An Introduction to Political Theory and Political Philosophy


“It is remarkable how many arguments that might be thought to be ethical or political, and so to deal with purely practical matters, depend in fact on much deeper philosophical issues. This is none the less true because the men of action who put them into practice may not always be aware of it; and often the connexion is in fact a fully conscious one. Politics and morals, general theories of human nature, metaphysics and epistemology cannot be separated.” W. K. C. Guthrie, The Sophists (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 4-5.


“The heavy books of Grotius, Pufendorf, Hooker and the others, standing on [John] Locke’s shelves and dominating intellectual activity in this field, were all presentations of a single, synthetic system, a view of the world which proceeded from an account of reality to an account of knowledge, and so on to an ethic and politics.” Peter Laslett, “Introduction,” in John Locke: Two Treatises of Government, rev.ed. (New York: The New American Library, 1960, 1965), 100.


“For neither the classic nor Christian ethics and politics contain ‘value judgments’ but elaborate, empirically and critically, the problems of order that derive from philosophical anthropology as part of a general ontology. Only when ontology as a science was lost, and when consequently ethics and politics could no longer be understood as sciences of the order in which human nature reaches its maximal actualization, was it possible for this realm of knowledge to become suspect as a field of subjective, uncritical opinion.” Eric Voegelin, “Introduction,” to The New Science of Politics, in Modernity Without Restraint (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 96.


Theory and Philosophy

            Theory and philosophy began with the ancient Greeks, and many of the terms necessary to understand philosophical arguments are Greek terms. There is no better place to begin than with a review of these terms and their most common meanings.


“Theory” is from a Greek word (theoreo) meaning “a looking at, a viewing; contemplation, speculation.” Theory is a type of human action: inspecting or examining something. Political theory is the examination of political (from the Greek word for city-state, polis) things. In this classical sense, theory is part of any scientific undertaking, for “science” generally refers to a comprehensive effort to understand something by examining it thoroughly.


Today, because of the influence of modern physical science, the word “theory” is often used in the plural—theories— to refer to the articulated results of theoretical efforts.  A modern scientific theory is an extended hypothetical argument, which is an argument in the form of if-then statements: “If the stated assumptions are true, then this should be the observed result because it was caused by the assumed conditions.” A modern scientific theory proposes an explanation of a “phenomenon”—an observable event (incidentally, it’s another word derived from Greek).[1] A scientific theory ties a particular phenomenon to other phenomena in predictable, causal ways. The term “theory” is also popularly used to indicate a hunch—a proposed explanation of something (“my theory is that the explosion resulted from a gas leak”). In the following introduction, we shall primarily use “theory” in the classical sense of the act of comprehensive examination rather than in the modern senses of hypothetical arguments or explanations of observable events.


            “Philosophy,” another Greek word (philosophia, from philo, love, and sophia, wisdom) also carries the fundamental meaning of thorough examination.[2] Leo Strauss highlighted this connection when he said, “In the expression ‘political philosophy,’ ‘philosophy’ indicates the manner of treatment: a treatment which both goes to the roots and is comprehensive.”[3] Philosophy is distinguished from other studies by both its breadth and its focus on wisdom. In ancient times, philosophy was primarily understood not as an academic subject but as a way of living, a life devoted to the pursuit of wisdom and truth: thus, both philosophy and theory were originally understood to be types of human action, not intellectual “things,” like theories and philosophies. 


"Wisdom" or sophia in turn was understood to be knowledge of the most important things in life, the permanent things—the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, the ultimate standards of right and wrong. Strauss said that “philosophy’s quest for wisdom is a quest for universal knowledge, for knowledge of the whole.”[4] In the words of Cicero:

Those who pursue wisdom have earned the title “philosophers,” and philosophy is nothing more or less, if you translate the word, than the “devotion to wisdom.” This is how some older philosophers define wisdom: it is the knowledge of everything about both gods and men and what causes underlie nature.[5]


Socrates made a similar point in Plato’s Republic: "For you know, [this] consideration is about the greatest thing, a good life and a bad one."[6]

The Components of Philosophy: the Fundamental Conceptions


Philosophers, in pursuit of knowledge of the whole, break the whole down into several intellectually distinguishable subjects or questions. (1) Ontology is the study of the nature of reality, of what really and truly exists and how it exists; within ontology, cosmology is the narrower study of the nature of the observable universe in which we live. Together, the two studies are often described as the subject matter of metaphysics (from the Greek meta, after or beyond, phusis, nature). (2) Epistemology refers to questions about what we can know and how we can know it. (3) Anthropology (from the Greek word for man, anthropos) is the study of man, his essential nature and how people behave. The suffix “-logy” of these terms may be translated as “the science of” or “the study of”; it is from the Greek word logos, which originally meant “word” or “speech” but came to signify more broadly what we generally refer to as “reason.” (4) Ethics is the study of what is right and wrong, good and evil, for individual human beings. And (5) politics is the study of the right order and government of an organized community. There are other objects of philosophic study (such as logic and aesthetics), and the bumper-sticker definitions given here do not even scratch the surface in explaining the studies just listed, but this list of terms—all of which are derived from Greek words—gives us an idea of the content that a course in political philosophy might contain. Wisdom as “knowledge of the whole,” as knowledge of all things, is understood to comprehend these particular studies in an effort to see their relationships to each other.


We should also note that the Great Religions also address each of these subjects. They provide us with an understanding of the origins and the nature of the universe, a theory of knowledge that places revelation and faith beside reason as ways of knowing, an understanding of the nature of man and of what is morally right and wrong, and, in some but not all of the religions, a prescription for good government. In our studies this semester, we will make frequent references to religions and religious ideas. You might be interested to know that the very term “theology” was invented by Plato to describe the rational discussion of God and the divine.


            Very few written philosophical works include every one of these studies. Most philosophical works focus on one subject or another. A thorough discussion of human nature, or of right and wrong, or of political order, however, must lead to considerations of ontology and epistemology, and it must be internally consistent (logical) as well as accurate in its description of the subject matter.

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During the second semester (POL 211), when the assigned writings generally begin in the late seventeenth century and end in the present day, many of the writers are not and never will be considered among the "greats," in part because their writings do not cover the full range of philosophical subjects. Many of the works we read in the second semester focus on particular aspects of politics and say little or nothing about ontology, epistemology, and so on. Still, once you have become familiar with the classics, you should be able to make an educated guess about a writer’s likely views regarding the nature of the universe, the nature of man, and so forth. You will be able to fill in the ontological and the other blanks.


Philosophic Traditions


            Finally, we will find that there seem to be only so many distinct philosophical alternatives regarding each of the fundamental conceptions and that certain ontological positions mesh neatly with certain epistemological, anthropological, ethical, and political positions. Certainly, there are infinite gradations and variations within each alternative, but the fundamental positions on the nature of the universe, of knowledge, of human nature, of the ultimate standard of right and wrong, and of the function of government begin to settle into a few familiar groups that enable you to rationally compare and contrast one writer to another. The POL 210 course is a study of the five fundamental conceptions in four broad patterns or traditions: (1) the Epicurean or Epicurean-modern tradition, (2) the Classical tradition, (3) the Classical-Christian tradition, and (4) the gnostic or esoteric tradition, which includes Gnostic and Hermeticist thought.


The Epicurean tradition, beginning with the Greek philosophers Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, strongly influenced modern political philosophy, especially English political philosophy after the sixteenth century, so we also use the term “modern” to refer to the English Epicureans Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The Classical philosophic tradition refers not to all of the philosophers of Classical Greece, but primarily to Plato and Aristotle, and later the Stoics. In the Middle Ages, Plato and Aristotle strongly influenced the theology and philosophic outlooks of many, but certainly not all, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and philosophers. Each of these religions had a strong current of Classical thought running through it for at least part of its history. Writings from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas will serve as representative of this Classical religious thought, though we could also use writings from the Muslims Averroes, Al-farabi, and Avicenna, as well as the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. The fourth tradition, which we may generally call the esoteric tradition or gnostic (with a small “g”) tradition, includes materials by ancient Gnostic and Hermeticist writers. The Gnostics were an ancient religion that had a distinctive cosmology that colored their anthropology, ethics, and politics. The Hermetic or Hermeticist tradition, also referred to by itself as the “esoteric” tradition, has been found in recent times to have been an influential source of ideas throughout Western history. Though it differed significantly from Gnostic thought in several regards, Hermeticism shared with Gnosticism a central focus on certain knowledge, or “gnosis” (Greek) that holds the key to understanding and salvation.

[1] “Phenomenon” is derived from phainomenon (φαίνομένων), which means “to appear.”

[2] "Philosophy" —from yet another Greek word: philosophia (φιλοσοφέω) which means "to love knowledge or wisdom, to pursue it."

[3] “What is Political Philosophy,” in Political Philosophy, ed. H. Gildin (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] On Duties, II.5. The connection between philosophy and the causes that underlie nature is still evident in the term “natural philosophy,” meaning generally natural science, that survives here and there on old buildings. The same meaning is carried in the old expression “natural history,” which recalls the original Greek meaning of the term “history” (Greek, ίστορέω; Latin, historia): to inquire into or about something. Discussion about the gods is literally “theology”: θεός λόγος.

[6] Republic, 578c. See similar statements at Republic 344e, 352d, 358d, and Gorgias, 458c, 500c.