Modern Political Thought
September 19, 2013
Modern (modernity)- is part of a narrative that starts with Plato, and continues on
through the Dark Ages, to Niche, to today, there has been a continuous tradition of
the same books being read by students and intellectuals. We are trying to look back
and figure out what the story was…
On way of telling the story is that rationalism is created from this development of
thinking. The hegemonic strand is the development of rationalism.
There is a radical shift from the ancient world of thinking to the modern. In POL320
we should start with Hobbes, but we start with Rousseau, which is the beginning of
Modernity is the creation of a certain culture, and when we use the term
modern we are talking about a tradition that started in a specific place
(Europe/Western). IT is important to understand that it is not world political
thought, it is specific to one culture and tradition. As Westerners, we are part of this
tradition and our lives are a product of this tradition. Also, this tradition has been
powerful and dominant/hegemonic, which had led people to confuse the modern
Western narrative as the “only” political thought. In this course we will introduce
criticism. This is a narrative we can choose, or reject, it is not mandatory to accept
it. In our modern world, our societies are quite different, so there can be criticisms
that are valid from other points of view.
The Enlightenment- refers to a period of time. People during this time identified
themselves as being part of the enlightenment (it was a self-conscious term that was
There are 5 themes of Enlightenment that we will use:
Enlightenment Values- (will be theme for final essay in exam)
Rationalism to the Age of Reason
17th century rationalism –Descartes (1637) –Hobbes (1658) –Spinoza (1663) –
Newton (1687) –Locke (1688)
18th century as an age of reason – Voltaire (1759) –Rousseau (1760) –Adam Smith
(1776) –Kant (1785) –Wollstonecraft (1792)
The transition from rationalism to the age of reason, is because there is a new way
of doing philosophy. Hobbes says that the study of politics should be like geometry.
The age of reason, which is the enlightenment, is the spread of rationalism. It is
about spreading the cultural attitude, which is becoming a set of values that is being
shared by everyone (not just philosophers).
a. Everyone to use their own reason
b. Reason functions the same way for all humans
c. In using one’s own reason, one is liberated
-from ignorance (enlightenment)
-from external authority (autonomy
-from the past
The process of enlightenment is trying to get back to our reason, so that we can all
come together and realize the truth. The model of this is science. Science is a way to
clean away the debris of tradition, superstition, etc. It is a way of discovering truth.
We need to enlighten ourselves from ignorance.
Kant’s essay Enlightenment- We are self-ridding ourselves from “minority” (being
childlike). It is about becoming mature. Philosophers like to apply the idea of
growing-up, and coming of age. One of the problems with this is that enlightenment
thinkers tend to take this image and apply it to the whole world (saying other
cultures are “young” “immature”), which is problematic.
“Dare to Know” is the most famous phrase of the enlightenment.
It involves education, but also autonomy.
We not only need to be enlightened… but we have to use our own mind to do critical
thinking. We should come to these truths by ourselves, in our own way.
We are supposed to challenge the people who have traditionally been telling us our
truths (priests, teachers, doctors, etc).
It liberates us from the past.
Just because things have been one way for hundreds of years does not make it an
“ought.” We are free from our past and able to stand up and say something new and
different. The philosophers had the idea then to create a new calendar, whereby
they developed all new principles and “started anew.” But this idea that you can
start from scratch is dangerous… it is what led to the violence of the French
revolution, and it can lead to the thinking that “anything goes.”
Reason is central. Reason is the philosopher what race is to the Christian.” Meaning
they believe is will save them. It is the idea that the history of mankind has been a
suppression of reason, and that if we bring it out we will all be saved.
What has been suppression Reason?
1. Religious freedom
2. Pernicious influence of the church Anti-clerical not Anti-God
b. Religion within the bounds of reason
1. Deism, natural religion
2. Philosophy is the master of religion
During the French revolution, the priests were one of the first to have their heads
cut off. This was because they were viewed as being people who were playing on
people’s superstitions, fears and ignorance.
In the United States the development of secularism was the basis of freedom.
Freedom of religion was the main driving force. Making a safe place for multiple
religions to coexist peacefully with one another.
There was a belief that reason could bring upon a new religion, based on reason and
based on coexistence. They believed that you cold “think” yourself closer to God.
a. Rise of public opinion (this rise came from when people began to discuss
things outside the opinions of their own immediate family or church groups)
b. Popular spread of new ideas:
a. Optimism (there was an idea that a world was advancing)
b. Science and technology
c. Commerce and morality: passions and interests (there is an argument that
commerce actually calms people’s negative passions, because you have to put
aside certain attitudes in order to be successful businessmen). That view was
however resisted by some others
a. Designing a rational plan: modern constitutionalism (the idea is to go into a
room and design a constitution of what your plan is to do things properly,
then go out into the world and enact it). If you were a gardener you decide a
rational plan on nature on how to orderly guarantee it works well…. Justice,
equality, etc. The heart of enlightenment is the idea of constitutionalism.
b. Legitimacy of the plan: equality and contract. This plan must be justified as
being rational, and must be something that is chosen and agreed to by all the
people (not just the elite).
c. Content of that plan: rights. This is the age of “rights.” Our political system is
defined by the main feature of rights. Hobbes and Locke have natural rights
in there. Then comes the declaration of rights, defined in constitutions.
Modernity is the creation of a certain culture, and when we use the term. Modern (modernity)- is part of a narrative that starts with plato, and continues on through the dark ages, to niche, to today, there has been a continuous tradition of the same books being read by students and intellectuals. We are trying to look back and figure out what the story was . On way of telling the story is that rationalism is created from this development of thinking. The hegemonic strand is the development of rationalism. There is a radical shift from the ancient world of thinking to the modern. In pol320 we should start with hobbes, but we start with rousseau, which is the beginning of the enlightenment. modern we are talking about a tradition that started in a specific place (europe/western). It is important to understand that it is not world political thought, it is specific to one culture and tradition.