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Political philosophy

Political philosophy is the study of the fundamental questions about the state, government, politics, property, law and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it should take and why, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown - if ever.

Two key aspects are the political economy by which property rights are defined and access to capital is regulated, and the rules of truth and evidence that determine judgements in the law. Each theory of criminal justice is derived in part from some such view of these.

Table of contents
1 History of Political Philosophy
2 Industrialization
3 Contemporary Political Philosophy
4 Related Topics
5 External Links

History of Political Philosophy

The Classical Period

Political philosophy most broadly concerns the nature and forms of power; more specifically, it involves the principles for proper governance.

As an academic discipline, political philosophy has its origins in ancient Greek society, when city-states were experimenting with various forms of political organization including monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. The first classic work of political philosophy is Plato's The Republic, which was followed by Aristotle's Politics. Roman political philosophy was influenced by the Stoics, and the Roman statesman Cicero wrote on political philosophy.

The early Christian philosophy of Augustine was by and large a rewrite of Plato in a Christian context. The main change that Christian thought brought was to moderate the Stoicism and theory of justice of the Roman world, and emphasize the role of the state in applying mercy as a moral example. Augustine's City of God is an influential work of this period that refuted the thesis, after the First Sack of Rome, that the Christian view could be realized on Earth at all - a view many Christian Romans held.

Islamic Period

The rise of Islam based on both the Qur'an and the political philosophy of Muhammad drastically altered the power balances and perceptions of origin of power in the Mediterranean region. Early Muslim philosophy emphasized an inexorable link between science and religion, and the process of ijtihad to find truth - in effect all philosophy was "political" as it had real implications for governance. This view was challenged by the Mutazilite philosophers, who held a more Greek view and were supported by secular aristocracy who sought freedom of action independent of the mosque.

Medieval Period

By the medieval period, however, the Asharite view of Islam had in general triumphed and all philosophy was henceforth subordinated to theology - a situation that persisted until the rise of modern Islamic philosophy.

Medieval political philosophy was in Europe was heavily influenced by Christian thinking. It had much in common with the Islamic thinking in that the Roman Catholics also subordinated philosophy to theology. Perhaps the most influential political philosopher of the medieval period was St. Thomas Aquinas - who helped reintroduce Aristotle's works, which had been preserved in the interim only by the Muslims. Aquinas's use of them set the agenda for scholastic political philosophy, and dominated European thought for centuries.

The most influential work, however, was that which ended this period, that being Niccolo Macchiavelli's The Prince, 1517. It is that work, and The Discourses, a rigorous analysis of the classical period, from which modern political philosophy is largely derived.

The Enlightenment

During the Enlightenment, new theories about human psychology, the discovery of other societies in the Americas, and the changing needs of political societies (especially in the wake of the English Civil War and the French Revolution) led to new questions and insights by such thinkers as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau - known by most for his view of the "noble savage" and his promotion of a free trade ideal.

These theorists were driven by two basic questions: by what right or need do people form "states," and what is the best form for a "state." These large questions involved a conceptual distinction between "state" and "government." Basically, "state" refers to a set of enduring institutions through which power is distributed and its use justified. "Government" refers to a specific group of people who occupy these institutions, and exercise particular policies. This conceptual distinction continues to operate in political science, although some political scientists, philosophers, historians and cultural anthropologists have argued that most political action in any given society occurs outside of its state, and that there are societies that are not organized into states which nevertheless must be considered politically.

Political and economic relations were drastically changed by these views as the guild was subordinated to free trade, and Roman Catholic dominance of theology was increasingly challenged by Protestant churches subordinate to each nation-state and which preached in the "vulgar" or native language of each region.

In the Ottoman Empire, these reforms did not take place and these views did not spread until much later. Also, there was no contact with the New World and the advanced civilizations of the Aztec, Maya, Inca, Mohican, Delaware, Huron and especially the Iroquois, who gave a great boost to Christian thought and in many cases actually inspired some of the institutions adopted in the United States: for example, Benjamin Franklin was a great admirer of some of the methods of the Iroquois Confederacy, and much of early American literature emphasized the political philosophy of the natives.


Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, political philosophy was dominated by debates about capitalism versus socialism, and religion versus science. After World War I came an emerging concern with peace and war, as conflict grew increasingly destructive.

The emergence of communism and fascism was the dominant concern of the West in this period, though other political philosophies like anarchism and syndicalism also gained some level of popularity during this time.

Contemporary Political Philosophy

After World War II the peace movement became the dominant mode of political philosophy in the Western world, due largely to fear of nuclear war. Opponents tended to line up on either side of the arms race debate. Communism remained an important focus especially while Stalin and Mao held power. Zionism, racism and colonialism were important issues that arose. However, most of the reasoning was relatively shallow and issue-focused.

Some date the emergence of a truly contemporary political philosophy to 1962, since many important things happened in that year:

Soon after, there was a major revival of academic political philosophy as a result of the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971. Rawls used a thought experiment, the original position in which representative parties choose principles of justice for the basic structure of society from behind a veil of ignorance. Robert Nozick's book Anarchy, State, and Utopia responded to Rawls from a libertarian perspective. A rich debate ensued.

Today most debates center on the question of natural law and the degree to which human constraints on action are determined by nature, as revealed by science in particular.

An important exception is the view of Bernard Crick that the political virtues are universal.

Related Topics

External Links