An Introduction to Political Theory and Political 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 (Greek, θεωρέω; Latin, theoria) meaning “a looking at, a viewing; contemplation, speculation.” Theory is a type of human action: the inspection, examination, or consideration of something. Political theory is the examination of political 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 means it is an argument in the form of if-then statements: “If the stated assumptions are true, then this should be the observed result 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 comprehensive examination rather than in the modern senses of hypothetical arguments or explanations of observable events.


            “Philosophy,” another Greek word (φιλοσοφια, from φιλοσ, love, and σοφια, wisdom; Latin, philosophia) 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, the man for whom the term "philosopher" was coined, 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]


Philosophy has come to be known not only as a life-long pursuit of wisdom but as a subject of academic study that often yields writings—“philosophies”—that reflect that pursuit. Even the writings of Plato that argue for philosophy as a way of life are now studied as part of the material that makes up the academic subject.[7] In this introduction, we must use “philosophy” (and in like manner, “theory”) in both of these ways: (1) philosophy as the comprehensive examination of a subject with the purpose of obtaining wisdom and (2) philosophy or philosophies as particular works reflecting that examination.[8] Because of the closeness between the classical meanings of philosophy and theory, we will use the two terms synonymously throughout this basic introduction.


The purpose of this introductory essay is to explain that though philosophy is the love of wisdom, students need not be in love with philosophy to be able to analyze the philosophic or theoretical writings that will be assigned in this course, to acquire a basic understanding of the different writers that we will study, and to form coherent opinions about their ideas and about political things. After all, as Socrates said, "The argument is not about just any question, but about the way one should live," and there is no subject that should be of more interest to intelligent people, especially today.


The Components of Philosophy


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. (2) Epistemology refers to questions about what we can know and how we can know it. (3) Anthropology (from the Greek word for man, ανθροπος) 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 (λογος), 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 subjects 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.


If you think about it, we talk about these things all the time in political discussions when we question whether government should really be doing this or that (politics), whether this or that is truly “right” or “good” (ethics), whether people are basically honest or dishonest, sheep or selfish wolves (anthropology), whether we can actually know the answers to the questions just asked or whether it is all just a matter of personal opinion (epistemology), and, depending on how late the dorm room discussion continues, even whether there is meaning in life or “Is this all there is?” (ontology and cosmology). This class assumes that you are interested in politics. If you want to think seriously about politics and not simply follow one leader or party or ideology blindly in whatever direction that leader, party, or ideology herds you, your thinking and questioning will take you into these five areas. 


            Very few philosophical works include every one of these studies. Most philosophical works—articles, essays, and books—focus on one subject or another. A thorough discussion of human nature, or of right and wrong, or of political order, however, leads to and must rest on considerations of ontology and epistemology, and it must be internally consistent (logical) as well as accurate in its description of the subject matter. Political philosophy, in particular, depends on considerations of the other four subjects just mentioned—ontology, epistemology, anthropology, and ethics—leading some philosophers to call it the highest or most comprehensive philosophic study.


Aristotle made this claim when, in his most famous work on ethics, not on politics, he called politics, not ethics, the “master science”:

Will not then a knowledge of this Supreme Good be also of great practical importance for the conduct of life? Will it not better enable us to attain what is fitting, like archers having a target to aim at? If this be so, we ought to make an attempt to determine at all events in outline what exactly this Supreme Good is, and of which of the theoretical or practical sciences it is the object. Now it would be agreed that it must be the object of the most authoritative of the sciences—some science which is pre-eminently a master-craft. But such is manifestly the science of Politics.[9]


Earlier, Plato, speaking through Socrates, suggested much the same thing in the passages we cited from the Republic and the Gorgias.


Nor are statements of this kind confined to the thinkers of ancient Greece. Eric Voegelin, a twentieth-century political philosopher, generally referred to the comprehensive study of politics as “political science” rather than as political philosophy. In criticizing what he called the "degradation of political science to a handmaid of the powers that be," Voegelin called for the restoration of political science "to its full grandeur as the science of human existence in society and history, as well as of the principles of order in general."[10]  Leo Strauss, another twentieth-century philosopher, expressed a similar point: “Originally political philosophy was identical with political science, and it was the all-embracing study of human affairs.” As part of the larger enterprise of philosophy in general, which Strauss says is “the humanizing quest for the eternal order," “the theme of political philosophy is mankind’s great objectives, freedom and government of empire—objectives which are capable of lifting all men beyond their poor selves.”[11]


Philosophical writings come to us in many different forms—Plato’s dramatic dialogues, Aristotle's lecture notes, Lucretius’s poem, Gnostic "gospels," St. Augustine's letters and essays, St. Thomas's scholastic demonstrations, and Hobbes's, Locke’s, and Rousseau’s treatises or book-length analyses of politics and other subjects. Regardless of the form, the content of these writings is ideas—“speculative thought" as Henri Frankfort calls it—that attempt to make sense of a complex and multi-faceted part of life by placing it within the context of the whole of reality. For most students, getting a handle on ideas and abstract thought takes practice and requires some getting used to. It is important to remember when reading the assigned works that the writers were intelligent individuals who had definite things to say and that each said what he had to say in an orderly way that has withstood the test of time. This is why these works are called "classics." The writers did not compose stream-of-consciousness monologues or "first-thing-that-pops-into-my-mind" mixtures of hot air and other gases.  The writings are purposefully structured and can be systematically analyzed. Using a dictionary and the tools provided in this essay, you should read the assigned works sympathetically first, trying to understand their structure and detail, before turning to criticize them. Make sure that you have a basic grasp of the writings before you attempt to evaluate them.


But even more important to remember is that these writers are not necessarily correct in what they say; indeed, since most of the assigned writers contradict at least one other writer that you will read, they cannot all be correct. What follows from this is that you, the lowly student, after analyzing the readings must then evaluate them and make your own judgment about them. You must develop a critical distance between your own mind and judgment and the ideas and arguments you are considering. You must do this, or else you will be simply swept downstream by arguments that may not be sound or by leaders who make or follow such arguments themselves. If these arguments and leaders use your willing support to achieve bad ends, you are complicit, and complicity itself is blameworthy.[12] If you can come to terms with the writers that are assigned in this course, you will be well positioned to evaluate the arguments of the legion of lesser writers who, although they are intelligent and may have sound ideas, are not of the same caliber as the "greats" that we will read.



            All of the writers we study during this course wrote comprehensively on politics; in fact, we will read material from most of the great contributors to Western political philosophy who lived during the two millennia from the fifth century B.C. to the seventeenth century A.D.: Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Hobbes, as well as reading the great poem of Lucretius. These writings must be analyzed in terms of the ideas they reflect regarding ontology, cosmology, epistemology, anthropology, ethics, and politics.


            [During the second semester of POL 210-211, when the assigned writings 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 material in the course provides evidence 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, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Each of these religions had a strong current of Classical thought running through it for at least part of its long 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, γνοσιϛ) that holds the key to understanding and salvation.


As we go through the semester, you might want to make up a grid with five rows or columns representing the five fundamental conceptions and with four or five intersecting rows or columns representing the four (five, if you decide to treat Hermeticism as distinct from Gnosticism) traditions we will be studying.



Epicurean tradition

Classical tradition

Classical-Christian tradition

Esoteric tradition



























The following notes will help you to recognize the different fundamental conceptions and will get you started on your way.


Fundamental Concepts: Ontology and Cosmology


            Ontology (Greek, ὄν, gen. ὄντος, of that which exists) is the study of the nature of reality, of what truly is, or, simply, the study of being—what it means to be. Ontology poses a cluster of questions about reality, about what really exists: does reality have a structure? If so, what is its structure, or, to ask the same thing, what is the order of being? How is being or reality constituted? Cosmology is the narrower study of the cosmos (yes, it’s another Greek word: this one means good order, good behavior; or, from its perfect order, the world or the universe). Cosmogony is the study of the origin of the universe (Greek again: cosmos-genesis). Often, if a writer discusses one of these studies, he discusses the other, but not always.


Ontology and cosmology are closely related inquiries. Cosmology focuses on the world in which we live, the world that we experience—including outer space, the galaxies, the universe—and cosmogony asks where all of this came from. Ontology includes these studies of the cosmos, but also pursues the broader and often puzzling questions of appearance and reality such as “What is real?” “Is only matter real?” “Is only what we can observe with our senses real?” “Are relationships between things real?” “What is the true nature of this?” “What is the essence of that?” “Are there ‘natures’ and ‘essences’?” Together, the three subjects make up the greater study of metaphysics (Greek: meta, after or beyond, and physics, the study of observable or empirical phenomena).


Eric Voegelin has said that reality consists of the natural, the human, and the divine. If we refer to “nature” as that which is not man-made, might it not also include gods? Or might it have been made by God? For most of man’s recorded history, it went without saying that reality included both divine and non-divine, sacred and profane: recall Cicero’s definition of “wisdom” quoted above: “it is knowledge of everything about both gods and men and what causes underlie nature.” The tradition of natural theology reflects this essential bond between the natural and the divine. But these two dimensions of reality are distinct. In describing early man’s fundamental experiences of the sacred in the midst of the profane, every-day world, Mircea Eliade says, “The sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from ‘natural’ realities.”[13]  Primitive man experienced the sacred as more real than the natural order, as “the only real and real-ly existing space” and time.[14] Voegelin’s and Eliade’s remarks reflect ontological observations.


And what about human creations or “artifacts”? Just as mountains, trees, and stars, so also man is a part of nature, but human creations are fundamentally different from what nature creates and are often of more interest to us and especially to students of politics. One of man’s principal creations is ideas: are ideas—the very ideas that we have about the natural and the supernatural—real?  What is their nature? Plato, the founder of political science, argued that ideas of things are more real than the substance of those ideas that we grasp through perception; Karl Marx, to name just one of many thinkers, argued that they were less real.


These questions, primary in the sense that they all ask simply about the reality of things, are followed by questions about the structure of what is real. What are the relationships between various parts of being? What is the relationship between ideas and the fundamental experiences that the ideas articulate? Why do we call certain articles of furniture, though of multiple shapes and sizes, all “chairs”? Is this general idea or universal “chair” real and independent of man’s thought, or is it merely a construct, a mentally created tool, less real than the objects we perceive? Is the world in which we live imbued with divine purpose and intention? Are some parts of nature intended to be the means for achieving further natural ends? And if so, who intended them? Do aspects of the structure of reality serve as clues or standards for proper human action: is there a natural moral order?


Different writers have answered these questions in fundamentally different ways. What kinds of arguments and ideas have they offered? What clues to their positions should you look for? One question you might ask is whether the philosopher says or whether he implicitly assumes that the world is an orderly place or that the world has no apparent order. If there is a natural order—an order not imposed on nature by man, remember, but one that exists independently of human will—what kind of an order is it?


            Aristotle, for example, said that there was a natural order to the world based on the purposes or functions that characterized each natural thing, including as natural things man and the polis in which he lived. God, the source of these purposes, was part of nature itself. The Epicureans, by contrast, said that there is no discoverable natural order in the world or in man or society (though Epicurus said that gods were part of nature while Hobbes maintained that God was outside of nature). The only order we can find in the world according to Hobbes is that which is imposed upon it by us human animals. As we shall see, different conclusions about anthropology, ethics, and politics follow reasonably from these different positions.


            Cosmogonically, we cannot draw any hard and fast inferences from particular cosmologies to particular arguments about the origins of the universe. Hobbes, for example, affirmed the existence of the Christian God as Creator and denied that he was himself an atheist or that his cosmology was consistent only with an atheistic position, but he also denied the existence of a discernible cosmic order. The Navajo understand some stars to have been divinely placed in the sky as constellations and other starts to have been randomly blown into space by the Coyote. Orthodox Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers, on the other hand, understand the world as an orderly place because it was coherently created by God the Creator of Heaven and Earth. God exists beyond his creation: he transcends nature and is therefore super-natural. Aristotle's Supreme Being was not a creator that created the universe and thus made it an orderly structure; indeed, Aristotle's god was not a supernatural being at all—the Prime Mover was part of the natural universe. The Gnostics viewed the world as governed by a natural order created by a supernatural god; indeed, the Gnostics conceived of this order as more rigorous and systematic than either the classical or the Christian thinkers. For Gnostics, the world order was “systematic,” but systematically bad because it was created by a bad god, an inferior god: the “true” God was beyond the creator god: he was super-supernatural. For Hermeticist thinkers, man stands as a co-creator of a continually developing cosmos, a god-in-waiting—a magus. Clearly, these writers present a broad range of cosmological alternatives, and just as clearly questions of the origins and the nature of the world are as religious as they are philosophic.


            Speculations about what is real and what reality consists of are ontological speculations. They can be tied closely to cosmological speculation about the universe, but they can also be understood independently from their cosmological foundations. In the political writings that we shall be reading, there will be explicit and implicit references to both ontology and cosmology: if the discussions are explicit, note them; if the writings do not make any explicit references to ontology or cosmology, try to infer what positions the author takes on these issues from what he says about other matters. Of all the fundamental concepts we need to know, ontology is probably the most difficult to master because it is the most abstract subject, yet we confront questions about reality and appearance in our lives every day. Like all of the fundamental conceptions, the concepts of ontology and cosmology are familiar to us in very common sense ways; what we must do in this course is get a handle not on concrete examples of reality and appearance, but on the very concepts of “reality” and “appearance.”




            Ontology is inextricably tied to epistemology (Greek, ἐπιστήμη, knowledge, science). To assert that something exists is to claim that we can know that it exists. If reality consists of natural, supernatural, and human elements, how can we know or understand the natural, the divine, and the human? Through reason, revelation, faith, and self-knowledge, perhaps; at least these modes of understanding have often been suggested as the ways that we know these three modes of being.


When we said above that Hobbes argued that there was no discernible natural order, our statement was a bit misleading. Though we made the statement in the discussion of ontology, Hobbes’s statement is more correctly an epistemological, not an ontological, statement: “There is no discernible order,” not “there is no order.” Hobbes’s statement is about what we can know, not about what there is. Even if there is a natural, divine, psychic, or social order—and there may well be—we might not be able to discover it, says Hobbes.


            Epistemology asks what we can know and how we can know it. It is sometimes referred to as the theory of knowledge. Psychologists study it in terms of “modes of cognition.” Like ontology, this subject is perhaps new to you, but it is surprisingly important for political philosophy because it concerns what we can know about the world and about standards of behavior. Hobbes, for example, began his major work on politics with a dozen chapters on epistemology, and the core of the greatest work of political theory, Plato’s Republic, is a discussion of epistemology and ontology, for these two studies are opposite sides of the same coin.


            The assigned readings will expose us to a range of epistemological positions. For some writers, human beings possess an intellectual ability to discern—to intuit—the structure of reality, both natural and man-made, through careful examination and thinking. This ability is generally called rationality or reason, but because these two terms are used widely and are associated with significantly different concepts, the intuitive ability in particular is often referred to as noetic apprehension, from the Greek word nous (νοῦϛ). This conception of reason is the basis for the classical concepts of philosophy and theory, as we have defined them. Classical philosophers thought that reason allowed man to plug into the world, so to speak, and discern order in an immediate, intuitive way. These fundamental experiences of order had to be pondered and figured out, but the logical reasoning needed for this articulation was based on such fundamental human experiences, and the human mind was our connection with the order of being. This view is sometimes identified as the correspondence theory of truth: our true ideas correspond with reality—reality is truth.


Other writers focus on the logic component of reason and identify reason exclusively with the ability to think logically: “reason in this sense is nothing but reckoning (that is, adding and subtracting) of the consequences of general names agreed upon for marking and signifying our thoughts.”[15] The connection of our thoughts with reality—our ability to intuit or discern the order of reality through perception—is missing here. The correspondence of our thoughts with reality and hence the correspondence theory of truth is not possible. As Hobbes said, “For true and false are attributes of speech, not of things. And where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood.” We must hypothesize and experiment in order to gain a working or pragmatic understanding of the world in which we live, but we can never truly know the order to reality. This is the conception of reason that underlies positivism and much modern science, but it was present in the ancient world as well. This view is sometimes identified with the pragmatic theory or with the consistency theory of truth, or both.


For some writers, our intellect allows us to discern only part of the order of being; faith is necessary to enlarge or complete the picture. That which is known by faith is said to be known by revelation—truth that is and must be revealed to us by others because we cannot reason it out on our own. The relationship between reason and revelation poses a whole battery of difficult questions. If reason and faith are fundamentally incompatible ways of obtaining wisdom, then the two, unless carefully kept within their appropriate respective bounds, are antithetical. Depending on the breadth of possible knowledge that one attributes to faith, for instance, the breadth of rationality is expanded or constricted. Thus the view that reason is identical with logic, which we outlined above, is as consistent with the deeply religious outlook of a Tertullian as it is with the more obscure religious attitude of a Hobbes. An atheist’s conception of reason and wisdom might leave little room for faith and divine revelation.


Alternatively, reason and revelation may be understood to complement one another—not “either-or” but “both-and”—and again Cicero’s statement is relevant: philosophy is devotion to wisdom, and wisdom is the knowledge of everything about gods and men and what causes underlie nature. The knowledge of gods might be within the scope of reason, classically understood, but the knowledge might require revelation. If reason is understood to include the intuitive or immediate discernment of reality, as it was by the Classical philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and if what is  In Plato’s mystical experience of the Good, for example, reason and revelation merge to the point of indistinguishability. In St. Augustine’s undeniably reasonable discussions of man, society, and God, the essentially rational disciplines of philosophy and theology similarly merge. Both writers experience a direct connection with a transcendent divinity and make their experiences the basis of their subsequent reasoning and their claims to wisdom.


            Therefore, it is particularly important to focus on the writers’ conceptions of reason in the assigned readings. Look for the writers’ discussions of what rationality is and whether it enables us to obtain ontological and ethical knowledge or whether the nature of the universe and the nature of right and wrong are unknowable and matters for human convention or divine revelation.


Philosophical  and Empirical Anthropology: the Nature of Man v. Human Nature


            Politics is preeminently an enterprise of human beings, and everything about people is relevant to political theory. Because the subject is so broad, anthropology, the study of man in general, is broken down into two areas of study, philosophical anthropology and empirical anthropology, and the second area is broken down even further. Philosophical anthropology is actually an ontological study: what is the nature of man? Does man fit into a larger natural order, and if so how? What makes a human being essentially human? Empirical anthropology is the study of observable human behavior. How do people usually behave? Clearly, psychology, sociology, and the other social sciences are types of empirical anthropology that study different areas of human behavior, but political theory is more precisely interested in those aspects of human behavior or human nature that are significant for politics. 


All of us from a very early age have given some thought to these questions, typically to those of empirical anthropology first: Are people basically honest or dishonest? Selfish or sympathetic? Strong-willed or weak-willed? What is the normal human response to this or that situation? What is the natural response? What’s the difference, if any? All of us must formulate some responses to these basic questions in order to survive and prosper.


Politics, on the other hand, looks at man from the perspective of ordering his individual behavior as one among many people living together: if there is no human society, there is no need for government and politics is irrelevant. Are people naturally peaceful or naturally warlike? Is group living naturally peaceful or is it full of conflict? Can people be trained or educated to adopt peaceful—or violent—approaches to life? Are people basically independent-minded leaders or followers? Can people learn these behaviors? Are human beings essentially rational or irrational? None of the above? The answer to these questions might be based on observations of human behavior; thus we call this empirical anthropology. The social sciences and most American political science courses—international relations, political parties and interest groups, voting behavior, and the like—focus on this aspect of anthropology.


            There is another aspect of man, however, that cannot be discovered by mere observation. If a philosopher maintains that there is an order to reality, and if man is part of reality, then the norms appropriate to man are basically like the norms applying to other parts of reality, and man can be understood fundamentally as having a natural order—a nature, an essential function or purpose—himself. If no natural order exists, then man obviously cannot be part of it, and human nature—man’s essence or being—is radically independent of the world in which he lives. This independence may also be true if the natural order in which man lives is understood to be fundamentally bad or if man’s true nature is to participate in the creation of the cosmos. When the focus of the discussion is on the nature of man and his place in reality, we call the discussion philosophical anthropology.


            Politics is a human inquiry, and the writers that we will study are some of the greatest students of human nature in history. All of them will have something to say about human nature even if they say little about cosmology or epistemology in the writings that we will study.  But all of us have our own ideas about human nature, too. This is one area in which our own ideas can serve as standards for our evaluation of the “great” philosophers that we will read.




            As understood by Aristotle, ethics is the study of what conduct is right and wrong for individuals. In this sense, ethics is synonymous with morals or morality, though recent academic usage of the term “moral” has extended its meaning to the general question of the very nature of goodness itself. As an analytical tool for political philosophy, we shall use “ethics” in its original, more limited, Aristotelian meaning. 


            Despite the many opinions on the question of right and wrong conduct, there seem to be a few general approaches into which the different opinions and theories fit. For one thing, the ultimate standards or principles of right and wrong may be traced back to nature or back to God or merely back to man. The Greek sophists first made this distinction in their discussions of physis and nomos—of nature versus “convention,” which means the product of human agreement. If the ultimate principles are by physis, then their truth and authority is independent of human will and opinion. All of us might be wrong on what is truly right or wrong in a particular instance—or even wrong all the time. Because God or the divine is also independent of human will, we may provisionally include divine sources under the category of physis here. If the ultimate principles are conventional, then their “truth” depends on decisions and opinions of human beings, and opinions may change over time. Thus, moral principles might be authoritatively determined by a majority of the people, or by an elected leader, or by a wise man, or by a bully. This distinction also gives rise to the popular opposition of “absolute” standards to “relative” standards. In this sense, natural standards are absolute—they are independent of human opinion and always the same everywhere; conventional standards are relative—they depend on different cultures and societies.


            Ethical theories are thus tied closely to ontological and epistemological concepts. If the world in which we live has no discernible order, we say that it has no “natural order,” and the whole basis for accepting ethical norms because they are “by nature” is destroyed. Certainly, some have inferred a natural “survival of the fittest” or “kill or be killed” principle of ethics; in fact, this was essentially the idea first identified with the term “natural law” by Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias. But the idea that the natural order provides authoritative norms for human action is usually identified with the belief that nature is good, that nature provides man with purposes and goals appropriate to being human, and that man’s duty in life is to fulfill these natural purposes as best he can. If nature is bad, then the true source of norms (assuming here that the very meaning of ethical norm is good norm) must be man via convention or God by revelation.


            The idea that all norms are conventional is usually, but not always, identified with the ontological position that reality—nature—does not provide man with norms to live by and that man must devise his own norms. Often these norms are deontological: laws, customs, rules of etiquette and propriety. Sometimes they are teleological: anything that furthers the revolution or advances us toward some Summum Bonum is right and good, anything that hampers such progress is bad. Divine commands or rules may also be the highest authority, whether or not there is a discernible order of being. Indeed, the order of nature might be bad and only the commands of God can provide sound standards of action.


            And with the word “discernible” we are brought to the equally relevant consideration of epistemology: is a natural moral order discernible? By “discernible” we mean discoverable or cognizable by reason. Can we rationally figure out what is right and wrong? If the sole source of ethical norms is conventional or divine, and thus probably articulated in the form of rules and customs, then how can we discern them and determine what they are? Usually, we must be told what they are either by the human legislator or by God; and if by God, then we usually learn them by His revealing them: that is, we learn by revelation, not by reason. The norms will be essentially arbitrary, not subject to rational inquiry, and the source of the norms may be something powerful, revered, or good, or some combination of these three. Both reason and revelation or reason and faith together may be the means of discernment if we hold that ethical truth can be determined by human wisdom or practical wisdom. 


            Ethical questions also pose the question of “authority,” sometimes redundantly referred to as the question of “legitimate authority.” Here it is useful to distinguish relationships of “authority and obligation” from those of “coercion and obedience.”[16] Authority is usually said to create obligation or duty: we are obligated to act in accordance with authority; moral duties define good acts. Coercion or force, while it can certainly stimulate obedience, cannot create obligation or duty. Some of the things we are forced to do are bad or wrong: we cannot be said to have a duty to do them, and we should not be held morally responsible for them. Thus, participating at gunpoint in a robbery or participating in a crime because our loved ones are held threatened with death is understandable and not in itself morally bad: we plead duress and hope that we are not adjudged morally responsible for our actions.


Behind the questions of authority and obligation, and intertwined with the problem of ethical norms in a world devoid of a natural order, is the question of the moral value of human life, the importance or goodness of survival: when we are “forced” to do something bad, we usually have a chance to resist, but perhaps at the cost of considerable pain or even death. If the world holds no natural purpose or norms for us, is it not good by default to do those things that preserve our life and avoid those that threaten it? Or is the choice morally indifferent?


The physis-nomos or “nature-nurture” distinction is also closely related to today’s “fact-value” distinction, the notion that all ethical norms are purely conventional values or “value judgments” because their truth cannot be discerned using our prized method of discovering the order of nature: the scientific method. Though the fact-value distinction is historically a product of the nineteenth century, its roots can be clearly seen in the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, and before them, Lucretius and the Epicureans.   






            Finally we arrive at the subject matter of this course: politics. What are the questions and issues peculiar to political inquiry or theory? It is useful again to begin by referring to Aristotle’s view: politics is the study of the political or social unit and of the order that is appropriate to it. The Greeks at the time of Plato and Aristotle—that is, at the time political science originated—lived in communities called poleis (singular, polis). Greek society in the sense of a nation or organized community of all Greeks did not exist. Thus the polis was at once the “political” and the “social” unit of order, as we would understand these terms today.  Following Aristotle’s division, politics is the study of what is right and wrong for the organized community, ethics studies what is right and wrong for the individual. Politics necessarily focuses on political and social order, on the relationships between the individuals that make up the political and social unit. For Plato and Aristotle, ethics also studied order—the right and wrong order of the various parts of the individual’s soul. Modern political theorists often do not posit an ordered soul, and some do not even posit the existence of a human soul, but the general meaning of politics as the study of order continues to be quite useful.


            One’s view of the order appropriate to the political unit is closely related to one’s view of the purpose or proper function of the political unit. If we reject the notion of a natural order and the idea that behavioral norms can and should be grounded in either nature or God, then the purpose of political government is pretty much up to us. It does appear, however, that some functions of government are reasonably consistent with human nature and human capabilities. It would be folly, perhaps, to give to government a function that is objectively impossible to achieve, and since politics and government are basically spheres of human action, it would be equally folly to attempt to require or expect people to live a life or to have them order their actions in a manner that is not consistent with their nature. If human beings are basically self-interested, aggressively desirous animals, then any social goal would probably require some order imposed on men from without: part, and perhaps the main part, of government’s function would be to provide law and order. If only a small minority of the population is so aggressively self-interested, and most human beings are capable of spontaneously peaceful, cooperative action, then perhaps government can aim at more ambitious ends: the securing of a comfortable life, the development of human virtue, perhaps, or even a religiously salvific life on earth.


            If we accept the ontological idea that an order of being or reality exists and that it provides norms to men, who are part of that structure of reality, then the proper purpose of government can perhaps be discerned by rational inquiry. If man has a natural end or purpose, then politics may be part of the means to achieve that purpose.


            A related question of particular importance to politics—and to law, the instrument of government—is the question of authority: what is the source or basis of political and legal authority? It is customary today to subject political and legal norms to a moral standard. Thus, we condemn some policies and laws as “immoral” and thus without obligatory force. But as we saw, classical philosophers such as Aristotle made politics, not ethics, the master science or ultimate standard. From this perspective, whether governmental policies and laws are truly authoritative and creative of obligation and duty depends not on their consistency with true ethical norms, but their consistency with true political norms, a way of looking at the problem that is not common in today’s world where “politics” more often than not is a dirty word, not a word standing on truth and virtue.


            Thus, our inquiry into politics and government must be informed by our inquiries into the other subjects: ontology and cosmology, epistemology, anthropology, and ethics. It is the purpose of this course to help you find your way through these subjects in order to arrive at some coherent, if only temporary, outlook relating to politics. You will find, I believe, that once you begin to see the connections between these subjects, you will not be content to look at politics—domestic or international relations—in the same way again. As you inquire into political philosophy, you will find, as Herakleitos said 2500 years ago, “I searched out myself.”


Footnote on History


            For most political theorists after Augustine, a concept of history is an essential part of their speculation. History, like most of the key terms that we have referred to thus far, is a Greek word (ὶστορία or historia) that means “an inquiry or account of an inquiry.” As such it has no immediate connection to the past or to human actions (the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, for example) or even to what exists in time and space. The histories of the ancient Greeks Herodotus and Thucydides, however, were accounts of their inquiries into human affairs, some of which took place primarily in the past (Herodotus’s Histories) while others took place partly in the past and partly in the author’s present (Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War). Since them, history has acquired a primary meaning of inquiries into events taking place in space and time, and in particular into human events of the past (inquiries into current affairs are often referred to as journalistic, not historical).


            Another meaning has attached to the idea of “history” by virtue of this association with human events. History examines human actions, and human actions are characterized essentially by human choice and free will. We do not normally think of studies of chemical reactions or animal migrations as “history,” except metaphorically. Such events certainly take place in space and involve a certain amount of time, but an investigation of what some natural object is or how an organic being grew and developed into its present state is generally not referred to as a “history.”[17]  Historians examine events involving human choices and responses, particularly those that have taken place long enough ago so that a more comprehensive understanding of the necessary conditions and events and their inter-relationships is available to the investigator.


            It is the reasons for studying human events that account for the controversial nature of history. The histories of Herodotus and Thucydides were studies intended to give true accounts of what actually happened in particular places and times with a view toward providing lessons or examples of how individuals behaved in difficult circumstances for the instruction of the reader. They were not inquiries into the “meaning of it all,” though already with Polybius the suggestion of a supra-human guide of historical events was suggested.


            Judaism and Christianity, however, had a different understanding of the ultimate meaning of human events. Human life on earth—all human actions—had a beginning and will have an end. The events of mankind have a direction, and that direction gives life its fundamental meaning. The examination of human events in an effort to determine the ultimate meaning of individual events—and of all human events—depends on this idea of a discernible direction and complete course of human history. Such study is referred to as “philosophy of history” or “world history.” The belief that history has an ultimate direction—that life has a dramatic meaning—has been an important factor in the thought of many political theorists.


            As you read different writers, see if you can identify such an assumption or express position. Does the writer believe that God in the form of Divine Providence is directing or significantly influencing events? Or that the condition of mankind is getting continually worse or better? Particularly in the writings of the past three centuries, these historical assumptions have played an important part in the philosophical speculation of many writers.

[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.

[7] The term “philosophy” is also popularly used to mean “policy” or a characteristic approach or rationale for particular actions.

[8] In the “Seventh Letter,” which is generally acknowledged by scholars to be the work of Plato, Plato said that his philosophy “does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself.” 341c-d.

[9] Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a20-1094b4.

[10] New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 2.

[11]  Political Philosophy,  supra, 12, 4; see also Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 34 ("Originally, philosophy had been the humanizing quest for the eternal order, and hence it had been a pure source of humane inspiration and aspiration."). This conception of philosophy should be contrasted with the model put forward by John Locke and accepted by many today who see the philosopher’s proper vocation as “an under-labourer [employed] in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.” “Epistle to the Reader,” in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding ( New York: Dover Publications, 1959), Volume I, p. 14.

[12] See, for example, Hitler and the Germans by Eric Voegelin or The Rebel by Albert Camus.

[13] The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), 10.

[14] Ibid., 20, 28.

[15] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 5.

[16] Rousseau’s classic statement in Book One, chapter 3, of the Social Contract is worth reading.

[17] Unless it is metaphorically. Questions about how something got to where it is today or where something has been in the past leading up to the present may be asked in the form of “what is the history of this mountain or storm system or murder weapon,” but this question simply attests to the focus of history on the past and on temporal changes. Investigators of such subjects are not called “historians”; they are professionals of some other label.