See also William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers: Plato To The Present, a work of over a thousand pages that has an extensive bibliography.