Ancient Political Thought

This course is an introduction to political thought in the ancient world. It is loosely organized around three loose themes. First, we will explore the complex relationship between citizenship and regime type. What kinds of citizens do different political systems produce? How might it mean to structure or to limit political power? Is justice realizable under some regimes but not others? We will see how the vast historical distance separating us from the ancients, far from rendering their ideas obsolete, grants us fresh purchase on our own attempts to achieve justice, regulate power, and realize the “good life.” A second major theme concerns revolution and intrastate conflict. Why do revolutions and moments of civil strife occur? What political techniques did the ancients devise to guard against political upheaval? What effects did such unrest have on the moral bearings and political life of ancient political communities? A third theme is the fraught relationship between philosophy and politics. For many of the thinkers we will encounter this semester, philosophy was not the rarefied, intellectualized activity that we often find in today’s universities, but rather an entire way of life that had enormous practical significance. In tracing the lineage of our own ideas and preconceptions about politics, we will consider what the ancients had to say about some of the most persistent questions.

COurse Plan

Week 1: Introduction

  • Sheldon Wolin, “Political Philosophy and Philosophy,” in Politics and Vision.

Week 2: Kongzi (Confucius)

  • Kongzi, The Analects, selections.

Week 3: Laozi

  • Laozi, The Daodejing

Week 4: Plato

  • Plato, The Apology
  • Plato, The Crito
  • Plato, The Republic, selections.

Week 5: Plato

  • Plato, The Republic, selections.
  • Plato, The Laws, selections.

Week 6: Plato

  • Rachana Kamtekar, “Distinction Without a Difference? Race and Genos in Plato,” in Philosophers and Race: Critical Essays, eds. Ward and Lott.
  • Arlene Saxenhouse, “The Philosopher and the Female in the Political Thought of Plato,” in Feminist Interpretations of Plato, ed. Tuana.
  • Wendy Brown, “‘Supposing Truth Were a Woman…’: Plato’s Subversion of Masculine Discourse,” in Feminist Interpretations of Plato, ed. Tuana.

Week 7: Aristotle

  • Aristotle, The Politics, selections.

Week 8: Aristotle

  • Aristotle, The Politics, selections.

Week 9: Aristotle

  • Wendy Brown, “Aristotle: The Highest Good for Man,” in Manhood and Politics.
  • Giuseppe Cambiano, “Aristotle and the Anonymous Opponents of Slavery,” Slavery & Abolition 8, no. 1 (1987): 22-41.
  • Javier Martínez, “Slavery and Citizenship in Aristotle’s Politics,” Filozofia 68 (2013): 124-131.

Week 10: Stoics and Epicureans

  • Epictetus, “Discourses,” in Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings, eds. Inwood and Gerson.
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, selections.
  • Epicurus, The Essential Epicurus, ed. O’Connor, selections.

Week 11: Alfarabi

  • Alfarabi, The Political Writings, ed. Butterworth, selections.
  • Muhsin Mahdi, “Introduction,” in Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.

Week 12: Alfarabi

  • Alfarabi, The Attainment of Happiness.

Week 13: St. Augustine

  • Augustine, The Political Writings, eds. Atkins and Dodaro, selections.

Week 14: St. Augustine

  • Augustine, The Political Writings, eds. Atkins and Dodaro, selections.

Week 15: St. Augustine

  • Judith Chelius Stark, “Augustine on Women: In God’s Image, but Less So,” in Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, ed. Stark.
  • Michael Bruno, “Recovering Augustine’s Vision of Public Life and Virtue The Debate Entering the 21st Century,” in Political Augustinianism.