Human beings, Aristotle tells us, are “political animals.” Not only must we cooperate in order to survive, but our moral and intellectual capacities can only flourish in association with others. Living in a political community presents some basic challenges, as familiar to Aristotle as they remain today: how to preserve order, to protect the weak from the strong, to provide for the common defense, to care for those unable to care for themselves. Political thinkers ask such questions, but they also probe deeper, questioning the assumptions and beliefs that undergird our expectations of what politics is and should be, including the very goals a society should pursue. After all, what does a decent political community look like? How should it be organized? And why? What deeper principles inform our ideas?
Since the 16th century, the most urgent political questions have explored the relationship between the individual and a new, tremendously powerful form of political organization: the modern state. We are constantly presented with questions bearing on our relationship to state power. Should you pay taxes? Is it ok to violate speed limit laws? What if everyone else does? If you are conscripted for military service, must you go? If you do serve in the military, must you do whatever you are ordered? Are there any limits to this? If so, what are they, and how are they enforced? In attempting to answer these questions, we are drawn to more fundamental questions about political authority. What purposes does political authority serve? What are the individual’s obligations to it, if any? At what point do these obligations run out? What recourse does one have when they do? Under what conditions is revolution permissible or even required?
Because political theory makes arguments about the way things ought to be, it is a normative discipline. By coming to understand the theoretical foundations of our ideas, we begin to recognize the great secret of politics: that there is nothing inevitable about prevailing political arrangements. Our political world has been made, and it can be remade.