POLSC201: Introduction to Western Political Thought | Saylor Academy (2022)

      • Course Introduction

        • Time: 120 hours

        • College Credit Recommended

        • Free Certificate

        Political thought, or political philosophy, studies questions about power, justice, rights, law, and other issues related to governance. While some believe these concepts are static, political thought asks how they originated and to what effect. Just as Socrates' question "how should we be governed?" led to his execution, the question "what makes a government legitimate?" can lead to political turmoil. What form should government take? What do citizens owe their government? When should citizens overthrow an illegitimate government?

        In this course, we examine major texts in Western political thought, where authors pose difficult questions about the political community, social order, and human nature. How do our views about human nature and history inform government design? We explore how Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau, responded and how these philosophers contributed to the broader conversation about human needs, goods, justice, democracy, and the ever-changing relationship between the citizen and the state.

        In our first unit, we address thepolis, or political community, centered upon the texts of Plato and Aristotle. In the second unit, we explore the modern state and constitutional government, featuring the work of John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes. Finally, we focus on democracy and a critique of liberal ideology, from the perspectives of the texts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. These political philosophies have shaped various forms of government, from tyranny to republican democracy to welfare states.

        Note that while we use the terms politics, political theory, and political science throughout the course, they are not interchangeable. Politics describes the use of power and the distribution of resources. Political theory is the study of the concepts and principles people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, political theory approaches this study from three perspectives: classic, modern, and contemporary political theory. Here, we examine all three. Political science is the academic discipline concerned with the study of the state, government, and politics. Aristotle defined political science as "the study of the state".

        Western political thought has served as a philosophical and ideological foundation for governments around the world, including the United States. We give you historical, social, and cultural context to relate to contemporary political society.

        First, read the course syllabus. Then, enroll in the course by clicking "Enroll me in this course". Click Unit 1 to read its introduction and learning outcomes. You will then see the learning materials and instructions on how to use them.

      • Unit 1: The Polis

        Our first unit deals with the origins of Western thinking on the polis, the Greek word for city-state. We will read Plato's famous work, The Republic, which presents an extended argument in dramatic form for what might constitute the ideal polis, encompassing consideration of all aspects of governance, citizenship, social order, and personal virtue. Speaking through the character of his teacher Socrates, Plato's model of the ideal city-state mirrors the order of nature as based in his metaphysical Theory of Forms, famously articulated here in The Republic through its famous Allegory of The Cave.

        Plato's streamlined view of political and social life holds that the city-state should be governed by a ruler with philosophical training capable of comprehending the true nature of reality, justice, and wisdom, and where one's place in society is determined by one's natural abilities. By contrast, Plato's student Aristotle, while incorporating and responding to many aspects of Platonic thought, develops a decidedly organic, or this-worldly, system of ethics and a corresponding structure for the polis as embodied in the texts of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.

        Aristotle's famous claim that "man is by nature a political animal" captures his belief that a natural order between the individual and the community exists as both a power struggle and a distribution of resources, which has as its own end the good held both individually and in common. Such ideal notions of the city-state, whether Platonic or Aristotelian, and the particulars therein, have been a point of departure for political philosophers since the time of Plato's Athens to the present day.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 40 hours.

        • Unit 2: Modern Political Thought

          The Greek polis served as an influential model of citizenship and governance for centuries. Modern political philosophers, however, found that they needed to rethink politics according to a new, more realistic understanding of the way humans actually behave. As a result, modern government requires both a keen historical sense and the pragmatic use of power.

          Our unit begins with the Italian political philosopher and civil servant, Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli is credited with the distinctly modern notion of an artificial (rather than natural) state in which the leader should rule swiftly, effectively, and in a calculated manner. Many associate his theories with the use of deceit and cunning in politics; after Machiavelli, politics was conceived of as an art in which the best rulers governed shrewdly, carefully calculating about enemies, populations, and the timing of certain actions.

          Thomas Hobbes adapted this Machiavellian approach on a much larger scale. For Hobbes, the state should be sovereign and secular; the citizens should give up both their allegiance to the church and their rights in exchange for physical security. However, while modern political thought has been built upon the Machiavellian notion of the artificiality of the state, the moderns disagreed on how people behaved and on the degree of a government's strength and pervasiveness necessary to properly govern citizens.

          John Locke responded to a strict concept of sovereignty with the idea of constitutional government. Like Hobbes, Locke imagined a civil society capable of resolving conflicts in a civil way, with help from government. However, Locke also advocated the separation of powers and believed that revolution is not only a right but, at times, an obligation of citizenship. These three thinkers represent the foundation of modern state theory.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 40 hours.

          (Video) Modern Political Thought: Western Political Thought - Political Science 201
        • Unit 3: Liberal Democracy and Its Critics

          We conclude our course by discussing various conceptualizations of political and social equality and addressing ways that political thought shifted away from a belief in the primacy of the sovereign state and the legitimacy of elites. We also discuss how Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed the notion of participatory democracy, the egalitarian view that constituents should be directly involved in the direction and operation of political systems.

          Alexis de Tocqueville considered participatory democracy when he examined government in young America. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did the same when they critiqued political liberalism as the ideology of the rich. Our unit serves as a historical platform for discussing today's competing political theories about the role of the state in the redistribution of resources, the government's role in the economy, and the difference between how we act and what we believe.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 40 hours.

          • Study Guide

            This study guide will help you get ready for the final exam. It discusses the key topics in each unit, walks through the learning outcomes, and lists important vocabulary terms. It is not meant to replace the course materials!

            • POLSC201 Study Guide Book

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            If you come across any urgent problems, email contact@saylor.org or post in our discussion forum.

            • Course Feedback Survey URL

            (Video) The Polis: Western Political Thought - Political Science 201
          • Certificate Final Exam

            Take this exam if you want to earn a free Course Completion Certificate.

            To receive a free Course Completion Certificate, you will need to earn a grade of 70% or higher on this final exam. Your grade for the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you can take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt.

            Once you pass this final exam, you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.

          • Saylor Direct Credit

            Take this exam if you want to earn college credit for this course. This course is eligible for college credit through Saylor Academy's Saylor Direct Credit Program.

            The Saylor Direct Credit Final Exam requires a proctoring fee of $5. To pass this course and earn a Proctor-Verified Course Certificate and official transcript, you will need to earn a grade of 70% or higher on the Saylor Direct Credit Final Exam. Your grade for this exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you can take it again a maximum of 3 times, with a 14-day waiting period between each attempt.

            We are partnering with SmarterProctoring to help make the proctoring fee more affordable. We will be recording you, your screen, and the audio in your room during the exam. This is an automated proctoring service, but no decisions are automated; recordings are only viewed by our staff with the purpose of making sure it is you taking the exam and verifying any questions about exam integrity. We understand that there are challenges with learning at home - we won't invalidate your exam just because your child ran into the room!


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            Once you pass this final exam, you will be awarded a Credit-Recommended Course Completion Certificate and can request an official transcript.

            Saylor Direct Credit Exam

            This exam is part of the Saylor Direct College Credit program. Before attempting this exam, review the Saylor Direct Credit page for complete requirements.

            Essential exam information:
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            • The passing grade is 70% or higher.
            • This exam consists of 50 multiple-choice questions.
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          What are the three main ideas of Western political thought? ›

          Machiavelli:Republicanism and Humanism, Human Nature, Notions of Liberty, Views on State. Montesquieu: Sociology of Liberty, Separation of Powers. Argument of Liberty. Hobbes: Theory of Social Contract, Idea of Sovereignty.

          Who is the father of Western political thought? ›

          Socrates: Widely considered the founder of Western political philosophy, via his spoken influence on Athenian contemporaries; since Socrates never wrote anything, much of what we know about him and his teachings comes through his most famous student, Plato.

          What are the 3 schools of political thoughts? ›

          Traditionally, political theory approaches this study from three perspectives: classic, modern, and contemporary political theory. Here, we examine all three. Political science is the academic discipline concerned with the study of the state, government, and politics.

          What are the major themes of Western political thought? ›

          It focuses on the major works by key thinkers. This allows key themes (such as justice, the nature of the state, citizenship, and the role of religion) to be explored across the long-term development of western political thought.

          Who is the main source of Western thought? ›

          Western philosophy originated in ancient Greece. The term philosophy translates from the Greek love of wisdom. Its key figures were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. These figures were then studied and interpreted in Rome by philosophers such as Seneca, a Stoic.

          Who Shaped the Western thought? ›

          Definition. Socrates of Athens (l. c. 470/469-399 BCE) is among the most famous figures in world history for his contributions to the development of ancient Greek philosophy which provided the foundation for all of Western Philosophy. He is, in fact, known as the "Father of Western Philosophy" for this reason.

          Who are the 3 Western philosophers? ›

          And if we're going to talk about philosophy in ancient Greece, the most famous three philosophers are Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

          What are the features of Western thought? ›

          The modern western philosophy has not only critical about orthodox religion but also came with ideals of secularism, humanism, scientific temperament, progress and development. Skepticism, rationality, individualism and scientific methods are influenced the human conception in understanding the world.

          What are the 5 types of politics? ›

          The major types of political systems are democracies, monarchies, oligarchies, and authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.

          What are the 10 types of politics? ›

          10 Common Forms of Government
          • Democracy.
          • Communism.
          • Socialism.
          • Oligarchy.
          • Aristocracy.
          • Monarchy.
          • Theocracy.
          • Colonialism.
          16 Aug 2022

          What are the 4 types of political organizations? ›

          Types / Levels of Political Organizations

          The anthropologist Elman Service (1962) listed four types or levels of political organizations: Band, Tribe, Chiefdom and State.

          What is the importance of political thought? ›

          Political Thought deals with the normative aspect of Political Science. In this regard, it demonstrates the limits to Political Science and allows us to understand what we know and what We do not. Political Thought teaches us what questions to ask in Political Science.

          What is the major focus of political thought? ›

          Political philosophy is the study of fundamental questions about the state, government, politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why (or even if) they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and ...

          What is the main theme of political theory? ›

          Political theory is the study of current and ideal types of government, and how the ideas, priorities, values, and system of power of that government relate to its people. The two major types of political theory are normative and empirical.

          Who is the most famous Western philosopher? ›

          Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who follows Socrates and Plato as the third member of the great triumvirate of ancient Greek philosophers, is arguably the most important thinker who ever lived.

          Who was the first philosopher? ›

          The first philosopher is usually said to have been Thales.

          Who was the first philosopher in the Western world? ›

          The first recognized philosopher, Thales of Miletus (born c. 625 BCE in Ionia) identified water as the arche (claiming "all is water"). His use of observation and reason to derive this conclusion is the reason for distinguishing him as the first philosopher.

          Who is the father of Western culture? ›

          Saint Benedict: Father of Western Civilization.

          Who is the father of logic? ›

          As the father of western logic, Aristotle was the first to develop a formal system for reasoning. He observed that the deductive validity of any argument can be determined by its structure rather than its content, for example, in the syllogism: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.

          What is the period of Western thought? ›

          Western philosophy has three fundamental eras. These are the ancient era, medieval era, and the modern era.

          Who are 5 greatest philosophers? ›

          Major Philosophers and Their Ideas
          1. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) ...
          2. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) ...
          3. Confucius (551–479 BCE) ...
          4. René Descartes (1596–1650) ...
          5. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 82) ...
          6. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) ...
          7. David Hume (1711–77) ...
          8. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
          7 Sept 2022

          Who were the 2 main philosophers? ›

          Socrates and Plato are two famous Greek philosopher's whose ideas still impact society today. In ancient Greece, philosophers contemplated and theorized about many different ideas such as human nature, ethics, and moral dilemmas.

          What are the 4 periods of philosophy? ›

          The Department of the History of Philosophy covers the entire history of philosophy from the Presocratic philosophers up to today, applying a division into four periods (ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary).

          What is the Western theory? ›

          Western theories are based on ontological imaginations that are removed from the historical and sociological experiences of the non-Western world. Understanding non-Western conflicts requires an ontology based on the experiential reality of the post-colonial other.

          Who invented political thought? ›

          The origins of European political thought are in ancient Rome and Greece. Starting in approximately 600 BCE, thinkers in these societies began to consider questions of how to organize societies, as part of their more broad considerations of ethics and how to live the good life.

          What is Western self concept? ›

          In the West, there is a dualistic conception of the self where there is a clear distinction between creator and created, and Man and the self is viewed as an artifact of creation.

          What are the four branches of Western philosophy? ›

          The four main branches of philosophy are metaphysics, epistemology, axiology, and logic.

          What are the 3 main forms of government? ›

          They are the Executive, (President and about 5,000,000 workers) Legislative (Senate and House of Representatives) and Judicial (Supreme Court and lower Courts).

          What are the 3 political parties? ›

          In the U.S. these two parties are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Other parties, often generally termed “third parties”, in the U.S. include The Green Party, Libertarians, Constitution Party and Natural Law Party.

          What is the 7 types of government? ›

          Some of the different types of government include a direct democracy, a representative democracy, socialism, communism, a monarchy, an oligarchy, and an autocracy.

          What are the two types of politics? ›

          The major types of political systems are democracies, monarchies, and authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are more unstable politically because their leaders do not enjoy legitimate authority and instead rule through fear.

          What is the basic of politics? ›

          Politics (from Greek: Πολιτικά, politiká, 'affairs of the cities') is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.

          What are the types of power in politics? ›

          Researchers identified six sources of power, which include legitimate, reward, coercive, expert, information, and referent.

          What are 5 social organizations? ›

          Main Social Institutions
          • Family.
          • Economy.
          • Religion.
          • Education.
          • Government or State.
          28 Nov 2021

          How do you study political thoughts? ›

          Political theory asks the “big questions” of political life, such as:
          1. What is justice?
          2. What is democracy?
          3. What justifies democracy?
          4. What are its strengths and weaknesses?
          5. What is the relation between religion and politics?
          6. What is the relation between power and justice?
          7. Is war a permanent part of political life?

          What is theory in political thought? ›

          Compares and evaluates alternative ideas of justice, legitimacy, and the common good as they apply to the institutions and conduct of domestic and global life.

          What are the sources of political thought? ›

          The official documents of the stages also serve as a tremendous source of political thought. These include written constitutions, statutes and ordinances, court decisions, charters, departmental reports, treaties, diplomatic correspondences, state papers and the like.

          What is the name of a political thinker? ›

          John Locke, English philosopher whose works lie at the foundation of modern philosophical empiricism and political liberalism.

          What is political theory in simple words? ›

          POLITICAL THEORY is the study of politics, concepts, and the historical record of political thought. Our Theory program is distinguished by the strengths of faculty and students in grounding critical and interpretive studies of present day politics in the history of political thought.

          What are the two definitions of political theory? ›

          : a theory having to do with the political relationships among men. specifically : one concerned with the organization and basis of government. political theories are generated by social frictions A. S. Kaufman. : the general body of such theories. a history of political theory.

          What is nature of political theory? ›

          > it is the speculation of a single individual who is attempting to offer us a theoretical explanation of the political reality i.e. the phenomena of the state. > Every theory is an explanation, built upon certain hypothesis which may be valid (or not) and which are always open to criticism. >

          What are 3 political philosophies? ›

          The political philosophies of liberalism, socialism, conservativism and anarchism – and all of their variants – agree that the good life sought by political philosophy ought to be the good life for human beings.

          What are the three branches of Western philosophy? ›

          The main branches of Philosophy are: Axiology: Study of the nature of value and valuation. Metaphysics: Study of the fundamental nature of reality. Epistemology: Study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge.

          What is meant by Western thought? ›

          Western philosophy encompasses the philosophical thought and work of the Western world. Historically, the term refers to the philosophical thinking of Western culture, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophy of the pre-Socratics.

          Who is the father of philosophy? ›

          Socrates is the father of philosophy. His quest for truth and wisdom was greatly influential during his time and continues to be so. Socrates lived toward the latter part of the 5th century B.C.E. and was a soldier and a sculptor before he became a famous philosopher.

          Who is the number 1 philosopher? ›

          1. Aristotle. Aristotle, one of the most famous Greek philosophers, was also a polymath who lived in Ancient Greece in 384-322 BC. He was taught by another famous philosopher, Plato.

          What are the 4 political ideologies? ›

          American political ideologies conventionally align with the left–right political spectrum, with most Americans identifying as conservative, liberal, or moderate. Contemporary American conservatism includes social conservatism, classical liberalism and economic liberalism.

          What are the 4 types of philosophy? ›

          There are four pillars of philosophy: theoretical philosophy (metaphysics and epistemology), practical philosophy (ethics, social and political philosophy, aesthetics), logic, and history of philosophy.

          Who created politics? ›

          The antecedents of Western politics can be traced back to the Socratic political philosophers, such as Aristotle ("The Father of Political Science") (384–322 BC). Aristotle was one of the first people to give a working definition of political science.

          Who was the first Western philosopher? ›

          Thales of Miletus was a Greek philosopher and one of the seven sages of antiquity. Aristotle considered him to be the first philosopher and his philosophical predecessor. Today, Thales is widely accepted as the first philosopher in the Western tradition.

          What are 2 characteristics of Western philosophy? ›

          Rationalism and empiricism are chief currents of modern western philosophy. It is Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz of continental nations fashioned a new ideal for philosophy. They are influenced by the progress and success of science and mathematics; they attempt to provide philosophy with the exactness of mathematics.

          What are the 7 philosophers? ›

          Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant: these are the seven philosophers who stand out from the rest in what is known as the `modern' period in philosophy. Their thought defines the mainstream of classical or early modern philosophy, largely responsible for shaping philosophy as we now know it.


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