Political philosophy

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Political philosophy is the normative study of government, relationships between individuals and communities, rights and justice. Depending on the philosopher, it can be entangled with metaphysics, ethics or economics. Pretty much every ideology that ever existed has its roots in political philosophy, making it hard to separate the analytical and normative branches of the discipline.

What exactly is it?[edit]

Every branch of philosophy can be rooted back to one simple question, in the case of political philosophy this question is, "Should society be organised and, if so, how?".[note 1] Throughout the history of the field, these questions have been answered in very different ways by very different people. In the Western tradition of philosophy, they were usually tackled in the form of written tractats, while other cultures expressed similar material as poems or analogies. As with all branches of philosophy, it rests on a set of assumptions about the world, humanity and society. From this foundation, it seeks to explore questions such as:

  • What is the ideal system of government?
  • How does a government derive its legitimacy?
  • What are the proper aims of government? I.e., is its primary purpose protection of private property, or amelioration of social ills such as poverty and inequality?
  • What is law, and what is the nature of its authority? In this area, political philosophy overlaps with philosophy of law and jurisprudence.

Much of political philosophy can be seen as belonging to applied ethics - the application of ethical principles to questions of law and government. As such, one's positions in political philosophy are often strongly determined by the positions one takes in normative ethics. At the same time, other philosophical disciplines have made important contributions to political philosophy, including epistemology and metaphysics.

Important foundations and strands of thought[edit]

  • Teleological: The view that the world, or everything in it, has a final goal and that society and government should be organized after such nature or are dependent on such nature.
  • Pragmatic: The view to try to make the best of the reality we're facing, or the best for most of the people. Sometimes also only the idea to find a system everybody can agree upon and go on from there as everybody wishes.
  • Idealistic: Construction of an ideal, then trying to model reality after its image.
  • Anthropologic: Takes the individual human being and its basic nature as the starting point for proposing a social order. Assumptions on what this "nature" specifically is vary considerably, with important consequences for the kind of society that is considered to be possible and desirable.




Plato probably made the earliest contribution to the Western strand of the discipline with his "Republic" (Greek: Πολιτεία, Politeia). He notably did not share the early Greek fondness for democracy, but rather envisioned a "perfect state" ruled by philosopher-kings.[1] Because Plato was not terribly concerned about individual liberty if it diverged from his concept of virtuous living, he's become a popular strawman for people trying to trace the origins of authoritarianism in Western thought. His ideas have been called "fascist" or even totalitarian, and Ayn Rand saw him as the first communist, more than 2000 years before Marx. Aristotle contributed his "Politics" (Greek: Πολιτικά, Politika), which originated as a critique of Plato, but then moved on to sketch the field of "political studies" with the observation of six different kind of governmental forms: monarchy (good rule by one), tyrannis (bad rule by one), aristocracy (good rule by few), oligarchy (bad rule by few), politie or "constitutional government" (good rule by many) and democracy (bad rule by many). According to Aristotle, changes in government occur most frequently between these pairs, whether for the better or worse. Aristotle personally favored aristocracy, but allowed that a politie had the advantage that its "bad" counterpart, democracy, was the most tolerable among the corrupted regimes.[2]


In India, Chanakya wrote the Arthashastra, which argued for an autocracy led by a Rajarshi ("wise king"). Such a king would treat his people well, as their welfare is his welfare. He should pay attention to keeping his Karma, as well as that of the state as a whole, straight by providing a sound economic foundation for the well-being of his people.

In China, philosophy blossomed during the Spring and Autumn period, a phenomenon dubbed the Hundred Schools of Thought. Confucius based his political philosophy on his ethics, effectively appealing to the virtue and civic-mindedness of the ruler. While he did favor a monarchy, he proposed that a ruler's legitimacy should be based on his individual morality rather than lineage. According to the doctrine of the "mandate of heaven" (天命 tianming), the heavens would make their dissatisfaction with a corrupt ruler known by sending disasters, thus greenlighting rebellions. This emphasis on morality and justice continued with Mencius, the #2 Confucian after the master himself, who was the first to posit that a ruler is less important than the people he governs, granting the latter a right to revolution if they suffered under an incompetent or evil ruler. Han Fei, the founder of the school of Legalism, professed that a state should be bound to its own laws - basically establishing an early precept of the modern rule of law.

Middle Ages[edit]

In the early Middle Ages and in the late Antique Era, Augustine of Hippo (later made a saint) set many of the foundational dogmas of this period. He contrasted the "city of God" with the "city of man" - the communities of the righteous Christians and wicked sinners, respectively, but also mirroring the duality and competition between ecclesiastical and state authorities that would characterize the Middle Ages in Europe. Philosophical writings of the era are heavily influenced by the near-total domination of Christian theology in the intellectual sphere, but often also tried to establish connections to the Greco-Roman tradition. Ancient Greek philosophy would also have an impact on intellectuals in the Muslim world, but Islamic political philosophy suffered from the same constraints of being subject to rigid worldly and religious authorities.

Modern times[edit]

Contract theory[edit]

The 17th century saw a drastic departure from the previous doctrines regarding the legitimacy of state authorities. Contract theorists rejected the "divine right of kings" and started to develop new theories that focused not on the duties of the governed, but on the benefits which they were supposed to draw from living under a sovereign ruler. They argued that legitimacy could arise from a "social contract" - a compact between the members of society to sacrifice their natural liberty in exchange for protection. The contract theorists differed on whether they regarded this contract as an actual historical event, or merely a theoretical possibility.

Thomas Hobbes was the first to introduce this concept in the 17th century, arguing that people living in a natural state of anarchy would have created a government to protect their lives and property from each other. Hobbes envisioned a government with extremely far-reaching powers and little remaining individual freedom, providing both a legitimation and a blueprint for absolutist monarchy.[3] John Locke followed in the same vein, but argued for a government that was itself bound by contractual obligations, expansive individual liberties, and a right to representation. He also conceded that the people had a right to forcefully remove a government that infringed on their personal liberties.[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced the concept of popular sovereignty and proposed that the governed should make the laws under which they lived directly instead of delegating this authority to a monarch or parliament.[5] As with everything else he wrote, Immanuel Kant's position was a complicated one - he supported a contractually bound government, yet would have allowed it sweeping powers and rejected a right to rebellion. Edmund Burke, called the founder of conservative thought, heavily criticized the theory because he did not consider it realistic and called for a society based on "natural order" instead. Paying a late homage to the tradition of contractualism, John Rawls alluded to the idea in his seminal work "A Theory of Justice". He proposed a hypothetical situation similar to the pre-society state of humanity as a thought experiment in order to theorize about "fair" rules that the people would have established by mutual consent.

Political movements[edit]

Many of the ideological political movements that have shaped the modern world have some kind of underlying political philosophy of their own. Sometimes, these only work as coherent, self-contained wholes, while others can be relatively freely combined. For example, modern Social Democracy applies a blend of classical liberal and socialist principles.

  • Liberalism, generally emphasizes individual liberties and equal opportunity.
  • Socialism, focuses on class relations and seeks to abolish "private property" in favour of social ownership over the means of production. [6]
  • Conservatism, preoccupied with defending the status quo, tradition and moral order.
  • Fascism, an extremist ideology characterized by nationalism, militarism and anti-individualism.
  • Communism, a radical ideology aiming for a moneyless, classless, and stateless society.
  • Libertarianism, arguing for expansive individual liberties and responsibilities, as well as small government.
  • Anarchism, emphasizing natural liberty and rejecting the need for and legitimacy of governments that cannot meet the burden of proof. Classically holds to the same end goals as Communism.[7]


  1. Of course, the "if so" part was first implied and only later questioned.


  1. Project Gutenberg: Plato, Politeia
  2. Project Gutenberg: Aristotle, Politics
  3. Project Gutenberg: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  4. Project Gutenberg: John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
  5. Constitution.org: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
  6. https://iep.utm.edu/socialis/
  7. Kropotkin, Peter, Anarchist Communism: It's Basis and Principles "As regards socialism, most of the anarchists arrive at its ultimate conclusion, that is, at a complete negation of the wage-system and at communism." in Baldwin, Roger N. Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, Vanguard Press, Inc. 1927 Online