Modern Political Theory

Writing in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels captured something essential about the modern condition: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations,” they write, “are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.” Arguably, the term “modernity” signifies flux above all. Spanning approximately 400-500 years, it seeks to make sense of a relatively sudden and relentless upheaval in every sphere of human endeavor—both unsettling and, as yet, unsettled. It is a period of great scientific and cultural achievement, from the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution. It is also a period of great political innovation, from the emergence of the modern state to radical new ideas about democracy, equality, and liberty. Such ideas challenge earlier assumptions about the nature of political power and inspire a number of revolutions. This course will trace important shifts in European political thought, beginning with Machiavelli, proceeding with the social contract theorists—Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau—and the emergence of classical liberalism, to the progression of these ideas in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. In considering the range of issues to which these canonical texts extend insight, we must remain attentive to the ways in which modern political theory is entangled with European colonialism and the global slave trade. In the twentieth century, moreover, it was “modern” political ideas that made possible some of the worst atrocities of all time. Hence, we will not read these texts uncritically, but as fellow thinkers engaged in an intellectual conversation across the centuries. Through close readings of primary texts and a consideration of contemporary responses, we will question our own political sensibilities and the very foundations of the political world we inhabit.

Required Texts

  • Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Wayne A. Rebhorn (New York: Norton, 2020).
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. David Johnston (New York: Norton, 2020).
  • John Locke, The Selected Political Writings of John Locke, ed. Paul E. Sigmund (New York: Norton, 2005).
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau’s Political Writings, eds. Alan Ritter and Julia Conaway Bondanella (New York: Norton, 1988).
  • Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978).
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kauffman (New York: Vintage, 1989).

Political Theory & Modernity

I. The Modern State

II. Life, Liberty, Property

III. Revolution & Reaction

IV. Lineages of the Modern