POL B70: Classic Texts of Political Theory I: Professor Lee
What is political theory?
POL B70 is an introductory-level course to political theory. Let us begin by asking an
elementary question: What is political theory?
Political theory is a ‘subfield’ of the broader discipline of political science, which studies
politics in all its aspects. We might approach this by contrasting it with the other major
subfields of political science:
Canadian Politics – institutions of Canadian government, the electoral process, the
party system, voting behavior in the Canadian electorate, the substance of
Canadian policies, issues that drive Canadian policy-making such as, say,
immigration or tax policy.
Comparative Politics—study of different political systems and institutions, across
national, cultural, or historical contexts and boundaries.
International Relations —study politics at the global level, the political and legal
relations between sovereign nation-states (e.g., between Canada and the U.S.),
multi-national organizations such as the U.N., WTO, the World Bank.
How is political theory different from these other subfields?
The concern of the political theorist is with political ideas, in the broadest sense –
political values, concepts, principles, ideology, political philosophy – systems of thought
that motivate political action or help us interpret and make sense of political action.
Political theory is sometimes said to be a ‘normative’ (as opposed to empirical or
descriptive) enterprise (‘normative’ from ‘norm’—meaning a rule or guide of action).
Others describe it as ‘interpretive’ since our goal is to make sense of the political world,
in all its diversity and complexity.
At its best, political theory illustrates for us why politics has often been described as ‘the
art of the possible’ or, as Aristotle once put it, the ‘queen of the sciences.’
How should we study political theory ?
If the subject matter of political theory concerns political ideas, then we must prepare
ourselves to study, engage, and analyze such ideas, as they have been classically
expressed and formulated. We have to learn the vocabulary, the grammar, and the idioms
of political theory – just as learning a new language requires similar tasks.
1 The traditional approach to the study of political theory has been through the study of
classical texts, sometimes called the ‘canon’ of political theory: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero,
Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Bodin, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, etc.
These texts will be our vehicles for accessing the study of political ideas and framing our
analysis of the major questions of political thought.
I say vehicles to stress that we are not so much studying texts – in the same way that you
might study a text in, say, an English class or a history class – rather, we are studying the
doctrines, ideas, and arguments in these texts. This is an important difference.
Why read classic texts in a politics class?
(1) Classic texts are valuable for the questions they ask.
Open-ended. There is no ‘right’ answer, but many possible answers. One of our
goals in this course is to understand how those questions were originally
formulated, and the answers they crafted in response to those questions.
(2) But they are also valuable for the answers they give.
Even if we may disagree with the answers they give, these texts force us to
rethink and challenge our assumptions about political life. Understanding how we
might handle and respond to disagreement is one of the major purposes of this
(3) There is an important educational mission: Cultivating skills necessary for
reading a text closely and critically. These are not textbooks but primary sources.
Some of these texts are over two thousand years old, but still very relevant in our
Central themes for this course
As we proceed with our course, we will deal encounter several themes:
1. The political community: What is the political community?
Different answers: We get different answers in our course. Aristotle thinks it is
the self-sufficient city-state [Gr. polis]; Roman thinkers call it a ‘republic’ [Lat.
respublica]; medieval Christian thinkers think there is a universal empire
governed under the spiritual authority of a ‘catholic’ [= ‘universal’] church;
Renaissance thinkers that a political community is territorially bound in a
2 Boundaries of the political community: One essential concern will be to ask
about the boundaries of the political community. We might think of this issue in
(1) One is to think in more literal terms of actual physical/territorial boundaries.
The walls of city-states keep out foreigners and keeping members of the
community in. Though not all political communities are ‘territorial’ in this
sense. Think about the great ancient empires – they had ‘frontiers’ but not
‘boundaries’ in the modern territorial sense. The medieval Church claimed to
have a universal jurisdiction – so they did not even think in terms of territorial
(2) Another way is to think in more figurative terms, of moral boundaries.
Boundaries are conceptualized in terms of membership: Who gets to be a
‘member’ [or ‘citizen’] of a political community? The idea is that if you are a
member, then you are inside the boundary – if you are not a member, then you
are outside the boundary.
This raises a whole range of issues which we need to consider in this course.
How should we define who is – and who is not – a member?
Who should be included as a member of the politic al community? Excluded? On what
How is a political community different from other kinds of associatioa family, or a
religion, or a profit-driven company?
Can one choose to be a member of a political community?
Should some members of the political community have gr eater rights or privileges than others,
or should all members be equal ?
How diverse should the political community be?
How big/small should the political community be?
Life-cycle of the political community: We will also want to study the ‘life-
cycle’ of the community. If we imagine the political community to be like a
living organism, we will want to ask some questions about its origins and
conditions of its growth and well-being, and its death.
2. Political leadership: Who should govern the political community?
Different answers: Again, in this course, you will study a range of different
answers to this question and the different arguments that have been put forward.
Some will argue that only those with ‘virtue’ [Gr. arete] should govern. Others
3 will suggest that only those properly authorized by a divine power should govern.
Some will praise military or warlike valor, while others will favor philosophical
intelligence. Some will say that it is better to have one person in charge, as in a
monarchy, while others will say it is better to have a larger ruling body, as in an
aristocracy or democracy. Some will say that those with wealth should govern,
while others will say that those without material resources should.
Principles: Classical political theory focused on the principles that
should govern the selection of political leaders. What are the qualities that we
would like to see in the political leaders who govern a political community?
Note the moral language of ‘virtue,’ obligation,’ ‘duty’ – very different
from the modern political discourse of ‘rights’
Isn’t there a risk that your political leaders will fall short of exhibiting the desired
qualities of leadership? What is the remedy? Should institutional design be the
Ruler vs. Ruled: There is a clear separation between the ruler and the ruled
in classical political theory. What should this relationship be like? Is it like a
contract or agreement?
Democracy: Probably the most important answer to this question that
we will study in this course is the idea of democracy [derived from two Greek
words, demos = ‘the people’ and kratos = ‘power’ or ‘ability’]. We will think
about how democracy was understood in different historical contexts and assess
arguments for and against democratic government. Some will say democracy is
one of the worst forms of government, while others will see some merit in it.
‘Best government: Is there an ideal or best form of government? We may be
skeptical about this today in the era of modern politics – but classical theorists did
believe that a ‘best’ or optimal form of government [sometimes in Latin called the
optimus reipublicae status] was possible. We will take a look at some possible
suggestions for the ‘best’ form of government and how decision-making and
power was to be exercised in such regimes.
3. Justice and Law: Is ‘just government’ possible?
Our analysis of this question will depend, in part, on what we mean by the term
‘justice.’ In Latin, the terms, ‘justice’ [justitia] and ‘law’ [jus] were interrelated.
Law, in classical and medieval thought, was derived from justice (or ‘rightness’) –
not the other way around. So we will have to begin by thinking about what
justice might mean. Some initial questions to think about:
4 (1) Is political justice different from the kind of justice involved in personal
relations? E.g., you might say that a government’s tax policy is unjust
because it unfairly penalizes individual effort and risk-taking. By contrast,
you might say, in a different context, that it is unjust that a friend who
borrowed something from you refuses to return it to you. Is this the same
concept of justice or injustice at work here? Or is it entirely a different idea?
(2) Should justice even be the supreme value of a political community? Or can
we compromise – is it permissible for us to allow some injustice in order to
achieve another goal, say, ‘happiness’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’? Or, what if
the very survival of your political community is in question? Can we violate
certain rules of justice in these exceptional cases (think for example about the
use of torture)?
In studying the possibility of just government or just rulership, we will find that
some are simply skeptical that ‘justice’ really exists. But there will be some who
argue that a just and lawful politics (rather than an u