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History of Political Thought

Module Code: PO2610

Module Name: History of Political Thought

  • ECTS Weighting: 10
  • Semester/Term Taught: Michaelmas + Hilary Term
  • Contact Hours: 2 lectures per week; 1 tutorial per fortnight
  • Module Personnel: Lecturer - Dr. Peter Stone

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this module, it is expected that students should have:

  1. acquired an overview of the history of political thought, from ancient Greece until the present;
  2. become familiar with major political theorists from that history, such as Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Marx, and Nietzsche;
  3. become familiar with some of the major concepts that appear in political theory, such as liberalism and social contract;
  4. developed skills at analyzing and critiquing political arguments; and reflected upon the implications of ideas from the history of political thought for contemporary politics.

Module Content

This module will introduce students to the history of political thought from the time of classical Greece to the present era. It will accomplish this task by covering the following five major topics from that history:

  1. the birth of politics in classical Greece;
  2. the rise of Christianity and its implications for politics;
  3. the idea of the social contract, introduced in the early modern era;
  4. the relationship between freedom and reason, a relationship explored in eighteenth and nineteenth-century German political thought;
  5. and the problem of truth and politics in the modern era.

Recommended Reading List

There will be specific readings assigned for each section of the class. Apart from these readings, there are many additional sources on the history of political thought that might prove useful to you. The following general sources provide an overview of this history:

Bluhm, William T. Theories of the Political System: Classics of Political Thought and Modern Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965. Numerous revised editions.

Plamenatz, John. Man and Society: A Critical Examination of Some Important Social and Political Theories from Machiavelli to Marx. 2 volumes. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1963. Several revised editions.

Rawls, John. Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007.

Ryan, Alan. On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present. 2 volumes. New York: Liveright Publishing Co., 2012.

Sabine, George H. A History of Political Theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1937. Several revised editions.

There are, of course, also many works dealing with specific figures in the history of political thought. Oxford University Press publishes the Very Short Introduction series, which includes volumes on many of the political theorists covered in this module. In addition, Cambridge University Press publishes a series of Cambridge Companions to leading philosophers; these books are more substantive than the Very Short Introductions, with essays by different authors taking a wide variety of approaches. If you want (for example) a quick overview of Karl Marx, then Marx: A Very Short Introduction is thus a good place to start, but if you want a more in-depth examination of many aspects of Marx’s philosophy, then try the Cambridge Companion to Marx.

Finally, there are several excellent encyclopaedias which offer entries on both the major figures in the history of political thought and the central concepts of political theory. Here are four worth particular notice:

Edwards, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: McMillan, 1967.

Gibbons, Michael T., ed. The Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

Sills, David L., ed. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York: The McMillan co. & The Free Press, 1968.

Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available online at

Assessment Details

Your module mark will be on a 100-point scale, in accordance with the usual Trinity grading conventions (i.e., a mark of 70 or higher is a 1st, a mark of 60-69 is a 2.1, etc.). 10 points of this mark will be determined by tutorial attendance and response papers, 25 points will be determined by term papers, and 65 points will be determined by examination.

Tutorial attendance and response papers will count for 10 points (out of 100) of the overall module mark. Each student must post a response paper, and attend tutorial the next day, a minimum of seven times throughout the module. Students who do this will receive the full 10 points. For each response paper a student misses, 1 ½ points will be deducted from that 10 points, to a maximum of 10 points (i.e., the student gets 0 points if s/he fails to submit any response papers). A student must attend tutorial on the day after submitting the discussion paper in order to receive credit for it.

Each student must write one term paper in Michaelmas Term, and one term paper in Hilary Term. Each paper will count for 12 ½ points (out of 100) of the overall module mark. Each term paper must answer one of the ten questions listed in the class schedule below. A student may respond to any question s/he likes (obviously, no question can be answered twice!), but the student’s response must make use of the lectures and/or module readings. (The student may bring in additional materials if s/he wishes.) Each term paper should be approximately 1,500 words long and accompanied by a bibliography.

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Last updated 15 August 2016