Modern Political Philosophy

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Modern Political Philosophy
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Intellectual Heritage 51
Intellectual Heritage 52

Course Description





Course Outline and Reading List

First Paper Topics

Second Paper Topics

Preliminary Final Examination Questions

Course Description for Modern Political Philosophy

This course will provide an introduction to some of the classic texts in the history of modern political philosophy. These works attempt to provide a comprehensive account of our political and social life. They seek to explain what occurs in polities and societies and they advocate and try to justify particular political and social arrangements. They make claims about human nature and morality and hold that certain types of polities and societies best serve the human good or human rights.

We still read these old books for many reasons of which three will be most important to us in this course. First, many of our own political ideas were first enunciated by these philosophers. The best way to understand the nature and justification of the political arguments that we have adopted from these philosophers is to read their books and try to see how they defend their claims. For the philosophers who shaped the political and moral ideas we often take for granted had to defend them against powerful alternatives, some of which we now ignore.

Second, we read these books because they are challenging, stimulating and exciting. They contain long trains of difficult argument. And these arguments are often structured in ways that both reveal (and sometimes hide) their full power. We read these books, then, in order to develop our own faculties for argument and reasoning and our enjoyment in the use of those faculties.

Third, and more importantly, we read these books because they may be right. Some of these books may contain part or all of the truth about morality and the best polity and society. Of course, to claim that one or more of these books may contain the truth about politics and morality runs counter to two contemporary prejudices. The first is our assumption that there is no rationally justified beliefs but only conventional opinion about political and moral questions. The second is our belief in progress, which leads us to doubt that books written as many as four centuries ago can teach us anything. (Note that these two beliefs are in part contradictory!) We shall try to temporarily put aside these prejudices when reading these books together. Indeed, we may well call them into question when we discover that these philosophers were well aware of claims very similar to what I have called our contemporary prejudices and some of them sought to refute these views. We will also see some of the philosophers we read are among the sources of our contemporary ideas about moral conventionalism and intellectual progress. While we will take the possibility that these books are, in whole or part true, we will not refrain from criticizing them. Moreover, we shall see that there are such extreme disagreements among these philosophers that they cannot all be right. So, to some extent, we shall play the arguments of one philosopher against another in the hope of aiding our own search for the truth about politics, society and morality.

Given these three goals, our method of approach will be to study these works in great detail. For we cannot understand the influence of these works, or see their beauty, or learn from them about politics and morality, if we merely repeat the conclusions of these philosophers. Rather, we must understand in great depth the arguments that these philosophers present for their conclusions.


Requirements for Modern Political Philosophy



 Because class sessions will proceed mainly by detailed discussion of the texts, it is important that all students use the editions of the texts available in the book store and bring their books to class. Please buy these books now or make some other arrangement for obtaining them. Even more importantly, since the course cannot be successful without active class participation, students are expected to do the assigned reading before class and to be prepared to take part in class discussion. Students who have more than three unexcused absences from class or who regularly come to class unprepared will have the option of withdrawing from the class or failing. Though we will try to read the books straight through, due to a lack of time, we will sometimes have to skip from one section to another. Thus students should have completed the entire assignment prior to the initial class in which it will be discussed.

Papers and Examinations

Two papers of about six to eight pages in length are required. Paper topics will be suggested but, with the instructor's approval, students can write on any question concerning these philosophers. Students are allowed (and, some cases, encouraged) to revise their papers. There will also be a take home final examination.


The final grade will be determined according to the following formula:

Class participation:


First paper:


Second paper:


Final Examination:



Course Outline and Reading List

I. Introduction

 II. Machiavelli

  • The Prince, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., entire

  • The Discourses, edited by Bernard Crick, selections to be announced

III. Hobbes

  • Leviathan, edited by C.B. Mcpherson, selections to be announced

IV. Locke

  • Second Treatise of Government, edited by C.B. Mcpherson, entire

  • A Letter Concerning Toleration, edited by James H. Tully, entire

V. Rousseau

  • Second Discourse, entire, in The Basic Political Writings, edited and translated by Donald A. Cress

  • The Social Contract, entire, in The Basic Political Writings, edited and translated by Donald A. Cress

VI. Burke

  • Reflections on the Revolution in France, selections to be announced

VII. Marx and Engels

The following readings are from The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker

  • 1844 Manuscripts, pp. 66-106

  • The Grundrisse, pp. 228-235

  • Theses on Feuerbach, pp. 143-145

  • The German Ideology, pp. 149-175

  • The Communist Manifesto, pp. 469-501

  • Letters on Historical Materialism, pp. 760-768

  • On the Jewish Questions, pt. I, pp. 26-46

  • The Civil War in France, pp. 618-642

  • The Possibility of Non-violent Revolution, pp. 521-522

  • The Critique of the Gotha Program, pp. 525-542

VIII. Nietzsche 

  • Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufman

  • On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufman

IX. Conclusion