A Guide to Political Philosophy

The following was posted by Justin Taylor over at Between Two Worlds.  This post functions essentially as an archive that I might come back to once I have some time to dig in to these sources.  Apart from that, maybe one or two of my five readers might gain benefit.  Enjoy!

Where to Start

Most political thought programs start with Hackett’s The Trial and Death of Socrates, which collects four dialogues of Plato (the Apology, the Euthyphro, the Crito, and the death scene from the Phaedo). This gives you an idea of (1) what philosophy is, and (2) why philosophy matters for the life of a political community.

Another good book to read at the outset, I think, would be G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. While it is not explicitly a work of political philosophy, it gives you a really valuable insight on how philosophy relates to religion and how both of these affect the way political communities think and act. Chesterton understands philosophy, as practiced by the ancients, essentially as an alternative form of religionthe major alternative to pagan mythology. I think that’s basically right as far as the ancients go. On the other hand, the question of how Christianity relates to philosophy is a deep one with a long history, and this book at least raises it.


Then it’s time for the big plunge: Allan Bloom’s edition of Plato’s Republic. Make sure you get Bloom’s edition if you really want to read the book as Plato wrote it. Bloom’s interpretive essay is not required reading, but the textual notes in the back of the book are. I read this book with two bookmarks: one to keep my place in the main text and one in the endnotes, so I could keep flipping back as I went along. The notes are invaluable; they really should have been printed alongside the text, like a study Bible.

A common confusion about the Republic is that it is a plan for political reform. It is not that. Plato does not actually envision these proposals being enacted. Rather, the Republic is a meditation on the nature of human beings, specifically on what “justice” is. Why do human beings, alone among all natural creatures, believe that their affairs must be governed by rules of right and wrong? Plato thinks the answer lies in the way human psychology is constructed, and the “ideal” political community he sketches in the Republic is intended to illustrate this.

For extra credit, you might want to read Plato’s Laws (a set of practical observations on the laws of Greek communities), the Protagoras (on the sources of virtue), and the Symposium (on the sources of sexual love and the longing for eternity in the human soul).


Next up are Aristotle’s Ethics (sometimes called the Nicomachean Ethics in honor of Aristotle’s son Nicomachus, who collected and edited his father’s works for publication) and the Politics. I would recommend reading them in that order. Aristotle is such a precise and systematic writer that it doesn’t much matter which translation you use. If you find Aristotle to your taste, you might be interested in the Rhetoric as well, though it is a less profound book.

Pre-Christian Rome

Optionally, if you are interested in pre-Christian Rome, you might want to read the Republic of Cicero and the Reflections of Marcus Aurelius. But no one will think you any less well-informed if you skip them.

For a more lively portrait of political thought in Rome during its republican and imperial periods, read Shakespeare’s plays Coriolanus and Julius Caesar (for all Shakespeare plays I highly recommend The Complete Pelican Shakespeare). Getting your classical history from Shakespeare is cheating, but let me tell you, it works.

Roman Thought and Christianity

Now you have a pretty solid overview of political thought in the pre-Christian world. The next big step is the cataclysmic encounter between Roman thought (both its religion and its philosophy) and Christianity. If you really want to get the full story here, there’s no substitute for reading Augustine’s City of God. Yes, I know, it’s 1,100 pages long, but a lot of it is redundant and you have permission to skip whenever he starts belaboring a point. Make sure you get a modern translation (as opposed to the obsolete translations available on the Internet) in an annotated edition; Augustine spends a lot of time discussing things that were being said by other people, and you’re going to need footnotes to keep track.

As with the Republic, there is a common confusion to avoid here. The Latin term traditionally translated “city” in the phrase “city of God” does not really mean “city” so much as “community.” Augustine does not envision the city of God and its opposite, the city of man, as distinct political entities. They are social groupings that coexist within the larger political community of the city. To some extent they interpenetrate one another.

The Middle Ages (AD 500-1500)

Fast forward to the Middle Ages. The usual practice is to condense this entire thousand-year period of history into the thought of one man: Thomas Aquinas. There is actually a tremendous variety of thought in the Middle Ages, but unfortunately for the most part only specialists ever discover it.

The single most important thing to get here is the development of the idea of “natural law,” that is, the idea that God has revealed a basic moral order to all human beings through reason and conscience. While this idea was present in Christian thought from the early church, and also in much non-Christian philosophy, it was the medieval church that developed the full-fledged doctrine as we know it today. In Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, in the “First Part of the Second Part,” read Questions 90-114. This section of the Summa is traditionally called the “Treatise on Law.” The influence of Aristotle, whose works had been recently reintroduced to the West after having been lost since ancient times, is clearly visible here.

For extra credit, you can read Defensor Pacis by Marsilius of Padua, a 14th century thinker who took natural law in a more radically liberating direction. If you’re really interested in learning the political philosophy of this period, get yourself a copy of Ewart Lewis’s Medieval Political Ideas; it’s out of print but you can get it on the Internet.

The Emergence of Modernity (1500s)

Now we come to the emergence of modernity in the 16th century. There are a lot of interrelated developments that happen at the same time. Here are the three most important developments within the political thought of the time, in no particular order:

1) Natural-law thought culminates in the idea of “natural rights,” that is, claims for certain kinds of political treatment (e.g. the protection of private property) to which a person is entitled under natural law. A history of how this idea emerged can be found in Brian Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights. While this is a history book rather than a work of political thought, it’s valuable because it establishes how “natural rights” grew out of “natural law” and remained an essentially religious concept. Lots of people have the wrong idea about this, associating rights-language with secularization.

2) The breakdown of political order in much of Europe in the early 16th century, coupled with widespread fear that Europe was on the verge of being conquered by the Ottoman Empire, leads many people to think that the decorous rationality of natural-law thought just doesn’t cut the mustard in a harsh, cruel, and wicked world. Some people began turning to what we would call more “realistic,” even cynical, accounts of how the world works. People who thought in these terms were looking for a set of ethical demands that would be less idealistic and demand less of people, and thus be easier to actually achieve in practice. Their mood could be expressed as: “We don’t care how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—give us something that will stop the wars and put food in people’s mouths.”

Machiavelli is the major thinker here; while most people were revolted by the open amoralism of his book The Prince, its critique of natural-law thought was nonetheless widely influential. You don’t have to go all the way down the road to amoralism to get Machiavelli’s major point, which is that all other questions will be moot if you fail to secure the safety of the political order, which (he argues) natural-law thought fails to do. For extra credit, read the Discourses on Livy.

3) The Reformation fragments Europe into deeply hostile cultural groups. For a long time it was believed that Protestants and Catholics could not possibly share a common political community. The only thing for a ruler to do, it seemed, was to establish the dominance of one group and suppress or even completely stamp out the other group. A good summary statement of this kind of thinking can be found in Book IV, Chapter 20 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion; much the same was being said in reverse on the Catholic side. For an important dissenting view, see John Milton’s Areopagitica. Luther, interestingly, went back and forth on this question in a relatively short period; see the comparatively authoritarian Letter to the Christian Nobility of Germany and the (I think) comparatively libertarian Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed.

While these currents in political thought were taking shape, the facts on the ground were changing in another way. The printing press (which drastically increased the use of popular languages rather than Latin), the fights over religion, and the increasing power of secular political authorities gradually led people to identify themselves more and more as members of larger political communities that we now call “nations.” It was during this period that people stopped thinking of themselves as Parisians or Nuremburgers or Londoners and started thinking of themselves as French or German or English. Over time, particularly in the 17th century, the boundaries of political units came to coincide with the nationalities of their peoples, producing the entity known as the “nation-state.”

How Should the Nation-State Be Governed?

From this time forward, the important question for political philosophy would become: how should the nation-state be governed?

Thomas Hobbes

The first really great political thinker whom you can unreservedly call “modern” is Thomas Hobbes. His Leviathan was written in reaction to the English Civil War, one of the bloodiest of the very bloody wars of religion that followed the Reformation. Hobbes wants to demystify politics—strip it of all religious and other transcendent associations—and make it into a science. If people would stop investing politics with so much religious, moral, and cultural importance, then they would stop killing each other so much. Hobbes is basically an opponent of religion; though he was careful to claim otherwise, his hostility to Christianity is obvious. Most of the arguments on the secularist side of our culture wars are ultimately rooted in a Hobbesian view of the world. Hobbes does borrow the language of “natural law” from Christian thought, but he twists it into a wholly new shape. Make sure you read both halves of Leviathan, not just the explicitly political first half; as you will see, the second half, which is a radically unorthodox interpretation of the Bible, is really just as important to what Hobbes is doing politically.

John Locke

The next stop on our tour is John Locke, who also wrote in the context of England’s wars of religion (though during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as opposed to the earlier Civil War). Locke takes two major currents of thought that had been developing particularly in English thought, and gave them their fullest and most forceful expression. The first is the idea that there is a “natural right” to armed resistance against tyranny, and the second is the idea of religious toleration. The key texts here are the Two Treatises of Government and the Letter Concerning Toleration. Locke’s formulation of these ideas was transformative. The whole idea of natural rights takes on a completely different character when one of those rights is the right to defend all your other rights by force, even against your own government. And no one needs to be told how transformative the idea of religious toleration was.

The idea of a right to resistance against tyranny was not new. It was actually the consensus view of almost all western political philosophy going back to the ancients. Christian natural law philosophy also held this view consistently throughout the Middle Ages. Locke lays out the reasons why: if there is no right to resistance against tyranny, ultimately you cannot sustain politics as a human activity distinct from the mere assertion of force. Citizenship is simply a form of slavery. And human reason and scripture alike make clear that political citizenship cannot be reduced to slavery.

However, Locke expressed this idea in a form that could be systematically implemented. Earlier thinkers left it in the background. Locke moved it to the forefront of social organization. Societies, Locke said, should make the right to rebellion one of their fundamental commitments, and lay out explicitly the boundaries beyond which government could not go without losing its legitimacy. In short, Locke institutionalized the right to rebellion.

There are two major confusions to avoid in reading the Two Treatises. First, Locke makes use of the idea of a “state of nature,” which was a sort of thought experiment that earlier political philosophers used to work out what the ultimate justification of government was. Hobbes was one of the earlier thinkers who used this method, but this does not mean Locke is following Hobbes’s thought. The concept of a “state of nature” was around in the Middle Ages and Locke’s use of it follows the trail laid down by Christian natural-law thought.

For Hobbes, there are no moral laws in the state of nature, and that’s why we have society; we fear our neighbors and want to restrain them. For Locke, there are moral laws in the state of nature, and that’s why we have society; we have a moral imperative to seek out a better enforcement of the moral law, so we create society to do so. Hobbes’s view gives us a universe where all morality is socially constructed for materialistic motives; Locke’s gives us a universe where moral law is the first and fundamental social reality, more basic even than society itself.

The other confusion to avoid when reading Locke is to think that the idea of a “divine right of kings,” which Locke argues against in the First Treatise, was the longstanding traditional political theory of Europe. This is simply a myth. Divine right theory was a radical innovation introduced by power-hungry monarchs in the early modern period. At a time when kings were getting a lot more powerful than they used to be, some of them got greedy and tried to promote the idea that the king speaks with God’s direct authority. But this view was never the mainstream or majority view of the West; the mainstream view (as in Aquinas) was always that the king got his authority as a grant from the community.

Locke’s thought was the beginning of what came to be called political “liberalism.” This is not the same sense in which that word is used in modern American politics (where “liberalism” is the opposite of “conservatism”) or in theology. Sometimes this ideology is called “classical liberalism.”

Two more major developments are necessary to get a complete introductory portrait of classical liberalism. First, for the economic thought that was a crucial element of liberalism, read Books I, III, and V of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Don’t miss the intriguing analysis in Book V of how the behavior of schools and churches is shaped by financial incentives. If you’re interested in the issue of trade you might also want to read Book IV.

The other major element in classical liberalism is the development of what we might call “constitutional thought”—the working out what kinds of political institutions would best put liberalism into practice. One of the distinguishing characteristics of liberalism is its particular attention to the design of institutions. The Federalist Papers provide a concise statement of the basic elements of liberal constitutional thought; if you’re looking for more, you might want to tackle Baron Charles de Montesquieu’s much longer The Spirit of the Laws.

Classical Liberalism v. Its Critics

Classical liberalism has been the dominant mode of political thought since its emergence. The rest of the history of political philosophy is basically the story of classical liberalism versus its critics.


The first really large-scale reaction against liberalism was Romanticism, which had its origins almost entirely from the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It’s very hard to summarize Romanticism, but a good beginning of a summary is that seeks to replace theistic natural law with a deistic moral system built on subjective moral intuitions—”the conscience” understood as something separate from reason and not really subject to rational argumentation. For me the real heart of Rousseau’s works has always been the book Emile, which is sort of Rousseau’s version of Plato’s Republic. But it is more common for people to read his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” (also known as the “First Discourse”), “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality” (a.k.a. the “Second Discourse”), and especially his book The Social Contract, which is as close as he came to laying out a political program. For extra credit, American Romantics included Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson (start with the essay “Self-Reliance“).

Political Traditionalism

Another major reaction against liberalism is what we might call political traditionalism. This bursts on the scene rather dramatically with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. For extra credit, read Michael Oakeshott’s Radicalism in Politics and Other Essays and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.


Still another is utilitarianism. The hard-core version of utilitarianism was a passing intellectual phase in the 19th century that gained little traction. However, John Stuart Mill produced a more moderate version of utilitarianism that continues to be influential to this day. Start with the short book On Liberty; for extra credit read Utilitarianism. Mill’s most enduring idea is that people with ideas or ways of life that are unusual or unpopular need special protection against the overbearing pressure for conformity; here we find another major precursor of the secularist side of the culture war.


Tempted as we may be, we can’t leave out Marxism. Only the Communist Manifesto is required reading as far as primary sources go; the basic ideas of Marxism are already too familiar, and are turning out not to be lasting very long historically anyway. But two major analyses of Marxism and its weaknesses are definitely required reading, especially since they are important for more than just their analyses of Marxism: George Orwell’s 1984 and Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless. Havel, particularly, diagnosed Marxism’s fundamental immorality as the fatal flaw that would ultimately bring it down. Extra credit assignments include Orwell’s Animal Farm and “Politics and the English Language,” and Havel’s play “The Memorandum.”

The Most Powerful Critiques of Classical Liberalism

I’ve saved the most powerful critique of classical liberalism for last. Quite a few people who share very little else in common believe that classical liberalism can’t work because it leads people to want nothing more than lives of comfort and conformity, for which they are eventually willing to sell their freedom, their minds, and their souls.

Get ready, because I’m about to drop a pretty lengthy reading list on you: Alexis de Tocqueville’s huge but indispensable Democracy in America, Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man and “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” See also Havel’s play “The Unveiling” and his essay “A Sense of the Transcendent.”

A New and Better Version of Classical Liberalism

In spite of all these critiques, in my opinion we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of replacing classical liberalism, but in terms of correcting its weak points and trying to make it work. At its heart, liberalism is a commitment to a social order based on religious freedom and giving people stewardship over their own lives; it’s an attempt to steer a course between the cynical power politics of Machiavelli and Hobbes on the one hand, and the unjust social hierarchies and enforced orthodoxies of premodern and traditionalist systems. I like to say classical liberalism boils down to four things:

  1. the right to choose your church,
  2. the right to choose your spouse,
  3. the right to choose your job, and
  4. the right to choose your rulers.

We had none of those rights before the rise of classical liberalism, and none of the major alternatives to  liberalism would retain them. If you want to be able to make these choices for yourself—to have stewardship over your own life—then ultimately you’re going to be a liberal of some kind. The path forward, to my mind, is not a path away from classical liberalism but a path to a new and better kind of liberalism. For those who are interested, I’ve written about this in Contested Public Square and Starting with Locke.

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