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.


The Fundamental Conceptions


            When we talk politics, we are liable to cover a broad range of philosophical topics, whether we realize it or not. Of course, sometimes people simply want answers to factual questions such as “What happened in the committee meeting” or “How does a president make an executive agreement” or “Why did she lose the election,” but a lot of times, political discussions are debates or arguments that attack and defend government policies, laws, court decisions, and politicians. These arguments lay out views about government and politics that rest on philosophical assumptions that are not always clearly understood by the speakers themselves. This course examines some of the principal assumptions that are reflected in political discussion and shows how one’s views on one topic might follow from, or might contradict, one’s views on another political topic. The goal of the course is to help students acquire a coherent or self-consistent philosophy of politics.


            For example, someone might say, “I believe that the government should provide free health care to everyone, regardless of the people’s income level.” Someone responds, “I disagree. Government has no business providing free goodies to people. Individuals have a responsibility to provide—to buy—medical insurance for themselves and their families, if they wish. Government is supposed to provide for the national security and law and order, and that’s it!” This disagreement is about the proper role and function of government: is providing medical care a proper function of government? This question is closely related to the question of authority.


“I think the government should ban tobacco smoking!” or “The government should require all motorcyclists to wear helmets!” A familiar reply? “Where does the government get off telling people what to do with their lives? That’s none of the government’s business.” This question of the business of government—of political authority—again boils down to the proper function of government. Presumably, governments should have the authority to do what is necessary to perform their proper functions. But the authority to regulate individual behavior also points to the relationship between political—or legal—authority and moral (ethical) authority. For example, what is the source of the government’s authority to prohibit abortions? To permit abortions? To require abortions? To punish racial discrimination? To permit racial discrimination? To require racial discrimination? The Greek philosopher Aristotle first posed the problem of the relation of politics to ethics in his question of when a good man is also a good citizen. It is still a good question to ask. Politics is closely related to ethics.


Politics is also closely related to an understanding of human behavior. Politics is “the art of the possible.” The material that government must work with is human material—people. If government’s primary function is to secure law and order, then presumably people are animals in need of a social order that is to some extent imposed upon them. The responses to the statements above about health care, smoking, and motorcycle helmets point to similar issues of individual behavior: is it the responsibility—the duty, perhaps—of individuals to provide for their own health care and perhaps even for the health care of others? Is this duty a moral duty? Do people have a duty to avoid risky behaviors? Does everyone have such responsibility or only people who are depended upon by others? Is anyone totally independent of others? These questions raise the bar from simply preventing people from harming others to preventing people from harming themselves.


            “Oh, I agree that people should buy their own health insurance, but too many people who can afford the insurance do not buy it and many people in this greatest nation on earth simply cannot afford adequate health insurance and still have enough money for food, clothing, shelter, and the other necessities. In either case, when these uninsureds—or the uninsureds’ innocent children!—get real sick or seriously injured, they either go without needed care or it falls on other people or the government to take care of them anyway.” For “uninsured,” substitute “smokers” or “cyclists,” whose risky behavior not only affects themselves but others. When regulating these behaviors, is government enforcing moral standards or is it addressing a financial problem that might have significant consequences for the national economy? And if government is enforcing moral standards, how do we know what these moral standards are? What is moral authority based upon?


            The common reference to human rights—formerly known as natural rights—assumes that such rights truly exist, whether people willfully acknowledge them or not. The rights are part of the natural order. Or, perhaps, the rights are the necessary benefits that we receive from divinely imposed duties and obligations. Either way, their existence is not based upon mere human desire. But how do we know this? How can we know that a natural moral order exists? Many philosophers argue that such an order does not in fact exist, and that individual moral rules as well as the proper functions of government rest ultimately on human will and desire. If anything, political authority ultimately rests on the universal desire to survive, and in this day and age, individual survival depends upon group or social survival. Who is right?


            This short introduction contains assertions relating to all five of the fundamental conceptions of political philosophy that we will study in this course: (1) politics (what are the proper functions of government and what is the source of political authority?); (2) ethics (do individuals have a moral responsibilities that government might enforce or might violate?); (3) anthropology (do people—some of them or most of them—avoid their real needs and moral responsibilities in favor of satisfying their passing desires?); (4) epistemology (how do we really know any of this, or is it all purely a matter of opinion?); and (5) ontology-cosmology (do people have “natural” rights or duties by simply being born into the world? does government have a natural purpose or function?).


            If you think about it, we talk about these basic concepts 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, timid 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 into the night the 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 political leader or political party or political ideology blindly in whatever direction that leader, party, or ideology herds you, then your thinking and questioning will take you into these five areas and thus into political theory. 


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 or political science is the examination of political (from the Greek word for city-state, polis) things.[1] 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. Political philosopher Eric Voegelin credits Plato with the founding of political science, the pursuit of “a theoretical problem to the point where the principles of politics meet with the principles of a philosophy of history.”[2]


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).[3] 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.[4] Political philosopher 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.”[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7]


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."[8]


Philosophy, originally meaning a life-long pursuit of wisdom, is now often understood as a subject of academic study focuses on the writings of individuals who have engaged in that pursuit. Even the writings of Plato that argue for philosophy as a way of life that cannot be reduced to writing are now studied as part of the material that makes up the academic subject.[9] In this introduction, we will use “philosophy” (and in like manner, “theory”) as both (1) the comprehensive examination of a subject with the purpose of obtaining wisdom and (2) as particular works reflecting that examination.[10] 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 in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, "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: 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.


            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.[11]


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


Statements about the importance of political theory are not confined to the thinkers of ancient Greece. Eric Voegelin 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."[12]  Leo Strauss 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.”[13]


Philosophical writings come to us in many different forms—Plato’s dramatic dialogues, Aristotle's lecture notes, Lucretius’s poetry, 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 related 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 criticism. 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, 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 unsound arguments themselves. If these arguments and leaders use your willing support to achieve bad ends, you are complicit, and complicity itself is blameworthy.[14] 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 high caliber as the "greats" that we will read.



            All of the writers we study this semester 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, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, as well as reading the great poem of Lucretius and excerpts from the writings of Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. These writings must be analyzed in terms of the ideas they reflect regarding metaphysics, 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 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.


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.[15]



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 on, gen. ontos, “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 (individual and social), 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.”[16]  Primitive man experienced the sacred as more real than the natural order, as “the only real and real-ly existing space” and time.[17] 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 simply ask 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.”


[1] “Politics” or “the science of politics” is derived from politike ( πολιτικ), the study of the polis and what pertains thereto..

[2] New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, 1987), 1. “[A] theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history.”

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

[7] 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.

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

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

[10] 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.

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

[12] New Science of Politics, supra, 2.

[13]  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.

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

[15] To make it even more complicated, an extra box or two labeled “Ancient” or “Pre-philosophical” would be helpful because we will study writings by Henri and H.A. Frankfort and Mircea Eliade that explore the worldview and thought processes of ancient man prior to the development of philosophy and formal religion.

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

[17] Ibid., 20, 28.