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Introduction to Western Political Thought

Purpose of Course  showclose

Political thought, or political philosophy, is the study of questions concerning power, justice, rights, law, and other issues pertaining to governance. Whereas political science assumes that these concepts are what they are, political thought asks how they have come about and to what effect. Just as Socrates’s simple question “How should we be governed?” led to his execution, the question “What makes a government legitimate?” leads to political turmoil when posed at critical times. Political thought asks what form government should take and why; what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any; and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever. Generally speaking, political thought, political philosophy, and political theory are terms often used interchangeably to mean the study of philosophical texts related to politics.

This course examines major texts in the history of political thought. Many of these texts pose difficult questions concerning the political community, social order, and human nature. This course asks how different views on human nature and the uses of history inform the design of government. It also considers the ways in which thinkers like Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau have responded to the political problems of their times, and the ways in which they contribute to a broader conversation about human goods and needs, justice, democracy, and the ever-changing relationship between the citizen and the state.

One of our central aims in this course will be to gain a critical perspective on our times by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various regimes and philosophical approaches. We will also work to better understand those assumptions and basic concepts that define the field of political science. Each of the three units that comprise this course is devoted to a broad theme central to understanding politics. The first unit, centered upon the texts of Plato and Aristotle, will address the polis, or political community. The second unit, featuring the work of John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes, will explore the modern state and constitutional government. The third unit, introducing the texts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, will focus on democracy and the critique of liberal ideology. You will find that these political philosophies have shaped various forms of government, from tyranny to republican democracy and welfare states.

It should be noted that the terms politics, political theory, and political science are used throughout the course, but not interchangeably so. While they all relate to each other, each has a different meaning. Politics is the use of power and the distribution of resources. Political theory, on the other hand, is the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, the discipline of political theory has approached this study from three different perspectives: classic, modern, and contemporary political theory – all will be covered in this course. Finally, political science is an academic discipline concerned with the study of the state, government, and politics. Aristotle defined political science as “the study of the state.”

If you’re interested in reading philosophy or thinking about life purpose and social organization, this might be a good course for you to take. Additionally, if you like to debate, consider alternative viewpoints, or talk about politics this course will likely interest you. Also, Western political thought has served, in one form or another, as the philosophical and ideological basis for governments around the world for centuries, including the United States. Hopefully, this course will allow you to put yourself within an historical, social, and cultural setting so you may relate to contemporary political society.

This course provides students the opportunity to earn actual college credit. It has been reviewed and recommended for 3 credit hours by The National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS).  While credit is not guaranteed at all schools, we have partnered with a number of schools who have expressed their willingness to accept transfer of credits earned through Saylor. You can read more about our NCCRS program here.

National College Credit Recommendation Service

Course Information  showclose

Welcome to POLSC201. General information about this course and its requirements can be found below.
 
Primary Resources: This course is composed of a range of different free, online materials. However, the course makes primary use of the following materials:

Requirements for Completion: In order to complete this course, you will need to work through each unit and all of its assigned materials. The course builds upon itself from one unit to the next, so it is important to work thoroughly through each section to understand what follows. It is also important to answer the study guide questions to challenge your retention and understanding of the material. You will also need to complete the Final Exam.

Note that you will only receive an official grade on your Final Exam. However, in order to adequately prepare for this exam, you will need to respond to the study guide questions.

In order to pass this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher grade on the Final Exam. Your score on the exam will be tabulated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam, you may take it again.

Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of approximately 133.75 hours to complete, not including the final exam. Each unit includes a “time advisory” that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit. These should help you plan your time accordingly. It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories and to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself. For example, Unit 1 should take approximately 45.5 hours to complete. Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunit 1.1 (a total of 3 hours) on Monday night; subunit 1.2 (a total of 3.25 hours) on Tuesday; subunit 1.3 (a total of 2.25 hours) on Wednesday night; etc.

Tips/Suggestions: It may be helpful to take notes as you work through the materials in each unit, especially in response to the study guide questions. Answering the study questions and reviewing your notes will also help you prepare for the Final Exam.



 
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Learning Outcomes  showclose

Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to:
  • summarize the passage of political thought through the classical, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods based on the works of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Marx;
  • compare and contrast the differences between Plato and Aristotle with regard to their understandings of the nature of the person, ethics, society, citizenship, and governance;
  • explain the historical and intellectual context in which the political thought that helped to develop the modern state came to be;
  • compare and contrast the concepts of justice, freedom, equality, citizenship, and sovereignty in the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau;
  • explain the different versions of, and importance of, the state of nature to political thought;
  • identify the influences of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau on the development of the United States Constitution;
  • summarize the thoughts of Alexis de Tocqueville on the American political landscape, particularly with regard to religion and equality, and why this has importance beyond the American context;
  • explain Karl Marx’s worldview, with particular regard to his critique of democracy and the modern, politically liberal state; how it came to be; and its fundamental link to capitalism; and
  • explain John Stuart Mill’s theory on utilitarianism and how he applies it to society and the state.

Course Requirements  showclose

In order to take this course, you must:

√    have access to a computer;

√    have continuous broadband Internet access;

√    have the ability/permission to install plug-ins or software (e.g. Adobe Reader or Flash);

√    have the ability to download and save files and documents to a computer;

√    have the ability to open Microsoft files and documents (.doc, .ppt, .xls, etc.);

√    have competency in the English language;

√    have read the Saylor Student Handbook; and

√    have completed the following course from The Core Program of the political science discipline: POLSC101: Introduction to Politics.

Unit Outline show close


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  • Unit 1: The Polis  

    This first unit deals with the origins of Western thinking on the polis, which is the Greek word for city-state. We will read Plato’s famous work, the Republic, which presents an extended argument in dramatic form for what might constitute the ideal polis, encompassing consideration of all aspects of governance, citizenship, social order, and personal virtue. Speaking through the character of his teacher Socrates, Plato’s model of the ideal city-state mirrors the order of nature as based in his metaphysical Theory of Forms, famously articulated here in the Republic through the Allegory of The Cave.

    Plato’s streamlined view of political and social life holds that the city-state should be governed by a ruler with philosophical training capable of comprehending the true nature of reality, justice, and wisdom, and where one’s place in society is determined by one’s natural abilities. By contrast, Plato’s student Aristotle, while incorporating and responding to many aspects of Platonic thought, develops a decidedly organic, or this-worldly, system of ethics and a corresponding structure for the polis as embodied in the texts of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics. Aristotle’s famous claim that "man is by nature a political animal" captures his belief that a natural order between the individual and the community exists as both a power struggle and a distribution of resources, which has as its own end the good held both individually and in common. Such ideal notions of the city-state, whether Platonic or Aristotelian, and the particulars therein, have been a point of departure for political philosophers since the time of Plato’s Athens to the present day.

    Unit 1 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 1 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 1.1 The Just and the Unjust  
    • Reading: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Republic: “Books I and II”

      Link: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Republic“Books I and II” (PDF)
       
      Also available in:
      Kindle (Free)

      Instructions: Please read Book I and Book II. Through the voice of his teacher Socrates, Plato defines what he considers the ideal forms of justice, leadership, social order, and philosophical discipline throughout The Republic. At the same time, Plato addresses the tension between the pursuit of individual self-perfection and public service.

      In Book I, Socrates begins by attempting to define justice by challenging notions held by Cephalus and Polemarchus. Socrates finds their notions wanting, but nonetheless they continue to hold that it is better for a person to be just than unjust. Thrasymachus challenges the assumption that it is good to be just altogether. In Book II, Socrates accepts the challenge from Glaucon and Adeimantus to argue that it is better for a person to be just than unjust and that justice is a good in itself regardless of the consequences associated with it. Socrates begins, however, by looking for justice as a virtue of cities before defining justice as a virtue of persons. He outlines his first version of an ideal city and the producer class of citizens established under the principle of specialization that each person must perform the role for which he is naturally best suited.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 2 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Steven Smith’s “Philosophers and Kings: Plato’s Republic, I-II”

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Steven Smith’s “Philosophers and Kings: Plato’s Republic, I-II” (YouTube)

      Also available in:
      iTunes U (Lecture 4)
      MP3, Flash, and HTML Transcript

      Instructions: Please watch this lecture by Professor Steven Smith. Pause as needed to take notes

      Watching this lecture and taking notes should take approximately 1 hour.

      Terms of Use: This resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Open Yale Courses and Steven Smith, and the original version can be found here.

  • 1.2 The Ideal City  
  • 1.3 The Philosopher-King  
  • 1.4 The Socratic Method  
    • Reading: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Apology

      Link: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Apology (PDF)
       
      Also available in:
      Kindle (Free)

      Instructions: Please read the Apology. This work deals with Socrates’s reasoned self-defense when he is falsely charged with crimes against the state.

      Study Guide Questions:

      How would you describe the Socratic Method? Think about what Plato demonstrates with the argument between Aristophanes and Socrates. Note that Aristophanes represents past and present poets of Socrates’s era and is thus oracular in nature, whereas Socrates is conversational, meaning dialectical.

      Consider Socrates’s poverty in the context of virtue. In The Apology, Plato describes Socrates’s poverty as a sort of “proof” that he was not a paid teacher – that he was only living his life in response to the proclamation by the Delphic Oracle that no one was as wise as Socrates. Is this convincing, and how so?

      Reading this work and answering the study guide questions should take approximately 4 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

  • 1.4.1 Socrates Asks to Be Judged on the Truth  
  • 1.4.2 Poetry and Philosophy  

    Note: This topic is covered, in part, by the lecture beneath subunit 1.4.1 and in the text of the Apology at paragraphs 17d to 24c. As you might recall from the lecture, at 18d, Socrates mentions a “writer of comedies” in reference to the playwright Aristophanes. Throughout Plato’s dialogues, and most thoroughly in Book X of the Republic, Plato addresses what he calls the long-running quarrel between philosophy and poetry (and the arts in general, including that of rhetoric). It could be said Aristophanes represents poets of the past (or Socrates’s present) and is one of Socrates’s foremost critics for his emphasis on the primacy of philosophy. Poets, on the other hand (and only in their best light, according to Socrates), are oracular in nature, meaning they serve as a kind of channel or link between the gods and the masses. This contrasts with Socrates’s conversational, or dialectical, method, which emphasizes argumentation based in reason to arrive at truth and to what makes for a good individual, citizen, and society.

    • Reading: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Republic: “Book X”

      Link: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Republic: “Book X” (PDF)

      Also available in:
      Kindle (Free)

      Instructions: Please read Book X.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 1 hour.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

    • Reading: The Saylor Foundation’s “Poetry and Philosophy”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Poetry and Philosophy” (PDF)
       
      Instructions: Please click on the link above and read the entire article.
       
      This reading should take you approximately 30 minutes to complete.
       
      Terms of Use: This resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.  It is attributed to The Saylor Foundation.

    • Activity: The Saylor Foundation's Socratic Method Short Answer Question

      Instructions: As you now understand, the classic Socratic Method involves dismantling prior ideas in order to free the mind of preconceived notions. By definition, this method deconstructs all prior thoughts on a topic and leaves the learner without a satisfactory answer to the primary question. Examining how the Socratic Method is used in contemporary society – particularly by teachers, legal scholars, and medical practitioners – will help you understand this approach to teaching and learning.

      Write a short paragraph explaining why you believe these professions are more inclined to use the Socratic Method of instruction. Feel free to share your thoughts on the Saylor Foundation’s discussion forum for POLSC201, as referenced in subunit 1.2.

      Completing this activity should take approximately 15 minutes.

  • 1.5 The Ideal Citizen and the Ideal State  
    • Reading: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Crito

      Link: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Crito (PDF)

      Also available in:
      Kindle (Free)

      Instructions: Please read Crito. Note that this work applies to subunits 1.5.1-1.5.3. Crito is an account of Socrates’s explanation for accepting the death sentence for his alleged crimes rather than confessing and taking a lesser sentence. He tells his friend Crito that, although he has been falsely convicted, he would rather accept the punishment because it will uphold the rule of law in Athens. He prefers to die rather than live outside of the law or in a fashion that would undermine the law. Note that the form of Plato’s account – a series of dialogues among friends – is important to Plato’s thought.

      Study Guide Question:

      Explain how Socrates views the acceptance of his conviction and consequent execution not as a form of suicide, but as an alignment with what is right, regardless of whether he has been wrongly accused and convicted by the people of Athens.

      Reading this selection and answering the study guide question should take approximately 3 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

  • 1.5.1 Crito's Appeal for Socrates to Confess to False Crimes  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Steven Smith’s “Socratic Citizenship: Plato’s Crito

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Steven Smith’s “Socratic Citizenship: Plato’s Crito (YouTube)

      Also available in:
      iTunes U (Lecture 3)
      MP3, Flash, and HTML Transcript 

      Instructions: Watch this lecture. As you watch, think about Crito’s appeal to Socrates. Crito represents a Homeric, traditional type of citizen of his age. His appeal is a logical one viewed through the lens of the self, but Socrates is not swayed. He rejects the notion that a citizen must live out a public existence with displays of patriotism, nobility, and devotion to the state. Note that these actions are not the same as compliance with the law of the land.

      In the last third of the lecture, notice how Professor Smith makes the case that the juxtaposition of Socrates’s exposed views in Crito and The Republic cannot be reconciled. Professor Smith believes that Plato purposefully exposed his readers to Socrates’s conflicting philosophies in an attempt to demonstrate that society must choose either one of the Socratic models, or neither – but not both. Pause as needed to take notes.

      Watching this lecture and taking notes should take approximately 1 hour.

      Terms of Use: This resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Open Yale Courses and Steven Smith, and the original version can be found here.

  • 1.5.2 The Antagonism between Personal and Public Virtue  

    Note: This topic is covered by the lecture beneath subunit 1.5.1. For this topic, focus on the last third of the lecture in which Professor Smith makes the claim that the juxtaposition of Socrates’s exposed views in Crito and the Republic cannot be reconciled.

  • 1.6 The Good Life: Virtue and Happiness  
    • Reading: W. D. Ross’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “Book I”

      Link: W. D. Ross’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “Book I” (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s most comprehensive work on ethics and establishes ethical inquiry as a field unto its own apart from other fields of inquiry. In this text, Aristotle sustains the Platonic dialogue on how society should best be organized, but he does so by focusing on the codification of virtuous behavior and what it means for a person to live a good life. Pause as needed to take notes.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 1 hour.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

    • Reading: The Saylor Foundation’s “The Good Life: Virtue and Well-Being”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “The Good Life: Virtue and Well-Being” (PDF)

      Instructions: Read this article, which provides context and insight into Aristotle’s ideas of ethics.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 30 minutes.

  • 1.6.1 The Doctrine of the Mean  
    • Reading: W. D. Ross’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “Book II”

      Link: W. D. Ross’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “Book II” (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read Book II of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Book II sets out to discover how we can determine what is virtuous, or that which is fine or excellent, such that our practical reason can be in accordance with it, both in the sense of actions to be taken and ends to be achieved. What Aristotle determines is that what is virtuous with regard to a person’s character can be found between the extremes as to what it is not – or the mean between the two vices of excess and deficiency.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 1 hour.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

    • Reading: The Saylor Foundation’s “The Doctrine of the Mean”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s The Doctrine of the Mean” (PDF)

      Instructions: Read this article, which provides context and insight into Aristotle’s ideas concerning virtue and related concepts.

      Reading this article and taking notes should take approximately 30 minutes.

  • 1.6.2 The Preconditions of Virtue: Voluntary vs. Involuntary Action  
  • 1.6.3 Justice as a Virtue  
    • Reading: W. D. Ross’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “Books IV-V”

      Link: W. D. Ross’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “Books IV-V” (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read Books IV-V of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In Book IV, Aristotle explains how we may determine what is virtuous through the doctrine of the mean using examples of individual virtues such as bravery, generosity, and temperance. In Book V, Aristotle discusses the virtue of justice, which carries an exalted status among the virtues. Aristotle makes a distinction between two different but related types of justice: the general and the special (or particular). Of general justice, he writes, “this type of justice then, is complete virtue, not complete virtue unconditionally, but complete virtue in relation to another. And this is why justice often seems to be supreme among the virtues, and ‘neither the evening star nor the morning star is so marvelous,’ and the proverb says ‘And in justice all virtue is summed up’.” As you will see, Aristotle’s conception of justice stands in sharp contrast to that of Plato’s, with the realization that individual justice is inextricably tied to the common good.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 2 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

    • Reading: The Saylor Foundation’s “Justice as a Virtue”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Justice as a Virtue” (PDF)

      Instructions: Read this article.

      Reading this article and taking notes should take approximately 30 minutes.

  • 1.6.4 The Importance of Contemplation  
    • Reading: W. D. Ross’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “Book VI” and “Book X”

      Link: W. D. Ross’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “Book VI” (PDF) and “Book X” (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read Books VI and X of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

      In subunit 1.6.1, you learned that Aristotle divides virtue into two sorts that correspond to the rational and non-rational parts of the soul. The rational part is that which has reason within itself or is reason “through-and-through,” while the non-rational part is capable of being influenced by reason. Book VI of the Ethics first addresses the non-rational part of the soul, which is integral to Book X and the transition made from the Ethics to Aristotle’s Politics. Here, we first address the intellectual virtues applied to the non-rational parts of the soul in Book VI, or the virtues of thought associated with our emotions, feelings, dispositions, and actions, before turning to Book X.

      Reading these selections and taking notes should take approximately 2 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

    • Reading: The Saylor Foundation’s “Practical Reason and Politics”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Practical Reason and Politics” (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read this article.

      Reading this article and taking notes should take approximately 30 minutes.

    • Activity: The Saylor Foundation’s “Discussion Forum for POLSC201”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Discussion Forum for POLSC201”
       
      In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle devotes two books to the topic of friendship. Why does he consider friendship to be a critical component of the good life? How might Plato have responded to such an assertion? 
       
      Please post your response in the course’s discussion forum, which is accessible via the link above. Click here to be taken to the “Discuss: Aristotle, Plato and Friendship” thread. Leave a reply there and check back to see what some of your classmates have written. Feel free to leave comments on the posts of your classmates.

      Note: You will need to create a free account at Saylor.org to participate in the forum. This will only take a minute to do!

    • Activity: The Saylor Foundation’s “Quickfire Reading Quiz: Nicomachean Ethics

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Quickfire Reading Quiz: Nicomachean Ethics (PDF)

      Instructions: Please answer these three multiple-choice questions on the major themes in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The answers can be found at the bottom of the page.

      Completing this assessment should take approximately 15 minutes.

  • 1.7 Rule of Law  
    • Reading: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Aristotle’s Politics

      Link: Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Aristotle’s Politics (PDF)

      Also available in:
      Kindle

      Instructions: Please read this text, which covers the topics outlined beneath subunits 1.7.1-1.7.3. As you read, think about the Nicomachean Ethics and pay attention to how Aristotle weaves ethical precepts into the fabric of political action. Aristotle argues that a law that mirrors the natural order is of the highest good to the polis. Citizenship is rationed (i.e., only free, land-owning males of native ancestry are considered citizens), but comes with serious responsibilities, often in the form of public service. The question of “who counts as a citizen” is covered by the lecture in subunit 1.7.1. As you read, consider the following question: who was considered a citizen, and who was excluded from this category?

      Study Guide Questions:

      Aristotle objected to Plato that his search for unity ended by abolishing what is distinctively political about politics. What is the nature of the complaint, and is Aristotle right?

      Aristotle states: “[M]echanics or any other class that is not the producer of virtue have no share in the state.” What do you think about this view of citizenship?

      Reading this selection, taking notes, and answering the study guide questions should take approximately 10 hours. Because this reading is lengthy, you mind find it helpful to read it over the course of a few days.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

  • 1.7.1 Man as a Political Animal  
  • 1.7.2 The Importance of Public Service  
  • 1.7.3 Distributive Justice as the Task of the Polis  
    • Reading: The Saylor Foundation’s “Distributive Justice as the Task of the Polis”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Distributive Justice as the Task of the Polis” (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read the article. In Book III of Politics, Aristotle analyzes arguments for and against various constitutions that employ different notions of a person’s worth. This includes his preferred notion of distributive justice as proportionate equality taken from Book V of Ethics: justice requires that benefits be distributed to individuals in proportion to their merit or desert. Oligarchs are mistaken in thinking that those who are superior in wealth should also have superior political opportunities and standing. Democrats are mistaken in thinking that those who are equal in free birth should also have correspondingly equal political opportunities and standing. Though different in their conception of personal worth, for Aristotle both the oligarchs and the democrats are mistaken for the same reason: they assume a false conception of the ultimate end of the polis. Presented here are three different interpretations of what Aristotle means by rule of the best persons and what the common wellbeing of the polis entails.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 1 hour.

  • 1.7.4 The Primacy of the Law  
  • Unit 1 Assessment  
    • Assessment: The Saylor Foundation’s “Unit 1 Assessment”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Unit 1 Assessment” (HTML)

      Instructions: Please complete this assessment.

      You must be logged into your Saylor Foundation School account in order to access this quiz. If you do not yet have an account, you will be able to create one, free of charge, after clicking the link.

      Completing this assessment should take approximately 1 hour.

  • Unit 2: Modern Political Thought  

    The Greek polis served as an influential model of citizenship and governance for centuries. Modern political philosophers, however, found that they needed to rethink politics according to a new, more realistic understanding of the way humans actually behave. As a result, modern government requires both a keen historical sense and the pragmatic use of power.
     
    This unit will begin with the Italian political philosopher and civil servant Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli is credited with the distinctly modern notion of an artificial (rather than natural) state in which the leader should rule swiftly, effectively, and in a calculated manner. Many associate his theories with the use of deceit and cunning in politics; after Machiavelli, politics was conceived of as an art in which the best rulers governed shrewdly, carefully calculating about enemies, populations, and the timing of certain actions.
     
    Thomas Hobbes adapted this Machiavellian approach on a much larger scale. For Hobbes, the state should be sovereign and secular; the citizens should give up both their allegiance to the Church and their rights in exchange for physical security. However, while modern political thought has been built upon the Machiavellian notion of the artificiality of the state, the moderns disagreed on how people behaved and on the degree of a government’s strength and pervasiveness necessary to properly govern citizens.
     
    John Locke responded to a strict concept of sovereignty with the idea of constitutional government. Like Hobbes, Locke imagined a civil society capable of resolving conflicts in a civil way, with help from government. However, Locke also advocated the separation of powers and believed that revolution is not only a right but, at times, an obligation of citizenship. These three thinkers represent the foundation of modern state theory.

    Unit 2 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 2 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 2.1 Timing and Cunning in Politics  
    • Reading: Constitution.org: W.K. Marriott’s translation of Nicolò Machiavelli's The Prince

      Link: W. K. Marriott’s translation of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (PDF)

      Also available in:
      Kindle (Free)

      Instructions: Please read Chapters I-XVII of The Prince, which covers subunits 2.1.1 and 2.1.2. In many ways, Machiavelli is considered the first modernpolitical scientist. In The Prince, Machiavelli argues that successful statecraft requires tools that many traditional philosophical and political ideals simply could not provide, and he sees politics as a public responsibility that cannot be based upon the same ethics that guide private life.

      Study Guide Questions:

      What is Machiavelli’s view of human nature?

      Is Machiavelli’s approach to government similar to or different from Plato’s idealized vision in The Republic, and how so?

      How is Machiavelli’s concept of virtue similar to or different from that of Aristotle’s?

      Machiavelli questions whether it is better for the prince to be loved by the people or feared by the people. He argues that both are important, and if possible, the prince should be equally feared and loved. However, he also calls this an unattainable ideal, and finally concludes that the prince should choose to be feared, rather than loved, by the people. Is Machiavelli right?

      Reading this selection, taking notes, and answering the study guide questions should take approximately 4 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

  • 2.1.1 Hereditary and Conquered Principalities (States)  
  • 2.1.2 Volunteer Armies and Mercenaries  
  • 2.2 Sovereignty  
    • Reading: Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan

      Link: Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (HTML)

      Also available in:
      Kindle (Free)

      Instructions: This work covers subunits 2.2.1 and 2.2.2. As you read, consider whether you think it would be possible for Hobbes to make the claims he does without Machiavelli’s theories laid out almost a century and a half earlier. Please scroll down through the work rather than using the links in the table of contents.

      Thomas Hobbes designed the first theory of the sovereign state. In Leviathan, he sees life before the emergence of states as “nasty, brutish, and short” and envisions the Leviathan, a sovereign state led by a king who indiscriminately rules over his territory and citizenry. In turn, citizens give up their freedom for security.

      Study Guide Questions:

      According to Hobbes, why should we accept law and government?

      According to Hobbes, what form of law and government should we accept?

      Describe how, according to Hobbes, civil society comes to be and is sustained out of his version of the state of nature.

      Reading this selection, taking notes, and answering the study guide questions should take approximately 14 hours.

      Terms of Use: The text of Leviathan is in the public domain. This particular resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License. It is attributed to the University of Adelaide, and the original version can be found here.

  • 2.2.1 The State of Nature: A World of All against All  
  • 2.2.2 The Social Contract: Freedom Exchanged for Security  
  • 2.3 Constitutional Government  
    • Reading: John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government

      Link: John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (PDF)

      Also available in:
      Kindle (Free)

      Instructions: Please read this text. While Hobbes saw human nature as brutal, Locke’s thinking reflected the ideals of the European Enlightenment. For enlightenment thinkers, people were broadly considered to be equal and independent. Locke’s thinking revolutionized how people thought about citizenship by proposing that all individuals have a right to “life, liberty, and property.”

      Also consider the rights of private ownership in the United States. As these rights are not directly spelled out in the Constitution, it can be said that Locke’s influence was once again a driving philosophical force in the American mind as the Industrial Revolution was progressing.

      Study Guide Questions:

      Describe and evaluate Locke’s defense of property rights. Bear in mind the distinction between rights over one’s person (self-ownership rights) and rights over material resources (world ownership rights).

      Explain Locke’s doctrine of consent to government. Is the doctrine strictly necessary to his account of legitimate government? Carefully distinguish between different kinds of consent (explicit, tacit, etc.), and pay close attention to conquest and usurpation, where power is acquired without a contract.

      Reading this selection, taking notes, and answering the study guide questions should take approximately 10 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

  • 2.3.1 State of Nature: Anarchy without Legitimate Government  
  • 2.3.2 Slavery and Private Property  
  • 2.3.3 Representative Government and Revolution  
  • Unit 2 Assessment  
    • Assessment: The Saylor Foundation’s “Unit 2 Assessment”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Unit 2 Assessment” (HTML)

      Instructions: Please complete this assessment.

      You must be logged in to your Saylor Foundation School account in order to access this exam. If you do not yet have an account, you will be able to create one, free of charge, after clicking the link.

      Completing this assessment should take approximately 1 hour.

      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

  • Unit 3: Liberal Democracy and Its Critics  

    We will conclude this course by discussing various conceptualizations of political and social equality and addressing ways that political thought shifted away from a belief in the primacy of the sovereign state and the legitimacy of elites. We will also discuss how Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed the notion of participatory democracy, the egalitarian view that constituents should be directly involved in the direction and operation of political systems. This concept would be used in both Alexis de Tocqueville’s examination of government in young America and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s critique of political liberalism as the ideology of the rich. This unit will serve as both a historical study and a platform for discussing today’s competing political theories about the role of the state in the redistribution of resources, the government’s role in the economy, and the differences between what we do and what we believe.

    Unit 3 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 3 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 3.1 Democratic Participation  
    • Reading: G. D. Cole’s translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality

      Link: G. D. Cole’s translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read this text. Notice that Rousseau uses history and travel experience to show that humans have slowly evolved from brute animality to moderate sociability and eventually corruption and inequality as the rich have taken over government. Rousseau is famous for developing the idea that freedom exists in three forms: civil, natural, and moral.

      Study Guide Questions:

      Does Rousseau advocate a return to the state of nature?

      What role does the notion of private property play in Rousseau’s thought?

      Reading this selection, taking notes, and answering the study guide questions should take approximately 6 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

  • 3.1.1 Human Nature: Free, Self-Interested, Perfectible  
  • 3.1.2 Dependence, Property, and Inequality  
  • 3.2 Democratic Participation  
  • 3.3 Democratic Statecraft  
  • 3.3.1 Equal Rights and Popular Sovereignty  
  • 3.3.2 The Importance of Civic Associations  
  • 3.4 Karl Marx as an Enlightenment Thinker  
  • 3.4.1 Alienation and Secular Governance  
    • Reading: Andy Blunden, Matthew Grant, Matthew Carmody, and Mark Harris’ version of Karl Marx’s On the Jewish Question

      Link: Andy Blunden, Matthew Grant, Matthew Carmody, and Mark Harris’ version of Karl Marx’s On the Jewish Question (PDF)

      Instructions: Please click on the link above and read the entire text. In his essay On the Jewish Question, Marx takes issue with Bruno Bauer – one of his colleagues among the Young Hegelians. Bauer had earlier made an argument against Jewish emancipation from the German Christian state from an atheist perspective, arguing that religion whether Jewish or Christian was a barrier to emancipation. In responding to Bauer, Marx introduces his distinction between political emancipation in form of liberal rights and liberties, and human emancipation, which encompasses an end to alienation from our work and from each other.

      Reading this article should take approximately 1 hour. 

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

  • 3.4.2 The Marxian Challenge  
    • Reading: Karl Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “Preface”

      Link: Karl Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “Preface” (HTML)

      Instructions: Read this preface, which constitutes a sketch of Marx’s framework for historical materialism. He argues that the nature of a society’s economic structure depends upon the degree of development of the productive forces or means of production, meaning human labor conjoined with technology. The relations of production or superstructure, meaning the political and legal institutions of society, is in turn explained by the nature of the economic structure. Revolution occurs, however, when the forces of production are stifled by the superstructure, which is replaced by a structure better suited to preside over the continued development of the forces of production.

      Reading this article should take approximately 15 minutes.

      Terms of Use: This resource is in the public domain.

    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University Courses: Ian Shapiro’s Moral Foundations of Politics: “Marx and the Enlightenment”

      Link: YouTube: Yale University Courses: Ian Shapiro’s Moral Foundations of Politics: “Marx and the Enlightenment” (YouTube)

      Instructions: Watch this video, which presents Marx’s works on economics and society as definitively a part of the Enlightenment tradition in political and economic thought as that of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill.

      Watching this video should take approximately 45 minutes.

      Terms of Use: This resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Ian Shapiro and Open  Yale Courses, and the original version can be found here.

  • 3.4.3 Marx’s Theory of Capitalism  
    • Reading: Karl Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “Chapter One: The Commodity”

      Link: Karl Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “Chapter One: The Commodity” (HTML)

      Instructions: Read this chapter. Marx begins by establishing two necessary conditions for commodity production: (i) a market and (ii) a social division of labor where people make different things. For Marx, commodities both have a use-value, and an exchange-value or price, but it is the latter which is problematic. In coming to understand why one commodity is priced differently from another, Marx derives his labor theory of value.

      Reading this article should take approximately 1 hour.

      Terms of Use: This resource is in the public domain.

  • 3.4.4 From Capitalism to Socialism to Communism  
  • 3.4.5 Alienation: Separating Workers from the Results of Their Work  
  • 3.4.7 Understanding Modes of Production (Materialism)  
    • Activity: The Saylor Foundation’s “Discussion Forum for POLSC201”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Discussion Forum for POLSC201”

      Instructions: As you are already aware, The Communist Manifesto reflects an attempt to explain the goals of Communism, as well as the theory underlying this movement.  Both Engels and Marx argue that class struggles are the motivations for all historical developments – mostly between the “proletariat” and the “bourgeois.”  Who comprises these classes and why have they, according to the authors, created such class conflict?

      Please post your response in the course’s discussion forum, which is accessible via the link above.  You can create a thread labeled “The Communist Manifesto.”  (Or you can click here to be taken directly to this thread.)  Leave a reply there and check back to see what some of your classmates have written.  Feel free to leave comments on the posts of your classmates.

      Note: You will need to create a free account at Saylor.org to participate in the forum.  This will only take a minute to do!

      Terms of Use: This resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.  It is attributed to The Saylor Foundation.

  • 3.5 The Boundaries of Civil Liberties  
    • Reading: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

      Link: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Note the distinction Mill makes between freedom of the will and civil or social liberty. Mill’s fundamental question is about the nature and limits of the power that society can legitimately exercise over the individual.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 4 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

    • Reading: John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism

      Link: John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read Mill’s Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has its roots in 18th- and 19th-century classical philosophy, particularly in the writings of political theorist Jeremy Bentham (and Mill’s father, James Mill). This moral theory is also known as the “greatest-happiness principle,” which holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all human beings, within reason.

      Reading this selection and taking notes should take approximately 3 hours.

      Terms of Use: This material is in the public domain.

    • Reading: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: David Brink’s “Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy”

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: David Brink’s “Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy” (HTML)

      Instructions: Please read sections 3.1 through 3.11 of Brink’s “Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy.”

      Study Guide Questions:

      How does Mill describe the “tyranny of the majority” in democratic societies, and why is the pressure of public opinion so insidious?

      According to Mill, what are the benefits to society that come from allowing freedom of action? Consider Mill’s discussion of the dangers of mediocrity in the society of his time. Are these dangers pertinent to our society today?

      How does Mill distinguish between questions of social morality and duty to others on the one hand, and questions of self-regarding conduct on the other?

      Reading this selection, taking notes, and answering the study guide questions should take approximately 3 hours.

      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

    • Assessment: The Saylor Foundation’s “Quickfire Reading Quiz: Utilitarianism and On Liberty

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Quickfire Reading Quiz: Utilitarianism and On Liberty (PDF)

      Instructions: Please answer these three multiple-choice questions on the major themes in Mill’s Utilitarianism and On Liberty. The answers can be found at the bottom of the page.

      Completing this assessment should take less than 15 minutes.

      Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

  • 3.5.1 Mill on Rights and Utility  
  • 3.5.2 Problems with Neoclassical Utilitarianism  
  • 3.5.3 Perfectionism in Mill’s On Liberty  
    • Reading: The Saylor Foundation’s “Perfectionism in Mill’s On Liberty

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Perfectionism in Mill’s On Liberty” (PDF)

      Instructions: Please read this article, which attempts to reconcile the tension between Mill’s principle of liberty and his invocation of utilitarianism. The difficulty lies in that the principle of liberty disqualifies utility-promotion as a reason for restraint of liberty, unless such restraint also prevents harm to others. Yet at the same time, once the harm-to-others threshold presented by the principle of liberty is crossed and liberty-limitation is justifiable, it becomes justified according to the balance of restraint of liberty and prevention of harm as assessed by a utilitarian calculation.  By appealing to perfectionist tendencies in Mill’s thought, and particularly his notion of “the permanent interests of man as a progressive being,” the principle of liberty can be seen less in the light of problems with regard to utilitarian calculation and more as an indispensable pillar for what Mill would have us aspire to be both as a tolerant society and as autonomous individuals.

      Reading this article should take approximately 30 minutes.

  • Unit 3 Assessment  
  • Course Summary  
    • Reading: Course Summary

      Hopefully this course has given you a thoughtful and lucid account of the most important political thinkers and the enduring themes of the last two and a half millennia. As you’ve seen, Western political thought encompasses a variety of differences and schools of thought. For example, in Unit 1 we discussed the origins of Western thinking on the polis, or city-state. Plato and Aristotle both discuss the ideal polis through their consideration of governance, citizenship, social order, and personal virtue. Essentially, their works ultimately ask the question “what is the ideal state?” While Plato feels that a ruler with philosophical training should govern the polis, he also asks several questions in the Republic, such as: Why do men behave justly? Do the stronger elements of society scare the weak into submission in the name of law? Or do men behave justly because it is good for them to do so? Is justice, regardless of its rewards and punishments, a good thing in and of itself? How do we define justice? In the Apology, Socrates (on trial for his life) is less concerned with political doctrine than in defining the ideal philosopher.

      In Crito, interestingly enough, Socrates seems quite willing to accept his imminent execution, because in his estimation he would be aiding his enemies in wronging him unjustly, and would thus be acting unjustly himself, essentially violating the social contract. And, finally, in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s most comprehensive work on ethics, he conceives of ethical theory as a field distinct from the theoretical sciences. Its methodology must match its subject matter – good action – and must respect the fact that in this field many generalizations hold only for the most part. We study ethics in order to improve our lives, he argues, and therefore its principal concern is the nature of human well-being. Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well-lived life. Like Plato, he regards the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex rational, emotional, and social skills. But he rejects Plato’s idea that training in the sciences and metaphysics is a necessary prerequisite for a full understanding of our good. To quote Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” These ancient Greek philosophers did just this, laying the foundation for the first comprehensive examination of the state and its relationship to its citizens.

      In Unit 2, we turned our focus to modern political philosophers – Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. While the ancient Greek polis served as influential models of governance and citizens for centuries – the world was becoming much more complex. As such, these thinkers approached the relationship of the state to its citizens in a much more realistic way. Machiavelli’s The Prince is essentially an extended analysis of how to acquire and maintain political power. Machiavelli draws many of his examples in The Prince from contemporary Italian politics and its main political powers. He was one of the first political philosophers to conceive and create politics as an art form, in which the best rulers should be cruel rather than merciful, should break promises if keeping them would be against their interests, undertake great projects to enhance their reputation, and avoid making themselves hated and despised (the goodwill of the people is a better defense than any fortress).

      Thomas Hobbes was an admirer of Machiavelli and used his principles on the artificiality of the state in Leviathan, which established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory. Hobbes was a champion of the absolutism of the sovereign. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society cede some rights for the sake of protection. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. There is no doctrine of separation of powers in Hobbes’s discussion. According to Hobbes, the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial, and ecclesiastical powers.

      John Locke, one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, was also a proponent of a strict sovereign, but he believed that any government that rules without the consent of the people can, in theory, be overthrown. He did argue that all men are created equal in the state of nature by God. From this, he goes on to explain the hypothetical rise of property and civilization, in the process explaining that the only legitimate governments are those that have the consent of the people – a constitutional government. The theories of these three philosophers helped in the development of the modern state.

      The final unit of this course focuses on contemporary political philosophy, mostly in the mid-19th century. Historically, this was a time of tremendous technological advancement – rapid industrialization coupled with clear social class divisions. Here, these thinkers consider issues of the legitimacy of the elites, the notion of participatory democracy, and the redistribution of resources between the rich and the poor. Rousseau, for example, argues in his Discourse that the only natural inequality among men is the inequality that results from differences in physical strength, for this is the only sort of inequality that exists in the state of nature. As Rousseau explains, however, in modern societies the creation of laws and property have corrupted natural men and created new forms of inequality that are not in accordance with natural law. Rousseau calls these unjustifiable, unacceptable forms of inequality moral inequality, and he concludes by making clear that this sort of inequality must be contested.

      The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, during his travels in 19th-century America, analyzed why republican representative democracy succeeded in the United States while failing in so many other places. However, he warned of possible threats to democracy and possible dangers of democracy (including tyranny of the majority).

      Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels crafted theories about society, economics and politics – collectively known as Marxism – which hold that all societies progress through the dialectic of class struggle: a conflict between an ownership class which controls production and a lower class which produces the labor for goods. Again, they were both warning of Industrial Revolution, which was spreading rapidly throughout Europe. This unit served as both a historical study and a platform for discussing today’s political debate on class inequality and the role of government in the economy and in the redistribution of resources.

  • Final Exam  
  • NCCRS Credit Recommended Exam  
    • Optional Final Exam: The Saylor Foundation’s “POLSC201 Final Exam”

      Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “POLSC201 Final Exam” (HTML)

      Instructions: The above linked exam has been specially created as part of our National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) review program.  Successfully passing this exam will make students eligible to receive a transcript with 3 hours of recommended college credit.

      Please note that because this exam has the possibility to be a credit-bearing exam, it must be administered in a proctored environment, and is therefore password protected.  Further information about Saylor’s NCCRS program and the options and requirements for proctoring can be found here.  Please make sure to read this page carefully before attempting this exam.

      If you choose to take this exam, you may want to first take the regular, certificate-bearing POLSC201 Final Exam as a practice test, which you can find above.


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