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
17 century rationalism –Descartes (1637) –Hobbes (1658) –Spinoza (1663) –
Newton (1687) –Locke (1688) 18 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? Religion
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. Tutorial # 1. September 25, 2013
-Who were the thinkers in POL200, and why they thought so.
-Thinkers like Plato (who thought of the tri-partied soul… divided into three parts)
The logical, the spirited, and the appetitive. (Philosopher kings, Guardians,
Aristotle based his view on biological order. Social political order is based on this.
Women and slaves have lesser roles. IT is a form of natural superiority to some. It
is not socially constructed, it is naturally constructed.
If we take these thinkers and contrast them with the modern…
We see that the modern thinkers believe in progress… the idea that things are
getting better (especially because of actions of humans). So things are changing, and
most believe for the better. They all take progress very seriously.
Modernity is something to be wrestled with, not something that can be ignored.
The individual is considered important because we are all capable of enlightenment.
Instead of the natural order,
When Kant is talking about the enlightenment he is talking about a very important
part of human history, in which humans are becoming aware of their own
importance and their ability to go inside one’s self and think for themselves
(opposed to “minority” or immaturity). Minority is the “paternal” sort of living,
when you look to someone else to decide how you will think and live. They believe
that the truth that is being expressed by their “betters” does not need to be
“Sapere Aude”- dare to know.
People used to be accustomed to following customs (rules), whether religious or
from leaders/wise men. People did not think for themselves or question.
Enlightenment is the rise from this immaturity. Kant said that this immaturity was
also self-imposed because people did not have the courage to think for themselves.
What does this have to do with progress?....
What is the biggest form of superstition according to Kant? The guardians, who are
in power, prevent people from thinking for themselves. These include the religious
clergy, who prevent people from thinking for themselves.
If a priest is forced to sign an oath to promise he will never go against the church’s
teachings, Kant says it is a crime. He thinks that this would be a crime against
“human progress”, which is a distinctive feature of modernity. Seeking the truth and
thinking for yourself.
Many of these thinkers make reference to chains and to shackles. The modern
world is described as a way of liberating man from bondage.
The Different forms of Reason: What do you need to do? You think for yourself. You ask questions. You question
the status quo, norms. You question these things in public. Make public arguments.
When a person is addressing the public directly, and questioning the established
values and norms, because he thinks there is something wrong with them and they
are holding back mankind.
When it comes to the use of private reason, instead of public reason, you may be
hindering progress. You have to not only think for yourself, but you must also bring
your thoughts to the public.
We today live in an age of enlightenment, not an enlightened age, because this is still
a process and there are still some people who do not have the courage yet to think
“Argue as much as you like, but obey”… this is a contradiction that we are
sometimes put into in our lives today.
Rousseau is looking back –
He is stuck between the past and the present.
We must consider how these thinkers are related to one another.
Tutorial- October 2, 2013
Kant said that we live in an age of enlightenment, when people begin to think for
themselves. He looks forward to a time when human beings can think for
themselves, instead of relying on religious and political leaders.
Now we look at Rousseau. Kant was very influenced by Rousseau.
Rousseau is looking backwards…Kant is looking forwards.
Rousseau is stuck between prior to the enlightenment and the enlightenment.
He is concerned with how we got here, to the point that we have others thinking for
In order to do this he proposes a different account of human nature (state of nature)
than Hobbes. He says that humans weren’t always social, and would not be in
constant conflict with one another. He says that we have to go back in time, and
look at human history. He says that there is something that pre-dates the Hobbesian
way of thinking.
He is pursuing “conjectural history”, which uses a less literal account of human
history. He is trying to shed light on what human beings were before, and how we
became what we are. He is imagining society as a theoretical past history. He says
we shouldn’t look at our society and look back from there, but that we should look
back further and use our imaginations.
How do humans act in the state of nature?
The 2 impulses that humans are interested in are:
1. Self-preservation (longing to live, not suffering, not dying)
2. Pity (a gut feeling towards our fellow human beings). He refers to this as the
cry of nature. When we define these two impulses, how do individuals interact?
They only interact in order to procreate. It rests on momentary transactions, with
no sustainable relationships. In this state humans are more closer to animals than
He thinks that neither gods nor beasts are dependent, so he says that humans as
self-sufficient on their own, they do not depend on other people for their survival.
So why is there no war in this state of nature?
There is the key impulse of pity, as well as the fact that people don’t know one
another enough (they don’t compete or compare themselves to others), they hardly
interact with one another.
He talks about the fact that inequality cannot exist in a state of nature, they do not
measure themselves with one another in the state of nature. Then there aren’t
concepts such as justice or contracts.
There are two forms of inequality that he outlines:
Physical inequality (weight, size, strength, biology)
Political inequality (social, power, consent)
Human beings have free will, so they tend to adapt to their surrounding
Rousseau is concerned mainly with the political inequality.
He believes political inequality is an artificial construction and therefore is
He wants to discover how we arrived at this type of inequality.
Is private property natural? No. Not for Rousseau. IT is not natural because it is an
artificial construct. He believes that god gave the world to man to be shared in
common. Property is everyone’s and therefore no one’s.
So property is a social construct.
He has a quote: (page # 69)
“The first person who had a plot of land took it upon himself to say “this is mine”
and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.
What crimes could have been spared had someone pulled up the stakes and cried
“do not listen to this imposter, the fruits of the earth belong to no one!”
Initially there is enough to go around for all humans. There is no need to compete.
But soon, we are constantly trying to improve our situation, which leads to the
invention of metallurgy and agriculture. This leads us to engage in those tasks that
allow us to exploit things to our fullest possibility.
The division of labor says that we are dependent on others to do things for us.
When we are dependent on others in such a way, it gives each person different tasks
and abilities (no one can do everything). This gives way to different social class.
This means that, like never before, we are no longer self-sufficient, we are now
depending on one another.
Progress is the signature of the enlightenment. Now the circumstances allow for human beings to adapt and learn to attend
different jobs and positions. This is the story of how we lost our way from this state
Rousseau says about gender relations:
He says that when the sexes interact in the state of nature it is just to procreate and
do not have long relationships. He says that it was actually women who convinced
men to have longer relations. He says the idea of love is a social construct, made by
women. In a state of nature there is no one to compare yourself with. But now the
women and men begin to compare themselves with one another.
And because we now have the distribution of labor we see other comparisons.
You compare yourself based on the stature of others. The division of labor means
that certain people do certain jobs and some reap rewards more than others. This
leads to moral and political inequalities.
So we then reach a state where life is not very good. We can now see reasons for
war and competition. People fight for resources and for status.
The situation gets so bad that it creates a movement by those who have something
to lose, then create social contracts. So they can guarantee moral and political
distribution of equal rights. This doesn’t mean they will all reap the same rewards,
but will be part of the same social contract.
This contract gives rise to the state.
The state has been created by the dependency of people on one another, and now
there is a political authority (magistrate) that we can depend on.
We have given up our autonomy and independence, giving it over to the magistrate.
This process is a “circle, but not a circle”.
When we reach political society we are all equal, but equal as slaves.. our happiness
is reduced with the loss of our independence.
October 3, 2013
The two Rousseaus:
1. “Authenticity has been threatened, perhaps destroyed by progress.”
-Romantic theme of the “Discourse on Inequality”
2. “Reason tells us that we are fundamentally free and that consent is the only
basis of legitimate political rule.”
-Enlightenment theme of “On the Social Contract”
6 Topics covered in Book 1:
1. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
-Necessary evil of government -Search for reconciliation through reason: “men as they are and laws as they
ought to be.”
-It could mean that every individual is born free, independent of what gov’t
or society they live under. That would be a liberal notion of freedom. IT is
essentially anti-Aristotilian. People obey their parents because they are
naturally dependent on them. Aristotle wanted to say that that was a
principle in all of nature. That there were natural rulers and natural subjects.
Modernity fundamentally breaks from this. There is nothing in nature that
makes us under authority of anyone, like we are naturally under the
guidance of our parents. All rulers are chosen. We are not naturally under
-Political regimes are not our choice, we